Sampling in Hip-Hop as Artistic Transformation

In Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip-Hop, Joseph Schloss asks Mr. Supreme, a contemporary DJ, about a conversation with his mother about his music. Mr. Supreme recalls, “Oh yeah, and we were arguing, ’cause she was saying I didn’t make music. That it’s not art . . . She really didn’t understand at all, and we argued for about two hours about it. Basically, at the end she said . . . if I took the sounds, it’s not mine—that I took it from someone.”1 Toward the end of the conversation, Mr. Supreme goes on to tell his mother, an artist herself, “‘You don’t actually make the paint.’ You know what I am saying? ‘You’re not painting, ’cause you don’t make the paint.’” 2

In this interview, Mr. Supreme speaks about his own music, which as a DJ, relies heavily on the use of other artists’ music. Yet for Mr. Supreme, this borrowing of recorded sounds is akin to using a palette of colors while painting. This is an apt metaphor for thinking about the use of sampling in hip-hop or any music. However, this conversation between Mr. Supreme and his mother represents a larger debate around the use of sampling. Like Mr. Supreme’s mother, critics often view the practice as “stealing” and uncreative on the part of the artist. By labeling the act as a form of thievery, the critics signify this practice as an illegitimate means of musical composition. On the other hand, proponents of the practice have pointed out that the use of sampling is a distinctive, crucial aspect of hip-hop that has spawned a new means of producing music.

Sampling, or digital sampling, is a form of musical borrowing in which a portion of one recording is incorporated into another.3 Today, it is a popular technique in musical composition and can be found in not only hip-hop music, but in mainstream pop, rock, and other genres across the landscape of popular music. Despite its omnipresence in today’s music, there are also instances of more archaic forms of sampling in the past. For example, the twentieth century avant-garde movement, musique concrète led by the composer Pierre Schaeffer, utilized phonographic recordings and other materials to reinterpret and create new musical compositions.4 The end products were sound collages that anticipate future forms of the experimental practice. In the 1960s and ’70s, with enhanced studio technologies and equipment, experimental forms of “sampling” (I use the term loosely here) can be found in rock music and other genres.

However, the sampling that we hear in today’s popular music finds its heritage in hip-hop music that came out of the Bronx in the 1970s and ’80s. It is a well-known narrative. The music came out of the “neighborhood” with young people gathering to speak poetry over “mechanical sounds” and “borrowed melodies.”5 These performers did not have bands with instruments—they had turntables. The music itself was built on “the skillful production of sounds” from records rather than an arrangement of traditional instruments like guitars and drum-sets 6 The DJ became a kind of one-man band using records to take “‘samples’ from funk . . . R&B, [and] from black music predecessors like James Brown” to inject rhythms, grooves, and melodies into the new hip-hop creations.7 The turntable allowed these pioneers to explore sonic manipulation in real time by physically looping, “scratching,” or playing with the recording’s sound as it played. This new musical performance can also be seen as transgressive, as records were not meant to be touched in the grooves—let alone pushed and scratched by the DJ.8 From its origins, the usage of outside musical sources proved to be a foundation on which hip-hop as a distinctive genre was formed.

Another crucial aspect to the emergence of hip-hop, with respect to sampling practice, is the “break.” In early hip-hop performances, the break was the moment in which the DJ would loop a percussive solo found in any record, but usually a funk record.9 This was when break dancers would begin to perform. Usually, for a successful break, the DJ would need to find a specific moment, or groove, to loop on the turntable. This innovative aspect is a basis for the aesthetical foundation of hip-hop music. It is what can be seen as an “analogue form” of musical sampling. As Joseph Schloss argues, sampling “is the foundation of [hip-hop’s] musical system.”10 Today, we often listen to music for the “beats” which is something that stems from the break and can be composed entirely of samples.

Since these early years of hip-hop, sampling has grown into a prominent practice. It can be heard in not only hop-hop music, but also across the landscape of contemporary pop, rock, and R&B. Rather than the DJ behind the turntable mixing records, sampling is a process formed by a producer in the music studio. It is a compositional method that has found its way onto the mainstream with ’90s rap stars such as Puff Daddy, Jay-Z, and Tupac, and lives on through current artists such as Drake, Kanye West, and Kendrick Lamar. Yet, despite its prominence in music making there still are criticisms of its use in music making that question its artistic legitimacy and authenticity.

