Symphony Of Fear: Hip Hop's Best Horror Movie Theme Samples
Just in time for Halloween, DX breaks down the top ten best horror movie theme song samples in Hip Hop. Featuring gems from Gang Starr, Mobb Deep, Dr. Dre, Cage and of course Necro and Three 6 Mafia.
Horror and Hip Hop have never been the best of bedfellows. While mid-‘90s acts like the Gravediggaz, Prince Paul’s Horror City and (to a certain extent) Big L managed to use horror's motifs to their advantage, Horrorcore has never been able to shake its association to critically reviled acts like the Insane Clown Posse. Even non-horrorcore artists like Snoop Dogg’s attempts to bridge the two genres soundly flopped, leaving fans with the bitter taste of 2001’s Bones in its wake.
But that tenuous connection hasn’t deterred some of Hip Hop’s finest. Over the years, countless producers have looked to horror cinema for some of the most neck-snapping beats produced. So in honor of Halloween this year, HipHopDX decided to give you an audio tour of some of Hip Hop’s great horror movie sample flips.
Song: Dr. Dre feat. Hittman, Ms. Roq, “Murder Ink” (1999), produced by Dr. Dre
Samples: John Carpenter, “Halloween Theme” (1978), from Halloween
John Carpenter’s soundtrack to his revolutionary Halloween might be the quintessential horror movie theme song. The sparse piano melody and ominous strings set the perfect mood for Michael Meyers’ murderous rampage and helped establish Halloween as the paragon of slasher flicks. That being said, it makes sense that none other than the great Dr. Dre flipped this iconic piece of music into a dark and gritty anthem for 1-8-7 on 1999’s “Murder Ink.”
What makes “Murder Ink” so good is that the Good Doctor upheld the simplicity of Carpenter’s original theme, shifting the piano into a head-nodding 4/4 meter and laying it over thumping drums and high-pitched strings. It also helps that guest emcees Hittman and Ms. Roq got their verses straight out of Camp Crystal Lake. It wasn’t the first time – and not the last by a long shot – that someone in Hip Hop sampled Carpenter’s iconic music, but you’d be hard pressed to name someone that did better than Dre.
Song: Cage, “Weather People” (2003), produced by RJD2
Samples: Goblin, “Suspiria” (1977), from Suspiria
Any fan of horror cinema knows that during the 1970s, Italy’s horror industry was on a whole different level of weird. At the forefront of the pack was director Dario Argento, who put audiences on the edge of their seats with his visually stunning and brutally violent giallo films. Perhaps Argento’s best work during that era is 1977’s Suspiria, which follows the story of an American ballerina studying in Italy who learns that the dance school she attends is home to a murderous coven of witches. While the frenzied visuals and shocking story make the film a certifiable classic, part of the reason that Suspiria is so effective is Italian prog-rock group Goblin's swirling, ominous score.
In 2003, producer RJD2 introduced Goblin’s masterpiece into the Hip Hop lexicon with Cage’s “Weather People.” What made “Weather People” work is how well RJD2 maintained the eeriness of Goblin’s original track, speeding up the main groove and bumping up the thundering bass line. It makes sense that Goblin’s theme proved such a successful sample for RJD2 and Cage; it’s the perfect blend of technical artistry and moody aura that’s present throughout both artists’ discographies.
Song: Prodigy, “Return of the Mac” (2007), produced by The Alchemist
Samples: Gene Page, “Blacula Strikes!” (1972), from Blacula
There isn’t much too scary about the film Blacula. Like many blaxploitation films from the 1970s, Blacula is a kitschy and cheaply made effort that sought to cash-in on the box office success of Shaft. Today, the film – which follows an 18th century African prince-turned-vampire wreaking havoc on 1970s Los Angeles – is considered a cult classic with all the charm and unintentional comedy of any low budget grindhouse flick. Despite this, Blacula sports one of the best and funkiest soundtracks of its era, courtesy of the late Gene Page.
For Prodigy’s “Return of the Mac,” The Alchemist ramped up the funk of Page’s “Blacula Strikes!,” giving P more than enough room to flex his “New York shit.” The sample exudes a 1970s vibe that fits perfectly with the gritty gangster persona Prodigy adopted for his ’07 album of the same name with the California producer. The booming horns and twangy guitars never felt more at home against Prodigy’s thugged-out braggadocio, while Al’s pacing of the sample keeps the listener’s ears on edge. “Return of the Mac” is one of the rare instances where the sample sounds better as a beat than it did in the movie itself.
