More hip-hop artists are repurposing classic rap moments with modern percussion and techniques. Is sampling early 2000s hip-hop records rap’s answer to the cover song?
Last weekend, Drake released “When To Say When,” an introspective track that utilized the Bobby Glenn sample popularized in JAY-Z’s “Song Cry” classic. In case anyone thought the sample choice was mere coincidence, the Toronto rapper filmed a video in JAY-Z’s native Marcy Projects in Brooklyn.
In 2001, Just Blaze, the producer of “Song Cry,” made a soul sample. In 2020, JuneTheJenius, the producer of “When To Say When,” made a rap song sample. Junius retweeted a supporter who beamed, “‘Song Cry’ is one of my favorite samples of all time.” Rap fans born in 2001 will be 19 this year. They don’t know a world where hip-hop wasn’t a global force. They have more attachment to JAY-Z than Bobby Glenn.
@JuneTheJenius my God, beautiful sample choice on When to Say When. Song Cry is one of my favorite samples of all time and then you go & sample that…genius 👌🏾👌🏾 😥
— I Like Sports & That’s It (@thatsehannah) March 3, 2020
Drake, who is 33, holds sentimental memories of JAY-Z’s The Blueprint like his father, Dennis Graham, may remember Ray Charles or Billie Holiday. And while Mr. Graham can sing a cover of “Blue Moon,” Drake can’t outright rap and re-release “Song Cry.” That’s why he and a slew of other rap artists are doing the next best thing: repurposing classic rap moments with modern percussion and techniques, making it hip-hop’s answer to the cover song.
Rappers have long borrowed hooks, lines, and concepts from their predecessors. Snoop Dogg covered Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick’s “La Di Da Di” on “Lodi Dodi” way back in 1993. JAY-Z is well-known for helping keep his late friend The Notorious B.I.G.’s legacy alive through lyrical references. But younger artists are taking homage even further. If other genres can do cover songs with no pushback — and tribute bands do exist — why can’t rappers push the boundaries with tribute records? Why borrow a hot line when you can borrow a hot song?
Hip-hop’s sample reserve grows generationally. In the ‘90s, artists like RZA, DJ Premier, Pete Rock, and others were culling the soul, funk and jazz records of the ‘70s. Over the past decade, many producers and artists aren’t just repurposing ‘90s R&B — Drake has done this many times — but samples reawakened by rap songs of the late ‘90s and ‘00s. In February, Yo Gotti released “More Ready Than Ever,” which contains a Barbara Mason sample made iconic on Dipset’s “I’m Ready.” Last year, YBN Cordae released “Bad Idea,” which used the same Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway sample as Scarface’s “My Block.”
On Meek Mill’s 2018 Championships, the Philly-rapper re-explored Mobb Deep’s “Getaway” on “Trauma” (through a Barclay James Harvest sample actually saying “better way”) and JAY-Z’s “Dead Presidents” on “Respect The Game.” (Both songs sample Lonnie Liston’s “A Garden Of Peace.”)
G-Herbo is one of hip-hop’s most ardent nostalgia merchants. On 2018’s Humble Beast, “Mirror” sampled O.V. Wright’s “Mirror Of My Soul,” popularized on Dipset’s “DJ Enuff Freestyle.” “Trials” sampled Barry White’s’ “Mellow Mood (Pt. 1),” which RZA previously used on Raekwon’s “North Star (Jewels).” On his recently released PTSD album, G Herbo sampled tracks previously flipped on JAY-Z’s “Dynasty Intro,” (Kleeer’s “She Said She Loves Me”); Beanie Sigel’s “Feel It In The Air,” (Raphael Ravenscroft’s “Whole Lotta Something Goin’ On”); and Jadakiss’ “Still Feel Me” (Nick Sargent’s, “New Life”). The songs are in near pitch-perfect accordance to the original producers’ sample flip, strongly hinting at a desire to celebrate the early ‘00s New York rap scene one loop at a time.
But rap’s nostalgic nods are even more evident when producers sample original hip-hop compositions. As much flack as Bad Boy and their Hitmen production team took in the ‘90s for looping classic ‘70s and ‘80s records, they seemingly paid it forward in the 2010s. Meek Mill, JAY-Z and Rick Ross’ “What’s Free” brought new life to The Hitmen’s sinister “What’s Beef” strings. Rick Ross remade Biggie’s “You’re Nobody Til Somebody Kills You” for “Nobody.” Swizz Beatz and Lil Wayne caused a viral “Uproar” with their 2018 reworking of G-Dep’s “Special Delivery.” Teyana Taylor and Diddy’s King Combs son showed love to Mase’s “Tell Me What You Want” with “How You Want It?”