The Stealing Artist?

Why is there hesitance in accepting sampling as a compositional method? On the side against musical sampling, there are a couple of different arguments that arise. First, critics take issue with the practice because it can be seen as stealing from another artist—an idea that has often and publicly spilled over into the legal side of the music business. The second criticism revolves around a question of  “authenticity” in musical composition, wherein sampling forgoes a sense of originality. The new composition, thus, relies on the samples to carry the music. Lastly, there looms an argument that places importance on the use of “live” instrumentation as a means of true musicianship.

In the 1980s, there was an explosion in the use of sampling. In an article for the Los Angeles Times, a lawyer for the Beastie Boys stated that people think “there’s something that smacks of thievery in pushing a button rather than moving your fingers on an instrument.”11 This idea of “thievery” is probably the most prominent of the criticism against musical sampling, as also seen in Mr. Supreme’s mother’s comments. It is one that has often plays out in contemporary legal battles. It is a tricky area, and one where the debate rages on. Often questions come up about how much an artist can use before it is flat-out plagiarism, or the extent to which the manipulation of a sound source becomes the artist’s own product. The legal language that surrounds such questions of and rulings on the practice is often vague, as the idea of copying in a musical sense is difficult to clearly pin down without restricting a performer’s creative license. Critics often think of the practice as unethical and inject it with a sense of criminality on the part of the artist.

In Vanessa Chang’s article “Records That Play: The Present Past in Sampling Practice,” she argues that listeners do not readily accept the use of sampling because of the way that we, the listeners, have grown up in aural discourses that value originality and creativity.12 We give more value to music that is “new,” or original, and comes out of an artist’s own expression—yet, it is also important to note that it is impossible for an artist to create in a vacuum. She goes on to explain that “the prevailing theoretical models of sampling practice tend to begin with the idea of the origin, or lack thereof.”13 With this perspective, critics fail to look at sampling as more than a means of displaying the source. We become distracted by the presence of another artist’s music that it devalues the whole song in which the sample appears—which, Chang argues is the incorrect way of thinking about sample-based music.

In her analysis, Vanessa Chang draws on Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” In this work, Benjamin considers the value of art that becomes reproduced for consumption, an idea that is especially apt in the age of the digital. Chang uses Benjamin to explore the ways in which we value a piece of art, or music, with an aura of its own—its “authenticity.”14 Again, this emphasizes the way in which we value uniqueness over ubiquity, especially in the arts. So, when it comes to music, the original source has its own “aura,” its own “authenticity,” in its performance or recording. Yet, when a DJ or producer utilizes a sample from an original composition, he or she is breaking its “aura”—its uniqueness. Not only do the artists steal the music, but they also “defile” it—sometimes literally by chopping up the sounds—to place under other parts of the track. In this regard, it seems as if the artist has no respect for the music in which the sample comes from. Instead, the music is treated as a scrap of sound that can be recycled for the artist’s own pleasure. It is as if the artist devalues the original recording while, simultaneously, limiting the level of originality he or she can place in the music.

Besides this, critics who stand against sampling often place a higher value on live instrumentation. Of course, as stated before, hip-hop was born out of its minimal set-up of turntables, speakers, records, and a rapper. There are no instruments because it is not a part of the hip-hop aesthetic. Yet these critics, especially when considering contemporary forms of hip-hop, feel the music is not legitimate without the use of traditional musical instruments. Built within this idea of music is a desire for clear virtuosity in performance, like the hammering of piano keys or strumming of a guitar. This perspective values music for an artist’s technical performance. In hip-hop and sample-based tracks, there is no instrumentalist to look to in the conventional sense. The use of live instruments becomes synonymous with musical skill, and sampling is just “pushing a button.”15 Yet, this view fails to consider the level of precision, curation, and skill needed to successfully utilize samples within a new composition.

The Innovative Artist?

