Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5 are among the most sampled artists ever, giving us hip hop classics like Jay-Z’s “H.O.V.A. (Izzo)”, Kanye West’s “Good Life”, and Naughty By Nature’s “O.P.P.” But quite a few songs take their cues from Jackson’s hits without even sampling him.
1) No Doubt: “Hella Good” (2001), inspired by “Billie Jean” (1982)
“Billie Jean” is a masterpiece of minimalism. It begins with a beat, one of the simplest and most memorable ever recorded, leading into an unforgettable eight note bassline that anchors the rest of the song. No Doubt’s hella fun “Hella Good” begins with the exact same beat, leading into a bassline that anchors the rest of the song. The band fully acknowledges “Billie Jean” as “Hella Good’s” inspiration, even dedicating the song to the Gloved One the night he died.
2) Nine Inch Nails: “Capital G” (2007), inspired by “The Way You Make Me Feel” (1987)
“Capital G” and “The Way You Make Me Feel” couldn’t be about more different things: one’s about George Bush sucking and one’s about sweet, sweet lovin’. But they sound so similar that I checked the liner notes at first to make sure Trent Reznor didn’t sample MJ. Both songs are among the best singles from both artists.
3) TV On The Radio: “Golden Age” (2008), inspired by “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” (1982)
Granted, this one’s a bit of a stretch. Still, it’s easy to hear inspiration from Thriller’s electrifying first track in the centerpiece of TVOTR’s amazing Dear Science. The driving beat at the core of both songs, along with the rhythm of Michael’s and Kyp Malone’s vocal delivery, is pretty damn similar. Plus, both use African music as their secret weapon around the midpoint with “Sumthin’s” famous “Mama-se, mama-sa, ma-ma-coo-sa” chorus and “Golden Age’s” use of Antibalas’ afrobeat horns.
4) Billy Joel: “River Of Dreams” (1993), inspired by “Will You Be There?” (1991)
Billy Joel was out of ideas by 1993, as evidenced by the fact that he hasn’t recorded a single song since then. It’s easy to see what happened here: Free Willy is in theatres, Billy takes his 8-year old daughter, they shed some tears of joy as the recently emancipated orca of the title floats off into the sunset, and what’s this? Wow, great Michael Jackson song! The rest is history; the first single from his final album has the same shuffling tempo, same faux-gospel aura, even the same freakin’ melody.
5-7) En Vogue: “Free Your Mind” (1991), Whitney Houston: “Queen of the Night” (1992), Janet Jackson: “Black Cat” (1989), inspired by “Dirty Diana” (1987)
The rock/R&B hybrid really started with 1982’s “Beat It”, but it was a brilliant guitar-driven pop song with one of Eddie Van Halen’s best solos, while “Dirty Diana” was, well… dirty, an honest-to-God rock star turn that felt appropriately sleazy. In its wake, nearly every R&B singer tried on rock drag, including Michael’s sister Janet with Rhythm Nation’s “Black Cat”. Results varied: Whitney was embarrassing on the lifeless “Queen of the Night” from The Bodyguard soundtrack, but En Vogue’s “Free Your Mind” became one of their biggest hits, and the postmodern fashion show video directed by Mark Romanek is genuinely awesome (though not on YouTube).