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Aretha Franklin’s Hip-Hop Legacy in Five Songs

In a career that spanned more than six decades, Aretha Franklin’s voice helped define the sound of soul music as the Detroit-raised singer brought the spiritual energy of her church choir upbringing to the pop charts. Digging through a discography that totaled more than forty studio albums, hip-hop producers going back to the genre’s golden era that began in the mid-Eighties have also expanded Franklin’s influence by frequently sampling her voice (and the backing tracks she sang over) and repurposing fragments of her music into the basis of rap songs.

Sometimes the combination is sweet and harmonious, like producer Ayatollah basing Mos Def’s “Ms. Fat Booty” around Franklin’s wistful “One Step Ahead.” But when an artist is sampled as often as Franklin, another layer of insight emerges when you catch glimpses into how various producers experience and appreciate the same songs. Why did Dr. Dre choose a particular sample to bolster the menace of a track, when J Dilla used the same part to further a laid-back, spacey vibe? Why were the Wu-Tang Clan and Kanye West prompted down different conceptual lanes by the same Franklin song?

In respect of Franklin’s passing, at the age of 76, here’s a deep dive into five of her most-sampled songs that spotlight the way hip-hop producers have embraced her music and helped further her legacy.

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“Call Me”

Legend has it Franklin was moved to write “Call Me” after she overheard two lovers twittering away on Park Avenue before signing off with the words, “I love you, call me.” This sentiment was turned into a tender ballad that combines Franklin’s voice and piano-playing with nostalgic layers of strings, anchored by the Muscle Shoals rhythm section.

“Call Me” was originally released on 1970’s This Girl’s in Love With You — and 34 years later Kanye West harnessed the track’s piano lines and melody for Slum Village’s “Selfish.” A hook warbled by John Legend nods to Franklin’s lyrics, as he sings, “I’m calling, yeah, maybe I’m selfish.” The romantic integrity of the sample source is sort of maintained as Elzhi and T3 kick odes to various women they’ve met along their travels — although Ye heads in a crasser direction with a guest verse that features him bragging about paying for a conquest’s breast job.

In 2007, one of Kanye’s disciples, Big Sean, revisited “Call Me” for the first installment in his breakthrough Finally Famous mixtape series. B. Wright is credited as the producer behind the beat: The sample focuses on Franklin singing those overheard words, complete with the sort of sped-up, chipmunk soul-style treatment that you might expect Ye to have been behind — but Sean’s abrasive lyrics are like a middle finger to those who doubted him. This idea of “Call Me” inspiring an MC to write about their rise to success was also embraced by Brooklyn’s Joey Bada$$, who rhymed over Chuck Strangers’s melancholic interpretation of the song’s strings on “Reign.” The production prompts home-borough brags like, “It’s no biggie, I spread love the Brooklyn way/But when push come to shove I’m ’bout that Crooklyn wave.”

Taking “Call Me” in an altogether more rugged direction, Method Man rounded up his fellow Wu-Tang Clan members Raekwon and Masta Killa to spit archetypal Nineties rap brags on “Spazzola.” The track pairs tough kicks and snares with little more than a repeated section of Franklin’s piano-playing from the start of “Call Me,” which was looped up by Meth’s fellow Clan member Inspectah Deck.

“Rock Steady”

Released in 1971, “Rock Steady” is an upbeat, spunky soul track. “Let’s call this song exactly what it is/It’s a funky and low-down feeling,” warbles Franklin as she steps into a funk state of mind. The beat she’s singing over comes courtesy of Bernard Purdie — a drummer whose rhythms have proved a bountiful source for hip-hop sample diggers, along with Massive Attack, Beck, and the Prodigy reusing songs from his 1972 album Heavy Soul Singer. Considering this pedigree, it’s no surprise “Rock Steady” has been heartily mined by a long and regal list of hip-hop producers.

Going back to hip-hop’s golden age, Public Enemy were serial samplers of “Rock Steady.” The group’s in-house production unit, the Bomb Squad, reused a snippet of the track as a way to build up their trademark walls of noise: Grabbed from the mid-section of the song, Franklin’s holler of “Rock!” becomes a prompt for a breakdown section on the heavyweight “Miuzi Weighs a Ton,” while a similar trick is used in the mix of the chaotic anti-crack anthem “Night of the Living Baseheads.”

Dr. Dre picked up on Franklin’s iconic vocal, too, using it as part of the texture of the brooding “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat-Tat” from The Chronic. Also paying attention to this section of “Rock Steady” was J Dilla, the iconic Detroit producer. But whereas the Bomb Squad favored a funky cacophony, and Dre was all about conjuring up a feeling of menace, in Dilla’s hands Franklin’s cry is saturated in dubby echo effects on the woozy space funk of 1996’s “Rockhuh!” It’s a trick the now-deceased Detroit producer repeats on “Feel This Shit.” Venturing southward, Outkast’s in-house wax scratcher, Mr. DJ, chose to cut up the phrase on the group’s sultry ATLiens track “Jazzy Belle.”

