Sample Wars: Radiohead vs. Madlib

February 28, 2013 | Andy Cush

Each week in Sample Wars, we’ll pit two songs which sample the same source material head-to-head against each other, to determine which one rocked the sample better.

In this week’s installment we’re looking at Miles Davis’s “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down,” which inspired two modern legends in their own right: Radiohead and Madlib (via his group Lootpack).

“Miles Runs the Voodoo Down,” Miles Davis, 1970 (both samples appear at 0:00): A 14-minute odyssey that opens side four of Davis’s landmark Bitches Brew, “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” features no less than two drummers, two bassists, two keyboardists, a saxophonist, a clarinetist, and a percussionist backing up the legendary trumpeter. It contains sections of mind-bending polyrhythms, straightforward hard funk, and several legendary players soloing at the tops of their respective games. Both Radiohead and Madlib, however, wisely chose to focus on the song’s relatively minimal first few seconds, featuring excellently off-kilter drum work from Lenny White and a three-note bass line.

“Kinetic,” Radiohead, 2001 (sample appears at 0:21): The B-side to powerhouse piano ballad “Pyramid Song,” “Kinetic” finds Radiohead in wobbly, vaguely threatening form. Ingeniously, the band moves the sample forward in time by one beat, shifting the downbeat and highlighting the rhythm’s inherent wonkiness and syncopation. On top is some typically gorgeous vocalizing from Thom Yorke and plenty of dubby sound effects. Most impressive is that the sample hardly recognized as such; piled in with all that Radiohead-ness, it sounds just like a classic Phil Selway/Colin Greenwood groove.

“Frenz vs. Endz,” Lootpack, Produced by Madlib, 1999 (sample appears at 0:17): For his old group Lootpack, Madlib created this laid back, jazzy beat that takes “Voodoo Down”‘s drum/bass intro, speeds it up, and loops it. There’s a few small chops right at the beginning of the track and during the second verse, but for the most part, Madlib just lets the gloriously rhythmic sample ride out.

The Verdict: It’s a case study in two completely different ways to successfully work the same sample. Radiohead manipulate the loop and bury it in layers of sound, rendering it virtually unrecognizable, while Madlib recognizes natural groove and capitalizes upon it with minimal alterations. Each, as a master of their respective genre, builds a track that’s worthy of Miles’s original and reflects a different side of “Voodoo Down”: “Frenz vs. Endz” gets the funk, and “Kinetic” gets the outré, cerebral weirdness.