The ‘90s are sometimes called the golden age of hip-hop, and it’s easy to understand why. Hip-hop achieved unimaginable mainstream acceptance even as it reached an artistic peak on all fronts, from gangsta rap to jazz-influenced rap, Afrocentric crews and the righteous politics of legends like Public Enemy.
And as sampling became an art in itself, the artists behind hip-hop’s classics unearthed the records of previous generations and transformed them into the foundation on which the golden age of hip-hop was built.
Here are the samples behind 10 of hip-hop’s greatest hits…
10. “Sure Shot” by The Beastie Boys / “Howlin’ for Judy” by Jeremy Steig
Like much of “Ill Communication,” the 1994 album on which it appears, “Sure Shot” returns to the Beasties’ punk roots and is “arranged like a hardcore song” according to Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz. But the track’s aggressively upbeat tone is belied by its breezy hook, taken from jazz flautist Jeremy Steig’s “Howlin’ for Judy” from 1969. It’s difficult to listen to the original record’s intro without yelling, “Because you can’t, you won’t and you don’t stop!” But then Steig takes off with a lot of ham and eggs coming at you, so get your griddles.
9. “Dangerous” by Busta Rhymes / 1983 Long Island Regional Poison Control Council PSA
“This is serious/We could make you delirious/You should have a healthy fear of us/‘Cause too much of us is dangerous.” The ominous but catchy warning that serves as the chorus to Busta Rhymes’ 1997 hit “Dangerous” comes from an unlikely source. Few knew at the time that they were driving around bumping a 1983 PSA warning little children not to mistake Mommy’s and Daddy’s prescription pills for candy. The refrain originally was sung by a group of cutsie puppets, but there was nothing cutsie about Busta and the Flipmode Squad.
8. “My Name Is” by Eminem / “I Got The” by Labi Siffre
Although the G-funk era had passed by the time of Eminem’s 1999 “Slim Shady LP,” having Dr. Dre for a mentor meant that Marshall Mathers’ major-label debut was bound to sample some relatively obscure funk and R&B masterpieces. His first major hit, “My Name Is,” featured an electric-piano-fueled rhythm from British artist Labi Siffre’s 1975 song, “I Got The.” (The familiar bit starts at the 2:09 mark.) Siffre, who is gay, wasn’t thrilled by Eminem’s homophobia and misogyny. “Attacking two of the usual scapegoats, women and gays, is lazy writing,” Siffre wrote. “If you want to do battle, attack the aggressors, not the victims.”
7. “Get Money” by Junior M.A.F.I.A. / “You Can’t Turn Me Away” by Sylvia Striplin
Biggie’s crew built their 1995 classic “Get Money” around the supremely funky bassline and snaky rhythm guitar from Sylvia Striplin’s 1981 single, “You Can’t Turn Me Away.” The now familiar chorus of “fuck bitches, get money” doesn’t carry quite the same sentiment as Striplin’s let’s-stay-together plea, but no matter; that funk is undeniable in any context. In 2010, Erykah Badu paid tribute to both Striplin and Junior M.A.F.I.A. with her own “Turn Me Away (Get MuNNY).”
6. “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” by Digable Planets / “Stretchin’” by Art Blakey and The Messengers
The early ‘90s saw the peak of G-funk and gangsta rap and its deep well of ‘70s funk samples, but other artists like A Tribe Called Quest and the rest of the Native Tongues delivered a more peaceful message with their music while mining jazz classics for samples on which to build their beats. Digable Planets had one of the biggest jazz-rap hits with “Rebirth of Slick,” which featured a slowed-down, cooled-out version of the groove from Art Blakey’s 1978 bop record, “Stretchin’.”
5. “Ready or Not” by The Fugees / “Ready or Not Here I Come (Can’t Hide From Love)” by The Delfonics
The Delfonics were key figures in the Philly soul sound of the ‘60s and ‘70s with hits like “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)” and “La-La (Means I Love You).” But it was 1968’s “Ready or Not Here I Come (Can’t Hide from Love)” that was given a second life as the basis for the Fugees’ second hit single off their monster debut album, “The Score.” Interestingly, the Fugees version changes the lyrics slightly from “gonna find you/and make you love me” to “gonna find you/and make you want me.” Lauryn Hill, why were you so afraid of deeper emotions?
4. “Big Poppa” by The Notorious B.I.G. / “Between the Sheets” by The Isley Brothers
The great Ronald Isley and his band of brothers crafted one of the great F jams of all time with 1983’s “Between the Sheets.” The song’s sexy, funky groove was repurposed 12 years later for Biggie’s first No. 1 hit, “Big Poppa,” which found monster crossover success and instant-classic status due at least in part to the synths-and-hand-claps rhythm laid down by the Isleys. The sample is pure sex, so Biggie could hardly avoid the subject (“I see some ladies tonight that should be havin’ my baby), but he also addressed the allure of some other basic human indulgences (“a t-bone steak, cheese eggs and Welch’s grape”).
3. “It Was a Good Day” by Ice Cube / “Footsteps in the Dark” by The Isley Brothers
Those Isleys are back for the other half of the great one-two punch in early-’90s Isley Brothers hip-hop samples. It should come as no surprise from one of the most influential bands of all time. (After all, these are the guys who recorded “Twist and Shout,” which later because something of a hit when it was covered by a little band called The Beatles.) Another Isley slow jam, Ice Cube later turned “Footsteps” into the backdrop for his unforgettably positive adventures during one good day in South Central LA, full of basketball, gambling, sex, Fatburger and an appearance by the Goodyear blimp.
2. “California Love” by 2Pac / “Woman to Woman” by Joe Cocker
Funny how context can shape a song’s tone. For Baby Boomers, the piano-and-horns hook of Joe Cocker’s “Woman to Woman” is the soundtrack to a funky, sexy sort of kiss-off record. For those who came of age in the ‘90s and are more familiar with “California Love,” it’s the sound of one of the greatest party jams of all time. Then again, if you watched more MTV than you listened to the radio or partied, that piano riff might take on a more sinister edge, bringing to mind the weird “Max Max” imagery of the famous music video. In any case, it’s a stone-cold classic that all generations can get behind.
1. “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang” by Dr. Dre / “I Want to Do Something Freaky to You” by Leon Haywood
“Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang” is arguably the greatest hip-hop song of the ‘90s, possibly of all time, certainly of the G-funk era. It announced Dr. Dre as an all-time-great producer and solo artist, launched Snoop Dogg into stardom, and made “The Chronic” and instant classic album in hip-hop. Not to subtract from the dopeness of Snoop’s rhymes, but Dre made a career-best use of sampling when he built the track around Leon Haywood’s “I Want to Do Something Freaky to You” from 1975. It’s all there in the original: the pulsing bass, the creeping rhythm guitar and the uniquely eerie synths/strings floating above it all