Despite the many criticisms of sampling, there are other arguments that aim to legitimize the practice. One view is that sampling allows for the performer to align oneself with a musical past—a historical approach. Also, sampling is a means of creating something new from the past, one that allows an artist to redefine and put a fresh spin on the musical source. Lastly, sampling’s defenders refute the idea that there is no technical virtuosity involved in the practice; rather, sampling does require the same level of precision and skill as a traditional instrument set in a different kind of musical imagination.

In response to the idea that sample-based hip-hop tracks are not legitimate works, Joseph Schloss writes: “To say that hip-hop is about fragmentation because it is composed of samples is akin to saying that a brick wall is about fragmentation because it is composed of individual bricks.”16 Yes, sample-based hip-hop consists of parts pieced together, but it is how music is put together that this technique its power and informs the artist’s level of skill. For Schloss, sampling is what makes hip-hop hip-hop, the practice is inherent to its musical aesthetic.17 Sampling gives rise to a new way of thinking about music. Rather than the basic progression “arc” found in most Western music (the rise and fall), sampling places importance on repetition and rhythm which creates a “pleasure arising from a process.” 18 The repeating, interlocking samples give space to the listener to work through the song both aurally and physically (dancing). Like in the breakbeat from early hip-hop, sampling is a means of finding the “best” part of a song and repeating it, slowing it down, or speeding it up—and possibly improving it. Sampling allows for the artist to create something entirely new out of what he or she finds musically appealing. As Chang states, this kind of music “uses sounds instrumentally, rather than using instruments to make sounds.”19 Samples become the tools to create new composition—like piecing together a puzzle until everything clicks and flows seamlessly. An odd snippet can become something like the bang of the drum. The availability of sounds for composing instantly expands when one is able to draw from any recording one can find.

The idea that a sense of history is instilled in sampling practice is quite prevalent. As Bill Brewster and Frank Boughton write, “Hip-hop today thrives on a sense of its own past.”20 In one way, sampling is seen as a form of musical pedagogy. Tricia Rose argues that “samples are highlighted . . . to make connections between the lyrical and musical texts. It affirms black musical history and locates these ‘past’ sounds in the ‘present.’”21 Joseph Schloss argues that sampling encompasses a wider view of music history, as DJs and producers pull sounds from not just black music, but from white rock music and other genres.22 There are many reasons for an artist to select samples for their compositions. Artists may also use samples to align themselves with certain musical pasts. They may also coincide, as Rose states, with lyrical themes, or add another dimension to a song’s theme or message that operates more subliminally.

This is not too far from Chang’s argument that sampling allows for the artist to redefine a musical sample for the present.23 Despite the notion that the original source contains its own “aura,” the artist uses the sample to operate in the present while acknowledging its past. Hip-hop producers are attuned to the origins of their samples; however, they are also more concerned with the way they become fused into their compositions.24 Artists do not take samples from anything for no reason. Sometimes it may emphasize a theme, or it may be nod to past musical artists. Just like a collage artist seeks to use fragments to create something altogether new, the DJ or producer digs through sounds and recordings to unearth parts that they think will fit with many more layers and snippets, ultimately creating something entirely new.

Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” and Kanye West’s “Blood on the Leaves”

To display the practice of musical sampling and the reaction from listeners and critics, I have chosen to look at Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” and Kanye West’s “Blood on the Leaves.” I have chosen these works not only because they come from different periods of hip-hop music, but also because they represent different methods of implementing and utilizing musical samples in their music.

Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash On the Wheels of Steel” was released in 1981 as a live DJ mix. “Adventures” exemplifies the DJ’s use of vinyl records in the field of hip-hop music. The track is a testament to the idea of “turntablism”—a style of manipulating records and intermixing them together to produce a distinctive musical composition.25 The track consists of almost entirely of other musical sources meshed together by Grandmaster Flash. It utilizes Blondie’s “Rapture,” Chic’s “Good Times,” Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust,” Incredible Bongo Band’s “Apache,” Sugar Hill Gang’s “8th Wonder,” and Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s “The Birthday Party” and “Freedom.” Along with these songs, the track also includes spoken excerpts from the Flash Gordon cartoon and from The Heller’s “Life Story.”

