Beatles for sale: rappers, brands turn to Fab Four

Wed Jan 2, 2008 8:40am EST
 
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By Susan Butler and Paul Sexton

NEW YORK/LONDON (Billboard) - It's perfectly legal, but it will still seem to some listeners like the sound of someone making off with England's crown jewels.

On rap collective Wu-Tang Clan's new single "The Heart Gently Weeps," a Santana-style rock guitar opening gives way to an almost celestial chorus of something very familiar. There, and throughout the track, is the unmistakable melody of George Harrison's timeless contribution to the Beatles' "White Album" from 1968: "While My Guitar Gently Weeps."

Now, the track is accompanied by Wu-Tang's trademark, uncompromising language, rapping out a gritty street story, even as Harrison's son Dhani plays along.

Meanwhile on the just-finished "Judas," Ja Rule is introducing the rap community to another incongruous musical motif. This is no unthinking appropriation of a classic act's creativity, as has sometimes been the case in rap. As he works at folding the original flavor into the hook of this midtempo treatise on "love, hate, jealousy and betrayal," he's doing so with the help of "Eleanor Rigby."

Forty years and more after the Beatles changed rock music forever, their songs have truly arrived in the 21st century as part of the rap/hip-hop art form -- with the express permission of their publishers. Although there are hundreds of covers of "Yesterday," "Something" and the rest, this approach of "interpolation" -- essentially rerecording a portion of a song -- of the Beatles' compositions represents new access to the most famous catalogue in the world. These developments may ultimately signal a fresh attitude toward Beatles masters appearing in everything from commercials to movies.

CAN'T BUY ME LOVE

But don't expect to hear samples of the Beatles' original recordings, which remain strictly under lock and key, for now at least. Instead Sony/ATV, which owns all but a handful of the Lennon/McCartney copyrights, is allowing a select few to license some celebrated compositions and reference them in their own, newly recorded material.

The first lucky participants in these interpolations are acts from the arena of hip-hop and rap, with Ja Rule joining Common -- who used "She's Leaving Home" on "Forever Begins" from his current album "Finding Forever" -- and Jay-Z, who commandeered "I Will" on "Encore" from his 2003 "The Black Album" and "Numb/Encore" on his 2004 collaboration "Collision Curse" with Linkin Park. Meanwhile, Wu-Tang licensed rights from Harrisongs, George Harrison's publisher, for "While My Guitar Gently Weeps."   Continued...

 
<p>A billboard commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Beatles in Tokyo, in a 2006 photo. Forty years and more after the Beatles changed rock music forever, their songs have truly arrived in the 21st century as part of the rap/hip-hop art form -- with the express permission of their publishers. REUTERS/Toru Hanai</p>