Hip Hop is a type of music and way of life born of disco, soul, funk, reggae, and SOOOO many other genres, Hip Hop was originally composed almost entirely of samples. Sampling originates from Jamaican DJs who back in the day called it “toasting”, this was where one aspect of a separate song was combined with the original mix to create a whole new energy and feel to the DJs mix. DJs like the legendary Dj Kool Herc in New York picked up this technique and intertwined aspects of disco, funk, soul and other genres to create Hip Hop. Sampling has been a bit of a misunderstood art for a long time now; people think that using someone else’s song to create a new one is unethical or “lazy” or unoriginal… and sometimes that can be true, but often these ideas themselves were just lazy generalizations that were a result of the old guards distaste for the cultural phenomena known as Hip Hop.
Now a great sample is like a great collage, it takes aspects of other pieces of art and truly transcends those separate parts to create a whole new aura and work of art. Sure you can always point to Diddy and say “but sampling just leads to people getting rich off of looping musicians songs and calling them their own” but does anyone ever point at Nickelback and say “this is why there shouldn’t be rock music??” of course not! Sampling can be one of the most beautiful forms of music in the world which is why it has been adopted by producers globally. In the modern age widely available producing technology equipped with pre looped drums and instruments has somewhat put a dent in samplings influence on Hip Hop but that will never take over totally because as long as there is Hip Hop there will be sampling.
Criteria and how I created the list:
Seriously I tried my best not to just make everything Kanye, like I really really freakin’ tried. This list is restricted to vocal samples so you will not be hearing any drum breaks or other instrumental samples although those are also pivotal aspects of Hip Hop and sampling (Complex has a dope article here for those). The samples were judged based on the nostalgia factor, originality, recognizability of the sample, and most importantly straight up how hot the sample made the rest of the song; A properly used vocal sample will join the beat and become it’s own instrument. The list is not in complete chronological order but the samples and songs that scored the highest on the criteria are definitely at the end of the list so that we can save the best for last. Without further ado I happily present to you the 20 greatest vocal samples in Hip Hop history:
20. Drake & Kendrick Lamar – “Poetic Justice” Samples Janet Jackson – “Anytime, Anyplace”
Watch the video for Janet Jackson’s “Anytime, Anyplace” and you will instantly realize this was a gettin’ freaky anthem in 1993, producer Snoop Deville came across the sample and flipped the classic into the modern day game spitting banger that it is now. Deville expertly chops up his favorite parts of the original vocals to create an intimate tone and backdrop perfect for Kendrick Lamar & Drake to spit to their ladies and let them know that they can get it.
19. Nas – “Surviving The Times” Samples Nipsey Russell – “What Would I Do (If I Could Feel)”
Fun fact about this song: Chris Webber(!) the former NBA star produced it. Word around though is Cool & Dre might’ve had some minor role in it’s final production but C-Webb is the only one with an official producer credit so I will lavish all the love on him. First off, sampling anything from “The Wiz” instantly makes it cooler than your average sample. Secondly, the way the sample is arranged is GENIUS; Starting off with the intro from the original song Nipsey Russell’s vocals gently usher in Nas’s verse at which point the beat falls back and let’s Nas comfortably tell his story of coming up and enabling the listener to get rare insight into a legends beginnings. Listening to the original sample you may not even really notice the women in the background saying “what would I do” but Webber smartly features those soft vocals as the chorus adding to the nostalgia of the track by repurposing the lyrics to ask what would Nas have done had he never found Hip Hop.
Ps. Here’s a legendary Nipsey Russell appearance on Late Night with Conan O’brien in 1996 that will really make you double take at how long ago the 90s feel.
18. Lil Wayne – “I Feel Like Dying” Samples Karma – “Once”
Karma’s original song is a beautiful melancholic ballad accompanied by a sincere acoustic guitar; Jim Jonsin the man credited with producing the track flipped this (maybe without permission) into a hazy, borderline depressing beat which is perfect for reflecting on all the damn drugs you do. Cue Lil Wayne smack in the middle of his Codeine and Xanax phase and we have the best track of Wayne’s career pre “The Carter 3”; wayne mutters that he is a “prisoner locked up behind xanax bars” with such utter lack of emotion that I really believe he is on the verge of dying in the booth.
17. knxwledge – “SumthngNu” Sampled Foster Sylvers – “Only My Love Is True”
LA based producer Knxwledge has a knack for finding old records and owns a few thousand of them himself. The first time one hears Foster Sylvers song “Only My Love Is True” you see this baby faced boy singing about how true his love is, it’s really cute and sweet in a young Michael Jackson type of way but as most of those stories go young Foster Sylver eventually ended up an old, played out sex offender… moral of the story? Never grow up. Knxwledge flips the “ooohhhs” at the beginning of the sample to carry the verses along with some knocking drums and brings in the chorus from the original and repurposes it for his own hook and fits it in seamlessly.
