Seven iconic producers who changed sampling

Learn how these modern sampling pioneers changed music – and how you can emulate their approaches to make better tracks.

Sampling, when done well, is an art. It’s the foundation of hip-hop and all the genres that came out of it. It’s introduced new generations to classic music and forgotten gems to let them live on for years to come. It’s made many musicians wealthy years after they thought their careers were over, and often wealthier than when they were performing. But, for every success story, there are a dozen more where legendary sample players and composers were not being paid duly for their work for every success story. Regardless, sampling has a history in popular music that stretches back to The Beatles’ experiments in Abbey Road Studio in the late 1960s, and it remains a cornerstone of modern music.

Some pioneers have pushed the art of sampling into new territories and showed how the sampler could be an instrument in its own right. Here are seven of the best, why they matter, and how you can take inspiration from them in your studio practice.

Please remember that releasing music using uncleared samples is illegal and constitutes copyright infringement. Any samples you use should be from royalty-free sample packs or your own library of work. It is possible to clear the use of samples in your works for release, but the more famous the artist you sample, the less likely it is to happen. Sampling yourself can be a lot of fun, though, and you can learn a lot from playing around with samples in your own private experiments.

DJ Premier

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Heavily influenced by one of hip-hop’s foundational crate-digging sample masters, Marley Marl — who popularised many of the genre’s most popular breakbeats and samples – DJ Premier has a vast list of production credits thanks to his signature style. One half of Gang Starr alongside Guru, he has produced hits for everyone from Jay-Z to Dr. Dre, D’Angelo and Christina Aguilera.

Preemo’s syncopated style uses many chopped-up samples in a syncopated, staccato rhythm, predominantly culled from soul, funk, jazz, and other hip-hop tracks. His ‘choruses’ cleverly piece together snippets from several hip-hop tracks to form new sentences or lyrics. Some are played live on an MPC, while he scratches others on turntables to provide extra twists to the phrasing and adding extra hip-hop texture in the process. The way he sequences this array of samples makes them sound almost like a conversation. It’s a type of ‘call and response’ form, which is when two parts or instruments seem to be in musical dialogue. He’s also a dab hand at finding an excellent string sample to form part of these flowing compositions.

While many great hip-hop producers came before him and breathed new life into obscure and well-known records alike, DJ Premier did more than just sample a hot loop. He demonstrated the power of the sampler as an instrument, and his outside-the-box technique inspired many who came after him.

Tip: Experiment with playing samples ‘live’ using MIDI pads or a MIDI keyboard.

Liam Howlett

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The man behind The Prodigy’s first-ever release was somewhat appropriately a remix for 1980s sample masters Art Of Noise. He quickly established himself as a force in the rave scene, embracing the emerging genre’s cut-and-paste approach of sped-up breakbeats plundered third-hand from hip-hop records and pitched-up vocal samples. The chipmunk vocal style adopted by rave/hardcore was born out of necessity rather than stylistic preference. Playing the record faster meant being able to record more of it onto the sampler’s limited memory.

As his style developed, combining samples with rugged, raw synth riffs, it became clear that he had a strong ear for melody as well as texture and rhythm. Once The Prodigy started gatecrashing Top 10s, his combination of sensibilities even had an unexpectedly poppy appeal. This legendary video deconstructing the samples that made Smack My Bitch Up is a great place to start if you want to understand how unusual and inventive Howlett is at sampling. Mashing up Kool & The Gang, Rage Against The Machine, Randy Weston, Coldcut, and Ultramagnetic MCs in the same track sounds like a recipe for disaster. Still, with clever use of effects, time-stretching, pitching, and judicious placement, he created a bombastic masterpiece that sounds – like many seminal Prodigy records – like nothing else that had come before.

It’s sampling as a transformative practice, and his productions helped usher in a new era where no source material was off-limits. Sampling heavy metal and heavy rock records, for example, was not a popular choice at that time. However, it drew a line back through Howlett’s love of hip-hop to Run DMC vs Aerosmith’s genre-smashing, Walk This Way. It also helped pave the way for dance/rock and rap/metal hybrids in years to come, all the way through to nu-rave.

Tip: Don’t limit the genres you sample, and don’t be afraid to be extreme with time-stretching and pitch-shifting samples.

Todd Edwards

New Jersey garage legend Todd Edwards took the cut-up vocal stylings of house producer MK and pushed them to new levels of rhythmic syncopation. The gibberish vocal cut technique was perhaps most famously deployed on MK’s Top 10-crashing remix of Nightcrawlers’ Push The Feeling On, initially released in 1992. Edwards started releasing music in the same year, and he took the groove of soulful American garage music and house and pushed it into new territories of extreme swing and quantise values.

