Masks are more than a flashy stage gimmick for the emcee and producer MF DOOM. The iron mask, first worn by his namesake, the comic-book villain Doctor Doom, serves as the central conceit for what is now a decades-long exploration of hip hop’s more formal, structuralist elements.
DOOM raps primarily in two bar couplets, heavily coded with slang, and layers and layers of abstraction and association, as in the dizzying verses of the song “Figaro”:
You’ve all heard about The Mozart Effect, the theory that listening to classical music will “make you smarter.” Whether or not research bears this out, the Mozart Effect has become a rallying cry for music educators and is even a trademarked way to sell CDs to parents hoping their kids would eventually get high-paying jobs.
I read an article criticizing the movie Whiplash that argued its violence is over-the-top and unrealistic— the movie positions violence as part of the relationship between student and teacher. The criticism was that the relationship was so rare as to be unrealistic.
Recorded music now makes so little money that some artists have gone to a completely different business model.
Musicians are now releasing their work for free in the hopes that their music will reach the ears of someone willing to put it in a movie, or that it will help promote a live tour or merchandise sales. This is called a “Creative Commons License,” and it grants everyone the right to freely distribute the work, provided they don’t sell, alter or claim it as their own.
One of the primary topics emcees rap about, aside from their own skill on the microphone, is hip hop itself—the music, the fashion, what hip hop is and what it isn’t.
It’s a tautology that, as far as I can tell, is practically non-existent in other forms of music. Rock and roll dabbles in the occasional self reference, but the act is nearly compulsory in hip hop. If every emcee’s first verse is about how amazing they are, their second verse is about how much they love hip hop.
In Walt Whitman’s poem “I Hear America Singing”, he writes of “the varied carols” he hears, ”each singing what belongs to him or her, and to none else/Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs”.
Led Zeppelin was one of a wave of British bands enamored with American delta blues, and they covered a large number of blues artists like Robert Johnson and Willie Dixon.
“Borrowing” songs from someone else is part of the blues tradition, but Led Zeppelin might have taken things too far. They have already been sued in the past for plagiarising Howlin’ Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson. Now, they find themselves in court again, this time over the authorship of the band’s colossus, "Stairway to Heaven," a song that has earned more than half a billion dollars.
This is Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, from 1979-- the year I was born, and six years after DJ Kool Herc invented the breakbeat. As one of the first hip hop records, it’s emblematic of a lot of early rap music: it’s a long track and the emcees throw in pretty much every rhyme in the book. At that point, hip hop was still largely party music, with rappers functioning primarily as boosters for the deejay.