The Michael Jackson sample map goes viral

I’ve been making sample maps, diagrams showing what songs include samples of what other songs. I’m a big sample geek. I like knowing where my music comes from the same way I like knowing where my food comes from. This map shows many, probably not nearly all, of the songs that sample Michael Jackson’s solo work. Click to see it bigger.

Michael Jackson sample map

MJ is in the middle, with his songs in the first ring out. The next ring shows songs that sampled MJ. The outer ring shows the artist who did the sampling. Most of the information comes from the Rap Sample FAQ and wikipedia. I included MJ quoting “Soul Makossa” and Björk quoting “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” even they aren’t technically samples, but I figured, musically and legally it’s the same thing.

I got the idea to do the Michael Jackson map when I was walking down the street in Park Slope. This was a few months before he died and was not much on anybody’s mind. Barbara, the singer in my laptop band, was always playing his tracks, but it’s not like you were hearing him out in the world much. So I was surprised to hear a guy drive past on his motorcycle, with the speakers booming out what I thought was a crazy remix of “Wanna Be Startin’ Something.” It was the “Mama se, mama sa, mama coo sa” chant, but in a deep bass voice over an afro-funk beat. I thought someone had taken a sample of MJ and slowed it down or something. I looked it up on the internet to figure out who it was, and it turned out not to be a remix at all, actually the exact opposite. The song was “Soul Makossa” by Manu Dibango, MJ’s original inspiration for the end of “Wanna Be Startin’ Something.”

I started the map on March 26th and posted it on Flickr a few days later. I also talked it up a little on Facebook and Twitter. It got a few dozen views and a couple of nice comments. I had thought to include the Jackson 5 on it too, but it would have made the map too unwieldy. So a few days later I did a separate map:

Jackson 5 sample map

My first sample map to get wider internet attention wasn’t any of the Michael Jackson ones, it was the Wu-Tang Clan one. (The hipsters on Tumblr love Wu-Tang.) Meanwhile, the MJ map continued to get a few views a week or so, more than most of the stuff I post, but not a whole lot more.

Then on May 26th, the MJ sample map was viewed over three thousand times. The next day it was viewed more than thirty-five thousand times. I had no idea why this was happening until I got a Flickr message from Forumz1:


I was the one who originally submitted the MJ map to Reddit. I found it via a MJ forum. Just wanted to say that your maps are great! I’m a pretty big MJ fan and was excited to hear people sampling him in such creative ways in the 90’s and early 2000’s, but after a while I felt it got out of hand and this old Onion article started to become true:

It didn’t take off that well on Reddit, but I think Digg’s best user found it and submitted it and it skyrocketed. I’m glad it got exposure, and your work got a lot of exposure!

The Digg user who posted it is MrBabyMan. Thank you MrBabyMan, wherever you are. The Digg post generated most of the views, directly and through aggregators. It also produced a bunch of comments that, between them, represent a perfect cross-section of the internet’s feelings about MJ in the months before his death, about sampling, and hip-hop and race relations in America generally.

The first few comments are ignorant one-liners about how hip-hop isn’t music. Then someone asks:

I confess, I need someone to explain it to me, as if I were a 4 year old.

MrBabyMan helpfully responds:

From the center out:
Michael Jackson
Michael Jackson song
Song that was covered/sampled using the Jackson song
Artist who sampled said song
i.e. Public Enemy’s “911 is a joke” samples “Thriller” by MJ

A couple of people use “4 years old” as a hook for pedophile jokes. Others jump to defend MJ’s musicianship, in spite of his troubled personal life.

He might be a crazy freak show, but ya gotta admit – the man knows how to make music.

Someone announces:

I doubt highly that he is the sole composer of all that music.

He isn’t. MJ is the sole composer of some of his songs and co-composer or arranger on most of them. Quincy Jones wrote some of them. A British musician named Rod Temperton wrote “Thriller” and “Rock With You.” Two of the guys from Toto wrote “Human Nature.”

One commenter is dismayed by the current state of hip-hop:

So Michael Jackson indirectly helped spawn an entire industry of mediocre music and inflated egos? MJ’s music actually was pretty good, rappers just got lazy.

My observation is that some hip-hop musicians are lazy, some are fanatical workaholics, same as in any other profession. The ones who are really good at it tend to be the ones who practice the most, same as in any other profession. But a lot of Digg users equate sampling with plagiarism, and doubt that it takes any skill:

If you showed me how I bet I could do it pretty decently, after all, I have most of the music these guys are cutting from!

I say, go for it. The software is easy to learn. Finding musical uses for it takes a lot of trial and error.

Some commenters don’t take issue with the basic musical validity of hip-hop, but they are concerned about the violation of intellectual property rights.

