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hip-hop songs that sampled prince: the best and the worst

April 24, 2019
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If you are a fan of Prince, you know that his influence across musical genres is undeniable. If you are a fan of hip-hop, you know the genre doesn’t exist, without artists like him, James Brown, Michael Jackson, Marvin Gaye and just about every other black artists popular in the 1970s and 1980s.  Prince, whose music has been sampled and even mentioned by name in ways that speak to his direct impact on black music, was a hip hop influence since its early days.

Prince’s relationship with hip hop is just as complicated as Prince’s relationship with record companies. I should say, his relationship hip hop was unnecessarily complicated by record companies. We know that in the early years when artists were sampling beat, hooks and refrains, credit was rarely given to those who composed or performed on the sample. We also know that Prince wasn’t big on having his music sampled, despite his own sampling at times (he did, and I will get to that later). But, what most people don’t know is that at one point, during his row with Warner Brothers — the label for whom he made millions during the first 20 years of his career — Prince was seeking other ways to profit independently from the music he made.

At one time, he floated around the idea of taking his most popular works and creating vocal-free samples of popular songs like “Kiss” and “1991.” It was a good idea since artists were already doing so and he was fielding multiple requests from producers to sample his work. Prince collaborated with a few members of his band and a DJ and they fleshed out the idea for a CD of samples. It never got off the ground because the majority of those track masters were still owned by Warner Brothers and at that point negotiations over ownership of his master recordings had broken down and he would not be able to profit from the recorded music — his own recorded music. Still, that didn’t stop Warner Bros. from allowing and profiting from artists sampling his work.

If you believe interviews where Prince said he didn’t listen to other artists, then I got a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you on the block where Biggie dropped his first verses. Or you can believe people who knew and worked with him that I interviewed like Elisa Fiorillo and Andre Cymone, who grew up with Prince. If you listen to Andre talk music, you understand how Prince talked about music, especially about the value and worth of hip hop and its place in the music industry.

You don’t know Chuck D. by not listening to Hip Hop. You don’t ask Doug E. Fresh to join your band or tour with you by not listening to Hip Hop. You don’t know who Mobb Deep is or how you can make their track better with an uncredited keyboard riff by not listening to musical influences other than your own.

One of the reasons Prince was such a prolific songwriter is that he could listen to what was popular, find what was missing and fill the void. Sometimes it hit, sometimes, it didn’t, but he did admire the originality of Hip Hop once he understood it wasn’t there to replace musicians like him, but it was a necessary element to the music that young black kids were yearning for; it was telling their stories, our stories, much in the same way Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield told the stories of five young black kids in North Minneapolis named Prince, Andre, Morris (Day), Jimmy, (Jam) and Terry (Lewis).

Prince’s music has been covered by many, some were done well like Alicia Keys’ 2001 cover of “How Come You Don’t Call Me Anymore” and Chaka Khan’s 1985 cover of “I Feel For You,” which was the first Prince cover to chart with Hip Hop elements added to it, including samples of Stevie Wonder’s “Fingertips (Pt. 2)” and turntable scratches. Others were poorly done like Ginuwine’s 1996 cover of “When Doves Cry,” produced by Timbaland.

The latter is one of the most disappointing Prince covers not just for the unimpressive vocal stylings. To be released as a single from Ginuwine’s debut album, The Bachelor, this song that was Prince’s first #1 on the pop charts (his first #1 was “I Wanna Be Your Lover” on the Black Singles chart), was the weakest track on this album and probably the worst song Timbaland has ever produced. As a whole, the album was one of my favorites in 1996. I can understand why Timbaland wanted to attempt this cover. I suspect the first reason is that the lead single, “Pony” was lyrically inspired by Prince’s “Horny Pony.”  The second reason can be found in Tim’s entire catalog over the last 25 years. Timbaland has employed the one artistic nuance that made “When Doves Cry” so unique for its time: the absence of a bass line.

Much ado has been made about “When Doves Cry” not following the traditional formula for an R&B song because it doesn’t have a bass line — at least not in the traditional sense. However, if you listen to this 1984 track with 2019 hip hop ears, there IS a bass sound. It’s not a bass guitar or even a keyboard bass, it’s a bass sound approximated by the Linn drum machine that was prevalent in his music at that time (and what makes Questlove call Prince the best drum programmer in Hip Hop) and is just two notes existing in the only empty space, following the main keyboard chords. Timbaland has built an entire sound creating bass lines using drum machines. This is probably why he thought he could take creative license with this song. It didn’t work.

