Hearing the Stax Sound in the 36 Chambers

I stumbled onto this topic when I was taking a class on the analysis of popular music. We had to do short weekly projects, and for one of them I chose to look at piano samples in Wu-Tang songs. When I realized that both “C.R.E.A.M.” and “Duel of the Iron Mic” were using samples from Stax/Volt recordings, I decided to dig in further and see how often Wu-Tang member and producer RZA was drawing from that Memphis soul studio. It turns out it was a lot, and I ended up lecturing on this topic in my pop music class when talking about hip-hop sampling styles. With the death of legendary Stax bassist Duck Dunn last month coinciding with news about GZA’s upcoming astronomy-influenced album and plans to record a new version of Liquid Swords backed by live musicians, I decided to put this up here. I’m a big fan of the Wu-Tang Clan and those great Stax soul records from the 1960s and 70s. After I did some digging, I came to realize that the music of Stax Records served as a chief inspiration for how RZA approached production and also formed a primary musical resource from which he sampled to create one of the most influential sounds and styles in hip-hop.

This style came to fruition in RZA’s personal recording studio that he called 36 Chambers after the kung-fu film The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. Stax Records largely inspired the consistent sound he developed there. He explained:

One of my main inspirations for creating a record company and creating my own music was reading about Stax Records. I read the book and I saw how they put up thirty-five dollars to start their record company. I saw how David Porter and Isaac Hayes were sitting there writing all these songs and making all this music and that they used the same band, Booker T. and the MGs with Steve Cropper for many of the hits that went up to 1972. I read this while I was walking and forming my company.

Stax had what? A sound. Motown had what? A sound. Every song was recorded where? At Motown. At Stax. My idea was that every song would be recorded at this place, and I gave it the most obvious name it could have: 36 Chambers. Because that’s exactly what it was: the thirty-sixth chamber of my studies – the place I brought my wisdom to the world. (RZA 2009:118)

Stax Records was not only an inspiration for the creation of RZA’s 36 Chambers studio and the attempt to forge an iconic sound for the rap group, but it was the Stax sound itself upon which the Wu-Tang sound would be constructed. Stax Records and its subsidiary label, Volt, were based in Memphis, Tennessee. Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton, a brother and sister team who initially intended to record country music in the old movie theater they purchased and converted into a recording studio, founded Stax in 1958. Their racially inclusive open-door policy quickly led to them recording soul music, which became the label’s dominant genre. The label’s readily identifiable sound was the result of various factors, one of the most important of which was the consistent use of the same set of musicians, specifically Booker T. and the MGs, to back up singers. They also had regular songwriting teams: Isaac Hayes and David Porter, William Bell and Booker T. Jones, Eddie Floyd and Steve Cropper, and Otis Redding alone or with Cropper. Finally, they recorded everything in the same Memphis studio on McLemore Avenue and always used the same equipment set-up. To learn about the fascinating history of this record label and hear some of the amazing music they put out, I highly recommend the PBS documentary Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story (delightfully narrated by Nick Fury himself, Samuel L. Jackson).

RZA used similar techniques to create a distinct, identifiable sound for the Wu-Tang clan. In addition to producing and recording all Wu-Tang tracks from 1992 to 1995 in the 36 Chambers studio, he also gave each individual rapper a unique, consistent sound. RZA used eight different compressors, one for each MC in the group. It gave consistency to albums as well as across albums. As the lead producer on all of the albums, he also provided consistency through the beats he created and samples that he selected. The recurrence of samples from Stax songs at this time helped do just that. The albums produced between 1992 and 1995, which include the Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), Method Man’s Tical, Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version, Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, and GZA’s Liquid Swords, use Stax samples twelve different times, double the amount of Motown samples used. Analyzing the individual Stax samples from these albums will illustrate RZA’s diverse and inventive sampling methods and the way he specifically drew upon the Stax sound to create his own.

Samples: Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)

Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) was the debut group album released on November 9, 1993 on Loud Records that helped usher in the East Coast Renaissance of hip-hop at a time when Los Angeles was dominating the commercial rap scene (Wu-Tang Corp 2008b). Two tracks from this album feature Stax samples: “C.R.E.A.M.” and “Tearz.”

