Revisiting the sampling genius of the RZA, 25 years on.
At a time when hip-hop was dominated by the G-Funk grooves of the West Coast lead by the likes of Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and 2Pac, the East Coast was quietly cooking one of the most influential hip-hop albums the world had ever seen. Featuring nine members, each with a unique stage persona, name, and rapping style, the Wu-Tang Clan made their mark on hip-hop with the release of their debut album, Enter The Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers, changing the way artists and critics considered rap forever.
In addition to their iconic, kung-fu inspired names and aesthetic, Wu-Tang was single-handedly responsible for ushering in a new era of hip-hop production, based around raw, gritty drum samples, sparse piano lines, chanting vocals and of course, samples from martial arts films, all curated by the Clan’s producer and spiritual leader, RZA. With 36 Chambers fast approaching its 25th anniversary, we revisit some of the best samples on one of hip-hop’s most beloved and timeless records – Enter The Wu-Tang.
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‘BRING DA RUCKUS’
SONGS SAMPLED: ‘Synthetic Substitution’ – Melvin Bliss, ‘C#B2’ – Ralph Vargas and Carlos Bess, dialogue from Shaolin and Wu Tang.
As far as opening tracks go, nothing slaps as hard as ‘Bring Da Ruckus’ does. Using an assortment of lo-fi sampling units and production gear, 36 Chambers is chock full of gritty, bass heavy beats like these, with RZA meticulously merging soul samples and clips from kung-fu films with his own programming to make some of the hardest beats of the 1990’s.
Opening with an iconic grab of dialogue from the English dub of the 1980 kung-fu flick Shaolin and Wu-Tang, the dirty boom-boom bap drums of ‘Bring Da Ruckus’ come courtesy of the 1973 Melvin Bliss track ‘Synthetic Substitution’, with the RZA slowing and pitching down the song’s opening drum break. Elsewhere, there’s another drum beat which enters around Ghostface Killah’s first verse, which is actually sampled straight from a record full of samples created by Ralph Vargas and Carlos Bess for hip-hop producers, aptly named Funky Drummer.
‘SHAME ON A NIGGA’
SONGS SAMPLED: ‘Different Strokes’ – Syl Johnson, ‘Black and Tan Fantasy’ – Thelonious Monk, dialogue from Shaolin and Wu-Tang.
While showcasing the verbose lyricism of two of Wu-Tang’s heavy-weight MCs – Method Man and Raekwon – the highlight of ‘Shame On A Nigga’ is undoubtedly the introduction of Ol’ Dirty Bastard. Emphasising attitude, shock value and delivery over lyricism and flow, ODB’s impact on hip-hop culture was immediate, and although he sadly passed away in 2004, his wild spirit lingers today through the likes of rap oddballs Young Thug and Danny Brown.
Although two knockout verses from Ol’ Dirty Bastard certainly make this track a special one, once again you’ve got to give props to RZA for his sampling here. In addition to sampling various elements from Syl Johnson’s ‘Different Strokes’, including the horn line, guitar stabs and groove of the song, ‘Shame On A Nigga’ also features two small yet mighty samples from Thelonious Monk – one of the finest jazz pianists of the 20th century. Listen closely to the piano samples around the 1:20 mark, then get cultured and compare it with Monk’s 1956 classic ‘Black and Tan Fantasy’.
‘CAN IT BE ALL SO SIMPLE’
SONGS SAMPLED: ‘The Way We Were / Try To Remember’ – Gladys Knight & the Pips, ‘I Got The…’ – Labi Siffre.
One of the quieter moments on the otherwise intense duration of 36 Chambers, ‘Can It Be All So Simple’ highlights the unique chemistry of Raekwon and Ghostface Killah – undoubtedly two of the best storytellers within hip-hop discourse – with the pair’s ruminations on mafioso rap laying down the blueprint for Raekwon’s critically acclaimed solo debut, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…
Throughout the duration of the track, ‘Can It Be All So Simple’ is powered by a vocal sample from ‘The Way We Were / Try To Remember’ by Gladys Knight & the Pips, with Knight’s repeated refrain also supplying the title to the track. Knight’s vocal sample is underscored by a concealed and muted bass line sampled from Labi Saffre’s ‘I Got The…’, which has also been sampled by the likes of Jay-Z, Miguel, and Eminem, who most famously sampled the track on his breakout hit ‘My Name Is’.
