It’s been a monumental six-and-a-half decades for Stevie Wonder, and his fans across the planet. Since his 1962 debut as “Little Stevie Wonder, the 12-year-old genius” he has skyrocket to unparalleled superstardom and his present status as, well, “Stevie Wonder, the 65-year-old genius.”
Along the way, Stevie’s influence has touched every area of popular music. His work has informed and inspired R&B, soul, funk, reggae, disco, gospel, synth-pop, EDM, and every permutation of rock, from its hardest and most intellectually way-out to its mellowest and most heartfelt.
Hip-hop, in particular, has embraced Stevie Wonder not just as a supreme mentor and guiding light, but also as a font of groove, beats, and other brilliant song parts that can be sampled and expanded into entirely new creations.
In honor of Stevie, let’s celebrate the top 10 hip-hop songs to sample his work.
“Wild Wild West”—Will Smith featuring Dru Hill and Kool Moe Dee (1999)
Samples: “I Wish” (1976)
It might seem a little goofy now that it’s more than a decade-and-a-half old, but Will Smith’s movie tie-in single “Wild Wild West” was a monster hit and exposed countless new fans to the prowess of contributors Dru Hill and Kool Moe Dee. The song also introduced a fresh generation to the electrifying funk of Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish,” the main riff of which provides “Wild Wild West” with its heart, soul, and booty-shaking impact.
“I Feel For You” – Chaka Khan featuring Grand Master Melle Mel and Stevie Wonder (1984)
Samples: “Fingertips Part 2” (1963)
This one’s a bit tricky, as Stevie Wonder both plays an original harmonica part on “I Feel for You” and gets sampled at 2:58, when a drop-in from his first hit “Fingertips, Part 2” cries out, “Say yeah!” Chaka Khan’s song, of course, was a blockbuster hit and considering its convergence of superhuman talent, how it have not been? Aside from the lead vocalist and the harp-blower, “I Feel for You” was written by Prince, and showcases one of the most famous raps ever by Grand Master Melle Mel (“Chak-chak-chak-chak Chaka Khan/Chaka Khan/Chaka Khan, let me rock you, ’cause that’s all I wanna do/Chaka Khan, let me rock you, ’cause I feel for you”).
“Love Me Not” – J. Cole (2010)
Samples: “My Cherie Amour” (1969)
North Carolina’s J. Cole reworks “My Cherie Amour” from Stevie Wonder’s opening notes on up. Utilizing the original’s signature instrumentation, Cole weaves a confessional outpouring of emotion over a recently lost romance. The inherent sweetness of “My Cherie Amour” brings an ironic bitterness to the track, thereby hammering home its feelings more potently.
“Part Time Mutha” – 2Pac (1991)
Samples: “Part Time Lover” (1985)
From its opening sounds, 2Pac’s “Part Time Mutha” builds up on the keyboard hook and melody of Stevie Wonder’s “Part Time Lover.” 2 Pac’s rhymes and a guest rap by Angelique convert Stevie’s winsome song about infidelity into a stinging exposé of what life is (and isn’t) like for a young woman with a child and a drug addiction.
“Dis Yourself in ’89 (Just Do It)” – Beastie Boys
Samples: “Boogie On, Reggae Woman” (1974)
A bonus track from the Beastie Boys landmark LP Paul’s Boutique “Dis Yourself in ’89 (Just Do It)” sneaks in the fuzzy, funkified bassline that immediately distinguishes Stevie Wonder’s “Boogie On, Reggae Woman” at the 2:25 mark. It happens right after the “ka-koo-ka-koo-ka-koo” that’s lifted from “Eye of the Sparrow” by Sammy Davis Jr. aka the theme to TV’s Baretta.
“That Girl” – 50 Cent (2008)
Samples: “That Girl” (1981)
As their mutually shared titles might imply, to hear “That Girl” by 50 Cent is to unmistakably experience “That Girl” by Stevie Wonder throughout. The 50 Cent version not only samples the original’s iconic hook, it actually consists of 50 rapping more or less as a set-up for Stevie’s remixed classic. So is it a cover? A tribute? A replay? Who’s to say—all that matters is that “That Girl” unites two giants in their musical fields as one.
“Sweet Life” – Frank Ocean (2012)
Samples: “Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You)” (1972)
“Sweet Life” is sweet, indeed, as it layers Frank Ocean’s beguiling voice over the lilting keyboards of Stevie Wonder’s unhurried, nearly eight-minute opus “Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You).” Frank is often compared to Stevie both in terms of the sound of their voices and the unguarded nature of their songwriting and performing. “Sweet Life” unites them in a wonderfully warm and personally revealing way.
“Break Up Song” – Wale (2010)
Samples: “All I Do” (1980)
Wale reinterprets Stevie Wonder’s longing, melancholy “All I Do” into a heavy-duty bummer song for the suddenly single to put on and feel every moment of for the ages. Slowed-down to a ballad tempo, Wale captures what’s behind the chorus of the original (“Now all I do/is think about you) and spins it out into spell of sadness that actually feels good to hear just when you’re feeling your worst.
“Lil Freak” – Usher feat. Nicki Minaj (2010)
Samples: “Living For the City” (1973)
The hook of “Lil Freak” comes straight from “Living in the City,” and it propels Usher’s tale of setting up drunken three-way sex in a club to an epic hero’s journey. Booming bass beats and operatic backing tracks expand this player’s playing field, and then Nicki Minaj’s guest rap brings home the down-and-dirty. Just when you thought the prospect of a ménage-a-trois couldn’t get more massively exciting, “Lil Freak” upped the game to previously unimaginable levels.
“Gangsta’s Paradise” – Coolio (1995)
Samples: “Pastime Paradise” (1976)
What might have been just the theme song for the Michelle Pfeiffer good-teacher-in-a-tough-school flick Dangerous Minds became not just one of the defining hip-hop anthems of the ’90s, but one of the decades signature hits overall.
The power of “Gangsta’s Paradise” emanates from the haunting, insistent keyboards that first drove Stevie Wonder’s “Pastime Paradise.” Layer in Coolio’s deeply reflective, sharper-than-first-expected rap and the angelic wailing of L.V., and “Gangsta’s Paradise” gets launched into something absolutely extraordinary.
The song sold two-and-a-half million copies, won the Best Solo Rap Grammy, and endured past “Weird” Al Yankovic’s “Amish Paradise” parody to continue to enrapture and uplift ongoing generations.