Tracing the roots of the high-pitched, sped-up sample.
Alvin and the Chipmunks were introduced to the world in 1958. The brainchild of Rostom Sipan Bagdasarian, the chipmunks are globally recognized for their high pitched voices and enduring appeal. Their first incarnation was developed to go along with a novelty record. Their success spawned a franchise worth of media and won them no fewer than five Grammys. But before the television show and the feature films, the Chipmunks were first and foremost a musical act. Though they had a comic book and a Christmas special, the Chipmunks are firmly tethered to their music and it is through their voices that they continue to thrive in pop culture.
The Chipmunks infiltrated hip hop in the 90s and have since carved out a lasting place for themselves. To clarify, “Chipmunk sample” is a shorthand. It doesn’t refer to a sample from Alvin the Chipmunks’ music, but to a sample that is pitch-shifted in such a way that it is reminiscent of the Chipmunks’ voices. Many popular songs have featured the pitch shift associated with the Chipmunks: Jay-Z’s “Hard Knock Life,” Ludacris’ “How Low,” and Akon’s “Lonely.” Apart from these chart toppers, there are endless examples of Chipmunk-ed tracks: Mos Def’s “Miss Fat Booty,” Juelz Santana’s “Oh Yes,” and J Dilla’s “Two Can Win.”
While there are widespread instances of Chipmunk sampling in the 90s, most people credit RZA with bringing the Chipmunk sample to hip hop. The de facto leader of the Wu-Tang Clan is tremendously respected for his sampling abilities and vision. “For Heavens Sake” was released in 1997 and samples King Floyd’s “Don’t Leave Me Lonely” (1971) in the chorus, employing a Chipmunk-esque distortion. Like Chipmunks creator Bagdasarian, RZA recorded then later sped up songs to achieve the squeaky audio effect. The voices of Daffy Duck and select characters in The Wizard of Oz also used this technique. Now artists have the luxury of being able to affect the pitch shift digitally in real time.
Just Blaze is also credited with contributing to the prevalence of Chipmunk sampling. In an oral history from the Red Bull Music Academy, Just Blaze notes that technology (and its limitations) were a major factor in the advent of the chipmunk sample. Given that soul and R&B is typically slower than rap, artists who wanted to get soul samples up to an appropriate speed distorted the sample and rendered it high-pitched. Just Blaze explains that he had equipment that allowed him to speed up a sample without distorting the vocals and if everyone had had this technology, the Chipmunk sample may not have become such a staple of hip hop.
RZA and Just Blaze may have pioneered the sampling technique, but Kanye West took Chipmunk sampling to another level. Kanye took inspiration from RZA’s methodology and employed it both in tracks he performed and in tracks he produced (“School Spirit,” Twista’s “Overnight Celebrity,” Kid Cudi’s “Make Her Say”). Grammy-nominated “Through the Wire” was released in 2003 and is often cited as the launchpad of Kanye’s career. The hook consists of a pitch-shifted version of Chaka Khan’s “Through the Fire.” Kanye’s usage of the Chipmunk sample was so successful that “Through the Wire” is considered one of the best songs of an era now recognized as “Chipmunk Soul,” that took place in the early to mid aughts.
The usage of the Chipmunk sample varies from song to song. Some songs use a subtle Chipmunk sample-- moderately high-pitched or layered beneath other facets of the track. For instance, Cam’ron’s “Oh Boy” uses the Chipmunk effect in such a way that it’s isolated to two words that repeat throughout the song. In contrast, other songs make the Chipmunk sample the centerpiece. Akon’s “Lonely” (2005) leads in with the Chipmunk voice and immediately draws attention to the distorted vocals of Bobby Vinton’s “Mr. Lonely.”
While Alvin and the Chipmunks were created as child-friendly entertainment, the Chipmunk sample strays into heavy territory frequently. The juxtaposition of the childlike voices with dark subject matter can create a powerful contrast. Jay-Z’s “Hard Knock Life” explores a more violent version of the life described by its namesake. Likewise, Lil Wayne’s “I Feel Like Dying” goes to a grim place reflecting on drug use.
Though the Chipmunk sample came to hip hop though a desire to incorporate soul and R&B samples, the technique evolved far beyond these initial parameters. Ty Dolla $ign’s 2017 track “Love U Better” uses the Chipmunk sampling technique, demonstrating its continued popularity. The Chipmunk sample’s endurance is a testament to its flexibility and many applications. The sample is able to impart richer meaning and has become a staple in hip hop that shows no sign of fading out.