The Art of Sampling Biggie
Through the art of sampling, producers can reimagine an artist’s original work. They have the tools to resurrect voices that no longer speak and summon sounds left in the distant days of yesteryear.
The practice of sampling isn’t without its hurdles, legal or otherwise, but the conversations that take place between bygone legends and ambitious producers provide us with a link between past and present that transcends time, age and heartbeats.
One of those oft-resurrected legends is Christopher Wallace, otherwise known as The Notorious B.I.G., whose work has been sampled more than 1,684 times.
K.E. on the Track, Tamar Braxton’s “The One” — Sampling “Juicy”
K.E. on the Track, a producer from Valdosta, Georgia, is among the hordes of producers who have sampled Biggie. A sample from Biggie’s now-famous 1994 single “Juicy” appears on Tamar Braxton’s well-received 2013 summer single, “The One.”
“It was scary at first,” K.E. says of the experience working with Biggie’s song. “You don’t know if you’re disrespecting a legend. People become rightfully sensitive about certain records.”
Still, K.E. was fond of the single and felt the call to twist up the classic. He approached replaying the sample from “Juicy,” Mtume’s “Juicy Fruit,” with a singer in mind: Braxton.
K.E. was aware that the song was beloved and knew that the wrong vocal artist could easily result in a banal and predictable record that would ultimately be criticized and overlooked. Before Braxton, several versions of the song were cut with other artists, but, according to K.E., none of them reached the standard he envisioned.
“I think ‘The One’ did well because two separate generations could rock with it,” K.E. says. “It feels good. The young and old can be attached to it.”
Statik Selektah, “The Thrill is Gone” — Sampling “The What”
Statik Selektah, a veteran DJ and producer from Boston, remembers the first time he heard Biggie and Method Man rap together on “The What,” a deep cut from the artist’s classic 1994 debut Ready to Die.
“I was 12 years old with my boy Bryan and we were leaving my dad’s crib,” Statik says, recalling the moment he heard the record on the radio for the first time. The technical prowess of the two emcees and Easy Mo Bee’s grimy production just hit him a certain way. “It was one of those ‘I want to be a part of this’ moments. One of my favorite songs, ever,” he says.
Fifteen years after “The What” was released, a line from Biggie’s first verse inspired the title and hook for “The Thrill is Gone,” a record Statik produced for his third studio album, 2010’s 100 Proof: The Hangover, featuring Styles P and Talib Kweli. Originally, the song was a solo record for Styles P. Styles, however, wanted another voice on the song, and asked Selektah to get Kweli on it.
As the song began to take form and Statik recognized how much the song meant to him, he asked Styles for permission to keep it for his own album. “It was kind of a weird year for hip-hop, in 2009; it was like a transitional period,” Statik says. “I think music is incredible again, but there was a moment in time when Biggie’s voice saying ‘The thrill is gone’ just represented so much of my life at that point.”
Through vocal isolation and the art of sampling, Statik was able to turn the voice that inspired him to make music into a voice that expressed a moment of frustration. That’s another form of summoning that producers perform: having all the right words delivered by those who knew then what is still relevant today. Timeless.
Streetrunner, Meek Mill’s “What’s Free” — Sampling “What’s Beef”
Sampling is not without its roadblocks, something Miami producer Streetrunner learned when a friend convinced him to flip Biggie’s timeless 1997 song, “What’s Beef.”
“I went searching for the sample, the original sample that Biggie used, but it sounded nothing like it,” Streetrunner says, in reference to Richard Evans’s “Close to You.” He wanted to include the sample in the beat for Meek Mill’s “What’s Free,” a track from his 2018 album Championships.
He continues: “I thought, ‘How would these boys do it back in the day? How would The Hitmen flip this?’ The only way I could picture it was to do a complete replay. I had to remake the whole thing. Even the drums I couldn’t sample! The Al Green drums from ‘I’m Glad You’re Mine.’ I don’t know what’s up with [Green], but he isn’t clearing samples lately. So I personally had to replay the drums; everything is a replay.”
Replaying the sample from “What’s Beef” didn’t take any of the pressure off, though. Similar to K.E., Streetrunner was hyper-aware that sampling the work of a legendary, legacy artist comes with a certain brand of responsibility. “I wouldn’t disrespect his legacy,” he says with conviction.
After having a close producer friend replay the sample, Streetrunner took the session files and began working his magic to make the replay sound more like a sample. Streetrunner believes Meek’s “What’s Free” did justice to The Hitmen original because of the way the record was mixed: bouncing it to a two-track and manipulating the replay.
While Meek scored the Biggie-assisted beat, he wasn’t the only MMG artist who wanted a piece of it. Rick Ross heard “What’s Free” when he was vibing in the studio with Meek. “That made him start to write and record right away,” Streetrunner recalls.
According to Streetrunner, Ross recorded several verses over the beat, two that he has on a personal hard drive. Jadakiss was also interested. Ultimately, Meek secured the beat, and employed the services of his boss at Roc Nation, JAY-Z, to deliver a show-stealing guest verse. “In the land of the free, where the blacks enslaved/Three-fifths of a man, I believe’s the phrase/I’m 50% of D’USSÉ and it’s debt free (Yeah)/100% of Ace of Spades, worth half a B (Uh),” Jay raps.
Three producers, three different approaches to sampling The Notorious B.I.G. The one constant among all three creatives, however, is their shared enthusiasm for keeping his music alive through the art of sampling.
K.E. on the Track, Statik Selektah and Streetrunner all understand the legacy of Biggie Smalls, and, during our conversations, each of them encouraged their fellow producers to be respectful when tapping into his discography.
“I always encourage sampling. But at the same time, it must be done in a tasteful manner,” K.E. says.
More 20 years since his passing, there’s a new generation of music fans of all genres hearing Biggie’s music through songs that sample his vocals. While clearance hurdles have likely dissuaded many from trying their hand at a classic resurrection, Biggie’s voice remains timeless, in large part thanks to the producers who find new ways to artfully and respectfully represent all he gave, shared and left us with.
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