Sampling isn't what it once was: when artists and producers first began using elements of other records, the fear was that the world would end. Dogs would live with cats, creativity would die... that didn't really happen. Sampled elements, as it turns out, can enhance a good song... but they don't make bad songs better, or camoflage the failure to create a song of one's own. Over time, I've realized, the use of samples has become less prevalent, and better hidden. But that shouldn't stop the process, or suggest that some songs aren't real gems because of witty use of sampling. Here, some of my faves. Celebrate the songs, and the samples:
- Rihanna, SOS (Soft Cell, Tainted Love; The Supremes, Where Did Our Love Go). This was the second left field surprise from Rihanna; the first, Pon De Replay, up-ended dance music mainly because the rhythm line was so wildly fresh in comparison what else was out there, bouncy and syncopated and unpredictable. The followup, which also showed up in summer, a great time for dance singles, was also a surprise. It's one thing to use the bass and drum line from Tainted Love - that happens a lot, really - but SOS actually only uses a piece of it, then lopes off in another direction entirely, so that the sample keeps crossing back into the rhythm line, but not dominating it. Brilliant really... just as it was brilliant of Marc Almond to follow the original's bassline into a foursquare cover of The Supremes first hit, mining the song for a new level of desperation.
- Janet Jackson, Got Til It's Gone (Joni MItchell, Big Yellow Taxi). Jackson's use of samples started early - It's Alright contains a much used sample of "It Takes Two" by Rob Base (the "ooh... yeah" section of many dance songs) - and along with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, she kept pushing at the boundaries. Sometimes it was inadvertent - The Velvet Rope turned out to contain an interpolation of Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells which had to be credited which no one realized at first - but most were deliberate. And extremely intelligent. Got Til It's Gone weaves a rerecording of Mitchell singing the well known line from Big Yellow Taxi with Jackson singing it... with a whole new song about love and loss. And where Big Yellow Taxi plays the loss of your old man for its sardonic, "everything is terrible in the world!" observations, Jackson sticks with what's small and sad.
- Janet Jackson, Son of a Gun (Carly Simon, You're So Vain). Two albums later, Jackson's progressed even further, collaborating extensively with Carly Simon on a reworking of elements from You're So Vain, particularly the song's opening bassline and Simon's blink and you miss it whisper of "son of a gun." (My pal J in B always pointed it out to me, though, as genius.) Jackson leaps off into a harsh, angry assessment of her then freshly dumped ex, making Simon's kiss-off more explicit and direct. I have to admit, it also hit me at just the right moment in a difficult relationship, and her anger got me to admit mine. It's not what you say, it's what you do... you're so vain, you probably think this song is about you... don't you... don't you...
- Notorious B.I.G., Mo Money Mo Problems (Diana Ross, I'm Coming Out). Yes, I listen to rap; yes, I actually like a lot of it. And I like that rap was of the main drivers of sampling and relying on previously recorded elements. How else could you get someone to rediscover the joys of that brilliant, syncopated opening riff to Diana Ross' I'm Coming Out, and un-marry it from the so-so song that follows? Biggie's rap about the dark side of success, the weaving of the drums and Diana's vocal with the new lyrics (sung by the brilliant Kelly Price) combine into, clearly, a whole new song, respecting what's come before, but synthesizing something new. What a shame we'll never know what would come next.
- Mariah Carey, Fantasy (Tom Tom Club, Genius of Love). Carey, too, has relied on sampled elements more than most, but not always as brilliantly as this single, which also leaps off from a witty off kilter bassline in a whole new direction, even managing to re-weave the orginal lyrics ("I'm in heaven, with my boyfriend, my lucky boyfriend). Since this is early Carey, there's a lot of multi-octave jumping and showiness, as well as a more straight-on pop feel than she does, these days. But it's a reminder of how, for a moment there, she really could do almost anything, and make it work.