Old Town Ghosts
In this episode of Riffs on Riffs, Joe & Toby discuss the rise of a Hip-Hop Cowboy, Lil Nas X, the 20-year-old rapper and internet savant behind the hip-hop-country crossover “Old Town Road.” In yet another rags to riches/started from the bottom tale of stardom, Lil Nas X was a college dropout living on his sister’s couch in Atlanta with a negative balance in his bank account. Now, he’s crushed Drake’s single-week streaming record and had the Number One song in the country for five weeks straight and there are no signs of stopping. Get ready for a genre-bending ride through this amazing episode of Riffs on Riffs with hints of country, rap, hip-hop and metal!
What we geek out over in this episode: Susie Stop Playin’, Trent Reznor, Nothing Records, More Cowbell, Netflix’s Bird Box, Iggy Pop’s Nightclubbing (1977), Johnny Cash’s cover of Hurt (2002), Country-Rap a.k.a. Hick-Hop, Ryan Upchurch track called Country Cut Celebrity (2018), Old Town Remix with Billy Ray Cyrus, and Bubba Sparxxx Country Folks (2013).
Bonus Material: Joe Watson’s Mashup of Nothing Breaks Like a Heart (2019) featuring Miley Cyrus, and her dad’s breakout hit, Billy Ray Cyrus’ Achy Breaky Heart (1992). ENJOY!
Old Town Ghosts
🔊“Old Town Road”
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.
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: We are listening to Lil Nas X’s crossover entitled “Old Town Road.” Man let me tell you, this is one episode where I had a ball doing the research. The videos for this bad boy had me in stitches.
Joe: There is definitely a story here, and a larger conversation about the classification of music into specific “genres.” But we are getting ahead of ourselves.
Toby: Let’s hop in the Delorean and find out what track was sampled to make this hit.
🔊“34 Ghosts IV”
Joe: Can you tell the good people what we are listening to?
Toby: We are listening to NIN’s “34 Ghosts IV,” from their 2008 album Ghosts I-IV. This album has been described by NIN frontman Trent Reznor as the “soundtrack for a daydream,” and if you manage to get through all 36 tracks of mostly instrumental music in one sitting, you may indeed wind up in a dreamlike state.
Joe: Before you zonk out on me, let’s dive a little into the backstory and catalog of NIN. We will focus primarily on founder and songwriter Trent Reznor, because although he has worked over the years with numerous musicians, including English producer/musician Atticus Ross since 2000, NIN is still by and large Trent’s creation.
Toby: Trent Reznor was born on May 17, 1965 in New Castle, Pennsylvania. He grew up playing piano and skateboarding, and was active in theater, including winning “Best in Drama” for his role as Harold Hill in The Music Man. That’s what we call foreshadowing. After graduating, he did a short stint studying computer engineering in college before moving to our home city of Cleveland, Ohio to begin his music career.
Joe: He took a job as the janitor and assistant engineer at Right Track Studio, and received permission from studio owner Bart Koster to work on his own demo during unused studio time.
Toby: That turned out to be a pretty good plan, as that demo turned into NIN’s 1989 debut album, Pretty Hate Machine. This album is certified triple platinum, selling over 3 million copies. Let’s take a listen to a song from that album, “Head Like a Hole.”
🔊“Head Like a Hole”
Joe: This album was a staple at parties and bars during my college years back in the day. Hearing this or “Terrible Lie” always gives me a bit of nostalgia. The liner notes also list Prince, Jane’s Addiction, and Public Enemy as having been sampled for the record, but many of those samples have been distorted and changed to be unrecognizable.
Toby: After just one album, Reznor started feeling like he had lost creative control from his record label, TVT, who pretty much just wanted him to make another “Pretty Hate Machine.” So Reznor started recordings for a new album in secret. He did not want the label to confiscate the new material, and that conflict eventually led to a deal with Jimmy Iovine and Interscope Records.
Joe: That’s an interesting story that we’ll get into in a second, but first let’s take a listen to the 1992 EP that Reznor and co-producer Flood were secretly working on, Broken. This is the song “Wish,” which hit #7 on the Billboard 200 and eventually went platinum.
Toby: This track also won the Grammy for Best Metal Performance.
Joe: That one has me scratching my head, since I don’t think of this song or NIN as “metal,” but then again, Tenacious D has won a Best Metal Grammy, so who knows?
