Hosts Joe Watson and Toby Brazwell take a hard look at legendary tracks of the past and present, connecting the dots on the music they sample and the songs that inspired them. Join us for Season 3, where Riffs takes a deep dive into the tragic world of 24-Carat Black, the band everyone has heard, but nobody has heard of.
She’s hip-hop’s current “it girl,” plastered all over our televisions, can be heard in most of the current music on the Billboard Hot 100, has multiple Grammy nominees - and one win! - for her debut album Invasion of Privacy and can even be found in women’s make up cabinets with a lucrative collaboration with fashion icon Tom Ford. The Cardi B effect is rippling throughout hip-hop and we can’t seem to get enough this Bronx-born rapper. In this episode, Joe & Toby dive into one of Cardi B’s chart-topping hits, “Be Careful” and connect the musical dots back to another iconic Grammy winning female artist of the 90’s.
What we geek out over in this episode: The Fugees epic catalog of music, Lauryn Hill flubbing at the Apollo, Don McLean’s “American Pie” (1971), 70’s American Singer-Songwriter Lori Lieberman, a few Bob Marley hits, and (oddly enough) The Banana Splits TV show from the late 60’s.
Bonus Material: 50 years of musical connections! Featuring Cardi B’s sample of "Ex Factor" for "Be Careful", Barbra Streisand “The Way We Were” (1973) to Gladys Knight’s version and finally to Wu Tang Clan’s “Can It Be All So Simple” (2009) to our featured song, Lauryn Hill’s “Ex Factor.”
Joe: Hello and Welcome to Riffs on Riffs, where we explore the collision of original and sampled tracks and the artists who made them. I’m your host, Joe Watson, and I’m here with my co-host, Toby Brazwell… Toby: (improv) Joe: Together, we listen to the legendary tracks and the timeless — but sometimes not-so-well-known — songs they sampled from. Toby, what are we listening to today? Toby: This is a track called “Be Careful” from Cardi B. Let’s hop in the Delorean and find out what track was sampled to produce this hit.
Toby: Joe, what are we listening to? Joe: This is the song “Ex Factor” from Lauryn Hill, off of her 1998 debut solo album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Toby, there’s a lot to unpack with Ms. Hill, so why don’t we dive right in? Toby: Lauryn Hill was born on May 26, 1975. Her family was a musical one. Her Mom played the piano and her father sang. That musical influence inside the Hill home rubbed off on Lauryn at a young age. Joe: There’s appreciating music, and then there’s being able to do it! Lauryn was blessed with the ability to do both, but that’s not to say she didn’t have challenges. Toby: So true. She performed “The Star Spangled Banner” at her middle school and did such a good job, that the recording of her rendition was played at subsequent games. Joe: Talk about being big woman on campus. Toby: Well she was only 13, so she was in middle school — no campus. Joe: Alright, big woman at recess! Toby: Do middle schoolers have recess? I’m not sure, lord knows it been a long time since I was there. Joe: Big woman at the lunch table? Wait, that sounds like something that would get you beat up at recess. Let’s get back to Lauryn. Toby: Lauryn was so inspired that she decided to take her talents to the amateur night at the Apollo — and then this happened…
Joe: Wait a minute, she’s singing Smokey Robinson’s “Who’s Loving You” and got booed? I thought they had rules at the Apollo about boing children? I understand that life comes at you fast, but this is ridiculous. Toby: I totally agree. Apparently those Apollo rules were on sabbatical. Lauryn kept it together on stage, but reportedly cried back stage. I hate hearing stories like this, but in this event it looks like it made her stronger. Joe: Lauryn attended Columbia High School and was pretty active. She was on the cheerleading team, track team, founded the gospel choir, took violin, dance and acting lessons. Toby: Jeez- that type of schedule just makes me tired just thinking about it. In high school she was also asked to join a band called The Tranzlator Crew. The group was founded by a classmate named Prakrazel Michel aka Pras. Lauryn joined the group and soon after Pras’ cousin Wyclef Jean joined as well. Wyclef was a talented musician and could play several instruments, which certainly helped shape their sound in the coming years. Joe: They changed the name of their band to The Fugees and released their debut album, Blunted on Reality, in 1994. It flew under the radar and only sold 12,000 copies in the first couple of years after release. But it did gain favorable reviews and started to showcase Lauryn’s skills as a singer and an MC. Toby: Let’s listen to a track that demonstrates her flow. This is “Some Seek Stardom” by The Fugees:
🔊“Some Seek Stardom”
Toby: I will be honest. I didn’t buy this album but I remember watching Rap City on BET and a song that really stood out for me was the Nappy Heads remix. The remix was produced by producer all-star Salaam Remi who has worked with the likes of Nas, Amy Winehouse, Miguel, Eve and Bounty Killer. The Nappy Heads remix reached 49 on the Billboard charts, let’s take a listen!