See Also: KRS-One, “Higher Level” (1993), produced by DJ Premier
Song: Necro, “The Dispensation of Life and Death” (2003), produced by Necro
Samples: Fabio Frizzi, “Apoteosi Del Mistero” (1980), from City of the Living Dead
Italian auteur Lucio Fulci was never as skilled or nuanced as his contemporary Dario Argento, but whatever he lacked in talent, he made up two-fold for in exploitation. His films are giddily sleazy, filled with excessive nudity and some of the most revolting scenes of violence ever filmed. But perhaps one of his most understated (if you could call it that) works is 1980’s City of the Living. The plot doesn’t make much sense, but the mood, cinematography and stomach churning gore gags make it an exceptionally creepy feature and one of the most underrated in Fulci’s filmography.
It’s no surprise then that the reigning king of "Death Rap" Necro would look to Fulci’s films composer Fabio Frizzi for samples. Frizzi’s haunting layers of synths gave Necro the perfect platform on which to layer his kick-heavy boom-bap drums. Like Fulci’s film, Frizzi’s score doesn’t rely on subtlety; its brazen synth lines and pulse-pounding 4/4 meter immediately smack the listener in ears. The sample wouldn’t work in the hands of a weaker emcee, but Necro uses Frizzi’s sonic bluntness to his advantage to flaunt his “intricate sadistic shit.”
See Also: Circle of Tyrants, “Carnivores” (2005), produced by Necro.
Song: Canibus, “Genabis” (2003), produced by Stoupe the Enemy of Mankind
Samples: Philip Glass, “Music Box” (1992), from Candyman
Cooley High isn't the only flick that found its home in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing projects. 1992’s critically acclaimed supernatural slasher Candyman made the notorious Windy City hood the stalking ground of its eponymous villain, who stalked its residents with a hooked hand. And while the film itself stands alone as an expertly made Horror flick, largely due in part to Tony Todd’s performance as the Candyman, it is renowned composer Philip Glass’s haunting piano score that takes the film to the next level with his piano-driven melody.
Glass’ “Music Box” sounds like a ready-made sample for former Jedi Mind Tricks producer Stoupe the Enemy of Mankind: it’s a distinctive and intricately layered piece that begs for pulse-pounding drums and an emcee capable of catching more bodies than the Candyman himself. And that’s just what Stoupe and Bis deliver with “Genabis”: lush and varied production coupled with Bis’ gruff, rapid-fire delivery.
See Also: MC Ren, “Ruthless For Life” (1998), produced by L.T. Hutton
Song: Mobb Deep, “There That Go” (2004), produced by The Alchemist
Samples: Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave, “Main Title” (1979), from Phantasm
For many fans of horror, director Don Coscarelli’s horror breakthrough Phantasm is one of the most confusing but compelling entries in the genre. The film hits on all kinds of weird as a young boy discovers that the local mortician – dubbed the Tall Man – is turning the town’s deceased into his personal pint-sized minions Hell-bent on world domination. Although the premise sounds bizarre and perhaps pretty idiotic, Coscarelli’s use of pacing and cinematography ropes the audience into the world of the Tall Man and doesn't let them go until the credits roll.
Despite the film’s unique take on the horror genre, the flick boasts a fairly bland synth-based soundtrack. Thankfully for Hip Hop heads, however, veteran producer the Alchemist knew just how to flip Myro and Seagrave’s main titles on Mobb Deep’s ’04 mixtape joint “There That Go.” The A-L-C’s staccato chopping and thumping bass line never sounded better against a pitched-up sample of the film’s theme song. “There That Go” isn’t even the first time that Al ventured into Phantasm territory; he also used the sample four years prior on Nas’ compilation QB’s Finest.
See Also: Mr. Challish, “Money” (2000), produced by The Alchemist
Song: The Fugees, “Ready Or Not” (1996), produced by the Fugees and Jerry Duplessis
Samples: Enya, “Boadicea” (1986), from Sleepwalkers
1992’s Sleepwalkers is by no means a horror movie worthy of acclaim. Based on an original screenplay by horror icon Stephen King, the film follows the story of two shape-shifting vampires on the hunt for a meal in a small California town. As uninspired as that concept sounds, the outcome of the film itself is even less impressive. Between the hammed-up performances from its stars and the utter lack of tension, the film is a painful reminder of just how bad an auteur King can be when he’s looking for a paycheck.
The film’s one saving grace, however, is its inclusion of Irish singer Enya’s “Boadicea.” Although the song first appeared on her 1986 debut, the film popularized the atmospheric track to American audiences - so much so that The Fugees flipped it for their 1996 hit “Ready Or Not.” 'Clef even name checks the flick in the opening lines of his verse, saying, “Now that I escape, sleepwalker awake/Those who could relate know the world ain't cake.” Although the Fugees pretty much only pitched the original down for their version, “Ready Or Not” is an undeniable banger that makes effective use of Enya’s moody bass line and soft vocals. Horror fans may want to forget that Sleepwalkers existed, but Hip Hop heads can at least be thankful that Lauryn, 'Clef and Pras were around to see it.
