How Vocal Sampling Made Nas Omnipresent

Sampling isn't just rewinding, but a form of nuanced revival.
Author:
Publish date:
Updated on

 “The sound of a sample is history repeating.” —SinceThe80s

“Don’t worry about that, I’ma take that out,” Ski Beatz assured JAY-Z as “I'm out for presidents to represent me (get money!)” boomed through the speakers. That voice, of course, belonged to Nas, a Queensbridge laureate who crystallized his status as one of hip-hop’s most remarkable emcees with an exceptional, bar-raising 1994 debut album. 

The mesmerizing “The World Is Yours”—Pete Rock’s sole contribution to said debut, Illmatic—is what inspired Ski’s search for a melodically pleasing piano to sample. Digging in the crates is how he uncovered “A Garden of Peace,” the final song on Lonnie Liston Smith’s jazz album, Dreams of Tomorrow.

The somber keys spoke to the Greensboro, North Carolina producer, becoming the foundation of what would later be known as “Dead Presidents,” the first promotional single for Reasonable Doubt—Hov’s then-forthcoming debut album. Initially, the placement of Nas' vocal sample as the hook was only a reference, but in an interview with Spin for Reasonable Doubt’s 20th anniversary, Ski revealed it was Jay who insisted on keeping the sample. 

Nas spoke the song’s title and provided the song’s theme. To remove the fitting vocals from “Dead Presidents” would be to alter the song’s flavor, no different than removing lemons from lemon pepper seasoning or the lime from a can of Sprite. 

Five years after the release of “Dead Presidents,” when the two colossal rappers were exchanging venom-laced diss records, the Brooklyn-born rap giant referred to his sampling of Nas as superior to the original: “So yeah, I sampled your voice, you was usin' it wrong / You made it a hot line; I made it a hot song.” One of many eternal, scathing blows exchanged in the heat of battle. 

Hov’s flipping of a noteworthy Nas line into a full-length track extends to “Rap Game/Crack Game,” the Jaz-O-produced 12th track on JAY-Z’s sophomore album, In My Lifetime, Vol. 1. “Somehow the rap game reminds me of the crack game,” the sample asserts, a line lifted from DJ Premier’s last beat on Illmatic, “Represent.” The sample's presence—sharing hook space with a vocal snippet of Big Boi from OutKast’s “Myintrotoletuknow”—gives the track a preexisting world to enter, an idea to build upon. It was Esco, the Arthur Rimbaud of rap, presenting the original thesis. Hov, hip-hop’s transformative hustler, expanded the notion with a thoughtful examination creating a dialogue between the two emcees.  

Four years ago, when former DJBooth managing editor Nathan Slavik wrote "The Most Sampled Rapper Voices in Hip-Hop History," Nas ranked ninth with 413 hip-hop vocal samples based on information gathered from the WhoSampled database. It was a rather impressive number for a famous rapper from the mid-1990s who is both culturally revered and has maintained a respected commercial relevance.

Consider the era of sampling during which Nas emerged and how vital his exquisite and often profound lyricism was for hip-hop. Naturally, producers and artists gravitated toward his words, searching for ways to use and extend his voice. 

During the mid to late-'90s, but also sprinkled throughout the 2000s, Nas became the unlisted time traveler whose voice would unexpectedly greet listeners above scratches or collaged within hooks—floating from album to album and song to song, and leaving behind small rubies from his chest of gems. 

He is present at the end of Capone-N-Noreaga’s “Intro” from the duo’s classic debut, The War Report. The sample is lifted from “Take It In Blood,” when he salutes his fellow Queensbridge brothers by name. Esco’s voice welcomes listeners to Royal Flush’s vision of the “Rotten Apple,” adds an encouraging message to end Master Ace’s “Da Grind,” and speaks the gospel of a paranoid successful conqueror on the hook for John Creasy’s “Best Friends.” Each placement is from a different era of rap, yet, sampling Nas’ voice is what they all share in common. 

