Evolution and Sampling in Hip Hop Music and Culture

Sampling is an integral part of hip hop beat making or hip hop production. Samples are usually taken from vinyl and imported into samplers/sequencers. In music; it is the act of taking a portion, or sample, of one sound recording and reusing it as an instrument or element of a new recording. This action is usually done with a sampler, which is a piece of hardware or a computer program on a digital computer. Sampling is also possible with tape loops or with vinyl records on a phonograph.

Usually, the “samples” consist of one part of a song, such as a break, used in another. These “Samples” occur often in industrial music, often using spoken words from movies and TV shows, as well as electronic music (which developed out of the musique concrète style, based almost entirely on samples and sample-like parts), hip hop, developed from DJs repeating the breaks from songs (Schloss 2004, p.36), and Contemporary R&B, but are becoming more common in other music as well.

Sampling is also understood as a method whose origin is closely associated with the electro-acoustic music of musique concréte, especially with its founder Pierre Schaeffer and his experimentation with recorded sounds during the ’40s. Introducing the idea of electronic manipulation of natural (or “concrete”) sounds recorded on magnetic tapes, he became the first composer to make music by editing together fragments of recorded material that were transformed into abstract sounds capes through alteration in pitch, duration and amplitude. Transformation of sounds from samples (what was originally recorded) through manipulation of magnetic sphere on tapes thereby became a major focus of producing and composing electronic music. Today he is attributed with playing sounds backwards, speeding them up, slowing them down, and juxtaposing them with other sounds, even loops and scratches.

“Sampling” in itself as an art can be traced under various names. It did not only start in music but also in various fields of art. In a manner that reminds us of the modern recording of classical music in which sections of perfectly played sequences of a work are later put together as a whole on a computer, Henry Peach Robinson made his photographs from different parts in order to perfectly realize his visions which he first sketched and then went on to photograph. For example, his “Fading Away” (1858) like many other of his works is a composite picture consisting of several different photographs. Victorians also liked the absurdity of different photos put together like a head put onto a different body, this probably being the predecessor of photomontage. Collage technique first appeared in Picasso’s painting “Still Life with Chair Caning” (1912) with a piece of oil cloth patched onto the canvas, while a little later Berlin Dadaists coined the term “photomontage” that merged the attitude of collage with the photo composite technique.

Another notable example of how sampled material was used in history is Dziga Vertov’s first sound film “Enthusiasm” from 1930. In this film “Vertov employs a catalogue of audiovisual effects: sound distortion, sound superimposition, sound reversal, and cacophonous aural collage. Sound is frequently mismatched with the image, as when the noise of an explosion accompanies a church spire’s collapse. It is also, on occasion, disembodied, as when a symbolic ticking clock is heard over images of industrial production.

Sampling has therefore been used since time in memorial in the production of hip hop music. For one to understand the history and the evolution of sampling, he/she needs first to understand hip hop and what led to its being. It is a genre of music whose originality is attributed to African Americans. A good example of the ‘forefathers’ of hip hop is Keith Cowboy, a rapper with Grandmaster Flash and Furious Five, who came up with the term hip-hop. He was singing the words, “Hip hop hip hop,” when he was teasing a friend who had just joined the US Army.

Hip-hop began to be popular all over the world. The four fundamental elements in hip-hop are known to be: hip-hop dance, hip-hop art, hip-hop music, and hip-hop fashion. Hip-hop dance includes break dancing and interesting forms of street dance. Hip-hop art includes urban inspired art and graffiti. Hip-hop music includes Dj-ing, beat boxing, rapping, and hip-hop production. Rapping includes MC-ing and urban-inspired poetry.

The reasons for the rise of hip hop are complex and hard to understand. But perhaps the most important of the reasons was the need for Black Americans (the descendants of American Slavery) to express themselves and describe the world that they were trapped in. Also, the low cost involved in getting started: the equipment was relatively inexpensive, and virtually anyone could MC along with the popular beats of the day. MCs could be creative, pairing nonsense rhymes and teasing friends and enemies alike in the style of Jamaican toasting at blues parties or playing the dozens in an exchange of wit. MCs would play at block parties, with no expectation of recording, thus making hip hop a form of folk music (as long as electronic music is not excluded from being folk). The skills necessary to create hip hop music were passed informally from musician to musician, rather than being taught in expensive music lessons.