Toby: We will definitely do some genre bending this episode, but let’s get back to Trent’s work with Interscope. He was given leeway to form his own sort of vanity label within Interscope, called Nothing Records. Nine Inch Nails was the most well-known of the bands, but Nothing Records was also the first label to sign Marilyn Manson. You’ve to some other interesting connections to Nothing Records, right?
Joe: I do, actually some personal ones. Nothing Records was operating out of a location in Tremont, which is a neighborhood here in Cleveland. They were upstairs in a building that I also happened to be working in around the same time, called Lemko Hall. I had just left a gig at American Greetings and taken on a job for a small design firm, and I heard some interesting stories from the owner about the “wacky record company” that existed upstairs. So there’s a decent chance that I crossed paths with staffers at the coffee shop across the street, which has since changed its name, but I doubt I ever ran into Mr. Reznor. I’m hoping I would have remembered that. That neighborhood was a certainly a different place back in the day.
Toby: Speaking of back in the day, you know what the other storied history of Lemko Hall is, right?
Joe: I do, sir, it’s the stuff of film making legend, but please, share the dirt.
Toby: Lemko Hall was the site for the filming of the epic, and lengthy, wedding scene that begins the 1978 war drama The Deer Hunter. Have you ever seen it?
Joe: I have not, which is a travesty given that it’s a much celebrated, 9X nominated and 5X Oscar winning, Academy Award Best Picture film. This is the movie that featured Meryl Streep’s breakout film role, landed De Niro another Oscar nomination, won Best Director and Best Picture, and even got Christopher Walken an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
Toby: Christopher Walken? The Christopher Walken? AKA The Bruce Dickenson?
Joe: The one and the same. No worries though, he’s just like us. He puts his pants on one leg at a time.
Toby: Except when HIS pants are on, he makes gold records!
Joe: Is it getting warm in here? I have a fever…
Toby: Just wait folks, by the time we’re done with this episode, y’all be wearing gold plated diapers!
Joe: OK, let’s connect the dots back to Trent Reznor. Perhaps the Lemko Hall mystique rubbed off on him, because he’s had a pretty good run doing movie soundtracks, too.
Toby: Last we left off, he had just launched his own record sub-label and released the EP Broken. Around the same time, he was invited to produce the soundtrack for the Oliver Stone film Natural Born Killers.
Joe: That led to a bevy of other accolades in the movie soundtrack realm. In 2010, Reznor and Atticus Ross collaborated for the score of The Social Network, David Finscher’s movie about the founding of Facebook. They won the Oscar for Best Original Score for that. Then they created the soundtrack for the film The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which won the Grammy for Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media. Let’s hear the cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” from that soundtrack, which features Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
Toby: Why ruin a good thing? In 2014, we have yet another Grammy nominated soundtrack, this time for Finscher’s film, Gone Girl.
Joe: And recently, Reznor and Ross also created the soundtrack for the Susanne Bier film Bird Box, which began streaming on Netfiix in Dec of 2018.
Toby: So clearly a multi-talented guy, but we barely scratched the surface of the NIN record catalog. Circling back, after the Broken EP, NIN released their second full length studio album, 1994’s The Downward Spiral. This one debuted at #2 on the Billboard 200 and has been certified quadruple platinum. Let’s take a listen to one of the top hits from that album, “Closer.”
Joe: We’re obviously playing a sanitized version of that song, but despite what the chorus seems to be referring to, the song is about self-hatred and obsession. And that percussion is sampled from Iggy Pop’s song “Nightclubbing,” off his 1977 album The Idiot. Let’s take a listen to the original:
Toby: Another interesting, albeit twisted, connection in all of this. The Downward Spiral was recorded at 10050 Cielo Drive, which is “the Tate House” where Sharon Tate was murdered by the Manson family in 1969. Reznor even renamed the studio there “Le Pig” after the phrase that was scrawled on the door in Tate’s blood during the murders.
Joe: Horrific stuff, and we’ve already talked about the signing of Marilyn Manson to Reznor’s Nothing Records, whose band name was made from the combination of Marilyn Monroe and Charles Manson.
Toby: While shock and controversy can certainly be used to generate publicity, it’s a different thing when it hits home and becomes personal.
