Like most of his peers in hip-hop, Jay-Z heavily samples a vast back catalogue of pop music for beats, melodies, and material that he can approbate for his songs. The beat is taken from the intro of Isaac Hayes' "Breakthrough.
Empire State of Mind
You'd probably not recognize that these are samples without being told so. If you don't happen to be a huge fan of The Moments or Isaac Hayes, you probably won't even realize that two of the three core aspects of a song—the melody, the harmony chords , and the rhythm—aren't original at all. And since Alicia Keys, who actually plays the "Love on a Two Way Street" piano line in live performances of the song, is the featured artist on the track, the idea of sampling is even further obscured. This leads us to an important understanding of the art of sampling.
Sampling can occur as a shout-out to another artist, as something that listeners will recognize and latch on to—as when Eminem sampled the well-known Aerosmith song "Dream On" in his song "Sing for the Moment" — but more often samples are taken from obscure sources.
The idea is to take a small portion of the song, speed it up, slow it down, loop it, whatever, and incorporate it with new sounds, making it fresh and new. Whoever heard of The 4 Levels of Existence? And yet, a sped up version of the intro to their song "Someday in Athens" provides the heart of "Run This Town," the other mega-hit from The Blueprint 3. Something similar is true for "Empire State of Mind. Actually, they're both not even especially great songs. Isaac Hayes' "Breakthrough" is a more-or-less throwaway funk song. Part of the game in producing hip-hop is finding hidden gems like this.
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