The 10 best recycled songs

Oasis’ former creative mastermind Noel Gallagher is never one to mince his words. In 2020, he asserted: “Nothing’s original. There’s only 12 notes anyway”. The Britpop hero was speaking at Rockfield Studios for a special interview about 1994’s (What’s The Story) Morning Glory. He also confessed: “Everything I do is a nod to something or other. I’m not a genius. I’m a fan of music”. Whilst there are many conclusions to extract from his admission, he was bang on the money in one regard. Nothing is truly original, particularly in music. From pinching ideas to sampling, the form is greatly indebted to the recycling of ideas.

Whether it be bands like Oasis being steeped in the music of their heroes, sampling, or moments such as when Metallica’s bassist Cliff Burton subtly referenced David Bowie in ‘Master of Puppets’, the examples of music being recycled are numerous. More often or not, our favourite artists have looked to the works of others to bring their own vision to life. That’s not a bad thing either; it keeps things fresh.

With music being such as vast pool – from the classical era to today’s glitchy hyper-pop – viewing the efforts of others as a tool offers endless possibilities. In the postmodern age, it means an artist can use the work and experiences of others to assemble a unique narrative, environment and textures and create something that is still completely fresh. It might be ironic, but it’s true. 

Duly, we’ve taken it upon ourselves to list the ten best songs that have been recycled over the years. From melodies employed by bands to drum breaks widely sampled across music, these are all classic examples.

The 10 best recycled songs:

The Winstons – ‘Amen Brother’ (1969)

Where better to start than with one of the most sampled songs in history? Remarkably, this classic by soul group, The Winstons was released as a B-Side to the 1969 single ‘Color Him Father’. As funky as it gets, featuring a busy bassline, keys and some pounding brass, despite all this, it is the drum break that has made this piece such a pop culture staple.

The seven-second drum break performed by Gregory Coleman is now called the “Amen Break”. It has been widely sampled in music, with hip-hop, drum ‘n’ bass and jungle holding a particular predilection for this rhythm. Across all of music’s genres, it has been sampled thousands of times, with N.W.A.’s ‘Straight Outta Compton’ and Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock’s ‘Keep It Going Now’ the two most famous examples.

Tragically, The Winstons received no royalties for the sample. Their late bandleader, Richard Lewis Spencer, even commented that it was unlikely that Coleman, who died penniless and homeless in 2006, realised the significant impact he had on music. Spencer would note that whilst the widespread sampling of the drum break was flattering, it was still plagiarism.

Black Sabbath – ‘Black Sabbath’ (Black Sabbath, 1970)

Thematically, Birmingham metal pioneers Black Sabbath have drawn on the works of countless figures to create their music, including Aleister Crowley, H.P. Lovecraft, and J.R.R Tolkien. When it came to their music, Sabbath also looked to others. Notably, they successfully covered Crow’s ‘Evil Woman’ to critical acclaim. However, their most impactful recycling comes in their eponymous track, the ominous opener from their debut album.

The song is most famous for the main riff inverting a tritone and its harmonic progression, which includes a diminished fifth / augmented fourth. This interval is widely known as diabolus in musica, as it suggests satanic connotations. This is one of the first examples of its use in metal before it became common in the genre. 

However, the most crucial aspect of the song is that the riff was recycled. It was created by bassist Geezer Butler when he began playing a segment of ‘Mars’ from composer Gustav Holst’s suite The Planets. Galvanised, guitarist Tony Iommi then returned the following day with his influential tritone.

Curtis Mayfield – ‘Move On Up’ (Curtis, 1970)

The ‘Gentle Genius’ Curtis Mayfield is a man that is well-known in the world of music recycling, with his infectious rhythms and contagious melodies sampled and drawn upon numerous times. Whilst many of his songs are ubiquitous in popular culture, none have been as impactful as the progressive soul masterpiece ‘Move On Up’. It has been covered and sampled on more occasions than most.

