WITH ITS ADULT AND EXPLICIT CONTENT, RAP MUSIC HAS HAD A LONG AND UNLIKELY BOND WITH CARTOONS.
Words by Lily Mercer
In the nineties, RnB and rap music went sentimental. With samples from Annie appearing in Jay Z songs and a Rugrats Movie soundtrack including Blackstreet, an unexpected crossover was taking place. Hip hop artists ran with it, including Busta Rhymes and Missy Elliot. The trend continued throughout the nineties, right up until 2012 when Kendrick Lamar released his definitive track, ‘Cartoons and Cereal’ featuring Gunplay. The song details the innocence of childhood, alongside the fear and danger of growing up in gang territory. With several references to cartoons, it’s a song with enough nostalgia to be familiar, but so much personal identity it’s refreshing. Over mimicked gunshots, Kendrick name-checks Bugs Bunny, Scrooge McDuck, Wile E. Coyote and Dark Wing Duck.
When discussing rap songs that reference cartoons, there’s one that stands tall among the rest. That song is Ghostface Killah’s ‘The Forest’. Produced by Alchemist, the track is a psychedelic romp through the history of American cartoons, referencing old and new. Ghost’s no stranger to ‘toons, rapping over an MF DOOM beat on ‘Underwater’, he casually throws in a reference to the world’s favourite sponge: “She quoted I took notice, SpongeBob in the Bentley Coupe.” On ‘Outta Town Shit’ , he again referenced him saying someone had a “Face like SpongeBob.” Lil B paid homage as well, on ‘Breathe Slow’ when he said: “I’m SpongeBob SquarePants, I’m strapped with the heater.” The Based God continued the Nickelodeon theme with a freestyle entitled, ‘Swag Like Dora’, showing references spread deep into the world of animation.
It seems SpongeBob is one of the most mentioned cartoons in rap culture, having been name checked by everyone from Meek Mill to Childish Gambino. Even the UK’s Grime scene has taken note of life as SpongeBob SquarePants with C4’s insightful insult, “You man are drier than SpongeBob when he’s at Sandy’s house” on Lay-Z’s ‘Pride’, produced by Preditah. Prince Paul went a step further and contributed a song for the film’s soundtrack, ‘Prince Paul’s Bubble Party’, a pop track detailing Patrick the Starfish learning to blow bubbles. Unfortunately his mellow mix of the SpongeBob SquarePants theme song didn’t make the cut.
A recent collaboration with Ice Cream brought Bob back into the spotlight, as his wide eyes and square pants appear on a line of T-shirts, hoodies and more. The collaboration comes as no surprise, since Pharrell’s been rocking a SpongeBob chain for a few years now. The super rare lego Bwoywonder piece is rarely seen but is bigger than his head. Just as rare, his friend Nigo is known to have a SpongeBob chain with a moving arm. Their mutual love for the yellow superstar has led to a number of streetwear collaborations for the cartoon character.
Prior to Ice Cream’s recent capsule collection, A Bathing Ape released the patent yellow Bapesta in 2007 and Pharrell was later seen in a custom-made crocodile pair. In 2008, Bape expanded the collection to include a range of tees with SpongeBob and his starfish homie, Patrick. SpongeBob has infiltrated many avenues outside of children’s TV, including art and fashion. Artist Mike Frederiqo’s collection of tees depicts a range of cultural icons in sponge version, including Pharrell who appears wearing a NERD belt and hugging the SpongeBob toe socks he’s expressed love for in several interviews.
When considering the history of cartoon characters in streetwear, it’s important to pay homage to Iceberg History who defined an era of fashion with their cartoon emblazoned clothing. Iceberg’s designer, Jean-Charles de Castelbajac, is a master of animated design, having featured timeless cartoon characters like Sylvester the Cat and Popeye. With cartoon characters emblazoned across Iceberg’s T-shirts and denim, the clothes were adopted by rappers like Jay Z and Pimp C. The machismo nature of rap music makes it an unlikely backdrop for animated characters but the nineties saw the two interact in a way we’d never seen before. The innocence of children’s entertainment, and the blatant aggression of rap music are beautifully oxymoronic.
For many people in their twenties, Space Jam was the definitive film for merging rap and cartoon icons. The soundtrack, featuring Busta Rhymes, LL Cool J and B-Real, was the first exposure to the genre for many kids at the time. Bugs Bunny even spits a verse – a full on collision between the two worlds. The verse is credited to Shawn Carter a.k.a. Jay Z. Boasting lines like “Who says the bunny can’t rhyme, you’re buggin’/ If Bugs don’t make you hop, you’re buggin’” and “I’m a bunny, right? All we do is hip-hop.” he raps mildly off beat to an eerie, mock-rap instrumental. Following on from his solo rap record, Bugs Bunny has stayed in other people’s mouths. Pause. Paul Wall has one of the most memorable references: “Say “cheese” and show my fronts, it’s more karats than Bugs Bunny’s lunch.”
Another of the most memorable Looney Tunes references in rap came from Wu-Tang Clan’s Method Man on his self-titled anthem: “Hold up, I tawt I taw I putty cat / Over there, but I think he best to beware.” Meth began his references to animation on ‘36 Chambers’ with: “We form like Voltron, and GZA happen to be the head.” A slightly more grown-up reference out of the Wu-Tang camp, Raekwon also stated on the track ‘Shame on a Nigga’, “So, when you see me on the real, forming like Voltron.”
The same generation that learned about beat-riding and flow from Bugs grew up to appreciate more adult themes with Beavis and Butthead, a cartoon adult enough to be liberally enjoyed by fans familiar with Parental Advisory stickers on their purchases. One of the coolest rappers of the era, Big L had no shame when it came to referencing the animated stoners: “Ask Beavis, I get nothing Butthead.”
When stepping into the more adult side of animated rap references, there’s no avoiding MF DOOM. With more superhero references than Marvel back issues, DOOM has established his territory. His friendship with Ghostface, a.k.a. Tony Starks, led to an inundation of rap-animation puns. When discussing DOOM, it’s hard to think of a song that doesn’t feature a reference to a legendary comic book hero. Though it’s possible to write a dissertation on super hero references in rap, this brief essay seeks to simply explore the cartoon side of animation.
Likewise, Pokémon and Dragon Ball Z are equally popular in hip hop, both Robb Bank$ and Danny Brown’s lyrics are littered with references to the cult anime series’. Brown’s lyric on ‘Shooting Moves’ is a great example as he compares his weed to Goku, rapping: “Smoking on some Goku, buds like Dragon Balls.” More recent addition, Adventure Time, deserves a special shout out for infiltrating rap culture in record time. As Tyler, the Creator said, “We can begin the pretend game. I wanna be Finn from Adventure Time.” Don’t we all Tyler, don’t we all.
Originally published in Viper Magazine’s Spring 2014 issue.