(Today's Reader Review is a sequel of sorts from Jason, who follows up his review for Tom Caruana's Wu-Tang Clan/Beatles mash-up project Enter The Magical Mystery Chambers with his thoughts on the free follow-up, Black Gold, which combines Wu-Tang lyrics with Jimi Hendrix's catalog. Leave your notes for Jason below.)
One million years ago, I reviewed a Tom Caruana mashup that combined Beatles instrumentals and covers with Wu-Tang lyrics. Simply put, I liked it. I liked it enough to immediately download Caruana’s latest project, the Wu-Tang and Jimi Hendrix mash-up Black Gold, once it became available.
This project differs from its predecessors in some keys ways. On the previous one, Caruana sometimes used Beatles songs covered by other artists in order to craft new instrumentals for the Wu-Tang vocals on Enter The Magical Mystery Chambers. That allowed him to vary his soundscapes and demonstrate the malleability of Beatles songs. Not every artist can have their work re-imagined as soca workouts and acoustic jams with similar success.
However, Caruana says that he barely used any covers this time, instead relying heavily on the work that Hendrix did himself. He combed through bootlegs and live performances, as well as Hendrix’s more familiar studio cuts, to create the beats for Black Gold.
Unfortunately, Caruana did not include a list of samples as he did for Enter The Magical Mystery Chambers, which means an insightful review of this album requires significantly more crate digging than its predecessor. But sometimes, we as critics must suffer for our art; and if “suffering” means combing through the catalogue of Hendrix and the Wu, then it’s not truly suffering at all.
No backstory is necessary for either the Wu or Jimi Hendrix: you know them both. Let’s just get to the music.
The first words you hear are the spoken lyrics to Jimi Hendrix’s “Black Gold,” which offer an ethos that both Hendrix and the Wu would support: “Black is gold is pure / And true kings of this Earth / So I say it’s up to us to straighten out this mess / We got to go through hell / And then that’s the last of this miserable test / Black must be bold / Because it’s gold and true…” The poetic self-affirmation fades into a Wu-Tang Clan roll call. In general, this intro sets the tone for what is to come. But I doubt many, save the completists, will bother to listen to it more than the once.
2. HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS
The original “House of Flying Daggers” was adrenaline music. The late J Dilla absorbed RZA’s lessons from “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nothin’ to F' Wit” and created an instrumental that makes you want to stab something. Caruana doesn’t try to match Dilla’s energy levels, and instead pairs the Clansmen’s verses with a slinky bass line and bracing snare. Surprisingly, the verses still fit over the more subdued production” instead of sounding like a call to riot, the song becomes a whispered threat – equally as menacing, but perhaps not as incendiary. An interesting way to open the album.
3. WHEN THE FAT LADY SINGS
“If 6 Was 9” was one of Hendrix’s finest hours: it was simultaneously a psychedelic call to arms and a laid-back, blues-infused lark. Caruana trims and snips the opening drums, Hendrix’s guitar stabs and an occasional wandering lyric to provide the background for one of GZA’s earlier collaborations with DJ Muggs. As many times as I listened to “If 6 Was 9” before, I never recognized the drum pattern’s breakbeat potential. This knocks. However, GZA’s verses don’t necessarily improve within this new context. His calm, measured delivery was better matched with Muggs’ orchestral thump.
4. COLLECTOR'S MATERIAL
An interlude. Not a particularly long or indulgent one, but it doesn’t merit repeated listens either. The most clever part: Tom Caruana edits the “W” out of Ghostface’s “WTC!” shout as a way to refer to himself. Get it? Because his initials are…never mind.
5. SPECIAL DELIVERY
The Wu-Tang Clan and Jimi Hendrix have a lot in common sonically. For example, they both tend to layer several rhythmic and harmonic counterpoints over each other. Consequently, they both tend to unleash these waves of sound that overwhelm you at first and only become clear on repeated listens. Caruana takes the opposite tactic for Ghostface’s one-verse wonder, which comes courtesy of a G-Dep remix. He only uses the drum pattern and a single guitar trill for the beat. While that instrumental could sound sparse or insubstantial with another artist, Ghostface’s delivery is emphatic and varied enough to engage the listener. So instead of overshadowing or competing with Ghostface’s bars, the music complements him. It also helps that the whole track is only ninety seconds long so it doesn’t become repetitive. This works. Not even Puff Daddy’s shouting (remember, again, G-Dep remix) can derail it.