Joe: Trent shares this story about an encounter he had while recording The Downward Spiral: “My awakening about all that stuff came from meeting Sharon Tate’s sister. It was a random thing, just a brief encounter. And she said: ‘Are you exploiting my sister’s death by living in her house?’ For the first time the whole thing kind of slapped me in the face. I said, ‘No, it’s just sort of my own interest in American folklore. I’m in this place where a weird part of history occurred.’ I guess it never really struck me before, but it did then. She lost her sister from a senseless, ignorant situation that I don’t want to support. When she was talking to me, I realized for the first time, ‘What if it was my sister?’ I thought, ‘Fuck Charlie Manson.’ I don’t want to be looked at as a guy who supports serial-killer bullshit.”
Toby: There’s another sad and misunderstood connection to NIN and tragedy. During the recording of The Downward Spiral, Reznor was having conflicts with bandmate Richard Patrick, who eventually left the group and formed the band Filter.
Joe: Filter had a top ten hit with the song “Hey Man Nice Shot” in 1995. Let’s have a listen:
🔊“Hey Man Nice Shot”
Toby: Many people interpreted this song as being about the suicide of Kurt Cobain. In fact, the song was written before Cobain’s death and was actually about the public suicide of Pennsylvania state treasurer R. Budd Dwyer.
Joe: Ugh. Things are have gotten pretty dark in this episode. I need a break, and so did NIN after the release of The Downward Spiral. After five years, they released their next album, The Fragile, in 1999.
Toby: This contained the bands first Billboard Hot 100 charting hit, “The Day the World Went Away.” Let’s listen:
🔊“The Day the World Went Away”
Joe: And this would be their highest charting hit, at least until we get to our first featured track, “34 Ghosts IV.”
🔊“34 Ghosts IV”
Toby: This instrumental track should sound very familiar. While it didn’t chart on its own, the album hit #14 on the Billboard 200 and interestingly, the entire album was released under the Creative Commons license.
Joe: Which made it easy for Lil Nas X to use for our next featured track, “Old Town Road.” But before we saddle up and take that journey, I want to take a listen to the genre-bending of country music icon Johnny Cash’s cover of the NIN track “Hurt.” This is a cover that has had a tremendous impact on many folks, including Trent Reznor himself.
Joe: Let’s have a listen first to the original version of “Hurt.”
🔊“Hurt” - NIN
Toby: And now let’s hear Johnny Cash’s stripped down cover:
🔊“Hurt” - Johnny Cash
Toby: Though he was initially hesitant because he feared it might be too gimmicky, Trent had this to say once he saw the video of Johnny Cash’s cover: “I pop the video in, and wow… Tears welling, silence, goose-bumps… Wow. [I felt like] I just lost my girlfriend, because that song isn’t mine anymore… It really made me think about how powerful music is as a medium and art form. I wrote some words and music in my bedroom as a way of staying sane, about a bleak and desperate place I was in, totally isolated and alone. [Somehow] that winds up reinterpreted by a music legend from a radically different era/genre and still retains sincerity and meaning – different, but every bit as pure.”
Joe: Johnny Cash’s cover of “Hurt” won the 2003 Country Music Association award for “Single of the Year” and was CMT’s top video for that year. It won the Grammy for Best Short Form Music Video and also reached #33 on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart. It’s a genre-crossing hit that paved the way for our next featured track, “Old Town Road” and Lil Nas X. You ready to mosey on over to that track partner?
Toby: Saddle up! First a little background. Before he was Lil Nas X, he was Montero Lamar Hill, and was born on April 9, 1999 in Atlanta, Georgia.
Joe: Obviously, he’s pretty new on the music scene, but it’s an interesting story about how Lil Nas X ascended to popularity at such a young age.
Toby: It really is! He allegedly gained fame through social media. He started a fan twitter account called NasMaraj named after rappers Nikki Manaj and Nas. He posted several tweets that went viral and gained popularity and the attention of fans — and also of the twitter police, who shut the account down for violating it’s spam policy.
Joe: Twitter shut it down… maybe we can get them to do something about these robo callers!
Toby: Tell me about it. A month later, a new account called NasMarai substituted the “J” for an “I” and posted several tweets meant to go viral, as well as some promoting Lil Nas X’s music.
Joe: I noticed earlier that you said allegedly in regards to his social media accounts. How come?
Toby: Well that’s really interesting. Lil Nas X has denied his involvement with the account despite some evidence to the contrary. One piece of evidence includes a post on the hiphopheads website forum by NasMaraj that stated the following” My new song mixes trap and country. What do y’all think?” Other posts indicate that Lil Nas X and NasMrai are the same, so I’m not really sure why he’s denying it. Honestly it’s not that important for this episode outside of the fact that if we are to believe that it’s true, we have to believe that Lil Nas X is no stranger to how to work the social media machine.
