Graphic: @popephoenix for Okayplayer
How Sample Drill Is Leading One Of Rap's Most Bizarre Sampling Eras
New York City's most notable drill producers have defined themselves by the songs they sample, so much so that critics and fans alike have phrased the trend as "sample drill."
EPondabeat, one of New York drill's primary producers, is essentially bragging about how his well-rounded and high quality YouTube algorithm plays a part in the samples he selects for his beats in our interview.
"Growing up, I was a historian. I don't do the searching around no more, I did that as a kid," he said. "So, when I got older and was on YouTube, it was just how my algorithm was... most of the time the sample comes and finds me. [The algorithm] fake know what I like to listen to."
Speaking with EPondabeat came from a question born out of another question. Previously, I sat down with fellow New York drill producer (and self-proclaimed "Sample God") Cash Cobain to watch him work, fitting tracks I brought for him to flip in an attempt to understand the how of this burgeoning rap sub-genre. Cobain, EPondabeat and other notable New York drill producers have defined themselves by the songs they sample, so much so that critics and fans alike have phrased the trend as "sample drill." In speaking with some of New York drill's most notable producers — Cobain, EP, WAR, and EvilGiane — I hoped to answer the other question that presented itself: why are these young producers making drill out of source material that runs the gamut from esoteric to painfully obvious to bizarre?
Sample drill is perhaps the most online iteration of rap music we've ever seen. A particularly postmodern recycled medium, born in the wake of a pandemic that made in-person sessions all but impossible, the phenomenon speaks to how online the creation of music — specifically rap — has become. The scrolling thumb has replaced the dusty finger; it's crate-digging in the post-record shop era. Let's call it "cloud-digging," where, in the case of sample drill, everything from 2Pac's "I Ain't Mad At Ya" to Dick Dale's "Miserlou" is fodder for a drill beat. Sure, this trend (as some producers spoken to inferred) might've began with soul samples — so much so that, for a time, "soul drill" was a term being used — but it's grown into something else entirely.
Now, like their sampling rap producer predecessors, the only unifying philosophy shared among drill producers for how they select samples is a variation on the same theme. Cash, EP, WAR, and EvilGiane all articulated a quality of comfort, as well as returning to a source of discovery and wonder of falling in love with songs, breaks, and sounds (often going to the world's largest digital music crate — YouTube — to find a sample).
For Cash, it's the Hot 97 playlist from the turn of the century and raiding his mother's taste in music; for EP and Giane, it's the more eclectic sounds of their childhood and their familial ties to music (EP's uncle plays in a kompa band; Giane's mother and father is a songwriter and producer, respectively); for WAR, it's the random limitlessness of the infinite digital realm.
Of these four producers, Cash is the most well-known. The 23-year-old South Bronx producer has crafted beats for rising Bronx and Queens rappers like Big Yaya, Lucki, B-Lovee, and Shawny Binladen, but it's the last two that have rapped over some of Cash's most well-known drill beats. There's B-Lovee's "My Everything," which samples Mary J. Blige's "Everything," and Shawny's "Yellow Tears" and "Video Soul," which samples Lauryn Hill's "Ex-Factor" and Brandy's "Borderline," respectively. (Hence the "soul drill" term.)
"When I'm making R&B stuff, I like to go to shit my mother was playing, shit that older people can gravitate to," Cash said.
Cash's production style can be best summed up by Chris Rock, paraphrasing the once common refrain critiquing Puff Daddy and his Hitmen: "Take an old rap record, sing over it." The idea was Puff was profiting off cheap nostalgia; not digging for obscure samples like Preemo, or building layered walls of sound like Prince Paul. Puff would take a David Bowie beat and paste a Lisa Stanfield hook on it, making pop ransom notes. Cash's vision of sample drill removes the middle man, pairing drill drum patterns with fully-fleshed out rap and R&B tracks from the '90s and 2000s.
Such is the case with B-Lovee's "My Everything," where Cash speeds up a part of Blige's vocals, as well as the guitar melody (which is sampled from The Stylistics' "You Are Everything") prominent throughout, using the two melodies to provide a soft contrast to the brashness of Cash's drums and Lovee's vocal delivery.
A part of the reason Lovee chose the beat for "My Everything" is because "Everything" was a song his mother would listen to. But she's also a fan of his take on the Blige classic, saying: "She loves that song."
"They just flow good," Lovee said of beats that sample older songs. "They be old throwback songs...majority of the time I just hear samples I recognize. Sometimes, I don't know what the song is, but somebody in the room gonna know."
Cash's drill production has been heavily imitated to the point that it's defined the genre. Even EPondabeat basically has his own take on Cash's "My Everything" beat, making his own version for Shawny that samples the main hook from the Blige hit. But it's through Shawny that the 25-year-old producer, who grew up between Flatbush Junction and Queens Village, has expanded drill's sample palette, arguably having the most gentle palette of all the prominent sample drill producers by focusing on drill beats infused with dreamy, lo-fi production. This is the case with one of Shawny's most popular songs, "Whole Lotta Wickery."
Originally created in early 2018 alongside fellow producer pvsos (who EP credits with teaching him how to produce) and updated as a drill beat for Shawny, the beat for a "Whole Lotta Wickery" samples dream pop artist Rosemary Fairweather's "Heavenly." The producer first discovered Fairweather's music through his trusted YouTube algorithm, which led to him sampling her for the beat. But some of EP's other distinct beats for Shawny have been the result of working with others. For "Shotz Brewery," a 1:15 track off Shawny's 2021 album Waiting on Wick, EP collaborated with friend and fledgling producer Spanks, who sent EP the basis for which the sample comes from — the Laverne & Shirley theme song — after finding it clicking through old TV themes on YouTube a year prior. (EP recognized the song from one of his favorite movies as a kid, Wayne's World, where the pair spoof the opening credits of the popular '70s show.) EP looped a stretch of the theme under a layer of fuzz and placed it over a drill drum pattern — the beat for "Shotz Brewery" had been made.
