My friend Ryan sold me on this song before I heard it with his enthusiasm about to explode from his ears. I plied him for details on what made it so great to which he eventually answered in the most matter of fact tone imaginable:
“It’s just more bangin’ than most.”
Let me say this, information pills there is so much that happens in the first 58 seconds of this track I had to replay it at least 5 times to decode and get some idea of what exactly was the magic burned into these soundwaves. The track kicks off with a single short kick as a mock radio host takes a request from a caller. Then it goes into a sample or two from an old Kung fu movie before the beat comes in with the first rapper.
Ok, check this out. If you listen you’ll hear quite a bit of hiss in the recording. What piques my interest is that the hiss is actually stereo. The left channel noise is slightly different from the right, and what is more interesting is how these two noises fit with each other harmonically. Almost like how two singers would harmonize one note with another- the shape of one noise actually harmonizes in a very complex fashion with the other.
During this hiss you hear the little Kung fu battle recorded off a TV panned just slightly off center. This gives a VERY stereo sound to a VERY mono recording.
Also, backing up just a bit- there are some juicy nuggets regarding the sound of the caller on the phone. In modern day recording it’s very easy to simulate a “phone sound” by simply cutting off the highs and lows of the sound, leaving only the midrange. Here they did that but with a twist: there is analog distortion on the voice as it gets louder and goes away as it gets softer. You have to listen closely because it does this on almost every syllable- clean, distorts gradiently to a full crunch and then backs down clean on every syllable. Now most likely they just recorded an actual analog phone, but after only using digital cell phones for the past 15 years my ear has become quite accustomed to the sound. This sound is kind of refreshing to me. Also it really punches up the intensity of the caller because it makes his voice have real bite in contrast to the rich clean fullness of the “host.”
Ok, I digressed, time for the beat. Wow, there is so much happening here! First off, the bass line: listen to the decay. It actually hits like a bell and then falls down in volume smoothly until the next bass hit. Also an interesting side note about the bass, I can tell it was triggered from a drum sampler (like an MPC) rather than played from a live bass or keyboard. Because of this it each individual note fires off in one shot and as the next note higher or lower is struck the original note rings through making a low end dissonance. Usually two notes next to each other don’t sound very good, but this does because of how the bass sound itself decays. The previous note is falling in volume quite rapidly as the next hits, so the dissonance is short lived and changes in a dirty yet interesting way.
The snare and kick- nice short punchy kick drum with a snare that really cracks when it’s hit. This is nice because there is such contrast between the two which leaves a lot of space for the vocal.
The vocal itself is really well recorded. Nothing is missing from the voice and you can tell they spared no expense in the vocal signal chain. It’s perfect. Great dynamics from loud to soft on each syllable really let the expression of the vocalist hit you with his rhythms. I think a big reason why you don’t hear vocals like this very much today is that the actual sound recording isn’t as good so they compensate by squashing it out with compressors. A nice touch here is the slap delay on the left channel with just a HINT of reverb. It’s very low on the left channel but it accents the voice and makes it sound huge while still coming across fairly dry.
Now the instruments. Wow. They chose these samples to fit PERFECTLY with not just each other but also with the tonality and style of each individual rapper. There is a piano which is recorded from super far away toward the left which enters with what sounds like a scream/teapot. These match incredibly harmonically. Then on the right channel, playing at different time is a very filtered synth string. To me it feels like it has a similar weight in the mix but a different complimentary feel to the piano/scream part.
You have little samples which kick in here and there, a distorted guitar hit from a turntable which gives a POW here and there, a very dirty ride cymbal with a single clean guitar note in it.
Now the real genius is how on each verse a different combo of all these instruments plays in with a different rapper. I feel like even though there are only a few samples they make it sound like there are a ton because the sum of the parts is so much greater than each on their own. They fit together like puzzle pieces with the particular style of each rapper.
Well that’s what I have for you now. These elements come together breaking down and fitting together countless ways throughout the track. Hats off to the whole clan, and thanks Ryan for turning me on to it- the Wu Tang Clan did not disappoint!