Elsewhere, Drake and Murda Beatz’s take on New Orleans Bounce for “Nice For What” famously used Lauryn Hill’s “Ex-Factor.” Saweetie’s “My Type” made Petey Pablo’s “Freek-A-Leek” a smash all over again. (Saweetie’s breakout hit, “Icy Girl,” borrowed the beat from Khia’s “My Neck My Back.” The Game’s latest remake is “Stainless,” which samples Tupac’s “Picture Me Rollin.” Trina and Nicki Minaj’s “BAPS” is an unabashed ode to Cash Money’s “Project Chick,” with both women referencing the 2000 original.
Tory Lanez, an artist both celebrated and maligned for his mimesis, explored the concept the most ambitiously on Chixtape 5, an album full of 2000s remakes. He and producer Play Picasso breathed new life into over a dozen 2000s classics from Fabolous, T-Pain, Pretty Ricky, Snoop Dogg, Chris Brown, Mya, and JAY-Z. Detractors may reduce loop-jacking to a gimmick — but it’s no cheap gimmick.
Though Tory’s co-manager Sascha Stone Guttfreund told DJBooth that it was a profitable record, Tory divulged on Hot 97 that the album was a “loss leader,” a term used for products sold at a loss to attract consumers. “I’m losing money doing the album but what is gonna come out of it?,” he said in the November 2019 interview. He shed light on the hurdles involved in the ten-month sample hunt: “You had to clear the song, wherever the song was actually sampled from, the writers, the artists, the publisher, the label, the soundtrack and movie it came from.” In total, 97 writers are credited on Chixtape 5.
Tory’s candor regarding Chixtape 5 illuminates the red-tape involved in the clearance process. Fans are entitled to feel like songs such as “The Trade” are uninspired pleas to nostalgia, but they should also acknowledge there are probably cheaper, less stressful ways for artists to pander if all they’re trying to do with these singles is pander. Many of them feel like Tory, who reflected, “everything is inspired by the times when things were golden for us. I think all those pieces and everything that we’ve come out with has been all about nostalgia.” There’s a wistful desire to celebrate the past. Maybe some things really are “for the culture.”
Nostalgia is a bedrock of the entertainment industry. Despite there being young, imaginative creators in every field, we see movie and TV reboots announced every week. Writer Houman Barekat surmised for New Humanist that our interest in reliving the past is “an innate human impulse, poignantly futile, to try and stop time itself.” Music is the most crafty means of time travel. Rappers have a lofty visibility that makes them, but they’re also fans of rap with the power to make the whole world re-engage their youth with them.
That rap song sample is a two-fold undertaking: artists are not only trying to celebrate legacy, but honor a wing of the hip-hop canon that they aspire to eventually enter. It’s no coincidence that Drake, who aspires to be rap’s GOAT, re-explored a JAY-Z record. Or that G-Herbo enjoys rapping over Dipset and The Lox beats. Or that Tory Lanez celebrated hitmakers who transcended eras. Or, dishearteningly, that the late Pop Smoke remade 50 Cent’s “Many Men” war cry.
Sure, not every rap cover is a thoughtful exploit. But the artists who persistently explore them understand that touching a classic raises the expectations of a record. Those who don’t do the moment justice deserve flack. But when Meek Mill had the audacity to redo a Biggie record and ask JAY-Z to be on it, there wasn’t a chance that he was going to slack with it.
Those highs are what negates the lows of rap song covers. From a technical standpoint, many are lazy rehashes where trap drums and/or filtering techniques are the only difference from the original, but they evoke a nostalgia that belies the simplicity. Hip-hop purists have long called for the next generation to respect their elders. That’s what’s happening now. And just like the influx of rap samples brought a new source of income to musicians of the past, we will see more rappers like Petey Pablo — who performed “Freek A Leek” alongside Saweetie at the 2019 BET Hip-Hop awards — come to appreciate when young artists celebrate them.
Andre Gee is a New York-based freelance writer with work at Uproxx Music, Impose Magazine, and Cypher League. Feel free to follow his obvious Twitter musings that seemed brilliant at the moment @andrejgee.