In most movies, a fight with red-robed doppelgängers to the tune of N.W.A.’s “F— the Police” would be the showstopper. But Jordan Peele’s “Us” has an even better musical trick up its sleeve — its deft dissection of the 1995 Luniz hit “I Got 5 on It.”
“I Got 5 on It” comes from an underrated school of hip-hop that discusses low-stakes and even trivial problems with high-level musicality. The “5” refers to a five-dollar bill kicked in toward the purchase of marijuana. The song basically says, if you want to smoke some of my weed, please kick in some cash. It’s a gripe everyone’s had at some point about weed, gas, or french fries.
But the song remains such an earworm 24 years after its debut because nothing about its music sounds trivial. The music has overtones of hurt and betrayal, and may owe those qualities to its surprising and contentious origin story. Needless to say, the song’s complexity serves “Us” very well.
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We’re introduced to the song as the Wilson family tries to relax on a trip to the beach. (Spoilers follow.) It’s a fraught trip because mom Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) doesn’t really want to go. She has bad memories of the beach from childhood.
(Story continues after the song):
When “I Got 5 On It” comes on the radio, dad Gabe Wilson (Winston Duke) sees it as a fun throwback. (It was the 13th biggest single of 1995). It’s also a bit of a guilty pleasure, since his kids, Zora and Jason, figure out pretty quickly that the song is about drugs. The parents make the requisite denials before the family tries to bond over a ’90s banger.
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But even once they get past the drug issue, there’s still something wrong: Adelaide tries to get Jason to snap along to the beat, but she’s clearly off beat herself. This is foreshadowing how she doesn’t really fit in, to her family or her world.
Later, as it becomes apparent that the family’s apparent happiness came at a terrible price, and is built on a terrible deception, the once-fun song transmogrifies into something grotesque. The movie’s “Tethered Mix” slows things down, and fully indulges the ominous quality hinted at in the original “I Got 5 on It.”
The producer of “I Got 5 on it,” Tone Capone, worked with intense care to create such a layered musical atmosphere. The song contains an almost-ridiculous juxtaposition of complex sound and straightforward subject matter, but it works beautifully because producer Capone, the Luniz (rappers Yukmouth and Numskull), and vocalist Michael Marshall totally commit. It’s striking how passionately Marshall sings the line: “Partner, let’s go half on a sack.”
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Marshall had a good reason to take the song very personally.
There’s a widespread impression that “I Got 5 on It” is built around a sample of the 1987 Club Nouveau song “Why You Treat Me So Bad.” (On one “I Got 5 on it” remix, guest rapper E-40 begins his verse by rapping, “Why ya treat me so bad?/40 makes it happen.”)
But the notion that Club Nouveau originated the music is bitterly disputed.
Tone Capone, aka Anthony Gilmour, said in an interview with WhoSampled writer Chris Read that the Luniz brought “the idea and the hook to me.” Capone was working at the time with Marshall, a high school friend.
As Marshall explained in a 2014 interview with Trayze TV, “the Luniz wanted to sample the song ‘Why You Treat Me So Bad.’”
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As it happened, he knew the song well. Very well.
He told Trayze TV: “‘Why You Treat Me So Bad’ is a melody that was stolen from me from a song called ‘Thinking About You,’ so I had an opportunity to be able to create over the beat that I had first.”
Yes, that’s right: As Marshall described it, at the time the Luniz brought the “Why You Treat Me So Bad” hook to Capone, he just happened to be working with Marshall, who just happened to the real author of the hook.
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A Medium post by Gino Sorcinelli concluded that “Thinking About You” did indeed precede “Why You Treat Me So Bad.” Sorcinelli wrote last year that Jay King, the former executive producer of Timex Social Club’s hit song “Rumors,” created Club Nouveau after a falling out with Marshall. Sorcinelli said that when King exited, he had several demos from Timex Social Club, including “Thinking About You.”
King, who is now a respected on-air personality on Sacramento radio station KDEE 97.5, did not immediately respond to requests for comment through the station.
Sorcinelli’s entire post is highly recommended. It gives the date of “Thinking About You” as 1986, the year before the release of “Why You Treat Me So Bad.” (Interestingly, 1986 is also the year when “Us” begins. It’s fun to wonder if Gabe became fixated on the music the same year that Adelaide fixated on a Michael Jackson shirt that may or may not have inspired the entire look of the red-garbed, gloved doppelgängers who pervade the film.)
Here’s “Thinking About You”:
So which version did Tone Capone sample? Neither.
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As he explained to WhoSampled, Capone played the song himself in order to get the perfect sound we hear on “I Got 5 On It.”
“I looped the Club Nouveau record first and it was too fast,” he explained. “I slowed it down and it sounded good but after I analyzed it more I felt like I could replay it and control the breaks of the song better.”
As Capone further told WhoSampled, that started him down a prolific and lucrative path of replaying hooks instead of sampling them, so he could squeeze out exactly what he needed from each hook without the extra percussive sounds, vocals, or whatever else that he didn’t need.
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Of course, “I Got 5 on It” isn’t built on just one hook: Tone Capone also borrows from Audio Two’s frequently sampled “Top Billin’” and Kool and the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie,” which got a popularity boost in 1994, the year before “I Got 5 on It,” from its inclusion in Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction.”
But no one disputes those samples the way they do the main hook.
So yes, “I Got 5 on It” is about drugs. But it’s also about duality, and second chances, and perhaps betrayal.
Just like “Us.”
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