Sample Wars: M.I.A. vs.
A Tribe Called Quest

June 20, 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.

Between a new single, a new album coming (we hope), and an awesome rebuff to those who dismissed her last record, M.I.A. seems poised for a full-on comeback. In light of that, we’re looking at one of the first of her tracks that got the world’s attention, “Sunshowers,” from 2005’s Arular. “Sunshowers” samples from a 1976 track of the same name by Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, as does one of the most iconic hip hop tracks of all time, A Tribe Called Quest’s “Can I Kick It?”

“Sunshower,” Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, 1976 (samples appear at :40): Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah band were an anachronism, mixing the disco that was dominating the charts at the time with instrumentation and a visual aesthetic that harkened back to the big band music of the ’30s and ’40s. “Cherchez La Femme,” the group’s biggest hit, is a good example of that gambit, but “Sunshower” is something else entirely. Thumping, polyrhythmic percussion provides a bed for a poignant, effervescent hook that, much like another classic of sampling–Roy Ayers’s “Everybody Loves the Sunshine,” transports the listener to a sweltering summer day in the city.

“Can I Kick It?,” A Tribe Called Quest, 1991, produced by Q-Tip (samples appear at :9): No, it’s not that sample. Not that sample either. You know how, every few bars in “Can I Kick It?,” there’s that upward sliding sound that acts kind of like a fill into the next measure? That’s “Sunshower.” It’s a small but crucial part of what makes the classic track tick.

“Sunshowers,” M.I.A., 2005, produced by M.I.A.,  Steve Mackey, Ross Orton, Anthony Whiting (sample appears at :37): M.I.A.’s “Sunshowers” is one of those did-she-sample-it-or-did-she-not situations. Singer Nesreen Shah sings the chorus of the Savannah Band track for M.I.A.’s hook, though it sounds like there may be a faint sample of the same part behind her as well. Either way, M.I.A. leans on “Sunshower” in much the same way that Tribe leans on “Take a Walk on the Wild Side,” using it as a melodic and harmonic framework for her entire track.

The Verdict: This one’s a tossup. M.I.A.’s “Sunshowers” is much more about “Sunshower” than “Can I Kick It?” is, and does a great job of recontextualizing the original track’s melody with dancey, Timbaland-influenced production that, six years later, still feels completely contemporary. And as synthesized and futuristic as M.I.A.’s track sounds, part of its genius lies in how secretly faithful it is to the original, using the same syncopated rhythms, which sound as exciting today as they did when they were invented in West Africa centuries ago. Still, it’s hard to put anything above the masterful sonic collage that is “Can I Kick It?,” even if the sample we’re talking about makes up only a small part of the production.