Below is the “paper” I “gave” at EMP and IASPM last month. Longtime readers may notice samples from things I’ve written here and there, and I should note — apologize even — that this is, as one might expect, the awfully cursory sort of overview that a mere 20 minutes and about as many musical examples (barely) permits. Do read the following, then, as but a draft of a more measured, more textured cultural and social history — a zigzagging story about the migrations and manifestations of a well-traveled musical figure. As always, I appreciate all the helpful & encouraging feedback I’ve received, my dear readers, colleagues, and interlocutors (e.g., here and here). Your words and ideas and mp3-shares echo through these stories I’m spinning, as I hope you can hear, and no doubt they’ll continue to reverberate. But without further ado —
Follow Me Now: The Zigzagging Zunguzung Meme
by Wayne Marshall (April 07)
What can we learn about hip-hop and reggae, about the US and Jamaica, about race and nation and place and migration, about music, from the movements of a musical meme? To put it more concretely, what might Mos Def mean when he says, at the beginning of Black Star’s 1998 lead single, “Definition” —
We might be tempted to dismiss Mos Def’s accented invitation — “follow me now” — as a bit of ethnic filigree, especially in a moment — the late 90s — when the sounds and images of Jamaica, including Bounty Killer’s signature “Lawdamercy,” had accrued as much cultural cache as ever, offering alluring mirror-mirror images of black heroes and gangsters and lovers and sufferers, as vividly portrayed, for example — perhaps too vividly — in the contemporary Hype Williams feature, Belly. And especially in a place like Brooklyn, a place which had been deeply reshaped by Jamaicans in the last few decades of the 20th century. We might be tempted, then, to ignore such accents, such foreign but familiar phrases. Why take Mos Def at his word when so many other MCs, across the boroughs and further afield, have often donned the trappings of Jamaicanness, often via some cliché or other? The melody that directly follows the call to follow, however, compels us to attend a little more closely. When we’re asked in this manner, implored even, to follow Mos Def, it’s not simply to follow his lyrics and flow, impeccable and engaging as they may be, it is also to follow him in song.
Like any torch bearer of tradition, Mos Def expects that we’re noting, or at least feeling, the deep degree of intertextuality at work in the song, an articulation of texts and times and places enabled by a set of indexical musical figures. Mobilizing the power of musical memory, he invokes two well-worn late 80s hip-hop melodies, both of them associated with seminal recordings by Boogie Down Productions — and both from tracks which themselves sampled and adapted other resonant melodies infusing the New York soundscape. Black Star deploy such familiar figures in mourning and in warning. They bemoan the violence that had recently claimed the lives of two of the genre’s shining stars, Tupac and Biggie — two rappers who themselves, in memorable, widely-heard recordings, alluded to the same melody that Mos Def connects to KRS-One.
As with dead prez’s resonant, radical use of the riff shortly thereafter —
— Black Star’s homage to BDP’s “Remix for P Is Free” on a song addressing the deaths of Biggie and Tupac thus represents more than a capricious, if canny choice in the service of what otherwise might be taken for a little resonant retrofitting. For a lot of hip-hop artists and aficionados, BDP’s Criminal Minded stands as foundational — as the first, or at least loudest, shot fired in the gangsta rap revolution, and hence as responsible, in part, for pushing the genre into a realm of Scorcese-noir crack-rap, offering the kind of bleak, brutal, and often cartoonish stylings (in spite of constant claims to the real), which remain central to hip-hop today and which seemed to spin out of control in the late 90s, culminating in a stunning set of events whereby life appeared to imitate art.
On De La Soul’s 1996 album Stakes Is High, which at times approaches a similar attempt at downright, downhome intervention as Black Star’s debut, the group sets the tone by opening with a collage of interview fragments, as various respondents recount the first time they heard Criminal Minded, framing the album’s 1987 release as a kind of Kennedy Assassination for the genre — a singular, unforgettable, transformative event, marking a new and less innocent era. Notably, while foreshadowing the album’s sad and sardonic critique, the skit takes on a celebratory, nostalgic tone —
One of the voices we hear here is Mos Def’s. And the warmth in his recollection is revealing. Black Star’s invocation of Boogie Down Productions’ melody is not a cynical move. It’s a tribute — radical but reverent. And it propels itself and projects its meanings by channeling not just hip-hop’s past, but the contemporary sound of New York, a sound which, strikingly, can be represented at this point — “to the fullest,” we might add, nodding to B.I.G. — in such a creole tongue.
