I figured it would have to be finished before feeling the effects of adding magic mushrooms to the tea. I was wrong. My glass wasn’t empty—at best it was half-full—when my nausea began to subside and Narnia’s gate began to open. By the look on my friend's face, his trip had also reached its beginning stages.
Shrooms on Saturday had been a ritual we would get together and do every six months or so, a relaxing escape to unplug from our respective worlds. Music would play, music discussions would be had, and the hours would peel away like the skin from an orange.
I remember the feeling of being wrapped in warmth as the sound of trumpets blasted from his speakers. They didn’t simply enter my eardrums, the music was brushing against my skin like a pleasant breeze in the fall. The kind of horns that should only be heard after a king and queen’s chariot arrives, a sound for the rich and royal. Also, they were familiar; I knew the horns but not in this setting. No different than the strange sensation of seeing a teacher at the club or a bar in garments far from work attire.
It only took a second to trace where I knew them from, though: JAY-Z’s “Roc Boys (And the Winner Is)...” The rush of uncovering the source of a sample filled me with childlike glee. This was the song that the Hitmen looped to create Jay’s celebratory single.
This was my introduction to the Menahan Street Band.
American Gangster’s sonic palette was built on sounds of the ‘70s. Samples from Marvin Gaye’s "Soon I'll Be Loving You Again," Little Beaver’s "Get Into The Party Life" and Barry White’s “Love Serenade,” to name a few. Only a handful of musical influences arrived from outside the years of Frank Lucas' drug dominance: The Isley Brothers’ “Between The Sheets” and En Vogue's “Hold On,” for example. Jay’s desire to wax poetic over beats based on the era he was hoping to capture gave the project its soulful foundation.
Menahan Street Band’s “Make the Road by Walking” is the only song sampled on the album that was conceived in the 21st century. Sonically, it has an older soul, but doesn’t sound dated; there’s a youthful liveliness to the production. The drum break has a hip-hop edge as if the song itself was politely asking for a producer to loop it. Menahan Street Band still fits within the American Gangster universe, a soul and funk instrumental band based in Brooklyn―home of JAY-Z and Frank Lucas.
Menahan Street Band started off as a studio band of musicians—guitarist Thomas Brenneck, drummer Homer Steinweiss, bassist Nick Movshon, trumpeter Dave Guy and saxophonist Leon Michels—from various bands (Antibalas, Dap-Kings, Budos Band) who all met while playing music in Brooklyn's soul scene. Founder Thomas Brenneck named the band after the street on which his apartment was situated, the very apartment where they recorded their first album, Make the Road by Walking.
Make the Road by Walking was released in October of 2008 on Dunham Records. The eponymous single that Jay sampled was released in 2006, one year before the release and rollout of American Gangster. It’s remarkable how a relatively unknown studio band from Brooklyn would end up on a JAY-Z album with their first single.
Thomas Brenneck spoke briefly about meeting Jay to get the sample cleared in a 2013 interview with Life + Times after the release of their sophomore album, The Crossing:
"I was rehearsing with the Dap-Kings when they called, got on the train not knowing what song or anything. I went to the studio, JAY Z and the engineer played me the song on the spot, we hung out for a little bit, I played JAY Z some of the Charles Bradley stuff I was working on and then we shook on it and that was it. It was real gentleman-like, and a lot of my heroes had to fight it out in court to make something like that happen. It was bona fide all the way." —Thomas Brenneck
Imagine getting the call from Roc Nation about clearing a sample and JAY-Z is there to meet you in person. The process of clearing samples is something I don’t know much about, but Thomas' story is a rare one. Deep down, I hope this is how Jay has cleared all his samples; real gentleman-like and bona fide all the way.
My first magical experience with “Make the Road by Walking” was enough to find the entire album on Apple Music. The rest of the project rested on my iPhone for months, there’s simply too much music in the world and it’s rather easy to get lost in the constant stream of releases.