🔊“Some Seek Stardom” - Nappy Heads Remix
Joe: That “bulletproof vest” lyric was sampled in Sublime’s 1996 hit, “What I Got.” Let’s take a listen:
🔊“What I Got”
Joe: Lauryn has stated that she patterned her style after male rappers like Ice Cube rather than other female MC’s like Salt N Pepa and MC Lyte. I think these bars are a good example of that. Toby: The Fugees may not have had huge success with their debut album, something they attributed to letting outside producers have too much control, but they more than made up for it with their second release, The Score. Joe: The members of the band took a more prominent role in the writing and production of The Score, and I’d say the plan worked. The album is 6X platinum, and hit #1 on both the Billboard 200 and Hip Hop/R&B charts. Toby: The second single, “Killing Me Softly,” was a huge hit for The Fugees. It reached #1 on multiple charts in numerous countries. Let’s listen:
🔊Killing Me Softly" - The Fugees
Joe: I had always thought that Roberta Flack wrote this tune since her version is the most well known besides The Fugees cover, but turns out that’s not the case. And apparently the song was inspired by Don McLean, of all people. Toby: Don McLean, as in this Don McLean?
Joe: Ugh. I knew we were going to have to play this track. Look, I can certainly appreciate the historical and cultural importance of this song, but am I allowed to say that I despise all 8 1/2 minutes of it? Toby: That’s what’s beautiful about art man, you are free to like, and not like, whatever you want. Joe: To be fair, it’s just that song. I had never heard any of his other stuff, and I can certainly appreciate some of it. The song “Killing Me Softly” was inspired by the Don McLean song Empty Chairs. Toby: Singer/songwriter Lori Lieberman attended a Don McLean concert in the early 70s. She was entranced by the performance and especially moved by the song “Empty Chairs.” Let’s give that a spin.