16. Common – “U, Black Maybe” Samples Syreeta – “Black Maybe”
15. Jay Z – “Never Change” Samples David Ruffin – “Common Man”
So we all knew some Kanye productions would end up on this list and for good reason; West quite simply has a talent for flipping samples like none other and he leveraged that into the larger than life figure we know now. Kanye is always learning from others but back in the day before he had legends like A-trak in his ear, kanye used less conventional people (like say a girlfriend) to sample “white people music” But it was always clear where his true sampling love lied… Soul music. Before the indie sampling that appeared on “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” Kanye made his mark on the scene by speeding up the vocals from Soul records and giving his records a 1970s/60s Motown feel that would be imitated for years to come. “Black Maybe” the sample from the common song of the same name by Syreeta was originally produced by Stevie Wonder and “Never Change” by Jay Z samples David Ruffin who was in the legendary Motown group “The Temptations” and was ranked one of the greatest 100 singers ever by rolling stone magazine; Kanye wasn’t the first one to sample soul but he knew who the legends were and understood that he could use them to build his own legend, Kanye may not be the greatest at finding samples but he is the greatest at repurposing them.
14. Freddie Gibbs – “High” Samples Freda Payne – “I Get High (On Your Memory)
Madlib is one of the most respected producers in Hip Hop, he has worked on numerous classics including the modern day classic Piñata which is Freddie Gibbs best work to date and can largely be attributed to Madlibs beautifully old school sound. On this joint Madlib flips the classic Freda Payne track “I Get High (On Your Memories)” which is why it scored so high (no pun intended) on the nostalgia factor, Hip Hop and this sample have a history as whosampled can tell you. Freda Paynes song is reminiscing on an old friend and her memories with them and now the song has somewhat come to life in that sense because now when I listen to High by Freddie Gibbs or “Good Times” by Styles P or even “Pills N Potions” by Nicki Minaj I remember my old friend Freda Payne and how her memories live on throughout the same rappers and producers who parents may have been playing her when they were young. Sampling is a beautiful family tree of influences and whosampled is it’s Ancestry.com
13. 2pace – “Bury Me A G” Samples The Isley Brothers – “For The Love Of You”
The Isley Brothers impact reverberates far past their time; how many times have they been sampled? 604 times and counting according to whosampled. This is my personal favorite use of them (although Biggies “Big Poppa” is a close second) because the “well well well” from the sample is somewhat of a theme throughout the original song; 2pac and The Outlawz use it as the backbone of the beat and as a result it sounds silky smooth.
12. Big K.R.I.T. – “Hometown Hero” Samples Adele “Hometown Glory”
Big K.R.I.T. inspired what seems like a generations worth of artists to bite this sample from him so he gets major points for that. Repurposing Adele’s beautiful ballad about her home into one about your own may be somewhat unoriginal but goddamn it’s too perfect not to so I don’t blame him. Conventional thought when it comes to sampling ethics is that you should repurpose a songs meaning when sampling it to something totally new but every rule needs exceptions and when something is so heroic and inspiring as Adele’s original version you just have to use it.
11. Nas – “You’re Da Man” Samples Rodriguez – “Sugar Man”
Large Professor helped usher Nas into the rap game wayyy back in 1991 (which Nas references in the song) with the track “Live At The Barbecue“; so it’s only right he’s producing the track “You’re Da Man” almost 10 years later with a more mature Nas rapping, he’s a veteran now, he’s seen it all. Large professor repurposed the original chorus of the sample that goes “sugar man” and chopped it up so that it sounded like “you’re the man”; very cleverly distorting it and making it the new hook in which Nas uses to look back on the crazy 10 years since he came into the game. It’s a nice example of a legend reflecting on their life coming full circle and to have Nas’s original mentor producing the track makes it all the more nostalgic and genuine. (Check Out the movie “Searching For Sugar Man” if you ever get a chance it’s about the song and artist that’s sampled)
10. Kanye West – “I Wonder” Samples Labi Siffre – “My Song”
Graduation (the album “I Wonder” is on) is all about Kanye crossing over into that “stadium status”, he said he was inspired by the likes of U2 and Daft Punk to create the album to be played live and I can definitely see an emotional Kanye performing “I Wonder” to thousands of cheering fans singing “And I wonder if you know what it means to find your dreams come true”. Kanye takes the most relatable part of the sample and flips it into an absolute anthem which is why the song is considered somewhat of a cult favorite amongst West’s fans. Siffre’s original is a beautiful strike against anyone trying to bar him from singing his song because it’s his and his alone, Kanye related to that attitude and knew his fans would as well.
9. Common “The Light” Samples Bobby Caldwell – “Open Your Eyes”
If heaven had a height this song would be that tall. The late J.Dilla brilliantly flipped this Bobby Caldwell ode using his favorite part of the chorus and uses it on “The Light” for the hook, Common uses the opportunity to gush about his love for Erykah Badu and a classic is born. Common famously wrote in his memoir “One Day It’ll All Make Sense” that he never finished the third verse to the song and yet it ended up being one of the most popular verses he’d ever done, funny how things work out.
