On Monday, the Wu-Tang Clan sent shockwaves through the record industry when they claimed, via a post on their MySpace page, that they had "cleared the first-ever Beatles sample" for a song on their upcoming album, The 8 Diagrams.
It was an announcement of fairly monumental import, considering that legally cleared Beatles samples are about as rare as unicorns, and the report was picked up without question by many news outlets this week. As such, you couldn't blame the Clan for adding that due to "the magnitude of the sample and the history being made," they were pushing back the release of Diagrams from November 13 to December 4.
The only problem? Their sample claim isn't exactly true.
While the song, which a Wu spokesperson told MTV News is called "The Heart Gently Weeps," does technically feature a "sample" of George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" (which first appeared on the Beatles' 1968 self-titled LP, commonly referred to as The White Album), it's not quite so cut-and-dry.
It's a composition sample and not a master sample that you'll hear on the track, meaning that the Wu did receive permission to use Harrison's song, but not in its original, as-heard-on The White Album form. Rather, it's been "interpolated" — literally, changed by adding some new material — with new lyrics from Wu rappers Ghostface and Raekwon. Harrison's son, Dhani, plays guitar on the song.
"In this case, the Beatles' master sample is not being used and has not been approved by Apple Records," the Beatles' label, said Randall Wixen, the founder of Wixen Music Publishing, which handles publishing rights for the Harrison estate. "The composition of 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps' has been interpolated into the Wu-Tang song. The elements have been replayed by Dhani Harrison.
"There's nuance to [the Wu-Tang's] claim. They have not [been] cleared [by] the Beatles, they have cleared a song made popular by the Beatles," Wixen added. "All I know is that we were authorized to proceed with the Wu-Tang Clan."
Wixen wouldn't comment on just who authorized his company to give Wu-Tang the green light, but regardless, it didn't come cheap. As is the case anytime anyone uses a cleared sample, the Wu-Tang must pay a mechanical license fee to reproduce and distribute the album ... an amount that's set by law, but applies to each copy of the 8 Diagrams that the group sells.
"If the Wu-Tang Clan sells a million copies of their album," Wixen said. "They would have to pay that mechanical license times 1 million."
As confusing as all the dollars-and-cents talk is Dhani Harrison's level of involvement. Some reports have him playing guitar on the Wu-Tang song, while others say he played drums while Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante handled the guitar duties. On their MySpace post, the Wu-Tang Clan thank Harrison (although they misspell his name as "Danny") and Erykah Badu for "helping bring this song to life."
So what's the deal? Well, to figure it out, MTV News went straight to the source.
"EMI freaked out about this whole thing, but it's less about a major corporation talking to another major corporation, it's more like two friends — RZA and myself — talking about working together," Dhani Harrison said. "[The RZA] asked me to see if he could use the song, which is owned by us [the Harrison Estate], and we said yes. It's not the original master — they've never been cleared — but the song is used compositionally.
"I play a bit of guitar on it, John Frusciante played some guitar too, and Erykah is on there," he continued. "I haven't heard the final version, but whatever capacity the RZA wants to use all of those parts in, I'm sure he will."
Last month, MTV News heard a handful of songs from Diagrams, including "The Heart Gently Weeps" (which was then being called "My People Gently Weep,") and cited the track as the best of the bunch, writing that it incorporated — not directly sampled — "While My Guitar Gently Weeps."
So why, if all sources seem to point toward there being no "first-ever cleared sample" in the song, would the Wu-Tang Clan make such a claim on their MySpace page? Well, MTV News posed that very question to the Clan, who responded on Wednesday afternoon (October 3):
"The statement on Wu-Tang Clan's myspace site is incorrect and we apologize for any confusion it may have caused. We did not sample the Beatles, rather we did an interpolation of the classic George Harrison composition 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps.' In a historic collaboration, Dhani Harrison, son of George, through his friendship with the RZA, played guitar on the song and he himself helped secure the reuse license. Also appearing on the song are John Frusciante, guitar player for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Erykah Badu singing the chorus. To satisfy everyone's curiosity, the song will be streamed exclusively on loud.com
Legally cleared Beatles samples have long been the Holy Grail of hip-hop. The Beastie Boys famously ripped a bevy of Beatles samples on "The Sounds of Science," from their landmark 1989 album, Paul's Boutique, but that was in the heady days before clearing samples became a litigious nightmare.
In 2002, the Roots worked parts of "Hey Bulldog" into the Phrenology track "Thought @ Work," but were forced to remove them when the sample couldn't be cleared.
And of course, there is also the famous 2004 Grey Album, which found Danger Mouse mashing music from the Beatles' White Album with Jay-Z's Black Album (see "Producer Of The Grey Album, Jay-Z/ Beatles Mash-Up, Gets Served"). Danger Mouse — who released the album in a small, private pressing — was served with a cease-and-desist order, but the copies were all gone by the time he received it. Of course, the album basically launched Danger Mouse's career: He has since worked extensively with Gorillaz and is half of Gnarls Barkley.
A song featuring Ghostface spitting over "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" has been circulating for a few years now, and both Talib Kweli and Ja Rule have cut tracks sampling the Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby," with predictable results: Kweli's never made the final track list of his album, and Rule's has not yet been released.