Joe: Liberman was so inspired she jotted down the beginnings of some lyrics, including the “killing me softly” line. She gave these notes to songwriters Norman Gimbel and Charles Fox, and they turned it into the song. Lieberman released the original version on her debut album, also called Lori Lieberman, in 1972, but it never charted. Let’s listen:
🔊“Killing Me Softly” - Lori Leiberman
Toby: It did have one big fan, however. Roberta Flack heard the song on an airplane and was immediately struck by it. She called Quincy Jones and asked to arrange a meeting with Charles Fox so she could get the music. Though she and her band rehearsed it, she didn’t record it until later. Turns out Marvin Gaye had a lot to do with that. Joe: It’s a pretty cool story. Roberta Flack was opening for Marvin in 1972, and she had finished up her encore when he told her to perform another song. She said to him, “well, I got this song I’ve been working on called ‘Killing Me Softly…’ and he said ‘Do it, baby.’ And I did it and the audience went crazy, and he walked over to me and put his arm around me and said, ‘Baby, don’t ever do that song again live until you record it.” Toby: Marvin was a smart man. Roberta Flack’s version of “Killing Me Softly” spent five weeks at #1 and won the 1973 Grammy for Record of the Year and Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female. Gimbel and Fox also earned the Song of the Year Grammy. Let’s listen to Roberta Flack’s version of “Killing Me Softly:”
🔊“Killing Me Softly” - Roberta Flack
Joe: Lauryn Hill and The Fugees then covered Roberta’s version for their album, The Score, and that wasn’t their only hit from that album. They also covered Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry,” which also reached #1 on multiple charts. Let’s listen:
🔊“No Woman No Cry”
Toby: You know what I find interesting about this song and Lauryn Hill in particular? Joe: What’s that? Toby: A guy by the name of Vincent Ford was alleged to have written this song for Bob Marley. I say “alleged” because many suspect that Marley himself wrote it
and only gave away the songwriting credit because he wanted Ford to receive the royalties so he could support himself. Joe: That’s a really cool story, but how does that relate to Lauryn Hill? Toby: Well, Lauryn has taken the exact opposite approach to her song rights. She has apparently become so concerned with ownership that she makes everyone sign off on her being the sole songwriter and producer to her material, regardless of any help from other musicians. She feels like it’s the best way to protect herself. Joe: I understand that to a certain degree — there certainly a lot of folks in the music industry ready and waiting to take advantage of you. But I appreciate Marley’s approach. I can’t help but think of the immortal words of Anthony Kiedis: “give it away, give it away, give it away, give it way now.” Just seems to me that you’ll have more coming back to you eventually. Toby: I like the sentiment buddy. But before we move on with Lauryn Hill and her solo career, can we talk for a second about another Bob Marley tune, “Buffalo Soldier?” I can’t quite put my finger on it, but this part right here reminds me of some childhood moments in front of the tube:
Joe: I think I know why that is. You remember a certain show we used to watch as kids back in the day called The Banana Splits? Toby: You mean the one with the beagle and gorilla and a couple of other animals in oversized costumes, riding around in dune buggies? “One banana two banana three banana, four…” Joe: That’s the one! It was syndicated until about 1982, right in our Saturday morning cartoon wheelhouse. The song you just mentioned is actually entitled “The Tra La La Song,” and believe it or not cracked the Billboard 100 in 1969. Toby: But what does this have to do with Marley’s “Buffalo Solider?” Joe: I’m just going to leave this here for you Tobe:
🔊“Tra La La” Mashup
Toby: Wow. All I have to say is people get ready, cause me and the banana splits, we be jammin! Joe: Get up, stand up, people! Alright Tobe, back to Lauryn Hill, who after The Score and all the success with The Fugees decided to embark on a solo career. Toby: Despite only putting out two albums, MTV ranked The Fugees as the 9th greatest hip hop group of all time. Maybe that’s in part due to the success that Wyclef Jean and Lauryn Hill had as solo artists. Joe: Let’s talk about Lauryn’s brief but impactful solo career. Her debut solo album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, was released in August of 1998 to critical and commercial acclaim. The album featured collaborations with D’Angelo, Carlos Santana, Mary J. Blige and the then-unknown John Legend. Toby: Miseducation was a phenomenal success by any measure. It topped the Billboard 200 for 4 weeks, sold 12 million copies worldwide, and garnered Ms. Hill 10 Grammy nominations. She went on to win 5 of those Grammys, becoming the first woman to win that many in one night. Joe: Let’s take a listen to the best selling single from the Miseducation album, “Doo Wop (That Thing).”
