How Italian Composer Ennio Morricone Became The Rap Game’s Secret Weapon

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Quentin Tarantino has always had a magpie-like obsession with collecting and carefully rearranging bits of pop-cultural detritus to make something new. This can sometimes take the form of blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em allusions he squirrels away in the nooks and crannies of his scripts — it’s no coincidence that the name of Samuel L. Jackson’s character in Tarantino’s latest, The Hateful Eight, bears a striking similarity to that of little-known director Charles Marquis Warren. But referentiality also makes up the structures of his films in a more holistic way, informing his plots, style of dialogue, and overall visual aesthetic. Quentin Tarantino is what he loves, and for his newest project, he was able to land one of his lifelong valentines.

When the words “Music by Ennio Morricone” spring onto the screen during the credits of The Hateful Eight, there’s an extra swell from the brooding, sinuous score. It’s almost as if Tarantino expects the audience to recognize this name, which, all things considered, is not an entirely unreasonable assumption. The man’s everywhere. Even if some of the folks seated might not know the 87-year-old Italian composer’s name, chances are they’ve still heard his music, and not just in the hundreds of films he’s scored. Drake might have more Twitter followers, but Morricone’s one of the hottest names in the rap game.

Hundreds — seriously, hundreds — of hip-hop backing tracks contain audio sampled from Morricone’s compositions. The musician’s extensive work on spaghetti Westerns, the Italian subgenre of thrillers known as giallo, as well as countless Hollywood films have provided resourceful crate-diggers with plenty of fodder for atmospheric loops. But beyond just sounding cool (and oh, they are cool as hell), the recurring Morricone swatches express a distinct strain of fandom nearly identical to Tarantino’s constant interactions with the history of film. Ennio Morricone’s music could never be mistaken for anyone’s but his own, but in an equally vital way, his compositions belong to everyone who cherishes them.

Morricone’s earlier compositions, much more commonly favored among samplers than his later work, have an unmistakable flavor to them. His older scores make use of unorthodox instruments that he implements to create an eerie effect; the theme from Dario Argento’s giallo masterpiece The Bird with the Crystal Plumage opens with the sound of finger cymbals and chimes that curl and swirl back into themselves before ceding to a frightfully unnatural girlish taunting. Steve Ellison, who moonlights both as electro-jazz savant Flying Lotus and subterranean rapper Captain Murphy (for an idea of just who we’re dealing with, consider that his stellar mixtape DU∆LITY samples audio from Mario Bava’s Black Sunday and Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo), jacked those melodies for “Turtles,” a deep cut on his concept album You’re Dead. The record was intended as the aural equivalent of a trip through the afterlife, and the Morricone touch has just the tinge of otherworldliness that Ellison was searching for. So many producers spend countless hours pawing through record crates in search of a 45 with the right dusty, musty sound, and his compositions consistently hit that sweet spot.

Ultimately, the sound of Morricone is the sound of nostalgia. His samples harken back to the ’60s and ’70s, a thrilling time for underground and genre cinema, when inner-city movie theaters ran Sergio Leone double features to rapt teenagers playing hooky. Among those immersing themselves in the untouchable cool of the spaghetti Western gunslingers were a trio of cousins named Gary Grice, Robert Fitzgerald Diggs, and Russell Tyrone Jones. These young men would go on to assume the monikers of GZA, RZA and Ol’ Dirty Bastard, and found seminal rap outfit the Wu-Tang Clan, the most visible and passionate proponents of the holy union between cult cinema and hip-hop. Their most frequent point of reference in their discography was the kung fu movies that lent them their name, their mythos, and their way of life, as detailed in Diggs’ book The Tao of Wu. But beyond the old Shaw Brothers chopsocky gems, the disciples of the Wu paid regular homage to Morricone.

A sample simultaneously exists in two dimensions, its presence on a track speaking to both a purely musical dimension, as well as a more symbolic capacity. Taken at face value, the lustrous strings that make up the foundation of the “Masters of Our Fate” beat on Wu-Tang member Raekwon’s album Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang are an aurally pleasing tool, providing a silky-smooth counterpoint to the break-beat percussion that the producer has superimposed over it. But dig a little deeper, and it becomes clear that the Spaghetti Westerns of yore have resonated with Raekwon and his Wu-Tang brothers on a more personal level. The films with which Morricone’s name have become most frequently associated center on a specific type of hero, the rough-hewn gunslinger who won’t hesitate to lay a challenger out on the ground with a few new holes in him, but still adheres to a code of ethics and feels duty-bound to justice. As wide-eyed kids milling around Staten Island in the ’70s, the Wu-Tang members felt a potent connection to the antiheroes of Morricone-scored pictures, ruthless in their power, but respectable in their mission. This combination of badassery and righteousness ended up being one of the chief identifiers in the vast and varied Wu-Tang oeuvre — easily mirrored by the kung-fu fighters who also paired their great physical strength with a rigid code dictating right and wrong.

When juxtaposed with the gritty realities of hip-hop’s usual subject material, the feel of Morricone’s vintage compositions transport the listener to a time gone by. For many of the producers who cherrypick these samples, the music instantly hurls them back to their younger years, Proust-style. And even to listeners who don’t have these songs ingrained in their pop-cultural memory, there remains a palpable sense of classicism to Morricone’s audio; the hiss, pops and other imperfections of vinyl always signify the halcyon days of some other time to modern listeners.

Over the past decade or so, as Quentin Tarantino and the Wu-Tang’s RZA have become frequent collaborators and unlikely friends, the rationale behind their seemingly bizarre pairing has made itself clear. This pasty white nerd connects with one of the most esteemed statesmen of the rap game through their shared reverence for pop-cultural arcana, and their steadfast belief in the allusion to others’ work as a perfectly valid mode of self-expression. In binding together, reworking, and reframing extant bits of film history, Tarantino, as well as the legions of vinyl addicts who have helped vaunt Morricone into the mythic status he enjoys today, have forged original works both familiar and fresh. And in the occasion that an audience member at The Hateful Eight or a teen picking up Liquid Swords for the first time actually goes out of his or her way to google these allusions and track them to their source, something even more sacred has taken place.

The passing-down of favorite films, records, what-have-you from one generation to the next is a crucial process that breeds the next generation of obsessives. Tarantino, the Wu-Tang entourage, and the countless other artists who have claimed Morricone’s work as a component of their own have left trails of bread crumbs leading to the music that inspired them in the first place. In sharing that material with their audience, they reframe pop-cultural knowledge as a communal rather than exclusionary experience. Tarantino’s no insufferable name-dropper, turning his nose up at the uncultured swine who haven’t heard of such-and-such a film. There’s a magnanimous enthusiasm in the way artists interface with Morricone, eager to share in the pleasure that they’ve taken in his work and pass it to the viewers who will keep the man’s illustrious legacy alive. The composer has remained incredibly prolific even as he’s entered old age; perhaps he’s desperate to do as much as humanly possible while he still can. But Morricone need not worry: in the hearts and factoid-packed minds of his many acolytes, he’s already achieved immortality.

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