The Imitation Game — Uncovering Hip-Hop’s History

Originally published by Inkport

Growing up, I had always assumed that artists wrote, produced, and performed all of their music. It never occurred to me that an artist would sing a song that he or she didn’t write themselves. Up until eighth grade, I listened exclusively to a roster of sugar-sweet pop stars, which made my comprehension of the musical universe, well, interesting. Don’t get me wrong — my mother introduced me to all kinds of good music as a kid — Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, Burt Bacharach, Elvis Costello, and Bruce Springsteen to name a few — it’s just that at the end of the day, I wound up belting the Hannah Montana soundtrack instead.

Fast forward to the pre-pubescent insecurities and cliquey nightmares of the hell-on-Earth that was eighth grade. Sitting in the library, I browsed a computer for the news of the day — I always read the Yahoo! home page to see if anything important was going on in the world. On this particular day, something struck me as odd — a man in weird sunglasses named Kanye West (whose name I pronounced “Kane” for a good year), had just released a song called “Stronger.” Innocently, I clicked through the article and played the song. It sounded oddly familiar. A few clicks later and I had recognized the tune as Daft Punk’s “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger”. I was shocked that this weirdly neon man would simply steal a song from two even weirder neon men in helmets. Shortly thereafter, I learned about sampling — and from that point on, I was hooked on the adrenaline rush of figuring out who really wrote the songs I loved so dearly.

After my innocent run-in with Kanye West, I became a rap and hip-hop enthusiast. I delved into the the mainstream, clocking in hours with 50 Cent, T.I., Eminem, Drake, and Lil Wayne. I remember loving the excitement in rap — the passion and the fast pace. One of the first samples I recognized came from the absolute bop that is Lil Wayne’s “A Milli”. It contains an extremely prominent sample of Gladys Knight’s “Don’t Burn Down The Bridge”, which I just happened to recognize after listening to her for a class assignment. After realizing that even Lil Wayne was reaching back into classic soul for his songs, my interest only escalated. After a friend’s suggestion, I switched lanes completely and dove into the softer, more spoken-word side of rap. Artists like Milo, Eyedea, early-era Macklemore, and Aesop Rock became my favorites, and Skelethon became my most-listened to album of senior year.

After a few years living on the absolute surface level, I finally delved into hip-hop’s roots. My playlists quickly became populated with Mos Def and Talib Kweli’s We Are Black Star, Jay-Z’s The Blueprint, and my personal favorite, Mos Def’s The Ecstatic. This world that once felt so foreign to me started to feel even more familiar, because so many hip-hop tracks like the Kanye one that started it all, contain samples that even the most untrained ear would hear. Anyone could recognize the front-running vocals of “Super Freak” and “U Can’t Touch This” in Jay-Z’s 2006 masterpiece, “Kingdom Come”. Once I felt comfortable in the skin of hip-hop, I started learning about Biggie and Tupac and the history of rap as a political music movement. Understanding the classics brought me closer to the center of this world, helping me to understand some of today’s greats, people like Kendrick Lamar, Tyler, The Creator, Earl Sweatshirt, Nicki Minaj, and Chance the Rapper.

As my rap-ertoire has built up over the years, I find myself coming back to that Kanye library moment again and again. I regularly see songs coming out today that build on songs from 20 years ago. Broadway shows sampling the same Biggie lines I belted out in 2011 (yes, Hamilton, I’m talking to you).

On the subject of Hamilton, it’s one of the first musicals to really harness the power of samples. Throughout the show, you’ll find Ja Rule, DMX, and more than a few Biggie references thrown into the mix, thanks to showrunner Lin-Manuel Miranda. However, the samples I find the most interesting are the ones that come from other Broadway shows. For example, if you’re a big theater fan you might recognize a sample of “Nobody Needs To Know” from The Last Five Years in “Say No To This” or even Aaron Burr’s reference to South Pacific’s “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught”. Sampling Broadway through the format of a hip-hop musical — genius.

Now, this idea of a sample is clearly not news. The rap, hip-hop, and R&B scene has proven for decades that imitation truly is the highest form of flattery. But — my obsession with digging into production credits and gray areas has given me the urge to document just how insanely deep this goes.

