Flip The Sample: Biggie & Method Man’s ‘The What’
Welcome to the fourth edition of Flip the Sample. Let’s get right into the Jam. We’ve got another classic track and its inspirations. It’s pretty amazing how interconnected so much music is. After all, musicians and music production are pretty much like the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon and all the bacon festivals and bacon eating competitions out there, and all the maplewood-smoked, thick-sliced bacon that all those bacon lovers are always reppin’. Bacon has its moments. Now I’m just rambling. On to the Jam.
The Notorious B.I.G. featuring Method Man — “The What” (1994) (Prod. by Easy Mo Bee)
Avalanche — “Overnight Sensation” (1976)
Leroy Hutson — “Can’t Say Enough About Mom” (1974)
Ready to Die, Biggie’s overwhelmingly respected debut album, had a gang of great songs. There are the hit singles of course: “Juicy,” “One More Time,” “Big Poppa.” But every single track on that album is truly a hit. Legendary. You’ll find casual listeners and professional musicians alike that have very different ‘favorite’ songs from it, because all the songs are really that good.
“The What” is the only track on Ready to Die to feature another rapper, and is one of the — if not THE — smoothest song on the album. It’s not one of the ‘bangers’, but damn it’s good.
It features two of the coldest (read: meanest) lyricists collaborating on a song to describe why you shouldn’t fuck with them. Fun stuff.
The story goes that despite some of the Wu-Tang Clan not ‘liking’ Biggie, Method Man just couldn’t help but chop it up with the man. Meth and Biggie knew of each other because of how connected and prevalent the rap game was in NYC in the 90’s, but apparently once they got linked up the two dudes really got along.
They were both goofy but hard, chill but brainy, and… blunts. Lots of blunts. Makes sense.
Biggie wanted Meth on the album. Meth didn’t even question it, and the two were brought to the studio one fateful night where the gods of flow chose to unleash a magical ensemble.
Easy Mo Bee, a wily ‘regular’ in mainstream rap those days with experience working alongside other legends (Marley Marl, Miles Davis, Big Daddy Kane) was the producer. He produced a big portion of the songs on Ready to Die. He’s the producer behind this beat. Soothe that into my ear any time of day and I’m feeling good.
The sampling technique used in “The What” truly reflects what an experienced producer Mo Bee was even back then, and what an amazing ear he has. He fused sounds from “Overnight Sensation” and “Can’t Say Enough About Mom” to create a smooth, groovy but simple beat for Meth and Biggie to unleash on.
The minimality was key to engage and maximize the power of the lyricists. But the way he chose the sounds is far from what I would describe as minimal.
The kick-drums he grabbed from “Overnight Sensation” are pretty straightforward. It’s easy to hear in both songs. But the kick-drums on “The What” and “Can’t Say Enough About Mom” sound fundamentally different, something is off.
That’s the magic of the “Can’t Say Enough” sample. That spacey, wobbly sound throughout “The What” right on top of the kick-drum is what Easy Mo Bee grabbed from that song.
“Can’t Say Enough” is a six-minute song, and the sample doesn’t appear until about the last ten seconds. Peep right around 5:45, there’s a synth riff that Easy Mo Bee smoothly mixes in with the kick-drums from “Overnight Sensation.”
That synth sample makes “The What” great. Visualizing those two sounds together far before putting them together is some visionary shit (audiolizing should be a real word).
Easy Mo Bee displays the genuine talent behind sampling, how to hear different, opposing sounds and have the intuition to play with them together. He’s a very talented producer. This crew was destined to make a jam that night.
Method Man and Biggie chopped it up for a bit, heard the beat, and then got to writing. They both wrote their verses together that night. You can tell because their verses overlap and actually feature each other.
You can also tell it was done fast because the lyrics aren’t particularly baffling. The metaphors are there, but they’re simple. That’s okay with these two. There are some legendary lines regardless, but this song is really all about the flow.
These two had style. They had character. That has always shown in their music. They knew how to drive a line, and how to make you laugh because of it. Their rapping was engaging.
That to me is what makes this such a memorable and delicious cypher. The producer made a beat to ooze the smooth yet violent tendencies out of Biggie and Meth. The two lyricists reciprocated and went-off. The timing and the way Method Man delivers this line in the song says it all (1:07):
Hey I’ll be kickin’, you son, you doin’ all the yappin’
Actin’ as if it can’t happen…
He’s feeling the beat, he tailors his lines to fit in with the rhythm. It leads perfectly into his last six bars and into the hook. That’s no accident. That’s flow. If you can rap like Yoda talks and keep my head bopping the entire time you’ve got talent, son. *Method Man voice*
Biggie, of course, is right on par. The man is flow. He was so capable of finding odd, unique ways of saying straight-forward things, making it all fit into the rhythm of the song flawlessly. He summed that all up for us in “The What” with his ridiculous and now-legendary line (2:33),
I used to do stick-ups
‘Cause hoes is irritating like the HIC-cups
Excuse me, flows just grow through me.
He flows. He couldn’t even help it. RIP, love. *Biggie voice*
The atmosphere in NYC in the 90’s was thick. It’s fascinating to think about how many veteran talented producers were out there collaborating, talking, sharing ideas, and bringing up young rappers. The amount of talented, intelligent young rappers surrounding all these producers was magical too.
What modern-day city is the equivalent? What city today has that many experienced and knowledgeable producers working with fresh blood, young rappers with fresh ideas and talent? Can’t wait to see if there’s ever another situation as powerful.