One day, while Apple Music was on shuffle, a familiar sound softly blossomed from my speakers. Congos and keys, a hypnotizing combination that will push a person into deep introspection. It was when the horns came in―deep, bashful, and elegant horns―that I could clearly hear BJ The Chicago Kid’s soulful voice singing, “Gotta have faith.” I looked at my phone to see the title, “Tired of Fighting,” widely known for being the song Kendrick raps over on “Faith” from the Kendrick Lamar EP. It wasn’t a freestyle—only a piece of the original is sampled by producer King Blue—and the full arrangement is absolute magnificence. To only hear Kendrick’s “Faith” is like only seeing the opening scene of Goodfellas and not the entire movie. It's almost impossible to hear "Tired of Fighting" and "Faith" and not wish for a world where the Menahan Street Band teams up with Kendrick for To Pimp a Butterfly.
It’s common for artists to uncover samples from the same source material, but it was a surprise to uncover music used by both JAY-Z and Kendrick on an album that wasn’t even two years old at the time.
If “Faith” isn’t the first song that comes to mind when hearing “Tired of Fighting,” it could be due to another famous hip-hop artist using the song on a fairly popular release. Before the release of fan favorite Pilot Talk II, Curren$y released “Flying Iron,” a freestyle over “Tired of Fighting.” Blogs didn’t cite a producer and based on the jazzy sound, a naive assumption was made that Ski Beatz had crafted the horn-blaring soundtrack.
Thomas Brenneck also mentioned Spitta and the frustration of having music used in free releases instead of being sampled in original music that’s placed on an album:
"He just took the instrumental of a Menahan song called “Tired of Fighting” and rapped over it and it’s dope, but he didn’t put it out on a record, it’s on a mixtape. And there’s a whole issue there that I have with mixtapes; when you use something on a mixtape, you don’t have to pay for it, because they don’t sell it. So as flattering as it is, it’s nice for them so sample our shit, something needs to change, not with the artists but with the record labels." —Thomas Brenneck
While speaking about rap artists who sampled his music, Thomas mentioned a song by Kid Cudi that uses “The Traitor” from Make the Road by Walking. I figured it was a song from Cudi’s later discography, one of the more experimental releases that didn’t quite hit the mark. Yet, as soon as I heard it, the twinkling, moody keywords to “Solo Dolo” filled my brain. The song has always felt like it was made for Cudi, sonically fitting the theme of Man on the Moon’s second act, Rise of the Night Terrors. Emile Haynie slowed down the keys, added the string section, and sprinkled in a number of effects to add an even more haunting element to the production. Haynie reworked the production to make it fit Cudi’s aesthetic, and when Cudi decided to make a sequel to “Solo Dolo”—featuring, of course, Kendrick Lamar—he returned to Make the Road by Walking and sampled “Going The Distance.” Two versions of “Solo Dolo,” two different Menahan Street Band samples.
Brenneck admits that he doesn’t like how Cudi sampled “The Traitor” and that he prefers Frank Dukes’ interpretation that can be heard on 50 Cent’s “Talking In Codes.” Frank is a master-class producer, “Talking In Codes” is a well-executed sampling of “The Traitor,” and 50 truly delivers a strong performance. Frank returned to the Menahan Street Band for Eminem’s “Groundhog Day,” a bonus song from The Marshall Mathers LP 2 that samples “Sleight of Hand.” Snoop Dogg is the latest to bring “The Traitor” into the ears of hip-hop listeners with “Big Mouth,” which can be found on his latest album, Neva Left. Snoop's version is the most obscure, and only ears aware of the Menahan Street Band will catch the sampling.
Recognition doesn’t feed the belly but it can bring a level of awareness that will put bacon on the table. Menahan Street Band doesn’t get spotlighted enough, and they deserve to be rightfully acknowledged for their hip-hop contributions. There’s a reason why so many hip-hop producers have gravitated toward the music. It’s incredible to discover a modern Brooklyn band making beautiful sonic beds that fuse influences from hip-hop, jazz, soul, funk and Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat to make a collection of music that any enthusiast of exquisite sounds will enjoy. It would be a disservice to their wonderful creations if listeners only hear what was sampled and not the music in its full glory.
You don’t even have to do shrooms, though. I promise the Menahan Street Band will still sound magical.
By Yoh, aka Make the Yoh by Writing aka @Yoh31