Breaks With Tradition is a new Stereogum column that examines a certain song that’s been frequently sampled and how that song has been used through the years.
Last Friday was the 25th anniversary of a release date that hip-hop enthusiasts have staged arguments around for years. On November 9, 1993, both A Tribe Called Quest’s third and greatest album, Midnight Marauders, and Wu-Tang Clan’s revolutionary debut, Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), hit stores and gave heads on a budget a remarkably difficult choice.
Personally, if you asked me — I’ve thought a lot about this — I’d go for 36 Chambers, not necessarily because it’s a better album (I’d put it and Marauders about even), but because it’s a more revelatory album: the first to really get at a certain sense of deep-underground hardcore hip-hop that succeeded commercially despite sounding rawer and more lo-fi than pretty much everything else coming out in the early ’90s. It’s still startling to listen to a track like “Wu‐Tang: 7th Chamber, Part II” with its overdriven basslines and blood-drawing organ stabs, or the piano-banging one-to-the-brain maximal simplicity of “Method Man,” and realize millions of people bought this and it made permanent stars out of everyone involved.
Of course, it’s not just that 36 Chambers was grimier than anything that preceded it and hellbent on creating an entire new generation’s worth of East Coast star MCs. It’s that RZA, as a producer, was willing to try things that few had really done before. I hinted at this in my previous column on Isaac Hayes’ “Hung Up On My Baby,” but the sound of Memphis — both through Stax and Hi Records — was, along with the deliberately haphazard and unpredictable piano stylings of Thelonious Monk, one of the key components that made RZA’s production so brilliantly moody. And when he sampled the Charmels’ “As Long As I’ve Got You” for “C.R.E.A.M.,” he accelerated a trend, first successfully capitalized on by the Geto Boys’ “Mind Playing Tricks On Me” two years before, of hardcore hip-hop adding depth through atmospheric mournfulness. But for a sample that distinct, it wasn’t the last. In honor of 36 Chambers and its legendary single, here’s the strange history of the Charmels’ brush with sampling history.
The Original: The Charmels’ “As Long As I’ve Got You” (Volt 7″, 1967; did not chart)
Back in 2007, I did a presentation at the Experience Music Project’s Pop Conference that examined RZA’s history with classic Southern R&B and its place in his beats. Allow me to reproduce the introduction I wrote about “As Long As I’ve Got You”:
Here’s what I know about the Charmels: emerging in 1966 as the third permutation of a Southern R&B girl group previously known as the Dixiebells and then the Tonettes, the quartet — consisting of Mary Hunt, Barbara McCoy, Mildred Pratchett, and Eula Jean Rivers — released four singles on Stax Records subsidiary label Volt between 1966 and 1968. None of those singles, from their implicit anti-war song “Please Uncle Sam (Send Back My Man)” to their cover of the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” had any impact on the R&B charts, and the group was dropped from the label by 1969. Here’s what I don’t know about the Charmels: where they were from; whether any of them ever recorded again; if their name is pronounced with a hard or soft “ch” sound; whether the late ’60s Tacoma-based girl group of the same name knew of their existence; and most crucially, why their 1967 single “As Long As I’ve Got You” — written by Stax’s hit-machine duo of Isaac Hayes and David Porter — never caught on. I know the first time I heard it in its entirety, to me it sounded like it could’ve been a smash success back in its day.
The punchline was that my judgement over the song’s greatness was slanted by the fact that the first time I actually heard it, the song wasn’t in its entirety — more on that later, of course. Eleven-plus years later, additional info has been scarce. It turns out, unsurprisingly, that the Charmels were from Memphis, working under the guidance of Hayes in songwriter/producer mode. Several years after the group disbanded, both McCoy and Rivers worked briefly with Hayes again on the Masqueraders’ 1977 Hayes-produced disco-soul album Love Anonymous — McCoy providing backup vocals, and Rivers earning songwriting credits on the ballad “Can’t Nobody Love Me Like You Do”. But “As Long As I’ve Got You” is still the defining document here, intensely lovestruck and occasionally deeply strange (how many songs use a flower withering and dying as a positive analogy?), and I’m also like 95% positive that it’s Hayes himself playing that now-instantly-recognizable piano riff. The bridge does feel a little off and melodically aimless, but let’s just call that breathing room for a song that’s already so emotionally direct.
