Was it really that each and every MC brought their “A” Game at last night’s collection of rap cyphers at the BET Hip-Hop Awards? Or is it just that any rapper sounds awesome when they’re going in over James Brown’s “The Payback,” as DJ Premier generously looped for the nearly two-dozen MCs? The latter was definitely at least a factor—one of the Godfather of Soul’s all-time classic cuts, the 1973 revenge jam is one of the funkiest grooves of its era, a hypnotic assemblage of creeping bass, lightly shuffling drums and some badass fuckin’ wah-wah guitar.
Unsurprisingly, it’s also been sampled by everyone and their superbad uncle—WhoSampled.com lists ten pages’ worth (nearly 100 total) of songs that have borrowed from it over the years—especially in the ’90s, when DJs and producers apparently decided it was open season on the Brown classic. While you may not have time to listen to all 100 or so, here’s five from that golden age of “Payback”-sampling that we think are definitely worth your time.
And if you haven’t watched those cyphers from last night yet—good god man (woman), what are you waiting for?
LL COOL J, “THE BOOMIN’ SYSTEM”
LL Cool J got into the “Payback”-sampling groove with “The Boomin’ System,” the second single off Mama Said Knock You Out and a top-ten R&B hit in 1990. The song’s beat is mostly built around a stitched-together “Payback” guitar hook, taken in part from the song’s classic wah-wah intro and the more chopped playing from the song’s verse. It’s not the best jam from the “I Am Hip-Hop” lifetime achievement award recipient— but along with an early cut from the next group mentioned, it was enough to help mark a trend.
EN VOGUE, “MY LOVIN’ (YOU’RE NEVER GONNA GET IT)”
“My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It)” was not the first En Vogue song to sample “Payback”—in fact, it wasn’t even the first En Vogue song to go to #2 on the pop charts to sample it. That honor would go to “Hold On,” released in early 1990, thus making it (in all likelihood) the decade’s first hit to borrow from the JB song. Nonetheless, the better of the two was unquestionably 1992′s “My Lovin’,” which relied heavily on the chop-guitar hook from the “Payback” verse, and along with its monstrously popular Matthew Rolston-directed music video, essentially turned En Vogue into the Supremes of the ’90s.
SILK, “HAPPY DAYS”
Before Silk topped the charts with “Freak Me,” truly the wettest of ’90s slow jams, they eased into the R&B charts with 1992 debut single “Happy Days,” which would ride the “Payback” opening groove for its four-minute duration. It’s an inspired sample, though it’s really just about the only super-notable thing about the song—aside from the fact that in the video, each of the group members wear hats that say “SILK” on them, which is either incredibly lame or underratedly ahead of its time.
MASSIVE ATTACK FEAT. TRACY THRON, “PROTECTION”
Arguably the UK trip-hoppers’ all-time masterpiece, Massive Attack’s “Protection” extricated the “Payback” hook from its spiteful, vengeful roots and instead wove it into a soothing, comforting (though still somewhat chilling) blanket of a pop song. The original’s wah-wah guitar never sounded so haunting as it does underneath the gentle coo of guest singer Tracy Thorn (of Everything But the Girl fame), especially in conjunction with the song’s oddly touching (and artistically mindblowing) Michel Gondry-directed music video.
TOTAL FEAT. THE NOTORIOUS B.I.G., “CAN’T YOU SEE”
Perhaps the “Payback”-sampler that has aged the most pristinely, Total’s “Can’t You See” was simply one of the great songs of ’90s R&B, and possibly the best by a female group not named TLC. The sample has a ton to do with that, matched perfectly by the flashing lights of the song’s gorgeously shot video, sultry, dark and mysterious. And oh yeah, it has one of the most under-appreciated Biggie verses ever (“Gimme all the chicken heads from Pasadena to Medina…”), so on fire that then-Puff Daddy has to famously chastize him, “Slow down son, you’re killing ‘em.” Not without reason, either.