The recent death of The Beastie Boys’ MCA (my favorite MC of the group) has had me thinking a lot about what made them so great. As the story has been told, The Beasties had started as a hardcore punk outfit and after experimentation in many genres, found the most enthusiastic response from was when they did hip-hop. Now, why would three nerdy guys from New York be praised for their efforts in rap? My guess is their humor, the backbone of their charisma.
Charisma is perhaps one of the most prominent things in hip-hop, non-sound related. Think about it, DOOM is introspective and bizarre, Drake is emotional and depressed, Lil’ Wayne is an alien and Rick Ross is an escapist, but they all use their charisma to advance their agendas. Without charisma, we would find it weird that DOOM spontaneously references Leela from “Futurama” or that Drake claims fame, money and women are some of the worst things that have happened to him. Rappers (when strictly rapping) do not have the power of pitch to hook the audience, just an exaggerated speaking voice, so charisma is the way they draw them in. The Beasties clearly realized their goofy and often outlandish sense of humor lent to a cheeky yet genuine bravado. They realized how humor makes almost everything more interesting.
Take Action Bronson, who on Blue Chips used humor to make the boring seem interesting and swaggerful. The opener “Pouches of Tuna (Feat. Roc Marciano)” had the standout line “Eating tacos, higher than an opera note”. While goofy and far from deep, it is a perfectly constructed phrase. The simple point he is trying to make is, “I was high and eating a taco”, something you see any deadbeat doing in Taco Bells® nationwide. However he used the clever metaphor of how opera is known for it’s soaring and beautiful sopranos. Right there he implies to him it is a wonderful and deep state of mind he is in. Partnered with the blunt image of the big man eating a taco (usually quite messy), it lends to the surprise beauty in the punch-line. Then after taking a step back you realize yet again, that all he is talking about being high eating a taco, not some beautiful yet simple experience. He also does this in seven words. There sure is a show of command.
On My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye West shows how humor can make one seem even more endearing as the wounded hero confronting your inner demons. The song “Dark Fantasy”, West lays out the ground rules for the record, hinting at being dismayed with the world around him and to unstable to admit some of it is his fault. As the viewer fears what West might hypothetically do to the world around him to right what he sees as wrong, he utters the phrase “too many Urkels on your team / that’s why you’re Winslow”. Now, with the insane amount of meanings one can take out of it, (the main being a reference to the two “Family Matters” characters, with Winslow double meaning of “win’s low”) West has shown an insane level of cleverness. The creativeness lends to a sense of power making him more terrifying. All with the power (hehe) of humor.
During a hot streak of great mixtapes and albums, Lil’ Wayne released Da Drought 3, which many praise as his best work. The mixtape primarily consists of Lil’ Wayne performing many impressive verses of beats by other rappers, providing a fresh, new and odd take on all of them. In my last post I had compared impressive lines to soloists in Jazz, a comparison that works perfectly here. The song “Upgrade” is, like all the other tracks, a stream of consciousness rant about a lot of things but, mostly how Lil’ Wayne thinks he is the best. Now while this is tremendously shallow, the technicality and deep intricacies of the rhymes are what keeps the public coming back. A great example is after what seems like a long and steady verse, he ties it all up with “I’m a monster, everyday is Halloween”. The joke is quite obvious, but it is clever, especially as a “PS” to everything said before it. The solid and well realized, comedic sensibility of the line creates a very similar feeling in the listener to when a Jazz musician slapping the end of his solo with a well constructed, musical and technically impressive line. There is an energy and “of-the-cuffness” that lends it’s presence to the release humor provides, especially after the tension of steady and consistent build up.
With many rappers realizing the power of humor in creating an aura of charisma, it is clear to see it can be a very powerful tool. The Beasties would employ it often, get us hooked and take us anywhere they wanted. Without our attention and admiration being developed with goofy songs like “Eggman”, we would not have listened when they informed us “Something’s Got to Give”. Humor is a powerful stepping-stone to lead into larger points for any performer’s agenda.