The History of Sampling

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lady holding old vinyl record

Though it may be ubiquitous in music today, sampling records has a rich history that stretches back to the birth of underground genres such as hip hop and house music and is arguably one of the more innovative advances in the contemporary music scene.

But how did a seemingly obscure approach to music creation become one of the most popular elements that we can hear across genres and cultures?

The Origins Of Sampling

Despite its current prominence and “common history,” sampling has been around longer than most think.

Starting in the 1960s, sampling began with incredibly expensive pieces of equipment–costing almost $60,000 in today’s dollars–that would appear horribly outdated today.

These early uses of sampling generally relied on taking specific sections of different media and including them in music.

It was not until the 1980s–the time that most people immediately think when they consider the rise of sampling vinyl –that products available to a wider consumer base began to emerge.

Still, the style of music creation first began to develop with DJs who would eventually come to define early hip hop by playing and replaying the various breaks in funk music.

The Breaks

dj in the mix on 4 decks

After more than half a decade of DJs making live music premised primarily around mixing different samples from vinyl, one of the grandfathers of hip-hop, Grandmaster Flash, realized that the technique had potential to be used for produced music and even set about creating some of the features that are considered necessary components of any sampled track–like the crossfader.

Of the different tracks used, the two most popular genres sampled were funk and disco.

From the former, James Brown would once again reign supreme as one of the most sampled musicians in early hip-hop.

For disco, no single musician stood out above others, but the rhythms and even the melodies would often be sampled for both live and produced sets.

Of course, it would not be long before sampling was picked up by other musicians, and a specific genre, in particular, found influence from the natal hip hop and use of sampling records: electronic music.

While all electronic subgenres would eventually incorporate samples into their mix, old school Jungle was by far one of the more prominent adopters of samples–especially the different breaks used with the Amen break taking center stage.

Sampling Equipment

The early samplers were a far cry from the digital models, but they paved the way for samples to be used in music. These were hulking machines that often recorded the samples on analog tape.

It would not be until the late-70s that a digital and polyphonic sampler would allow the artistic conceit to truly stretch its legs with the Australian-made Fairlight Computer Musical Instrument.

While there were plenty of samplers made throughout the 60s and 70s, it was not until the mid-80s that the technology truly found its footing.

The E-mu SP-12 and SP-1200 would allow musicians to sample the drum beats precisely while the Akai MPC series offered numerous features to not only sample tracks but then alter those samples as well.

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Enter The 90’s

The current use of sampling today could be said to have found its footing in the 90s with the advent of trip-hop–a genre of music that aimed to blend hip-hop and electronic music into a seamless whole.

DJs like DJ Shadow or DJ Tricky were pioneers of this genre and used records that had previously been overlooked.

In fact, DJ Tricky went on to play with the band Portishead that took trip-hop from a niche genre to a legitimately acknowledged genre.

These days, samples can be found in rock, country, and virtually every genre of music though it is interesting that many of the more notable examples find current artists sampling those who themselves made heavy use of samples.

For instance, Nicki Minaj sampled Sir Mix A Lot’s “Baby Got Back,” an album noted for its use of samples, for her hit song “Anaconda.”

And by the looks of it, sampling shows no signs of going anywhere with new artist still eager to pay tribute to those before.

djing with a record and mpc drum machine

Sampling Now!

Sampling has always been a part of music–whether playing a cover or recording a handful of measures. It has led to the rise of whole genres–including the world’s most popular genre in hip-hop.

However, sampling offers so many creative outlets that we can find its influence and appearance in virtually every genre and across more than 50 years of music.


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About the author

Daniel Douglas

Daniel Douglas

After becoming obsessed with the beats that were the soundtrack to his youth, Daniel became a student of hip hop, digging for vinyl records, looking for the perfect break. Before he got his hands on an MPC sampler, he would mash these records, beats, and breaks into mixtapes and live DJ sets.