“C.R.E.A.M.” was the second single off the album and the first Wu-Tang song to get a video played on MTV. The song’s title is an acronym for Cash Rules Everything Around Me. RZA’s production helps to emphasize the song’s somber, reality-based message. The recurring sample is a two measure piano riff that basically moves up and down an F# minor scale. The sample originally comes from the opening of the 1967 Volt single “As Long As I’ve Got You” by The Charmels. Although it is a love song, the music gives it a somewhat melancholy tone. Another female vocal group, The Emotions, recorded a more upbeat cover of “As Long As I’ve Got You” in 1972 for Stax, but the song still opens with the gloomy piano line of the original. Because the grand piano at Stax was only tuned once a month, the opening line is slightly out of tune, which along with a tinny timbre became a Stax piano trademark (Bowman 1995:315). Out of tune piano lines would become one of RZA’s trademarks as well, and its use in “C.R.E.A.M.” along with the minor scale pattern gives the whole song a solemn and eerie instead of celebratory character. The use of the piano also helps ground “C.R.E.A.M.” in reality because it is an acoustic instrument people are familiar with as opposed to the synthesized sounds commonly used by hip-hop producers in the early 1990s.

The Charmels’ “As Long As I’ve Got You” with the sampled portion of the song highlighted.
“C.R.E.A.M.” with each use of the sample marked.

The sample is repeated almost constantly, appearing forty-two times in “C.R.E.A.M.” up until the very end of the track. The sample is present in some form every two measures after the twenty-six second mark, although in a few iterations a portion of the sample is muted. This has the effect of stressing the lyrics at those moments and adds variety and a feeling of unpredictability to the song. RZA regularly uses this technique when using samples. There’s a good study of this sample and its history up at NPR that I recommend checking out here.

“Tearz” is the eleventh track from Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), and it samples two different portions of Wendy Rene’s 1964 Stax single “After Laughter (Comes Tears).” The first sample is the two-measure organ introduction played by Booker T. Jones. This sample first appears quietly underneath the spoken introduction to “Tearz” at the seven-second mark and then comes back in louder with a drum beat at 0:37 to accompany the rap verses. The second sample is of the sung refrain from 0:06 to 0:17 in “After Laughter (Comes Tears),” and it also functions as a refrain in “Tearz” by separating the different sections and giving the song its title. The sampled refrain also reflects the stories told by RZA and Ghostface Killah in their respective rap verses, which reflect on good times but end in despair.

After the release of Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), the MCs from the group began releasing individual albums, and RZA served as producer on all of them. The first solo release, Tical by Method Man, came out in 1994 on Def Jam Records. Despite the fact that it was produced by RZA in the 36 Chambers studio, it did not contain any Stax samples so I’m not looking at it much here, but I’ve been meaning to dig into that album for awhile so I might post something at a later date.

Samples: Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version

Ol’ Dirty Bastard released the second solo album, Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version, in March 1995 on Elektra Records. “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” is the first musical track and most successful single on the album. While this is the only example from the album to contain Stax samples, it contains multiple samples and signifiers of Stax Records. “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” opens with a portion of a Richard Pryor comedy routine entitled “Have Your Ass Home by 11:00” from his 1974 album, which was released by Stax Records under their comedy imprint “Partee.” The song uses a very brief sample from Booker T. and the MGs’ 1967 “Hip Hug Her,” specifically two eighth note snare drum hits as played by Al Jackson, Jr. The primary Stax sample in this song, however, is from “I Like It,” a 1969 Volt single by the female vocal trio The Emotions.

The Emotions’ “I Like It” with the one measure sample highlighted.
“Shimmy Shimmy Ya” with each use of the “I Like It” sample marked

This sample of bass and drums starts on the last eighth-note of the opening measure from “I Like It” and ends at the last eighth-note of the second measure. By using a single measure sample that begins with a bass pickup note, it creates an interesting tension between the bass and drums where both instruments seem to be competing for the strongest beat in the measure. It also provides the song with a great feeling of momentum as it always seems to be pushing forward. The sample is repeated fifty-five times in the song after first appearing at 0:10. Those regions of the song where the sample drops out roughly divide the first chorus-verse section, the second chorus-verse section, and the outro chorus from one another. Additionally, this song contains a simple piano riff on an out of tune piano reminiscent of “C.R.E.A.M.,” rapping that was recorded into the sampler and then played backwards, and a reference to Stax star Otis Redding’s biggest hit “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay” sung by Ol’ Dirty Bastard in the version of the song featured in the above music video.

