Hip-Hop Sampling Reinvents Old Music


A common argument heralded against hip-hop is the genre’s heavy use of sampling, or borrowing portions of previous songs, beats, and melodies and incorporating these musical segments into a different song. Though some critics contend that rap is a lazy genre simply stealing beats and riffs from more musically-talented artists, sampling doesn’t even wholly characterize hip-hop: there are thousands of unique rap songs produced every year, and the diverseness of the hip-hop genre makes it virtually pointless to portray the genre as entirely dependent on sampling. But more importantly, who said sampling was a bad thing?

In the book “Rhymin’ and Stealin’: Musical Borrowing in Hip-Hop”, author Justin Williams argues that “[old music] becomes transformed into something new, something different, something hip-hop.” When a rap song uses preexisting materials–whether it’s a famous speech, a news clip, or elements of an old song–these artistic tidbits are creatively reinvented and can introduce listeners to a multitude of genres and melodic styles from across the musical spectrum.

If anything, hip-hop is the most diverse music genre that incorporates nearly every other music genre¬–from jazz to electronic to rock–into an innovative musical medley. Jazz organist Ronnie Foster’s 1972 song “Mystic Brew” has been sampled on A Tribe Called Quest’s “Electric Relaxation”, J Cole’s hit “Forbidden Fruit”, and was even spliced and played backwards in Cole’s song “Neighbors”. Kanye West– the proclaimed king of samples –included musical elements from 1960s American singer Nina Simone in his album Watch the Throne, wrote a handwritten letter to Steely Dan so that he could splice the chorus of the rock band’s song “Kid Charlemagne” into “Champion” off Graduation and even used a gospel hymn from Chicago-based Pastor T.L. Barret in “Father I Stretch My Hands” off The Life of Pablo. The list goes on: from Kid Cudi sampling Band of Horses in “Prayer” and MGMT in “Immortal” to Travis Scott sampling Indian singer and Bollywood star Asha Bhosle's “Kamar Meri Lattu” in Scott’s single “Uptown”, hip-hop has borrowed from nearly every music genre imaginable.

Sampling is one of the myriad mechanisms that can nurture the process of creating unique musical compositions, and hip-hop should not be chastised for this practice. Musicians ranging from The Beatles to Mozart have all sampled elements of previous musical works, and this practice does not diminish the creativity and exceptional musical talent of these artists. Hip-hop should be treated analogously: sampling in hip-hop catalyzes the creative musical process and revitalizes preexisting melodies in an inventive and unique fashion.

Critics of hip-hop’s use of sampling neglect the notion that all music is inherently unoriginal. Most piano chords have already been played in similar successions; basslines and guitar riffs can sound eerily similar to preexisting ones without an artist even listening to the previous song; simple drum beats sound like the rhythm of thousands of other songs. Yet, the creative musical process is not corrupted by music’s innate unoriginality. Rearranging and transforming elements of a preexisting song in a unique manner is an innovative endeavor that doesn’t belittle an artist’s capacity to create a distinctly creative musical piece.