Revealed: The Biggest Rock Acts In Rap Music

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For a hip-hop producer, few commodities are in as short supply and as high demand as an “open” drum break. Unadorned drums, the tougher-sounding and more pugilistic the better, are the bedrock of all great rap records, and finding something few others have used can elevate today’s bedroom mixtape DJ to tomorrow’s in-demand beatmaker - with the concomitant addition of zeroes to the sum at the bottom of the invoice.

Rock records have therefore been as in vogue among in-the-know rap producers as have funk 45s and obscure jazz albums. The top 10 most-sampled rock acts in hip-hop, as determined by the crowdsourced whosampled.com site, reads like a who’s-who of classic rock heavyweights: but there are a couple of lesser lights mixing it with the big names, and the stories behind how the records got sampled are sometimes counterintuitive in the extreme.

10. The Doors (sampled 141 times)
At first blush, there’s not a great deal to commend the LA art-rockers’ catalogue to the breakbeat miner looking for buried gems. The majority of the material comes drenched in Ray Manzarek’s often baroque keyboard riffs and the kind of taut minimalism hip-hop thrives on is in short supply. Jay-Z made use of the stentorian opening of Five to One to create Takeover, an unusually lumpen piece of rap, and Lauryn Hill interpolated the vocals of Light My Fire in her album cut Superstar. The Doors’ influence on rap production comes, oddly, as writers rather than direct sample sources: classic rap tunes such as Above the Law’s Untouchable credit Densmore, Krieger, Manzarerk and Morrison on the label because the loop it’s built on was sampled from jazz trio Young-Holt Unlimited’s cover of Light My Fire.

9. The Rolling Stones (151 samples)
Another band to whom covers have contributed to their place in sampling history (most notoriously, manager Andrew Loog Oldham’s orchestral version of The Last Time, which The Verve used as the basis of Bitter Sweet Symphony), there’s an argument to be made that sampling has highlighted Charlie Watts’ contribution to the Stones’ ouevre. By isolating the opening of Honky Tony Women to turn it into their minimalist masterpiece Travelling at the Speed of Thought, the Ultramagnetic MCs placed the focus on Watts’ jazz-tinged playing.

Want to know why the Stones were so great? Listen to the three-beat fill Watts plays to introduce his drum line over the cowbell at the start of the song: it’s perfectly out of time, the antithesis of the machine-music aesthetic rap’s critics lazily lob at the music and which Ultra’s four-to-the-floor programmed rhythm appears to highlight. It’s something that couldn’t be programmed, and probably couldn’t even be played by someone who hadn’t got the jazz chops Watts brought to the group.

8. Jimi Hendrix (191 samples)
Your sample count is going to go up somewhat when you become the subject of an art project, and that could well be the best way of describing the Beastie Boys’ Jimmy James, which collages no less than seven Hendrix tracks in what became something of an elaborate tribute. Bootlegs account for a fair number of Jimi samples - the extensive pre-fame sideman discography often containing more sampleable material than after his guitar was placed front and centre. Arguably the best of the bunch, though, was I’m Ready, a 1990 single by High Wycombe group Caveman, which rode Jimi’s Crosstown Traffic into the charts.

7. Steve Miller Band (196 samples)
This outfit’s placing on the list is down almost solely to one track - and it’s perhaps not the most obvious of songs to have become huge in hip-hop. Fly Like an Eagle was first used in 1987 by the inveterate crate-digger Biz Markie (the rapper/DJ has a second flat at an undisclosed location in New York devoted entirely to storing his vinyl collection), but the track that burst the dam on its use was EPMD’s 1988 album cut You’re a Customer, which sampled the “Time keeps on slippin’” line as well as the echoing melodic elements Biz had lifted. Take the Money and Run has also found favour with rappers, popping up in De La Soul’s Jenifa (Taught Me) and NWA’s Gangsta Gangsta among others.

6. Pink Floyd (197 samples)
The trend for sampling Pink Floyd predates hip-hop entirely - the band sampled themselves - and in many ways they’re the least representative of hip-hop of any of the artists on this list. The most-sampled Floyd cut appears to be Money, though quite how sure anyone can be that the cash-register sound that opens the song — and which seems to appear in tunes like Jeru the Damaja’s Me and the Papes — comes from here and not, say, the theme tune to Are You Being Served?, isn’t immediately clear. Pink Floyd’s most memorable hip-hop moment isn’t a sample but a cover version, Wyclef Jean’s reading of Wish You Were Here including a new rapped verse in which he explains how, as a child growing up in the New Jersey projects, his brother hipped him to the British rock band and how their music came to inform his art.

5. Billy Squier (238 samples)
In many ways, the story of Billy Squier’s The Big Beat is the quintessential one of rock being sampled in rap. The song’s opening drums are among the heaviest open breaks ever committed to vinyl, and even though the rhythm lacks funky looseness, it was always going to find its way into producers’ plans. The track was known about from the earliest days of the genre - it’s on the Afrika Bambaataa playlist compiled by journalist David Toop in his classic book about old-school rap, Rapattack, and was rapped over by the likes of the Cold Crush Brothers more or less from the time it came out in 1980.

But what made it ubiquitous was its inclusion on a volumne of the Ultimate Breaks & Beats series, a grey-market sequence of albums that collected in-demand, ready-to-sample original tracks that were sold in shops frequented by rap producers and hip-hop DJs. It was popularised on record in 1984, in Roxanne, Roxanne by UTFO, and has continued to furnish cutting-edge rappers with the ultimate in boom-bap backing tracks (Jay-Z’s 99 Problems is probably the best-known Big Beat derivative, though in the UK, Dizzee Rascal’s Fix Up Look Sharp runs it close) but probably the best track to use it is X-Clan’s A Day of Outrage, Operation Snatchback - a vivid recreation of the atmosphere during and around a 1989 demonstration against racist policing in New York.

