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Story Behind The Sample: Kanye West, Dr Dre and James Brown's 'Funky Drummer'

Samples are the foundation on which hip hop was born. Ever since MCs began to rhyme over records, DJs have been searching for drum breaks with which they can loop and provide a solid foundation of vibes for the rhymes to cascade over. If you’ve ever heard a song and wondered, “Hey, I know that! Where have I heard that before?” here is your answer. Here, we pick out the story behind the sample used by Kanye West and Dr Dre.

In recent years, the search for old soul records has led to a competition to find the most obscure samples, but often, the classics are classics for a reason. It helps to encourage the tracks at hand and give us all an earworm to follow. The art of sampling has, in many ways, defined hip hop, and producers have expertly turned brief vignettes of songs into new masterpieces with the cut and thrust of a swordsman. Once one track brings a new sample to light, often, trends start, and soon enough, these short snippets are immersed in hip hop culture, something which James Brown’s song ‘Funky Drummer’ can certainly be guilty of.

While the US has been the main protagonist within the sampling movement in hip hop, the art of sampling needs to thank a man from another country for it. English engineer Harry Chamberlin developed the first sampler back in the 1940s, and the significance of the invention has grown with each decade. Chamberlain’s secret was it contained a keyboard that could trigger a series of tape decks with the capacity to hold eight seconds of recorded sound, sowing the seed for the future of music.

Further development came in 1969 when English engineer Peter Zinovieff masterminded the first digital sampler, the EMS Musys, and, nowadays, anybody can sample with the technology at hand. Given the tech they have, it’s no wonder that the art of sampling has now become as essential to hip hop as the rappers who rhyme over them.

Those rhymes are accentuated when given the correct backing of a legendary performer. James Brown is a funk legend, and altogether, he is the most sampled artist of all time. No song of his has been used more frequently than ‘Funky Drummer’ with names including Kanye West and Dre among the 1,500 artists that have used it in their work.

As well as being included as part of Kanye’s feature on The Game song ‘Funky Drummer’, the sample has been picked up by some of the greats of hip hop. LL Cool J’s classic ‘Mama Said Knock You Out’, Dre’s ‘Let Me Ride’, the N.W.A. anthem ‘Fuck Tha Police’ and even Lupe Fiasco’s later anthem ‘The Cool’. It makes for one of the greatest samples in history.

Clyde Stubblefield’s drumbeat has been isolated by producers who realised it provides the perfect beat to spit over. Additionally, artists in the pop sphere have also adopted the section, such as Ed Sheeran and Britney Spears. However, the sample has a slightly sad edge to proceedings when noted that Stubblefield didn’t make a single cent of profit from the sample being lifted, passing away in 2017.

Still, despite this tragedy, Stubblefield’s sample remains a lasting part of his legacy. The sample will continue to be picked up and used within your favourite songs. But, below, you can listen to the whole song as James Brown’s ‘Funky Drummer’.