Samples: Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…

The third solo album, Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, was released in August 1995 on Loud Records, and the film samples, lyrical themes, and fictional mobster personas adopted by the MCs led to a transform in popular hip-hop from street-level gangster rap to Scarface-inspired mafioso rap. This is easily one of my favorite rap albums because it is really engaging and skillfully constructed. Stax samples can be found on four tracks on this album: “Knuckleheadz,” “Criminology,” “Glaciers of Ice,” and “Verbal Intercourse.” The album opens with a spoken track that introduces some of the albums themes before segueing into the second track, “Knuckleheadz,” which samples two measures from The Dramatics’ 1971 single “Get Up and Get Down” (This is a really fun track – check it out if you’re not familiar with it already).

The Dramatics’ “Get Up and Get Down” with the two measure sample highlighted
“Knuckleheadz” with each use of the sample marked. An asterisk indicates when
only half the sample was used.

This sample is just under four seconds long and contains a one-measure guitar riff that is repeated and a horn line that emphasizes the second measure. The sample begins on beat three of the first measure of the groove from “Get Up and Get Down,” so those times when the sample is not repeated in “Knuckleheadz” it creates a feeling of anticipation in the listener because it sounds incomplete. Perhaps it is because of this effect that RZA has the sample come in and out regularly instead of having it repeat constantly through the song.

The track “Verbal Intercourse” samples the 1971 Emotions single “If You Think It, You May As Well Do It.” This 4.7-second sample from the beginning of the song contains vocals that say, “I want to love him, but what if he hurts me?” Once again, the vocals tie into a theme of the song, in this case “Verbal Intercourse” as a sexual metaphor for rapping and the glorification of the three MCs on this track, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, and guest artist Nas,. The sample is slowed down to approximately 93% of its original speed and then pitch-corrected back upwards. The sample is sounded thirty-three times and once it enters after the thirty-second introduction, it is repeated consistently until the end of the song.

The sample used in “Criminology” is just a single note played on the chimes that opens The Sweet Inspirations’ 1973 Stax single “Why Marry.” Here RZA is literally sampling a distinct sound or timbre. He takes the under one-second sample and time-stretches it to last two full measures and causes the pitch to drop. This is repeated thirty-four times in “Criminology” and gives the sound its own distinct sound. The other example of a Stax sample on Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… is in “Glaciers of Ice,” but the sample of Judy Clay singing “Children Don’t Get Weary” with Booker T. and the MGs is nearly impossible to hear except for on the instrumental version of the song.

Samples: Liquid Swords

The final album produced in 36 Chambers studio was GZA’s Liquid Swords, which was released in November 1995 on Geffen Records. Like Raekwon’s album from a few months earlier, this one also contained four Stax samples on the tracks “Duel of the Iron Mic,” “Living in the World Today,” “Cold World,” and “I Gotcha Back,” on which RZA once again samples The Charmels’ “As Long As I’ve Got You.” Liquid Swords also features multiple samples of dialogue from the kung-fu film Shogun Assassin, which along with RZA’s production, gives the album a dark feel throughout.

“Duel of the Iron Mic” is the second track of the album, and it samples a single measure of piano from Stax songwriter David Porter’s 1972 single, “I’m Afraid the Masquerade is Over” (this song has been sampled by many other hip-hop producers too). The piano used here does not have quite the same out of tune sound as in The Charmels’ “As Long As I’ve Got You,” but there are some similarities. Both piano lines open their songs and are in a minor key; here the monophonic line ascends through an arpeggiated D-minor chord before arriving at the D an octave higher, going down a half-step to the leading tone, and concluding on tonic D. This 2.5-second sample is used sixty-nine times in “Duel of the Iron Mic,” and it only drops out once for an extended period to emphasize the opening of verse three performed by Inspectah Deck.

David Porter’s “I’m Afraid the Masquerade is Over” with the piano sample
“Duel of the Iron Mic” with each use of the piano sample marked

On both “Living in the World Today” and “Cold World,” RZA samples very short instrumental sounds from the original Stax recordings. “Living in the World Today” samples three horn punches that last one measure from “In the Hole” on the Bar-Kay’s 1969 Volt album Gotta Groove. RZA takes this one measure and repeats it, lowering the pitch on the second iteration, resulting in a two-measure sample. The short sample used in “Cold World” is a single guitar note from The Dramatics’ “In the Rain” that is played with heavy amounts of reverb, effectively making it sound like two eighth notes. RZA very slightly speeds this sample up and raises its pitch. It is used approximately every two measures with some occasional breaks throughout the song. In both “Living in the World Today” and “Cold World,” the Stax samples are not central to the rhythm of the beat RZA created to accompany the rappers. Instead, the samples give each of the songs a unique timbral effect, which is a hallmark of RZA’s production that makes the songs easy to identify.

