Nothing New
Sampling in hip-hop has been going on since the genre’s inception, but in 2023, it’s been more prevalent than ever. If everything sounds familiar, it’s because it definitely is.
Words: Grant Rindner
Editor’s Note: This story appears in the Winter 2023 issue of XXL Magazine, on stands now.

The formula for making a hip-hop hit is easier than ever: all you need is a different hip-hop hit. While sampling has always been essential to rap music, a new trend has permeated every corner of hip-hop: rappers liberally sampling other rap songs. From pop crossover acts like Saweetie (“My Type,” “Tap In”) to gritty street staples like Peezy (“2 Million Up”), these types of songs have been out there the last few years, but they’ve been omnipresent in 2023.

A real rap enthusiast could rattle off at least 20 songs that follow the trend this year, and that’s just touching the surface of the many tracks that have dropped in the last 11 months. Rappers have always borrowed one another’s flows or flipped an oft-used breakbeat. Yet, this kind of wholesale sampling feels like a new phenomenon, and based on the success of recent singles by YG, Bia, Doechii and more, fans are digging it.

With hip-hop celebrating its 50th anniversary this past August, the genre has become more self-referential than ever before. This year, Ice Spice’s “Gangsta Boo” (which samples “Diddy’s 2002 song “I Need a Girl Pt. 2”), Juice Wrld and Cordae’s “Doomsday” (Eminem’s 1999 song “Role Model”), OhGeesy’s “Geekaleek” (Petey Pablo’s 2003 song “Freek-A- Leek”) and at least a dozen more have pulled from past hip-hop catalogs to create new music.

There’s no archetype of the rappers embracing this moment. Beats built almost entirely around rap samples have been utilized by enduring superstars like J. Cole (“Adonis Interlude” from the Creed III soundtrack) and rising talents like Doechii (Billboard Hot 100 mainstay “What It Is”) to equal success. After all, no one is above nostalgia.

“As humans, we want to remember stuff from the past in a nostalgic way,” says Johnny Goldstein, who produced Coi Leray’s 2023 hit “Players,” which samples Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five’s famed 1982 track “The Message.” “Players” has become Coi’s biggest sampled-song to date. Goldstein adds: “It’s to look at old albums like, ‘Oh, I remember that trip to Paris when we were young and we did this.’ Sampling is the same emotion.”

It’s easy to pull the thread on repackaging yesterday’s smashes and come to a cynical conclusion about rappers sampling hip-hop hits of yesteryear. Much like contemporary Hollywood’s obsession with rebooting recognizable intellectual property, borrowing from a well-known song is an easy shortcut to recognizability. It’s cliché, but in the TikTok era, a recognizable refrain is everything, and there’s nothing more familiar than something that is already known.

“Especially these days with Spotify, it’s the random situation that you hear a song that you haven’t heard for a long time,” Goldstein says. “You’re like, ‘Oh s**t, I missed that song so much. And I always loved this baseline and this riff. I need to do something with this.’”

It’s also possible that the rise of certain rap-adjacent subgenres has led to the boom in hip-hop sampling overall. Club music from Baltimore and New Jersey, and New York drill. Perhaps because these scenes have such a distinct sound—drill with its skittering syncopation and warbly bass, and club music with its frenetic pace and recurring vocal chops—they are naturally recontextualizing the sample.

Sampling has been fundamental to hip-hop since its very inception; the Sugarhill Gang’s seminal hit “Rapper’s Delight” in 1979 flipped Chic’s “Good Times,” but obviously, there was not the vast internal catalog for the genre to sample. In some ways, the present spike in rappers pulling from within the genre represents a departure from one of the topics that dominated rap in the late 2010s: the bitter divide between up-and-comers and veterans. Granted, most of the songs being sampled these days are hits themselves, but it’s encouraging to hear flips of Missy Elliott, Juvenile and Grandmaster Flash by hip-hop’s rising artists following an era when some young rappers seemed to relish their lack of knowledge about the genre’s elders.

Epic Records President Ezekiel Lewis had a history working with Timbaland and paired up the super producer with an emerging talent in Bia for a studio session. Timbaland called him in 2022 to ask about reworking Missy Elliott’s “She’s a B***h,” which had already been used by Ski Mask The Slump God in 2017, for his mainstream breakout “Catch Me Outside.” For Bia’s 2023 track, “I’m That B***h,” the two put the iconic 1999 hit in a contemporary drill context, giving its already futuristic synths and percussion a distinctly modern framework. To Lewis, “cross-pollinating” veteran acts with young rappers is one of the most exciting aspects of working in rap music. As the genre gets older, those opportunities will only increase.

“Hip-hop was founded on taking something old and making it new,” Lewis explains. “‘Why are we doing rap records now?’ Well, the reason we’re doing rap records now is because now we’re 50 years in, and the genre has a tenure to have its own classics.”

To score his own nostalgia-fueled solo hit, California rapper OhGeesy didn’t have to sift through an emailed beat pack of sample-based instrumentals or reacquaint himself with the click wheel of an old iPod. He had to set his sights on a classic rap track from his youth, one that he's kept playing since it came out in 2003.

