Bay area hip-hop duo The Luniz can thank Jordan Peele’s “Us” for the 2019 reintroduction of their 1995 chart-topper “I Got 5 on It.” It’s become an instant horror anthem, earning new fans and serving as a nostalgia trip for older hip-hop heads. But the song (and the group) missed much earlier opportunities at a revival, as well as the licensing fees. Blake Leyh, music supervisor and composer for HBO’s “The Wire,” sought the track all the way back in 2002. But at the time, obtaining clearance was impossible because the writers and publishers couldn’t agree on how to distribute ownership.
“I don’t exactly recall my introduction to it, but I always just sort of knew of the song, because it was an international hit,” said Leyh. He tried to clear the track for episodes in seasons one, two and four of “The Wire,” to use as part of the landscape and ambient sound.
“Typically, with ‘The Wire,’ we did not use the message or the meaning of the song lyrics to illustrate something that was happening on screen,” said Leyh, whose sound credits include films by James Cameron, The Coen Brothers, Spike Lee, Jonathan Demme, Julie Taymor, and Mira Nair. “So there was a lot of leeway to use different kinds of hip-hop in different scenes, and it was important that the music be authentic in reflecting what the characters would really listen to, which is something I think we really got right by season three and four.”
Released as the lead single from The Luniz’s debut album, “Operation Stackola,” the song reached number 8 in the United States, and was certified Platinum by the RIAA, selling 1 million copies domestically.
“If we’d been able to use the song the way we wanted to for ‘The Wire,’ it would have probably been a payment of around $30,000 to $40,000,” Leyh said. “Although we never even got that far, so we might have decided that we couldn’t afford it anyway.”
Leyh said he discovered there were up to 15 registered writers on the song, which could have meant negotiating individual contracts with each writer — an expensive, cumbersome and time-consuming process. And in the world of television, where speedy turnarounds are essential, that could become a liability.
“That there are 15 credited writers on one song would be an interesting story in itself, and I can maybe see why they hadn’t reached an agreement on who owned what, when we wanted to use it,” Leyh said. “But they probably came to realize that they were losing a lot of money, because I wouldn’t be surprised if others tried to clear the song as well, but couldn’t for the same reasons.”
For “Us,” the track was handpicked by Peele, who called the decision an easy one. Speaking to Entertainment Weekly, the director credited the Bay Area roots of The Luniz (the film is set in Northern California) as inspiration, as well as what he described as “a haunting element” to the song that reminded him of the “Nightmare on Elm Street” soundtrack.
Prior to “Us,” the track appeared in the 2013 video game “Grand Theft Auto V.” But after being featured in the December teaser for “Us,” it received a rapturous online response, and suddenly The Luniz had become part of the conversation around the much-anticipated film. The duo even released a revamped version of the song, titled “I Got 5 on Us.”
For Leyh, who was also the music supervisor and composer for another David Simon series, “Treme,” ultimately, it’s a feel-good story. “I’m always about artists maintaining their rights and making the money off of the use of their material and their intellectual property,” he said, recalling watching the first trailer for “Us” and hearing the track he tried so hard to get. “I guess it can be used now, and that’s great, because it works really well in the film, which I really enjoyed.”