Sampling Ain't Dead: Hip-Hop Producers Break Down The Formula

Apr 30, 2020
Originally published on April 30, 2020 6:56 pm

As an art form, sampling has been evolving for 35 years now. That's about how long ago it's been since the legendary producer Marley Marl revolutionized hip-hop production when, almost by accident, he figured out how to sample a drum beat from an existing record. It makes this a perfect time to look at the legacy, but also the trajectory, of sampling through a handful of snapshots.

The NPR Video team conceptualized this series, The Formula, that takes us into the home studios of several iconic producers, or producers of iconic songs, to talk about their approach to sampling and how they've evolved as producers. From talking to Just Blaze, 9th Wonder, DJ Dahi, DJ Premier and Salaam Remi, what we ended up discovering is so much more — the stories behind the music, yes, but also how they've kept sampling authentic but also vital in a genre where styles and trends change and transform faster than any other.

The fifth and final video will premiere on Saturday. In the meantime, we've also been asking some of our favorite writers to "sample" an element of each video themselves and spin it off in a new direction. Watch the videos above and read the accompanying essays below.

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Sampling has been at the heart of hip-hop for decades. It's how this...


SHAPIRO: ...Becomes this...


SHAPIRO: For the last month, NPR Music has been exploring the art of sampling with legendary hip-hop producers in a series called The Formula. Our host Ailsa Chang sat down with NPR Music's Rodney Carmichael to talk about the project.


RODNEY CARMICHAEL, BYLINE: Hey. What's going on, Ailsa?

CHANG: Hey. So there has been this long tradition of sampling in hip-hop going back to its earliest days, DJs finding hooks from old classic records and then blending them into new tracks. What made you want to talk about sampling now?

CARMICHAEL: Such a good question, right? I mean. This is an art form that's been thriving and evolving for 35 years now. That's really about how long it's been since the legendary Marley Marl really revolutionized hip-hop productions basically when he figured out almost accidentally how to sample a drumbeat from an existing record. So it just felt like a good time to do a snapshot.

So basically, we produced a series of videos where we sit down and talk to several really big producers. And they break down a few of their biggest songs for us, you know, with some really big samples and talk about their process, not only as sample-based producers but as hip-hop artists who have really been transformational in terms of this art form.

CHANG: So cool. I mean, you interviewed some of the most legendary hip-hop producers for this series, people like Just Blaze, 9th Wonder, DJ Premier. Can you just tell us about a song or a sample that really stuck with you? And what was the process like for creating it?

CARMICHAEL: Yeah. One that really blew my mind - and I think a lot of other people's too - was 9th Wonder breaking down the three samples and three different beats that he produced for "DUCKWORTH."


CARMICHAEL: And that's the last song from Kendrick Lamar's Pulitzer-winning album, "DAMN."

9TH WONDER: The first song I sampled in Kendrick Lamar's "DUCKWORTH." is a song by Ted Taylor. And the song was called "Be Ever Wonderful."


TED TAYLOR: (Singing) Be ever wonderful.

CARMICHAEL: And he's basically breaking down that it's not the sample that you choose, but it's what you do with it.

9TH WONDER: A lot of times producers listen to samples and they say, that's a great sample, but he didn't do it right.

CARMICHAEL: You know, how you loop it up or how you chop it - that really sets a producer apart.

9TH WONDER: It's just like fashion. There may be a shirt on this side, jackets over here. But it takes a mind to put all those together. It's the same thing with records. It's like, if you don't know how to dress this up, man, just don't wear it.


CHANG: I love hearing these producers talk about the hunt for a good sample. Like, here's DJ Premier talking about that.

DJ PREMIER: Just from me digging in the store, it's crazy because even when I dig now, I don't know why we whisper on the phone, but Alchemist will call me and go, yo, found a new digging spot. And, you know, it's like, why are we whispering when it's just me and him on the phone? But that's just how serious we take it.

CHANG: I love how he uses the word digging. It's like he's on some secret treasure hunt.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, no doubt, especially for cats like Premier. You know, cats like Premier, this still physically get out and shop for vinyl records, you know, just like they did really back in the heyday of sampling. So it's serious for them.

CHANG: And there's another clip from the series that I want to ask you about. This is also from DJ Premier.

DJ PREMIER: The sample industry clamped down a lot. You know, I've been sued many times, you know, I mean, many times for samples that I didn't clear.

CHANG: He's been sued many times. You know, what's interesting is that the laws around music licensing - I know that they're really strict these days. So can you just talk about how copyright laws have changed the role that sampling can even play in hip-hop today?

CARMICHAEL: Yeah. Well, sampling, like you said, it's evolved a lot since a lot of the big lawsuits that really came down in the early '90s when acts like De La Soul and Biz Markie got sued. But sampling - it survived. I mean, there's still plenty of big Billboard hits made even today that really feature a classic example. But, you know, what you see even more of nowadays is young producers sampling their peers, right? There's a whole class of producers who, instead of actually creating a new song, they just create loops and melodies...

CHANG: Oh, interesting.

CARMICHAEL: ...For these other - yeah - other producers to sample. So, you know, it's still sampling, but it's a lot less expensive. And it's definitely a lot less prone to lawsuits.

CHANG: To getting sued (laughter).

CARMICHAEL: Exactly. Exactly.

CHANG: Rodney Carmichael is the host of The Formula. It's a new series about the art of sampling from NPR Music. Thank you so much, Rodney.

CARMICHAEL: Hey, thank you, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.