"Dedicated To The Winners & The Losers..." - Raekwon

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Wu-Tang Clan Does The Beatles: Wu-Tang’s “The Heart Gently Weeps” Review & The Strange Relationship Hip Hop Has With The Fab Four

Yesterday, I came home from my mind numbingly boring new temp job at a law firm slightly annoyed to discover that my favorite group, The Wu-Tang Clan, had their upcoming album pushed back to December 4th (The same day that Saigon is being dropped and for those that don’t know also Ether Day! That’s like a New York hardcore fan boys wet dream!). I was going to write a scathing piece about how this was all Jay-Z’s fault for inexplicably dropping a new album out of the blue that day thus fucking up the Wu’s release but when I came home from work today, I discovered that the long hyped “When My Guitar Gently Weeps” sampling Wu-Tang song “The Heart Gently Weeps” had been leaked onto the internet in the time it took me to get from Rockefeller Plaza to Bushwick so I decided that I would write about that joint.

First off, there has been a substantial amount hype about Wu-Tang being the first hip hop act to successfully clear a Beatles sample in the history of music ever but that’s only a partial truth.  The song only uses a interpolation of the song performed by George Harrison’s son, Dhani, instead of the actual original master and other acts have used samples of Beatles in the past most infamously by Danger Mouse for his overrated Grey Album in 2004 if used massively illegally and The Beastie Boys ripped off a bunch of Beatles samples quite famously for “The Sounds Of Science” on Paul’s Boutique in the Pre-Biz Markie sampling era. Still, legally cleared Beatles samples in hip hop are as rare as pink diamond encrusted leprechauns performing on “Dancing With The Stars” with space aliens as their partners so this is still a pretty big deal. Its kind of fitting that the Wu-Tang Clan be the first group in years to release a fully sanctioned Beatles sampling song because in a lot of respects the Wu-Tang Clan are The Beatles of Hip Hop. After all, these are nine prodigiously talented and diverse artists, not just good but the elite of the elite, who unite once in a blue moon and have more baggage and issues than any group this side of Yoko Ono poisoning John Lennon’s mind. To a hip hop fan, asking who your favorite Wu-Tang Clansmen is just as cliché as asking a baby boomer: “Do you like John, Paul, George or Ringo the best?” (or its the equivalent of asking an ‘80s baby who their favorite Ninja Turtle is? The correct answer is Leonardo if you are wondering and no, I will not accept any arguments to the contrary. You’re wrong. Deal with it.) It reveals a lot about the fan involved by revealing who they actually think is the best and the opinion’s presented can get extremely complex and nuanced. Regardless of the hype, what about the new song? I’m happy to say. It’s pretty awesome.

For those who are familiar with obscure mixtape joints in the Ghostface oeuvre than you should instantly recognize the beat from Ghostface’s great “My Guitar” from a few years back. Its virtually identical to Ghostface’s version and only sparsely borrows from “My Guitar Gently Weeps.” If anything the song sounds more like it were directly inspired by the Beatles as opposed to directly sampling them. Dhani Harrison, George’s son, needles a soft White Album-esque guitar in the background parroting his father but the beat is really driven by a Rhodes piano that plays a slow, mournful melody on the song that really is quiet beautiful. The RZA has really outdone himself by creating a song that is influenced by the Beatles but clearly stands on its own. I’m not sure how RZA possibly cleared the song but clearly being friends with Quentin Tarantino and doing movies for the Hollywood elite has payed off and hooked him into some circles. Kudos, Bobby!

