20 of the best early-90s hip hop samples - Features - Mixmag

20 of the best early-90s hip hop samples

Hip hop classics wouldn't be here without jazz, funk and soul, and the gold-dust samples these genres offer

  • Dave Turner
  • 8 April 2020

If listening to your favourite hip hop album over and over gets tedious, it's probably time to stop listening. Don't sack it off entirely, though. Your guaranteed a whole load of tunes you haven't heard before if you sift through the tunes they sampled. Hip hop became hip hop from sampling funk, soul and jazz. It wouldn't be here without those genres, and maybe not without the Akai MPC or E-mu SP-1200, either. There's hours and hours of fun to be had finding out where that Dr Dre bassline came from or where A Tribe Called Quest got that guitar riff.

We had a search through hip hop tunes released in the early '90s, ending up with the below list including tracks by James Brown, Dusty Springfield, The Isley Brothers, Quincy Jones and more.

Memory Band 'Rotary Connection'

That cute sitar riff you hear in A Tribe Called Quest's 'Bonita Applebum' is a proper ear tickler, innit? Well, it's lifted from 'Memory Band' by Chicago psych-soul band Rotary Connection. It's that twangy kinda guitar chord you associate with tripped-out OG Summer Of Love scenes in 1967, the year 'Memory Band' came out. 'Bonita Applebum', ATCQ's second single from their debut album 'People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm', would become one of their most well-known tunes, and loved by a bunch of rap counterparts, from Jay Z and Biz Markie to the Fugees and Slum Village.

Jack DeJohnette's Directions 'Minya's The Mooch'

Another tune sampled by A Tribe Called Quest, this time on their second album 'The Low End Theory'. That epic, groaning bass that powers 'Buggin' Out' comes from 'Minya's The Mooch', a track by jazz group Jack DeJohnette's Directions. While the bass in the original slowly opens the track before taking a back seat to saxophones, pianos and percussion, ATCQ use it as the ever-present foundation to their hip hop classic.

Quincy Jones 'Summer In The City'

You don't win 28 Grammys by approaching your work half-heartedly, exactly why Quincy Jones has that many accolades under his belt. A maestro in swag-drippin' funk, soul and jazz productions, Quincy hits the sweet spot with 'Summer In The City'. You might recognise the opening glowing organ from The Pharcyde's 'Passin' Me By', whose use of it brings an eeriness into an otherwise happy-go-lucky jazz-licked anthem.

Tom Scott with The California Dreamers 'Today'

Summer Of Love mania clearly hit jazz musician Tom Scott in 1967, such are the psychedelic vibes in the intro of track 'Today', a collaboration with vocalist collective California Dreamers. A jazz tune wouldn't be a jazz tune without a saxophone, though, and the brass-blowing is evident throughout, with a few notes that appear over a minute in synonymous with hip hop fans, thanks to Pete Rock sampling them in 1992 track 'They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y)' with CL Smooth. An iconic sample from one of the best hip hop producers ever. Salute, Pete Rock.

The Cannonball Adderley Quintet 'Walk Tall'

Brand Nubian's 1990 debut album 'One For All' might be one charged with political themes and social consciousness, but that didn't stop the group from injecting it with a counteracting dose of playfulness. 'Concerto In X Minor' touches on slavery and racial injustice, yet, thanks to a sample of the bouncy piano chords from the Cannonball Adderley Quintet's 'Walk Tall', comes through as a hip hop tune perfect for soundtracking a kids playtime. The best way to get serious messages into the little ones' heads.

The Crusaders 'A Message From The Inner City'

An opening shout of 'WHO YOU CALLIN' A BITCH?' is probably what's remembered the most about Queen Latifah's women-empowering hit 'U.N.I.T.Y', and rightly so. She's on a mission against domestic violence, harassment and negativity towards women in a lyrical bulldozer of a record. Backing her lyrics are the crooning saxophones from 'A Message From The Inner City' by The Crusaders, a classy jazz-funk hit released in 1973. No lyrics like Queen Latifah's - or any at all - to be heard in that.

Read this next: The Best 20 Hip Hop Songs Of The Mid-1990s

The Counts 'Pack Of Lies'

Dr Dre's journey to becoming a hip hop super-producer started in the '80s when he was in N.W.A, then showing his capabilities of beats flowing with funk, soul and swagger on his debut album 'The Chronic'. Soon after that, he linked up with a then little-known rapper Snoop Dogg to work on his first album 'Doggystyle' in 1993. 'Who Am I (What's My Name)' came out of those sessions, opened with one of the most iconic hip hop intros ever. Don't even debate it. That rolling riff, taken from The Counts' 'Pack Of Lie, will forever be in hip hop folklore. There's also masterful samples of Funkadelic's 'Not Just (Knee Deep)' and Parliament's 'Give Up The Funk (Tear The Roof Off Sucker)'. George Clinton might just be a heavy influence on Dr Dre.

The Isley Brothers 'Footsteps In The Dark'

If you've seen N.W.A biopic Straight Outta Compton, then you'll know Ice Cube wasn't letting anything ruin his path to a solo career. Four platinum albums in four years ain't a bad record to prove his prowess on his own. 'It Was A Good Day' came out as part of '92 album 'The Predator', with Ice Cube nonchalantly rapping everyday going ons over the riff from The Isley Brothers' 'Footsteps In The Dark'. As samples go, this one's just the right vibe for the rapper's carefree day in South Central Los Angeles.