With all of these sound sources mixed together at the hands of Grandmaster Flash, we hear a fun sound collage. By today’s standards of sampling practice, the mix is rough, but still amazing in that all of these sounds were pieced together seamlessly by a DJ using records and a turntable. Mark Katz specifically notes how the song looks forward to the digital sampling we hear today: This mix predicates the way that hip-hop producers today use sounds and piece them together to create a wholly new track through digital means. 26 While the use of “scratching” and the choppiness of rubbing the records typifies the aesthetic of early hip-hop, Katz cites the way that Grandmaster Flash loops and chops snippets of sound an instance of “analogue sampling.”27 From the beginning with the “break,” Grandmaster Flash gives us a collage-like track that becomes an entirely new whole.

In 1981, Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five opened for The Clash in Times Square. They would open their set with “Adventures” and came out wearing leather suits when they started rapping over the track. However, the crowd was not friendly to the performers as they began to shout and eventually threw cups of beer and spit onto the stage.28 As Jeff Chang writes, the audience “wasn’t expecting a disco.”29 This performance displays how the audience, especially for a punk-rock act, did not accept this hip-hop group. In reviews of the show, there explicit mentions to how there were just two turntables and the men performing. For the audience, the group was not a musical act, but rather just DJs spinning records at the club.

Released almost thirty years after “Adventures,” Kanye West’s “Blood on the Leaves” falls in direct lineage of sample-based hip-hop. Rising to public consciousness in the mid-2000s, Kanye West has become one of the most prominent hip-hop artists of today. As an artist, he is known for his eclectic sense of sampling within his composition. In 2013, his Yeezus track, “Blood on the Leaves,” garnered wide attention and controversy because of West’s usage of sampling. The song itself relies on multiple samples; however, the most prominent of which is Nina Simone’s cover of “Strange Fruit” (1965). The song opens with a higher-pitched and slightly sped-up form of Simone’s voice. Then Kanye comes in as Simone’s voice repeats “Blood on the leaves” and “Breeze,” like a chime. When the chorus is introduced, another sample begins as the heavy, but minimal, beats begin. West utilizes the brash, striking horns from TNGHT’s “R U Ready” (2012). Also sampled within the track are C-Murder’s “Down for My N****z” (1999) and Isao Tomita’s “Snowflakes Are Dancing” (1974).

Compared to Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s “Adventures,” Kanye’s “Blood on the Leaves” is a simpler, yet more cohesive, approach to sampling. However, one can see how both of these tracks rely on musical excerpts to create something altogether different and new. Of course, “Blood on the Leaves” received a controversial reception because of the Simone track within. “Strange Fruit” was originally performed by Billie Holiday and is a song about lynching of black men and other racial injustices faced in the South. Yet, in Kanye’s song the subject matter of “Strange Fruit” comes in stark contrast to his lyrics of failed relationship. In a review for the track from Popdust, the reviewer wrote: “It would be nice one day for Kanye to use such a sample for concerns weightier than his own spotty romantic history or personal doubts and misgivings.”30 In other reviews, the pairing of the Simone sample and Kanye’s lyrics drew criticism of blasphemy and was described as putting together “the sacred and the profane.”31 Here is the idea that sampling can damage and defile the original sound source. Although some reviews of the track are praiseful, writers often the noted the use of the sample as incorrect or without merit. Some received it as a kind of sonic butchering. This is especially interesting since Kanye has stated that wanted to use the Simone track, but found it a challenge to use it properly until “Blood On the Leaves.”32 The implementation of Simone’s legendary recording in the West composition provides an instance in which the sample is used “improperly.” Yet, this is West’s vision, and there are no specific guidelines for sampling. He sought to use the song, and to use it properly in his own way. Maybe, the presence of “Strange Fruit” is meant to conflict with West’s narrative. Maybe the darkness of Simone’s recording is meant to emphasize the darkness of his own personal relationship. In the end, West was able to draw upon the works of other artists to compose an entirely new work that speaks for itself as a whole.