Skipping back to the start of the song, Long Island duo EPMD turned the swaggering introductory groove of “Rock Steady” into the basis of 1988’s “I’m Housin’.” Over Cornell Dupree’s rhythm guitar and Bernard Purdie’s drum lines, Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith boast about supping down bottles of lowbrow Cisco wine. It’s a vibe Wale updated for 2011’s “Lacefrontin,” with the sample assisting the song’s live-jam feel.

“I Get High”

https://youtu.be/R29XGl2WZQo

Back in 1995, Smoothe da Hustler and his brother Trigga tha Gambler helped put Brownsville on the rap map with their hit “Broken Language.” The duo followed it up with “My Crew Can’t Go for That,” a track that wound up on Eddie Murphy’s Nutty Professor soundtrack and features a funky-but-ghostly wail from the very beginning of Franklin’s “I Get High.” Hooked up by the underrated beatmaker DR Period, this smart sample murmurs throughout the track — and gives credence to the idea that there’s often sample gold dust to be found in the first few seconds of a song.

The rest of Franklin’s “I Get High,” which was included on 1976’s Curtis Mayfield–produced Sparkle soundtrack, unfurls as a potent funk experience infused with snatches of luminous synths and dramatic strings. These melodic flourishes caught the ear of producer Ayatollah, who followed up his Franklin sample on Mos Def’s “Ms. Fat Booty” by using parts of “I Get High” to serve up a chunky, motivational backdrop for Talib Kweli and Mos to rhyme over on “Joy.” Similarly soulful strings from the song assisted Princess Superstar’s courting of Kool Keith on their kooky rapped tryst “Keith N Me,” while Justus League beatmaker 9th Wonder used Franklin singing “sister girl” as a recurring motif on L.E.G.A.C.Y.’s “Sista Girl.”

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“Respect”

“Respect” was originally written and released by Otis Redding in 1965. But when Franklin recorded her take of the track two years later, her jubilant and determined singing, coupled with an infectious sax-spiked backing, turned “Respect” into an anthem for the feminist movement as well as earning her a couple of Grammy awards. Since then, it’s been enshrined as Franklin’s signature song — and the track has also inspired a rich run of rap songs: Old-school rapper Kool Moe Dee flipped the lyrical concept and employed the song’s memorable riff for 1987’s “No Respect,” a blast of drum machine–powered rap hooked around the idea that “money can’t buy respect.” Chuck D and Flavor Flav also tapped into Franklin’s lyrics when they added the line “R-E-S-P-E-C-T/My sister’s not my enemy” to the pro-feminist “Revolutionary Generation” from the incendiary Fear of a Black Planet.

Hip-hop’s famed Roxanne wars of the 1980s — wherein a bunch of rappers strung out what would now be called a meme into a series of dis songs — also includes choice samples from “Respect.” The Real Roxanne’s “Respect” gets its thrust from producer Howie Tee tapping into the opening refrain of Franklin’s song, while Doctor Ice — whose group UTFO kick-started the trend with “Roxanne, Roxanne” — used a similar sonic trick on 1989’s “Just a Little Bit (Oh Doctor, Doctor).”

The chorus to “Respect” is etched in the minds of music lovers across the world — and it’s naturally found its way into hip-hop hooks. Pioneering Latino rap group Lighter Shade of Brown struck upon the idea with 1990’s punchy “Paquito Soul,” which pairs Franklin singing “just a little bit” with other vocal grabs. Building on this idea, De La Soul drafted R&B duo Zhané to re-sing the line on their sultry, static-warmed Stakes Is High album cut “4 More.”

“Young, Gifted and Black”

The title track to Franklin’s 1972 album is a gospel-tinged cover of Nina Simone’s “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” Franklin emotes through the song’s uplifting lyrics with raw emotion, accompanied in the main by her own piano-playing. In the hands of hip-hop producers, the song’s sample history has become a tale of two piano riffs.

Back in the early-1990s, producers like DJ Premier and Pete Rock would often open and close album tracks with short snippets of beats to set the mood. Gang Starr’s “92 Interlude” is one of the most memorable examples of the trend: It’s twenty seconds of a beguiling piano loop and the bare snap of a beat that almost comes off like a click track. It’s a piano loop DJ Premier noticed halfway through “Young, Gifted and Black,” nestled between Franklin singing “When you feeling real low” and, “Here’s a great truth you should remember and know/That you’re young, gifted, and black.” Later that year, Premier fleshed the sample out into a full track for Heavy D, who rapped over the riff on “Yes Y’All” from his Blue Funk album.