4. Led Zeppelin (341 samples)
It’s easy to see and hear why Led Zep appear high in this list. John Bonham’s heavy yet never straitjacketed playing, and in particular the recording of his drums on the fourth LP where they were allowed to echo down corridors before the sounds were captured by the microphones, gives hip-hop producers possibly the best combination of power, volume and funkiness available.

The lion’s share of Zep samples come from When the Levee Breaks, though there’s been innovative use made of Whole Lotta Love (obscure Public Enemy associates Son of Bazerk’s One Time for the Rebel), Kashmir (Puff Daddy’s Godzilla soundtrack contribution Come with Me, where he roped in Jimmy Page for extra guitar duty) and The Ocean (Beastie Boys’ She’s Crafty). Probably the oddest one is the way The Crunge turned up on De La Soul’s debut album opening track, The Magic Number, its helter-skelter tumble of drums sampled not from Houses of the Holy but from cut-and-paste DJ duo Double D & Steinski’s Lesson 3 - the sampled sample earning its place on De La’s classic for mystical numerological reasons even Plant and Page couldn’t have predicted.

3. Queen (363 samples)
“Stop: collaborate and listen” could be the maxim for any producer ready to start sampling. That it’s also the opening line of one of the least-widely-adored big hip-hop hits of the ‘90s is, to say the least, unfortunate. The story of Vanilla Ice’s debut is tortuous enough - tales of him being “persuaded” to sign away his publishing rights while being dangled off a high-rise balcony by future Death Row Records boss Marion ‘Suge’ Knight have long ago passed into hip-hop lore.

That the tune sampled Queen and David Bowie’s Under Pressure is almost forgotten, as is the fact that Queen featured in the first hip-hop DJ record - Adventures on the Wheels of Steel by Grandmaster Flash (fittingly, Another One Bites the Dust mixed seamlessly by Flash with Chic’s Good Times, the record Queen were deliberately echoing). Public Enemy audaciously lifted a chunk of Flash’s Theme (Terminator X to the Edge of Panic), Eminem made off with a circuit or two of Bicycle Race (C’mon Let me Ride) and even Bohemian Rhapsody has been sampled more than 20 times. But the best Queen sample in hip-hop is surely Ice Cube’s When Will They Shoot?, which rides the distorted handclap beat from We Will Rock You.

2. Mountain (518 samples)
Probably the least predictable entry in this Top 10 for rock fans, Mountain’s inclusion is down to one song, popularised among producers (like Billy Squier) by the Ultimate Breaks & Beats albums. There are three versions of Long Red out there - but Mountain’s studio version and the original reading by the group’s founder, Leslie West, on a solo album are not the ones that get rap producers excited. The version from Mountain Live: The Road Goes Ever On opens with unaccompanied drums, but what gives the loop its unique properties is the interplay of crowd noise and West’s ad libs. “Louder!” he shouts, as squeals and handclaps echo around the Woodstock Festival site. “Clap your hands for what he’s doin’!” It’s an odd thing, scratchy-sounding and a little underpowered, but it’s been used over 500 times, and counting. The best, though, remains the first - Eric B & Rakim’s debut single, Eric B Is President. (Just to emphasise how good a break it is, the duo also deployed it on the b-side, My Melody.)

1. The Beatles (672 samples)
The Fabs top this chart, as they tend to do most charts, but here it’s perhaps more surprising. Sampling has an element of larceny about it: while most producers who sample something will do the right thing and get it cleared and ensure the original artist is properly compensated, quite often there’s a temptation to slip something under the corporate radar - particularly when a track may be made up of a collage of dozens of different records. And while you might get away with a lift from a b-side of an obscure funk 45 without anybody noticing, there’s precious little in the Beatles’ catalogue that won’t be pretty obvious to even the least attentive of listeners.

As a result, the temptation to sample from the Beatles is offset by the high cost of doing so and the impossibility of getting away with it if you don’t pay: even promo-only releases like Danger Mouse’s career-establishing The Grey Album (which saw him build new backing tracks for a cappella vocals from Jay-Z’s The Black Album using only samples from the Beatles’ so-called White Album) have been subject to legal censure. There’s no one standout track that accounts for the majority of Beatles samples: instead, a large number of songs have attracted small numbers of uses. And they’re often nothing to do with beats - such as The Roots’ half-inching of the opening piano riff from Hey Bulldog for Thought @ Work.

The most striking hip-hop track ever to have sampled the Beatles, though, is the Beastie Boys’ The Sounds of Science. It includes parts of four Beatles songs - When I’m Sixty-Four, The End, Back in the USSR and Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise) - and is as blatant as it is remarkable. In a 2011 interview, Mike D told me that the fact the Beasties were signed to Capitol, part of the same EMI group that owned the Beatles’ masters, had helped make the track possible: “I don’t know how formal our arrangement was,” he said, “but we were able to use the EMI relationships to, sorta, everyone’s benefit, if that makes sense. It made it a lot easier.” Oddly, though, the song wasn’t included on the Beasties’ turn-of-the-century compilation album, even though it was called The Sounds of Science. Despite their table-topping performance here, perhaps sampling the Beatles isn’t as easy as it may appear.

Thanks to the excellent WhoSampled website for their assistance in compiling this feature.