John Legend Song for 'Django Unchained' Is 'About Retribution'

Singer pitched director Quentin Tarantino with a cassette tape

John Legend performs in Hollywood.
Michael Buckner/Getty Images for The Painted Turtle Camp
December 21, 2012 11:25 AM ET

John Legend was holed up in a London recording studio with Paul Epworth, at work on his next album (due in May), when he was inspired to pen a song for Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained soundtrack. 

"I had been reading about the film, very early on when it was in development, and I knew I wanted to write something for it," Legend told Rolling Stone. "But he didn't ask me to write it.

Still, Django's soundtrack is the first time Tarantino has collaborated with artists to produce original songs for a film. The list includes tracks by Jamie Foxx and Rick Ross, Anthony Hamilton and Elayna Boynton, Ennio Morricone and Elisa, and a James Brown and Tupac mashup, plus a smattering of archive-dives (like one from Jim Croce) that come from the director's own collection, complete with pops and scratches.

James Brown and 2Pac, 'Unchained ('The Payback'/'Untouchable') – Song Premiere

"When word got out what the movie was about, we discovered that it was actually inspiring artists to write songs with soul that underscored the love story and the revenge story," Django's music supervisor, Mary Ramos, said by email.

Foxx brought Ross to the set to write "100 Coffins," Hamilton and Boynton were inspired by the trailers, and Ramos' crew dug through the Tupac vaults and teamed up with the James Brown estate to produce a new song. Frank Ocean even wrote what Tarantino called "a fantastic ballad," but it didn't work with the film's final cut.

"There just wasn't a scene where it could be really featured," Ramos said. "Quentin didn't want to cheapen the song by just shoehorning it in, and wouldn't use it unless it could be really be heard, and used effectively to really amplify the emotional content of a scene."

In Legend's sweaty, soulful "Who Did That to You," hardcore R&B fans will recognize the grimy, funky lead-in from the Mighty Hannibal's 1967 single "The Right to Love You."

"The samples and different musical elements that Paul was bringing in, it just felt like we were in a creative space to create something that would be cool for Quentin," Legend said. "The sample had some of the flavor of the kind of music that I associate with Tarantino movies. It's really cool, it's almost campy, and it's got a sort of vintage to it."

Over a down-home organ groove, Legend offers a darker, grittier take than we usually hear from the silky crooner, vowing,  "My wrath will come down like the cold rain and there won't be no shelter, no place you can go."

"The writing is pretty straightforward, and it is pretty spot-on in terms of the themes of the film," Legend said. "It's about retribution, it's about avenging your lover's honor, it's about a desire to find your love and exact retribution on whoever harmed her, which obviously fits perfectly with the plot of Django." (Foxx told Ross to rap about the same ideas for "100 Black Coffins.")

"A lot of my undergrad studies were about reading about American history and African American history, and America's long struggle with racism and how we deal with race and how important that struggle has been to the forming of this country," said Legend, a University of Pennsylvania grad. "These are things that I have thought about for years."

But in Hollywood, what's a good idea without an angle? "We heard from an inside source that [Tarantino] really likes listening to music on cassette in his car," Legend said. "So we converted the digital material into a cassette and I wrote him a note and I said, 'I wrote this song for your film, wanted to know if you would use it.'"

At last week's premiere, the technophobic Tarantino told a packed house at the Ziegfeld in New York, he received the tape with two months left in the shoot. "If I had gotten a link or something to plug into my computer, I would have thrown that shit away, because I don't know how to do that shit, but I got a cassette tape, and that I know how to play." The director ended up deploying the song in one of the film's most climatic scenes.

When Legend saw the completed film for the first time recently, he was pleased to find "they used it as a central narrative thrust of the film. He's on the horse and heading in back to the plantation, to get his girl. It's all building up to the goal that Django has of liberating his wife and exacting revenge on whoever was in the way of that happening. And as he was gearing up to do that, the song comes on and he's here to exact retribution."

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

Music Main Next

blog comments powered by Disqus
Around the Web
Powered By ZergNet
Daily Newsletter

Get the latest RS news in your inbox.

Sign up to receive the Rolling Stone newsletter and special offers from RS and its
marketing partners.


We may use your e-mail address to send you the newsletter and offers that may interest you, on behalf of Rolling Stone and its partners. For more information please read our Privacy Policy.

Song Stories

“Hungry Like the Wolf”

Duran Duran | 1982

This indulgent New Romantic group generated their first U.S. hit with the help of what was at the time new technology. "Simon [Le Bon] and I, I think, had been out the night before and had this terrible hangover," said keyboardist Nick Rhodes. "For some reason we were feeling guilty about it and decided to go and do some work." Rhodes started playing with his Jupiter-8 synth, and then "Simon had an idea for a lyric, and by lunchtime when everyone else turned up, we pretty much had the song." The Simmons drumbeat was equally important to the sound of "Hungry Like the Wolf," as Duran Duran drummer Roger Taylor stated it "kind of defined the drum sound for the Eighties."

More Song Stories entries »