Music blogs, magazines and cable channels like to run lists of the best albums of all time. Certain albums get listed again and again: Sgt Pepper, Pet Sounds, Highway 61 Revisited.
If you were to compile the best albums as measured by how often they get sampled by hip-hop producers, the list would look very different. There would be some famous names on it — James Brown, Led Zeppelin, P-Funk — but it wouldn’t necessarily include their best-known songs. And you’d see a lot of names that would be totally unfamiliar, unless you were a really devoted crate-digger. In the top ten, alongside tunes by The Honey Drippers, The Soul Searchers and The Incredible Bongo Band, you’d find “The Champ” by The Mohawks.
Hip-hop fans will instantly recognize the organ riff that kicks off this song. It’s everywhere. Yet I had never heard of the Mohawks before looking into the source of the riff. They were an ad-hoc band of session musicians led by a British organist named Alan Hawkshaw, best known for his commercial jingles, library music and TV theme songs. He also played on records by Barbra Streisand and Olivia Newton John. Not the likeliest source of inspiration for Big Daddy Kane and Ol’ Dirty Bastard, is he? But the album grooves hard.
The riff is one of the signature sounds of old-skool hip-hop. It’s in “Smooth Operator” by Big Daddy Kane, “The Big Payback” by EPMD, and “Miami Bass” by Stetsasonic. Its use may have tapered off a bit in the nineties but it’s still a go-to sample — Mary J Blige runs it under almost the entirety of “Gonna Breakthrough” from 2005.
Some producers reshape the riff to their own design. Guy reharmonizes it in “Groove Me,” changing the key from B to C# minor. Fu-shnickens flips it creatively in “La Schmoove” to make a different riff. KRS-One flips it even further, turning it into an almost entirely new melody on “Step Into A World (Rapture’s Delight),” named for its long quote of Blondie’s “Rapture.”
The biggest pop hit inspired by the organ riff doesn’t actually use the sample itself — Onyx shouts/sings its melody for the chorus of “Slam.”
The word being chanted at the front of the organ riff sounds more like “Tramp” than “Champ.” This has made it irresistible for anyone doing a song about a person with loose morals. The most obvious example is “Tramp” by Salt N Pepa (no embedding allowed, unfortunately, but don’t miss it.) De La Soul scratches “Tramp” on top of a stack of other hot samples in “Keepin’ The Faith” — I immediately recognized the beat from “Walk This Way” by Aerosmith.
A bunch of producers have mined other parts of “The Champ” too. Trust the RZA to look past the organ riff to the horn phrase a few seconds later as the basis for Wu-Tang’s “Shame On A N****a.” Main Source uses a completely different organ riff from later in the song in “Large Professor.” The Coup uses yet a different one on “Dig It.”
This listing barely scratches the surface of tracks that sample “The Champ.” It would probably be easier to list hip-hop artists who haven’t sampled it. After almost three decades of repurposing this one song, hip-hop’s collective imagination has probably not nearly exhausted its possibilities. If I missed one of your favorite uses, drop me a comment.