The Five Elements of Michael Jackson
Quiet as it's kept, The King of Pop was a quintessential hip hop superstar
The year was 1986. Quincy Jones had contacted Run-DMC to come to record an anti-drug song with none other than Michael Jackson, the enigmatic megastar singer/songwriter, who passed away eight years ago today. After the Rap trio stepped on a white sequin glove in their 1984 video “King of Rock,” one would think this would be a tense meeting of artists. The feeling was mutual. According to Jones, MJ stated to him that “rap is dead.” Although by all accounts, their interaction was cordial (the song failed to make the Bad album), the singer’s statement proved ironic, because when you really put him under the microscope, Michael Jackson is the archetypal hip hop artist. With the hyper-masculine subtext surrounding the culture juxtaposed with the soft-spoken, child-like, androgynous personality of Jackson—who passed away eight years ago today—it’s easy to overlook that the guy embodied all that hip hop has to offer.
For most rap artists, it starts with the come-up; that rags-to-riches grind that rappers and producers go through to get put on by a crew and/or a label. MJ’s come-up came through the bleak steel town of Gary, Indiana, where he and his brothers performed at seedy bars and strip clubs as minors before getting Berry Gordy to sign them to Motown in 1969. His ambition to be a star can be likened to the killer instinct of a 2Pac, LL Cool J, or especially Kanye West—who has often compared himself to MJ.
Wanna talk about street cred? Decades before Chris Brown started wearing red bandanas on stage and throwing up hand signs in club V.I.P. sections, Jackson enlisted real life street gangs for his music videos to achieve an authentic grit and grime he was trying to portray to the viewer—and he did it before EVERYONE.
MJ had Bloods in the “Beat It” video and wore that iconic red zipper jacket; he had Crips in “The Way You Make Me Feel” and wore a blue button up. Can’t be a coincidence.
Whenever Michael placed himself around hip hop practitioners, he made sure to do it with the best. From enlisting Heavy D for “Jam” off the Dangerous album, having Notorious B.I.G. drop a rapid fire 16 of paranoia on HIStory’s “This Time Around,” or pleasantly surprising fans at Hot 97’s 2001 Summer Jam with Jay-Z (then singing on Hov’s “Girls, Girls, Girls“), Mike as much as anyone proved game recognizes game. His main post-Quincy Jones producers, Teddy Riley and Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins, were perfect fits for futurist musical mind. Michael was consumed by rhythm from day one, the essence that shoots through the veins of hip hop’s music culture.
The hip hop artist story is often fraught with narratives of life as the underdog, being overlooked and overcoming doubters. Michael’s achievements and drive was born not only out of his God-given talent, but out of person ambition ignited by naysayers at each and every turn throughout his life:
• The Jacksons will never get out of Gary.
• The Jackson 5 will never have a hit record.
• The Jackson 5 will can’t write their own music.
• The Jackson 5 is nothing without Motown.
• Michael is nothing without his brothers.
• Michael can never top Off The Wall.
• Michael can never top Thriller.
• Michael has alienated his Black audience.
• Michael will never have another #1 record.
MJ continued to win because no matter how popular he got, he possessed what makes so many rappers great: a chip on his shoulder. If you still don’t make the connection, here’s how Michael Jackson embodies the five elements of hip hop:
Bottom line: Mike was arguably the best dancer this globe has ever seen. The virtuosity and versatility with which this brother moved on stage and in videos is unmatched. The essence of his movement is rooted in hip hop, going way back before the term was even invented. His influences drew just as much from the Rock Steady Crew as they did from James Brown and Fred Astaire. Mike always appreciated contemporary street movement. When he broke out the Robot during Jackson 5’s performance of “Dancing Machine” on Soul Train, is was clear he was paying attention. His mastery of ticking and pop-locking demonstrated from The Jacksons’ short-lived variety show in 1977 all the way to his HIStory concerts, came from tutelage from The New York City Breakers, Shalamar’s Jeffrey Daniel, and L.A. street danser Michael “Boogaloo Shrimp” Chambers. It was Daniel who taught him a breakdance move called the Back Slide, but when MJ unleashed in before an unsuspecting crowd at Motown 25 in 1983, it was forever dubbed the Moonwalk. But for those in the streets who new better, they felt vindicated and celebrated by the world’s biggest superstar. In 1995, during a performance of “Dangerous” at the MTV Video Music Awards, Mike broke out a Bank Head Bounce, once again letting us know Neverland’s ain’t as far from the hood as you might think.
No, MJ never was out in the streets of Gary, Indiana, tagging up his pop’s steel mill or Roosevelt High School—nothing like that. But he was quite the illustrator. Mike was notorious since his Motown days for doodling and drawing pictures. Turns out it was a bit more than just doodles. When you see self portraits and drawing of Charlie Chapin or Liz Taylor, Jackson’s talent for drawing was pretty tight and a revelation of his many talents beyond music. Just look at the liner notes of Thriller. Each side of the lyric sleeve had a illustrated depiction of a song from the album. Side A was a drawing of him and Paul McCartney playing tug-of-war with a female on “The Girl is Mine,” while Side B was a scene of him and his date taking in a movie, surrounded by night creatures lurking about them on “Thriller.” The detail of the faces and hair-dos melded with a caricaturish freedom leads us to wonder what could’ve happened if MJ ever got a hold of a few spray cans on that sequin glove of his. And after viewing his brooding, articulate drawing of himself as a child holding a mic in a corner for the song “Childhood,” there’s no telling what kind of paintings and murals he might’ve been able to conquer.