While DJ Premier was dropping the needle halfway through “Young, Gifted and Black,” Lupe Fiasco was charmed by the way Franklin’s piano opens the song. Those notes are used as the melodic basis of “Cold World,” an unreleased track from the Chicago rapper’s vault. Similarly inspired by Franklin’s playing, Rapsody’s “Laila’s Wisdom” leans heavily on both the introductory and mid-section original piano lines to give the song its soul factor. Lyrically, Rapsody also rhymes as if she’s channeling the determined and uplifting spirit of many of Franklin’s songs. “Keep that style you got soulful/The best of the best gon’ fear you/Sky’s the limit, see, I told you,” she raps in words that now seem especially poignant in the shadow of Franklin’s passing.

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Ghostface Killah and Adrian Younge Produce an Album That’s a Movie

Rappers get to tell more detailed stories. They have a higher wordcount. They can fit War & Peace into 16 bars where other genres only have room for a fairy tale. And no rap artist takes more advantage of this fact than Wu Tang Clan’s Ghostface Killah, aka Ironman, aka Tony Stark, aka Pretty Tony, aka Ghostdini, as gifted a wordsmith and storyteller as has ever been seen in all of hip-hop.

Take “Shakey Dog,” off 2006’s masterful Fishscale. In it, Ghost is all bluster, rapping in double time about robbing a stash house, all the while doing that could-break-out-sobbing-or-yelling-at-any-moment thing he does so goddamn well. The short track—from planning the heist, executing the heist, and the heist going wrong—is filled with impossibly vivid color: goons eating T-bone steaks with caramelized onions, fried plantains, and rice while sitting on the couch watching Sanford & Son; guard dogs; a Spanish-speaking “big titty bitch” weighing out drugs; shots fired; aliases used. Dude can paint a picture.

Which is why Ghost’s new project, Twelve Reasons to Die, from concept to execution, is so perfect. It’s a cinematic tale, a movie as album. Twelve Reasons‘ co-writer and director, to extend the metaphor, is Adrian Younge, whose production work is steeped in the same kind of vintage soul sounds Ghost has made his name wheezing over for more than two decades.

“My whole studio is all analog,” explains Adrian Younge, dipped in mostly Polo gear and nestled on a leather couch in a Williamsburg chop shop. “All old mics, old bass, all that shit. I approach music like a hip-hop producer that was producing in the 1960s.” Everything in Younge’s studio predates 1976. For this reason, and the crisp, funky, needle-to-the-record pop of Younge’s past productions, the two seemed like natural collaborators.

“I’m a soul baby,” says Ghost, backstage at The Late Show with Jimmy Fallon. (The emcee performed a track off Twelve Reasons, “I Declare War,” earlier this month.) “I come from that era. I was born in 1970 so that type of music is just in me. That old shit, that fly shit . . . it sticks with you. I can do all genres but I like that chamber best.”

The aesthetic dovetail Younge and Ghost share is why Bob Perry introduced the pair. Perry is partners with Wu Tang figurehead RZA in Soul Temple Records, which released the album. RZA also served as a Grand Poohba of sorts on Twelve Ways. His past productions have certainly influenced Younge’s own style, and on this album in particular, he offered notes and advice where applicable. But it was mostly the result of Ghost and Younge, actor and director.

Twelve Reasons is crime saga. Younge wrote the script. “It’s an Italian crime story from the late 1960s starring Anthony Starks. Starks is part of an Italian mob called the Twelve DeLucas. Because he’s black, he can’t rise above a certain rank. So he starts his own criminal faction against them, and they go to war.”

A very detailed setup ensues in which Tony is betrayed by a woman he’s fallen in love, leading him into the waiting arms of the DeLucas, who kill him by dropping him in a vat of vinyl. Twelve records are then made out of this vinyl as souvenirs of his death. Whenever one of the DeLucas plays one of the records, the spirit of Tony emerges and kills them. “It’s a transformation from Anthony Starks to the Ghostface Killah,” Younge says. “Thing is Ghost completely exceeded my expectations.”

RZA agrees. “Ghost did his thing,” he says while picking at a plate of rice, beans, and plantains in studio. “There were topics and guidelines, but Ghost expanded the story with his own creativity. But you have this guy, Adrian Younge, who has studied soul music and studied me as a producer and was able to catch the meaning of my albums. Like, for instance, to me, Cuban Linx [Wu Tang’s Raekwon’s solo album] was a movie. [GZA’s album] Liquid Swords was an audio movie. This was the proper way to approach making music. And Adrian is a student of that.”