If this seems striking in 1998, how striking then that Black Star’s “Definition” essentially covers a track that had been recorded, if in another borough, over a decade before? To put it more directly and suggestively, isn’t it remarkable that as early as 1987, Boogie Down Productions could represent the Bronx with such a Jamaican voice — the same Bronx, mind you, where a decade before they were throwing Jamaicans into garbage cans (to paraphrase Kool Herc via Jeff Chang) — and, moreover, represent it in such a manner at a time of intense, interborough rap rivalry, as in the feud between BDP and Queensbridge’s Juice Crew. But there’s little question about the success of such a sonic strategy: KRS-One’s posse-inflected, rude bwoy / b-boy stance and dancehall-derived routines were clearly working, and doing no little cultural work in the process. His recycling of the tune but a year later suggests that it struck a chord:
The resonance of such sounds bears witness to a seismic social and cultural shift in New York City during the 80s and 90s, a product of continuing migration from Jamaica as well as the coming of age of many second-generation Jamaican-Americans. Orlando Patterson describes the surprisingly slow, if perhaps inevitable, cultural shift that followed on the heels of these changes in New York’s social fabric — a reshaping of the city’s demographic profile which has been examined extensively by sociologists such as Mary Waters and Philip Kasinitz. Patterson writes,
Reggae spread to the United States as a result of a second mass migration of the Jamaican working class [the first was to England], which began with the liberalization of American immigration laws in the early 1960s. A new kind of West Indian migrant now entered America, not the relatively well-educated, highly motivated petty-bourgeois migrants of previous generations, but the working-class and lumpen-proletarian people from the Kingston slums. Eventually, the reggae music these new migrants brought over with them, along with their disk jockeys and dance halls (as well as their gangs, the notorious posses), were to influence black American youth, but what is interesting is how long it took to do so.
A recording like Criminal Minded, so replete with references to reggae, would seem to offer some confirmation of this cultural process reaching a critical stage, though, in circular fashion, it may also have played no little role in further promoting the already quite fearsome profile of Jamaicans in New York — a reputation largely earned by the ruthlessness of the posses, drug- and gun-running gangs loosed from their ties to Jamaican political patronage by the cocaine trade. Though their reputation was in many ways deserved, as Laurie Gunst details in Born fi Dead, the images of savage, black foreigners were eagerly taken up by the press and eventually by Hollywood, leading to such arch villains as Screwface, the dreadlocked, cannibalistic, psychopathic foil to Steven Segal in Marked for Death, never mind the dreadlock- and mesh-marina-sporting alien in Predator, who, lest one suspect this reading a stretch, actually squares off against dreadlock-wearing Jamaican posse members, representing — one can only surmise — yet another form of invasive, predatory alien, in the Danny Glover-starring sequel to Schwarzenegger’s box-office hit.
In stark contrast to the threat of harassment that beset Jamaicans in the early 70s, the powerful, new significations of Jamaicanness in the 1980s could be a young immigrant’s saving grace. In his memoir, Gunshots In My Cook-Up, Guyanese-born hip-hop journalist Selwyn Seyfu Hinds recalls getting into a confrontation one night while walking through the streets of Brooklyn. As he and his friends are surrounded by a menacing group of teenagers, he decides on a telling strategy to evade a beat-down: “I was scared shitless,” he recounts,
The kind of fear when your Adam’s apple swells up and seems liable to burst out your throat. So I did what most recently arrived Caribbean kids in that era would do in such a situation . . . I began talking with a Jamaican accent.
‘Wha ya deal wit? Mi nah wan no trouble, seen?’
See, Jamaicans had a rep in those days. Still do. Jamaican kids in Brooklyn were thought of as fearsome, aggressive, not to be fucked with lightly. For the rest of us Caribbean folk, donning the trappings of that reputation when convenient was a welcome ability.
