Images of famous examples of sampling in hip-hop

The evolving art of sampling in hip hop

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When Public Enemy released “Fight The Power” in 1989, there were few rules when it came to sampling in hip hop. While today’s artists face more constraints, they’re still finding new ways to keep hip hop the most popular (and vital) genre in music.

I’ll never forget the first time I heard “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy. It was 1989. I was sitting in a movie theater watching the opening credits for Do the Right Thing. And as much as I loved the pairing of the music with a boxing/dancing Rosie Perez, the thing that really grabbed me was the word “I.”

The late ‘80s was a heady time for sampling in hip hop. This was before the 1991 U.S. District Court case, Grand Upright Music, Ltd. v. Warner Bros. Records, Inc., which required artists to clear all samples in advance. Before that ruling, sampling was cheap, and by 1989, hip hop artists were using them by the score.

Hank Shocklee, a member of the Bomb Squad (Public Enemy’s production team) said in an Atlantic interview, “The reason why we sampled in the beginning was that we couldn’t afford to have a guitar player come in and play on our record. We couldn’t afford to have that horn section… or the string sections. We were like scavengers, going through the garbage bin and finding whatever we could from our old dusty records.” Today, it would be much cheaper to hire a horn section than it would be to sample even one song.

How much sampling was done back then? De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising (1989) contains over 60 samples. From the same year, The Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique features over 100. Compare those numbers to Kanye West’s 2016 album, Life of Pablo, which features (by my count) 23 samples, or Kendrick Lamar’s Damn. (2017), which has 19. And Kendrick and Kanye are two of the few stars who have enough money to include even that many samples.

According to, “Fight the Power” features 22 samples. That’s right, that one song has more samples than Lamar’s entire album. And you feel it. The song hits you like a hurricane, especially the opening, which is so dense and chaotic, it’s hard to tell what’s going on.

When you’ve got an essentially unlimited supply of samples, you can afford to use them in different ways. Public Enemy not only used samples to create a dense sonic landscape, they also used them to reinforce their message and connect their songs to thematically similar music from the past. Hence the “I” I mentioned in the opening paragraph. That’s the “I” from Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff.” You hear it during every “Fight the Power” chorus, but especially in the last few seconds of the song, starting at 3:33, where it repeats.

Public Enemy is not using that sample for music’s sake, per se. They’re using it as a thematic reference. But they also didn’t want to smash you over the head with it by using the whole phrase, so they just use that one word. And thanks to the Wailers’ unique harmonies on that word, the sample works almost like a sound effect.

If you catch the reference, it adds to your enjoyment of the song; if not, no big deal. The same is true for another sample used in the song (one I never caught until researching this article): “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” by James Brown. Brown’s song begins with that iconic “Uh!” The sample appears at 0:15 in the PE song (and throughout), and again, it’s more of a thematic sample than a sonic one. Remove it and you lose nothing musically. But its inclusion gives the song more weight.

(If you’re interested in going through all the samples used in “Fight the Power,” you can do at

Today’s artists are financially limited in the number of samples they can draw from, so they have to get more mileage out of them.

Typically, artists today choose one or two samples and use them to create their song’s background. Some of these are pretty basic and unimaginative, but often I’m struck by how inventive the artists (or, more likely, producers) are in finding creative uses for material.

Great example: Kendrick Lamar’s “Loyalty” uses a sample from Bruno Mars “24K Magic,” but he pitches it up and plays it backwards, creating something ethereal and yet not wholly unfamiliar. Here’s a video showing how the sample was created.

Sometimes it seems as though artists are trying to outdo each other to see who can use the most arcane/unhip samples on the planet and turn them into killer tracks. Some examples of this can be found here:

PRhyme takes an interesting approach, sampling one single artist per album. This makes for a more cohesive sound, which can have an almost cinematic feel (especially if the artist you’re sampling is the amazing Adrian Younge). This strikes me as the kind of deal an indie hip hop artist could work out with one of their friends’ bands.

