It may sound ridiculous, even blasphemous, but Vanilla Ice could be responsible for the sound of today’s music. Delightfully known as one of the worst yet entertaining songs of all time, “Ice Ice Baby” is more influential than often credited. The hit’s incorporation of Queen and David Bowie’s phenomenal “Under Pressure” bass line was arguably the first major use of sampling in popular music. If there’s one major criticism of music today, it’s the overuse of samples and an overall lack of originality. “Ice Ice Baby” proved that samples are a recipe for success no matter how terrible the new version may sound, so it is not surprising it started a continuing trend.
Flo-Rida’s “Right Round” is the fastest digitally selling song ever, amounting two million downloads in only five weeks — and of course it is built around a sample from the 80’s hit “You Spin Me Round.” Although some may say sample-inspired songs add nothing new, this version improved the unexceptional original by adding modern synth flourishes and slightly changing the chorus for a catchier hook and more forward innuendo.
If you thought the “Ma Ma Ma” chant in Lady GaGa’s “Pokerface” was original — think again. It is actually recycled from the relatively unknown 1980 disco hit “Ma Baker” by Boney M. So much for the spokesperson of originality. (Granted, I love Lady GaGa, but there’s no getting around that example). David Guetta even sampled his own song “Love Is Gone” when producing the Black Eyed Peas “I Gotta Feeling,” which opens with the same riff and interpolates it throughout. Its success is no secret, staying on the top of billboard hot 100 for 14 weeks and still holding the record for selling over six million digital copies.
Samples are everywhere, and that is no exaggeration. When a song becomes popular, and people complain about our generation’s music, samples are always a likely scapegoat. Supposedly we are destroying everything that was once sacred and turning old melodies into juvenile, mindless trash. Sure, songs like “Right Round” are nowhere near profound — but neither were the originals. The truth is that the greatest artists of our generation have used samples, some even through their entire careers. He may have a huge ego and hurt Taylor Swift, but Kanye West really is one of the top rappers — just not the voice of our generation. With the exception of that abysmal last album, Kanye used samples in almost all of his music. He’s brought old songs and made them fresh in our generation à la “Gold Digger.” People like to criticize him for his personality, but it’s hard to deny that his use of samples is often effective.
Even if samples aren’t used to make particularly “deep” music, I say let artists have their fun. Samples are meant to enhance old memories and grab the listener with a familiar tune, and they are undoubtedly enjoyable. T.I. is an artist who has found success with his own original tracks, so I don’t see anything wrong with adding some excitement by sampling the atrocious Numa Numa song and actually making it tolerable. It also was the highest jump to number one on the Hot 100 at its release. Similarly, Eminem is considered one of the best rappers alive, yet he has also used samples to make some of his best music. Although some may say he “sold out,” his latest album Recovery returned Eminem to the top of his game — and he used samples in eight of the tracks. Specifically, he brought Haddaway’s “What Is Love” into whole new territory, another example of artists using samples creatively.
Like Eminem, rappers have always used samples to gain recognition in the music industry. Freestyles are often put on another track’s beats, and have helped unknown rappers gain recognition and eventually commercial success. Established rappers also follow suit. Similarly, the mixtape often consists of samples, using familiar beats to catch ears. Yet, no one criticizes either medium. Samples in popular music are no different except that they are released and played on the radio.
Really, what’s the difference between a sample and producers recycling beats anyway? Listen to Beyonce’s “Halo” and Kelly Clarkson’s “Already Gone” and tell me they aren’t similar. At least samples revel in their “unoriginality,” while producers like Ryan Tedder use the same exact beats in all their songs. Timbaland has been repeating his same beats since Aaliyah — they’re good, and he was one of my favorite producers at his prime — still, all his songs tend to sound the same. Some producers have no shame, such as David Guetta and his “Love Is Gone” recycling. The worst is production duo Stargate, who continue to churn out “Irreplacable” clones — “With You,” “Tattoo,” “Take A Bow” — the list goes on. At least when artists use samples they revel in their glory, when producers expect people to think they’re listening to an original song when they really aren’t. There are a lot of things wrong with the industry, but samples are only the tip of the iceberg.
It’s interesting and almost ironic that sample use was proved commercially successful by such a bad song as “Ice Ice Baby.” It paved the way for a new musical movement, perhaps inevitable due to new technology and the now extensive back catalogue of music. Luckily, great songs were made as a result, some improving on their originals or at least giving them a whole new meaning. The song may very well be the greatest worst song ever made. Ice a bro to that.