The Turn-of-the-Century Pop Resurgence: Are Late-'90s/Early-'00s Samples About to be Everywhere?

Camila Cabello & Rihanna
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Camila Cabello & Rihanna

Hits like “Wild Thoughts,” “Bad Things” and “Crying in the Club” suggest that the past generation’s pop gems are coming back in a big way.

“When we first started making music together, it was all about finding the right samples,” says Alex Schwartz, one-half of the production team The Futuristics along with Joe Khajadourian. Before producing tracks for Selena Gomez, Halsey and Wiz Khalifa, The Futuristics help fashion songs like Flo Rida’s “I Cry" and Chris Brown’s “Pot of Gold" out of samples from Brenda Russell’s 1988 hit “Piano in the Dark” and Guster’s 1997 track “Rocketship,” respectively.

Schwartz says that the Futuristics were partially inspired by the repurposing of older hooks within hip-hop hits during the turn of the century: “Kanye [West] and Just Blaze were really taking advantage of all the good soul samples,” he explains. Now, he says, the focus is less on soul music and more on proven pop hits, from a particularly fertile time period. "I feel like in this era of where we’re at with production, the ‘90s and 2000s… are now what we have to work with.”

The Futuristics’ most recent top 10 hit is “Bad Things,” the Machine Gun Kelly and Camila Cabello track which interpolates Fastball’s 1999 hit “Out of My Head” in its hook and reached No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Months later, Cabello released her debut solo single, “Crying in the Club,” which works the pre-chrous melody of Christina Aguilera’s breakthrough single, 1999's “Genie in a Bottle,” into the back half of its chorus. Meanwhile, Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You,” one of the biggest songs of 2017, had a bridge that sounded so much like TLC’s 1999 hit “No Scrubs” that the R&B group was added as co-writers after its release.

And of course, the No. 2 song on the Hot 100 is currently “Wild Thoughts,” DJ Khaled’s latest smash, this one featuring Rihanna and Bryson Tiller. Moreso than any of its Rihanna come-hither phrases (or Khaled shouting “We the best!"), the track is anchored by a highly recognizable guitar riff and slithering beat, both lifted straight from Santana’s “Maria Maria,” a No. 1 hit in 2000. The success of “Wild Thoughts” and its resuscitation of a long-forgotten but instantly familiar groove, in particular, feels like a potential turning point. Is mainstream pop about to be overrun by samples from the turn of the century?

"Music is cyclical — all things old are new again,” says Mark Medina, WHTZ (Z100) New York program director. Indeed, the timing of this late ‘90s/early ‘00s pop renaissance makes sense: adolescents and young teenagers were born after songs like “Genie in a Bottle” and “Maria Maria” left their imprint on pop culture, so Aguilera’s melisma and Santana’s screeching guitar likely sound fresh to them. Meanwhile, adults can hear the well-known pieces of an unfamiliar song, and be instantly drawn into the new spin of a throwback track.

“If you can make something that a mom is somewhat familiar with, and her 14-year-old daughter discovers for the first time, win-win, right?” says Erik Bradley, music director of WBBM-FM (B96) in Chicago. For Bradley, something as recognizable as the “Maria Maria” interpolation in “Wild Thoughts” made the song an easy sell for radio play when it was released in June.

"The familiarity bridge was crossed immediately, which is nice for a pop programmer to have built in,” Bradley explains. “It’s good as a programmer to have songs that you’re easily able to hum along to, but maybe not necessarily know what it is yet.”

Of course, sampling in popular music is nothing new — it’s existed for decades, with countless producers digging through the crates of a previous generation and flipping old hooks into new hits (we see you, Puff Daddy). As Medina puts it, listeners “want something familiar, that security blanket they know and trust. It’s comfort food for the soul.” The influx of late ‘90s/early ‘00s samples popping up in recent months could be less of a concerted effort and more of a coincidence, since they all feature different producers.

But The Futuristics say that they do see a trend brewing, especially since that particular moment in pop music has become so beloved by a certain sect of millennials. Star divas like Aguilera and Britney Spears, boy bands like *NSYNC and Backstreet Boys, radio mainstays like Nelly and Destiny’s Child, and artists with enduring hits like Ricky Martin and Smash Mouth, all add up to a moment in pop culture ripe for revisiting. (Indeed, with MTV recently announcing a revival of TRL, their once-marquee video program that helped define that moment in top pop history, the thirst for turn-of-the-millennium nostalgia seems more pronounced than ever.)

“That was also a huge time for one-hit wonders,” adds the Futuristics’ Khajadourian. "I feel like that’s an untapped area, too — some of those songs have insanely catchy melodies.” As “Bad Things” proved by sampling a (relatively) obscure song like Fastball’s “Out of My Head,” an older track needn’t be from an iconic artist to be riffed upon successfully. Could a song that samples Lou Bega’s “Mambo No. 5” work on radio in 2017? What about Len’s “Steal My Sunshine,” or Baha Men’s “Who Let The Dogs Out”?

The Futuristics won’t detail what they’ve been cooking up recently, but confirm that they do have some production in the works that lifts from that time period. "Without mentioning any names, we did interpolate some other stuff from the ‘90s,” says Schwartz. "We’re always down to try those things and see which one sticks.”

Indeed, it’s safe to assume that, if turn-of-the-century sampling wasn’t a full-blown trend before this moment, it’s likely about to be, especially with “Wild Thoughts” becoming one of the summer’s defining songs. Producers will pick up on the nifty trick Khaled played with the “Maria Maria” guitar riff, and try to find their own way back into the time of The Blair Witch Project, Tae Bo and the Taco Bell chihuahua.

"Hits always lead the way,” asserts Bradley, "and then people follow that, until the next person starts something different."