On a foundation of bumpy bass, infectious keys and staccato drum patterns, he layered a beguiling pattern of indecipherable, stuttering, clipped vocal snippets, pitched up and down to create refrains that were more like melodic instruments than vocal tracks. It’s a unique and distinctive sound — and to this day, very hard to figure out the exact science of — that no one else has ever fully mastered.

It did, however, inspire a lot of copycats and worshippers, and he is widely credited as the godfather of the 4×4 (four-to-the-floor) UK garage sound that the likes of Tuff Jam, Grant Nelson, MJ Cole and Ramsey & Fen developed who all had their own twists on his vocal technique. In doing so, he helped lay the foundations for 2-step, grime, dubstep and all that came after the dubstep explosion. He also was cited as a hero of a little duo called Daft Punk, who ended up asking him to collaborate on two of their studio albums.

Tip: Try and imitate some of your favourite artists’ sounds. You won’t be able to replicate it fully, but that’s the whole point. In trying, you’ll create something with a bit of their DNA but with your own twist.

DJ Shadow & The Avalanches

It’s probably fair to lump these two together, given their commonalities and their direct lineage. DJ Shadow’s 1996 debut Endtroducing was a groundbreaking debut, composed almost entirely of samples culled from obscure records found in second-hand record bins. Amazingly, Shadow used nothing more than an Akai MPC60 sampler, a Technics SL-1200 turntable, and an Alesis ADAT tape recorder. While there had been many purely sample-based records from the early days of hip-hop onwards, none contained this many different, unexpected, beautiful sound sources patchworked into one album and made it sound so natural. These haunting, disparate, mostly little-known samples sounded like they belonged together – a testament to Shadow’s brilliant ear and thousands of hours of poring over records that most people wouldn’t look at twice.

Australian outfit The Avalanches went further still on their stunning 1999 debut Since I Left You, cobbling together hundreds of samples found in a similar way to Shadow and arranged using Yamaha ProMix 01 and Akai S2000 samplers. Their sample sources were more outlandish and more diverse still than Shadow’s. They also added a sense of humour and a more energetic approach, and a touch more narrative than the introspective sound of Endtroducing. The result is an aural trip, a hazy collage of sounds, people and places where sounds rub against each other and the tracks keep morphing and evolving unexpectedly. On paper, it should be an absolute mess, but it’s one of the most captivating and weird albums you’ll ever hear.

Tip: Dig for those samples that no one has used, and don’t just stick to the usual genres that people plunder. Put effort into discovering old music, whether that’s in a record shop or online.

Daft Punk

The French duo’s skill was finding some of the grooviest few seconds in the history of recorded music and using them so damn effectively. From the bouncing squelch of Edwin Starr’s Cola Bottle Baby that formed the groove of Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger to the single bar of Chaka Khan’s Fate that made Stardust Music Sounds Better With You a monster crossover hit, they sure knew how to pick them.

They didn’t reach for the most obvious records, preferring to shine a light on lesser-known gems and used them incredibly effectively. The heavy LFO-driven filtering of samples on some of their early work also spawned hundreds of imitators across the globe, helping to create the filter house sub-genre along with the likes of their hero DJ Sneak.

Tip: Brutal manipulation of samples can turn them into something that feels fresh and less derivative. Try some heavy process to mould your samples into something with a life and character of its own compared to the original.

Kanye West

Kanye is perhaps the last great sample manipulator we’ve seen. He found fame as a producer by pitching up soul samples from the 60s and 70s in a fashion that harked back to the previously mentioned rave chipmunk vocals that Liam Howlett et al. popularised in the early 90s. The saccharine feel remained, but over his hard-slapping hip-hop beats and a slower tempo, the effect was rousing rather than frenzying.

He used this technique brilliantly over his first trio of albums before moving more towards synthesis and the divisive sound of AutoTune on his groundbreaking 808s & Heartbreaks. But he returned to sampling and more diverse sources on his next masterpiece My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, pulling in everything from distorted King Crimson vocals (on Power) and drum breaks and Gil Scott-Heron’s powerful proto-rapping. He also returned to his beloved soul pantheon, making clever use of the likes of Nina Simone and Otis Redding on following albums. Again, he’s a producer with an amazing ear for recontextualising and building thematic bridges between the lyrics of the sample and his own words. The influence of his pitched-up vocal style could later be felt in the works of James Blake and Jamie xx.

Tip: Listen to your parents’ record collection if they have one, and don’t be afraid to do something that feels unnatural or goes against common wisdom.

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