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Sample This! Part 3

Updated: Sep 25, 2020

A Brief Introduction to Sampling in Music: Part Three


Breakbeats, Turntables, Early Hip Hop

In the previous installments, we continued our journey through musical sampling’s history. We observed the ways that musical material has been borrowed, shared, combined, and transformed by musicians in the past. In this article, we will explore the history of early hip hop, and in the next article, we will move from the analog music world to digital.

Other Installments

The Turntable as Instrument

As mentioned in Sample This! Part 1, the earliest experiments with sampling were created by re-recording excerpts from vinyl records until the invention of tape in 1928. The record player or turntable continued to be a source of inspiration for musicians and engineers looking to push forward the musical envelope. Avant-garde composers, such as John Cage (1912-1992). brought the turnable into the “Classical” concert hall with works such as Imaginary Landscape No. 1 (1939) and Credo in US (1941).

Cage scored Imaginary Landscape No. 1 for four performers with two of them controlling two variable-speed turntables, playing records featuring electronic sounds, as well as a pianist playing a muted piano, and percussionist playing a cymbal.The turntablists altering the sound of the records by changing the speed of the turntables, creating pitch effects that turntablists still use today. The piece was meant for radio broadcast and was first performed at the Cornish School radio station in Seattle on March 24, 1939. It is often cited as the first electroacoustic (music where the composer calls for technology to alter acoustic sound) music ever composed.

Cage described Credo in US as “a suite with a satirical character.” It calls for four players, a pianist. two percussionists playing muted gongs, tin cans, electric buzzer and tom-toms, and another player who uses a turntable a a radio to ”use some classic: e.g. Dvorak, Beethoven, Sibelius or Schostakovich” to add fragments of sound to the piece”. Cage was calling for samples to be used for musical effect. Like much of a popular sample based music that followed, Credo in US was meant to accompany dancing choreographed by his longtime collaborator and life partner, Merce Cunningham and another choreographer, Jean Erdman who performed at its premiere at Bennington College, Vermont on August 1, 1942.

Meanwhile in Jamaica

King Tubby in Studio

While Cage and other experimental artists in the US were Jamaican radio sound systems transformed recorded music into a real-time event. [In Jamaica, “sound system” does not refer to a speaker or amplification system but rather a group of people. It is made of a DJs, music producers/engineers, musicians, and MCs (masters of ceremonies) who play music at live events and bring music to audiences.] It wasn’t until 1995 that there were copyright laws in Jamaica making it easier for DJs and others to repurpose music for their creative projects. By manipulating records through changes in EQ, speed, reversing, and looping, they created new tracks by using sounds from ska, reggae, and/or rocksteady records.

King Tubby in Studio

One of the most well-known of these innovators was audio engineer, Osbourne “King Tubby” Ruddock (1941 – 1989). King Tubby’s name remains synonymous with dub, the genre of electronic music that he helped create. He worked with nearly every artist in Jamaica and having him remix your music was like “a seal of quality that was never questioned.” He would apart music and reconstruct into something more, like he had done as an audio repairman. While earlier remixers simply been made by removing the vocal track from a record to create an instrumental B-side, Tubby stripped out, not only the vocals, but also cut up instrumental parts. He would then drop them in and out of the tracks. Additionally he would add effects and sounds, while also playing with phasing, pitch shifts, and echoes.

King Tubby and the Aggrovators, A Better Version (1973)

Samples: Horace Andy Skylarking (1972)

Early Hip Hop: The 1970s and 1980s

Hip hop art
Photo: Ben Weins

While the art world and Jamaican sound systems were innovating, American DJs in New York City were innovating as well. Through effects such as DJ scratching [going forward and back on the record to create rhythmic effect], crossfading [switching between one and another record by fading the volume of in and out] looping, and beat juggling [combining two beats], the turntable was not only an instrument but a live performance tool for musicians who may not have had access to other instruments due to socioeconomic or other factors.

