A band composition with lyrics by lead singer Brad Nowell, this song is an anthem for the spiritually free but financially downtrodden. Nowell finds himself getting up in the morning, smoking his special cigarette, and wondering how he ended up broke. Then things start to look up as he reframes his life and sees all the good things about it: he has a dog, he can get high, and he's never gone to war. Instead of focusing on what he doesn't have (money) he sees what he does have (love), and realizes that's all he needs if he can keep a good attitude and not let problems bring him down. The song became far more poignant when Nowell died of a drug overdose on May 25, 1996.
Many elements of this song, including the "Loving, is what I got" chorus, are based on a 1986 song called "Loving" by the Jamaican dancehall singer Half Pint (which can be found on the Skunk Records release of his album Recollection
). At first, Sublime didn't share the love - Half Pint got no credit on "What I Got" when the song was released. Once the song took off, however, Half Pint was listed as a co-writer and awarded the subsequent royalties. It ended up all good; Sublime bass player Eric Wilson explained in his Songfacts interview
: "Half Pint wanted to get paid for it, so then we got a relationship through that, and when we did the Dub Allstars, Half Pint went on the road with us for a summer, and I got to know him really well and play with him every day. That was a blessing in itself."
This song is key to Sublime's success - the first one all but their earliest fans heard. It has a strange an convoluted recording and release history, spanning two producers and two labels.
The first version of the song was released in America as a 12" single in 1996 on Sublime's independent label, Skunk Records. It's likely that this single was issued before Nowell died. When the band signed to MCA Records, two versions were included on their self-titled label debut album, which was released two months after Nowell's passing: one produced by David Kahne, and a "reprise" produced by Paul Leary. MCA sent these two versions, along with their "clean" edits to radio stations, many of which put the song in rotation (usually the Kahne version). In October, the song made #29 on the Billboard Airplay chart. MCA didn't release Sublime singles for sale, but kept sending them to radio stations: "Santeria" (#43, April 1997), "Wrong Way" (#47, August 1997), "Doin' Time" (#87, January 1998). Securing airplay for an unknown band without a living lead singer was no small feat, especially since radio stations often expected acts to make station appearances and play listener showcases in exchange for airplay.
The album became one of the best sellers of 1997, with over 5 million copies sold. Many fans had no idea that their lead singer had died - Brad Nowell's father Jim recalls getting lots of fanmail for his son around this time.
Sublimes back catalog also started selling, with their first album, originally released in 1992, going Platinum. The remaining members of Sublime formed the Long Beach Dub Allstars, which later morphed into Sublime With Rome when they took on lead singer Rome Ramirez.
After Brad Nowell sings, "I can play the guitar like a motherf--king riot," instead of gnarly guitar section, a mellow acoustic solo follows. This is a sly bit of humor on the part of the band.
Nowell didn't even play the solo; it was performed by their guitarist Michael "Miguel" Happoldt, who produced the demo. In the "reprise" version, producer Paul Leary, who is a founding member of the Butthole Surfers, played the electric guitar solo.
The radio edits were labeled "very clean radio version" on the promotional CDs, since the explicit versions contain some very clear F-bombs. In the most-played edit, Brad Nowell plays the guitar "like a mother... riot."
There's a widely disputed "lyric" at the beginning of the original version of this song that exists in the commercially released versions but is toned down, possibly for copyright issues. Before the music starts, someone says what sounds like "F--k you Kenny." This is in fact a sample from Richard Pryor's standup comedy album That Nigger's Crazy, track name "Have your ass home by 11" where he says, imitating a girl who wouldn't sleep with him, "I don't want to f--k you, you can't even sing!" Pryor was talking about how musicians had a hard time picking up women in his day because there were Doo-Wop groups on every corner. (thanks, Matt Maguire - Watertown, MA)
According to the band's guitarist Michael Happoldt, it's the drum loop that makes this song so popular. "It sounds so dope that when people hear it, they just want to get up and jump around," he told Billboard. "And Brad's voice is like from another planet."
In the UK, the "Super No Mofo Edit" (produced by David Kahne) was released as a single, charting at #71 in 1997.
A music video was pieced together after the death of Brad Nowell from photos and existing footage of the singer. It won the MTV Video Music Award for Best Alternative Video in 1997. At the ceremony, Sublime bassist Eric Wilson and drummer Bud Gaugh were pretty drunk by the time they were announced, and Wilson yelled "Lynyrd Skynyrd!" when he got to the mic.
Wilson and Gaugh later explained that they figured they wouldn't win, so they decided to celebrate the nomination by splitting a bottle of tequila before the show.
Blues Traveler started covering this in 2011 and released their version on their 2012 collection Blues Traveler: 25. Their guitarist Chan Kinchla told us: "We actually played a show with a band, Rebelution, who are managed by and related to some of the people that were in Sublime. They always loved the track, and that was kind of in the air, and they were like, 'You should record that and release it.' Because we did the best cover of it. Mainly because we didn't really try and copy their cover, we did our own version, which I think is why they liked it."
Chan adds that the song suited the band, especially their lead singer John Popper: "John's great at that kind of quick vocal scan anyway. And when you release a new record, you always want to put a few new things on it, and it just came together."