The Lives of a Song: Wu-Tang's 'Can It Be All So Simple'

May 05, 2021 by Elvin Sabla

Borrowing an idea from Eastern philosophy, let’s examine the Buddhist concept of rebirth.

According to the teachings of some monks, like Vietnamese Thiền Buddhist Thích Nhất Hạnh, reincarnation can be interpreted practically — the idea that nothing is truly born or dies, but rather that everything is a continuation of something else. A river flows into an ocean. The ocean water evaporates and becomes a cloud. The cloud creates snow on top of a mountain. The snow melts and becomes a river. It’s a notion that can pretty much be applied to anything, even music. To illustrate just how a song can reincarnate, sometimes even transcending music altogether, we turn to some other "Buddha monks" with a penchant for Eastern philosophy; enter the Wu-Tang.

Let's talk about the good old days...

"Can It Be All So Simple," the fourth single from the Wu-Tang Clan’s seminal debut, "Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)," is a testament to the many lives a song can lead. Not only has it been notably remixed, sampled, interpolated, and covered dozens of times, its influence can also be traced beyond the sphere of music into film, fashion, and even city planning. It also marks the first recorded duet featuring one of hip-hop’s most iconic duos, Ghostface Killah and Raekwon the Chef, who would go on to create another genre-defining album with RZA in the director’s chair: "Only Built 4 Cuban Linx..." But before delving into the song’s legacy, one must study its lineage.

The track’s concept and lyrics are largely motivated by a repeated two-bar vocal sample of Gladys Knight & the Pips' "The Way We Were / Try To Remember" — released on their 1974 album "I Feel A Song" and as a 7" single, incidentally on the old Buddah Records label — which serves as its chorus: "Can it be that it was all so simple then," the Empress of Soul croons. "The Way We Were" itself is a cover of the lead single from Barbra Streisand’s album of the same name, which also came out in ’74, but it was Knight’s version that would inspire the young Kung Fu flick-obsessed visionary producer and two of his street-savviest brethren from Shaolin (aka Staten Island, where Wu assembled) to create one of the three more introspective numbers on "36 Chambers" — the others being "Tearz" and, of course, "C.R.E.A.M."

While "C.R.E.A.M." details the harsh realities of growing up in an environment where the pressure of needing to make ends meet to survive can lead to self-destructive behavior, "Can It Be All So Simple" provides similar, if not more reminiscent perspectives — but also looks forward to a brighter future, resulting in an overall more hopeful and prophetic song, perfectly summarized at the end of Ghost’s verse: "The God left lessons on my dresser so I can bloom and blossom, find a new way to continue to make more hits with Rae and A."

"The God left lessons on my dresser" is most likely a reference to the teachings of the Five-Percent Nation, a popular religion among many hip-hop artists from the era and an important part of Wu-Tang's genesis, which teaches its followers that the Black man is God — and affectionately calls its disciples Gods. So, in other words, Ghost's friend left a book of Five Percenter scripture on his dresser to help him grow mentally and spiritually — leading him on a constructive path, recording music with Rae and A (the latter probably referring to the Abbot, one of RZA's many aliases).

And blossom they did, despite the album’s humble origins and intentionally unpolished sound, arguably ushering in an East Coast renaissance of raw, grimy, streetwise hip-hop and creating a legacy with an influence that can be heard across the musical spectrum today — from aesthetically-similar collectives at the forefront of art and culture like Griselda Records to pop royalty like Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber.

Kickin' the fly clichés...

"Can It Be All So Simple" alone has inspired several culturally significant records. Of course, it laid the foundation for Ghost, Rae and A to reprise the track on "Cuban Linx" — considered a landmark in the art of hip-hop storytelling, the blueprint for a generation of cinematic mafioso rap, and one of the greatest albums of all time — which included a remix of the original with an altered beat and new verses born out of Wu-Tang’s live show as they toured "36 Chambers."

"Me and Ghost used to come out to that part of the beat in the middle of the show," Rae told XXL for their May 2005 issue, celebrating his solo debut’s 10th anniversary. "RZA did a little bit of magic to it and touched it and twirled it, and Ghost basically was talking about how he got shot back in the days when he was out of town. He started going into his story rhyme shit. Back then a lot of niggas we knew was in and out of different states and cities, and you know shit could happen. So when he wrote that, I guess he was going back to the time when he got popped: 'Emergency trauma Black teen headed for surgery.' It was like he was just describing a moment."