DJs, along with MCs, could be used in place of a entire band at events, like block parties, where people wanted music for dancing. DJs isolated breakbeats and extended them into song-length performances. Without live singers or soloists, MCs kept the crowd engaged; they introduced DJs, bantered with the audience, made jokes, etc. Eventually, it became popular for MCs (or rappers, as they became to be known) to talk in rhyme and in tempo with the music. First dismissed as a passing fad, rap became an establish genre. One of the most celebrated turntablists of the early hop hop scene is Joseph “Grandmaster Flash” Saddler (b. 1958) who still performs today. Through the innovation of these DJs, MCs, and others a new genre of integrated arts, including music, poetry [including rap], dance [including breakdance], and visual arts [including graffiti art] called "Hip Hop" was born.

Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five c. 1978
Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five c. 1978

Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five Superappin’ (1979)

Samples: The Whole Darn Family Seven Minutes of Funk (1976)

Breakbeats, Dance Music Backbones

Grandmaster Flash in 1999

Starting in the Jazz age, musicians casually refer to a solo that features a particular instrument as a “break,” as it is a break from the and for the rest of the group. A breakbeat refers to a short sample, usually a drums or percussion playing a specific beat or rhythmic pattern, that is used as a basis or backbone of a track. These samples are usually chosen from jazz, R&B, disco, soul, or funk records. Breakbeats have been used in many styles, including hip hop, big beat, drum and bass, jungle, hardcore, UK garage and other electronic styles. Two of the most commonly used breakbeats are the breaks, the “Funky Drummer Break” and the “Amen Break.” James Brown’s Funky Drummer (1970) has been sampled over 1,000 times.The most sampled beat in history ie The Winstons Amen, Brother (1969), which ash been sampled over 2,000 times. [See the previous post for an audio example of Amen, Brother.]

Breakbeat Example: Funky Drummer

Clyde Stubblefield in 2005

Clyde Stubblefield (1943-2017), a drummer for James Brown, created the beat of Brown’s Funky Drummer. Despite the popularity of the break and its use in tracks by popular artists including, Public Enemy, Run-DMC, N.W.A., Beastie Boys, Madonna, Prince, Sinéad O’Connor, Gerardo and others, he was not compensated for the subsequent use of the beat, only paid a studio musician rate for the original recording. Listen to the original and three songs of different styles that use the "Funky Dummer" break.

James Brown Funky Drummer (1970)

Public Enemy Fight the Power (1989)

Sinéad O’Connor I Am Stretched on Your Grave (1990)

Gerardo Rico Suave (1991)

Audio Archeology, Crate Digging

Crate Diggers At Work
Crate Diggers At Work

Like King Tubby in Jamaica or the creators of musique concrète that we learned about in the first installment, DJs, music producers, and engineers did not simply sample one or two tracks but form entirely knew musical compositions by combining many sampled sounds as well as, on occasion, new recorded sounds as well. Assembling a library with a wide variety of possible sample material makes this process possible. Assembling a sampling toolkit is called “crate digging” as musicians often hunt throw the large crates of vintage vinyl records to discover interesting sounds. Crate digging is an art form in itself as it takes time to develop that skills to realize which records make better prospects than others as it would be simply impossible to listen to every record with an appealing jacket you see. It takes a process to listening and elevating deciding which sounds and tracks to isolate and where to "cue" or being the sample. Even in the digital world of today, crate digging and setting cues continues to be an important part of many electronic musician’s process.

Cuing Up the Next One

In our next installation, we will see what happened when sampling went digital and became even more accessible to musicians. After that, we will consider some of the legal and ethical ramifications of sampling. Finally, we will see how sampling remains an important piece of the musician’s toolkit.

Turntable with Vinyl Record
Turntable with Vinyl Record

Further Reading

The Art of Turntablism. History Dectectives.

Constantinides, John. The Sound System: Contributions to Jamaican Music and the Montreal Dancehall.

Greene, Jo-Ann. King Tubby Biography.

John Cage Trust.

Rory PQ. Hop Hop History: From The Streets to the Mainstream.

Smith, Sophy. From John Cage to Kool Herc: A Brief History of Turntablism. The Vinyl Factory.


Janae J. Almen is a professional music instructor, composer, sound artist, and writer. She has a BA in Music/Education from Judson University and a MM in Computer Music/Composition from the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. She is passionate about tea and creating our own daily rituals. Visit for more about music lessons and for more about a variety of wellness related topics including tea, sound healing, and more. Contact her via for questions about tea, ceremony, music composition, sound healing, writing, photography, or other relevant topics.



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