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 for rappers.
The search for old soul records has led to a competition to find the most obscure samples, but oftentimes, the classics are classics for a reason. It helps to embolden the tracks at hand and give us all an earworm to follow.
Today, we’re looking at five of the most sampled songs in the history of popular music. Between these five tunes, the number of subsequent swipes and samples is literally in the thousands.
If you’ve ever heard a song and wondered “Hey, I know that! Where have I heard that before?”, here is your answer. Here are the stories of five of the most important samples in history.
The stories behind classic hip hop samples:
‘La Di Da Di’ – Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick
Some of the original prisoners of hip hop, Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick went straight for the party on their song ‘La Di Da Di’. Featuring just Fresh’s beatboxing and Rick’s rhymes, the song needed something to kick it off. Rick’s solution was to add an intro setting the scene, punctuated by an emphatic “Hit it!” to get into the song proper.
You know that “Hit it!”, because you’ve heard it in a million different songs. The Beastie Boys’ ‘Hold It Now, Hit It’ gets its hook directly from the interjection, while Ini Kamoze’s ‘Here Comes the Hotstepper’ kicks off its own party with the line. They’re not alone: N.W.A.’s ‘Gangsta Gangsta’, Naughty By Nature’s ‘O.P.P.’, and Mary J. Blige’s ‘Runaway Love’ are just a few of the songs that use that specific line.
The entire song has become a reference point for any and all artists showing their old school bona fides, from Kanye West to Miley Cyrus to Beyonce to The Notorious B.I.G.
‘Amen, Brother’ – The Winstons
Along with the drum break for James Brown’s ‘Funky Drummer’, the “Amen break” featured in soul group The Winstons is the go-to drum break in hip hop. The Washington D.C. band needed a B-side for their single ‘Color Him Father’ and simply recorded an instrumental they had devised a short time earlier. That was all there was to it until hip hop DJs began searching for uninterrupted drum breaks from which they could loop and have their MCs rhyme over.
It’s hard to pinpoint when exactly the first use of the “Amen break” was, but N.W.A.’s ‘Straight Outta Compton’ was the catalyst for taking the beat worldwide.
Now the list has grown beyond hip hop: Tyler, the Creator, Jay-Z, Skrillex, Oasis, the theme song for Futurama. If you’ve sampled drums, chances are you’ve used the “Amen break” before.
‘Genius of Love’ – The Tom Tom Club
Looking to break away from the oppressive control of David Byrne, Chris Franz and Tina Weymouth started a pop band in the 1980s that incorporated more explicit hip hop elements than were being used at their day jobs with the Talking Heads. They scored their biggest hit with the bubbly and earworm-heavy ‘Genius of Love’, peaking at #31 on the Billboard Hot 100.
The warm and fuzzy feelings of ‘Genius of Love’ were almost immediately sampled, appearing perhaps most notably in Mariah Carey’s number one song ‘Fantasy’. Other notable uses include Mark Morrison’s ‘Return of the Mack’, Busta Rhymes’ ‘One’, Tupac Shakur’s ‘High Speed’, and Redman’s ‘Brick City Mashin’.
‘Hihache’ – Lafayette Afro Rock Band
Lafayette Afro Rock Band’s ‘Hihache’ is nearly seven minutes of indelible funk, but its legacy can largely be distilled to its first ten seconds — a drum break so funky and malleable that you could pretty much put it in any setting or arrangement and it would fit.
So that’s what producers did. A Tribe Called Quest’s ‘Check That Rhyme’, Biz Markie’s ‘Nobody Beats the Biz’, LL Cool J’s ‘Jingling Baby’, Janet Jackson’s ‘If’, and even NSYNC’s ‘Tearin’ Up My Heart’ use the song to great effect, but perhaps its greatest reference is in the gleefully profane unfurling of Wu-Tang Clan’s self-referential modus operandi ‘Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing ta F’Wit’.
‘The Big Beat’ – Billy Squire
’80s rocker Billy Squire is no stranger to samples. He seems to have a big fan in Eminem, as the Detroit rapper used the gigantic gated reverb drum intro of ‘The Stroke’ on his track ‘Berzerk’ and just took the entity of ‘My Kinda Lover’ for the title track to his compilation Shady XV. But it’s ‘The Big Beat’ from Squire’s debut LP The Tale of the Tape that’s become legendary.
The eponymous “big beat” has been used everywhere, even breaking outside the traditional sample-heavy culture of hip hop. Sure, you’ve got Jay-Z’s ’99 Problems’ and A Tribe Called Quest’s ‘We Can Get Down’, but you’ve also got Alicia Keys’ ‘Girl On Fire’, Beck’s ‘Soul Suckin’ Jerk’, and perhaps most famously of all, Britney Spears’ ‘Oops… I Did It Again’.