The First Sample: Smokin’ Suckaz Wit Logic, “Gangsta Story” (from Playin’ Foolz, Epic, 1993)
Wait, what? Listen, I can’t 100% confirm this with any level of authoritativeness, but I suspect, given the timing and what little specific release-date info I could find, that this track from a short-lived rap-rock band actually beat Wu-Tang to the punch — by one week, if the Amazon product details for Playin’ Foolzare to be believed. And their album was reviewed
The Breakthrough Sample: Wu-Tang Clan, “C.R.E.A.M.” (from Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), Loud, 1993)
Who cares if Smokin’ Suckaz Wit Logic punched first, though — Wu punched hardest, and with unheard-of techniques, and built a better song around it anyways. It’s so remarkably simple (can it all be?) — the introductory flourish of that Charmels song left to loop so that segue into the verse never comes, a romance that’s never even hinted at, much less fulfilled, so that all that’s left is the anticipation: that piano riff and the drums beneath it, bookended on both ends by organ flourishes that echo each other like they were made to be looped. And that’s how the piece of a love song perfectly upholds a song about survival, like it’s both harder and more fulfilling to find some means of self-sufficience than it is to find love. Transforming beats is one thing, but reclaiming melodies for your own vibe is the kind of thing that put RZA in production’s all-time top tier.
The Early Sample: Mad Flava, “Fools” (from From Tha Ground Unda, Priority, 1994)
Here’s another case of weird timing, at least to hear the parties involved telling it. When Dallas rap group Mad Flava used a Charmels loop for “Fools,” a track off their debut (and only) album in ’94, they actually figured they could make it work by using only half that piano intro as a loop, which might have given them a bit of leeway creativity-wise considering accusations of ripping RZA off but also made their whole thing sound more repetitive and unresolved next to the “C.R.E.A.M.” beat. To Mad Flava’s credit, it’s apparently not a case of beat-biting: members Hype Dawg and Cold Cris have stated in an interview that it was purely coincidence, having created the beat before anybody in the group had even heard Wu-Tang, and that if Priority hadn’t sat on their album (which was penciled in as a May ’93 release), they would’ve been the first to use it. But in any case, it doesn’t exactly make the most of their source material, and even if their drop date of April ’94 opened them to unfair accusations of biting, their “As Long As I’ve Got You” flip is more a weird what-if than some kind of scandal. And in the bigger picture, the “they sound like Soul Assassins” accusations stuck closer to them anyways.
The Weirdo Sample: Westside Connection, “Bow Down (Remix Featuring Shaquille O’Neal)” (from “Bow Down” 12″, Priority, 1996)
It’s one thing if some producer gets ahold of a really hard-hitting but versatile drum break and other producers use that as a basis for their own take on it — that’s been a fundamental of hip-hop from the start. But if someone strikes with a hit based off not just a break but a distinct melodic hook, how brazen do you have to be to try and lift it? Probably about as brazen as you’d need to be to (a) claim that “hip-hop started in the West” and (b) put Shaq on the remix of your biggest hit. Westside Connection did all of these things, and while “Westside Slaughterhouse” was the track where Ice Cube that made that troll-grade claim about hip-hop’s origins, this “Bow Down” remix is almost as big a middle finger to any idea of an East Coast ’90s hip-hop renaissance: an interpolation of the piano riff reworked just enough to give it a bit more bounce, as if to claim that it works better as Cali-style g-funk than its original grimy NYC setting. (It doesn’t.) As far as just-signed new Laker Shaq’s verse… well, he raps better than Raekwon plays in the post, but “Ch-chk-pow! Move from the gate now!” it ain’t.
The Recent Sample: Snoop Dogg, “Neva Left” (from Neva Left, Doggystyle, 2017)
Twenty-one years later, Snoop actually figured out how to make “As Long As I’ve Got You” actually work as a West Coast track, and using samples instead of interpolations, so big ups to Mike & Keys for that — even if hip-hop culture is still nowhere near the point where a beat like this’ll ever sound like anything besides paying homage to “C.R.E.A.M.” (For that, you’d probably have to flip an entirely different portion of the Charmels track, like RJD2 did back in the day, just to escape the shadow RZA cast.) Building more elaborate orchestration and denser, slinkier beats around the loop is a must, and that gives this track its own personality, or as much of its own personality as you could hope for. A loop we’ve known for 25 years as inseparable from cash rules everything around me becomes Snoop’s own stylistically characteristic career retrospective. The beat sounds kind of like November ’93, but the MC does, too, and that’s what matters here.