Rae, Ghost, and Meth all contribute verses and they are all in classic gritty, ghetto storytelling mode. Rae is relatively laid back on this track curbing his choppy, harsh delivery into a more slower, more melodic and deliberate flow narrating the story of a slow night chilling in a woman’s basement that is interrupted. by the sounds of gunshots going off in the distance. Meth offers a rare standout verse these days reminiscing about a crooked officer that used to harass him and his friends as they tried to sell drugs on the corner but it’s Ghostface (Who else? Honestly!) that offers the song truly standout verse. Ghostface kicks an incredible story about of all things a routine trip to a Pathmark with his girl where he spills milk on his shoes and then finds himself in the middle of a robbery. Its breathtaking vivid and hilarious and told in a fashion that is both frank and off the wall. I know a lot has been said about how great Ghostface is in the last two years and some of it is just hipster bandwagon hopping but I just want to point out whats absolutely amazing about Ghost is how he is able to tell stories about the most mundane activities like getting your haircut at a barbershop or in this case going to a Pathmark and being able to make it seem absolutely vivid and fascinating. There is absolutely no one like Ghostface in hip hop history. There have been plenty of amazing storytellers in hip hop like Scarface, Slick Rick and Nas but nobody comes close to being able to making the mundane seem extraordinary. He, maybe, in fact the greatest storyteller in hip hop history and thats not hyperbole, I mean it. Its been thrilling to watch Ghostface transform from being one of the bottom of the pack on Wu-Tang’s debut (I would say Meth, Rae, GZA, RZA, Deck and ODB were all better than him on 36 Chambers) to being the unquestioned star of the show. Somewhere between the second disc of Wu-Tang Forever and The W, he surpassed them all and he hasn’t looked back. I was horrified to hear that Ghost might not even be on 8 Diagrams because of inter-Clan bickering back in July because at this point, he’s the absolutely indispensable member of the group with perhaps the exception of RZA strictly for his production. Since ODB’s passing, Ghost is the only one in the Clan that offers the absurdist humor that acts as a counterbalance to the rest of the Clan’s gritty lyricism which is one of the primary reasons the early Wu-Tang records work so well. When you have nine guys kicking strict hardcore lyrical tough talk, you need somebody crooning off-key in the background to counterbalance and act as the court jester. Dirty used to do that and now, Ghost has kind of filled that place.

Getting back to the song, Erykah Badu sings an interpolation of Lennon’s lyrics and while, she doesn’t do anything spectacular, she doesn’t get in the way of the song with any of her Baduisms which is a blessing. The song would probably work without her completely because Ghostface’s crooning the middle part of the song acts as a de-facto hook, anyway.

The Beatles have been the Holy Grail of Hip Hop samples for a long time as they have been oddly seen as off-limits to hip hop artists because of some imagined sense of integrity and purity their music has that can’t be violated by the impure lesser talents of rap music. This has always struck me as completely bullshit and slightly a bit racist. As great and important as the Beatles were to rock and pop music, James Brown was just as important to Soul and R&B music and he’s had his catalog raped and pillaged so many times over that he might as well be the local town prostitute. Its stand as sort of bias that music critics and fans have towards rock music that the Beatles are “above” sampling but artists like James Brown are not. I remember a few years back, I got into a heated argument with a friend of mine who suggested that Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album was complete sacrilege because it violated that sanctity of the Lennon/McCartney’s music because sampling and thus hip hop was a lesser art form than rock and pop music. My philosophy on the subject is that if you are going to treat sampling as a legitimate form of music than nobody is above it. You can sample Beethoven and Mozart for all I care and its not violating anything. I know that part of the reason that clearing Beatles music is so difficult is because the exorbitant cost that it takes to actually pay for its use but thats always struck me as secondary to the rap vs. rock issue that always surfaces when a rap artist samples a famous rock song. Sampling was never an issue until De La Soul and Prince Paul started sampling Steely Dan and other white artists and record companies and artists started to react with horror that rappers were corrupting their songs and demanding they get paid exorbitantly. 

Regardless of the issues that are involved with sampling the Beatles and other rock artists, I can say that after hearing both “My Heart Gently Weeps” and “Watch Your Mouth” that I am tremendously excited to hear 8 Diagrams and my hopes are now officially raised. After the amount of time, I’ve had to wait for a new Wu-Tang album, I probably will be disappointed with anything less than a classic but if these songs are any indicators than I am going to be a very happy camper on December 4th. That is, of course, unless Jay-Z decides to be a dick and push his album back to that date. Then I’m going to pissed. Fuck that shit! Wu-Tang Forever!


Still Starving said...

Yo, I can't wait to hear how they flipped that sample. This is huge, this may push foward the whole sampling/riaa debate.

