From Biggie to J. Cole, the Incredible Sample Legacy of ESG's "UFO"

An obscure '80s band made one of the most sampled songs in hip-hop history. Do you know it?
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An obscure '80s band made one of the most sampled songs in hip-hop history. Do you know it?

This group was popular in the early '80s.

This group hails from the South Bronx, the birthplace of hip-hop.

This group has been sampled over 400 times by artists of every genre and generation.

What does this group look like?

This? Nope. 

How about this? How about nope.

This group, the one from the '80s, the one from the birthplace of hip-hop, the one with all the samples, they look like this (see below). Meet ESG.

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Every once in a while a band comes around and though they aren’t necessarily hip-hop, for one reason or another their music connects with rappers. You start to see them featured on songs or maybe you notice a wave of their music being flipped in samples. More recently, groups like Florence and the Machine or The Black Keys come to mind, but before they were even thinking about making music there was ESG.

ESG was popular in the early '80s and hail from the Bronx. Though hip-hop was beginning its takeover of New York City at that time, ESG, a quintet made up of four sisters and one family friend who were given instruments by their parents as a way to keep them out of trouble, had a “different” sound. Here they are performing live in 1984 at famed early hip-hop club the Danceteria.

Combining pop, punk, funk and a dash of new wave, ESG had a left-of-center sound that is quite unique yet strangely intriguing and has kept the group alive to this day. Although they've been through many changes, they continue to make music and solidify their low-key legendary status. It’s impressive that they are around three decades later, but to really understand their place in hip-hop you have to focus on the early '80s, specifically one song from 1981. With their knack for plunging basslines, satisfying drum kicks, and interesting vocals, they are a sampler’s dream, but "UFO" in particular has drawn the ear of a nearly countless number of producers.

Sound familiar? Then congratulations, you listen to hip-hop music. 

According to WhoSampled, "UFO" has been sampled an astonishing 413 times. That’s absolutely insane! For some perspective, that “HEY!” sample from James Brown? Well, that flip has only been used around 200 times, that’s HALF as many times. Most flips are famous because of one or two different cases, think T.R.O.Y, but "UFO," one four minute song, has been flipped more than Krabby Patties. Still, for a song that has been sampled 400 times, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find that many hip-hop fans who really know the original song. Some older old-heads and the die-hards do, but, full disclosure, I didn't even know. It's strange because people love that “Hey” sample even though it’s not nearly as utilized. I think it speaks volumes to their versatility. The craziest part of all of this, though, is that seemingly every sample comes from the first 30 seconds of UFO. Check it out. 

What better place to start than "Party and Bullshit"by the one and only Notorious B.I.G?

This one is kind of hard to hear but rest assured it’s in there. You may get distracted by Biggie’s voice or those drums, but listen to the background. That faint alarm sound, almost more of a train screeching noise echoing faintly in the background, an alarm of sorts that helps to set of that gritty, sleuthing vibe? That comes from the interlude of UFO. At first, I had trouble hearing it, it’s kind of tucked away back there, but once I did, it was all I could focus on. I knew I had heard it somewhere else too. I couldn’t place it, but I knew it was a song that was remarkably different from "Party & Bullshit," but though the flip was the same, the new one had a much more colorful, poppy feel. Then it hit me, my girl Elle Varner featured the exact same subtle screech on the J.Cole-assisted “Only Want To Give It To You,” produced by Oak & Pop.  

I have to say I never really expected to mention Elle Varner and Biggie in the same article, and I certainly didn’t expect to follow with a Big Daddy Kane song, but sure enough “Ain’t No Half Stepping” features the exact same section. Sampling is the coolest.

Now that your ear is trained you can hear it, right? I love how the respective producers of each of those three examples used the flip not as the basis for the beat but as a punctuation mark. Sometimes a sample can have a profound impact on the song without having to be so blatant. Still, there are some pretty great beats where that same screech slaps you right in the face and serves more as the engine than the caboose. Pusha T anyone?

I could go on, and on and on and on, I mean there’s Public Enemy’s "Night of the Living Baseheads," Logic’s recent effort "Young Jesus" and Tupac on "Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z." and that just scratches the surface. It’s just so crazy to me how many times that one little noise gets used. It’s far and away the most popular section of that song to flip, but it’s not the only part that’s been flipped. There's still so many more parts of that intro that have been sampled. Like…

Really, though, it’s all about that :18-second marker. In fact, there was not a single flip I could find that came out of the first 30 seconds of “UFO.” See for yourself. Going into this exercise, I assumed this song would be chopped more than an entree at Benihana— with 400-plus samples you have to assume that right?—but really it all came from that introduction. Isn’t that incredible?! This isn’t your typical flip—it doesn’t jump out at you like a sped up vocal chop or a catchy riff—but it’s been used time and time again to help create a vibe, an atmosphere, or a feeling that helped to drive a record. 

One tiny section of a relatively obscure '80s funk-pop group is one of the most sampled sounds in the history of hip-hop, and what could be more hip-hop than that? What's more hip-hop than three Latina women from the South Bronx, people the world expected only the worst from, tried to box in, making incredible music that lives on throughout decades?   

"UFO" is the greatest! Sampling is the greatest!  Hip-hop is the greatest!