Sampling is believed to have existed since time in memorial. Tracing sampling of music is like tracing down the dawn of man and folk music. Sampling is therefore as old as music itself. Almost in all the cultures that existed in the beginning of time, information about the culture was passed down from one generation to another through melodies and musical story telling devices to the heirs. Mainstream Sampling – Innovation & Scorn.

In the world of music, sampling has gone in two directions: innovation and regression. This has been apparent in hip hop, acting as both a blessing and a curse. Commercial success has been plentiful but artistic endeavor has sometimes approached nil. How did sampling reach this point?

Musique concrète is the point that is seen as the most important in the history of sampling. It was rooted in attempts at new forms of classical composition as composers like Pierre Schaeffer, John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Steve Reich turned away from traditional musical structures and instrumentation. This was to have a tremendous impact on classical music in the 20th century as the ideas and techniques espoused by these composers dominating for the rest of the century. Most importantly, these classical experimentalists introduced a new concept into music: the utilization and reinterpretation of existing material to create original works of art.

In the early 1940s, famous concrete composers, the likes of Pierre Henry, cut, spliced, and manipulated pre-recorded tapes in order to create their music. In the 1950s, artists like William S. Burroughs and Bruno Gysin, employed their “cut-up method” to rearrange musical works into random collage.

Many bands engaged in sampling, all for their own separate reasons. The Grateful Dead, for example, mixed tapes of their own live shows into studio recordings on Anthem of the Sun. This was entirely in keeping with the decidedly experimental nature of the group and particularly that album. Ultimately, psychedelic-era dabbling in tape experiments would have no real impact on the world of popular music except as a footnote; a curiosity pointing toward the excess of that era. While the Beatles’ solo careers (excepting Lennon’s early albums with Ono) and the later Dead albums would shun this music, Pink Floyd continued to use tape fragments throughout their career.

A decade later, sampling reappeared in the masses of the popular music genre and this it did with very positive consequences. Circumstance, however, would fuse together two completely different approaches to its use and in the process create a musical revolution.

Other genres of music were also being sampled, apart from hip hop. There was a lot of bringing together of music to give birth to newer and newer generations of music through sampling.

On the other hand, the hip hop movement was growing and solidifying, with its own concept of sampling based around drum loops (break beats) from records over which the MC rapped. Evolving from simple shout-outs to friends, invitations to parties etc, rapping soon became a form of expression of its own (many explanations have been given regarding the origins of rapping, from reggae toasting to the spoken word music of The Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron; I believe that many things facilitated the growth of rapping and that every rational explanation perhaps has validity).

Consequently, 1980s witnessed a huge rise of hip-hop musicians utilizing sampling as the main basis for their music creation. With the invasion of Dub DJ culture of Jamaica into Bronx, sampling found its major followers in the hip-hop culture, which by the late ’70s moved into the main stream music scene. The advancement of hip-hop into the field of sampling broadened its scope of practice by inducing a major shift within the culture of sampling: sampled materials, which until then were edited, modified and/or manipulated to create unique works of art, were now incorporated into the works of hip-hop artists with the deliberate focus on recognition; an advantage born out of the very nature of sampling. By their conscious engagement of well-known music passages, phrases and sequences, the purpose of sampling shifted from its technical possibilities to its potential ability as a deliverer of references in the history of popular music.

The concept of sampling developed organically too. A million miles away from the experiments of musique concrète, DJs became crate diggers, and they went to the extends of crossing cultural divides in the pursuit of the best beats.Early producers such as Double Dee and Steinski helped to redefine the nature of sampling, taking it beyond mere extended breaks and into the realm of sound collage. Their Lesson series was extremely influential and is even to this day considered a Hip Hop milestone, with homages from Cut Chemist, De La Soul and DJ Shadow appearing over the years. Undoubtedly, hip hop went beyond simple theft. It was about finding snippets of songs with good grooves, looped rhythms that were easy to dance to – not trying to gain credit for others’ work.