A purely joyful track, in 1979, now-defunct disco act Destination recorded a medley of the song, which incorporated it with one of Mayfield’s earlier pieces, 1964’s ‘Keep on Pushing’, by The Impressions. Along with the songs ‘Up Up Up’ and ‘Destination’s Theme’, it sat at number one on the disco chart for a month. However, the most important recycling of the track came in 2006 when rapper Kanye West released his hit ‘Touch the Sky’, which includes a slowed sample of it. The West song is credited with thrusting him into the mainstream.

James Brown – ‘Funky Drummer’ (1970)

This 1970 classic by James Brown is also one of the most sampled recordings in music, featuring the drum break improvised by Clyde Stubblefield. In 1986, three pioneering hip-hop tracks popularised Stubblefield’s drum break and sampling itself. They were Boogie Down Productions’ ‘South Bronx’, Eric B. and Rakim’s ‘Eric B. is President’ and Kool G Rap and DJ Polo’s ‘It’s a Demo’. 

Since then, rap heavyweights such as Public Enemy, Run-DMC, N.W.A., Beastie Boys, and LL Cool J have all recycled it. Unsurprisingly, it’s also made its way into pop, with George Michael and Ed Sheeran drawing upon it too. Madchester legends The Stone Roses also recycled it for their intoxicating 1989 track ‘Fools Gold’, with frontman Ian Brown revealing that they wrote the song over ‘Funky Drummer’. Their drummer, Reni, was then forced to learn its beat. 

In another example of drummers not receiving their dues, Stubblefield did not receive a songwriting credit for the track, meaning no royalties for the sampling. In 2011, he told the New York Times, “It didn’t bug me or disturb me, but I think it’s disrespectful not to pay people for what they use.” He named his 1997 album, Revenge of the Funky Drummer.

Lou Reed – ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ (Transformer, 1972)

Former Velvet Underground frontman Lou Reed affected the course of music and broader popular culture in numerous ways, from his taboo-busting lyrics to his use of the storied ostrich tuning. An associate of famed artist Andy Warhol, Reed is one of this list’s most storied figures.

His signature song is ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ from 1972’s Transformer, a glam-rock classic produced by David Bowie and Mick Ronson. A countercultural staple and his biggest hit, it is known for discussing topics such as transgender people, male prostitution, oral sex and drugs, meaning it was much ahead of its time. Musically, it is also legendary, with Herbie Flowers’ ascending and descending portamento basslines the most prominent aspect. Elsewhere, the baritone saxophone and Thunderthighs’ reverb-drenched backing vocals also make this piece stand out.

The most famous sample of the song is A Tribe Called Quest’s 1990 hit ‘Can I Kick It?’. The following year, pre-Hollywood Mark Wahlberg’s Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch released the top ten hit, ‘Wildside’, which heavily samples Reed’s original. Haim’s heady 2019 single ‘Summer Girl’ also mimics elements of the Lou Reed song. 

Bo Diddley – ‘I’m a Man’ (1955)

Bo Diddley may be the most influential figure on the list. A rhythm and blues master credited with helping blues segue into rock ‘n’ roll, he can count The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Clash and many other significant acts as his disciples, in a testament to his wide-reaching impact. Duly, his work has been recycled across rock, with many famous faces, including the ones above, doing so.

One of his most important pieces is the swaggering ‘I’m a Man’, which features a riff that has been recycled and modified numerous times. This is to the extent that even those unfamiliar with Bo Diddley will know it. It’s an interesting point, as the song was also recycled in itself and was majorly inspired by Muddy Waters’ 1954 piece ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’. Regardless, ‘I’m a Man’ is omnipresent in music.

The Yardbirds adapted it to an upbeat style in 1965, and then in the glam-rock era, RCA labelmates David Bowie and The Sweet both took cues from it in a pair of hits released within months of each other. The former’s was ‘The Jean Genie’ and the latter’s was ‘Block Buster!’, keeping Bowie’s release from the top spot. The similarity between their riffs and Bo Diddley’s are uncanny.