When Nas rapped, “Speak with criminal slang” on “It Ain't Hard to Tell,” no listener foresaw how that line would become the crux of a concept on New York slang. What the late, immensely gifted Big L accomplished with the 1998, Ron Browz-produced single “Ebonics” is a masterful lesson on terminology inspired by his fellow East Coast genius. Ironically, three years later, Browz would deliver the beat that would become “Ether,” a term inserted into the lexicon of hip-hop’s vocabulary upon arrival. 

Further cosmic irony can be found in how Nas, who eventually adopted the moniker God’s Son, can be heard on the chorus of Big L’s “Devil’s Son,” snuffing Jesus and greeting nuns with automatic weapons. Combining lyrics from two different iconic guest verses—Main Source’s “Live at the Barbeque” and MC Serch’s “Back to the Grill”—turns the glorified wunderkind into a dastardly accomplice of a hip-hop horrorcore nightmare. 

Nas and Big L weren’t able to officially collaborate before a drive-by shooting took the life of one of hip-hop’s most prodigious pens, but at least through sampling, their voices can coexist as if they were always meant to be together. In 2013, Statik Selektah reunited the pair on the hook for Style P's  "All I Got."

Sampling is a method of removing recorded music from the confines of completed songs. Any word, lyric, or sound can be reborn with a new purpose beyond its origin. Since samples aren’t often cited as credited vocals, there’s a sense of surprise when familiar voices appear with no forewarning. For example, Nas abruptly appears in what is a brief and barely noticeable moment on Eminem’s “Jealousy Woes II,” eloquently expressing a desire that would be racially taboo for a white man to articulate. No other song that samples Nas is more worthy of the “weird flex but ok” award. 

Yet, how J. Cole recites lyrics from “Nas Is Like” in harmony alongside the sample of his idol on a single dedicated to how he let his idol down is both heartfelt and awkward. An easy contender for second place. 

There's also the unexpected usage of “This got me going crazy” from Stillmatic’s timeless third single “One Mic,” which is one of the few English phrases found on “WO-OO,” a blissful soul record from the French jazz hip-hop fusion band Hocus Pocus. Quasimoto, Madlib’s psychedelic rap alter ego, ends an obscure astral projection anthem with a scratch refrain of “From the spliff that I lift and inhale.” It’s as if Nas, at the age of 19, was frozen in the astral plane and has spent the last six years as an unlikely sidekick getting high with Lord Quas.

The way Jean Grae’s “High” loops the vocals from Nas’ “Purple” gives her record a humorous touch, like the scene from the film Sorry to Bother You when Tessa Thompson's character Detroit is musing on the depth of her art installation while boyfriend Cassius "Cash" Green—played by Lakeith Stanfield—is primarily worried about getting high. Jean has a lot of soul to spill; the presence of Nas gives “High” a sense that someone is listening, even if that person is mostly encouraging our speakers to light the blunt. 

In his excellent Vulture profile on DJ Premier, Dave Tompkins said this about the production art form: “Sampling is taking a few seconds to think back, selective yore that has been manipulated within confined spaces and lifespans.” Tompkins is right. Samples are curated flashbacks to another time, another song, and often another voice. 

The "Album Intro" from I Am... and the Preemo-produced “Nas Is Like” are two songs that revisit old samples of Nas' work in a collage format that’s nostalgically pleasant. Both records are able to give new listeners a sense of the past in doses, like an appetizer of dishes from various menus. This is a form of communication thoughtful sampling can create. 

To sample is not simply to rewind, but to produce a form of nuanced revival. What was once old is allowed a neutral setting where the past overlaps and interacts with the present. A testament to timelessness is how well what you say lives beyond the year that you said it. With complicated domestic violence allegations still fresh on the public’s mind, and an album lacking in valuable scriptures, there’s no certainty that Nas' recent words will travel into the future, but if you dig back far enough after the dawn of Illmatic, the presence of God's Son was damn near omnipresent. 

By Yoh, aka Yohnipresent, aka @Yoh31

Related