The technology that was being used in those days is very different from the one used today. During those times, the few electronics that were being used included samplers and other electronic devices which were only accessible by a very small number of individuals who were working in a few research institutes.

Since the mid-1980s commercial digital samplers became widespread. The history of both digital and analogue samplers relates the latter to the early musique concrète of Pierre Schaeffer and others, and also describes a variety of one-off systems devised by composers and performers.

Another technology that was applied in sampling of music during these times was the synthesizer which is an instrument that produces an infinite range of sounds through the process of electronic synthesizing. Synthesizers function through the generatation and/or modification of electrical signals in order to form audio tones at various pitches. This can be done in a variety of ways. Original synthesizers which were being used then (older analog models) generated audio tones (signals) either by the direct manipulation of an electrical signal. Most synthesizers that are currently on the market today (mainly digital synthesizers) generate audio tones through the modification of a stream of numbers through mathematical functions.

In all the history of sampling, the late ’80’s proved crucial, solidifying and defining it as a mode of expression beyond the experimentation that had occurred before. This led to artists such as People Like Us and The Tape-beatles refining their own music and ideas, leaving the late ’80’s/early ’90’s as a golden age for sampling, not just in hip hop, but in music in general.

As times progressed and production methods changed, innovative sampling has virtually disappeared from the radar. It has been greatly challenged in court and it was almost destroyed by the lawsuits of the late ’80’s/early ’90’s, but its state has been improved somewhat by the advent of licensing like Creative Commons and “copy left.” Sampling is therefore in a slightly stronger position than in the ’90’s, but its position is still highly tenacious.

Despite these weaknesses, creative sampling can still be found in the always reliable styles of alternative rap and turntablism. The man saw this coming to being in the mainstream was P Diddy – very soon many East Coast artists had adapted it, leading to hip hop becoming an artistic wasteland caught between lazy sampling, tired production and R&B crossover. The state of hip hop remains much the same today – the underground remaining as exciting as ever – but the mainstream hindered by predictability and boring rehashes.

Nowadays, sampling occurs in much of the music we listen to on our radios and television. Hip hop music has also gone to an extend of lifting melodies from famous songs-even going all the back to Mozart’s Requiem.

The use of sampling today has become a symptom of a postmodern desire to re-use and re-contextualize the past. With the internet rolling onward as a tool for communication and distribution, and easier means to create sample-based music opening up as a result of computer production programs, people can now get the same outcome from cheap software that in the past would require less practical means involving cutting and putting together tape and so forth. Samplers made things more practical, but computers have blown the doors of sampling way open. This is a good thing for underground music, however genres like mainstream hip hop and sample-based music is devoid of ideas, and needs a large shot in the arm to be as enjoyable as it once was.

Sampling is therefore very controversial in modern hip hop and the music industry at large. Seeing as sample clearance can take substantial parts of profit out of record sales for artists who sample, producers opt to create completely original recordings using computer-generated beats. Another solution is to overdub or re-record the sampled part with a live musician and then interpolate it enough to disassociate it from the sampled material entirely. The fees associated with the latter solution and the costs associated with the former can be significantly lower than sample clearance fees.

The technology used in sampling have also changed, gradually moving to digitalized samplers. In the digital environment the intellectual and creative works are created and stored in unified digit format and can thereby be transferred or copied as 0-1(output/input) information, the ease of making digital duplicates quickly found its way into the sampling culture. Today the term “sampling” is identifiable with digital sampling.

Even though sampling of music has been highly challenged especially in court, it still constitutes a big part of modern music production and has been incorporated in all genres of music from rock, hip hop, Rhythm & Blues and even in Reggae. Most of the highly recognized and mainstream producers attribute their success to ‘music sampling production’.


The Vibe History of Hip Hop”. Vibe magazine.

Nelson, George. Hip Hop America. Penguin Book.

Corvino, Daniel and Shawn Livernoche. A Brief History of Rhyme and Bass: Growing Up With Hip Hop. Lightning Source Inc.

Schloss, Joseph G. Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip Hop. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press.

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