ABBA – ‘Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)’

Swedish pop royalty ABBA are universally adored. Agnetha, Björn, Benny, and Anni-Frid delivered an array of earworms in their time, including ‘Dancing Queen’ and ‘Mamma Mia’, with the latter spawning the uber-successful musical of the same name. Currently showing that they still have it with the virtual concert ABBA Voyage in London, the group continue to win over new fans daily.

One of their most infectious songs is ‘Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)’, which features an iconic stringed melody. ABBA are notoriously protective over their creations, meaning they’ve only been sampled on a handful of occasions. The most famous of these is Madonna’s 2005 hit ‘Hung Up’, with the pop star rumoured to have sent a letter asking Benny and Björn for their permission to use ‘Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!’. 

This was only the second time an ABBA track had been sampled. The first was the Fugees’ 1996 hit ‘Rumble in the Jungle’, which used ‘The Name of the Game’. Rina Sawayama then recycled the ‘Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!’ riff for her 2022 single ‘This Hell’.

Diana Ross – ‘I’m Coming Out’ (Diana, 1980)

Undeniably the most uplifting cut to be recycled, Diana Ross’ signature hit ‘I’m Coming Out’ is one of those rare songs you never tire of. Written by Chic’s hitmaking duo of Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, the former explained in 2021 that the song was initially intended for the LGBTQ community. It was inspired by drag queens dressed as Ross at a New York club. The lyrics were also significant for Ross, as she was departing her longtime home of Motown Records and “coming out” from executive Berry Gordy’s thumb.

Boasting a killer bassline, choppy guitars and the rare delight of a trombone solo, there’s a lot to love about ‘I’m Coming Out’. These glittering aspects mean that it has been recycled on many occasions. The Notorious B.I.G.’s 1997 anthem ‘Mo Money Mo Problems’ is the most prominent example, which features a sample and interpolation.

Sister Nancy -‘Bam Bam’ (1982)

1982’s ‘Bam Bam’ by Jamaican dancehall legend Sister Nancy is a straight-up classic. A recycled song itself, the chorus was inspired by the 1966 piece of the same name by The Maytals and Byron Lee and the Dragonaires. The instrumental also samples Ansell Collins’ 1974 cut ‘Stalag 17’, a staple riddim. Duly, Sister Nancy’s song is as catchy as they come, with many greats recycling it over the years. “I don’t have a clue,” Sister Nancy replied to Billboard when asked why ‘Bam Bam’ is so popular. “I never know it would have got so far ’cause I did it over 34 years ago.”

“I don’t know if I hear all of them,” she said when asked about the many tracks to have sampled ‘Bam Bam’. “They sample it so much times but none of them is my favourite. The reason why I say that is they know how to contact me. They know I live in the US and nobody try to contact me to do it in person. They always sample the tune. If they had contacted me and I would do it for them live then I would have a favourite.”

Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Lizzo, Lauryn Hill, Logic, Kanye West and even Groove Armada have all recycled this piece to one extent or another. 

The Clash – ‘Straight to Hell’ (Combat Rock, 1982)

‘Straight to Hell’ is one of the finest pieces that The Clash ever recorded. Featuring Joe Strummer’s descriptive lyrics about the destruction of Northern English communities, the children of the Vietnam war and the hells immigrants face, this lyrical power is ballasted by a Bossa Nova-style beat and that melody. When the central motif cuts through the mix, the hairs instantly stand to attention.

The song has been recycled and sampled on many occasions, but the most famous is M.I.A.’s 2008 hit ‘Paper Planes’, which also analyses immigration. Produced by Diplo, M.I.A.’s song energised The Clash song’s main melody, alerting millions of new listeners to its brilliance. It was so effective that Jay-Z and T.I. sampled ‘Paper Planes’ later that year on ‘Swagga Like Us’. The Clash received co-writing credits for both cuts. 

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