The Digital Age and Sampling

When considering not only these two tracks, but other instances of musical sampling as well, the role of technology is vital in the compositional technique. Looking at Grandmaster Flash, the turntable is a means of “analogue sampling.” Mark Katz argues that the turntable, in a sense, has become an instrument in its own right—a strange one that reproduces already music which then can be manipulated in real-time by the DJ.33 Just like a conventional instrument, the turntable requires skill that requires the user to be able to find the break, mix records, and repeat the parts that are the best for the dancefloor. The DJ has a style, a distinct creative and recognizable output when at the tables. One can hear Grandmaster Flash’s signature DJ style in “Adventures,” like punch phrasing and scratching.

Now, decades after the beginnings of hip-hop, the turntable has shifted and morphed into the studio as hip-hop has become more mainstream. Producers use knobs and switches to manipulate sounds digitally within their new compositions.34 With the internet, sounds are more readily available to anyone with access, and one can create beats or songs through sophisticated software or through more amateur means. Yet the actions of today’s producers and the DJs of the past are still the same. Though methods may differ, sampling has become a legitimate form of musical composition. If one were to listen to mainstream radio, one would hear sampling not just in hip-hop, but also in pop, rock, and other musical styles. There is also a fascination with sampling practice that has grown out of listening. Today, one can visit database sites like to find out what was sampled in any song, or to discover if a favorite song has been sampled. When a new album is released, like Drake’s More Life or Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN., instantly there are articles that seek to uncover all the samples used on the albums in order to understand it better. Listeners are interested in how artists reinterpret music and place it within a new context. Uncovering the samples used in a song has become a fascinating way to delve into and decipher music through histories and sounds.

For hip-hop music, sampling is a form of musical creation. So much more goes into choosing and piecing together sample than just copying and pasting. An artist may want expand a groove, or draw upon a musical history. In the end, successful sample redefine the sounds in a new setting—it is a transformation. It takes a creative mind to know how to make a recording one’s own.

  1. Joseph G Schloss and Jeff Chang. Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip-Hop. (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2014), 1.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Mark Katz. Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), 147.
  4. Pàdraic Grant. “Mainstream Sampling—Innovation & Scorn” in Perfect Sound Forever. October 2007.
  5. “The Emergence of Hip-Hop.” The Def Jam Generation, 2. The Paley Center for Media.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Mark Katz. Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-Hop DJ. (Cary, GB: Oxford University Press, 2012), 65-66.
  9. Ibid., 15
  10. Schloss. Making Beats. 101.
  11. Don Snowden. “Sampling: A Creative Tool or License to Steal? The Controversy” in Los Angeles Times. August 6, 1989.
  12. Vanessa Chang. “Records That Play: The Present Past in Sampling Practice” in Popular Music 28, no. 2, (2009), 143.
  13. Ibid., 144.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Snowden. “Sampling: A Creative Tool or License to Steal? The Controversy.”
  16. Schloss. Making Beats, 66.
  17. Ibid., 64
  18. Justin Williams. “Historicizing the Breakbeat: Hip-Hop’s Origins and Authenticity” in Lied Und Populäre Kultur / Song and Popular Culture 56 (2011), 134.
  19. Chang. “Records That Play.” 145.
  20. Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton. Last Night a DJ Saved My Life. The History of the Disc Jockey. (London: 2006), 254.
  21. Tricia Rose. Black Noise. (Hanover, N.H.: Weslyan University Press 1994), 89.
  22. Schloss. Making Beats. 64.
  23. Chang. “Records That Play.” 145
  24. Schloss. Making Beats. 66.
  25. Katz. Groove Music. 81.
  26. Ibid., 83
  27. Ibid.
  28. Jeff Chang and DJ Kool Herc. Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2014), 155.
  29. Ibid.
  30. “Kanye West’s Yeezus Reviewed: ‘Blood On the Leaves.’” 17 June 2017.
  31. Gil Kaufman. “Kanye West’s ‘Blood On The Leaves’ And The History Of “Strange Fruit.’” MTV News. 19 June 2013.
  32. Ryan Dombal. “The Yeezus Sessions.” Pitchfork. June 24, 2013.
  33. Katz. Groove Music. 84.
  34. Katz. Capturing Sound. 147.
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