Marlena Shaw 'California Soul'

Sunny California's laidback vibe couldn't be stronger than on Marlena Shaw's 'California Soul'. The track title alone tells us the carefree mood it's gonna bring. Marlena Shaw's orchestral-powered song became a classic, with DJ Premier choosing to sample the frantic strings on 'Check The Technique', from Gang Starr's second album 'Step In The Arena'. Guru and DJ Premier would have had no idea the time that orchestral hip hop shows would be a thing over 20 years later.

The Charmels 'As Long As I've Got You'

Hip hop production hasn't always been the crisp, crystal clear beats heard on Drake and Kendrick Lamar tunes today. Wu-Tang Clan's 'C.R.E.A.M' is the opposite, its lo-fi drums creating the feel Wu-Tang picked up a second-hand backing track in a car boot. We're sure that's not the case, but the hazy piano chords that make this tune so iconic had been used before, by The Charmels on 'As Long As I've Got You'. Listen to it and you won't be waiting long until you hear 'em.

Wendy Rene 'After Laughter (Comes Tears)'

Have your Kleenex ready 'cause Wendy Rene's 1964 hit 'After Laughter (Comes Tears)' will open up your emotions 'til you've been drained dry. Wu-Tang sample it on 1993 track 'Tearz', from their debut album 'Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)', and it hits just as hard as the original. It got a new lease of life last year with its inclusion on the Jonah Hill-directed teen skate film Mid-90s.

Ronnie Laws 'Tidal Wave'

Ronnie Laws' 'Tidal Wave' is class-A jazz sleaze. Saxophones fidget and the synths hover with no intention of leaving. Black Moon pinched the synths for their '93 track 'Who Got The Props', combining the sample with wriggly scratching and dusty drum beats.

Read this next: 25 early and rare tracks from hip hop's best producers

Earth, Wind & Fire 'Devotion'

Yo-Yo burst into hip hop in 1991 with the Ice Cube-featuring track 'You Can't Play With My Yo-Yo'. Such is the fast-paced, upbeat and in yer face vibe of the track, it's mad to think it samples Earth, Wind & Fire's delicate, slow-moving love song 'Devotion'. No complaints, though. Rap drenched in soul has never been a bad thing.

Leon Haywood 'I Want To Do Something Freaky To You'

Yeah, Dr. Dre's already been mentioned, but he's getting another shout out, so banging are those early '90s productions. His debut solo album 'The Chronic' has a bunch of samples to mention, but the cream of the crop has to be Leon Haywood's 'I Want To Do Something Freaky To You'. That sexy, funked out intro is the epitome of G-funk, with fellow West Coaster Snoop Dogg providing the lyrical drawl.

James Brown 'Blind Man Can See It'

The guitar riff in James Brown's 'Blind Man Can See It' is so subtle, but unbelievably powerful. it just rolls and rolls, winding through your ears and playing over and over even when you've finished listening. It's infectiousness is probably the reason why Das EFX chose to use it on 'They Want EFX', using it on loop just like JB. Better get used to hearing this for a while, then.

Isaac Hayes 'Hyperbolicsyllablecsesquedalymistic'

Isaac Hayes' main bulk of fame comes from composing the soundtrack for Shaft, which won him two Grammys, an Academy Award and a Golden Globe, but there was plenty of soul gold preceding the iconic film. In 1969 he released the album 'Hot Buttered Soul', featuring nightmare-to-spell cut 'Hyperbolicsyllablecsesquedalymistic'. Compton artist DJ Quik nabbed the belching bass for 'Born And Raised In Compton', mixing it with G-funk juice and swagger made for cruising the sun-lit streets of LA.

Linda Lyndell 'What A Man'

'What A Man', what a tune. There's a bit of a mad story to go with this one, though. Linda Lyndell - a white singer - was the subject of death threats from the Ku Klux Klan soon after the release of this due to her association with black musicians. Those threats led to her quit music and her never performing the track live until 2003. She did return to music before that, down to the success of Salt-N-Pepa and En Vogue's reinterpretation - 'Whatta Man' - in 1993. Their version comes with the same chorus and that spindly guitar riff that opens Lyndell's version.

Billy Cobham 'Heather'

Billy Cobham's 'Heather' isn't one to stick on if you're looking for a burst of energy. It's jazz at its most chill. Souls Of Mischief producer A-Plus snatched the creeping marimba melody from it and flipped it into ''93 Til Infinity', one of those hip hop tunes that - unlike 'Heather' - does provide a much-needed energy boost.

Dusty Springfield 'Son Of A Preacher'

The absolute cheek of Cypress Hill sampling a song about a preacher on a track professing their love for getting high. The looped riffs of the Dusty Springfield classic are infectious, though, and make you keep going back for more, much like Cypress Hill and their bong.

Vanessa Kendricks '90% Of Me Is You'

Oh so smooth, this one by Vanessa Kendricks. Soothing vocals combined with winding strings. What's not to like? Main Source expertly place the string work into 'Just Hangin' Out', an ice-cold jam perfect for those chill times.

Dave Turner is Mixmag's Commercial Content Editor, follow him on Twitter

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