I always enjoy when hip-hop artists sample themselves. It makes the music recursive, and for me, “recursive” is synonymous with “good.” You can hear self-sampling in “Nas Is Like” by Nas, “The Score” by the Fugees and many songs by Eric B and Rakim. The most recent self-sampling track to cross my radar is “Unbelievable” by Biggie Smalls, from his album Ready To Die. Here’s the instrumental.
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And here’s the full song — contains much explicit language.
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The hook samples the line “Biggie Smalls is the illest” from “The What” on the same album. It’s twenty-three seconds in.
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Sampling is a severely underappreciated songwriting tool. Even if you have moral or legal issues with sampling from others, sampling from yourself is still a good idea. Biggie’s line about himself being the illest is just part of a verse in “The What.” The producer on “Unbelievable,” the great DJ Premier, was smart enough to recognize that Biggie’s line could stand on its own as a hook. DJ Premier also produced “Nas Is Like,” and built its chorus through similar means.
The word “Unbelievable” itself comes from R Kelly, sped up a little and raised in pitch to sound female. Listen at 0:58.
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Sampled vocals aside, the chopped-up keyboard part is the most musically sophisticated aspect of the track. Its original source is “Remind Me” by Patrice Rushen — I’m pretty sure it comes from the end of the solo section around 4:10.
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Premier chopped up this little keyboard phrase and resequenced it beyond recognition. The result is a hip angularity that a normal keyboard player would probably not have arrived at organically.
The beat in “Unbelievable” is an old standby, “Impeach The President.”
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The string ambiance in the background comes from the very odd Quincy Jones song “Kitty With The Bent Frame.” Listen at 1:08.
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Quincy’s record is a favorite for hip-hop producers looking for an uneasy mood.
Here’s a diagram showing the sample genealogy of “Unbelievable.”
The meaning of self-sampling
Like I said above, self-sampling is so interesting to me because it’s recursive, self-referential. Most of the music we like is full of self-reference, and generally, the more self-referential it is, the more structured and meaningful it feels. Even simple-seeming nursery rhymes can be recursive and self-similar. Here’s a visualization by Lee Byron showing self-similarity in the nursery rhyme “Hickory Dickory Dock.”
Self-similarity makes for compelling visual art, too. One reason we find nature attractive is its rich fractal self-similarity. Here’s a leaf I photographed in my neighborhood; notice how the same veiny structure repeats itself at different size scales:
Even very simple recursive mathematical equations can produce stunningly complex, biological-looking forms, like the classic fractal known as the Mandelbrot set.
Recursion isn’t just attractive. It’s fundamental to computer science — self-reference is a key programming technique. Recursion may be essential to the very nature of consciousness itself. Some neuroscientists think that your entire sense of self emerges out of recursive self-referential loops as your brain represents different parts of itself to itself.
No wonder recursive music is so fascinating. Keep on sampling yourselves, musicians; let’s see what other recursive truths we can uncover.