This repurposing of older recordings can be subtle as with momentary sampling of obscure drum hits and vocal snippets. Or it can be overtly referential like The Notorious B.I.G’s use of Diana Ross on "Mo Money Mo Problems," or Drake’s use of Lauryn Hill on "Nice For What." Thus, given the prominence of this art form, one might wonder which older tracks are favorites amongst producers. To make your life easier, we have compiled a list of the most sampled songs in musical history and explored some fascinating details about the history of sampling.
According to the folks over at WhoSampled, the most sampled track in the history of music remains "Amen, Brother" by The Winstons. It’s estimated that the song has been sampled around 6005 times, in part owing to its classic drum break at 1:27 minutes in. Perhaps the best-known use is the unforgettable beat of NWA’s "Straight Outta Compton." Dr. Dre famously took the short drum break, slowed it down, and looped the break, creating one of the most iconic drum samples in hip hop history. Elsewhere the track has been sampled by the likes of Tyler, the Creator, Jay-Z, The Prodigy, and DJ Shadow.
The following four most sampled tracks are a hefty margin below "Amen, Brother":
Alongside the aforementioned most sampled songs, there are many tracks that have become iconic through one song. For example, one might look at the brilliant use of Aretha Franklin’s "One Step Ahead" by producer Ayatollah for Mos Def’s "Ms. Fat Booty." Another classic example of sampling is the use of The Charmels’ "As Long As I’ve Got You" for Wu-Tang Clan’s "C.R.E.A.M." And almost everyone has heard the iconic use of Leon Haywood’s "I Want’a Do Something Freaky To You" in Dr. Dre’s "Nothin’ but a G Thang."
More recently, Kendrick Lamar used a generous sample of Marvin Gaye’s "I Want You" for his pre-album single "The Heart Part 5." The acclaimed deep fake video went viral a week before Kendrick released Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers—with a Tracklib sample on “Father Time.”
Sampling isn't exclusive to hip-hop. One example is Madonna, who made waves on "Hung Up" by sampling ABBA’s "Gimme, Gimme, Gimme (A Man After Midnight)". In a wild merger of styles, Janet Jackson famously sampled Joni Mitchell’s "Big Yellow Taxi" for "Got Til’ It’s Gone."
Other known examples in modern music include Britney Spears' "Toxic," Daft Punk's "One More Time," numerous interpolations by David Bowie, and The Chemical Brothers' "Block Rockin' Beats." The fact even an artist like George Michael went as far as sampling a 1984 song by hip-hop legend Kurtis Blow, exemplifies the importance of sampling in other genres.
We’ve covered the top five most sampled tracks in hip-hop. But what are the most sampled beats? In other words, what are the rap instrumentals that have reappeared time and time again, becoming a fixture of the genre.
We have already mentioned Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick’s "La Di Da Di." This is technically the most sampled hip-hop track in rap history. But hip-hop fans will know about the recurrent use of "Bring The Noise" by Public Enemy. Run-DMC’s live rendition of "Here We Go" has been sampled many times as well by artists like J Dilla, Beastie Boys, and The Alchemist.
Aside from sampling records, many artists have used snippets from a variety of unexpected sources. One example would be the use of gunshot sounds or police sirens in early gangsta rap. Elsewhere we have the recurrent sampling of famous speeches by the likes of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Used by artists like Public Enemy and Jungle Brothers, these speech samples added to the political meaning of their tracks.
Similarly, the spoken word of Gil Scott Heron has been sampled several times by artists like Kanye West. Looking to the underground, frequent sampling of old film dialogue has added a collage-esque character to iconic work by MF Doom and Madlib. Thus, producers should always be open-minded to the possibilities of sampling.
Iconic for their bafflingly extensive use of samples, The Avalanches certainly deserve a shout for some of the most samples used in one song. Such as "Frontier Psychiatrist"—a track from their 2000 album Since I Left You—which contains an estimated 28 samples.
According to the database at WhoSampled, DJ Premier is the most prolific sampler of all time, owing to his decades-long career and a continued commitment to sample-heavy boom bap. It’s estimated that Premier has used an astonishing 1,458 samples. At a large margin below the old-school icon, we have Girl Talk, Madlib, DJ Shadow, and Dr. Dre.
The most sampled artist of all time undoubtedly goes to the Godfather of Soul, James Brown. The funk legend has been sampled a staggering 8554 times. From Kendrick Lamar to Kanye West; Boogie Down Productions to Childish Gambino; Madonna to The Stone Roses, everyone has found sampling gold in James Brown’s vast discography. Though artists like The Winstons and Lyn Collins follow in second and third, Brown remains a foundational reference for the sound of hip-hop.
Given the major role sampling plays in modern music, it’s worth exploring the iconic songs and artists that have been foundational references for contemporary musical trends. From hip-hop to neo-soul, sampledelia to EDM, sampling is an ingrained feature of today’s popular music. If you want to dig even deeper check out our article on the most sampled drum beat in hip hop history.
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