It may take technical talent but there’s hardly anything musically artistic about borrowing someone else’s beats as a backer for spoken poetry. Let’s face it, if you can’t play an instrument, you can’t read or compose music and you can’t sing, then your musical talent is dubious at best. That’s not to say that rappers don’t have talent. After all, finding creative new ways to incorporate various bodily orifices and functions into spoken poetry isn’t easy. I’m just suggesting that calling them musicians might be a bit of a stretch.

I actually think talking about bodily orifices and functions is a good thing. They’re part of life, I think it’s healthy to have a sense of humor and fun about them. I’m too chicken to do it in my own music, so I’m glad Missy Elliott is willing to stick her neck out on the rest of our behalf.

Not every Digg commenter is bent out of shape about the culture of appropriation.

The old blues musicians borrowed each others riffs all the time.. and they are considered the founders of Rock music. Go listen to a few Robert Johnson recordings compared to a few Leadbelly recordings, and you’ll find that without the vocal accompaniment, there is almost nothing to distinguish between them. What it comes down to, in my mind, is artistic relevance. If you rip off a song and have nothing new to add to it, then it’s bullshit.. regardless of law. I think this market should take care of itself. Either you’re relevant, or you’re not. When you consider the fact that there are only 7 notes in the western musical scale, the argument for originality falls apart… so what it comes down to is whether people support what you’re doing or not. In other words, it’s all politics.

Amen to that.

As a musician and a songwriter, I would be pissed if someone outright stole my song.. which does happen… but as an artist, I would be ecstatic if someone took my idea to another level.

Amen to that too. When was anyone ever original?

Of course, what I’m saying is highly subjective, but I don’t see anything wrong with borrowing and expanding on ideas, so long as it isn’t outright theft… which I don’t consider most sampling artists to be doing.

Seriously. “911 Is A Joke” uses a sample of “Thriller”, but I doubt anyone is going to confuse one for the other.

Sampling makes some commenters very huffy:

You’re comparing playing a recording of someone else to actually performing on a real instrument music composed by someone else? That’s the same thing to you? You’re lost.

In my experience, choosing and sequencing samples isn’t any harder or easier than writing on an instrument. “Lost” is a revealing choice of word, like samplers are breaking some kind of religious law. Music has religious overtones for  a lot of people, me and this guy included.

Too many artists take songs from good artists like Pink Floyd, Michael Jackson, etc and butcher them up. I actually become angry when they come on the radio.

The word “butcher” is pretty graphic. Like samplers are dismembering their source material? I’m going to play armchair psychiatrist and guess the anger here goes a little deeper than the state of popular music.

You don’t see 80’s bands remaking rap songs and putting them on the radio.

Which is too bad, because I’d love to hear Depeche Mode covering Kanye West.

One of my supporters is anxious about the sorry state of copyright law.

I love when information is organized like this. Hope nobody gets sued… That would be unnecessary…

I don’t think I have much to worry about. This is just factual information, nobody owns it.

The warmest pro-MJ sentiment is someone who quotes the Dave Chappelle jury duty skit.

Prosecutor: So, you don’t think Michael Jackson is guilty?
Dave Chappelle: No, man. He made Thriller.
Dave Chappelle: Thriller.

There are requests for more sample maps. People want to see Zapp and Roger, “Amen Brother,” the Beastie Boys and Kraftwerk. There are also sarcastic requests for P Diddy and Will Smith, who are not much loved by Digg’s users. Some people don’t like my graphic presentation style:

What an awful, awful way to present this information.

Graphic design fail.

Not very graphic, I’m only seeing a lot of boring info.

Some of the design criticism is helpful.

I’m not suggesting a pie chart would be better. But maybe a legend even. Or make it bigger so it’s not all cramped. Or different colors for each section. Something. The whole point of an infographic is to make something easier to understand, but this honestly would be easier to follow in a list form.

The reason I did it so cramped is so it can all fit together on one screen. If I was going to do a wall-size print or a shower curtain, I’d use a lot more white space. What I like about it the map format is how it creates unexpected juxtapositions. [Update: I subsequently color-coded the maps.]

Digg has a humungous readership, and it feeds a ton of other blogs and aggregators. The map got reposted on Twitter, Delicious, and Tumblr, on Buzzfeed and Prefix Mag, on Highsnobiety and Posterous, on Sling Blog, Funkjelly, Laroushe, and Gearslutz. It was on Spike TV, Fiftyonefiftyone, Yepyep, a Polish blog called Infomuzyka, and Dutch and Italian MJ fan forums. Gigdoggy wrote a nice article about the sample map project generally.

While this was all starting to happen, I was reading “Here Comes Everybody” by Clay Shirky. I felt like I was living the book in real time. Like a lot of computer nerds, I don’t get out much. It was a lot of fun making the connection with all thsse MJ fans, and even with the haters.

Then MJ died. Not much more I can add except, rest in peace to a great musician and a complex individual.