Joe: And that’s particularly important in this episode because that social savvy is what allowed Lil Nas X to rise up the charts. He began uploading tracks to Soundcloud in 2018. Let’s listen to one of them, this is a song called “Sonic @#$%.”
Toby: He uploaded “Old TIme Road” on Dec 3rd of 2018, and due to the Yeehaw challenge, it soon went viral.
Joe: What is the Yee Haw Challenge? Is that a nod to the classic variety show, Hee Haw? Does it involve any Hee Haw Honeys?
Toby: Not at all. It just kids videotaping themselves drinking something called Yee Haw juice and suddenly becoming a cowboy. I’ve watched several of them on the social media app Tik Tok and it’s definitely a kid thing to do, but entertaining nevertheless.
Joe: So “Old Town Road” blows up and debuts at #83 on the Billboard Hot 100, #36 on the R&B/Hip Hop chart, and #19 on the country Songs Chart.
Toby: That last rating caused a bit of controversy. Apparently the powers that be in country didn’t think that it contained enough of the elements to be considered Country music and thus was taken off the chart.
Joe: I’m very curious as to who exactly those “powers that be” are. Tobe, when you were a kid back in the day, what happened when Mom and Dad told you that you couldn’t do something?
Toby: It made me want to do that thing even more.
Joe: The public had a similar reaction, and soon the song reached number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. What are your thoughts about Country music and Billboard situation?
Toby: I think it’s a shame that this song wasn’t considered “country,” because it certainly sounds like it has country elements to me. I need an explanation or a little guidance.
Joe: You know, when some people need guidance they go to church.
Toby: That’s exactly what I did… in a way. I went to Ryan Upchurch or simply Upchurch, as he is known, is a country rapper. Let’s listen to a track called “Country Cut Celebrity” from Upchurch’s 2018 release Supernatural.
🔊“Country Cut Celebrity”
Toby: The album debuted at number 71 on the Billboard 200 chart in the US. It peaked at No. 6 on the Top Country Albums chart and No. 40 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart.
Joe: Waiiit a minute… How is Lil Nas X’s track different?
Toby: Very curious indeed. I’m of the opinion that this might have been a racial issue, but I would love to be wrong. Or maybe folks in the country music business think that it takes more than just one song to be considered a country artist, especially since Lil Nas X might not come out with another country song after “Old Town Road.”
Joe: Whatever the reason, here’s the good news: Other artists had an issue with Billboard’s decision to take Lil Nas X’s song off the Country charts. Country star Billy Ray Cyrus tweeted as much and then doubled down and jumped on the remix with Lil Nas X.
Toby: Yeah, Let’s take a listen to that: This is “Old Town Road” by Lil Nax X featuring Billy Ray Cyrus.
🔊“Old Town Road” - Billy Ray Cyrus Remix
Toby: There’s actually more good news as well. Columbia records signed Lil Nas X to a record deal in March of this year, so there’s a chance we will be hearing more of him in the years to come.
Joe: Bigger picture, will the union between hip hop and country last?
Toby: Country rap has existed for years. Scarface and the Geto Boys and UGK are hip hop groups from the south that are revered as being great hip hop groups. Both of these groups are technically country rap groups that just didn’t hit country charts.
Joe: So will that ever change? I mean, country is basically just pop music now anyway.
Toby: I definitely do think it will change. There are currently underground country rap groups that actually classify themselves as Hick Hop. Their term, not mine. These are groups that aren’t necessarily charting now, but as time goes on, my guess is that no matter what you classify the music as … it will find a way to chart and show up in your boy’s playlist.
Joe: I do think that the lines between musical styles are being blurred, and strict classifications are getting more difficult. New artists are drawing from such a rich and diverse set of influences, its inevitable that we will continue to hear.
Toby: Maybe others feel different and that’s what I love about music, but as it stands I feel this confident because Hip Hop is the most influential music genre there has ever been. If used as a template a hip hop song OR a song with hip hop elements can contain messages that can address any social issue or emotion while containing elements of other genres.
Joe: Bubba Sparkxx is a country rapper that had success in the early 2000’s. Ironicaly, he was also signed by Jimmy Iovine to Interscope Records, just like Trent Reznor back in the day. Bubba’s early work featured production from the likes of Timbaland and Organized Noise, and his first three albums hit the top ten on the Billboard 200. Let’s listen to “Country Folks” featuring Colt Ford and Danny Boone.
