Sampling music – the art of taking a song, cutting it up, and weaving its threads through a new track – is common practice in modern music. But it’s by no means new.
In fact, the artform goes back more than one hundred years.
Get a better feel for this history by examining the graph on the home page. The graph illustrates the number of tracks that have used samples – and been sampled – since 1910.
For more, check out the insights page on the top left, where we unpack some of the biggest moments in music sampling history.
To compile our data, we leant on WhoSampled, a community website with over 19,000 contributors covering 500,000+ songs from nearly 200,000 artists.
To uncover decade-specific insights, we undertook additional desk research.
The category “All Genres” may include tracks that don’t feature in the ten listed genres.
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If the history of music tells us anything it’s that no genre is created in a vacuum. The 1910s was a time when New Orleans jazz - “Dixieland” - reigned. It was a sound that would lay the foundation for the better-known genres that followed, like rhythm and blues (R&B) and rock ‘n roll – both of which were then deconstructed and turned into hip hop. Though sampling music wasn’t common practice in the 1910s, the sounds of the decade still travelled far and wide.
There’s a good chance you’ve heard the refrain “This little light of mine/I’m gonna let it shine”. The original song was a 1920 gospel track, but it’s been remixed and sampled dozens of times since. Kanye West seems to particularly love it, using the song in three of his tracks: “All of the Lights (Remix)” (2011), “Hey Mama” (2005) and “Ultralight Beam” (2016).
If you’ve ever been a Cliff Richard devotee, you’ll have listened to his song “Somewhere Over The Rainbow/What A Wonderful World” (2001). In the background, you’re hearing a sample of Judy Garland’s “Over The Rainbow” (1939) with new layers laid on top. In total, Garland’s song has been sampled by 15 other artists.
In the late 1940s, Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry experimented with taking sounds made with everyday items and arranging them together to form songs. The swish of a canal boat, a chuntering train, a rattling saucepan – all were fair game. Think of this as a type of early sampling. Or, to use the slightly ostentatious name Schaeffer and Henry coined: “musique concrète.”
Love Jamie Foxx’s refrain in Kanye West’s “Gold Digger” (2005)? You’re actually bobbing along to a reworked version of Ray Charles’ “I Got a Woman” (1954). Rhythm and blues music was a predominant style in the 1950s and the genre has evolved into the effects-laden R&B we know today.
Did you know that the opening to Brazilian jazz track, “Seville” by Luiz Bonfá (1967), is sampled throughout Gotye’s “Somebody I Used To Know” (2011)? While Gotye takes sampling to the extremes, the most sampled song of the ‘60s was actually a sermon by Reverend W.A. Donaldson, featuring in Lil Wayne’s “You Song” and in countless others.
The ‘70s was a pivotal time in music sampling. In large part due to the availability of sampling equipment, DJs from the Bronx experimented with new sounds and tempos, coming up with the edgy, rhythmic sound we call hip hop today. Plenty of ‘70s tracks themselves would be sampled too, of course. Look no further than Mountain’s “Long Red” (1971), to date the most sampled rock song of all time used by everyone from Lana Del Rey to Jay Z and even Justin Bieber.
Debate over the legality of sampling raged in the 1980s, but the practice continued nonetheless. Digital samplers were becoming more readily available and an entirely new sound came into prominence: one that favoured digital synthesisers over guitar and drum beats. Meanwhile, hip hop went from strength to strength.
Recorded in the edgily-named Glue Factory in San Francisco, “Endtroducing.....” by DJ Shadow (1996) was a formative album in the sampling movement, with the entire thirteen-track record almost entirely made up of samples. It received rave reviews upon release. Elsewhere, Aphex Twin sampled his own face into his 1999 track “Windowlicker”. When viewed on a spectogram (a device used to show frequencies visually) with a logarithmic frequency scale, you can see a grinning face. Head to the 5:30 mark in the song for the reveal.
At one point in 2003, The Neptunes - comprised of Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo - had a hand in 43% of the songs on US radio. Some of their hits from that year included “La-La-La”, which sampled “Warm It Up, Kane” (1989) and “I’m Lovin’ It”, which sampled “777-9311” (1982).
In 2010 and beyond, sampling has become part and parcel of the music industry. Music across genres both use samples and are being sampled. Look no further than divisive hip hop supremo Kanye West, who has sampled over 900* tracks in his career, and had his own work sampled a whopping 1270* times.
* Correct as of 9 October 2018