10 of the Unlikeliest Samples in Music

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The Big Pink’s new album Future This is out this week, and the fact that they’ve sampled Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman” on one of their new tracks got us thinking about other unlikely samples in the world of music. Of course, The Big Pink have been on the other end of the sampling equation, too — in an equally unlikely piece of inspiration, Nicki Minaj sampled their track “Dominoes” for her song “Girls Fall Like Dominoes.” As unexpected as both these pieces of sampling were, though, they still pale in comparison to some of the truly outlandish examples from the world of music over the last 20 years or so. Like the ones you’ll find after the jump, for instance.

Eminem — “Stan”

Samples: Dido — “Thank You”

The gold standard for unlikely samples, in which Eminem takes the first verse from Dido’s wetter-than-a-lemonade-sandwich ballad “Thank You” and turns it into the centerpiece of a thoroughly creepy narrative about an obsessed fan who ends up murdering his girlfriend and throwing himself off a bridge. When Marshall Mathers was good, he was really good.

Jay-Z — “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)”

Samples: “It’s a Hard Knock Life” from Annie

At the time, this went straight into the “Shouldn’t Work But Somehow Does” file, and over a decade later, it still occupies pride of place in that particular manila folder. Of course, the lyrics of “It’s a Hard Knock Life” tie in perfectly with Jay-Z’s depiction of growing up in the Marcy Houses, but working the song into a track — and making the result poignant rather than gimmicky — was perhaps Jay-Z and producer Mark “The 45 King” James’s greatest achievement. (Coincidentally enough, James also produced “Stan,” a testament to his ability to spot and manipulate the unlikeliest of samples.)

Gwen Stefani — “Wind It Up!”

Samples: “The Lonely Goatherd” from The Sound of Music

Of course, not every unlikely sample can be the masterstroke that “Hard Knock Life” was — for every flash of inspiration, there’s about a squillion songs that end up in the “Shouldn’t Work And, Um, Doesn’t Work” folder. For perhaps the most bizarre example of recent times, look no further than Gwen Stefani’s inexplicable decision to try to build a track around the yodeling song from The Sound of Music. Stroke of genius or flat-out terrible idea? We’re very much leaning towards the latter, unfortunately.

Fugees — “Ready or Not”

Samples: Enya — “Boadicea”

The fact that Phil Collins’s “In the Air Tonight” has been sampled by 28 separate producers (and that’s just the legally cleared samples) should be enough to demonstrate that hip-hop has an enduring fondness for somewhat cheesy atmospheric samples. It’s not just Phil, though — the dreamy vocal loop that pans left to right throughout this song came from Enya’s “Boadicea,” a fact about which she was none too pleased. She sued The Fugees for copyright infringement, and eventually settled out of court for what was presumably quite a tidy sum.

The Weeknd — “Loft Music”

Samples: Beach House — “Gila”

Perhaps the weirdest moment in all of House of Balloons comes with this track, when Victoria Legrand’s voice — pitched up and candy-coated — floats into your headphones. The two-bar loop from the chorus of “Gila” recurs throughout the song, along with the guitar line from the intro, phasing in and out with big, long filter sweeps as Abel Tesfaye sings ever so sweetly about “face fucking” and how his conquest “won’t need morals” where she’s going. It’s like a Bret Easton Ellis novel, right there on your stereo.

Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick — “The Show”

Samples: The theme from Inspector Gadget

Pretty much anyone who grew up in the ’80s should be able to pick the infectious melody that drops about 40 second into this track immediately — yes, it’s the theme to classic kids’ cartoon Inspector Gadget!

RJD2 — “Ghostwriter”

Samples: Elliott Smith — “I Didn’t Understand”

Managing to turn one of Elliott Smith’s most forlorn tunes (and that’s saying something) into an upbeat instrumental is no mean feat — but RJD2 pulls it off with aplomb. And, somehow, the strains of Smith’s gossamer vocals that drift in and out of this track manage to lend it an emotional weight it would have otherwise lacked, a downbeat counterpoint to the track’s jaunty bass line and acoustic guitar loop.

Wolf Haley — “Leather Head”

Samples: Liars — “Leather Prowler”

See, here’s the infuriating thing about Tyler, the Creator (for it is he who produced this track, under his Wolf Haley alter ego) — for all that we’ve written ad infinitum about how he really needs to stop throwing around naughty words like the self-styled class bad boy, he’s a hell of a good producer when he puts his mind to it. Take this track, for instance, which dismantles a hugely unlikely sample of Liars’ “Leather Prowler” and reassembles it into a echoing, atmospheric backing track — and then proceeds to ramble over the top about how he’s a “modern day Ian Curtis,” saying “fuck” a lot. Sigh.

The Roots — “Atonement”

Samples: Radiohead — “You and Whose Army?”

This is a pleasantly subtle piece of work — rather than using a vocal hook, The Roots take the chorus from “You and Whose Army?” and build it into an understated backing track. It’s so understated, in fact, that it’s only when Thom Yorke’s vocals fade in during the outro, like the sound from a distant radio station, that you realize what you’ve been listening to all along.

Wiz Khalifa — “Say Yeah”

Samples: Alice Deejay — “Better Off Alone”

And finally, the ultimate production challenge — making a sample from God-awful ’00s fromage trance crew Alice Deejay sound good. Does Wiz Khalifa succeed? Well, no — this track sounds bloody terrible. It was a pretty ballsy effort to try, though.