Interestingly enough, the drum break throughout ‘Can It Be All So Simple’ was later sampled by Lauryn Hill for her 1998 track ‘Ex-Factor’ – which was recently sampled by Drake on his latest hit ‘Nice For What,’ demonstrating just how samples can be used and reused across several musical generations.
SONG SAMPLED: ‘As Long As I’ve Got You’ – The Charmels.
“Cash rules everything around me / C.R.E.A.M get the money / Dollar dollar bills y’all,” is without a doubt one of the most famous utterances in hip-hop history, with just about every rap artist interpolating the iconic acronym into their verses at some point in their career. With Raekwon and the supremely underrated Inspectah Deck on verse duties and Method Man handling the chorus, ‘C.R.E.A.M’ is a bona fide, 100 percent organically certified banger, and it’s got an absolutely awesome sample to boot.
On ‘C.R.E.A.M,’ RZA pulls no punches and lets the words do the talking, choosing to only sample from one track; however, to many listeners, it’s fair to say that the piano sample itself is just as iconic as the song’s refrain. The rolling piano line that drives the track is sampled from the first five seconds of The Charmels’ ‘As Long As I’ve Got You’, with additional elements of the song being used by the RZA throughout the intro of the track, proving the simple genius of the bare bones production embraced throughout the creation of the record.
‘PROTECT YA NECK’
SONGS SAMPLED: ‘The Grunt’ – The JBs, ‘Cowboys To Girls’ – The Intruders, ‘Rock The Bells’ – LL Cool J, ‘Fame’ – Irene Cara.
Released as the lead single from 36 Chambers, ‘Protect Ya Neck’ is a posse cut featuring eight out of nine Wu-Tang MCs, with Masta Killa being the only exception from the track. Throughout ‘Protect Ya Neck’, RZA chops up a James Brown sample in a manner similar to that of Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad, looping the opening segment of ‘The Grunt’ to be the main instrumental hook of the track.
Due to its release as a single, several expletives (most being dropped by Ol’ Dirty Bastard, of course) are censored throughout ‘Protect Ya Neck’, with the Clan choosing to use a sample of a synth stab from LL Cool J’s ‘Rock The Bells’ to cover up any questionable phrasings in the song. There’s also an obscure string sample from ‘Cowboys To Girls’ by The Intruders tucked away in the mix – listen closely around the 0.50 second mark for its first appearance.
SONGS SAMPLED: ‘After Laughter (Comes Tears)’ – Wendy Rene, ‘Boogie Back’ – Roy Ayers, ‘Get Me Back On Time, Engine No. 9’ – Wilson Pickett.
Towards the pointy end of the album, RZA unleashes one of his coolest instrumentals yet – flipping Wendy Rene’s tale of sadness into a depiction of crime, violence and brutality deep in Wu-Tang’s native Staten Island neighbourhood. ‘Tearz’ also showcases RZA’s madcap lyricism and vocal tone, contrasting Ghostface’s lucid storytelling throughout the second verse.
Instrumentally, ‘Tearz’ is primarily based around a sample from Wendy Rene’s ‘After Laughter (Comes Tears)’, with RZA using Rene’s vocals as well as the organ groove of the piece prominently throughout the track. The hard-hitting drum track is beefed up by a thumping drum break from Roy Ayers’ ‘Boogie Back’, which has also been sampled by NWA, with a little bit of Wilson Pickett thrown in for good measure.
If anything, the impact of ‘Tearz’ is bolstered further by the lo-fi, derelict sounding production across the track – even the purest of audiophiles can bop their heads to this one, proving testament to RZA’s simplistic production prowess, even 25 years after its release. After all, Wu-Tang is forever.