6. LAST CALL
Ol Dirty Bastard recycled his lyrics a lot. So you might recognize his verses here from a lot of different sources: “Last Call” from the Bully soundtrack, “Recognize” from N---a Please, or even “Dirty & Stinkin’,” the (shudder) ODB-Insane Clown Posse collaboration from The Trials And Tribulations Of Russell Jones. However, they never sounded better than they do on here. (And that’s saying a lot, considering “Recognize” was produced by The Neptunes before they became ubiquitous.) Caruana uses some bombastic drums that I think are from a live performance of “We Gotta Live Together,” but I’m not positive. What matters is they give the music the energy of a live performance. I’d believe it if you told me this was from some ODB Unplugged bootleg, it’s that raw and it’s that good.
7. PLO STYLE
Now, I’m positive the beat for this one came from Jimi Hendrix's “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright Jam”, performed with fellow guitar wunderkind John McLaughlin. (Caruana was kind enough to put a hint in the song’s intro.) The jam meshes well with a Tical-era Method Man and Carlton Fisk. However, I find myself missing the darkness of the original track.
8. THE WIND CRIES MARY
Caruana breaks out a new trick here. Instead of providing new production for an existing Wu song, he cobbles together verses from two different songs to create something entirely new. He pieces together one of GZA’s verses from “Third World” (another Muggs collaboration) and U-God’s first verse from “Bizarre” (which must be a Caruana favorite, because he also used it on Enter The Magical Mystery Chambers). He puts it over a loop culled from “The Wind Cries Mary.” It’s surprising how well the GZA and U-God verses mesh and, while the beat doesn’t wow me, it does complement both emcees. (Finally, if you’re a Hendrix fan, you’ll appreciate the Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell shoutouts.)
9. THE EXPERIENCE
An interlude that’s all Jimi. It combines elements of “51st Anniversary,” “Love Or Confusion,” “I Don’t Live Today” and maybe a few others I’m missing. It’s a segue into the next track: no more, no less.
10. I DON'T LIVE TODAY
Caruana’s uses the Experience’s “I Don’t Live Today” to reframe Ghostface Killah and RZA’s verses from the “Saian” remix they did with the Super Saian Crew. (The Super Saian Crew are a French rap collective with a Dragonball Z fixation, making them -alikes with the Voltron Crew.) But is it good? Well, it isn’t bad. On Enter The Magical Mystery Chambers, Caruana often thematically linked the contributions from the two groups. For example, he’d sample “You Don’t Give Me Your Money” to remake ODB’s “Got Your Money;” or he’d have the Beatles sing “You know my name” before Meth would reply, “M-E-T-H-O-D Man.” This sort of interplay made that album seem like more than the sum of its parts, but it’s missing on Black Gold. Having said that, even if your album is only as good as its parts, Wu-Tang and Jimi Hendrix are some pretty good parts to work with.
11. 10 BRICKS
Caruana revisits a Dilla-produced joint from Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx...Part II for the second time, and it connects. I don’t know where Caruana found this nasty drum loop, but it sounds exactly like something Dilla would have used. It cuts through the Hendrix guitar squeals and reinforces the words of a reinvigorated Clan. Caruana pulls outs a couple tricks that make this cut standout. First, he doubles most of Cappadonna’s verse, giving his words an emphasis they would otherwise lack. Second, he has Fidel Cutstro scratch Heltah Skeltah’s “Gunz & Onez” over the outro. (Thematically, it works, because that song originally featured Method Man.) This is good hip hop, and exactly what I hoped for when I first heard rumblings of a Wu-Tang/Jimi Hendrix project.
12. STAR SPANGLED BANNER
Caruana adds a breakbeat to Hendrix’s seminal performance of the American anthem. Like “The Experience” or “Collector’s Material,” it just seems intended as a respite between the more substantial offerings.
13. HEY JOE
Caruana’s previous mash-ups didn’t have new verses, just old verses heard in new ways. However, for Black Gold, Caruana scored some original material from a couple of Wu-Tang d-teamers. (Seriously, these are guys who couldn't have scored a verse on Legendary Weapons.) But Wu-Tang Latino signee Gab Gotcha sounds great over a beat created from (what else?) Hendrix’s “Hey Joe.” For those not familiar with Hendrix’s original (and shame on you, by the way), it tells the story of a man who plans to kill his woman for cheating. For this version, Gab takes the role of the man trying to talk his friend down. It works wonderfully, and it has a sense of cohesion previous songs on this album, even some of the better ones, lacked.
