Unless you reside beneath a rock, you know the Internet had a field day last week over whether Kanye West dissed Taylor Swift on his new song “Famous,” a track from his recently released album The Life of Pablo. If you were one of the fortunate few who snagged a golden ticket for last week’s Yeezy Season 3 fashion show/ album listening at Madison Square Garden—or one of the Tidal subscribers or theatergoers whose FOMO had you sitting in front of a screen to take in the spectacle from a distance—then you know what the song actually sounds like. Perhaps you even recognized the vocal loop that runs through the chorus: “Bam Bam / What a bam bam / Bam-bam-dilla / Bam Bam.”
Sound familiar? It should. That’s a sample of “Bam Bam”—a cut from Sister Nancy’s 1982 album One, Two, produced by the late Winston Riley for Jamaica’s legendary Techniques label. This song—and not Toots & The Maytals’ 1966 single of the same name, which inspired the hook, nor any of the subsequent versions by Yellowman or Pliers—is a strong contender for the title of “most sampled reggae song of all time.”
“There’s something about that beat,” says Winston Riley’s son Kurt of his father’s immortal “Stalag 17” instrumental—known in reggae circles as the Stalag Riddim. “Any time I get the opportunity to speak to anybody from America or around the world, they just can’t describe how it makes them feel. I don’t know if it’s the frequency that does something to them. The horns drive you slowly, and then when the beat comes it’s like, whoosh, it just takes you away.”
To be fair, there are literally dozens of other records on the same Stalag Riddim. One example, “Dust a Sound Boy” by Super Beagle, provided the vocal sample for Mr. West’s 2012 single “Mercy” featuring 2 Chainz, Big Sean and Pusha T.
Asked whether that sample led to a nice check for the family, Kurt Riley laughed loudly then paused before answering: “Let’s just say they did the right thing, paperwork-wise.” According to the industry grapevine, G.O.O.D. Music did not initially clear the sample—a snippet of the Super Beagle record’s a cappella intro featuring the late Fuzzy Jones bawling about “Weeping and moaning and gnashing of teeth.” Mr. Riley declined to confirm or deny this rumor, saying only, “It had to be cleared. It may not have been done initially because most Jamaican producers don’t really do the right thing when it comes to setting up their music, their publishing, and all of that. So a lot of people normally use it and then nothing comes of it but Daddy’s catalog is one of the few that is being monitored.”
None of Winston Riley’s productions has proved to be such an enduring source for contemporary artists to sample as “Bam Bam.” According the the website WhoSampled, there are 65 different songs that have taken a piece of Sister Nancy’s tune, from “Bomb” by Chris Brown featuring Wiz Khalifa to “Blowjob Betty” by Too $hort and “MC Iz My Ambition” by Diamond D featuring Don Baron. This new Yeezy, Riri and Swizzy joint—of which Kurt Riley was still unaware when contacted by Billboard—promises to be the biggest of them all.
More than the riddim itself, it’s Sister Nancy’s high-pitched voice, which cuts right through the bass-heavy instrumental. Paired with the catchy simplicity of the lyrics (Rihanna’s also covers part of Nina Simone’s “Do What You Gotta Do” on the track), the sample is instantly recognizable by listeners from any culture, regardless of their level of knowledge of Jamaican patois.
“I don’t have a clue” is Sister Nancy’s own reply when asked why “Bam Bam” has proven so popular. “I never know it would have got so far ’cause I did it over 34 years ago.”
“I don’t know if I hear all of them,” she said when asked her opinion of the many songs that have used her voice over the years. “They sample it so much times but none of them is my favorite. The reason why I say that is they know how to contact me. They know I live in the U.S. and nobody try to contact me to do it in person. They always sample the tune. If they had contacted me and I would do it for them live then I would have a favorite.”
The younger sister of legendary dancehall star Brigadier Jerry, Nancy (born Ophlin Russell-Myers in Kingston 6, as she says on the record) got her start during the 1970s when dancehall artists developed their skills live at sound system dances. Unlike latter-day dancehall divas like Lady Saw and Spice, Nancy never indulged in X-rated or “slack” lyrics.
“What they call dancehall today is not dancehall for me like in the ’70s and ’80s,” she said. “They change the thing so drastically and it’s so different. It’s so funny, it’s so nasty, it’s so… Everything that’s bad…”
“I have my brother Brigadier and he’s a Rastafarian from the day I’ve known him,” she added. “And you know Rastafarians try to keep the culture, try to keep it clean, do positive music and everything. So that’s how I started and I managed to keep it like that.”
It was an energetic live performance on a sound system called Stereophonic that first impressed Winston Riley to record Nancy. He invited her to come to his studio on Chancery Lane where she recorded her first 45, a song called “One, Two,” which proved to be a big hit in Jamaica.
“We did one single, two single, three single—then he said he wanted to do an album with me,” she recalled. “I said I’m ready, I’ll do it.” She says she received no money for the album: “Not a cent—that was normal back in the days.”
The album is the only one she’s ever recorded, and she’s made a living ever since—for 34 years—performing live.
Nancy says “Bam Bam” was never a hit in Jamaica. “I only used ‘Bam Bam’ to finish up the album,” she says.” Not until she moved to America 20 years ago did she learn how popular the song was internationally.
When contacted by Billboard, Sister Nancy was preparing to perform later that night at a roots reggae festival in San Diego. She said she had not heard the song “Famous” but that her daughter had texted her about it. She said she was planning to contact Westbury Music Publishing in England who administers Mr. Riley’s catalog and check on her royalties in the near future.
She had little to say about fellow Caribbean artist Rihanna. “Yeah, I heard about her and I heard her music but I don’t really listen her so I don’t have nothing to say about her,” she says.
As for Kanye West? “I don’t really listen to none of them either,” says Nancy. “The funniest thing — I just can’t understand what they’re saying so I don’t try to hear.”