“It didn’t come back to mind because it’s always been in my rotation,” OhGeesy says of the Petey Pablo track that became the basis of OhGeesy’s "Geekaleek.” “‘Freek-A-Leek’ has always been on my playlists since the s**t came out.”

OhGeesy has a history of sampling from within hip-hop dating back to his days as a member of the popular L.A. group Shoreline Mafia. They were selective, but did use both Juvenile’s “Back That Azz Up” and Too $hort’s “Gangsters & Strippers” as part of two tracks. OhGeesy, who released his second solo album, GeezyWorld 2, this past May, says he tries not to overload his records with hip-hop samples, making tracks like “Freek-A-Leek” exciting exceptions.

The extent to which a sample is transformed is often a conversation among fans, with some seeing largely static flips of existing songs as less creative. On the original “Geekaleek” demo, OhGeesy rapped over a YouTube download of Lil Jon’s original instrumental. However, once OhGeesy decided to run with the track, producer Diego Ave and the rapper’s longtime engineer Tez Lamont reworked the beat.

While on tour this past summer, OhGeesy was excited to perform “Geekaleek,” particularly after testing the song’s cross-generational appeal in clubs. “I can’t tell who likes it more, whether the females or the males like it more,” he explains. “That s**t be going crazy, everyone’s singing it word for word.” He’s also already percolating on what the next hip-hop song from his youth could prove source material for another hit.

While OhGeesy may be unable to tell which of his fans likes the song more, IDK knows it’s the opposite sex regarding his track—all thanks to a famous rap classic from 2002. IDK flipped Khia’s raunchy anthem “My Neck My Back (Lick It)” on “Pinot Noir” featuring Saucy Santana and Jucee Froot this past May. The song also features a sample of Smokey Robinson’s “A Quiet Storm,” which hip-hop heads immediately recognize from De La Soul’s 1993 classic “Breakdown.” “I just started [with what] was a great song that inspired women to move,” IDK affirms.

“It’s like automatic in the right setting when a woman tends to hear that song. It creates a certain vibe and a movement. It’s a party every single time.”

“Geekaleek” and “Pinot Noir” were driven by the artists themselves, but there are plenty of cases where the sample is built by a producer and sent to the vocalist. That’s how London rapper Central Cee ended up with the 2022 hit “Doja,” an Eve-sampling track that became his biggest global hit to date. Produced by LiTek and WhyJay, the track uses the guitar lick from Eve’s 2001 smash “Let Me Blow Ya Mind” featuring Gwen Stefani.

The original track saw Eve team with Dr. Dre and Scott Storch on the boards. LiTek and WhyJay, two British beatmakers, say that by putting classic rap songs in the drill context— as with Central Cee’s “Doja”—they can recontextualize them for a new audience. The gamble there is that the original artist often demands a more significant chunk of royalties, something they said didn’t happen with “Doja” but could have.

“There have been occasions where we’ve been left with next to nothing,” LiTek says. “So, we were very well aware that that could have been the case.”

The laws governing sampling don’t change often. The Copyright Act of 1976 still controls much of how it works. The 2005 court case Bridgeport Music, Inc. v. Dimension Films helped further establish the stringent standards for sampling. Hinging around the use
of a brief, uncredited sample of the guitar from Funkadelic’s 1975 track “Get Off Your Ass and Jam” on N.W.A’s 1990 song “100 Miles and Runnin,” the decision made musicians responsible for obtaining permission to use any sample of existing recorded music, regardless of length or how it was manipulated. “Get a license or do not sample,” the judge in the Bridgeport case wrote. “We do not see this as stifling creativity in any significant way.” That decision effectively eliminated one of the leading fair use exceptions from being applied to recorded music.

The impetus for sampling from within hip-hop comes from the idea that artists already in the rap world will be more familiar with, and therefore more amenable to, being sampled. As one of the most popular genres in music, hip-hop no longer faces some of the stigmas it did early in its inception, but as arguably the most dominant form of pop culture, getting sampled on the right track (or in the wrong way) can be a huge windfall.

Recent rap history is dotted with examples of songs taking off before their samples were cleared, and the younger artist’s team had to scramble to make all parties whole. For every case like Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” where famed rock band Nine Inch Nails lead singer Trent Reznor seemed easy and amenable to clearing a Nine Inch Nails sample after the song blew up, there are instances like Juice Wrld’s “Lucid Dreams,” where the legacy act seized the massive financial opportunity before them.

The late rapper’s breakout track was released before a sample of Sting’s “Shape of My Heart” had been cleared, and that led to years of back-and-forth between Juice Wrld, Sting and “Lucid Dreams” producer Nick Mira, who claimed that the veteran musician took 85 percent of the song’s royalties. Sting praised the “beautiful interpretation” of his 1993 single on Juice’s 2018 track and joked to Billboard that the money he made from it would “put my grandkids through college.”

IDK says that he hasn’t noticed any meaningful changes around the economics of sampling in recent years and claims that his signing with major label Warner Records had little impact on his use of samples. While there are often stories about samples falling through and delaying albums and singles at the 11th hour, IDK has been diligent about handling the technical side of things early on.