Toby: Bubba Sparxxx is hella talented, but it’s interesting that his albums either charted on the Rap OR Country charts — not both. I would be curious to see what would happen if an artist like Bubba came out now. Some transitions take time, but take I’m confident that it will happen. You will see more hip hop and country collabs.
Joe: Speaking of collaborations, we talked about Billy Ray Cyrus and his appearance on the remix of “Old Town Road.” Now, wementioned in our Mark Ronson episode that we wanted to hear a mashup of “Nothing Breaks Like a Heart” featuring Miley Cyrus, and her dad’s breakout hit, Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Achy Breaky Heart.” Well, I decided to take matters into my own hands.
Toby: Uh oh. Are you breaking hearts out now?
Joe: Nah. But I put together a little mashup section of the two songs for you, and it might be fun for our bonus material to break down to how it came together.
Toby: Sounds fun, let’s give our listeners a little peek behind the production curtain and see how these sausage gets made.
Joe: Well, the first thing to gure out when trying to put two songs together is the key and tempo of each. In this case, “Nothing Breaks Like a Heart” is about 114BPM and in the key of G. “Achy Breaky Heart” is in the key of A is a little faster, about 120BPM, but that tempo also shifts throughout the song since it likely was not recorded with a click track.
Toby: So it probably makes sense to use the Miley track as the basis for everything, since the tempo is constant throughout the song?
Joe: You got it. The next fun part is finding segments of each that can be sliced and combined. Since I was working with finished songs, I was a lot more limited than if I had the actual master tracks. Also, I was trying to create something fun in a few hours, not spend weeks in the studio.
Toby: So what did you find? Any cool lyrical similarities?
Joe: Actually, yes, but I quickly found that the verses and song structure were so different that I abandoned trying to do anything too crazy. I settled on kind of a call and response, overlay of the songs approach.
Toby: That “Achy Breaky” chorus had to be featured pretty heavily.
Joe: Yep. First, just a little snippet. For Billy Ray’s vocals and that song in general, I had to pitch shift the key to match Miley. It makes from some interesting effects. Here’s just a little snippet of Billy singing “Breaky.”
🔊“’Achy Breaky Heart” - Billy Ray Cyrus
Joe: And then I wanted to use the full line, “Achy Breaky Heart.” So again, some pitch shifting, vocal doubling, and other fun with effects.
🔊“Billy Breaky 2”
Joe: I did want to use the line, “might blow up and kill this man” that Billy Ray sings, but give it a moodier, unsettling vibe that fit more in line with “Nothing Breaks Like a Heart.” So I made this:
🔊Might Blow Up
Joe: One more element I wanted to use was the end chord of “Achy Breaky Heart” and Billy Ray’s “whooh.” That happy little resolution just seemed at odds with the vibe of “Nothing Breaks Like a Heart.” So I tucked it in the mashup and also ended with it. Let’s take a listen to how all of this works together. It’s only about a minute, but it’s fun.
🔊“Nothing Breaks Like a Heart” and “Achy Breaky Heart” Mashup
Joe: We are out of time my friend. What all did we cover in this episode?
Toby: Our first featured track was “34 Ghosts IV” by Nine Inch Nails, and our second featured track was “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X. Then we heard a mashup of “Nothing Breaks Like a Heart” by Mark Ronson featuring Miley Cyrus, and “Achy Breaky Heart” by Billy Ray Cyrus.
Joe: What do we have lined up for our next episode?
Toby: Well, speaking of hearts, we are going to take a look at the different shapes of hearts, and maybe have some lucid dreaming.
Joe: Sounds fun. I’ll bring my crayons.
Toby: In the meantime, please connect with us on social. 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 definitely love hearing from our listeners! Until next time, we’ll take you out with a new re-recording of “Achy Breaky Heart,” this time with Billy Ray singing in Spanish! BTW, I have also seen video of him performing this song live on stage with Bootsie Collins.
Toby: That cannot be true.
Joe: It is, Google it! Unfortunately, the audio was terrible or I would have shared it. Actually, Bootsy and Billy Ray are alleged to have collaborated on an EDM recording of “Achy Breaky Heart,” but sadly, I could not find it anywhere.
Toby: That’s crazy. Listeners, if you find it, please send it to us!
Joe: Yes, please do! In the meantime, enjoy, and we’ll catch you next time on Riffs on Riffs.
🔊“Achy Breaky Heart” - Spanish