Since the mid 1980s, pop, hip-hop and dance music has been filled with songs sampling both famous and little-known tracks from the past. If you have listened to the radio at any point in the last thirty or forty years, chances are you’ve heard at least some form of sampling. Sampling has become so commonplace that we often don’t even notice any more.
It’s important from the get-go to differentiate between a sample and a cover. A cover is when an artist or band chooses to reproduce a song either as a means of paying homage to the originator; recreating a song with their own unique spin; or in some cases, blatantly ripping off a classic in the hope that a new generation won’t notice.
A sample, however, is an original song which uses elements of other songs. This can include an intro, chorus, beat, melody, or hook to name but a few. Sampling can be viewed as somewhere on the spectrum between creativity and thievery. Here are some of the best examples of classic music samples from the early 90s to the present day:
Cypress Hill – Hits from the Bong (1993)
How appropriate this song title is. Because how many bong hits must it have taken to even consider layering Cypress Hill’s illicit, cannabis-laden lyrics over a sample of Dusty Springfield’s most famous song, Son of a Preacher Man? The legendary California hip-hop ensemble have released several famous singles, including How I Could Just Kill A Man, Insane in the Brain, Tequila Sunrise, and Rock Superstar, but Hits from the Bong, which was never released as a single, remains the group’s most famous and iconic track.
Sample: Dusty Springfield – Son of a Preacher Man (1968)
Warren G & Nate Dogg – Regulate (1994)
For my money, this is the greatest rap/hip-hop song of all time. Regulate is the first single on the soundtrack to the Tupac movie, Above the Rim. The song is told in the form of a story (which I always enjoy). Sampling Michael McDonald’s I Keep Forgetting, Regulate is the epitome of G-Funk – a subgenre of hip-hop that emerged from early 90’s West Coast rappers, Dr Dre, Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube and 2-Pac.
Sample: Michael McDonald – I Keep Forgetting (1982)
Dr Dre & 2-Pac – California Love (1996)
Dr Dre is the undisputed grandmaster of sampling. The good doctor has perfected the art of cherry picking parts of old songs – both famous and obscure – to create some of the greatest albums the hip-hop world has ever known. Dre has made a career of being the creative genius behind cornerstones of the entire hip-hop industry: NWA, Snoop Dogg, 2-Pac, Eminem, 50 Cent, Kendrick Lamar, and many more between.
This list could honestly have just been an homage to Dr Dre, counting down epic samples such as Bill Withers’ Grandma’s Hands on No Diggity, and David McCallum’s The Edge on The Next Episode. But the sample of Joe Cocker’s Woman to Woman found here on California Love is arguably Dre’s most iconic.
California Love is the crowning achievement of Dr Dre’s work alongside friend and label-mate, Tupac Shakur. The pair collaborated on several records, but this is their peak, melding Dre’s unparalleled production with 2-Pac’s poetically braggadocious style that made him a lyrical juggernaut and one of the all-time great rappers.
Sample: Joe Cocker – Woman to Woman (1972)
Fugees – Ready or Not (1998)
Another merger of two songs and styles that, from the outside, could not appear to be more diametrically opposed. The Fugees used Enya’s eerie Celtic classic as the background for Ready or Not – one of the group’s biggest and best songs. The Fugees made and released the song without permission from Enya or even talking to the Irish songstress, but thankfully for everyone who enjoys this classic (which should be anyone that’s ever heard it), the situation was quietly resolved.
Sample: Enya – Boadicea (1987)
Eminem – My Name Is (1999)
Back to Dr Dre and the king of samples was at it again. Of all the artists Dre has worked with, produced and moulded – including Snoop Dogg and Tupac – Eminem has been the biggest success. The relationship soon blossomed between one of, if not The greatest producers of all time, and one of, if not The greatest lyricists in hip-hop history. Eminem has often referred to Dre as a father figure and this song, My Name Is, was the beginning of their relationship.
Eminem released an album in 1996 but it wasn’t until he was discovered by Dr Dre that the world began to take notice. Dre used a sample of I Got The, by British jazz singer Labi Siffre as the intro for Eminem’s first single on the now iconic album, The Slim Shady LP. The song, the album, and the partnership permanently changed the course of popular music.
