Whether flipped, looped, chopped, or screwed, samples are the fuel behind hip-hop’s heartbeat.
Legendary producers from Rick Rubin, RZA, and DJ Premier to Madlib, The Alchemist, and Kanye West have leveraged sampling to create some of the genre’s most essential records. Take, for example, Run-DMC’s boisterous 1986 hit “My Adidas,” produced by Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons and built around a sudden orchestral explosion stemming from “I Can’t Stop” by John Davis and the Monster Orchestra. Recall how Eric B. and Rakim’s “Microphone Fiend,” the standout single from their 1988 album Follow The Leader, lifted a quiet guitar riff from “School Boy Crush” by Average White Band.
As sampling exploded during the 1980s, there was an up-and-coming fashion designer from Harlem who was translating the sampling practice to shape his creations. Dapper Dan took signature prints from luxury brands like Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Fendi, and MCM to create fresh and custom items these stores weren’t offering. According to Samira Nasr, the fashion director for Elle magazine, who was interviewed for a piece in The New York Times about Dapper Dan’s legacy, “Dap was sampling in a way. He was taking existing fabrications and breathing new life and beauty into them.”
Through the common theme of sampling, Dap’s designs embodied hip-hop culture to its core. It wasn’t long before the era’s most prominent artists started to take notice. LL Cool J was one of the first rap stars to collaborate with Dap, copping a red, white, and green jacket fashioned with the double-G Gucci logo. The late Jam Master Jay sported a Louis Vuitton-lined jacket and pant set while Run-DMC was on the Together Forever Tour with the Beastie Boys. Eric B. and Rakim wore complementary Gucci jackets on the cover of their critically-acclaimed album Follow The Leader. Salt-N-Pepa commissioned Dap, as well as Christopher “Play” Martin of Kid ‘N Play, to design their famous “Push It” jackets. The list goes on.
Dap eventually came under fire from the brands he was “sampling.” After a fight erupted outside of Dap’s store between one of his most famous clients, Mike Tyson, and Mike’s former rival, Mitch Green, Dap’s name and game garnered national media attention and mainstream recognition. Shortly after, one of the luxury players that Dap was sampling, Fendi, took legal action based on trademark infringement, forcing him to shutter his boutique in the early ‘90s.
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Similar to Dap, retaliation was brewing against producers and artists who created records—popular records, to be exact—using samples. Copyright and clearance around sampling weren’t as defined as they are now, so the legal implications were highly volatile, severely impacting the pockets of several rap acts.
One of the most notable sample lawsuits involves De La Soul. In 1989, the group’s debut album, 3 Feet High and Rising, a Platinum record in the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry, was comprised of many sample-based beats. According to The New York Times, there were more than 60 clearance agreements drafted in total. “Transmitting Live From Mars,” an interlude on the album, featured pitched down and slowed organ chords from The Turtles’ 1968 song “You Showed Me.” A couple of years after the album was released, and nearly coinciding with the closing of Dap’s store, The Turtles sued De La Soul, forcing the group to settle out of court for a reported $1.7 million.
Today, sampling remains a go-to production method in hip-hop, evolving alongside the clearance practices that have helped keep it alive. Recently, Tory Lanez’s fourth studio album, Chixtape 5, pulled 17 total samples from several highly recognizable songs like T-Pain’s “I’m Sprung” and Pretty Ricky’s “Your Body.” DJBooth published an interview with Tory’s management and legal team, who revealed they had to clear the samples through 19 total lawyers over six months.
In the age of Instagram, where rappers never miss the chance to show off an expensive outfit or custom piece of jewelry, sampling in clothing and streetwear has become increasingly common. Similar to the unprecedented level of sampling found on Tory’s Chixtape 5, Virgil Abloh set a new bar in fashion with a reinterpretation of various Nike shoes through the lens of his brand, Off-White. Released in 2017, the Jordan 1 Retro High Off-White Chicago now resales for anywhere from $3,300 to $25,000 on StockX.
Additionally, the luxury brands that once put Dapper Dan out of business have come to embrace his eye for design: Gucci officially teamed up with Dap for a collection inspired by his 1980 Harlem looks. Other rising designers catering to the hip-hop circuit who embody a mutual spirit of reinterpretation include Kid Super and offtheracc.
Yet, despite all the beauty sampling encompasses, some of the legal troubles remain the same. In 2012, Mac Miller was famously sued by Lord Finesse for $10 million after he rapped over the beat from Finesse’s “Hip 2 Da Game” and included it on his K.I.D.S. mixtape under the title “Kool Aid & Frozen Pizza.” More recently, the estate of the late Juice WRLD became embroiled in a lawsuit with the punk band Yellowcard, which claims Juice copied the melody heard in their 2006 song “Holly Wood Died” on his breakout hit “Lucid Dreams.” Even Supreme, the New York skate and streetwear brand, felt legal pressure from Louis Vuitton in 2000 after launching a line of skate decks, beanies, and T-shirts inspired by Louis Vuitton’s signature monogram print. The two brands would join forces 17 years later.
The arc of sampling in hip-hop music and style mirrors the story of hip-hop as a whole: What was once a countercultural movement with little regulation has morphed into the admiration of the mainstream. De La Soul paid almost $2 million in damages for a minute-long song so that Tory Lanez could record an hour-long album supported by Interscope’s legal team. Dapper Dan schemed with LL Cool J in the back of an illicit Harlem boutique so that Virgil could sit front row with Drake at Nike’s New York Fashion Week show. Outsiders haven’t always welcomed hip-hop’s reinterpretation with open arms, but in 2020, its cultural cachet is stronger than ever before.