T.R.E.Y. said...

this is probably completely unfair hating because i've only heard very small bits of it, but i'd just like to say i much appreciate you calling The Grey Album overrated. i swear from some people you talk to at my college you'd think The Black Album (or any other Hov album for that matter) doesn't even exist when they start talking about that. it seems to have become one of those default "see not all hip hop is bullshit!" things.

i really oughta dl it one of these days but really, i can't imagine it's as ridiculously good as i've heard some people make it.

is it a coincidence that "Ether Day" is on Jay's birthday? and you know what should happen, Wu, Saigon, Hov and Wayne (and Nas?) should just all drop their albums on the 4th. Hov could hype it up as some kinda hip-hop birthday bash or some shit. it'd be epic!

DocZeus said...

No, its not a coincidence that Ether Day is on Jay's birthday. Ether was specifically released that day to annoy the piss out of Jay.

Daniel Krow said...

The Grey Album is overrated but that doesn't mean it's not good. Though I think Danger Mouse is an incredibly overrated producer, I have to admit his mash-ups on that album succeed far more than they fail. The use of "Helter Skelter" on "99 Problems" is just amazing, and his sample of a harpsichord for "Change Clothes" saves that song.

Willie and the Poor Boys said...

I'm not so sure that resentment on the part of Beatles' fans to sampling by current hip-hop artists is born in racism. You have to understand that the Beatles were near-gods to young people of my generation (I'm far enough past 50 to see it way in the rear view mirror.) Nothing like them had ever happened before - even Elvis paled in comparison. The fact that they "died young" as a group (they hit the US in 1963 and released their last album in 1970) only strengthened their mythologic status. They brought more than just music to the US (and the world); they were the forefront of an entire cultural revolution. That's not exaggeration. Nothing was ever the same after the Beatles.

Your comment about James Brown and his music is pertinent. I suspect that many blacks of my age would be just as dismissive of some whiny emo star, or even worse, Brittany Spears, "sampling" a James Brown song - it would be sacreligious.

Having said that, I suspect John Lennon would be happy to have his songs sampled. He was the revolutionary, most political of the Beatles. He was always trying out new ideas, new formats, new means of expression. He would probably be teaming up with hip-hop producers if he was alive today. You know, some of his seminal songs - e.g. Stawberry Fields, A Day in the Life, were some of the first, if not THE first, to "sample" previously recorded sounds onto a basic song track.

DocZeus said...

Dear Poor Boys (But Not Willie) -

Thanks for the comments. Let me clarify my statement for a second. I suppose to say it was slightly racist to suggest that resentment towards Beatle samples in hip hop is slightly unfair but more on the lines with there being a clear double standard with the fact that James Brown is cool to sample but the Beatles are not. If you accept the premise that sampling is a legitimate art form (and not all people do) than no one no matter how culturally important is above it.

However, I do feel that there is a certain level of intolerance and ignorance towards hip hop music that helps perpetuate the idea that popular "white" rock music is above being sampled by what can be viewed as a "lower" form of music like "black" hip hop that is born from at least a minimal form of racism. Hip Hop has always faced a level of hatred towards it going back to its rise to national consciousness in the '80s because it eschewed so many ideas of traditional music and it was so unrepentantly "black" if you will. This attitude even predates "gangsta rap" and N.W.A. There is a general level of ignorance by most people who don't partake in the culture to what the actual culture is so instead what is criticized is general stereotypes. To use a recent example, Bill O'Reilly attacking Nas for performing at Virgina Tech because he is "gangsta" rapper despite the fact that Nas isn't a gangsta rapper at all. This is rooted in at least a minimal level of racism.

Tyson said...

I accidentaly found this post and really enoyed it. For some reason I never though why hip-hop musicians never use Beatles samples. I'm sure there songs deserve a 'second life'.

Anonymous said...

How are the beatles racist?I have heard some racist lines from the wu-tang clan on "wu-tang forever" and the one of odbs solo albums.I am white but I still listen to the wu-tang clan alot but that is a huge double standerd.

Anonymous said...

Some are just worse than others. If you think yer not a racist yer lying to yerself