Connections & Transformations

RZA’s production would begin to change after the completion of Liquid Swords in 1995, still two years before his five-year business model for the Wu-Tang Clan was completed. This transformation uncoincidentally coincided with the end of the 36 Chambers studio, as RZA explained:

But like most things in life, that chamber had to close. Right after Cuban Linx I went straight into Liquid Swords, nonstop. Everyone else in the Clan went off to do their tours, shoot their videos, do their careers. I stayed in the basement to keep working. But soon came the end of that chamber, the closing of that circle. Because right at the end of making Liquid Swords, it happened: a flood. (RZA 2009:119)

The next album, Ghostface Killah’s Ironman, was released in October 1996 on RZA’s Epic subsidiary, Razor Sharp Records. RZA still served as the main producer on the album, but it was recorded in various studios, not 36 Chambers, and the only Stax sample it featured was Otis Redding’s version of “A Change is Gonna Come” on the track “Fish,” the one track on the album RZA did not produce.

In 1997, the Wu-Tang Clan came back together again for the group album, Wu-Tang Forever. This double album again featured RZA as the main producer, but his production style had already changed. In the twenty-nine tracks on the album, only sixteen samples are used. A majority of the songs have no sampling at all and feature beats that RZA created from scratch. The Stax influence, however, can still be found in those recordings.

The following description of how Al Jackson Jr. of Booker T. and the MGs helped forge a unique Stax sound and aesthetic through his use of closed hi-hat instead of other cymbals could also be applied to the aesthetic RZA created for the Wu-Tang Clan with his sampling and production style:

As mentioned earlier, the one overall phrase that best categorises this music might be that ‘less is more’. If the suspended crash or ride cymbals were used instead of the closed hi-hat, their acoustic properties would fill up a much larger portion of the pitch spectrum and duration continuum. As such, they would be out of place in a music where a governing aesthetic is quite clearly a sparse, open texture. To complement this aesthetic further, the hi-hat was often played so quietly that its presence was nearly subliminal. (Bowman 1995:308)

RZA commonly adopted a sparse, open texture for Wu-Tang recordings as well, because it brought attention to the lyrics. His use of Stax samples is sometimes almost subliminal as well, such as in “Glaciers of Ice” when the use of “Children Don’t Get Weary” is practically impossible to hear except for on the instrumental version. The way he sampled discrete sounds is also a less-than-obvious signifier for the original recordings, which makes the discovery of the originals that much more engaging when the connection is made. RZA described this saying, “We have the sound of our generation in the records we made. Al Green, Isaac Hayes, and those niggas – that sound is in the records. It’s all there if you want to find it, almost like the Rosetta stone” (RZA 1995:189). I discovered a lot of these recordings for the first time through tracking down these samples, and there’s some excellent stuff here. A lot of these songs weren’t hit singles for Stax, instead they were found deep inside LPs. They maybe didn’t get a lot of radio play the first time around, but they’ve lived on to be rediscovered underneath an MC’s lyrics.

The sounds found in the soul music recorded in the McLemore Avenue studio of Stax Records in the 1960s and 1970s can be considered a part of the DNA that would eventually give rise to the Wu-Tang Clan; the sounds were transmitted from the generation of RZA’s parents to him, from 45 rpm record to sampler, and from genre to genre. While the amount of sampling RZA does has decreased since the time of the 36 Chambers studio, the production techniques and the Stax-inspired sound he forged is still audible in Wu-Tang recordings as well as those of many other hip-hop producers. In creating a consistent sound for the Wu-Tang Clan, both for each individual member and the group as a whole, RZA was not only inspired by Stax Records, but he directly drew from the sounds and aesthetics of Stax in the process of defining his own.

RZA has continued to produce hip-hop, but in the last decade has also composed scores for movies and TV shows, appeared as an actor in multiple films, and will soon make his debut as a film writer and director with the release of his kung-fu movie The Man with the Iron Fists starring Russell Crowe, which should be released later this year. I suspect I’ll want to talk about that when it comes out, and I also want to write about the connections between hip-hop and comics, which becomes really noticeable through some of the Wu-Tang Clan’s members. This is some really great music, both the original Stax/Volt recordings that were sampled and the Wu-Tang compositions that came from them. Do yourself a favor and dig in, you won’t regret it.

Bowman, Rob. 1995. “The Stax Sound: A Musicological Analysis.” Popular Music 14(3): 285-320.
RZA. 2005. The Wu-Tang Manual. New York: Riverhead-Freestyle.
—————. 2009. The Tao of Wu. New York: Riverhead Books.

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