In a similar fashion, employing Jamaican language, reggae melodies, and the battle style of Jamaican soundsystems represented an explicit, and fairly successful, aesthetic choice — a musical-cultural tactic — for a young KRS-One seeking to distinguish himself and his crew from rival rappers. As he tells it (to Brian Coleman):
Oh, man, the damage we used to inflict on these groups, it was just crazy. We’d go into these clubs and they’d set up the battle and I would just start rhyming, and it wasn’t just the Jamaican lyrics. It was how we battled. We battled like a Jamaican sound system. You played one record, then you’d rewind, and the crowd would go crazy.
One borrowed sonic weapon among many, the distinctive little melody that propels “Remix for P” would have offered charged connotations to borough audiences. The tuneful couplet that imbues “Remix for P” with some of its cool and deadly, cocky swagger, was by that point a well-established melodic resource in dancehall reggae. By mid-decade, it had underpinned choruses and allusive interjections in a number of recordings — including several songs which were, in so many words, international hits (at least in that they were played in nightclubs in New York, London, Miami and other centers of Jamaican migration). At the musical and social events where KRS-One no doubt honed his Jamaican accent in an ironic reversal of Kool Herc’s attempts at assimilation and translation a decade before, the young MC would have heard any number of dancehall artists recycling the recognizable phrase — or versioning it, as they say in Jamaica. By 1985, the short, singsong melody had already animated performances by Super Cat, Frankie Paul, Ranking Toyan, Sister Nancy, and, of course, Yellowman, who, despite his proclivity for t(h)iefing melodies, as they also say in Jamaica, appears — at least to my searching ears — to have been the first to put it on wax. (Note that King Yellow changes the contour of the tune on the live version from an AA to an AB, the form which most subsequent rehearsals take).
Quite closely related to New York hip-hop’s engagement with the sounds of Jamaica, an engagement bearing witness to a cultural currency tied to social shifts in the city, Puerto Rican hip-hop producers and vocalists also increasingly incorporated reggae riddims and melodies into their own productions and performances. The embrace of reggae in Puerto Rico, today marketed to the American mainstream and the world (and especially to pan-Latin audiences) as reggaeton, originally could be heard informing a similar sort of cultural politics as we note in New York.
Sometimes called melaza, or molasses (signifying as sugar does), sometimes called underground (marking its economic position as well as a connection to hip-hop), and sometimes called dembow (after the Shabba Ranks song that producers such as Playero and DJ Negro jacked for beat after beat), Puerto Rico’s rap-reggae fusion, especially in the mid-90s, was also promoted, in song, as música negra, as black music — no small statement in a place that identifies as 80% “white” on the US census. The blackness of Puerto Rican reggae-rap was not only proclaimed by vocalists representing, “en la casa / para la raza,” but was expressed indexically via direct musical quotations. In addition to producers sampling the hip-hop and dancehall hits of the day for their dense, collage-like pistas or tracks, Puerto Rican vocalists made their own musical connections by reworking the same well-worn melodic contours that appealed to Super Cat and Sister Nancy, Buju Banton and Bounty Killer, as well as KRS-One. That the Zunguzung meme could be found in several seminal hip-hop tracks only affirmed its resonance in this sense, especially among Nuyoricans —
Hence we might hear the invocation of Yellowman’s melody in these examples embodying a musically-propelled cultural politics. Representing in suggestive, sonic form what Juan Flores calls the “cultural remittances” of “transnationalism from below,” such articulations challenge longstanding notions about the relationship between home and away, Puerto Rico and diaspora, and thus offer what might be heard as audible harbingers of the rediscovery of Puerto Rican negritude and a reconciliation of Puerto Rican national identity. As Flores argues:
while traditionally the translocal Puerto Rican sensibility was characterized by the emigrant longing for the beauties of the long-lost island, in some rap texts and among street youth it was the urban diaspora settings of the Bronx and El Barrio that became places of fascination and nostalgia.
And yet, while we might hear such an articulation of cultural politics in Puerto Rican invocations of the Zunguzung meme, even as artists in question mobilize the melody in the service of braggadocio or somewhat aggressive forms of flirtation, other appearances of the melody — in particular in recent stateside, commercial hip-hop — appear to suggest ways that such critical connotations can grow muted in the same way that reggae figures more generally seem to have been absorbed into hip-hop’s lexicon.
