Extracting Pearls from the Sea: These Are the Most Famous Sample-based Songs out There

The art of sampling another’s work rides the fine line between plagiarism and flattery. Paying homage to an artist that inspires you is always nice, but even better when it can be incorporated into a whole new song (as opposed to the equally delicate art of cover songs). In these five cases, artists have taken aspects from others to craft a masterpiece of their own — whether or not they give credit where credit is due is another story…

5 U Can’t Touch This – MC Hammer (Super Freak – Rick James)

Definitely a staple jam of the 90s, MC Hammer’s U Can’t Touch This is something of a cultural punch line. Everyone loves it and loves making fun of it, parodying it for all sorts of situations. There is an implicit irony in MC Hammer sampling Rick James’ Super Freak for his own use. In this case, Super Freak is definitely the song with more cultural weight, yet U Can’t Touch This is probably more frequently brought up in pop culture dialogue. The song inspires silly dancing and hilarious pants, and of all it does so without embarrassment.It is an undeniably fun song, and part of its appeal comes from singing Super Freak really loudly in the background (because really, who knows exactly what MC Hammer is saying throughout the verses) as Super Freak’s beat winds its way through the song. In classic 80s hip-hop fashion, U Can’t Touch This is one of those songs that will always be part of our pop-culture vocabulary.

4 Can I Kick It? – A Tribe Called Quest (Walk on the Wild Side – Lou Reed)

In the true spirit of melding genres, A Tribe Called Quest took the unmistakable hook from Lou Reed’s Walk On The Wild Side for their beautifully simple Can I Kick It? There is a picturesque languidness to the song — it seems to inspire deep, peaceful breathing. Tribe’s poetical lyrics flow slowly, meandering through their brilliant rhymes, weaving in and out of the sampled hook. If you were feeling stressed out, overwhelmed, or on the verge of tearing out your hair, just listen to Can I Kick It? and your stress will melt away like frost thawing in the afternoon sun. Can I Kick It?is, simply put, absolutely perfect. It pays homage to the genius of Lou Reed while simultaneously framing Tribe’s own stunning abilities in the process.

3 Ice Ice Baby – Vanilla Ice (Under Pressure – Queen& David Bowie)

Perhaps one of the most famous sampling debacles to come out of the 80s, Ice Ice Baby’s opening is frequently mistaken for Under Pressure, the collaboration between Queen and David Bowie. The sampled bassline was notoriously debated over, not only in the legal realm, but also in the public one. Vanilla Ice made plenty of MTV on air comments about “his” version of the sample and why he shouldn’t give credit over. In the end, Queen and Bowie were given credit for the sample. Without the sample, the song wouldn’t have been as influential as it was. As music writer MimUdovitch said: “There’s just something about the sample —(it) grabs you and flings you out onto the dance floor.” While Vanilla Ice may have faded from the forefront of our pop culture mind, his song still inspires dancing — and the uncanny desire to listen to Under Pressure once it has come to an end.

2 Gold Digger – Kanye West (I Got A Woman – Ray Charles)

Kanye has mastered the art of sampling, as many hiphop acts do. Gold Digger samples Ray Charles’ masterpiece I Got A Woman in a brilliant juxtaposition to the overriding theme of Gold Digger. In the summer of 2005 you couldn’t turn on a radio station without hearing Jamie Foxx’s opening crooning, paying homage to Charles, before Kanye’s distinct voice and beats took over. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who didn’t know enough of the words to sing along (strategically dropping out the “n-word” of course, unless culturally acceptable for you to say it). Ignoring all the ramifications of that lyric(‘cause, frankly, that’s not what this article is about), it’s a great dance song and is guaranteed to get bodies up and out of seats.

1 Bitter Sweet Symphony – The Verve (The Last Time – Andrew Oldham Orchestra The Rolling Stones)

One of the most well-known one-hit-wonders of the 90s, The Verve’s Bittersweet Symphony is, to start, an amazing song. The lyrics are perfectly poignant while retaining the appropriate measure of esoteric aloofness. Its video received heavy airtime on MTV and the song itself has been heralded many times over as the best Brit-pop has to offer. All of this, however, exists under the cloud of plagiarism charges due to The Verve’s strategic sampling of the Andrew Oldham Orchestras rendition of The Rolling Stone’s The Last Time. Apparently, The Verve used “too much” of the Orchestra’s rendition and legal battles ensued. Despite the original (and brilliant) lyrics, The Verve was hard hit by these charges, and The Verve’s vocalist Ashcroft lost creative rights. Despite the legal attribution of creative rights, there is no doubt in my mind that The Verve are masters of sound with Bittersweet Symphony. Stripped of the sample, Bittersweet Symphony still retains the poignancy and impact of the original. The sample enhances the beauty of the song, that’s for sure. If only The Verve had used “just enough” of the sample, the legal battles might not have ensued. Now, 16 years later, the song exists in our minds as solely The Verve’s; it is, quite frankly, brilliant and The Verve deserves the credit (even if they don’t have the rights).

Whether acknowledging the help or not, these five artists have all crafted songs that are important to our sense of pop-cultural nostalgia. On their own, the songs may have been just as meaningful (a la Bittersweet Symphony) or perhaps have fallen flat (as in Ice Ice Baby). That said, these five songs are all important in a myriadaspects to the way in which we, as music lovers, attribute musical credit.

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