14. TOOKEN BACK
Two in a row. Caruana samples “Angel,” the perfect song to accompany Ghostface’s pleas for reconciliation. Both Hendrix and Ghost’s originals have a sensitivity that’s often missing from their respective genres. And, for those wanting technical wizardry, Caruana does a great job of splicing the two respective choruses together.
15. IT'S NOT A GAME
Here’s a word I haven’t had to use before while reviewing Caruana mash-ups: boring. This remake of the American Cream Team contribution to the Black and White Soundtrack is boring. The best part of this five-minute track is the first twenty seconds, in which Caruana replays the beginning to “Have You Ever Been (to Electric Ladyland”).
16. THE SWITCH UP
Caruana starts mixing verses like he did on “The Wind Cries Mary.” But this time he raises the bar by occasionally changing the Hendrix song sample as well. It’s fun to trace the source material – Masta Killa’s verse from the Afu-Ra collaboration “Mortal Kombat,” Inspectah Deck and GZA’s contributions to Killah Priest's“Cross My Heart,” the intro to Icemen’s “My Girl, She’s A Fox” – but that sort of misses the point: none of this matters if the final result isn’t any good. But this is. Switch-the-beat posse cuts tend to be uneven affairs (as I said when Caruana tried something similar on his remake of “Uzi (Pinky Ring)”), but “The Switch Up” has no problem maintaining momentum. An album highlight.
“KFF2000” is an exercise in minimalism. A kick, snare and 3-note bassline are all the support Caruana gives a spare GZA verse. While discussing “Special Delivery,” I said Ghostface’s voice has an expressiveness that can overcome a Spartan beat. Well, GZA’s does not. His delivery offers an air of cold calculation. When paired with the right beat, it’s devastating: on here, it’s monotonous. It doesn’t help that GZA’s lyrics sound haphazard and unfocused. (For those who want to know, The Genius’ verse comes from a collaboration with UK recording artist Nigo. The song “K. F. F. (Kung Fu Fighting) 2000” was only released in Japan. This exercise in crate digging would be more impressive if GZA’s bars sounded better.)
18. KISS THE SKY
Two bars I immediately thought Caruana would use when I heard about the Wu-Tang/Jimi Hendrix mash-up: Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “I pull strings like Jimi Hendrix”, and Method Man’s “Excuse me while I kiss the sky”. Caruana alluded to both earlier in passing. However, he revisits Meth’s quote on this Jimi jam that weirdly does not sample “Purple Haze.” Instead, Caruana reminds us that Hendrix liked to roll that shit too, by sampling “Midnight Lightning,” where he sings, “I get stoned / I can’t go home”. Then Caruana pairs that with the lines from “Part II”, where Meth quotes himself quoting Jimi Hendrix and adds, “smoke cheeba, cheeba”, lest any uncertainty remain. This song doesn’t include any verses, just Method Man and Jimi Hendrix sharing their affection for marijuana. That is enough to make it awesome.
19. DIRTY FOX
It’s “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” mixed with “Foxy Lady.” If that sounds like a sure thing, it is. Unable to accept an easy win, Caruana works in some fire deejay scratches and a verse from the ODB/Rhymefest collaboration “Dirty, Dirty.” Hi's performances are surprisingly malleable. I suspect you could put his vocals over almost anything (for instance, Billy Joel, Lady Gaga, and Bach) and, as long as it’s on beat, it would work. Or maybe Caruana’s done so well with his ODB mash-ups that he just makes it sound easy.
This track can be assessed two ways: from a technical and from an artistic standpoint. The original “Holla” featured Ghostface Killah singing and rapping over the entirety of The Delfonics’ “La La La Means I Love You”, and Ghost patterned his performance and the hook's melody off of that. So Caruana’s not just mixing Ghost and Hendrix here, he’s mixing them both with The Delfonics. That’s a sticky wicket, because suddenly you have melodies and harmonies to worry about. The reason rap mash-ups are more common than, say, jazz mash-ups is because hip hop depends heavily on the rhythm and not melody. It’s much more difficult to stitch together competing melodies and harmonies than it is to fit an additional percussion pattern over an existing song. So does Caruana pull it off? Yes, but it’s a technical victory, not an artistic one. Caruana pairs Ghost with an understated Jimi sample, and it doesn’t conflict with his rapping or singing. But it wastes the passion and purpose of Ghost’s performance. On the original, Ghost gave a vocal performance that is reminiscent of Nas' work on “One Mic.” His intensity and volume increases as each verse builds to its climax and The Delfonics song builds and subsides with him. However, Caruana’s beat doesn’t build to anything. It doesn’t rise or fall. It simply is. So it wastes the subtlety in Ghostface’s delivery.
