Digital Flashback: Samplers Run Amok

This week in 1991, digitally aided hits by Vanilla Ice, MC Hammer ruled charts.

Digital sampling was making its way from the cutting edge to the mainstream nine years ago this week, as Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer held the top two spots on the Billboard Top Pop Albums chart for a third straight week, with albums as heavy on sampling as they were on cheese.

The albums’ hit singles, Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby” (RealAudio excerpt) and MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This” (RealAudio excerpt), helped fuel a debate over the creativity of sampling, now a de rigueur element of many chart toppers.

Sampling involves capturing a sound, often from an existing recording, and incorporating it in another work. “Ice Ice Baby,” from Vanilla Ice’s To the Extreme (1990), appropriates the bass and piano riff from the 1982 Queen and David Bowie hit “Under Pressure” (RealAudio excerpt), while “U Can’t Touch This,” from Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em (1990), was built on an extended sample of Rick James’ “Super Freak” (RealAudio excerpt).

Because he had used such a large portion of “Super Freak,” Hammer eventually gave James co-songwriting credit.

“Financially, it’s fantastic,” James told the Denver Westword newspaper in 1998, “and, of course, ego-wise and vanity-wise, it’s really nice to hear someone do your stuff — so that’s all good. But in another way, I wish that young rappers and samplers would take rap and hip-hop to another level.”

Since its beginnings in the mid-1970s, rap music has relied heavily on the beats and sounds of others. But until the digital sampler arrived in 1984, the recycling was done with vinyl or tape loops. By the late ’80s, production teams such as the Bomb Squad (Public Enemy) and Dust Brothers (Beastie Boys) used the dexterity offered by digital sampling to create increasingly intricate work.

The sample-heavy pop hits of the early ’90s raised the question of whether artists were simply writing new lyrics to old hits. The charge still dogs hitmakers such as Puff Daddy and Will Smith, whose “Will 2K” (RealAudio excerpt) samples the Clash’s “Rock the Casbah,” but other artists, from pop band Len to the esoteric DJ Shadow, now use samples routinely without controversy.