EP sees the sampling happening in New York drill as a way to distinguish itself from other forms of the sub-genre, particularly UK drill. But he also sees sampling as a "marketing strategy."
"The listener is gonna think, 'Damn, where did I hear this song from?' And another thing, [the sample] starts conversation — 'What's the sample? Do you know the sample?' So, that was my whole thing," EP said. "I wanted to get Shawny's music more out there to all the boroughs, and in my head I was always thinking, 'Samples could do it.'"
EP's point makes sense. Look at the comments for Lovee's "My Everything" video on YouTube and you'll see just how many are dedicated to the sample. A recognizable sample on a good beat can be beneficial to a rapper trying to get people's attention. Such is the case with another drill instrumental that became a favorite among aspiring rappers, courtesy of producer WAR.
Hailing from Hempstead, Long Island, WAR is 16-years-old but looks younger. He's self taught, gleaning his craft from YouTube tutorials and practicing on his own (his producing platform of choice is Logic Pro), which makes his facility as a producer all the more stunning. WAR isn't hastily flipping his productions over choppy drums; he takes time and care with the pieces of music he's reassembling. When it comes to samples, WAR finds them from different sources: collaborators, managers, Instagram and YouTube commenters, and his own digital collection of songs he liked from his childhood. Although he's also relied on well-known rap songs as samples (for Kay Flock's "Is Ya Ready," he sampled Dababy's "Ball If I Want To," which its producer D.A. Got That Dope helped him clear), it's the more unexpected and frenetic samples he's used that have helped separate himself from other producers, like his beat for Fresh DaGeneral's "Slide" that samples an annoyingly catchy piano melody from Oro Solido's merengue classic "El Beeper," or a beat he made using the main guitar riff from Dick Dale's "Miserlou" that a handful of rappers – Jah Sav, Kenzo B, Yommy G – have hopped on.
"Most of the time, I sample songs I already know," he said. "On Spotify, I got my liked songs — I got 2,000 songs there and it's just songs I grew up with...I like sampling songs that I know because if I sample a song I don't know, it feels weird to me."
There are times the genre comes close to proving its critics right in terms of its penitent for novelty. Everything from an ice cream truck jingle to the Super Smash Bros. opening is fair game. But, as it always has been, the onus is on the producer to make a beat work. A sure shot sample can be carelessly or inconsiderately flipped by selecting the most obvious section to loop and not really doing anything to redefine it in a substantial way, with a rote and monotonous drum pattern and bassline pasted over it. But sometimes, gimmicky can lead to great moments, too. Such was the case with Polo Perks' Punk Goes Drill, a project that doesn't actually find him rapping over beats sampling "punk," but more accurately alternative rock hits like Foo Fighters' "Everlong" and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' "Maps." One of the producers that had a hand in Punk's creation is 23-year-old EvilGiane, who's accredited as the main producer for the Surfgang Collective (an East Coast, Gen Z Odd Future update that includes 12 producer, rappers, and skaters, among them Giane and Perks).
Growing up in East New York, Giane started making beats on his phone with FL Studio Mobile for Android. Eventually, he got a laptop and graduated to Logic, and now uses Ableton. He cites Timbaland, Thom Yorke, and MexikoDro as influences, and fell in love with drill listening to 22gz, Kay Flock, Bizzy Banks, and B-Lovee (all artists he wants to work with at some point). The concept for Punk was inspired by Fearless Records' so bad it's good Punk Goes... series of the 2000s. But when the Surfgang Collective started to lay the tracks they realized they had something. The word of mouth success of the album led to features in Rolling Stone and Noisey, and has become one of the collective's — as well as drill's — breakout moments.
"It started as a joke and then we were like, 'This sounds like it'll be kind of sick if we not just do soul samples and shit like that," Giane said. "Because that was kind of the dominant sample shit with drill at the time, which is still hard but we were like, 'Fuck it, if we can do this we can kind of do anything.' We just have fun with this shit."
Since Punk, Giane's sound has emigrated to ethereal 8-bit/glitchy ambient space age with trip-hop in its DNA, that still has the bones of drill at its core but rarely relies on the crutch of an easily recognizable sample. Along with making arguably the most atmospheric sample drill on the market, he's also worked with some of music's youngest rising stars, having produced an electronic track for Pinkpantheress' remix album, a fitting pairing considering the UK artist grew up on some of the same artists sampled on Punk Goes Drill. Still, Giane finds himself in a liminal space, both on the inside of a genre perceived as one thing by critics who don't see its nuances and many shades, and outside of it by artists and rappers who may consider his work too unconventionally hipster.
The current media narrative surrounding this genre greatly misunderstands it as a soapbox for petty beefs in the tri-state area that Mayor Eric Adams wags his finger at and makes specious claims about. But it’s more than a strictly defined regional culture, it's a tool, a structure that has great implications for where rap could go in the next few years, and the producers fueling its sound are just beginning to tease out its parameters.
"This is a cool little sub-genre of rap, why not make it fun, too?" Giane said. "It doesn't have to be straight gang-related all the time... that's what I kind of love about the sample drill shit — it's bringing back the old New York renaissance or just like sampling shit and making shit right now."
Abe Beame: Flatbush local, culture writer, former mayor of New York City. You can follow him on Twitter @TheFakeAbeBeame
Banner Graphic: @popephoenix for Okayplayer