Younge must’ve studied until his eyes bled because the chords he uses emote the same feelings a lot of RZA’s earlier works did. “I would step in on occasion and make slight adjustments,” says RZA. “But I was careful to not overshadow Adrian’s choices and allow it to be a reflection of his creativity.”

Younge’s creativity offered Ghost a platform.

“It was easy because Adrian Younge, he had a real clear idea of how the concept should go,” Ghost says. “I just had to play the hit man and murder the tracks he sent me. He gave me some direction, you know, the foundation was already laid out so it was just about execution. And the foundation that was laid out is important to me. That record needle popping and the dusty vintage becomes more [precious] as we get further away from that time period. That’s why Adrian deserves mad credit for re-creating that.”

“When I’m creating music I always ask myself, ‘Why should someone care about this with the thousands of kids making music nowadays?'” Younge says, tweaking knobs and pushing buttons on the mixing console as Twelve track “Enemies All Around Me” bumps from the monitors. “Once I thought of the script and the details in the script, I knew that people would care. And I hope I’m right.”

Twelve Reasons to Die is out now

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Spring Arts Guide: The Once and Future Ratking

Patrick “Wiki” Morales, frontman of the Harlem hip-hop group Ratking, is dressed in a baggy T-shirt and jeans, sitting at the Pakistan Tea House in Tribeca. He’s with his bandmates, producer Eric “Sporting Life” Adiele, 31, and Hakeem “MC Hak” Lewis, 18, shoveling forkfuls of rice pilaf and chicken tikka masala into his mouth while speaking almost as frantically as he raps. Almost. “I’m like a shy person,” Wiki explains. “But when I’m on stage it’s over, it’s like letting it all out. I don’t have to worry about what I say, or what I look like and shit . . . it’s our show.”

At just 19, Wiki has been widely lauded as the future of New York hip-hop, held up as the kind of lyrical savant the city needs in order to regain the prominence it once boasted in the ’90s with acts like the Notorious B.I.G, Jay-Z, and Wu-Tang Clan. But even while other uptown rappers like A$AP Rocky and Azealia Banks are busy scoring No. 1 albums and hit singles worldwide, it’s clear that Ratking sees New York, and what it needs in order to move forward, a little differently.

“I’d rather be the future—us as a group would rather, I mean—be the future of New York in a little bit more than just hip-hop,” says Wiki. He’s sporting a freshly buzzed head and a few of his front teeth are missing, though no one offers an explanation. “The future in culture and in art. But maybe that is part of the future of hip-hop.”

Things have happened fast for Ratking. Since the music video for their song “Wikispeaks” first began to buzz on the Internet last spring, the group has toured the U.S. and the U.K., played the Pitchfork Music Festival in Paris, split with their fourth member (producer Ramon), and signed with prestigious British record label XL Recordings (Radiohead, M.I.A, Adele).

Their debut EP, Wiki93, is like an unwashed window into urban rot. The world brought to life by Wiki’s nasally, spastic flow is one of teenage delinquency and discontent. Jumping subway turnstiles, wreaking havoc on the police, getting drunk and stoned on city stoops—all of the small vices one might associate with growing up in Manhattan (on the Upper West Side for Wiki) come through on the record.

“A drunk mutt, that’s my pedigree, it’s meant to be/Hennessy’s the only thing that’s friendly to me/I’m straight New York when a lot of y’all pretending to be,” declares the half-Irish, half-Puerto-Rican Wiki on “Wikispeaks.” And while it’s true—the style is authentically NYC—it’s also undeniably left of mainstream, somehow too avant-garde to be labeled as just plain hip-hop. The influences of Biggie, early Jay, and Dipset’s Cam’ron can be heard on 93, but it’s done as homage, almost pastiche, and coupled with tastes of ’70s No Wave, layers of noise, and the spirit of ’80s hardcore punk to keep things interesting.

“We try to make songs that haven’t been made before,” explains Sporting Life, the group’s producer. “Like we mix some things that maybe singe your eyebrows off, or explode in your face, but when we finally get that mix right. . . .” He trails off.

“The master of analogy over here,” laughs Hak. Tall and soft-spoken, Hak has his head down and is busying himself by drawing a cartoon on a paper napkin. “You should try rapping using only analogies.”

Sporting Life first met Wiki and Hak (the pair have been friends since middle school) two years ago at a downtown park jam. Wiki had fought his way onto the stage and was freestyling over an instrumental. When the beat ended, the young MC continued a cappella, causing the crowd to go wild and Sporting Life to take notice. In the days that followed, the group quickly bonded over their love of hip-hop, as well as a shared appreciation for film, art, and New York No Wave acts like proto-punk duo Suicide.

“It was like, ‘Oh, you guys know what’s good,’ ” says Sporting Life, who grew up in Virginia, and then Baltimore, before moving to Harlem. “I guess it was serendipitous that all of us could be into Cam and also into Alan Vega, you know what I mean?”