Kanye West is one of the more inventive artists when it comes to sampling. He’s always had a knack for using seemingly hip hop-unfriendly sources (e.g. King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man” to create powerful songs (“Power”). He also plays around with the very notion of using samples for their cultural or thematic cachet. Coupled with West’s controversial public persona, the results can be rather provocative (e.g. the use of Nina Simone’s version of “Strange Fruit” in “Blood on the Leaves”). Lately, he has taken to using samples to create a sonic whiplash, where his songs taken sudden, unexpected, and thrilling turns. Yeezus is crammed with examples of this, though the ending of “New Slaves” may be my favorite.

Though artists are no longer able to use anything and everything in their songs, they are still finding new ways to keep hip hop the most popular (and vital) genre in music. Have a favorite, creative use of sampling? Let us know in the comments below.

Scott McCormick is a musician and the author of the Mr. Pants series of graphic novels for kids. His new audiobook, Rivals! Frenemies Who Changed the World, has been described as “drunk history for middle-grade kids” and is available on Audible. Scott can be reached at

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About Scott McCormick

Scott McCormick is a musician and the author the Audible bestselling Rivals! series and the hit fantasy novel The Dragon Squisher. Scott can be reached at

8 thoughts on “The evolving art of sampling in hip hop

  1. Santorio Hector Cleveland record producer, to me sampling is giving honor to that artist your sampling, there is a spirit in music in a songs creation. Sampling another track of a great musician before you is to enhance the spirit or emphasize something within the beat or for vocal samples the music’s message or point. I think sampling is a part of HIPHOP, but it many times brings a renewed attention to compositions of faded artist of the past resparking interests in their work,as well as fresh income if they give the artist their blessing.

  2. Although I don’t know how to sample or create multilayered tracks, yet, I’ve lots of ideas for how to do this using flute, ocarinas, penny whistles and recorders.

    In fact, I’ve written spoken word, lyrics and instrumental excerpts to create an elaborate storytelling style, but I don’t know how do the electronic aspects!

    I also wrote one-page flute pieces that feature passages that I’d like to record and program into – a machine? Synth? Idk what to call it – to make increasingly random music. In other words, those excerpts (composed and recorded on flutes, for example) would start out in a structured way and become more and more random.

    It’s probably obvious that I don’t know how to do the sampling, and I barely know how to operate sound recoding equipment. But, I have a vision, and I plan to complete it. Any suggestions?


    “Sampling” is just a Kind Word used to say you are using someone else’s work, talents and education because you have none of your own.
    There is a Spiritual Part of Music that some do not know about, but those who have been in Music for years (Meaning they know music, play a real instrument and play and create with purpose.) know this.
    Even in the Structure of Music the names of a Scale have Personalities (or Spirit) to them (Dominate, Sub-Dominate, Leading Tone, etc.).
    This means when those who are not real musicians take other people’s works and put them together they are mixing the spirits of several songs together; in this, making confusion and dysfunction of what they put together.
    Songs have purpose, spirit and emotion, when you mix them with other songs you only create chaos.
    What it comes down to is if you don’t have Talent and can’t really play, then find a Job you can do. James Taylor said it so right in the a song, “You can Act Out the Part, You Can Say The Right Lines, But You Know It Wasn’t Written for you….”
    If you can’t sing, can’t play an instrument and don’t know how to do anything without using a computer and someone else’s music, then you are not an Artist, but a Song Snatcher. There are jobs for those who can recognize Talent of others and instead of using their music, why not become a Promoter, instead? If you like True Talent and recognize it get into something that can promote this and make an income that way, then You’ll be an asset to Artists in stead of grieving their Profits.
    Instead of using others, promote others, in other words.


    1. What a load of HorseS###! The jazz originators and innovators who made it through to the modern day like Miles, Herbie Hancock and Pharoah Saunders have all seen the musical worth of sampling and incorporated it in their works.

      It’s not the process of Sampling that lacks musical merit , its the way some choose to implement it. The Public Enemy songs mentioned are masterpieces. If people steal whole chunks of songs put an extra drum loop underneath it and rhyme over it is indeed theft – some do it well, others don’t. If multiple small chunks of sound are captured and played as an instrument it is like painting with sonic textures. It is the embodiment of the spirit of music.

      PS. I have played instruments both live and in the studio (and the bedroom) for over thirty years.

  4. One of my favorites is Jdilla’s use of James Brown adlibs as punch-ins for the rappers in Slum Village – “I Don’t Know”.

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