“I’m sitting in the house now that was built with the Wu-Tang money,” says Syl Johnson from his home base on Chicago’s South Side. Johnson began his career working under blues folklore heroes Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, before staking a claim to solo r&b stardom in the late ’60s — as the ’70s began, he joined up with Hi Records, home of Al Green. Some thought he had the potential to reach a James Brown level of ubiquity; though that didn’t happen, Johnson ultimately cashed in when a generation of hip-hop producers began to dip into his back catalog for sample sources. It’s a trend he’s happily encouraged, receiving hearty payments from Will Smith, 2Pac, and the Geto Boys, a steady income stream he’s fond of boasting about live onstage). At the top of Johnson’s regular invoice list is the Wu-Tang Clan, whose resident production virtuoso, RZA, has frequently called on the singer’s deep, bluesy grooves and earthy howl of a voice.
Now, Johnson’s legacy has been enshrined in a lavish, six-LP box set, Complete Mythology, released by the Numero Group earlier this month and accompanied by a series of (so far) sold-out shows. Ahead of his gig at Southpaw in Brooklyn Friday night, one of rap’s most beloved sample sources talks about his appreciation of hip-hop, covering the Beatles, Russian women, and why cash rules everything around him.
How much has being sampled by hip-hop artists changed your career?
I’m not a star or nothing like that, and I’m not bragging that I’m so rich, cause I’m not Bill Gates, but I’ll never have to worry about money again because of the rappers. Kid Rock — he was beautiful. The Geto Boys, Mr. Scarface, D.O.C. — those people pay really well. And I can’t forget the Wu-Tang Clan.
RZA has sampled your music more than anyone else, right? Do you like what he does with it?
Hell yeah! [Starts to rap, then hums the beat to “Shame on a Nigga”] “Shame on a nigga who tries to run game on a nigga!” It was great, man. They’re very, very good.
Have you ever met any of the Wu?
Yeah, I’ve met RZA, Raekwon, and Ghostface. They were cool, man, but it was a lot of cursing! When I first met RZA, everything he said out his mouth was “motherfucker”! [Mimics RZA’s mush-mouthed voice] “I bet them motherfuckers paid you and I motherfuckin’ bet you we’re gonna motherfuckin’ pay you and we’re gonna pay you to the motherfucking sky!” I said, “Yes, sir!” But, man, they cursed!
So the Wu paid you well?
Yes. I got several gold and platinum stuff from the Wu-Tang. They paid up for “Different Strokes” [used on “Shame on a Nigga”], and then said they wanted to do seven more songs. Paid me for seven more of mine, but I think they did more than seven! But they paid me good, so I ain’t going to fight with them. They was really good. And so was Kid Rock [who also sampled “Different Strokes”]. Thanks to Kid Rock I got myself a brand new hybrid car, got my son a brand new hybrid car, got my granddaughter a brand new hybrid . . . Actually, she didn’t get a hybrid, she got something else. It was all from Kid Rock. He sent me a trophy, showing 11 million platinum records sold. And I have to tell you about Cypress Hill…
What happened with them?
Please give Muggs all the props in the world, but I had to sue them for using “Is It Because I’m Black” on “Lock Down (Interlude)” [apparently for a whopping $29 million]. They took it from the Japanese version of the song, which was a derivative from the original recording. Muggs testified, saying, “We loved the song, we loved the music, we sampled it and sent it off to Sony [to clear], so we’re surprised that we’re being sued.” Muggs told the truth. But the fact that they got it, don’t make no difference if you stole a bike out the back yard or stole it out of the house, you still stole the bike. Now I’m in the appellate court with that one. I think they’ve spent a million dollars through Sony.
Can you remember the first time you heard one of your songs sampled?
The first time, I think, was like in the late 1980s, with DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, Will Smith. That’s who it was. I was a little shocked.
On the album Is It Because I’m Black, you performed a cover version of the Beatles’ “Come Together.” What sort of feedback did you get from that at the time?
At the time? There wasn’t too much. The biggest excitement was “Is It Because I’m Black.” If you listen to the song closely you’ll get the concept. You know how a woman work on the job and gets less money than a man? Is it because she’s a female? That’s what my song was about. I didn’t want to make a militant song, but that’s how some people took it. I was talking to Craig Charles at the BBC and he asked me, “Why did you make a militant song? Billy Paul did it with ‘Am I Black Enough for You?’ and it hurt his career.” Well, that’s conceited. I just said, like with the women, why do you pay them more than me? I’m doing a better job and I have to work harder, like a woman would say. That was my rule. I didn’t want to make a song about animosity or anything — just saying, “Is it because I’m black that this is happening like that?”
So that’s why, with “Come Together,” we’re telling people to come together — that’s a powerful message. That was my idea for making those two songs together. But I’ll tell you one thing: When I started singing “Is It Because I’m Black,” the girls stopped pulling after me! When I was singing “Different Strokes,” you had to pull ’em off the stage, the police had to hold them off the stage. When it was “Is It Because I’m Black,” that all stopped. But guess who the biggest fans of that song is now? Whites. It was like one tenth of one percent at the time, but now it’s all whites. They’re very, very responsive to it now. And they bought the hell out of that $90 box set!
You’re performing in support of the box-set release, but can you remember the very first time you played live?
The first time I performed live was . . . I’m trying to think . . . Yes, I do. Yes, I was playing harmonica in a little club that my uncle took us to on State Street in Chicago. That’s the first time I remember really playing out live. I think we made $11 a night!
And what about the craziest place you’ve ever played?
In Russia, the Moscow Forum. I packed it three nights in a row. It was so crazy, the people went wild over the music. And the women out there were tall and slender — tough but good looking. It’s beautiful women in Brazil too, but America has the finest ladies. I remember I had sex with two different women out of my country — there was one in Japan and one in England, that’s it. But I don’t care about the women — fuck that! I go for the money!
So what can people expect from your show at Southpaw?
Do you know what “authentic” means? Do you know what “organic” means? That’s like the real deal. We play the real music. We got a heartbeat behind each and every instrument. If you go and see the orchestra play Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 5,” it’s real good, man, and there’s a heartbeat behind every note of that music. I’m not a religious person, but Jesus said, “Let me feed my sheep.” When you see a keyboard playing all the parts of a song, you’re not seeing all the sheep! The sheep follow me — I’m the shepherd and the band’s the sheep. In fact, some of the sheep just came in, walked in my door and picked up their check from last night’s show! They follow the shepherd. So if you’re seeing the sheep on stage and seeing the people who follow you, you’re seeing good music, and real solid musicians. It’s jazz, blues, and soul — a gospel-type flavor, that’s what my music is. That’s what hip-hop is, too.