Sample Wars: Vampire Weekend vs. Souls of Mischief

January 2, 2014 | 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.

Vampire Weekend’s “Step,” one of the best songs of 2013, just got a pretty great rap remix featuring Danny Brown, Heems, and Despot. On the heels of that track, we’re looking at the original song, which incorporated elements from Souls of Mischief’s “Step to My Girl” and Grover Washington, Jr.’s recording of “Aubrey.”

The saga of “Step” is a long one, beginning in 1972 with the soft rockers Bread, who composed “Aubrey” as an orchestral folk-pop ballad. Washington recorded the tune as a sax instrumental the following year, which, decades later, Souls of Mischief sampled for “Step to My Girl”‘s main melody. The titular lyric to the Souls of Mischief song is sampled as well, from rapper YZ’s 1990 track “Who’s That Girl.”

When Vampire Weekend reference Souls of Mischief’s words and melody in “Step,” they’re actually pulling from a network of artists and compositions that spans genres and decades.

“Aubrey,” Grover Washington, Jr., 1973: Washington slightly scales back Bread’s beautiful-if-overwrought arrangement, augmenting his saxophone with lilting strings and minimal percussion. Taken on its own, it’s nice, but a little cheesy–a clear predecessor to the smoother sounds Washington would explore later in his career. It was wise of Soul’s of Mischief producer/rapper Tajai to focus on the tune’s aching, melancholic main melody, leaving out Washington’s flowery soloing.

“Step to My Girl,” Souls of Mischief, early 1990s: The song that got Souls of Mischief signed didn’t see official release until 2003 (due to sample clearance issues from Grover Washington), but was recorded about a decade earlier. It loops both the Washington track’s intro and its main sax figure, speeding them up slightly, for a perfectly breezy, easygoing track. As noted above, Vampire Weekend’s “Every time I see you in the world/You alway step to my girl,” though clearly a nod to Souls of Mischief, actually comes from YZ, who S.O.M. samples as well.

“Step,” Vampire Weekend, 2013: Vampire Weekend’s track is a tapestry of influences: there’s the melody of the chorus, taken from Bread’s “Aubrey” via Souls of Mischief via Grover Washington; there’s the titular line of lyrics, penned by YZ; there’s the chords, ripped from the grandaddy of pop song progressions, Pachelbel’s Canon in D. It’s an almost comically diverse potpourri, but somehow, the band makes it work, weaving everything together into a beautiful paean to love and youth.

The verdict: Given the clear homage on display, it seems disingenuous to declare a winner, so I’ll just reiterate my opening point. Vampire Weekend may have the best song of the year with “Step.” Even Tajai of Souls of Mischief approves. Back in March, he told HipHopDX, “They used a portion of my line and the cut for the concept…it’s cool, it’s homage…It’s way better than all the fake ’93 ‘Til’s‘ out there.” “I like the song and the group seems cool,” he added.