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Break-Beat It: Kanye, Nas and the best Michael Jackson samples in hip-hop

July 3, 2009 |  1:39 pm


Since 1991’s Grand Upright Music Ltd. vs. Warner Bros. case (a.k.a. Biz Markie vs. Gilbert O’Sullivan), most non-Puff Daddy producers have been wary of sampling well-known source material. Because of inherently prohibitive clearance costs, a litigious industry climate and the obvious notoriety of his catalog, the Michael Jackson songbook has been raided less than those of many of his peers. In spite of those barriers, he’s still managed to play a role in some classic hip-hop cuts. Here are a few of the finest:

Mobb Deep — “Apostle’s Warning” from “Hell on Earth” (1997)
Michael Jackson — “People Make the World Go Round” from “Ben” (1972)

Few samples come more diametrically opposed from their source material than Mobb Deep’s “Apostle Warning,” which loops the fluttering first few bars of Jackson’s uplifting, power-to-the-people eco-ballad and turns it into a harrowing and claustrophobic descent into a Queensbridge inferno. Whereas Jackson once cooed with celestial radiance, “Apostle’s Warning” finds Havoc and Prodigy lacing grimy raps over gritty drums to produce the powerful closing cut from the seminal “Hell on Earth.”

Side note: Westside Connection also deserves credit for interpolating both sample and hook into its  1997 single, “Gangstas Make the World Go Round.”

Big Punisher — “You Ain’t a Killer” from “Capital Punishment” (1998)
Michael Jackson — “With a Child’s Heart” from “Music and Me” (1973)

Young Lord snipped a simple but haunting piano loop from “With a Child’s Heart,” a 14-year-old Jackson's Bambi-like ode to juvenile decency off his third solo album, "Music and Me." Spitting an artillery round of nickel-plated battle boasts, Big Punisher commences with the weary declaration that “the harsh realities of life have taken their toll,” and later sneers that “when you awaken your manhood will be taken.” A complete 180 from the original’s tender-hearted intent, the Punisher’s song of experience serves as an almost Blakean rebuttal to Jackson’s ode to innocence.

De La Soul — “Breakadawn” from “Buhloone Mind State” (1993)
Michael Jackson — “I Can’t Help It” from “Off the Wall” (1979)

Native Tongues ringleaders, De La Soul stitched a patchwork of samples into the first single from their third album, “Buhloone Mind State,” including Smokey Robinson’s "Quiet Storm," the Bar-Kays’ "Song and Dance" and the Pointer Sisters’ “Yes We Can Can." Yet the ethereal groove and ice-cold lemonade bliss comes courtesy of “I Can’t Help It,” the Stevie Wonder- and Susaye Greene-penned love letter that serves as the emotional crux of “Off the Wall.” Another instance of Prince Paul’s inimitable ear, “Breakadawn” served as the breakout single from one of the 1990s' finest hip-hop records.

Nas — “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” from "Illmatic" (1994) 
Michael Jackson — “Human Nature” from “Thriller" (1982)

It’s appropriate that “Human Nature,” the fifth single from arguably the greatest pop album ever, served as the only commercially viable single from arguably the greatest hip-hop record of all time. Frequently derided for flaccid pop-crossover bids, Nas and producer Large Professor found chart shelter in the King of Pop’s preternatural popularity. The only “Illmatic” single to crack the Billboard 100, it ain’t hard to tell why.

Kanye West — “Good Life” from “Graduation" (2007)
Michael Jackson — “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)” from "Thriller" (1982)

Kanye West needed only two seconds of disembodied chipmunk soul from the coda of “P.Y.T.” to turn “Good Life” into one of the decade’s most popular songs. The secret was joy — West’s innate understanding of the sheer exuberance that naturally manifested inside of Jackson. No artist could cause a dance floor stampede quicker than M.J., and West, in his bid to create an arena-ready anthem for “Graduation,” wisely turned to the best teacher around. 

Other notables:

Naughty By Nature — “O.P.P.” from “Naughty by Nature” (1991)
The Jackson 5 — “ABC” from “ABC” (1970)

Jay-Z — “Izzo (H.O.V.A)” from "The Blueprint" (2001)
The Jackson 5 — “I Want You Back” from “Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5” (1969)

Ghostface Killah — “All That I Got Is You” from “Ironman” (1996)
The Jackson 5 — “Maybe Tomorrow” from “Maybe Tomorrow” (1971) 

-- Jeff Weiss

Photo: Michael Jackson in 2001. Credit: Reuters