🔊“Doo Wop (That Thing)”
Joe: Despite it’s success, Miseducation was the only solo album Lauryn Hill released, besides a much maligned MTV Unplugged Live album. Lauryn has also had her fair share of controversy, some deserved, some not. Why don’t we clear the air on a few things? First, I want to address the most ridiculous allegation, that she made a comment along these lines, “I would rather have my children starve than have white people buy my albums.” That never happened. Toby: Correct, this one has been debunked multiple times. What she has said is that she feels a responsibility to support young African American women. She says, “There are a lot of young black girls who I meet in my travels who don’t have a lot of self-esteem, so if I communicate to them that they’re beautiful, no white person should find fault in that. It doesn’t mean that young white girls aren’t beautiful, because they are just as beautiful.” Joe: It amazes me how things can get so twisted and take on a life of their own without a kernel of truth. OK, let’s tackle another one, and this one gets a little trickier. Toby: Back in 2016, Lauryn showed up late for a 2016 concert in Atlanta. Joe: We all run a little behind schedule sometimes, why is this such a big deal? Toby: In this case, “a little behind schedule” means two hours late. Joe: I hope the opener got some extended stage time! Toby: A couple of other issues here. First, the venue had a strict curfew, which meant that when she finally did show up, she was only able to perform for about 40 minutes. Joe: That’s generally going to pose some issues with fans. Just ask Axl Rose. Toby: Perhaps fans would have been a little more forgiving had Lauryn not seemed a little flippant about the whole thing. She posted a message on Facebook that contained this snippet: “The challenge is aligning my energy with the time, taking something that isn’t easily classified or contained, and trying to make it available for others. I don’t have an on/off switch.” Joe: That is just one piece of a much larger message to her fans, but I can see how that might rub people the wrong way. You know who you don’t want to rub the wrong way? Toby: Johnny Gill. Joe: that’s a different matter all together, try again. Toby: Suge Knight? Joe: Yes, true, but someone a lot scarier. The tax man. Toby: That’s a fact. And apparently Lauryn did not get that memo, because she did a 3 month stint in a low- security prison for tax evasion. Somehow she forgot to pony up for the $1.8 million she earned between 2005 and 2007. Joe: Sounds like she and Wesley Snipes shared the same accountant! Toby: And now let’s take one more listen to our first featured track, “Ex-Factor.”
Joe: It’s been widely speculated that this song, along with many others on the album, was written about her relationship with Wyclef Jean. The opening lyrics set the tone:
“It could all be so simple
But you’d rather make it hard Loving you is like a battle
And we both end up with scars” Toby: And those first couple of lines are also a direct nod to the Wu Tang song “Ex Factor” samples, “Can It Be All So Simple.” We’ll get more into that crazy sample train in our bonus material, but for now let’s move on to our next featured track, “Be Careful” by Cardi B.
Joe: I’m sure it’s no coincidence that this song samples Lauryn Hill’s “Ex Factor.” Thematically, they are very similar, with lyrics like:
“You even got me trippin’, you got me lookin’ in the mirror different
Thinkin’ I’m awed because you inconsistent
Between a rock and a hard place, the mud and the dirt It’s gon’ hurt me to hate you, but lovin’ you’s worse” Toby: Is this song about Wyclef, too? Joe: This one is allegedly about the rapper Offset, with whom she had a relationship and eventually married. Toby, can you give a little background on Cardi B? Toby: Belcalis Marlenis Almánza was born in the Bronx, NY in 1992. Her Cardi B moniker is a kind of nickname taken from Barcardi rum. She had a rough go of it growing up, spending time in gangs and dealing with the problems of poverty and domestic violence. But she started to make a name for herself on social with many of her videos going viral. Joe: She channeled that into a breakout role in the VH1 show Love and Hip Hop: New York in 2015, and from there it’s been a steady climb to the top of the charts. Her first official single, “Bodak Yellow,” was released in 2017. Let’s give that a spin:
Toby: Bodak Yellow went 7X platinum and held the top spot on the Billboard 100 for three weeks. Cardi B became the first female rapper to top the charts with a solo single since 1998, and if you’ve been paying attention Joe, I think you’ll know what that was… Joe: That would have been “Doo Wop (That Thing)” from our first featured artist, Lauryn Hill. That’s a pretty cool connection. Toby: Cardi B’s debut album, Invasion of Privacy, was released in April of 2018. The album charted at #1 and there are so many accolades we don’t have time to list them all. Let’s just say that all 13 tracks from the album were certified Gold or higher. Every song from the album. That’s something. Joe: No filler on this one. Let’s take a listen to “I Like It,” one of those singles that went to #1 on the charts:
🔊“I Like It”
Toby: “I Like It” samples the 1966 track from Pete Rodriquez, “I Like it Like That." Let’s listen:
🔊“I Like it Like That”
Joe: Shortly after the success of “I Like It,” another collaboration hit #1 on the charts. This one with Maroon 5 and a little track called “Girls Like You.”