After that the map started to really get around. Otis Taylor from South Carolina’s The State interviewed me and ran a bunch of nice quotes in his Sunday article. The map has been on the MTV and VH1 blogs, MSNBC’s Clicked, Rachel Maddow’s Map Room and MJ’s official site. As of this writing, it’s been viewed over a hundred thousand times, by people in Poland and South Africa and Japan and Russia and Iran and France and most of the rest of the internet-using world. Somebody even did a remix:

I’m grateful for all the attention, though I wish it wasn’t driven by the early death of one of my lifelong favorite artists. My friends assure me that I shouldn’t feel guilty, I did the map out of love and everything. It’s been good to hear his music so much lately, I can say that.

Here’s a mashup of “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” and “Soul Makossa” with many related and derivative works.

42 thoughts on “The Michael Jackson sample map goes viral

  1. “Do It Again/Billie Jean” by Club House. This song came out shortly after the “Thriller” album was released, in 1983. I’m thinking it was possibly the first song that sampled a cut from “Thriller.” I heard it one summer while visiting my dad in Maryland on a Washington, DC radio station. Keep in mind there was no widespread Internet back then, so it was several years before I was able to find it…and I searched hard! It interpolates “Do It Again” by Steely Dan and “Billie Jean” by MJ. It is a HOT cut. Here’s the link from YouTube:

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  4. Michael Jackson is truly the King of Pop. He made a lot of great songs in the area of Pop Music. His death is a great loss to the music industry.

  5. Pingback: Six Songs That Have A Bit Of “Thriller” In Their DNA « Idolator: Music News, Reviews, And Gossip

  6. Wow this is amazing and not just because I’m an MJ fan. I love music and I love knowing where my music comes from, the origin/history of the song. To map this out visually is awesome and I would love to see more. Great job!!!

    Here are a few more:
    For MJ you can also add Fabolous and his song “Baby” which samples “I Can’t Help It”

    Q-Tip “Move” samples The Jackson Five “Dancing Machine”

    Drake – Where to Now samples The Jackson Five “All I do is Think of You”

  7. Pingback: Michael Jackson Sample Map | List of Sample MJ Songs

  8. Ethan,
    You are AWESOME!! The map is super! Thanks for sharing it.
    I added it to my MJ Technology page to motivate teachers and students to use graphic organizers to enhance thinking and learning. Your example is PERFECT.

    With you permission, I would like to keep the posting and your link. If not, I will remove it.

    Thanks so much,

    • Thanks for all the kind words. Please show the map to anyone who’ll look at it. As long as my name is on there, feel free to distribute it as widely as you want in whatever medium.

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  12. This is the best article I have read in a while! Kudos! A while ago I made a rough mix that highlights a SMALL slice of what you’re talking about, something designed to show the King’s impact on music and vice versa…of course now I wish I found your article first!
    This mix was more for personal reasons, take a listen one day when you have an hour to kill. It seems like you’d appereciate it…RIP MJ!

    • I’m making an iTunes playlist that I call “Michael, Sampled.” My research brought me here. Great job Ethan! I’m a huge fan of Michael, and am constantly making mixtapes with differing themes for myself and my favorite cousin. My research for this little project ends at your graphic. I appreciate your hard work. ~Paul B. Bellamy, Charlotte, NC

  13. Pingback: Michael Jackson & Social Media « Ideas in Motion

  14. Hi Ethan,

    Since we find out about MJ’s death I didn’t stop looking graphic information. I met your fabulous work and decided to realize an online with your information. It looks like to me an incredible work of documentation. I hope that you like. It will publish next Tuesday on the occasion of Michael’s funeral. Obviously, your blog will be indexed opportunely.

    Congratulations and best wishes,


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  17. The maps are both excellent showing the brilliance of the jackson and more improtantly the late King. The King of Pop Michael Jackson. Long live the king

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  22. You’ve left “They Don’t Care About Us” off your map. It was recently sampled quite heavily by Busta Rhymes.

    Madonna also used an uncredited sample of the horn arrangement from “Can You Feel It” in her song, “Sorry,” just a couple years ago.

    She also used the drums in her live performance of “Like a virgin/Hollywood” at the MTV VMAs when she kissed Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera.

    Mariah Carey recently sampled “Off the Wall” in the bridge to her song, “I’m That Chick.”

    Billy Ocean also sampled Vincent Price’s laughter from “Thriller” in the middle of one of the verses to “Caribbean Queen” (a song for which he was also accused of ripping off “Billie Jean”)

    • First of all, post something that a lot of people care about. Love him or hate him, almost everybody has some kind of strong emotion about Michael Jackson. People also have strong (and strongly diverging) feelings about hip-hop and sampling. Second, get your stuff on Digg, not just because it has a lot of readers, but because a lot of those readers reblog stuff, and because it feeds into so many secondary aggregators.

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