While much of the attention has been placed on Wiki—the frenetic pace at which he spits, the bushy unibrow set above his eyes (Wiki One Eyebrow is one of his nicknames), the overall strangeness of his bravado—Ratking views itself as a band, not a solo project. One of Sporting Life’s favorite analogies is to a basketball team: Wiki playing shooting guard and knocking down jumpers, Hak as the big man in the paint crashing the boards, and Sporting Life handling the ball at the point, setting up all the plays.

“We’re all getting to the stage where everyone is getting more comfortable with their roles in the band,” he explains. “Like if I’m going to play guard, then you guys can’t play guard. You can be forward or you can be center. It’s a team effort. You gotta get rebounds, and I’ll get assists, and he gets points.”

The group’s aesthetic, though more refined and pronounced on their newer material, is indeed largely a product of Sporting Life’s loop-laden production and Hak’s odd mixture of spoken word, sung melody, and straight-up rap verses—no longer solely a platform for Wiki to showcase the wit and intricacy of his rhymes. Songs like “Comic,” a glitchy, fast-paced track added to the XL re-release of Wiki93, as well as cuts leaked off their forthcoming LP So It Goes, show Ratking moving away from retro rap and toward something more inventive, a style bound less and less by the five boroughs. The beats are noisy and industrial, pushing the sound closer to that of California punk/rap outfit Death Grips than, say, Jay-Z’s classic Reasonable Doubt or Wu-Tang’s 36 Chambers (two albums that Ratking members still reference constantly in conversation). Hak’s role in the band has also been amped up, and his dueling vocals with Wiki give the songs a certain amount of tension and drama they once lacked.

The result is something fresh, weird, and a little bit schizophrenic, like we’re listening to Ratking wrestle with its own potential. The title track from So It Goes (the name is a nod to Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five) continues in a similarly manic vein; the group says they’ve started to build a collage of ideas found in literature, film, art, magazines—even words they’ve seen carved into city sidewalks—in order to create something new.

“[So It Goes] is not necessarily more experimental, but it’s more mature—even with ‘Comic,’ I didn’t necessarily have my hands completely around the sound I was going for,” explains Sporting Life, who says he strives to construct a record the same way that Quentin Tarantino pastes elements of classic film genres together in his movies. “‘Comic’ was like a rest stop on our way.”

Wiki jumps in: “Yeah, it’s not just past it, it’s past it and then that way and that way,” he says, pointing left and then right.

Though there’s no release date yet, Ratking has finished tracking between 12 and 14 songs for So It Goes. The album was recorded by Young Guru—the Grammy-nominated audio engineer who has mixed 10 of Jay-Z’s 11 albums—and New York’s DJ Dog Dick, and will be a chance for the group to see if artistic ambition can translate to staying power in a genre that doesn’t always reward it.

“We’re trying to merk Hot 97 and merk the art world at the exact same time,” says Sporting Life. “We wanna box with the big dogs.”

Fresh from SXSW, Ratking are hitting the road for a mini-tour with Wu-Tang Clan’s GZA starting in late March. For more info, visit ratkingnyc.com or follow @RatKing on Twitter.

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7LES and Wu-Tang Clan’s Inspectah Deck Rap a Comic-book Fantasy

You know that story you hear every now and then, the one about the ballplayer who grows up idolizing some superstar, then finds himself playing alongside his hero during his rookie year in the bigs?

Boston emcee Esoteric and DJ 7L—long joined together under the banner 7LES—can relate. Back in ’93, the pair were young hip-hop pups, bonding over Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). Five years later, after dropping a few singles but still virtually unknown outside Beantown, they found themselves in the studio (thanks to some fortuitous industry connections) with Wu-Tang rapper Inspectah Deck, collaborating on the title track to their 1999 debut EP, Speaking Real Words.

“I was starstruck and honored to even be in the same booth with him,” Eso recalls. “That could have been enough, like, ‘I did a record with Deck—I quit!’ ” he says, laughing. “Though it’s not in my blood to quit.”

“Totally starstruck at the beginning,” 7L concurs, “but once we got past that feeling we just did our thing and you could tell we all had some real chemistry.”

The raw, throwback “Speaking Real Words” turned heads in a Def Jux–dominated underground. Eso and Deck kept in touch; the trio reunited a decade later for a track on the fifth 7LES LP, 2010’s 1212. Around that time, Eso also hit Deck with a rough idea for a comic-book-style rap concept album about a ruthless, armor-clad vigilante—neither superhero nor villain—who dominates the world and decimates sucka emcees. Now, three years later, Czarface has arrived.