🔊“Girls Like You”
Toby: I don’t think you can turn on the radio without hearing this one. Joe: Cardi B and Lauryn Hill both exploded onto the scene with enormous success. Lauryn made a conscious effort to remove herself from the spotlight, and it’s too soon to know the staying power of Cardi B, but there are a couple of female icons that have an enduring musical legacy that spans generations. Toby: We are talking about Barbra Streisand and Gladys Knight, two women that can be called the divas of divas. For our bonus material, let’s take a look at the connection between these two and their unlikely connection to Wu Tang Clan and our other featured artists, Lauryn Hill and Cardi B. Joe: Let’s start with the 1973 single from Barbra Streisand from the album of the same name, “The Way We Were.”
🔊“The Way We Were” - Barbra Streisand
Toby: “The Way We Were” was written for the movie, also of the same name, that stars Streisand and Robert Redford. Once again, we have a thematic connection to our featured tracks, “Ex Factor” and “Be Careful.” This song is also about a failed relationship. Joe: In 1974, Gladys Knight and the Pips released a cover of “The Way We Were” on their album I Feel a Song. Their version charted in the top ten on both the adult contemporary and R&B charts. Let’s take a listen:
🔊“The Way We Were” - Gladys Knight and the Pips
Toby: Twenty years later, RZA sampled Gladys’s cover of “The Way We Were” for the Wu Tang song “Can It Be All So Simple.”
🔊“Can It Be All So Simple”
Joe: Now we get to our first featured track, Lauryn Hill’s “Ex Factor,” which samples the break beat from “Can It Be All So Simple.”
🔊“Ex Factor” - Break
Toby: Finishing the connection, we have Cardi B’s sample of “Ex Factor” for “Be Careful.” So we can connect the dots from Barbra Streisand to Gladys Knight to Wu Tang Clan to Lauryn Hill to Cardi B. That’s almost 50 years! Joe: I never get tired of all of these connections. There’s one more big sample of Lauryn Hill’s “Ex Factor” that we never even mentioned, this one also from a huge hit in 2018. Toby: Let’s put the challenge out to our listeners. Hit us up on social media and give us the answer, and let us know if you’d like us to do a future episode on this artist. The first correct answer will get a shout out from us on a future episode. You can tweet the show @riffsonriffsyo, or find us on Instagram, @riffsonriffs. If you want to reach out to me directly, you can find me @heiku575, and connect with Joe @sonowats. Joe: We love hearing from our listeners! Also, if you dig the show, please leave us an iTunes review. It really helps. OK Tobe, what do we have for our next episode? Toby: You ever play those whack-a-mole games at the carnival? Joe: Sure, are we going on location for our next episode? Toby: No, but we are going to bring down the sledgehammer. Because that’s what you have to do when the weasel goes pop. Joe: Sounds like fun and just a wee bit of carnage. Can’t wait. In the meantime, we’ll take you out with some more recent work from Lauryn Hill. In 2015, she worked on the Netflix documentary of Nina Simone, What Happened, Miss Simone? Lauryn contributed 6 tracks, including this cover of one of my all time favorites, “Feeling Good.”
We hope you all are feeling good. Thanks for listening, we’ll catch you next time on Riffs on Riffs.