What is music sampling?

It might be a fresh new way to listen to your favourite tunes.

Matthaeus Choo
Matthaeus Choo

Published: 5 October 2021, 5:31 PM

Ever listened to a song and thought it sounded a little too familiar? Or wanted to find out how your favourite songs may be directly influenced by the music of yesteryear? 

Music sampling is when musicians borrow a specific part of an existing song for their songs.

One recent example from popular music comes with Nicki Minaj’s provocative hit Anaconda, which youths above the 30 might unfortunately be able to recognise the main melody and hook as deriving from 1990s rapper Sir Mix-A-Lot’s Baby Got Back.

Another timely example comes from Megan Thee Stallion’s Girls in the Hood, which sparked a dance trend on TikTok last year, and, similarly, samples from 1990s rapper Eazy-E’s Boys in the Hood

Indeed, for being the first genres to use the technique, music sampling is most prevalent in rap and hip-hop. However, given the meteoric rise in popularity for these two genres, music sampling has steadily seeped into the mainstream over the past years. 

Pop punk band Fall Out Boy may be a notable surprise, given how they might seem as far away from being hip-hop as being Asian. Two of their chart toppers, Centuries and Uma Thurman, both feature music sampling: Centuries from folk singer Suzanne Vega’s Tom’s Diner, and Uma Thurman from the theme song of American sitcom The Munsters

Even BTS, the biggest boy band in the world today, samples a lot of their hits — ranging from movie soundtracks and soundbites from ancient viral videos.

So, is music sampling simply recycling and ‘ripping off’ old music? Well, not quite. 

Music samples do have to be cleared by the original artists and be paid for to be used. There are definitely arguably lazy usages of music sampling, where not much is changed and the sampling song seems to be piggy-backing on the popularity of the original melody. Pitbull’s Feel This Moment and its prominent use of A-ha’s Take On Me is one example. 

The art of music sampling truly shines through is with sample flipping — when they are recontextualised, rearranged, or have their pitch or speed altered to fit the context of the song. 

Eminem’s Stan comes to mind as a popular example. The rap song is about an obsessive fanboy who ignores and abuses his pregnant girlfriend, with her point of view seemingly vocalised by the track’s chorus, sampled from Dido’s Thank You. Dido’s original song is a soft, thankful ballad to her lover and through its contrasting use in Stan brings new interpretations to both songs.

Sample flipping can also amaze with how creatively original melodies are rearranged. Music sampling can reach ridiculous heights of artistry. Australian electronic music duo The Avalanches famously spent over eighteen months reassembling over 3500 samples from obscure TV shows, voice recordings and songs for their seminal album Since I Left You

Noticing music samples is, admittedly, a niche interest. However, diving into it can lead to countless new discoveries of otherwise forgotten music. For how music sampling is all about criss-crossing genres, finding out their sources can also serve as introductions to popular artistes from other genres. It’s an artform that definitely tickles the imagination.

Give your favourite artists a search on and you might be amazed by the results!

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