The coolest thing about sampling is how inventive and re-inventive it is. Taking a sound or a piece of music that has its own meaning and substance… and fully turning it inside out to make something that is remarkably unique, different, and original. I think some great uses of samples also come from places that are unexpected (i.e. Kanye sampling a Christmas song from the 1930s in his “Kids See Ghosts” project with Kid Cudi).
One of the main questions producers and artists everywhere ask is… how in the world can I use samples in my own music? And what’s the right way to go about it?
The truth is… I don’t believe there is any one “right” way of making music! There are many different ways to create and be inspired and reinvent. Here I want to explore some of my favorites, especially when it comes to music production and samples.
Building your own drum machines
If you think about it, drum machines are samplers; you take a kick sound and a snare sound, and you’re already sampling. Most DAWs already come with some drum sound packs or presets, but I like to make my own sounds, or take existing drum sounds and warp them into something new and exciting (I actually used a snare sound from a Michael Jackson track on one of my own song, and it fit like a glove).
Learn to program your own drums! If you only use drum loops from royalty-free sites, you are bound to hit a wall, creatively speaking. By creating your own sounds and using samples, you have 100% creative freedom!
Find a common thread between your composition and the sample
Something I find truly remarkable is whenever a sample being used in a song is used as a device to emphasize or further deliver the themes or message of the actual song. Or vice versa… when the sample has such a heavy influence on how the final product turns out. Here are some examples of what I mean:
Mac Miller sampled “It’s A Blue World” by The Four Freshmen in his own posthumous 2020 track “Blue World”. The use of this sample maintains the original theme of heartbreak and loneliness while transforming it and applying it to Mac’s own personal life journeys and troubles with depression and substance abuse. Doesn’t hurt that the sample is fully chopped up, distorted, and added onto a very groovy hip-hop beat. Barely recognizable if not for the unchanged sample at the beginning, but it does add a layer of tremendous depth to the song.
Listen to “Blue World”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_GC2wFTCAGY
Although “Bound” by Ponderosa Twins has been sampled many times in hip-hop (most notably by Kanye West), its use in the 2019 track “A Boy Is A Gun” by Tyler, the Creator is unbeatable. Tyler raps in a stage of grief, bargaining for the attention of his love interest, while the sample’s lyrics highlight the early stages of a romantic affair, making Tyler’s plea and internal turmoil all the more desperate and effective. A fantastic use of a sample to enhance the emotional gravity of the track and its place in the IGOR album as a whole.
Listen to “A Boy Is A Gun”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9JQDPjpfiGw
Always clear your samples!
As an artist and producer myself, I know that we all want to share a track of ours that uses a crazy sample. It is also tempting to change up a sample enough that maybe people won’t recognize its origin so we can technically get away with not clearing it. However, it is absolutely the fairest thing to always give proper credit where it is due, even if you have warped or chopped up the sample to the point of unrecognizableness.
Sampling tracks, especially very popular tracks, can be complicated and pricey, since you’d be negotiating a Master license with a major record label or a major publisher. Plus, if someone sampled your song and didn’t give you credit for it… wouldn’t be cool.
My advice is: work with samples of songs that are by smaller independent artists. Since they are not attached to a major label, you can work with their team or even themselves directly and get cleared to use the sample for a much more affordable cost (either a flat fee or a percent of the royalties). Some artists might even give you permission for free.
Don’t let this discourage you or keep you from using samples. They are a fantastic and innovative tool for production, and can elevate your composition to new heights. There are so many ways to go about it, so it never gets old. If it feels right to you, that’s all that matters!