Sample Wars: The Fugees vs. The Field

March 21, 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.

Today, we’re reaching way back to The Flamingos’ 1959 hit “I Only Have Eyes You,” which provided the basis for The Fugees’ classic “Zealots” as well as minimal electronic producer The Field’s “From Here We Go Sublime.”

“I Only Have Eyes for You,” The Flamingos, 1959 (sample appears at :20): Introduced in the 1934 film Dames, the original recording of “I Only Have Eyes for You” is a nearly unrecognizable distant ancestor to the Flamingos version. It sounds like the showtune it is; its major-key melody is both schmaltzy and full of pep. Over two decades and several stirring versions of the song later–including standouts from Peggy Lee and Billie Holiday–the Flamingos emerged with a recording that may as well have erased its predecessors from history. Soaked in reverb, with sweet, rubato lead line floating over a pillow of harmonies and staccato piano, the track presages generations of classically-minded experimental pop music, from Brian Wilson to Grizzly Bear.

“Zealots,” The Fugees, Produced by the Fugees and Jerry Duplessis, 1996: If you’re reading this, chances are there’s nothing I can tell you about this track you don’t know already. An archetypal piece of mid-’90s NYC rap, the track coasts by on a slightly sped-up but otherwise unaltered measure of backing vocals–the iconic “sh’bop, sh’bop”–and bass from “I Only Have Eyes For You.” From there, the Fugees and producer Jerry Duplessis stack hard-knocking drums and weirdly prophetic lyrics (“The magazine says the girl should have gone solo/The guys should stop rapping, vanish like Menudo”).

“From Here We Go Sublime,” The Field, 2007: The Field’s Axel Willner is one of the most idiosyncratic sample-based musicians working today, taking milliseconds-long pieces from sources of all kinds and stringing them together into hypnotic loops of ambient sound. His has as much in common with Iannis Xenakis’s granular synthesis and Steve Reich’s phasing music as it does recordings by his Kompakt Records contemporaries. The contemporary classical connection plays out especially clearly here, as Willner eventually lets the sample play out in full (it’s the same loop used by the Fugees), then slows it down over time in a manner that recalls John Oswald’s Plunderphonics piece “Pretender.”

The Verdict: The Fugees’ vocal hook dances around the melody of “I Only Have Eyes For You” without ever landing right on it, and the song’s looped backing vocals reduce the already wispy original down to its ghostliest traces. On paper, it sounds like the recipe for a pillowy ambient track, but with the addition of a little boom-bap and inspired some verses from all three members, it’s anything but. The Field, on the other hand, reduces the song to pure, near beat-less abstraction. As an album closer, it works phenomenally well, but against the laid-back majesty of “Zealots,” it can’t help but feel slight.