See Also: Mario Winans feat. Diddy and Enya, "I Don't Wanna Know" (2004), produced by Mario Winans
Song: Three 6 Mafia, “Mafia Niggaz” (2000), produced by DJ Paul and Juicy J
Samples: John Harrison, “Prelude/Welcome to Creepshow” (1982), from Creepshow
Unlike Sleepwalkers, King struck horror gold when he teamed up with Night of the Living Dead director George A. Romero for 1982’s episodic Creepshow. While the fare wasn’t particularly dark or terrifying, Creepshow spoke to a generation raised on the campy fun of comic books and Ed Woods. In addition to a host of brilliantly tongue-in-cheek performances and strong direction from Romero, Creepshow sports one of the most underrated scores in horror film history, courtesy composer John Harrison. The main theme’s understated pianos and sparring use of spooky synths is both chilling and overtly irreverent, perfectly matching the playful atmosphere of the film.
If a group’s going to call itself Triple 6 Mafia at any point in it career, then chances are that its members are going to know a thing or two about horror movie. And the Triple 6 crew – who now go by the subtler moniker of Three 6 Mafia – has earned its stripes by sampling a bevy of obscure horror flicks. But perhaps their greatest achievement in the realm of Horror is when they flipped Harrison’s opening score from Creepshow for their 2000 cut “Mafia Niggaz.” The beat is a classic Three 6 concoction, comprised of sparse minor-key pianos laid over a palette of booming 808 kicks and rattling hi-hats.
See Also: Circle of Tyrants, “Theatre of Creeps” (2005), produced by Necro
Song: Busta Rhymes, "Gimme Some Mo" (1998), produced by DJ Scratch
Samples: Bernard Herrmann, "Prelude From Psycho" (1960), from Psycho
Without Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 thriller Psycho, horror cinema would certainly be a lot tamer than it is today. Even the revolutionary story of serial killer Norman Bates aside, the filmic elements of Psycho helped influence a new generation of horror directors to come. Yet perhaps the most important aspect of the flick is its screeching score, courtesy of composer Bernard Herrmann. Herrmann’s nerve jangling soundtrack perfectly captured the fractured psyche of villain Norman Bates, transforming the already terrifying film into a cultural landmark of the horror genre.
Sampling the soundtrack of a film as respected as Psycho doesn’t comes lightly – for the few Hip Hop heads/cinephiles out there, pulling out a worthy cut from Herrmann’s iconic score and not messing it up is a feat unto itself. But leave it to DJ Scratch to take the film’s string-laden prelude and turn it into one of Bussa Bus’ most hype tracks ever. Scratch brilliantly mediates Herrmann’s sweeping violins and Busta’s frantic delivery, giving the track a peanut butter smooth flow that gave Busta the chance to flex his lyrical finesse without polarizing the most ardent members of his extensive fan base.
See Also: Gang Starr feat. Krumbsnatcha, "Put Up Or Shut Up" (2003). produced by DJ Premier
Song: Gang Starr feat. Big Shug and Freddie Foxxx, “The Militia” (1998), produced by DJ Premier
Samples: Robert Cobert Orchestra, "Dark Shadows Theme" (1966), from "Dark Shadows"
Although Dark Shadows was actually a soap opera that ran on ABC from 1966 to 1971, it’s more than earned its place in the Horror canon due to its supernatural elements and infamous on-air gaffes. Although it wasn’t the first work in the genre to feature as many memorable mistakes as it did, “Dark Shadows” set a new standard for just how unintentionally hilarious a work of horror can be. The series has such a cult status among its devotees that director Tim Burton and Johnny Depp have spent the past four years working to adapt the show to the big screen, with Depp in the lead role as the vampire Barnabas Collins.
Even if the average Hip Hop hasn’t heard of Dark Shadows, the series’ theme song is definitely recognizable, thanks to the legendary DJ Premier’s production on Gang Starr’s “The Militia.” Although the sample lasts only a matter seconds, the eerie, high pitched whining of composer Robert Cobert’s original piece provides the perfect counterpart to the track’s funky main groove from Barbara Lewis’s “Windmills of Your Mind.” It’s a testament to Premo as a producer, crate digger and master of the sonic collage that he could transform a snippet of Cobert’s swooping orchestral work into the musical lynch pin of one of Gang Starr’s greatest hits.
Sean Ryon is a HipHopDX staff writer since 2009. He is also an aspiring music producer and filmmaker. He currently lives in Easton, Pennsylvania. You can follow him on Twitter (@WallySean).