“[Deck] was down, and I think we all went into it just to do it, without worrying how it would come out,” 7L says of the triad and their self-titled album. “And then it started shaping up and we knew we had something.”

“There’s a lot more communication,” Eso says of his relationship with Deck, “so we wanted to make a whole record that sounded like a lot of thought went into it. At this point, we’re more experienced and he’s been through a lot, too, so we all have that much more life experiences to draw from.”

“Basically, man, Esoteric is a dope lyricist, and I wouldn’t have done it if he wasn’t,” says Deck.

Czarface is straight-up boom-bap battle-rap; pop-culture-dappled boasts sliced by 7L’s granite beats, frantic scratches and midnight loops that hearken back to Wu mastermind RZA’s gritty 36 Chambers soundscapes. Deck’s rhymes come correct, which you expect: For 20 years he’s been a scene-stealer on par with Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross, regularly turning up unheralded amid Wu’s ensemble cast of rap superstars with his hard-spitting flow to drop the lines you remember the most (see: “C.R.E.A.M.,” “Uzi (Pinky Ring),” “Take It Back,” and GZA’s “Duel of the Iron Mic,” for example). But Eso, with his nimble cadence and cunning rhymes, more than holds his own throughout and steals a few scenes himself, even alongside such esteemed Czarface guests as Ghostface Killah, Action Bronson, Vinnie Paz of Jedi Mind Tricks, Roc Marciano, Cappadonna, and Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire.

Proof comes often, maybe most exhilaratingly in the heist-flick-sounding “Word War 4”: Flutes loop and cymbals skitter like Bullitt‘s tearing through the speakers (you half-expect Steve McQueen to turn up, but a George Carlin “Take a fuckin’ chance!” sample does instead), while Deck and Eso go toe-to-toe trading verses, pummeling each other to the canvas while no clear victor emerges, other than the listener.

“I feel he’s up there on my level as far as being an emcee,” says Deck. “He made me step my game up. He’s hungry, he’s talented. It’s refreshing to hear somebody rhyming like that nowadays. He’s like my damn-near nemesis. He brought his A-game. He inspired me; it’s a perfect mesh.”

“He’s told me that I really held it down,” says Eso. “He’s played it for people and they’re like, ‘Who’s this guy?’ Hearing that’s enough for me. For me, when I was starting out and listening to Wu or Nas, I knew I wasn’t touching any of those dudes. There’s still a little voice inside saying I’m not on their level, so I’m still reaching, but hearing some of the positive reaction to this helps.”

Through Czarface, 7L shook off some old insecurities, too. “I’ve always been kind of a perfectionist and I worried about what other producers would say, and from the nerd angle, if I could rate with the best diggers. But this time I didn’t sweat it, so it was a lot more fun for me just making beats.”

For his part, Deck says Czarface helped him tap into the vibe of Wu days past. “I’m proud that I could go back to my younger self and channel that lyricist once again,” he says. “I’m rhyming about political corruption and life experiences, current affairs, God and devil. This album is cocaine lines on the table—it’s got nothing to do with guns or drugs, it’s a state of mind. I give it to Esoteric: A lot of this was his idea, and everything he ran by me was a go. [It’s] capturing ’90s nostalgia without trying to capture ’90s nostalgia, and I think we did it.”

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Double eXcel: Wu-Tang Clan’s Masta Killa and OutKast’s Big Boi

When Wu-Tang Clan’s Masta Killa laughs his exceptionally big, gregarious laugh and answers my question, it’s like he’s pulling some kind of long con. Not because he hasn’t given me a perfectly good answer. He has. But because his answer to the question “How does one achieve hip-hop longevity?” is the exact same one Big Boi of OutKast had given me a few hours earlier.

Just listen:

Big Boi, 1:15 p.m.

“You gotta always consider yourself a student. Even though you might have mastered certain things, you gotta always be a student to it. And, I mean, I’m always trying to learn new things.”

Masta Killa, 4ish p.m.

“The true understanding a master reaches is that he’s always a student. See, life is the ultimate teacher. So even though you’re the master of your destiny, you have to remain open to new things, because that’s the only way you learn.”

Be humble, basically. Or, in Big Boi’s Southern, to-the-point parlance, “Don’t ever get to a place where you can’t be told nothin’.”

Both Masta Killa and Big Boi have been in the rap’s public realm for 20 years now, a phenomenon as rare as an atheist in a foxhole or a depressed Trader Joe’s cashier. Rap artists either burn out (DMX, Bone Thugs), fade away (Biggie, Tupac, Eazy-E), find Jesus (Ma$e, Hammer), find Hollywood (RZA, Andre 3000, Ice Cube), or become sick parodies of themselves (I’ll let you fill this one out). And while their answers on some common topics are the same, both longtime artists have new albums that are wildly different. Masta Killa’s is Selling My Soul (Nature Sounds); Big Boi’s is the no-less-ominous sounding Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors (Def Jam). Different, yes, but they’re both incredibly good. And both make the same statement in similar words: We’re here because we’re know what the fuck we’re doing.

