Amid a rash of cheesy samples, is UK rap running out of ideas?

It’s hard to say precisely where UK rap’s current obsession with sampling 00s pop songs started, but perhaps the catalyst was the borrowed guitar licks and Lady Saw vocals that announced Headie One, AJ Tracey, and Stormzy’s Ain’t It Different back in 2020. When three of the scene’s biggest and most influential stars mine preteen one-hit-wonder nostalgia – and score a hit of their own – the idea is sure to travel.

Most would recognise those clean guitar notes as coming from Crazy Town’s 2000 hit Butterfly, itself a lift from Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Pretty Little Ditty from 10 years earlier. As the old saying goes: if you can’t beat it, inquire about who owns the publishing licence, and then sample it heavily. It’s a motto that some UK drill rappers have adopted with gusto, leaving fans to question whether it’s harming or helping the genre.

In recent months, homegrown rappers have jumped on beats that lift heavily, or wholesale, from old eurodance hits by Avicii, Robert Miles and Alex Gaudino. Chart-bothering Brighton boy ArrDee has leaned in to the perennial garage revival, rapping over heavy samples of Sweet Female Attitude’s Flowers and T2’s bassline classic Heartbroken. J-Lo’s On the Floor has formed the crux of a Top 20 hit for serial sample offenders A1 x J1 and Tion Wayne; last week, Wayne reached the Top 10 with IFTK, essentially a drill version of La Roux’s In for the Kill from 2009.

Plenty of turn-of-the-century hip-hop and R&B has been seen as fair game too. The title track from M1llionz’ debut album lifts the lead riff from Brandy & Monica’s The Boy is Mine; Wauve’s Fee Fi Fo riffs on Ne-Yo’s So Sick. Nods to 50 Cent, meanwhile, are worthy of their own category – Digga D’s latest album reworks three of his tracks, and M1llionz gave Candy Shop a do-over with last year’s Bando Spot. Non-drill rappers have had a go too, most notably Aitch, who grazed the No 1 spot with his Ashanti-blessed rework of Baby earlier this year. (He was pipped to the top by Dave and his track Starlight, constructed around an acoustic-pop version of Fly Me to the Moon.)

As with Aitch’s new track 1989, which samples fellow Mancunians the Stone Roses, these tracks can be earnest homages; Digga D said as much himself in the release notes that accompanied his album (“I grew up listening to 50 Cent … Big up 50 for the clearance!”). To describe some of these interpolations as samples, though, is to stretch the definition. Many are closer to cover versions than they are to the meticulous, creative obfuscation of hip-hop producers such as Havoc and Madlib, or indeed Daft Punk. Regardless, the UK sampling trend has proliferated to the point that fans and industry types have sub-genred it as “sample drill” – either as a means of disparaging it, or neatly shelving it away from what they regard as real drill.

The race to jump the shark is on. Liilz’ The Wanted-butchering Glad U Came – sample lyric: “The sun goes down, my zoot goes up” – was an early, viral flashpoint that’s since been anointed with an official release. A teaser clip of Swarmz choreographing a TikTok-bound dance for a crowbarred take on MC Hammer’s U Can’t Touch This has already done the rounds. (The world might be spared this one: “People gave him so much shit, I don’t think he’ll ever drop it,” one insider says.) Zflipa’s Flavours has followed, flipping Justin Timberlake’s Rock Your Body – somewhat self-knowingly – with all the grace of the last drunk stumbling out of the pub.

The trend is symptomatic of major label interest, and the anodyne chart-chasing conservatism that often comes with it. You don’t have to cast your mind back too far to remember the corny dubstep beats produced for the likes of Britney Spears and Cher Lloyd after that sound first gripped people’s ears. Today, at least, it’s often artists born of the drill scene who are spearheading the chart domination – rather than faceless producers making drill beats for established pop stars (though this does happen).

Another handy aspect of the sample drill craze, for labels at least, is that they make money from the royalties if they own the rights to the original sample as well as the new song. Sweet Female Attitude and ArrDee, for example, are both signed to Universal sub-labels, and WhyJay, the producer behind ArrDee’s Sweet Female Attitude-sampling hit, is also signed to Universal’s publishing arm. Despite its long arms and global reach, capital tends to favour the low hanging fruit.

