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Sampling: The Art of the Steal

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Sampling – Is it creative or is it theft? This has been a debate that has raged ever since songs started incorporating parts of other songs. The truth? It’s a little of both, and that’s what’s so fun about it.

From the time that DJ Kool Herc first stitched soul breakbeats together at a Bronx block party, the sampling of other people’s records has been a source of both creativity and controversy. A sample of a breakbeat, a riff, or a bassline can give a song a second life as a new composition, or as is the case with some tracks, it can birth whole new genres.

Nowadays the theft is in a “great artists steal” sense — literal swiping largely fell by the wayside in the late ’80s and early ’90s, after Gilbert O’Sullivan sued Biz Markie and The Turtles took on De La Soul & co. But the best samples collapse music’s past and present into one moment, and light up paths that like-minded listeners can follow backward into music history — to the obscure, the forgotten, the I’ve-heard-it-before-but-not-like-that.

Diving into the samples of house music, we come across some fine funk, soul, disco and blues, from Gladys Knight to Chic. There are countless other samples and breakbeats that have left indelible marks on music, from hip-hop to electronic music and beyond. Here are a few of our favourites:

  1. Lynn Collins: Think (About It) (1972)

You may think you don’t know Lyn Collins’ 1972 single “Think (About It),” but you’ve definitely heard it. The ubiquitous “Yeah! Woo!” vocal break in the middle of the track, courtesy of producer and arranger James Brown, is sampled by everyone from NWA to Kanye West to Janet Jackson. It’s one of the tracks most sampled since the advent of hip-hop, and it’s especially important in drum-and-bass and Baltimore club music. ‘Think (About It)’ is the second most sampled track in history, behind only the Winston’s genre-creating ‘Amen, Brother’.

  1. Rhythm Controll: My House (1987)

There isn’t a house music sample bigger. ‘My House’ was the only release to come from Chicago outfit, but the inspiring ‘In the beginning there was jack…’ speech from Chuck Roberts has been reused and recycled more times than a house DJ’s played a 4/4 track. Essentially a teaching of what house is, in the early days of the genre in 1987, Roberts’ preaching words are probably best known through their use in ‘Can You Feel It?’ by Mr Fingers, aka Larry Heard. The list of other artists to sample the Chuck Roberts’ sermon is endless, from Todd Terry and Tuff Jam to Nasty Habits and Julio Bashmore.

  1. Edwin Birdsong: Cola Bottle Baby (1979)

The funk and disco musician Edwin Birdsong, who died in 2019, left a lasting legacy both on his own records and the next generation’s. Prince Paul got there first, melding Birdsong’s “Rapper Dapper Snapper” with a George Clinton groove to create De La Soul’s 1989 hit “Me, Myself, and I,” but it was Daft Punk’s “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” that sounded 20 years ahead of its time despite being built on a (quirky, wildly funky) 22-year-old framework.

  1. George Clinton: Atomic Dog (1982)

Pulled from George Clinton’s 1982 album Computer Games, ‘Atomic Dog’ did indeed reach no.1 on the U.S. R&B chart, but failed to even crack the top 100 on the pop charts. It was the product of studio trickery and a typically loopy flow from Clinton himself, who said that he “just had the word ‘dog,’” and “had to ad lib a lot of it.” This ad lib led to the immortal “Bow wow wow yippy yo yippy yay”. It’s the most sampled cut in the entire P-Funk catalogue, and even though the song itself didn’t go gold, Capitol later told Clinton that ‘Atomic Dog’ “has since helped a lot of artists go platinum.”

  1. Chaka Khan: Fate (1981)

Now, Chaka Khan’s ‘Fate’ is a sizzler in itself, one to turn up loud at an afters when it starts to get light outside and forget about the fact you should probably be starting the next day. Her disco hit was picked out by Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter, Alan Braxe and Benjamin Diamond as they started to work on what would become ‘Music Sounds Better With You’ under the name Stardust. I’m pretty sure that would have been the go-to tune for a shit-load of parties, too, when it was released in ’98. Still is, to be fair.

  1. Camille Yarbrough – Take Yo’ Praise (1975)

Fatboy Slim’s iconic hook “We’ve come a long, long way together / Through the hard times and the good..” is now synonymous with euphoric moments at club nights or festivals. It’s originally a sample taken from the beginning of American singer Camille Yarbrough’s ‘Take Yo’ Praise’. It’s not the only sample on the track, though, as ‘Praise You’ also uses a piano sample from ‘Balance & Rehearsal’ by Hoyt Axton and James B. Lansing Sound Inc., as well as guitars from the Disney song ‘It’s a Small World’.

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