Then, three years after "Cuban Linx," Ms. Lauryn Hill dropped her magnum opus — "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill" — featuring its second single, "Ex-Factor," which not only samples (or replays) part of the "Can It Be All So Simple" beat but also interpolates its Gladys Knight-sung chorus: "It could all be so simple..."

Fast-forward two decades, and not one but two major hits were released which respectively sample and interpolate "Ex-Factor" in the same year: Drake’s "Nice For What" and Cardi B’s "Be Careful," both released in 2018 — with the Wu-Tang members credited as songwriters on each.

Started off on the Island, aka Shaolin...

But the legacy of "Can It Be All So Simple" doesn’t end with music. A far cry from Wu-Tang's minimally-produced debut video for "Protect Ya Neck," the Hype Williams-helmed "Can It Be All So Simple" visuals juxtapose filmesque footage straight from the slums of Shaolin with scenes of the crew lampin’ at a lavish house party — and is considered the renowned "Belly" director’s mainstream breakthrough.

"That was Hype Williams' first major, major, major video," Raekwon told Complex in 2011. "Guess who was in the camera room with him?! Guess who was in the editing room with him?! But I never took credit for it. I know the stuff that I like to see. Cats walking by pouring the beer, 'Yeah, that look mean, that look like something that we need to put in there.' The kids wheelie-ing and the slow-motion effect. Hype was really paying attention to what cats had to say and how we wanted the video."

Wu-Tang's influence on the world of fashion is well documented too. Besides starting one of hip-hop’s first clothing lines, Wu-Wear, sparking a "garment renaissance" and inspiring practically every hip-hop mogul of the era to do the same — fashion-forward members like Rae were setting trends right out the gate. In the "Can It Be All So Simple" video, before it became such a highly sought-after piece for Lo Lifes and hypebeasts alike, Raekwon appears rocking the legendary red, blue, and yellow "Snow Beach" pullover and is generally credited with making it so coveted — at times fetching as much as $4,800, before it was reissued along with a whole new line of Snow Beach attire in 2018. In fact, the look is so iconic that when costume designer Marci Rodgers styled the Hulu biopic "Wu-Tang: An American Saga," she had to get her hands on an original — and eventually secured one — but apparently the parka is so popular that even the retro release wasn’t easy to come by.

"To me, that jacket wasn't a thing until Raekwon wore it," Angelo Baque, founder of Awake NY and former Supreme brand director, told GQ. "Once he wore that in the video, that solidified it as a coveted piece. At that point, people got fucked up by Lo Lifes for wearing it, and got it stolen off their backs on the A train. You couldn't just be a regular cat wearing that jacket. You became a target."

But Raekwon is no regular cat. Even the strip where the video was shot caught shine. Targee Street in the Park Hill section of Staten Island, where Rae hails from, was recently named the Wu-Tang Clan District — and a mural space on the corner of Targee and Sobel, which for a long time featured "Can It Be All So Simple" in big block letters as featured in the video, has pretty much been dedicated to the crew since it first went up in '94.

"I never saw this day coming," Ghost remarked at a street sign unveiling ceremony attended by several Wu members in 2019. "I knew we were some ill emcees, but I didn’t know that it’d take it this far."

Further testament to the timelessness of the song and group, "Can It Be All So Simple" was among several Wu-Tang classics included on kid-friendly record label Rockabye Baby's "Lullaby Renditions of Wu-Tang Clan," part of their popular children’s music series — proving that "Wu-Tang is for the children," as Ol' Dirty Bastard famously proclaimed while interrupting a Grammy acceptance speech in 1998.

And that’s just the legacy of one song. Pick any from "36 Chambers" and similar lineages can be traced. The seminal masterpiece has become an intrinsic part of the American musical canon, and its magic will continue to be relived by new listeners time and time again for generations to come; after all, Wu-Tang is forever.

Downtown proudly represents the Wu-Tang Clan catalog