A brief history of music sampling

What is sampling?

Sampling is the act of taking a portion, or sample, of one sound recording and reusing it as an instrument or a sound recording in a different song or piece. This is often achieved using a hardware device or software called a sampler.

Historical origins

The technique of sampling started to gain a bit of traction in the 1960s when the likes of James Tenney created a musical collage using samples from Elvis Presley’s hit song “Blue Suede Shoes”. At the time other musicians were also experimenting with sampling by using tape machines to splice samples of speeches, sound effects and preexisting audio to create new music pieces. The advent of the Fairlight CMI sampler alongside the rise of hip hop music helped to popularize and solidify sampling as a technique of creating music. DJs and turntablists would loop drum breaks and layer records to create new music. The advent of relatively inexpensive samplers such as the E-MU SP-1200 and the Akai S950 helped to popularize sampling even further.

Sampling Techniques

  • There are various techniques of sampling. The easiest and most popular is looping, whereby a section of a song is sliced and looped over and over.
  • Scratching is another popular technique used mostly by DJs in rap music.
  • A more advanced technique involves taking samples from multiple songs, editing them and splicing them together in order to create something new. Hip hop producer Pete Rock has used this technique extensively in many of his productions.
  • Another popular type of sampling is whereby instruments such as pianos, flutes and violins are recorded note by note and then used to create music. For instance each of the notes of an entire piano can be sampled multiple times at different velocities, at different distances and with different microphones in order to create a more accurate recording of the instrument. Then once sampled you can play back the notes using a sample player such as Native Instruments’ Kontakt or Plogue sForzando.

Popular Hardware Samplers

Since the inception of sampling there have been many popular hardware samplers such as:

  • The AKAI MPC-60 which ushered in the era of the now iconic 4×4 drumpads
  • The Ensoniq ASR-10
  • Casio FZ-1
  • Ensoniq Mirage
  • And the Fairlight CMI which is the granddaddy of samplers which was introduced in 1979 and dominated much of the 1980s.

Popular Software Samplers

Software samplers and sample players of note include:

  • Native Instrument’s Kontakt
  • MOTU MachFive 3
  • Togu Audio Line TAL-Sampler
  • Magix Independence Pro
  • Image-Line DirectWave which comes bundled with FL Studio
  • Propellerhead Software NN-XT which comes with Reason

Effects on the Music Industry

  • Sampling of a specific genre of music has itself spawned new sub-genres of music such as G funk which got its start when west coast rap producers sampled P funk records such as those of George Clinton. G-funk reached its peak popularity in the mid 90s and notable albums in this style include Snoop Dogg’s “Doggystyle”, Warren G’s “Regulate…G Funk Era” and Dr Dre’s “The Chronic”.
  • Sampling has many legal and intellectual rights issues. But it has become a great source of income for many musicians who receive royalties for their records which have been sampled. The late 80s and early 90s were a pivotal time in copyright law concerning music and resulted in many lawsuits and cases which helped to shape the current legal framework involving use of preexisting recordings. One notable example is that of Biz Markie whereby his 1992 album “I Need a Haircut” was withdrawn from being sold due to a lawsuit involving sampling. This had a major effect on the music industry and helped usher in the era of sample clearances whereby musicians had to declare any samples they used in their songs.
  • Due to the legal issue of royalties a new industry has been created whereby individuals and companies dedicate themselves to creating and selling royalty free sample packs. These packs allow users to use the samples for commercial purposes and not have to pay royalties back to the original creators.

According to whosampled.com as of the time of recording this video the most sampled record in history is “Amen, Brother” by The Winstons which has been sampled over 2,700 times and has been used in songs such as N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton”, Lupe Fiasco’s “Streets on Fire”, The Game’s “Compton” and Snow’s “Informer” to mention a few. This 6 second drum loop has also spawned entire genres such as Drum n Bass as well as Jungle, whose drum lines are built on variations of Amen Brother break.

Creative Commons

Some of these legal issues have helped to create the framework for Creative Commons, an organization that was formed in 2001, which has made available several copyright licenses free of charge to the public through which creators can release their content. There are variations of these licenses but some allow sampling of material without the need to financially compensate the original creator. However, in some cases the original creator has to be acknowledged.


Sampling has been criticized by music purists and various people who believe it’s a cheap way to make music and doesn’t require as much creativity as composing a song from scratch. Others argue that a sampler is just as much an instrument as a piano and flipping existing material to create something new takes considerable skill to do. Rapper KRS-One stated in the hip hop documentary “The Art of 16 Bars” that he doesn’t sue people for sampling his music.

A strong argument can be made that hip hop and electronic dance music might not be in existence today if sampling was not innovated. Whatever your opinion is on the matter it can’t be denied that sampling is a powerful tool that is here to stay.