On Selling, Masta Killa leans back on the Wu-Tang sound of yore: soaring samples of old-school soul and stuttering, slow-tempo beats and production by longtime Wu associate 9th Wonder, plus kung fu samples, the whole bit. On “Dirty Soul,” the album’s last track, he outright lifts old Wu-Tang lyrics—Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Hippa to Da Hoppa”—in salute to his fallen comrade.

“I heard the beat, and the first person that I thought of was Ol’ Dirty,” says Masta of the song. “I said to myself, ‘Oh, this is the kind of beat'”—a rolling bassline over a thick, filthy organ—”‘Dirty would love right here.’ It’s such a soulful beat he would’ve loved it. It felt right to rap his words over it, and give tribute.”

Masta keeps Selling mostly in third gear, seldom amping up the BPM to anything that will quicken the pulse. This is music to smoke blunts and lounge to. Fitting, considering he is doing exactly that on the album’s cover. “I listen to a lot of old music,” says Masta, adding that he spent a lot of time before the album cruising the city listening to old pre-disco Bee Gees. “And a lot of it has a laid-back feel, which inspired me.”

Selling harkens back to what’s old, but according to Masta, that’s what makes it new again. “A lot of people haven’t heard this classic Wu sound in a long time,” he says. “And, matter of fact, because RZA didn’t do any of the beats, and the title’s Selling My Soul, that’s all being perceived as I’ve deviated from the classical sound that everyone once loved. It’s going to surprise people.”

About that title: Does it foreshadow what it takes to stay in the hip-hop game for 20 years?

“Well,” laughs Masta Killa, “most of the time when you hear that phrase, ‘selling my soul,’ it’s perceived as a negative. But in actuality, when you think about the soul, the essence of one’s self—when you’re being creative and being productive from the inner self—that is a part of the soul, brother. You can feel it in your soul. You’re selling your soul.”

Vicious, on the other hand, leans forward. Way forward. Pop hooks abound all over its 15 tracks, and the album features many guests, both expected (T.I., Ludacris) and not (Phantogram, Wavves). “The music has to evoke a certain type of emotion that’ll make you feel a certain type of way,” says Big Boi about the album. “That’s when I know I’m done—when I feel a certain type of energy.”

“With every album, even from OutKast albums up until now, it’s always been about evolution in all ways,” he adds. “Trying to just find new sounds. You never wanna re-create something you’ve already done. When you’re searching for new sounds and new things, you try new things. I like to always say the music is organic, we create it—never genetically modified.”

“After 20 years of records and songs in the catalog, it’s important to stay excited,” says Big Boi. “Me as an artist and a producer, too, I try to create something that you’ve never heard before. Something I’ve never heard before.”

Following along that “something you’ve never heard before” vibe, certainly, are three songs (“Lines,” “CPU,” “Objectum Sexuality”) produced by or featuring slinky pop-duo Phantogram. On “Shoes for Running,” Big teams up with the gauzy Nathan Williams of Wavves. All the tracks are outliers on a hip-hop album, injecting a new wave touch that definitely lives up to Big’s lofty billing.

Masta Killa lays in the old-school cut. Big Boi is never happy in familiar surroundings. Both are students, speaking different languages, but getting the message across.

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The Man With the Iron Fists

As Wu-Tang Clan’s principal producer and myth-maker, Robert “RZA” Diggs translated the group’s rugged urban background into the language of Wuxia flicks and ’70s Marvel Comics. These elements are accounted for in RZA’s first film, the 19th-century-China-set The Man With the Iron Fists. The director plays the blacksmith of factious violence-torn Jungle Village, which is invaded by brigands who have absconded with the governor’s gold as well as outsiders with grudges to nurse, Englishman Mr. Knife (Russell Crowe) and Zen Yi (Rick Yune). As Iron Fists gets rolling, you immediately have the sense of watching a movie made by someone who has no immediate expectation of making another, and has consequently decided to throw in every bit of chop-socky business all at once, cluttering the screen with all manner of outlandish weapon-accessories, superpowered characters with axiomatic names (Brass Body, the Gemini Killers), and calligraphy writ with arterial spray. As a narrative, it is about as cohesive as Bobby Digital in Stereo, the action scenes are often too cluttered for legibility, and, curious to say of a movie made by a musician, the film has broad swaths without tempo. But if Iron Fists is sometimes badly made, it is refreshingly badly made. It has a homemade charm that comes from a sense of having gestated in a lifelong obsession: A flashback showing RZA’s blacksmith escaping his plantation to wash up on the shores of China gets at Wu-Tang’s essential cross-cultural tension, curiously touching in its suggestion of a young Robert Diggs gaining a sense of personal nobility (and a bowdlerized primer on Buddhism) through the conduit of duped Golden Harvest VHS tapes. Nick Pinkerton

