Mos Def’s “Quiet Dog”, from his 2009 LP The Ecstatic, was first and foremost the party-starter of the year–but SECOND and not quite to the fore, it was a total old-skool throwback. I say this not just because Mr. Def quotes two lines from the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” thow that’s the obvious giveaway, but also because his entire rap springs from those lines like water from Moses’s stones. Like a good old-skoolchild, he doesn’t cuss. But the real fingerprints are rhythmic.
Mr. Def opens with a variation on the “up jumps the boogie” chant and closes with an extrapolation of the line “ya don’t stop the rock.” Their rhythmic characteristics are similar, so we’ll focus on the first. (Incidentally, for some family fun, if you rap “Quiet Dog” over the Chic bassline from “Rapper’s Delight,” it fits.) Here’s Sugarhill’s “up jumps the boogie” line, flowtated:
BANG.BANG.BOOgieSAIDup / *jump*thaBOOgieTOthe / RHYthmOFtheBOOgieTHEbeat / —
And here’s Mr. Def’s virtually identical take on same:
BANG_TOtheBOOgieSAYup / *jump*theBOOgieTOthe / RHYthmOFtheBOOgieTObe / —
This line has a couple noteworthy characteristics, which Mr. Def will fully exploit during the course of his “boogie to be.”
First! Notice in the first two measures how we contrast strong unsyncopated syllables occurring ON THE BEAT with strong syncopated syllables occurring off the beat. That is, Sugarhill’s “BANG.BANG.BOOgie” and Def’s “BANG_TOtheBOOgie” contrast with the second bar’s “up / *jump*thaBOOgie”. This contrast forms the basis of Def’s first flow pattern, which he uses for all of verse 1 and for a couple lines near the beginning of verse 2, only transposed to the second halves of the bars:
SIM_PLEthePLAIN_NESS_ / PROmiNENTbas–ic–zu /
–lu–arRANGE_MENT_ / ROCKin’Amaze–ment–fly /
So “PLAIN_NESS_” and “RANGE_MENT_” are on the beat (“BANG.BANG.”), while their rhymes “bas–ic–” and “maze–ment–” are off the beat (“up*jump*”). I should note that the horizontal lines (_ and –) in Def’s rap simply indicate that he’s flowing more legato than the staccato Sugarhills, whose breaks are indicated by dots (. and *). I should also note that, for purposes of comparison, if you offset Mr. Def’s barlines half a measure, you’ll see that his unsyncopated/syncopated flow pattern corresponds neatly to the germinal “up jump the boogie” line:
PLAIN_NESS_PROmiNENTbas / –ic–zu
RANGE_MENT_ROCKin’Amaze / –ment–fly
BANG_TOtheBOOgieSAYup / *jump*the
Second! The characteristic syncopation of Sugarhill’s “tha / BOOgieTOtheRHYthmOFthe / BOOgieTHEbeat–” is caused by a run of syllables ending on an offbeat, which imbues the final offbeat with an unusual implicit stress. See, for example, “Quiet Dog”‘s first verse, the first four lines, second half of each line:
As Mr. Def proceeds, we get longer syllabic runs, most of which end on offbeats, culminating at the end of verse 1 with my favorite (I keep reciting it around Zack, he keeps yelling at me):
*laDIESandGENTleMEN_ / MIStasANDmisTRESes–. /
COUSinsOTHerANToANDsyn / Onyms–
This passage combines the two key rhythmic characteristics. “GENTleMEN_ / MIStasANDmisTRESes–” is our “BANG.BANG.BOOgie” line, contrasting rhyming ONBEAT and offbeat syllables. “COUSinsOTHerANToANDsyn / Onyms–” is our “RHYthmOFtheBOOgieTObe” line, ending a run of syllables on an offbeat. Whoa, now! That’s just Mos Def testing your equilibrium!
In verse 2, Mr. Def introduces a new four-bar flow pattern with the lines:
DUDES_AIN’T_THROWin’THEYyawn / –in’*theyNEEDtoGEToff
–it–soWACK.RAPis / ALLyouCANcall–it*there /
He rhymes “yawnin'” (end of beat 4 in bar 1) and “off it” (end of beat 4 in bar 2), and then postpones the next rhyme, “call it,” by two beats, so it’s at the end of beat 2 in the fourth bar. Since all three rhymes occur on offbeats, we’re into different flow territory than before, when he was contrasting rhyming ONBEATS and offbeats.
He’s still playing with ONBEATS and offbeats, though, just unrhymed ones. Dig the configuration. You could theoretically replace the above two lines (“dudes ain’t throwin'” etc…) with this:
BANG_TOtheBOOgieSAYup / *jump*theBOOgieSAYup /
*jump*theBANG_TOthe / BOOgieSAYup*jump*. /
So the rhymes, in the position of “up*jump”, fall after four beats, after three beats, and after five beats–and you can feel the extra length in each ultimate rhymed line. This allows Mr. Def to play with longer syllabic runs as he closes out his four-bar patterns (ENgineLIKEi / ROLLoutTHEsta–tion). I don’t know my poetics, but there’s probably some technical term for this kind of tension-building rhythmic pattern.
I situate this song in the old-skool because of Def’s “sung” flow. Sung style, according to rap theorist Adam Krims, exhibits “rhythmic repetition, on-beat accents, regular on-beat pauses, and strict couplet groupings.” Krims’s book, Rap Music and the Poetics of Identity, is likely to be useful to The Flowtation Device at some point. His other flow types are “speech-effusive,” typified by Wu-Tang, and “percussion-effusive,” typified by Outkast–but all we need to know here is that the “sung” stuff is old-skool. Of course, the fact that Def is quoting and building on Sugarhill rhymes kind of makes that point painfully obvious. It’ll be interesting to see what a percussion-effusive (I think) rapper like Busta Rhymes does when HE interpolates a Sugarhill song, as in “Woo-Hah!! Got You All In Check”.
Until then, dig this song like there’s no tomorrow, because it is beautiful.
(Originally posted 9/23/09.)