There's Old Money in 'The Great Gatsby' Soundtrack


Every Wednesday, Douglas Wolk explores the people, places and coincidences that tie disparate musicians together.

The soundtrack to the fifth or sixth film version of The Great Gatsby came out this week, and it includes some fascinating links to a soundtrack from a movie adapted from a different novel about the aspirations and failed moral compasses of the rich. Besides (separate) tracks by the movie's executive producer Jay-Z and his spouse Beyoncé, it features a '20s-style cover, by Emeli Sandé and the Bryan Ferry Orchestra, of a song associated with both of them: "Crazy in Love."

Sandé's version of "Crazy in Love" is built around a prominent horn riff -- but it's a quote of the song's chorus melody, rather than the triumphant brass fanfare of the original version of "Crazy in Love," which Beyoncé and Jay released almost exactly 10 years ago this week.

The horns in the Beyoncé version are sampled from a record that appeared more than thirty years earlier: the Chi-Lites' "Are You My Woman? (Tell Me So)," a #8 R&B hit from 1970.

"Crazy In Love" wasn't the first time the "Are You My Woman?" horn lick had been sampled: it opened, and punctuated the beginning of every verse of, Kool G. Rap and DJ Polo's 1992 album track "#1 With a Bullet."

The Chi-Lites' lead tenor Eugene Record wrote "Are You My Woman?" at a time when not many black vocal groups were writing their own songs. It was the Chi-Lites' quickie follow-up to their minor hit "I Like Your Lovin' (Do You Like Mine?)" -- cut from the same cloth, with a very similar arrangement. (That's Creadel "Red" Jones' bass voice holding down the amazing scat singing counterpoint in both songs.)

"Are You My Woman?" never quite made it to the top rank of the Chi-Lites' repertoire -- "Have You Seen Her?" and "Oh Girl" are heard much more often these days. But 25 years ago, it hit the charts again, in a different form. Bret Easton Ellis's novel Less Than Zero was adapted into a 1987 film whose soundtrack featured some notable covers, including the Bangles' "Hazy Shade of Winter." LL Cool J's "Going Back to Cali" first appeared there, too; so did "Life Fades Away," sung by Roy Orbison and co-written by Orbison with Glenn Danzig, of all people.

The best-remembered track from the Less Than Zero soundtrack is probably Public Enemy's "Bring the Noise," but it was actually released as the B-side to another track from that album: the Black Flames' cover of "Are You My Woman?" (The only version on YouTube, apparently, is one of those "playing-the-record-o-phonic" ones.)

"Red" Jones' original scat singing is mostly replaced, on the Black Flames' version of "Are You My Woman?," by a "bowm-di-di-bowm di-bowm-di-bowm diggy diggy" refrain. That's a pretty commonplace bit of vocalese these days, although it might be most familiar in its bastardized, rocked-up form from Kid Rock's "Bawitdaba."

But its origins appear to be in old-school hip hop: one of its earliest sources, and maybe the earliest, is Busy Bee's "Making Cash Money," from 1982. He's backed up by the Sugar Hill Record house band, who went on to play together in various incarnations for decades; the main riff that guitarist Skip McDonald is playing is borrowed from James Brown's "Funky President (People It's Bad)," another song about economic independence.

A more stripped-down version of that flickering wah-wah lick appeared in 1991 on A Tribe Called Quest's "Show Business" -- which ends with Q-Tip dropping a variation on the "di-dang-di-dang diggy diggy" rhythm.

Q-Tip turns up again on the new Gatsby soundtrack (adding a verse to Fergie's "A Little Party Never Killed Nobody"). This brings us back around to Jay-Z's contribution to the same soundtrack: "100$ Bill," whose title can't help but recall Wu-Tang Clan's "dollar dollar bill y'all" in "C.R.E.A.M." Jay mentions his old hustling grounds in the second verse: "Move coke through Maryland/ Through Easton"; it's unlikely that that's also meant as a reference to Bret Easton Ellis, but isn't it nice to imagine so?

Again, though, the bill's been in circulation much longer than that. It's another old-school hip-hop trope -- see, for instance, Jimmy Spicer's 1983 jam "Money (Dollar Bill Y'all)."

Spicer's "Money" was produced by a young Russell Simmons -- the same Russell Simmons who, along with Rick Rubin, would be running Def Jam a few years later (when it released the Less Than Zero soundtrack). In F. Scott Fitzgerald's version of The Great Gatsby, Nick realizes that Daisy's voice is "full of money -- that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbal's song of it." Hers isn't the only one, but the voices that are full of money always recall one another.