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GRIND TIME

With the recently reissued Liquid Swords, GZA wrote what many would consider 
the crown jewel of the impeccable run of first wave Wu-Tang solo albums that 
began with Method Man’s Tical and ended with Ghostface’s Ironman nearly two years later. They don’t call him a genius for nothing: These days, he’s mixing performances and recording with keynote lectures at MIT and the EMP Pop Conference. Stay for him, but make 
sure you arrive early enough to catch Killer Mike (pictured), the Atlanta stomper whose latest, R.A.P. Music, features fierce political rhymes over impenetrable El-P beats. With Bear Hands and Sweet Valley.

Thu., Oct. 18, 7 p.m., 2012

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Mayhem Lauren

Give Mayhem Lauren credit for cultivating certain sartorial (rakish), artistic (hall of mirrors), and gustatory (bros down with Action Bronson) stances. Yet no one’s going to peg the Queens MCs as original in a meaningful sense: He’s up on heads’ radar screens right now because he embodies a long, proud tradition of crudely self-indulgent NYC Campbell’s Chunky rap that found its most notable expression on Wu-Tang crew and solo albums. Of course, we’re totally buying his mixtapes anyway. Counterfeit fly shit is, after all, still fly shit.

Thu., Oct. 25, 9 p.m., 2012

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The RZA You Didn’t Know Existed

Tonight, Wu Tang founder and hip-hop mastermind RZA takes the stage at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. One of the most respected names in the music business, he masterminded the transformation of a Staten Island supergroup into a brand whose logo is as recognizable as any in the past 20 years. Not content with just rapping and producing, RZA has notably also been heralded for his work as an author, film score composer, actor, and soon, director, with the upcoming release of his new film, The Man With the Iron Fists, due out November 2.

But there’s another side of RZA many of even the most loyal Wu soldiers might not know. Before he was Bobby Digital, before he was even RZA, he was Prince Rakeem.

See Also:
RZA Live, 02.22.08
Here Is a Photo of RZA Hanging Out with Vampire Weekend on a Tennis Court
The Wu Tang Clan Bring The Ruckus To NYC

Yes, though many cite the beginning of the Wu-Saga as his performances with GZA (then the Specialist and later the Genius) and Ol’ Dirty Bastard (then Ason Unique) or even trace it back to midtown Manhattan’s three-for-$1 kung fu film screenings, the world at large didn’t get its first taste of the man who would be RZA until his emergence as Prince Rakeem with the 1991 single “Ooh I Love You Rakeem.” A shockingly light, jovial track that you could conceivably chill or party to, it’s hard to reconcile that the MC present is the same RZA when watching the video today.

Signed to Tommy Boy Records for a single deal with an album option, RZA intended “Ooh I Love You Rakeem” to be the label-placating, radio-friendly song that was required of all early ’90s rap records. While he first sparked the label’s interest as the rugged Shaolin dude we know today, his reputation at the label as a charming ladies’ man resulted in the push for a more romantic introduction. RZA also produced the song himself, but the drums were programmed by innovative hip-hop producer Prince Paul, making the vibe of the track seem almost like a spiritual De La Soul successor.

While the comparatively more conventional flow was used to bring people on board, the B sides “Deadly Venoms” and the Easy Mo Bee-produced “Sexcapades” sound far more indicative of the Clan that was still yet to come. Even though “Ooh I Love You Rakeem” didn’t quite catch on with the masses, its misfire, coupled with RZA’s experience at Tommy Boy, led to him abandoning any aspirations for the standard artist-label relationship and starting his own movement. Today, RZA sits atop one of entertainment’s most respected brands with the critical carte blanche to justifiably venture into any sort of business or artistic endeavor he pleases. While we’ll most likely never see Prince Rakeem’s reemergence, he’ll been immortalized forever in the depths of the Internet, right next to the Wu-Tang Clan’s Super Game Boy commercial.

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GZA

Wu-Tang Clan luminary GZA is enlisting the Latin-funk ensemble Grupo Fantasma to accompany him in a recitation of his touchstone Liquid Swords album, an album packed with samples of classic horns and slinky textures from classic soul 45s. Plus, we’re getting the added benefit at this show of GZA having done this once already, at last weekend’s Bonnaroo festival, so the Zappa, Dramatics and Stevie Wonder samples on “Cold World” will sound as tight as possible. With Brownout.

Thu., June 14, 8:30 & 11:30 p.m., 2012