“There’s comfort in knowing that I have that [label infrastructure], but I’m just the type of person to try to figure out sample clearance early on before I get married to a song anyway,” IDK explains. “I inquire and ask questions once I start to make something that I like.”

Now that rap has such a deep bench of tracks to pull from, instances of recurring samples are more easily noticeable. Certain recurring compositions, like the iconic drum break from Showboys’ 1986 song “Drag Rap,” seem to pop up multiple times a year without fail, but that’s different than using a whole instrumental as the scaffolding for a new record. Nowadays, rap fans are meticulous about logging credits on sites like WhoSampled and Genius, leading to the discussion of “sample snitching,” in which these keen-eared sleuths reveal an unlicensed sample that could spell trouble for a producer or artist.

It’s a complex topic. Musicians deserve to be credited and remunerated for having their work used. Still, as producer Johnny Goldstein points out, borrowing and reframing ideas has been a part of music dating back to classical composers. Since the earliest days of rock and roll, Black artists like Little Richard and Willie Mae Thornton saw their songs covered by White musicians and turned into commercial success with little remuneration. That changed when hip-hop became prevalent and progressive artists began repurposing songs from across the musical universe.

Samples flowed freely, albeit with the occasional dispute, until 1991’s Grand Upright Music, Ltd v. Warner Bros. Records Inc., a significant copyright court case hinged around Biz Markie’s 1991 track “Alone Again” and its use of a Gilbert O’Sullivan record. The decision favored Grand Upright, establishing the current-day precedent that the sampler must obtain consent from the samplee.

Sample-related lawsuits and settlements are now commonplace, though rap artists are more willing than most to let their tracks be reimagined. Before OhGeesy used it, “Freek- A-Leek” formed the basis for Saweetie’s 2019 hit “My Type,” the song that made the rapper a national star. OhGeesy says he’s a fan of Saweetie’s song, but he was unfamiliar with it when making “Geekaleek.” He insists he was working on his track several years ago. OhGeesy noticed the uptick in rappers sampling rap songs over the last few years, but expresses some frustration.

“Everybody else using samples is annoying as f**k, though,” OhGeesy conveys. “I feel like they’re just trying to get on any sample; they’re not even using songs that they really like. They just sample anything and rap on it. And then the beats is trash. It’s making the original beat sound wack. That’s why when I sample something, I try to keep it as close to the original because that’s what I fell in love with.”

IDK is similarly dismissive of the notion that the trend of intra-rap samples influenced his decision to flip Khia’s “My Neck My Back (Lick It)” on “Pinot Noir.” The Maryland rapper, who also produces, has a track record of creative samples and interpolations, often putting different styles in conversation with each other. On 2021’s “Red,” IDK interpolates Big Tymers’ classic “Still Fly” while rapping alongside Jay Electronica, Westside Gunn and MF Doom. He does the same on 2022’s “Dog Food” with Denzel Curry, referencing Lil Wayne’s “Tha Block Is Hot” atop a sleek, futuristic Kaytranada production.

“I don’t think I ever make music because of a trend, so if I did, it was subconscious because maybe I heard it and didn’t realize,” IDK maintains. “But I never would take something and say, ‘This is trendy, let me do that.’”

Producers LiTek and WhyJay say that, despite its massive success, they have not had artists beating down their door for the next “Doja” track. Instead, they say most of those requests come from labels and A&Rs. The producing team also posits that the shifting reference points of rap’s young listeners inspire a move towards using tracks from the last 30 years versus the soul and funk songs that became synonymous with the Roc-A-Fella Records sampling style.

Many listeners didn’t recognize the “Let Me Blow Ya Mind” riff used on Central Cee’s “Doja.” Eve’s original record was one of the biggest hip-hop hits of the 2010s. Younger rap fans instead believed the irresistible guitar lick on “Doja” came from the popular video game Among Us. It stands to reason that many young producers are growing up with rap the way the beatmakers of yore had with 1970’s R&B.

“People’s ears aren’t pricking up as much to these soulful samples,” says WhyJay. “We’re looking at the ’90s now. It’s the era. And then for the younger kids, I’d say 70 percent of the people who love [‘Doja’] had never heard the original song.”

There will always be a place for rich soul staples, and imaginative electronic and rock music flips in hip-hop. Still, WhyJay’s comments about rap’s target audience’s shifting reference points certainly have some truth to it. The genre still targets a young audience, and those people grew up on hip-hop, and now, hip-hop based on hip-hop. It’s only a matter of time before rap Inception takes place: a rap song sampling a rap song that itself samples a rap song.

Read the in-depth story on the popularity of sampling in hip-hop in the Winter 2023 issue of XXL Magazine, on newsstands now. The new issue also includes the cover story with Latto and conversations with Killer MikeFlo Milli, DD OsamaMaiya The DonMonaleoMello BuckzzSexyy RedBigXThaPlug, plus more. Additionally, there's an exclusive interview with Fetty WapQuality Control Music's Coach K and P discuss 10 years into the label's growth, the state of hip-hop touring and the best moments of hip-hop's year-long 50th anniversary celebration.

See Photos From Latto's XXL Magazine Winter 2023 Cover Story

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