Digga D performing in 2021.
Digga D performing in 2021. Photograph: Dave Burke/REX/Shutterstock

But the drive to water things down feels especially pronounced in the case of drill. The genre has been demonised ever since the Mail and Murdoch press first caught wind of it – to the point that, in UK courts, an interest in the music is frequently painted as shorthand for criminal gang membership. TikTok dances and feelgood garage samples drape UK drill in a patina of pop, reskinning it with a more palatable image (there’s an irony in this: before drill and before grime, the musical moral panic of the day surrounded garage). Drill artists also cop more flak than others when making lazy chart-destined tunes because the bar the scene set for itself – as one of the most original and exciting musical innovations the UK has produced in recent years – is so high.

Still, the machine churns on. Much of the glut is in service of the streaming era’s demand to have more of everything, now. Netflix measures success on how quickly its users binge content; Spotify founder Daniel Ek has told musicians that it’s “not enough” for them to take time crafting albums, and instead that they should aim for “continuous engagement with their fans”.

When you consider the way in which artists have been co-opted into the language of this output-focused, tech-driven operation, where writing and releasing music is described in the same terms as likes and shares on social media, it’s perhaps less surprising that opting for a market-tested chorus has become such a popular option. A strategy of throwing shit (J-Lo samples) at the wall (Spotify playlists) until it sticks (is Top 20 good enough?) has become a viable one.

Cultural critics such as Simon Reynolds and the late Mark Fisher have written about the comfort sought in familiar cultural artefacts, and in reproducing them ad infinitum. This isn’t just an occupation of music-makers. It can be seen in the seemingly endless reels of TV show and movie rehashes that populate streaming services. Cosy familiarity and the nostalgia cycle have proven handy in introducing new audiences to old things; it’s not hard to imagine execs using phrases like “lateral fanbase growth” when proposing Ed Sheeran does a drill song with, who else, Tion Wayne. The trend also banks on another cultural mainstay: the guilty pleasure. Some of these new songs sample guilty pleasures. Some will become guilty pleasures all of their own.

Many artists see a choice sample as their big break. Shauni Caballero, a publishing whiz in the UK rap scene, recalls an enthusiastic young rapper who had been releasing tracks to a small audience of a few hundred listeners, and came to her with a new track he’d been working on. It hung (heavily) on an Ed Sheeran sample and he wanted to know if she could help him get it cleared. In theory, she told him, yes she could. But even if Sheeran’s label and publisher agreed, the rapper would be liable for tens of thousands of pounds in fees and unlikely to earn a thing from the song’s royalties even if it did, by chance, blow up. To Caballero, it was a non-starter.

But the kid in question was weighing the dilemma differently. The attention gained from a hit single, even if it was costing you money, could provide the platform he needed to break through. Call it Love Island logic: the show’s contestants are paid a tiny weekly fee to appear on the show, but take part for the tantalising prospect of landing lucrative influencer deals. An Ed Sheeran assist like this wouldn’t be without precedent, either: Yxng Bane’s Shape of You cover remains the keystone in his career. Caballero didn’t pursue the young man’s clearance for him, but is buoyant about the pop that sample drill embraces: “I love to see these kids having fun, and dancing to their songs,” she says.

Related: ‘I’m hungry. I want to dominate’: Jack Harlow, hip-hop’s most fancied new megastar

As is ever the case, purists clutching their pearls and decrying the death of a scene when it takes on a mainstream sheen tend to be missing the bigger picture. Far removed from its origins of menacing beats and balaclava’d video shoots, drill has a place in pop now. Tion Wayne charting with some revisionist guff hasn’t stopped the steady string of MCs passing through the studios of Fumez the Engineer or Tweeko in New Cross, just as Dizzee Rascal doing a football song with James Corden didn’t stop kids filming freestyles in their cars or Wiley dishing out more than 200 new grime songs in 2010. Tion Wayne has a new, coldly non-pop track out with Giggs this week.

With all that being said, trends like these always have expiry dates. The bigger, more intriguing question is what will be the song that tips this one over the edge? Has anyone remixed the Balamory theme tune yet? On TikTok, yes. More than once.