Outside the realm of sampling, the Isley Brothers are an extremely popular R&B and soul group even to this day, despite their mid–20th century beginnings. They have hits like “It’s Your Thing,” “Shout,” and “That Lady, Pts. 1 & 2.” While “Shout” would later be remade by artists such as Marvin Gaye and the Beatles, one of their lesser known (but equally impactful) influences in music has been The Isley Brothers’ sampled tracks, particularly in hip–hop. From their hit “That Lady, Pts. 1 & 2” which peaked at no. 6 on the Billboard Top 100 in 1976 to “Between the Sheets” and “Footsteps in the Dark, Pts. 1 & 2”, the Isley Brothers' samples might not be as widespread as other hip–hop influencers such as James Brown, but their samples have packed a stronger punch in recent hip–hop than most. Many think of James Brown as one of the godfathers of hip–hop, and this is indisputable given the sampling of Brown’s 1970 hit “Funky Drummer” by artists like Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Public Enemy, Jay–Z, Mos Def, LL Cool J, and Raekwon or his 1974 record “Funky President (People It’s Bad)" by Kanye West, Childish Gambino, Rick Ross, Pusha T, Naughty by Nature, Ghostface Killah, and N.W.A.
But the Isley Brothers, a group of R&B/soul–singing brothers from Cincinnati, Ohio, should be given just as much clout in their influence of modern rap. They have been sampled by the likes of the Notorious B.I.G., Kendrick Lamar, Ice Cube, 2pac, Public Enemy, and UGK (in addition to less hip–hop exclusive artists such as Thundercat and the Avalanches), but more importantly, many of the songs in which they have been significantly sampled have also been remarkable songs in the history of hip–hop. It is worth noting that obviously some of these artists did not produce the songs themselves, but it is clearly no coincidence that The Isley Brothers are so universally sampled in hip–hop.
Take “Between the Sheets,” for instance. Upon first listen, a hip–hop fan can instantly recognize the beat of Notorious B.I.G.’s “Big Poppa.” He doesn’t sample a small, hard–to–recognize portion of “Between the Sheets,” nor does he sample the Isley Brothers for a quick part of his song. The Notorious B.I.G. essentially chose to rap over “Between the Sheets” itself, creating the legendary hit that is still one of his classic songs to this day. Similarly, turn on “That Lady, Pts. 1 & 2” and one can instantly recognize Kendrick Lamar’s “i,” one of To Pimp a Butterfly’s standout singles and an amazing ode to self–love. The Isley Brothers’ songs are undoubtedly incredible by themselves, sampling or not. But the fact that big–name artists essentially build their songs on the Isley Brothers’ backgrounds is significant, even more so considering the popularity of the newly sampled songs.
Ice Cube’s “It Was a Good Day,” sampling the Isley Brothers’ “Footsteps in the Dark, Pts. 1 & 2,” provides yet another brilliant example of an outstanding hip–hop song largely building itself off a song from the Isley Brothers. The 1992 classic featured a resampling of “Footsteps in the Dark” by DJ Pooh and vaulted Ice Cube to number one on Billboard’s Hot Rap Songs in 1993. Similar to the fashion in which "Between the Sheets" was sampled, the remade version of “Footsteps In The Dark” featured increased bass but largely the same recognizable beat. That’s not to say the Isley Brothers’ two–part “Footsteps in the Dark” hasn’t been featured in subtler ways, however. Thundercat’s most–streamed song, “Them Changes,” also credits “Footsteps in the Dark” as a sample, albeit in not as obvious a manner as “It Was a Good Day.”
One cannot (and I don’t) deny James Brown is a king of samples. However, the Isley Brothers aren’t given as much respect as they deserve in comparison to Brown, despite their huge importance in creating some of the most recognizable chart–toppers in the past 25 years of hip–hop. Spotify, while not the best measurement of popularity (especially since it tends to represent a younger demographic), still reveals how much the Isley Brothers’ sampled tracks are dwarfed in popularity by James Brown. Brown’s “The Boss,” sampled in Nas’ great track, “Get Down,” has 30 million streams, in comparison to the Isley Brothers’ “Between the Sheets” having 15 million, “That Lady, Pts. 1 & 2" having 6.8 million, and “Footsteps in the Dark” having 9.5 million. One could counter that in general the Isley Brothers’ top tracks are more streamed than Brown’s, but in reference to the originals of resampled hip–hop hits, the Isley Brothers lag far behind. James Brown’s “Get Up Offa That Thing” a classic in of itself, has 40.5 million streams, more than any Isley Brothers song. Kendrick Lamar’s XXX “Get Up Offa That Thing” on his most recent album, Damn. “Shout” by the Isley Brothers is their most–streamed song, but is not sampled in any significant hip–hop classics, and the same thing goes for their second most–popular 1969 track, “It’s Your Thing” (although it was sampled by James Brown himself in 1974).
For the Isley Brothers, unlike for other R&B legends, there is not a correlation between popularity of the original songs and popularity of the remakes. This isn’t a problem itself, but it is problematic, however, in the conversation of which 20th century R&B/Soul artists had a profound impact on the sound of hip–hop. If people simply aren’t as attuned to the Isley Brothers’ impact and success, it is inevitable that they will be attributed a lesser amount of influence than they deserve.