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.
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.
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,” Anthony “Tonecapone” Gilmour, 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 everyone totally commits: Gilmour, the Luniz (rappers Jerold Dwight “Yukmouth” Ellis III and Garrick Demond “Numskull” Husbands), and vocalist Michael Marshall.
It’s striking how passionately Marshall sings the line: “Partner, let’s go half on a sack.”
He had a good reason to take the song personally. Very personally.
Gilmour and Marshall, friends who graduated Berkeley High together in 1984, were working on Marshall’s music at Gilmour’s home in North Oakland when the Luniz came by with an early version of “I Got 5 On It.”
They knew the music well.
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.
In the mid-80s, Marshall worked with producer Jay King in a group called Timex Social Club, best known for the hit “Rumors.” The opening notes of “I Got 5 On It” first appeared on another Timex Social Club song, “Thinking About You.”
When Marshall and King parted ways, King started Club Nouveau, and took some of the Timex Social Club music with him. And so the same haunting notes that turn up 35 seconds into “Thinking About You” also turn up 27 seconds into Club Nouveau’s “Why You Treat Me So Bad.”
“Thinking About You” came out in 1986. “Why You Treat Me So Bad” came out the next year, and was a much bigger success.
Marshall said in a 2014 interview with Trayze TV, “the Luniz wanted to sample the song ‘Why You Treat Me So Bad. … ‘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.”
Gilmour said the Luniz had no idea, when they brought him the “Why You Treat Me So Bad” sample, that the singer he was working with, Marshall, had so much history with the song.
But Gilmour knew.
King, now a respected on-air personality on Sacramento radio station KDEE 97.5, told TheWrap there was nothing wrong with his taking Timex Social Club music over to his new project, Club Nouveau.
“I guess Mike Marshall has painted himself the victim,” King told TheWrap.
He said Marshall chose to part ways with him, and he’s been consistent on that point for decades: He told Spin in 1987 that Marshall and other members of Timex Social Club bought themselves out of their recording contract for $7,500, leaving King with the rights to their recordings.
King then worked on Club Nouveau songs, including “Why You Treat Me So Bad,” with producers Denzil Foster and Thomas McElroy, the production partners also known as FMob.
“When they left us, we re-fashioned everything and created Club Nouveau. We changed rhythm, we changed melodies, we wrote a whole new song,” he told TheWrap.
So who first came up with the riff that turned up in “Thinking About You,” “Why You Treat Me So Bad,” and “I Got 5 On It”?
King says it was probably Timex Social Club keyboardist Alex Hill. But there were a lot of people involved in the creation of all the music.
“We were all working together,” he said.
Adds Gilmour: “I’m not going to say Jay did anything wrong. They were working on all this together and when they split up, they both took it.”
Interestingly, the Timex Social Club drama went down in 1986, 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”:
At this point, you’re probably wondering if Gilmour sampled “Thinking About You” or “Why You Treat Me So Bad” for “I Got 5 On It.”
The answer is neither. He did his own, slowed-down version for The Luniz.
“If you listen, my bass is way up, and I’ve got it doubled with electric piano,” he explained. “And if you listen to the bells, in the main melody, I used bells and they used strings in Club Nouveau.”
There are no samples in the song, he said, except from Audio Two’s “Top Billin'” and Kool and the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie.” (“Jungle Boogie” got a popularity boost in 1994, the year before “I Got 5 on It,” from its inclusion in Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction.”)
As Capone told WhoSampled, his experience with “I Got 5 On it” 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.
“I Got 5 On It” — and its inclusion in “Us” — has been a windfall for Gilmour, who estimates his payments for the hit are up “close to 400 percent” since the film came out. He said he, King, Foster, Thomas, Marshall and The Luniz all receive publishing payments for the song.
So yes, “I Got 5 on It” is about drugs. But it’s also about duality, and second chances… and, to some, betrayal.
Just like “Us.”