New American Songbook: The Sample

Nov 20, 2017

For most of its existence, hip hop was a sample-based musical form. Any good origin story of hip hop reinforces this—from two turntables and a microphone an entire cosmos was born. 

Beginning in the mid- to late-nineties, music industry pushbacks against the proliferation of unauthorized samples changed the focus of hip hop from samples to producers—an example of how influential modes of production can be in shaping artistic expressions.

Nonetheless, a concept of the sample is integral to an understanding and appreciation of hip hop, even and especially now that DJs have returned to the forefront of what might be called the ‘classical hip hop’ genre. Samples are environmental elements in hip hop music, creating ambience, historical context and narrative authority. They are the connective tissue of hip hop, meshing time and space and stories about times and spaces together. Without samples, all you’ve got is another band.

The power of the sample lies in its ability to force the listener’s brain into instant recall. When you hear the DJ cut a lyric from Mobb Deep into their own song, you also hear the Mobb Deep song, in many ways in its entirety. It can even transplant entire worlds onto the song, such as when a track opens with a scene from the movie ‘The Godfather’. More than a cheap trick, the sample is an incredible tool for both inducing nostalgia and creating new worlds altogether.

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