As the Zunguzung meme becomes, for certain performers and audiences, just another reference to the hip-hop canon, we hear how reggae paradoxically disappears into hip-hop’s vocabulary by virtue of its very centrality and ubiquity. This is partly KRS-One’s fault, for he so successfully infused his influential recordings with reggae borrowings that they almost immediately became more familiar than foreign. But it is no doubt also in part the fault of Biggie and Tupac, whose uses of the melody were likely more widely heard than any others and yet made no overt reference to Jamaica. On Junior M.A.F.I.A.’s “Player’s Anthem,” which centers on whether one loves “hip-hop” and if so whether one will grab or rub certain body parts to prove it, Biggie seems primarily to be invoking hip-hop tradition — that is, KRS-One’s seminal allusions — and of course, Tupac employs the melody, in turn, to demean and threaten Biggie.
Some years later, looking for the perfect hook, Joe Budden re-animated the well-worn musical meme on “Pump It Up,” though, notably, he employs only the A phrase of the melody rather than the more common AB version, perhaps suggesting sonically some distance from earlier examples. As we might expect, the echoes of Yellowman’s catchy phrase grow even fainter in Jin’s “Learn Chinese” (2004), a recording released not long after (and which makes direct reference to) Budden’s “Pump It Up.” “Learn Chinese” represents not just another node along the “Zunguzung” network but yet another degree of slippage from the tune’s reggae roots. The invocation of the melody is preceded in the song by the young MC’s admission of having “Biggie Smalls posters all over the walls,” suggesting a likely knowledge of Biggie’s use of the melody, but not necessarily confirming a connection to other, earlier instantiations. And the most recent example of what we might call an unknowing invocation of Yellowman’s melody comes to us via VH1’s and EgoTrip’s White Rapper Show. Asked to produce a club banger with Just Blaze, the producer of Joe Budden’s successful Zunguzung interpolation, aspiring rappers Shamrock, Sullee, and 100 Proof, make direct reference to “Pump It Up” in order to push the song along, if a little flatly —
Perhaps we can hear an even clearer, if different, sense of slippage as the Christian rock band POD, featuring Hasidic singjay Matisyahu, employ the phrase to proclaim themselves warriors chanting down Babylon —
Regardless of whether the melody connects back to Yellowman and Jamaica for artists and audiences — which I maintain is an important question, but one that I’ve yet to ask any of these performers — there is plenty we can say about the way such a phrase functions. It is rather remarkable, for instance, how often the invocation of the meme serves to direct, to instruct, to implore — a product of accretionary meanings, no doubt, but perhaps also related to the very processes of musical memory, of invoking a set of sonic symbols that can subconsciously compel listeners to follow along. At times this can feel like a coercive marshaling of musical memory, as if something automatic emerges in that moment of recognition, of sympathetic vibration. One feels forced to respond, to hum along or nod along or push up a hand, a finger, a gun salute.
Across the various versions we’ve heard here, we’re not only drawn into the feelingful realm of musical memory by the melody, we’re frequently simultaneously told to do something, as if the artists take advantage of the opportunity, of the moment of sudden resonance: “bubble for me,” they say, “push up your hands,” “grab your dicks,” “grab your glocks,” “hold your head,” “do your thing.” Cultural politics dovetails here with body politics, and sometimes with the body politic itself — as in the case of Cutty Ranks, who demonstrates during a performance at a political rally in 1986, how the melody could be pressed into the service of politics qua politics, of electoral politics, of “party” politics, if you will; indeed, of People’s National Party politics —
I’m afraid this overview only scratches the surface of meanings and narratives we can read from these myriad instances, but I think it provides nonetheless an intensely audible example not only of the musical, cultural, and social connections between hip-hop and reggae and reggaeton. In a more general sense, it also tells us something about why music echoes across time and place, and, indeed, how music can inform and texture our notions of time and place. Listening to the Zunguzung meme as it reappears again and again, accruing new meanings in new contexts and recalling (or not recalling) the connotations of previous occurrences, we hear how music can draw and redraw the lines of community, compelling us to follow along, sometimes whether we’d like to or not.