Let’s look at The Life of Pablo, for example. “Famous”, which features Rihanna and Swizz Beats, samples at least four songs — including “Wake Up Mr. West” from Kanye’s sophomore album, Late Registration. One of the most iconic samples, which you might recognize at 1:50, is Sister Nancy’s 1982 track “Bam Bam.” When I first heard “Famous”, I recognized the chorus instantly — but not because of Sister Nancy — because of Lauryn Hill. The melody appears in the 1998 track “Lost Ones” from her magnum opus, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Now, with a quick Google search I discovered that Sister Nancy herself sampled the horns that lay beneath the song from a 1974 track by Ansel Collins. That’s nearly forty years of musical history making its way from Collins to Sister Nancy, then from Lauryn Hill to Kanye (not to mention the weird use of the sample in Chris Brown & Wiz Khalifa’s track, “Bomb”). Forty years!

Are you with me now? Do you see why I love this? Okay, let’s do it again. Beyoncé’s newest release, Lemonade, is rife with samples. My personal favorite appears in the track “6 Inch,” which features The Weeknd. After replaying the track at least eight times, I finally figured out the source of the elusive sounds I had been recognizing. Beyoncé samples Animal Collective’s 2009 track “My Girls” at 3:01, changing the lyrics but keeping the melody intact. The producer of Beyoncé’s track, Boots, claims that the similarity was initially an accident (not buying it). The song has been sampled in the rap world before, most obviously on Childish Gambino’s 2011 release of the same name. “My Girls” itself even samples sonic elements from NASA’s 2007 Cassini-Huygens recordings of the radio emissions from Saturn’s rings. Beyoncé features another sample prominently on the Lemonade track “Freedom”. The entire beat of the song is sampled from Kaleidoscope’s 1969 psychedelic track “Let Me Try.” The track was also sampled in Vince Staples’ track “Shots”. As a self-professed music nerd, seeing a nearly fifty year old song in the intense, Kendrick Lamar-bearing track of the decade is almost enough to make me sonically satisfied for the next ten years.

One of the most popular samples in the rap game is James Brown’s “Funky President (People It’s Bad)”. While researching this article, I found that DJ Booth had already written an entire article about it, so I’ll link that here. If you quickly listen to the track, you’ll probably miss it. The sample comes in at 0:10, and leaves as soon as you hear it. It’s a simple word that has been recycled in and out of the game since 1974 — “hey.”

The iconic “hey” features in Big Sean’s verse on Kanye’s “Clique”, on Kanye’s “Runaway”, Gambino’s “3005”, and Pusha T’s “New God Flow”. The sample can also be tracked back to Pete Rock’s 1992 track “Anger In The Nation” and Public Enemy’s “Black is Back” in 2007. The sample can then be traced even further back to N.W.A.’s “Fuck Tha Police” and Salt-n-Pepa’s “Shake Your Thang” in 1988. As though that weren’t enough, the sample appears in tracks by Nas, Grimes, Calvin Harris, Lecrae, Logic, Ghostface Killah, The Black Eyed Peas, Talib Kweli, and even Aaron Carter.

So what does it all mean? Hip-hop is not an ancient genre. In fact, its history is only about fifty years old. Sampling changes that. It puts a song from 1950 on a leash and drags it along beat by beat, riff by riff, until you find it in Eminem’s album 75 years later. It drops the greatest minds of Ginsberg’s generation into the laps of today’s youth through a series of drum kicks. In a way, because of sampling, hip-hop becomes the most diverse community of any in the music world. You can feel like Pablo while unknowingly consuming the spirit of Nina Simone. You can listen to a growly Lin-Manuel Miranda channel Ja Rule from your seat in a Broadway theater.

One Kanye track shattered the music world as I knew it, and opened up a black hole of questions, connections, and layers that I had never before fathomed. The connections that can be forged through imitation and sampling give such great context to music and its transcendental power. For music fans, a quick look into these layers provokes uncertainty, a multitude of areas to explore, and an overwhelming appreciation for the music we listen to today — since we often don’t know who we’re really listening to at all.