Sample: Labi Siffre – I Got The (1975)
Destiny’s Child – Bootylicious (2002)
Destiny’s Child came together in 1997 and released two albums before experiencing some line-up changes. The group’s true success came as a trio, comprised of Beyoncé Knowles, Kelly Rowland, and Michelle Williams. Their 2001 album, Survivor, featured star-making, mega-hit singles Independent Woman, the eponymous Survivor, and the song most synonymous with the group, Bootylicious. In fact, if you asked most people (predominantly men) of a certain vintage to describe Beyoncé in just one word, it would probably be “Bootylicious.” We were not ready for this jelly, but we certainly got there!
The song samples early 80s hit Edge of Seventeen by Stevie Nicks. Nicks, the very definition of an independent woman, was no doubt an inspiration to Destiny’s Child. The former Fleetwood Mac lead singer even makes a cameo in the music video for Bootylicious.
Sample: Stevie Nicks – Edge of Seventeen (1981)
Boogie Pimps – Somebody to Love (2003)
This one really blurs the lines between sample and cover and may be more accurately defined as a remix. The song heavily samples Jefferson Airplane’s 1967 smash hit, Somebody to Love. Boogie Pimps never had another hit and became a one-hit-wonder. The song is best known for its music video, which features a troop of sky-diving babies descending onto a gorgeous, scantily clad giant woman. You can’t say it didn’t leave an impression!
Sample: Jefferson Airplane – Somebody to Love (1967)
T.I. – Why You Wanna (2006)
T.I. was living in relative obscurity until the release of his 2005 album, King. His early records had gained him a cult following in the hip=hop world, but it wasn’t until the release of singles What You Know, and Why You Wanna that he began to find mainstream success. Why You Wanna samples the legendary Crystal Waters track, Gypsey Woman.
Sample: Crystal Waters – Gypsey Woman (1991)
Kanye – Touch the Sky (2005)
Kanye West loves samples! Just loves ‘em. I was spoiled for choice when picking a Kanye song for this list. Over the years, some of his most famous samples have included I Got A Woman by Ray Charles on Gold Digger; Diamonds Are Forever by Shirley Bassey on Diamonds from Sierra Leone; and Harder Better Faster Stronger by Daft Punk on Stronger. And that’s just scratching the surface.
For this list, I’ve gone for Touch the Sky, from Kanye’s most sample-heavy album, his second LP, 2005’s Late Registration. The track features an audacious sample of Curtis Mayfiel’s iconic Move On Up.
Sample: Curtis Mayfield – Move On Up (1970)
Rihanna – SOS (2006)
The beautiful and talented Rihanna rose to fame in 2005 at the age of just 17 with her breakout hit, Pon de Replay. But it was SOS on her follow-up, 2006 album that elevated the singer to global stardom. The song samples the classic 80s hit, Tainted Love by Soft Cell, itself a cover of the Gloria Jones 1965 original. SOS was a building block in the career of one of the most famous and influential artists of the last two decades.
Sample: Soft Cell – Tainted Love (1981)
Avicii – Levels (2011)
Sampling Etta James’ powerful and unmistakable Something’s Got A Hold On Me, Levels launched the hugely successful but tragically brief career of Swedish DJ, Avicii. The song made him an overnight success all across Europe and would open the door for him Stateside. While he collaborated with such stars as Rita Ora, Aloe Blacc and Chris Martin, and had great success with other songs, such as Wake Me Up, Hey Brother, and Addicted to You, he never surpassed his 2011 hit. Levels was itself sampled soon after it’s release by rapper Flo-Rida.
Sample: Etta James – Something’s Got A Hold On Me (1962)
Lil Nas X – Panini (2019)
Ok, calling Panini a modern classic is a stretch at best. That’s not to say Lil Nas X is incapable of producing a lasting hit; his collaboration with Billy Ray Cyrus created Old Town Road which is a modern classic and a summer anthem for many people – and many summers. Old Town Road also features a clever sample – Nine Inch Nails’ obscure 34 Ghosts IV. While Panini never achieved the heights or recognition of Old Town Road, the song beautifully incorporates a sample of Nirvana’s 1991 smash hit, In Bloom.
- Panini here does not refer to the pressed and toasted Italian sandwich, but rather a fan who loves an artist while they are small and niche, but hate the same artist when they reach a certain level of success. A hipster essentially.
Sample: Nirvana – In Bloom (1991)
This is by no means a definitive list. There are dozens more modern classics which are built on the backs of other songs. Let us know some of your favourites in the comments section – and tell us how you feel about sampling. Is it stealing? Creativity? Or somewhere in between?