An Ever Growing Timeline of the Zunguzung Meme:
[Update (May 2010): I’ve added an additional 14 instances (!!!) which people have brought to my attn, especially via comments below, in the 3 years since I posted this piece. Now that’s distributed research! Thanks so much to all, and keep em coming!] [Update (March 2011): I’ve continued to add instances as they bubble up; I’ve now lost count of how many additions I’ve made since initially publishing this post!][Update (April 2013):The list is now up to 50+ appearances, and I’ve finally replaced the mini-mix audio below with a longer and more complete record — more like a mega-mix!]
1982 — Yellowman, “Zunguzungunguzunguzeng”
1982 — Yellowman & Fathead, “Physical / Zunguzung (Live at Aces)”
1982 — Sister Nancy, “Coward of the Country”
1984 — Frankie Paul, “Alesha”
1984 — Toyan, “Hot Bubble Gum”
1985 — Little John, “Clarks Booty”
1985 — Super Cat, “Boops”
1986 — Cocoa Tea, “Come Again”
1986 — Cutty Ranks @ StereoMars PNP Rally
1986 — BDP, “The P Is Free”
1987 — BDP, “Remix For P Is Free”
1988 — BDP, “T Cha T Cha”
1988 — Queen Latifah, “Princess of the Posse”
1988 — Masters of Ceremony, “Keep on Moving”
1988 — Sublime, “Roots of Creation”
1989 — Nice & Smooth, “Nice & Smooth”
1989 — Nice & Smooth, “Dope on a Rope”
1991 — Leaders of the New School, “Case of the P.T.A.”
1991 — Michie Mee & L.A. Luv, “Jamaican Funk Canadian Style”
1992 — Lecturer, “Gal Yu Mean It”
1992 — Sublime, “Scarlet Begonias”
1992 — Roxanne Shanté, “Dance To This (Dance To Cee’s Zunga Zunga Mix)”
1992 — Rev. Baddoo, “Bop Scuche”
1992 — Leila K, “Open Sesame”
1993 — Us3, “I Got It Goin’ On”
1993 — K7, “Zunga Zeng”
1993 — KRS-One, “P Is Still Free”
1993 — Jamalski, “African Border”
1993 — Buju Banton, “Big It Up”
1994 — The Coup, “Pimps (Freestyling at the Fortune 500 Club)”
1994 — Ninjaman, “Funeral Again”
1994 — Bounty Killer, “Kill Or Be Killed”
1995 — Buju Banton, “Man a Look Yu”
1995 — Junior M.A.F.I.A. ft. Biggie Smalls, “Player’s Anthem”
1996 — 2pac, “Hit ‘Em Up”
1996 — Captain Barkey, “Go Go Wine”
1996 — Junior Dangerous ft. Lucas, “Comin’ Out To Play”
1997 — Cru, “Pronto”
1998 — Mr. Notty, “Sentencia de Muerte”
1998 — Black Star, “Definition”
1999 — Lil’ Cease ft. Jay-Z, “4 My Niggaz”
2000 — Dead Prez, “It’s Bigger than Hip-Hop”
2000 — Daisy Dee, “Open Sesame”
2000 — Wyclef Jean ft. Xzibit and Yellowman, “Perfect Gentlemen Remix”
2001 — Ñejo, “El Problema Ser Bellaco”
2003 — Joe Budden, “Pump It Up”
2004 — Jin, “Learn Chinese”
2005 — Looptroop, “Chana Masala”
2006 — POD ft. Matisyahu, “Roots in Stereo”
2006 — JD (aka Dready), “UK Zunga Zeng”
2007 — White Rappers, “One Night Stand”
2007 — Gwen Stefani ft. Damian Marley, “Now That You Got It”
2009 — Wax Taylor ft. ASM, “Say Yes”
2010 — Vybz Kartel, “Whine (Wine)”
2011 — Tifa, “Matey Wine”
2011 — Rankin Taxi & Dub Ainu Band, “You Can’t See It, and You Can’t Smell It Either”
2011 — Yellowman, “Zungguzungguguzungguzeng (Horsepower Productions Remix / Dub)”
2013 — Benga & Kano, “Forefather”
2013 — Deekline & Ed Solo ft. Rubi Dan, “Zunga”
A Mega-Mix of the Zunguzung Meme —