The number one scorer in any athletic sport is the person who has simply scored the most points at a professional level than all of the other players. After deep analysis Black Thought of the legendary Roots crew may be the number one Mumble Rapper, a term normally given as a derogatory classification for a certain type of modern rap that does not emphasize the once core component of lyricism. Is mumbling bad though? Spontaneity, rhythm and improvisation are key elements in music and specifically in black music. The human voice, the first instrument discovered on planet Earth, most likely quickly followed by the drum or the concept of percussion, is just another layer of sound manipulated on top of a rhythm. You can’t mumble on an instrument because you can’t speak on an instrument but nonsensical lyrics are not foreign to music and where never looked down upon before. Jazz, and other highly rhythmic improvisational music, tends to naturally gravitate to this concept. Scatting supposedly goes back as early as 1911 though most credit Louis Armstrong’s 1926 single “Heebie Jeebies” for starting this trend, and off one listen one can hear how he is using his voice as if it is an instrument to ride the rhythm and improvise with.
Funk was no stranger to this innovation either, comedian Eddie Murphy has an entire bit in his Delirious special explaining how he has no idea “what the fuck James (Brown) is saying”. As upbeat, groove heavy and funky as James Brown’s band was it’s no wonder lyrics were an unnecessary after thought if an addition at all. Many James Brown tracks are just instrumentals with the band alone and some are even instrumentals with a repeating vamp or chant chimed in by James every few bars, not to mention the lack of clarity and pronunciation in his delivery anyway when he does decide to vocalize. For James Brown the show and stage was his main medium, he’s not the traditional song writer, song writing was just a piece of the puzzle. Most art in this arena of music -pure expression- did not over emphasize the intellectual aspect of the process like it would later be with artists like Bob Dylan, who lacked the other previous essential pieces of the puzzle. That’s not to say no thought is used, like a Jackson Pollock painting, the thought to create with the absent of thought is perhaps the most intellectual insight one can have when creating.
If we take the final product as a complete piece of art, one that does not have to follow a set criteria of a certain amount of snares, hooks, or lyrics with depth per song we can appreciate mumbling or songs without actual words. It’s no coincidence that Hip-Hop can travel and resonate with people all across the globe in countries that don’t even speak or understand the language the artists are rapping in. It connects at a deeper level. De La Soul were one of the first groups to recognize this and on their 1993 LP Buhloone Mindstate they bring in Japanese Hip-Hop guests Scha Dara Parr and Takagi Kan for their track “Long Island Wildin” to do guest verses in their native tongue (pun intended). Another Long Island Hip-Hop legend years earlier, Flavor Flav of Public Enemy, would bring in his own form of non-sequitur lyrics and mumbling on the 1987 LP It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back with his solo track ‘Cold Lampin With Flavor’. Lyrics like “We got magnum brown, shoothki, valoothki/ Super-calafraga-hestik-alagoothki/ You could put dat in ya don’t know what I said book/ Took-look-yuk-duk-wuk”not only rhythmically flow but more importantly they fit the image of Flavor.
None of this would compare to what the legendary MC Black Thought would do in 1999 on a bonus track for the Roots live album The Roots Come Alive. Before we go into Black Thought’s mysterious Mumble Rap Magnum Opus we must first dive into the mind of the master himself. By 2004’s The Tipping Point Black Thought was 10 years into his professional career, earlier videos show a High School aged Black Thought walking around Philly flawlessly incorporating whatever drummer Questlove points at in the surrounding scenery into his rhyme all while showing obvious signs of his Big Daddy Kane influence. When we arrive at “BOOM!” on The Tipping Point the BDK influence is gone and now has evolved into complete homage, Thought’s play with delivery unfolds on the last two verses into full musical method acting and the roles he’s playing are of two of Hip-Hop’s best: Big Daddy Kane and Kool G Rap (impressions done so well one may be confused as to why the guest features weren’t listed). On this same album Thought’s earlier Mumble Rap experiments hit their most acceptable and formatted version on “Don’t Say Nuthin'” with a hook that literally had a contest to figure out what he was saying (we still don’t know). Now to qualify as the number one Mumble Rapper you have to do it professionally -Lanze’s “Bring Me That Shit” single unfortunately is not eligible- 5 years prior to The Tipping Point The Roots put out a live album and on this album a hidden track birthed Mumble Rapper. It is probably no coincidence that the track is produced by legendary Hip-Hop producer J Dilla (Jay Dee then) as his group at the time Slum Village was notorious for their winged verses and free form loosely structured lyrics, at times mumbling, stuttering or repeating themselves as if they had not even written down their lyrics. Thought takes this idea to the extreme on “New Years At Jay Dee’s”
Now we know Black Thought can be the most precise and technically proficient MC on the planet, which was never more obvious to the world than with his 10min one-take Funk Master Flex freestyle at Hot97’s radio studio in 2017, die-hard fans already knew of this caliber of skill with songs like “Thought @ Work” “Web” and “75 Bars”, but even lesser known is his ability to be the most abstract lyricist. Those who complain about “Mumble Rap” -newer Hip-Hop artists who clearly understand themselves and who are even less worried about listeners who don’t like them understanding them anyway- can lock in to “New Years At Jay Dee’s” a lot easier due to the BPM, the swing of J Dilla’s un-quantized drums, the low end, and the style in which Thought is “rhyming”. Most would not go to this song for any substance or to use it as an example of the depth of Hip-Hop but it says a lot that a band as artistically elite as The Roots not only recorded it but decided to put it out- almost 20 years before “Mumble Rapper”. They recognized the artistic value of it and the true originality of it. This makes Black Thought the number one Mumble Rapper. Most fans would argue the fact that Black Thought being arguably one of the best MCs of all time is what allows songs like this to be accepted but the same creative genius that can beautifully assemble words or paint a portrait can also just as profoundly deconstruct language into rhythmic nonsense or abstract an image into nonuniform shapes and colors. It is all part of the same process and if you are discounting a song for mumbling then you are missing a large part of what it is to listen to a song.