6 of Music’s Most Controversial Samples


Today marks a momentous occasion in the history of pop music: Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, she who can do no wrong, admitted to doing something wrong. “XO,” a track off of Queen Bey’s recent surprise album, features about six seconds of audio from a NASA public relations officer narrating the 1986 Challenger explosion. Apologizing for the perceived insensitivity to ABC news, Beyoncé wrote: “My heart goes out to the families of those lost in the Challenger disaster…The songwriters included the audio in tribute to the unselfish work of the Challenger crew with hope that they will never be forgotten.” The mega-star is hardly the first to provoke a backlash with sampled material, however. Here’s our list of clips that ruffled a few feathers.

Kanye West, “Blood on the Leaves”

Sampled Track: Nina Simone, “Strange Fruit”

It’s a song that distills the horrors of lynching and racial violence into one unforgettable metaphor, reinterpreted as a soundtrack to Kanye’s girl problems. Some critics thought the combination of personal with political, and the dissonance between them, was the whole point of the Hudson Mohawke-produced track. Others found the juxtaposition of Simone’s searing Billie Holiday cover with Kanye’s comparison of separating his wife and mistress to apartheid distasteful. The “Blood on the Leaves” debate was yet another skirmish in the Yeezus wars, with the Simone sample playing a starring role.

Danger Mouse, The Grey Album

Samples Track(s): The Beatles, The White Album

Before there was Gnarls Barkley or even Broken Bells, there was The Grey Album, Danger Mouse’s impressive 2004 mash-up of The Beatles’s classic record with Jay-Z’s The Black Album. Beatles label EMI, however, was not among the producer’s fans, issuing cease and desist letters to any of the album’s distributors and provoking a “Grey Tuesday” movement of posting the album en masse in protest. A couple years later, EMI admitted that Danger Mouse likely hadn’t done any actual damage to The Beatles’s reputation, but claimed, “It’s not a question of damage, it’s a question of rights.” The dispute is among the most notable in the long-running debate over DJs’ rights to use samples in mashups and other tracks.

Lupe Fiasco, “Around My Way (Freedom Ain’t Free)”

Sampled Track: Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth, “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)”

Rock and Smooth recorded T.R.O.Y. as a tribute after the death of their friend Troy Dixon. Though the 1990 song itself made use of samples, producer Rock’s beat was later used in Lupe Fiasco’s 2012 single “On My Way,” a move that attracted Rock’s ire on social media. Though Rock is a self-professed fan of Fiasco’s, he argued that music made “outta anguish and pain…should not be touched by no one.” Fiasco argued that he was simply resurrecting a classic of early ’90s hip-hop, but Rock’s frustration at taking his grief out of context is understandable.

Cults, “Go Outside”

Sampled Audio: Jim Jones

Get it? He’s a cult leader, and the band’s name is Cults! The group’s anthemic “Go Outside” includes dialogue from the notorious Jonestown leader, an eerie connection reinforced by the music video, which uses actual footage of members of the People’s Temple. Though the band and video director Isaiah Seret were given the blessing of the group’s surviving members, some fans called the use of Jones’s voice and the People’s Temple footage exploitative and tasteless. It’s still up for debate, although the contrast of Jones’s voice and the track’s upbeat melody achieves its desired (creeptastic) effect.

Sabrina Setlur, “Only Me”

Sampled Track: Kraftwerk, “Metal on Metal”

Producers Moses Pelham and Martin Haas’s use of a two-second drum loop from Kraftwerk’s 1977 track developed into a twelve-year legal debacle in German courts culminating in the absurd conclusion that sampling can only occur when the desired sound can be reproduced by means other than sampling. Pelham and Haas lost the suit based in part on expert witnesses demonstrating, in court, how to make drum beats approximating Kraftwerk’s. The sample itself proved less controversial than the court’s 2012 ruling, which many worried would effectively stifle artists’ efforts for fear of a lawsuit.

Baauer, “Harlem Shake”

Sampled Track(s): Hector Delgado, “Maldades,” Jayson Musson, “Miller Time”

Though the ensuing viral fad got more flak for taking a dance with real history and swapping it out for mass flailing, the song itself wasn’t exempt from scrutiny. The two men whose voices are featured in the track—Delgado saying “Con los terroristas,” Musson “Do the Harlem Shake”—sought compensation after the audio Baauer found “somewhere off the Internet” turned into a global smash. Though the dispute was resolved through negotiations with the producer and label Mad Decent, the incident is a cautionary tale in what happens when a casually assembled track goes public in a big way.