21. I CAN'T WAIT
Two songs ago, I posited that Ol’ Dirty Bastard could sound good over anything. I was wrong. Caruana uses “Up From the Skies” to remake ODB’s “I Can’t Wait,” and the result is a train wreck. ODB sounds off beat most of the time and the song don’t mesh thematically or musically. It finally finds its groove after about forty seconds, but by then the track is almost over. There have been some tracks that haven’t clicked on this album and even a couple of boring ones; but this was the first one I’d call bad.
22. SUMMIN'S GOTZ TO GIVE
I realize Caruana was somewhat limited in his vocal choices by the Wu-Tang acapellas he could find. I also understand that it’s Caruana’s prerogative to shine a spotlight on some more obscure clansman verses. But did anybody download this album hoping to hear a remake of Royal Fam’s “Summin’ Gotz To Give”? For what it's worth, Timbo King’s passionate, anti-industry lyrics are well matched with this “Gypsy Eyes”-sampling jam. But modestly talented (yet unexceptional) emcees like Timbo are precisely what diluted the Wu-Tang brand in the late 1990s, and his appearance here tastes like too much water in the Kool-Aid.
23. STREET RAP
In his ongoing quest to bring us verses from international Wu-Tang collaborations, Caruana presents Inspectah Deck’s bars from “Street Rap,” a song he released with New Zealand MC Mareko. I wasn’t aware of this track before listening to Black Gold, so I’m grateful for Caruana’s willingness to dig in the crates. But, much like GZA’s collaboration with Niko, these aren’t lost jewels. They are merely all right, and the suboptimal verses hamper the impact of a bracing beat.
24. BURNING THE MIDNIGHT LAMP
Before listening to this, I only knew Young Dirty Bastard as the son of Ol’ Dirty Bastard and that he often tours with the Clan, performing his father’s verses and giving a pretty good impression of his late father. Of course, none of that means I’d want to hear original music from him. In fact, when an artist deliberately sets out to be derivative (and it’s clear from YDB’s stage name that he’s not trying to blaze any trails), the results tend to be forgettable. However, “Burning the Midnight Lamp” is not completely derivative. Yes, YDB sings nonsense that might sound just as his father would; but his warble is higher pitched and not without its own charms. That doesn’t mean this was an epiphany (like Gab Gotcha’s “Hey Joe”), but it does mean there’s more to YDB than imitating his father. (Stick around to the end to hear RZA and Jimi’s shared tribute to a certain cartoon mouse.)
25. WHAT'S HAPPENIN'
This is a monster, and I mean that in the best possible sense. Caruana matches the energy of the Method Man/Busta Rhymes duet with Hendrix’s “Crosstown Traffic”, and the results are flawless. You can’t see the stitch marks on this Frankenstein. Everything flows so perfectly, you’d swear Caruana had Meth and Busta in the studio. I hope listeners make it to the tail end of this album because “What’s Happenin’” just might be the best song on here.
26. THE HOOD
“The Hood” is the perfect candidate for a mash-up. Raekwon’s ode to his old neighborhood originally had solid lyrics but a saccharine beat. Caruana simultaneously roughs up the drums and smooths out the guitars, giving the Chef a more appropriate accompaniment. Then, Caruana revisits Hendrix’s “Black Gold” lyrics from the intro to give the evening a sense of completion. The final voice you hear is that of Ol' Dirty Bastard as he admires the stars, a fitting end.
SHOULD YOU TRACK THIS DOWN? Caruana is offering Black Gold as a free download, so all he’s asking for is your time and some space on your hard drive. And this is worth that. But it is a more inconsistent listen than Enter the Magical Mystery Chambers, partly because Caruana's pension for using lesser known (and less impressive) Wu-Tang verses. Seriously, the only verses he uses from the 1993-1997 golden era is an album cut from Tical. Timbo King, Gab Gotcha, Down Low Recka and Young Dirty Bastard receive about as much mic time as Masta Killa and U-God. I’m not saying that he needed to sample “Purple Haze” to remake “Method Man”, but his insistence on emphasizing the obscure hurts the final product. However, the best tracks on here make this more than worth your time.
(Questions? Comments? Leave your thoughts below.)