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(Credit: Marc Fanelli-Isla)


What was the first song to use sampling?

The basic principle of sampling in music has been around since the early days of tape recording. These early rumblings began in the form of looping. The Beatles fans among us might now be jumping the gun and thinking Paul McCartney was the source of the sample thanks to his pioneering tape loops for 1966’s ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’; alas, you’d be wrong. 

Tape looping was a method first introduced in the 1940s, with French composer Pierre Schaeffer often given due credit for his pioneering musique concrète. These experimental compositions were created by splicing up tape recordings and rearranging them into a sonic collage. Much like the William Burroughs of sound, Schaeffer formed his early collages from everyday vibrations, such as those produced by the human body, vehicles or kitchen utensils. 

If we’re allowing loops to be considered the earliest form of sampling, Schaeffer was the first person to invent a sampling instrument. In the early 1950s, he developed the Phonogene, which he constructed using a section of keyboard that allowed 12 different pitches. This primitive synthesiser would play a given sample in the chosen pitch. 

So, while Schaeffer was the pioneer of the sample and laid much of the groundwork for the avant-garde musical stylings of the 1960s and beyond, he isn’t widely considered the first to use a sample in a song. The reasons are two-fold; firstly, his sound experiments couldn’t strictly be regarded as songs, and secondly, pedants might get a bee in their bonnet if we were to label tape looping as sampling.

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The term “sampling” wasn’t coined until the late 1970s. While experimental artists such as The Beatles, Pink Floyd and Frank Zappa began flirting with loops for commercial music in the 1960s, it was funk and the birth of hip-hop that truly broke through. The concept of sampling means excising a significant part of a pre-extant song and transplanting it to a new one. 

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the first song to use a sample was ‘He’s Gonna Step on You Again’. The 1971 song by South African musician John Kongos used a sample of a recorded African drumming track. However, other sources suggest that the folks at Guinness had John Kongos’ work confused with ‘Burundi Black’ by the French composer Michel Bernholc (AKA Mike Steiphenson). 

Bernholc’s song features a tribal rhythm made by 25 drummers of the Ingoma tribe in Burundi that originally appeared on the 1968 album, Musique du Burundi. He added guitar and keyboard tracks over the top of the drumming loop to create ‘Burundi Black’, the pioneering title track for his 1971 album. Upon its release, the record sold 125,000 copies in the UK.

Now we have filed the first sample used in a song down to 1971, and between two artists, let’s have a quick look at how sampling developed over the subsequent years. In 1976, the first monophonic digital sampler, called the Computer Music Melodian, was invented by Harry Mendel. The trailblazing gadget was particularly hefty and looked a bit like a 1960s television plonked atop a keyboard with a processor the size of a microwave underneath.

One of the first, and certainly the most prominent, users of Mendel’s Computer Music Melodian was Stevie Wonder, who used the sampler extensively when producing his 1979 album Journey Through The Secret Life of Plants. But by the time Wonder was releasing the album, his sampler was already outdated by a new kid on the block, Peter Fogel and Kim Ryrie’s Fairlight CMI.

The Fairlight CMI (CMI initialising ‘Computer Musical Instrument’) was a truly remarkable step in the field of music production. It was a polyphonic digital synthesiser with an early digital audio workstation (DAW) all built into one unit. The ultimate music geek’s gizmo came complete with a touchscreen operated by a light pen. 

Needless to say, the Fairlight CMI was particularly pricey and thus only affordable to some of the biggest stars of the 1980s. The early 1980s, however, saw the dawn of the much more accessible portable digital samplers just in time for the explosion of hip-hop. The Akai MPC60 and the E-MU SP-1200 models were the most prolific in the 1980s, allowing countless hip-hop artists to create full songs without a studio. 

Over the course of the 1980s and into the ’90s, sampling became an accepted standard in pop music but was mainly associated with hip-hop and, later, trip-hop. By 1996, sampling had reached its pinnacle with DJ Shadow’s (Joshua Davis) debut album Endtroducing….. To create the album, the American producer worked solely from an Akai MPC60 sampler and made practically the whole album from samples. 

In a recent interview with The Guardian, Davis claimed to have “accidentally invented trip-hop” with his 1996 instrumental hip-hop album. Despite his pioneering work on the album and the term “trip-hop” first being coined in 1994, the genre’s true source is traceable back to Bristol, UK in the early 1990s with Massive Attack and Portishead.

Listen to Mike Stephenson’s ‘Burundi Black’ below. It is widely understood to be the first song to use a prominent sample.