8. The Game & Kanye West “Wouldn’t Get Far” Samples Creative Source – “I’d Find You Anywhere”
The Game Likes to keep it real with his hoes; so when he heard Kanye’s original beat for “Wouldn’t Get Far” he knew it would be the perfect place to expose all these video vixens while also letting ladies know that a career as a video girl isn’t as glamorous as it seems. It would be interesting one day to see someone do this same concept with men and rappers… “wouldn’t get far, tryna spit bars, you know who you are, put you’re hands up homies!”. Creative Source’s original song is about a woman who could find her love anywhere in the world because no matter how far away her love goes she’ll stalk him, that’s cool I guess, whatever your into.
7. Wu-Tang Clan – “Can It Be All So Simple” Samples Gladys Knight And The Pips – “The Way We Were”
Wu-Tang’s debut album “Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)” is a modern american classic, it changed the way Hip Hop was made forever and was a true representation of the gritty streets like nothing else before it. This was in a time when Young MC was winning rap Grammys so it’s safe to say the Wu were the equivalent to Odd future in terms of straight shock value at the time. “Can It Be All So Simple” is a bunch of degenerates and thugs stepping outside their usual surroundings to think about life in a broader scope, with a funky baseline and soft longing vocals various members of the Wu reminisce on their come up on the long island streets; Glady’s Knight’s vocals are as somber as they come and really make the track introspective.
6. Alchemist – “Hold You Down” Samples Al Kooper – “Love Theme From The Landlord”
Al Kooper’s track from the movie “The Landlord” is a calm vocal centric ballad that The Alchemist found and took the word “stand” and made it sound like “down”, now that’s altering a sample! The result is a hood knocker about looking out for your family and holding down the block, This effectively brought Prodigy back and started the Alchemist’s career so the track’s lasting impact has been much larger than the number 95 ranking it peaked at in 2004.
5. Clams Casino – “I’m God” Samples Imogean Heap – “Just For Now”
Clam’s Casino’s signature spacey sound can be traced to this very sample, he admits he’s used it repeatedly for multiple tracks and is the penultimate example of what chopping up airy women’s vocals can result in. The resulting beat is anthemic, nostalgic, subtle, powerful, and just about any other term of glory that you can use to describe it; leave it to Lil B the Basedgod to be the one to discover this track. Imogean Heap’s original track is quite haunting as its about leaving aside your depression and trying to focus on happiness, Clam’s takes the part where the singer beautifully annunciates “how did you know, it’s what I always wanted” and repurposes it as a statement about desire and the pursuit of happiness. The track is quite simply stunning.
4. Kanye West & Jay Z – “Otis” Samples Otis Redding – “Try A Little Tenderness”
Here it is, the song which is basically just one chopped up vocal sample, the inspiration for this list, Kanye did his usual soul speeding up magic but decided not to stop short at throwing in the vocals for a specific part and just throws them throughout the entire song. Kanye uses probably the most expensive sample you could ever hope to clear really just to flaunt and it shows in both Ye and Jay’s lyrics as they ease through the beat coasting off of wit and ego. The original is a ballad about how to please a women hence the “squeeze her” bit in the song and is as soulful as they come, the track is as cool as the other side of the pillow and Kanye figured it would match the “Watch The Throne” album theme perfectly, looks like he was right.
3. Jay Z – “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” Samples Annie – “Hardknock Life”
It’s hard to believe but at the time this track dropped Jay Z was still opening for Diddy on his “No Way Out” tour, he was not the cultural icon he is today, and he made a music video in which he said “I’m really thirsty. I used to dehydrate as a kid. It used to get really bad. My piss come out like snot … really thick and gooey.” Enter the most instantly recognizable vocal sample in the history of the world and a star is born; Jay z’s career would never be the same as he would go on to sell over 60 million records globally, Annie is still a pretty popular play these days too so i’d say everyone won. Check out this awesome Oral history on the song here.
2. Cam’ron & Juelz Santana – “Oh Boy” Samples Rose Royce – “I’m Going Down”
Just Blaze flipped Rose Royce’s (how cool is that name) “I’m Going Down” into the definitive mid 2000s hip hop banger that thrust the Diplomats into full on stardom. Listening to the original sample at the beginning brings Alicia Keys to mind but the track gets funkier and funkier and tells of a women “going down” because her love isn’t around. Just Blaze finds just the right words to throw into the middle of Cam’ron and Santana’s verses and without the “boy” from the sample the verses wouldn’t even make sense, that’s what I call a crucial sample. This song is everything that was right about the early 2000s in terms of Hip Hop.
1. Eminem – “Stan” Samples Dido – “Thank You”
Eminems legendary track about a super fan has even coined a term; to be a “stan” now is to be someone who rides an artists dick way too hard, that is lasting impact people! All jokes aside this song is as haunting as it comes and the twist at the end never ceases to shock me, Eminem has always had a knack for telling painful stories that hit you deep down; we all idolize our heroes but maybe we really do get too wrapped up in all the worship, this song gets that point across as well as any ever. Didos original track is a “thank you” to her lover for making her life so worth living, it’s safe to say 45 king (the producer) really flipped the song properly in that he put it in a whole new context for Eminem to thrive in. This is the ultimate example of memorable vocals taking a good song and making it a classic one. Thank You, Dido.