Much like everything else in The Wire, the first time you hear music in the series, it matters.
The song is a classic, JAY-Z’s lead Blueprint single “Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” and it’s more than just background noise or overlaying score, it’s a plot point, it provides character development and it’s a storytelling tool. While riding in a car, D’Angelo, played by Larry Gillard Jr., is discussing the way he was able to fleece the judicial system in court, thanks to a paid-off witness. Wee-Bey, played by Hassan Johnson, turns the radio up to drown out D’Angelo and his loud mouth, eventually pulling over the car to admonish him for discussing business in the car, breaking a rule of the Barksdale organization.
The moment seems innocuous enough, barely lasting 10 seconds, but like all of The Wire’s uses of music, it’s crucial. In one fell swoop, Wee-Bey is painted as a savvy veteran of the game, keen enough to look to interfere with any possible audio recordings that could occur in his car. D’Angelo is painted as naive, careless and foolish. It also sets up a device that would reappear later in the first season, in another imperative moment where a loud radio is used to drown out vital information just before a detective is shot during an undercover mission. Halfway through the very first episode of the series, writers and co-creators David Simon and Ed Burns were unfurling their story in ways that would pay off for years, and Director Clark Johnson (who would later play the role of Gus Haynes in season five) subtly depicts the moment, surely just as Simon and Burns envisioned.
Throughout The Wire’s 60 episodes, the series often used music as a tool to help tell one of the deepest and most engrossing stories ever told on the small screen. But music wasn’t just a small part of the series; no matter how rarely it was used, it fell into the “all the pieces matter” mantra of The Wire perfectly. Every song and every musical cue mattered, just like every syllable of dialogue and every other detail that happened to waltz across the screen.
Where The Wire differs from all other shows is the complexity of its storytelling, the depth of its characters and the lengths it was willing to go to project its message. Music was just one of the ways it accomplished all that, but since it was such a covert storytelling tool, it remains the most unappreciated weapon in the show’s arsenal. Simon, Burns and all of their collaborators relied on music to add to the lush tapestry of the show, and in doing so they rewrote the book on how music can be used to accentuate and even tell a story on television.
The Wire often circumvented a more traditional score (this was reserved for end-of-season montages), instead broadcasting music in a more natural way, essentially giving the show an environmental score. Music blared as characters played it in a car, it blasted out of speakers in a club, and in one special case, it was whistled ominously by a cold-blooded killer who robbed drug dealers for a living. The music was carefully weaved into the plot, like in one scene where two hitmen (well, one hitman and one hitwoman) quizzed potential targets on their music expertise in a cruel test that would decide whether they lived or died.
These music selections not only told us about the characters—who they were, where they were in life, what their mood was—but also gave viewers additional insight into already multifaceted and nuanced performers. Those context clues provided more to the series than any exposition scene ever could. Even a stone-cold killer like Chris Partlow could lean on music for a lighter moment, like when he heard Dem Franchize Boyz’s 2006 hit “Lean wit It, Rock wit It” and proclaimed, “Yeah, that’s my joint right there,” producing one of his only smiles in three seasons on the show.
Even the series’ theme song became more than just the song that plays before an episode starts. Tom Waits’ “Way Down In the Hole” beat out John Hammond’s “Get Behind the Mule” for the opening honor, but the song was reprised by a different artist each season, giving the theme a tone more fit for each individual season. In season four, the season that famously details the lives of four middle schoolers, the song is performed by five Baltimore teenagers.
A decade after the series finale, The Wire is still the gold standard in nearly every facet of television. The performances, the direction, the cinematography, and the writing all remain the template and prototype, and no matter the scarcity, the use of music remains so as well.
Whether it’s Omar whistling “The Farmer In the Dell” and terrifying everybody who crossed his path, or cops drunkenly belting out The Pogues "Body of an American" at every wake, or Black Star’s “Hater Players” drowning out Kima’s futile attempts to key her colleagues in on her location while she’s walking right into a trap that nearly killed her, the most iconic moments of the series always included music—whether we realized it or not.
Strangely enough, it all began with JAY-Z remembering the cops wanting to knock him and district attorneys wanting to box him in, and beating those charges like Rocky.