We will probably hear Prince sampled more now as the estate makes negotiations to make his catalog easily accessible for musical artists and producers as well as directors in television and film. We’ve seen his music covered in a tribute episode of Empire and his catalog was tapped for a very well written tribute episode of Black-ish.

It’s always nice to hear, now, how many undiscovered or independent artists appreciate his work and have EPs and singles they share on YouTube. One of my favorite recent discoveries is a DJ Assassin Presents remix of D.S.M.R. (and one the estate should consider picking up and releasing) is what approximates a 1995 Puff Daddy remix. It leaves the song in its original state, with just an organic rhyme in the beginning, reminiscent of when Biggie did the opening rap for Total on “Can’t You See.” Prince isn’t lost in this song, his lyrics remain intact and it is the song you still love. Biggie and Diddy did discuss with Prince using a sample of “Kiss,” with his permission, but when asked if they owned their masters, their “no” was met with Prince’s “no.” They still recorded the song, “Would You Die For Me,” with the sample and featured Lil’ Kim. It was released on the posthumous Notorious B.I.G. album, Born Again.

There are some great Prince samples that only after his death, did I realize that’s what they were, though in my youth and early adulthood, I heard those songs so many time like Jay Z and Pharrell’s “Excuse Me Miss” (“Walk Don’t Walk”), Kanye West and Jay Z’s “Welcome to the Jungle” (“When We’re Dancing Close And Slow”), The-Dream’s “Fast Car” (“Erotic City”), MC Lyte’s “Paper Thin” (“17 Days”), Lil’ Troy’s “Wanna Be A Baller” (“Little Red Corvette”), Digital Underground’s “Sex Packets” (“She’s Always In My Hair”), and Public Enemy’s “Brothers Gonna Work It Out” (“Let’s Go Crazy”)

There are the obvious Prince samples that I readily knew like Arrested Development’s “Tennessee” (“ Alphabet St.”), Jay-Z and Beyonce’s “03 Bonnie & Clyde” (“If I Was Your Girlfriend”), Kool Moe Dee’s “God Made Me Funke” (“Do U Lie?”), and my all-time favorite, Nice & Smooth’s “No Delayin’” (“Starfish & Coffee”). There are the samples, I really just don’t like, Lil’ Wayne’s “Diamonds & Girls” (“Diamonds & Pearls’) and Nicki Minaj’s “Blow Ya Mind” (“Darling Nikki”). Then, there are the name drops like Salt N Pepa’s “Shoop,” Missy Elliot’s “Work It,” and Kanye’s “Stronger.” There is something else.

Hip-Hop didn’t just sample Prince. Prince, often showed his appreciation for hip hop in what often approximates the Prince version of six degrees of separation.

In 1994, Shock G. of Digital Underground remixed Prince’s Love Sign, a duet with Nona Gaye. The video was the directorial debut of Ice Cube, who Prince later sampled Cube’s “What Can I Do?” in 1996 on Mr. Happy from the Emancipation album. In the years that followed, Prince toured with Doug E. Fresh, was remixed by The Neptunes (not Pharrell and Chad’s best work) and featured Eve on two songs: one being “Hot Wit U” (the original and the remix) and “The Greatest Romance Ever Sold (Adam and Eve Remix)” where the beginning is Prince’s rearrangement of bass line from Craig Mack’s “Flava In Ya Ear” remix. Prince’s own rhyming on songs like “Pope” wasn’t half bad and how is having a gold microphone gun NOT Hip Hop? It is. Just as much as having Q-Tip drop a few bars on a song called “Chocolate Box.”

It’s funny how you re-conceptualize something when you grow older and after someone’s time on this earth passed. When I was in my arrogant 20s, I probably would have told you that my life in music was one where my Prince life and my Hip Hop life separate and that I was a master at switching up the code when i felt like it. In the three years since he’s been gone, I realize that I never did and that I loved Hip-Hop because of Prince, not as an aside.