Sampling in hip-hop: A mixed blessing

Christiaan McCray, Staff Writer

With the hip-hop genre entering its 50th year of existence, rappers and producers have found countless ways to advance the genre. However, a testament that has stayed constant in hip-hop is sampling.

Sampling is the reuse of digitally encoded music or sound in a new composition or recording. Hip-hop’s core sound was built upon samples from rock, funk, soul and disco.

Hip-hop’s utilization of samples has continued to to be a staple in the genre. However, producers’ excessive reliance on sampling has been a major blessing and a minor curse.

Not only is sampling crucial to hip-hop, but to music in general. According to Tracklib, 17% of all 2022 Billboard Hot 100 songs contained samples from previous songs. With the site also reporting that the usage of samples in hits has seen a 31% increase in 2022 compared to the last three years, sampling’s stronghold on music only seems to get tighter with time.

Hip-hop’s dependence on samples has become both a strength and a weakness. On one hand, samples lay the groundwork for traditional, evergreen hip-hop beats. They add a vitality and vibe to hip-hop tracks that would be difficult to recreate otherwise. 

Legendary producers such as, J Dilla, Madlib and Danger Mouse are known for disecting samples to the degree that the original sample is unrecognizable. Specifically, J Dilla took this idea to the next level by flipping multiple samples and rearranging them into a new sound. Though Dilla died in 2006, his influence on the turntables is still being exemplified on songs from Kendrick Lamar (“Momma”), KAYTRANADA (“Drive Me Crazy” featuring Vic Mensa) and J. Cole (“Power Trip”).

Nonetheless, many hip-hop musicians rely too heavily on samples. They didn’t put in the work to make something completely new and creative, instead opting to use samples as the basis for their song.

This method has been the catalyst of hit songs that have propelled musicians’ career’s to new heights. Last year, one of the biggest beneficiaries of this tactic was Minnesota rapper Yung Gravy. The rapper’s hit song “Betty (Get Money)” heavily sampled Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up”. The instrumental of Gravy’s song uses the same strings melody as the 80s hit and the rapper provides a modified version of Astley’s chorus.

Gravy has had viral hits in the past, but “Betty (Get Money)” brought him newfound mainstream success. Gravy is not the only rapper who rode samples to the top of the charts with more established rappers like Jack Harlow’s “First Class” that samples Fergie’s “Glamorous” featuring Ludacris and Nicki Minaj’s “Super Freaky Girl” that samples Rick James’ “Super Freak,’’ earning their first solo Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 with this tactic.

Nicki Minaj/YouTube
Hit Ringtones - Topic/YouTube

The ethical and legal implications of overusing samples are another concern. It’s not uncommon for hip-hop musicians to use samples without permission. This may lead to lawsuits, legal action and the need to pay high royalties.

The introduction of music streaming services has inflated the demand for music. These platforms’ rising revenue will steadily increase the frequency of lawsuits over samples.

A blueprint to how a simple sample could create a hit is exhibited with the song “Lucid Dreams,” by the late Juice WRLD. The song’s producer, Nick Mira, sampled Sting’s “Shape of My Heart” by coupling the famous guitar melody with a piano rendition and a 808 drum sequence. 

In an interview with NME, Juice WRLD stated that Sting earns more than 85% of the royalties for “Lucid Dreams.’’ Despite Sting saying the song is his favorite re-working of “Shape of My Heart,” the monetary gain that artists like Sting receive from these lawsuits will overrule their judgment.

Gravy is also facing these issues firsthand as Rick Astley recently sued him for vocal impersonation. As rappers and producers continue to sample well-known hits to create their own, the possibility of a lawsuit will always linger.

Hip-hop has suffered from an unhealthy obsession with sample use. Though samples have always played a significant role in hip-hop, their overuse has led to a lack of originality, legal concerns and genre repetition. As time goes on, sampling will remain a double-edged sword in music.