The Sample: Curtis Mayfield - 'Hard Times' (1975)

Don't you dare talk about the all-time greats of soul music without mentioning Curtis Mayfield. After usurping Jerry Butler as the head of the Impressions in the early '60s, Mayfield's silky voice led the group to soaring heights with singles like 'Gypsy Woman,' 'Keep On Pushing,' and 'People Get Ready.' But the group hit a rough patch from 1965 to 1968, and two years later Mayfield was striking out on his own. In 1970, he blessed the world with his classic solo debut, 'Curtis.'

In the '70s, he would reach even higher plateaus with two iconic soundtracks, 'Superfly' and 'Short Eyes,' favorites amongst rap fans and producers alike. Both albums have been sampled ad infinitum, becoming as much a part of the hip-hop lexicon as Isaac Hayes' 'Shaft' soundtrack.

Yet between the release of 'Superfly' in 1972 and 'Short Eyes' in 1978, Mayfield had a string of solo albums that aren't nearly as heralded today as their bookends are. One of them was 1975's beautifully serene 'There's No Place Like America Today,' whose title carried a sardonic and sarcastic sting to it. The music was anything but - one of the highlights was 'Hard Times,' a bluesy, downtrodden song that was originally written and recorded for an artist on Mayfield's Curtom Records, James Ramey, a.k.a. Baby Huey. The record casts a long eye at poverty, but doesn't receive anything hopeful in exchange - "cold, cold eyes, upon me they stare." It's chilling enough to make you pull your blanket tight as it addresses the depressing reality for millions of Americans, both then and now.

Flip 1: Kilo - 'Tick Tock' (Outta Time Mix) [Prod. by Red Money] (1993)

Kilo Ali, often known as Kilo, is an Atlanta rapper who specialized in the bass music that came out of Miami and was popularized by Uncle Luke and his 2 Live Crew. He is best known for his 'Organized Bass' album from 1997, which features songs with Big Boi ('Love In Ya Mouth'), George Clinton ('Loot Chi Chi'), and Cee-Lo ('Organized Bass'), but he dropped six albums before that record, including an LP with one of the greatest covers in hip-hop history, 'America Has A Problem Cocaine,' and 'Bluntly Speaking' from 1993.

The first song on 'Bluntly Speaking' is 'Tick Tick (Outta Time Mix)', which wasn't the original mix, but was nonetheless pushed as the single. It was the first beat ever made by Red Money, one of Kilo's main collaborators who would go on to produce four songs on 'Organized Bass.''Tick Tock (Outta Time Mix') kicks off the album with vigor -- the first few seconds of 'Hard Times' has been sped up, complete with the stuttering percussion and the gospel-like humming. The hi-hat sticks out until you can't help but picture the drummer as Kilo waxes philosophical about Father Time - "Isn't it amazing how time never stops? / It's all different to us but the same to the clock."

Flip 2: Kool G Rap & RZA - 'Cakes' (Prod. by RZA) [1999]

RZA speeds the sample up even faster then Red Money did, perhaps to ignite Kool G Rap's syllable-heavy verve (it ends up motivating RZA to say outlandish s--t like "Derelict mind crabs, you rappin' for a Scooby snack / Foul-tongued bitch, you bound to lick my doodie crack"). We should be happy: the year is 1999, a year after RZA's PCP-influenced alter ego Bobby Digital released his first album, 'RZA As Bobby Digital In Stereo,' where he explored a sound that relied little on sampling. Perhaps that's why RZA did so little to the 'Hard Times' loop - if he was going to sample something, all he was going to do was loop it, nice and simple.

It pays to understand why RZA might have taken this approach. In recent years, Rzarector has told a story about being in Sam Ash after making millions of dollars. He was fiddling with drum machines and looking at equipment when a kid recognized RZA and approached him. As RZA braced for the usual stannery, the kid explained that he didn't think the Wu-Tang leader was a real producer because all he did was sample the music of others. The encounter made a profound impact on RZA, who soon began studying music theory and learning different instruments while distancing himself from sample-heavy production. It's hard to pinpoint the year that interaction went down, but in his second book, 'The Tao Of The Wu,' RZA talks about learning music theory and applying it to 'Wu-Tang Forever' in 1997, so it might have been prior to that album.

RZA is a god amongst men, a production extraordinaire whose technique of "chipmunk soul" predated Kanye's early style. But while 'Cakes' is a vibrant beat, it seems bare. Once you hear the original, you can tell that RZA hardly did anything to it besides speeding it up a bit. 'Tick Tock' is a more dynamic flip, with progression throughout the beat and added guitar. RZA didn't even lay his own drums down. Respect to the Wu, but Kilo Ali and Red Money win this round.