If the job of an MC is to move the crowd, then Michael Joseph Jackson was the real GOD MC. If you weren’t lucky enough to attend one of his concerts, go to YouTube after this and just revel in the uncanny mind and body control he had over his fans. If his fans didn’t completely pass out from utter shock, they were crying, jumping, dancing or all of the above. But gauging MCing from a aural stand point, although you could never mistake Mike for a rapper, he had all the attributes that make for an A1 spit game.
First, there’s his flow. MJ revolutionized how R&B and Pop singers ride a beat on a track, and his cadence was as seemless and majestic as Jay-Z, Biggie or Busta. Just listen to “Off The Wall,” the rare “Buttercup,” and “Jam,” as examples. He took the James Brown approach to rhythm-driven vocal delivery and enhanced it to sinuous and gorgeous affect. Going back to “Jam,” and also “Smooth Criminal,” he even accidentally invented today’s current style of rhyming, fusing melody and the sort of percussive atonal vocals that are now prominently practiced by artists like Ja Rule, Nelly, Drake and Rihanna.
Then there’s his wordplay. Lowkey, Mike’s pen-game was ill. Catch this rhyme pattern on “Heartbreak Hotel“:
“Someone’s evil to hurt my soul/Every smile’s a trial, caught in beguile to hurt me/Then the man next door had told/He’s been here, in tears, for 15 years/This is scaring me.”
Or see him on his Chuck D, KRS-One tip on “They Don’t Care About Us“:
“Tell me what has become of my rights/Am I invisible ’cause you ignore me?/Your proclamation promised me free li-ber-ty/I’m tired of being a victim of shame/You’re throwing me a class with bad name/I can’t believe this is the land from which I came!”
Lastly, he addresses the haters. On “Bad,” he declares “and the whole world has to answer right now, to tell you once again/Who’s Bad?” During “Unbreakable,” he calls out his detractors, “seems like you know now, when and how, I get down/And with all that I’ve been through, I’m still around.” He even engaged in an on-wax beef, with none other than his own brother, Jermaine! In 1991, Jermaine dropped “Word to the Badd,” a scathing diss to Mike about him stealing his thunder. Mike responded, subliminally at that, in “Jam:” “I told my brother, don’t you ask me for now favors/I’m conditioned by the system/don’t you talk to me, don’t scream and shout.”
Now, it’s quite possible the closest MJ has ever been to a DJ booth was when he was vibing in one at Studio 54 in the late 1970s, observing the patrons. However, he didn’t need two turntables and a mic to personify and relate to the mind of a DJ. Pioneers like Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash and countless others after them rocked the crowd by isolating the breakdown in a record (i.e. the “Apache” drumbeat or the bridge to “Sex Machine”). Mike’s most exhuberant compositions were driven by a single, repetitive line with minimal chord changes. Tracks like “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” “Workin’ Day & Night,” “Leave Me Alone,” “Jam,” and “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)”—all songs with soul-penetrating bass lines, scratching rhythm guitars and thumping, complex drum patterns filled with dense kicks, were tailor-made for basement parties and night clubs—and he knew it.
Let’s talk about beat-boxing for a moment. It seems crazy, but Michael Jackson very well may have invented beatboxing as we know it today. Don’t believe it? Go to his composition “Blues Away” on The Jacksons’ 1976 self-titled album. Right before the outro, Mike imitated a drum pattern and revving electric guitar rift that was a template for Doug E. Fresh, Biz Markie and Fat Boys’ Buffy. In fact, he beatboxed all of his demos, beatboxed the rhythm tracks years before Timbaland did (See “Can’t Let Her Get Away,” “Tabloid Junkie,” and “Stranger in Moscow”) and gave a undeniable exhibition before the world live during “Who Is It” in his 1993 interview with Oprah. Can you imagine Michael Jackson and Slick Rick?
Mike was also a sample trailblazer. He paid Jazz/Funk saxophonist Manu Dibango to use his Swahili refrain for “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.” Thirty Five years later, the world is still singing “Mama Se Mama Sa, Mama Coo Sa!”
If nothing else can be said of Michael Jackson, he was a student of the game, bigging up his mentors and educating the young’ns with the real. Don’t be fooled by all the “Heal The World,” “We Are The World” and “Man in the Mirror” jargon. Mike certainly saw the good in humanity and strived for peace, but he was as woke as a 5 Percenter. Jackson’s low-key militant Blackness and esoteric ancestral knowledge was not only evident in his wardrobe and in songs like “Earth Song,” and “They Don’t Care About Us,” but also in his imagery.
His treatment for The Jacksons’ Can You Feel It film illustrated a celestial melding of fire and water, signifying the reconciliation of human and divine. “Black or White’s” infamous dance sequence in which MJ transformed from a Black Panther certainly couldn’t have been simply for aesthetic reasons, especially given the socio-political messaging of the lyrics and destruction of property during the dance. The magnum opus of Michael’s knowledge of self came in the form of his 1992 “Remember The Time” short film. With an all Black cast and Black director (John Singleton), Mike attempted to negate the century long rhetoric of white’s as Eygptians and reminded the world what the hard truth was, as if to say, remember the time when we were kings and queens? The real truth is the lighter his skin got from his vitiligo, the Blacker his music got…
Rest in Power MJ. The King of Pop, and a true hip hop pioneer