Hip-Hop Nostalgia Is a Cheat Code — But I Ain’t Mad

“Unlike the musicians who make them, a song doesn’t have a lifespan.”
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Unlike the musicians who make them, a song doesn’t have a lifespan. Songs don’t grow up or grow old. They sit throughout history, ageless, waiting to be discovered and rediscovered. Hip-hop, through the art of sampling, has made rediscovery a part of the musical experience. No sound is restricted, no decade off-limits, the possibilities for sampling are endless.

Not everyone cares about endless possibilities, though. Some only care about hits. P. Diddy wasn’t a producer by trade, but he built one of hip-hop’s first commercial enterprises in the 1990s—Bad Boy Records—by pairing superb rap and R&B newcomers with popular, yesteryear samples. Puffy saw how beloved hits, when precisely sampled, could generate new hits—a marketing method that proved to be lucrative, but not without criticism.

In a 1999 interview with NewsweekDr. Dre told journalist Allison Samuels he respects the business-mind of his East Coast contemporary but didn’t appreciate Puffy‘s approach to the art form. “Listening to the stuff on the radio today, you’d think rap is one big sample. That’s an insult to all of us who’ve been here from the beginning,” Dre said, a critique DJBooth revisited in 2017.

Fast forward 20 years, Diddy and Bad Boy Records have retired from the radio chase, while precise sampling remains prevalent. The squeaking bed permeating Russ and BIA’s latest single “BEST ON EARTH”—produced by Jahaan Sweet and Boi-1da—is from Trillville’s “Some Cut,” a Southern hip-hop classic initially released in 2004. Petey Pablo’s ‘04 classic “Freek-A-Leek” was also flipped in 2019, turning into Saweetie’s Platinum-certified breakout single, the London on da Track-produced, “My Type.” Neither song attempts to mask their samples, creating a sense of nostalgia for every listener who recognizes the iconic source material.

I first heard “BEST ON EARTH” back in November on Atlanta radio station Streetz 94.5. Lyrically, none of the songwriting stuck out, but each squeak from the mattress springs was a reminder of the summer Trillville’s “Some Cut” hit Atlanta airwaves. It’s a raunchy song—too raunchy for radio—but hip-hop stations played the record while the sun was still up. I remember that feeling. I can say the same for “My Type,” a song without lyrical merit, but the nostalgia of Lil Jon’s crunk bounce in 2019 gave Saweetie a cheat code to tap into a familiar sensation.

The Dr. Dre of 1999 would scrutinize these records for doing to 2000s hits what Puff did to hits from the ‘70s and ‘80s. He wouldn’t be wrong. Neither song is crafty in execution or stylistically innovative, but familiarity is useful in the world of entertainment, where creatives can resell ideas. Admittedly, several factors elevate records commercially. It’s not just samples and their sentimentality guaranteeing success. 

But... Precise sampling does create leverage to resell what the consumer may have once bought, and the commercial prominence isn’t affected by the lack of creative risk. In October, Rihanna endorsed Russ and BIA’s “BEST ON EARTH” as her favorite song on Instagram, and Saweetie’s “My Type” became her second certified Platinum single in September and has amassed over 56 million views on YouTube.

There are also cases like DJ Khaled’s “Just Us”—the fourth single off his 2019 album Father of Asahd. “Just Us” features guest vocals from R&B starlet SZA over an unmistakable loop of the 2000 single “Ms. Jackson” by OutKast. It’s nostalgic and new, a piece of a perfect rap song paired with an adored songstress. I imagine Khaled thought this was a winning record, guaranteed to be a phenomenon. 

Although “Just Us” performed well on the charts and radio, receiving a Gold certification from the RIAA this past August, not everyone loved it. There was some Dr. Dre-esque disapproval of how the sample was used. This critical imbalance inspired Rob Markman of Genius to pose the question: Was DJ Khaled wrong for sampling OutKast?

In his concluding statement, Markman points to rediscovery as the overarching reward of sampling. That a song like “Ms. Jackson,” when sampled, is allowed a second life before a new audience—an audience who is likely unfamiliar with the song or the originally sampled artists—is important. That’s why the sample is a commercial cheat code. It’s a source of musical déjà vu. Even if you don’t love the song, you react to it. You know it, on some level.

Songs are supposed to make people feel. If you make enough people have an attachment to a feeling, you always have a potential hit. Nostalgia works in music because stepping back into familiarity is comfortable, like seeing a long-lost family member in a room full of strangers. That’s what a sample gives a listener: The reminder of someone or something they knew before time changed them. Lately, though, there’s been a new flavor to sampling, one that combines artists of the present with their past. Let‘s call these hip-hop reboots.

Take Summer Walker’s “Come Thru,” an infectious single off her debut album, Over It, produced by London on da Track, that debuted at No. 42 on Billboard’s Hot 100. The song reimagines the R&B-sexy and hip-hop-cool of Usher’s 1997 hit “You Make Me Wanna.” Usher is featured on the track, making him like an actor reprising a former role. Walker went a step further than the precise sampling of a record. We’re now reinventing old concepts with their former creators.

Consider Tory Lanez’s “Jerry Sprunger,” a modern reboot of T-Pain’s 2003 single “I’m Sprung.” The track features the R&B genius reprising himself alongside a sample of his vocals and harmonies. Musically, the two songs are almost identical; even the music videos are mirrors of one another. “Jerry Sprunger” and “Come Thru” are the doppelganger Spider-Man meme in song form with a photoshop image of Tory and Summer included.

The reboot method is the basis of Tory Lanez’s recently released Chixtape 5, the latest installment of his fan-favorite Chixtape series, which began in 2011. The “Jerry Sprunger” formula of modernized doppelgangers is used throughout the 18 songs to resurrect oldies from the 2000s, featuring the artists who made the venerable hits. 

In her review of Chixtape 5 for Pitchfork, Dani Blum writes: “As an anthropological exercise, [the music] kind of fascinating. As music, it strains to hold your attention, pulling you back to old hits without doing much besides reminding you they existed.” A fair critique of Tory’s approach. Commercially, though, the project debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 with 83,000 album-equivalent units solid in its first week, the biggest debut of Tory’s career thus far. Go figure.

What Tory Lanez is doing on Chixtape 5 isn’t new—see also: Lil Wayne’s Dedication era mixtapes—but instead of decimating the instrumentals of his peers, Tory is taking shots at hits with the hitmakers themselves. In having all the samples cleared, too, the Canadian-born rapper shows there is solidarity in remaking records through reboots and sampling. It’s a form of giving flowers. The technique is anti originality, but repackaging nostalgia requires creativity nonetheless.

Each entertainment industry believes in modernization. If they sold it once, they will try to sell it again. But I agree with JAY-Z who famously once said, “Niggas want my old shit, buy my old albums.” I want old JAY-Z albums, not a present-day JAY-Z trying to be his former self. That’s why, for me, reboots aren’t effective. I’d rather find a new artist creating over a classic sample—not classic artists as shells of themselves. A sample allows me to overlook the fact artists are older, that they sound different, and will never be the same again. That’s not everyone, though. Maybe you like remixes, or reboots, or neither. At least you’re feeling something. 

For that reason, I ain’t mad. 

By Yoh, aka Yohstalgia aka @Yoh31

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