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From Public Enemy to Jay-Z: The five best David Bowie samples in hip-hop


The art of sampling is a revolutionary one that has helped define hip-hop and beyond. The practice has provided countless songs with an unexpected second lease of life, such as when M.I.A. used The Clash’s ‘Straight To Hell’ to supplement her immensely popular single ‘Paper Planes’, suddenly passing on the genius work of Joe Strummer to a whole new demographic.

Sampling has single-handedly ushered new life into songs from yesteryear, tracks that have subsequently enjoyed an Indian summer after being refigured by another artist. ‘Amen Brother’ by The Winstons takes the crown for the most sampled track of all time, with its drum break being repurposed on a staggering 5,377 times and counting. Everyone from N.W.A. to Oasis have incorporated the material into their work and made it one of the most familiar sounds in music.

English engineer Harry Chamberlin developed the first sampler back in the 1940s, and the significance of the invention has grown with each decade. The secret of the device was that it contained a keyboard which triggered a series of tape decks with the capacity to hold eight seconds of recorded sound, sowing the seed for the future of music.

Further development came in 1969 when English engineer Peter Zinovieff masterminded the first digital sampler, the EMS MUSYS, and all you need is a laptop or even a phone in 2021 to have a go.

David Bowie is an artist that’s been given the sample treatment more than most, and below we’ve taken a look at five of the finest.

The five best David Bowie samples:

El-P – ‘Innocent Leader’

El-P, better known as one half of supergroup Run The Jewels – alongside Killer Mike – is one of hip-hop’s most incandescent minds. As well as being more than capable on the mic, production is where he truly comes into his own, and his 2002 track ‘Innocent Leader’ sees him reimagine Bowie’s ‘Soul Love’.

He uses the track as the bed to build an instrumental around and transforms the classic into a barely recognisable entity. Following Bowie’s death in 2016, El took to Twitter to write: “Was in a session when the news about Bowie broke. We watched ‘Black Star’. The session was over. No point.”

Public Enemy – ‘Night Of The Living Baseheads’

Public Enemy are masters at the art of sampling and knew how to coax magic out of a grain of existing work in a magnetic manner. With that, David Bowie’s iconic hit ‘Fame’ formed the base for their anthem, ‘Night Of The Living Baseheads’.

They sped up the BPM and transform it while keeping the same funky energy alive which Bowie poured into the original. “David Bowie..daring as all hell. Rock, punk, theatre, funk, disco, EDM. Dude wasn’t afraid to wrestle any music or lyric ever,” Chuck D said in 2016.

Ol’ Dirty Bastard – ‘Dirty Run’

The late Wu-Tang Clan founder Ol’ Dirty Bastard remains one of the most enigmatic figures that hip-hop has ever produced. ODB was another rapper who took inspiration from Bowie and his posthumous album, Osirus sampled ‘The Starman’.

The album was released just a handful of months after his death, and the track, ‘Dirty Run’, incorporates ‘Fame’ while also featuring a Run DMC sample.

J Dilla – ‘Take Notice’

Another pioneering brain that elevated hip-hop is J Dilla. He produced records for The Pharcyde, De La Soul, Common, and the late artist’s hand in shaping the sound of hip-hop is still audible today.

His sample of Bowie’s ‘Soul Love’ on ‘Take Notice’ came just a year after El-P used the same track from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, which shows how easy it is for a domino effect can take place. However, Dilla crafts the song into his mould to such a degree that you’ll struggle to realise it exists, providing a snapshot of his ethereal skillset.

Jay-Z – ‘Takeover’

Jay-Z is no stranger to sampling luminaries from rock music. After all, he made The Grey Album which interspersed his record, The Black Album, with The Beatles’ The White Album, and David Bowie is another artist that the rapper has brought into his world.

The Kanye West-produced ‘Takeover’, which appeared on 2001’s The Blueprint, marks the final appearance of ‘Fame’ in this list, and it’s a lesson in how to sample. Not only does the aforementioned Bowie track feature, but West also squeezes in ‘Five To One’ by The Doors and ‘Sound of da Police’ by KRS-One.