Sample Wars: B.D.P. vs. Black Star

August 8, 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.

This week we’re looking at Yellowman’s “Zungguzungguguzungguzeng,” a stone-cold classic dancehall tune that spawned a thousand sing-songy hip hop hooks, as well as the beats for Black Star’s “Definition” and Boogie Down Productions’ “Remix for P is Free.” This is a big one–whole academic papers have been written about its spread through dancehall and hip-hop.

“Zungguzungguguzungguzeng,” Yellowman, 1983: Yellowman’s massively successful early single “Zungguzungguguzungguzeng” found him going over the “Diseases”/”Golden Hen” Riddim, originally produced by Henry “Junjo” Lawes, and that track’s signature flanged guitar lick is actually the part sampled in both songs here. Though Yellowman wasn’t the first to use the riddim, he’s clearly what inspired KRS-1 and Scott La Rock, and in turn, Mos Def and Talib Kweli. Notice how the melodic hooks of both tracks (“We ruling hip-hop…”) follows the same pattern as the chorus of “Zungguzungguguzungguzeng.”

“Remix for P is Free,” Boogie Down Productions, 1987: This is the original, but the remix above is the one everybody knows, thanks to its inclusion on B.D.P.’s landmark debut album Criminal Minded. Its from an era when Jamaican music’s influence on rap was much more prevalent, and that’s evident from the track’s opening seconds, when KRS (of Jamaican heritage himeself) starts ad-libbing to the melody of Eek-a-Mouse’s timeless “Wa Do Dem“.

“Definition,” Black Star, 1998: Mos and Kweli know exactly what they’re doing here. In addition to lifting “Zungguzungguguzungguzeng” simply because it’s a hot sample, they’re also pointing back to Yellowman, to B.D.P., to an entire generation of musicians. “Like any torch bearer of tradition, Mos Def expects that we’re noting, or at least feeling, the deep degree of intertextuality at work in the song, an articulation of texts and times and places enabled by a set of indexical musical figures,” Wanye Marshall writes of the song in “Follow Me Now: The Zigzagging Zunguzung Meme.” Marshall also notes a sad undercurrent: the song, released shortly after the death of Tupac and Biggie, explicitly mentions the passing of the two stars–both of whom had prominently used the “Zungguzungguguzungguzeng” melody in the past.

The Verdict: Marshall’s paper gives a fresh, layered perspective on what’s perhaps Black Star’s most well-known track, in an era when it’s too easy to dismiss Mos and Kwel as cornball old dudes. It expertly pays homage to generations of rap without sounding at all stale or overly reverent. Still, B.D.P. kicked down the door, and without them it’s hard to imagine the potent mixture of over-the-top cockiness, aggressive cultural critique, and hometown pride that characterized Black Star–and much of NYC rap in general–at its best.