Image: Jameltene Reskp via Unsplash
- Track: Peter Piper
- Artist: Run-DMC
- Album: Raising Hell
- Year: 1986
Once upon a time, there lived a man who liked to catalogue similes in hip-hop.
It’s an anniversary of sorts this time out, as my weird little project hits the 30 track mark. If I’d been better organised, I’d have marked the second anniversary, but that was two months ago. Oh well. With just shy of 500 rap similes analysed, I’ve built up quite a bit of data. I think when I do hit that half millennium I’ll post a breakdown of my findings. Do look out for that.
It’s very pleasing that track 30 is one suggested by a reader. Big thanks to Danita who emailed me about this pearl of a track. I’m always delighted when anyone out there gets in touch. It doesn’t happen often, so feel free to send me thoughts, ideas and abuse by email or through the form.
While I had planned to move things away from my recent fixation with New York hip-hop, Danita’s suggestion has put paid to that. Not a problem. I’ve checked, and two thirds of the acts I’ve looked at hail from New York. I’m not sure if this is down to my tastes, the impact of the birthplace of rap or that rappers from the Big Apple love similes as much as I do. I’m sure William Tell would be chuffed.
I mention William Tell because this Run-DMC banger is all about fairy stories, nursery rhymes and tongue twisters. I’m not sure if folk heroes fall into this category, but I couldn’t think of any better apple-based way to move things on. Forgive me.
I love a track with a theme. Not only is it fun to hear rappers riffing on something, but the lyrics are also generally less ambiguous. This is helpful for your dedicated simile inspector. I’m sure there is something truly insightful to be said about the link between playground nursery rhymes and the development of rap as an art form. But I’ll leave that to the proper clever types.
Along with fellow ‘new school hip-hop’ pioneers and New Yorkers Beastie Boys, Run-DMC took a pretty minimalist approach to beat-making. They also had a fondness for rocky guitar riffs. And it worked. Also like the Beasties, MCs Run and DMC (you can see where they got their name from) rap in tandem and finish each other’s lines. Luckily, the transcriber on Genius has unpicked who’s rapping what. So I’ve attributed some similes to both MCs.
Another thing the two groups have in common is having a brilliant DJ. Peter Piper is an ode to Run-DMC’s Jam Master Jay, not to be confused with Beastie Boys’ Mix Master Mike (good video alert) or my DJ alias Wax Master Wilbert (lie alert).
The veeeery familiar sample in this one is from Bob James’s cover of Paul Simon’s Take Me to the Mardi Gras. According to whosampled.com, it’s been sampled a remarkable 449 times. Lots of classic hip-hop tracks have pinched elements of it, including tunes by legends such as (of course) Beastie Boys, Jay-Z and, erm, R Kelly.
So is it Run DMC or Run D.M.C.? Like the eponymous Peter, take your pick. I’m going with the former because it’s easier to type. Like the nine largest in the bed, that’s just how I roll.
Now Peter Piper picked peppers, but Run rocked rhymes
Humpty Dumpty fell down, that’s his hard time
Jack B. Nimble was nimble and he was quick
But Jam Master cut faster, Jack’s on Jay’s dick
A potentially controversial start to the simile spotting, as this is a comparative. The ‘pure’ similes are mostly in the second half of the track and I didn’t want to wait too long to get stuck in. Jam Master Jay cuts faster than Jack, well, nimbles.
Thanks to Wikipedia, I now know that jumping over candlesticks was once considered a sport. That begs several questions, the most pressing being how big were candlesticks in the 19th Century? Or how small were people?
Now Little Bo Peep cold lost her sheep
And Rip Van Winkle fell the hell asleep
And Alice chilling somewhere in Wonderland
Jack’s serving Jill a bucket in his hand
And Jam Master Jay’s making all that sound
The turntables might wobble, but they don’t fall down
I like this bit, it’s clever. I won’t patronise you by pointing out all the references, I’m sure you can work these out for yourself. But with a bit of a wait (verse three) until the next simile I’ve got to say something. Note that Run-DMC isn’t sticking too closely to just nursery rhymes, slipping Alice in Wonderland in there too.
Now Dr. Seuss and Mother Goose both did their thing
But Jam Master’s getting loose and D.M.C.’s the king
Until today I didn’t know Mother Goose wasn’t just a nursery rhyme character, but an imaginary (obviously) writer of French fairy tales. Sacré bleu!
‘Cause he’s adult entertainer, child educator
Jam Master Jay king of the crossfader
He’s the better of the best, best believe he’s the baddest
Perfect timing when I’m climbing, I’m a rhyming apparatus
Lot of guts, when he cuts, girls move their butts
His name is Jay, hear the play, he must be nuts
And on the mix real quick and I’d like to say
He’s not Flash, but he’s fast and his name is Jay
While we wait for the similes to arrive, I might as well point out that this Flash is probably hip-hop pioneer Grandmaster Flash of the Furious Five rather than the nimble superhero.
I’m no expert in DJing, but I think a ‘cut’ is when they bring a section of a record back (repeatedly) to create a beat. If you missed the link to that Mix Master Mike and Beastie Boys video earlier, here it is again. He is doing that with one record.
Time for a very short break, which when your words per simile score is already quite high is a bit of a waste of everybody’s time.
[Break – Run]
It, it goes a one, two, three, and
Jay’s like King Midas as I was told
Everything that he touch turn to gold
Ok, now we’re back in the land of make believe, and more importantly the land of the simile.
Run DMC are now branching out into Greek mythology too. But you can’t blame them, it’s a 25 carat simile this one. Thanks to the Genius contributor who clarifies that the gold in this lyric isn’t literal. That would prove pretty awkward for a DJ.
If I’ve decoded the transcription correctly, this verse is all D.M.C.’s work. He’s certainly outclassing Run, at least in simile terms.
He’s the greatest of the greater, get it straight, he’s great
Playing fame ’cause his name is known in every state
His name is Jay, to see him play, will make you say
‘God damn that DJ made my day’
Like the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker
He’s a maker, a breaker and a title taker
Well, this is an interesting one. Is it one long simile, or three? Or even six? That depends how you interpret what’s D.M.C. is comparing to what. When a potential multiple simile like this rears its head, I reach for my tried and tested ‘rule of or’. Arguably, D.M.C. is comparing a butcher to a maker, a baker to a breaker (makes sense in the context of DJing, less so in baking) etc. But that use of ‘and’ is key to me, and I’m taking it as one big simile with all three professions lumped together. Sorry Danita, I feel bad about this, but I can’t go about breaking my own rules or there would be pandemonium in the hip-hop simile community. I think I am the hip-hop community, but you hopefully understand.
Unlike a candlestick maker, I don’t make these decisions lightly. These two disallowed similes could have had quite an impact on Run DMC’s debut entry into the simile league table. But like a stationery craftsman who’s got carried away with the glue, when I make a rule I’m sticking to it.
Like the little old lady who lived in a shoe
If cuts were kids he would be due
Maybe it’s an American thing, or maybe Run DMC didn’t bother checking, but it should be ‘little old woman’. Not that it particularly matters of course. Obviously the simile is telling us that Jay has as many cuts as the old woman has children (and another in the oven by the sounds of it).
The original nursery rhyme makes for pretty disturbing reading. Unsure of how to handle her myriad offspring, the sweet old woman gives them a sound whipping. Obviously the most rational course of action.
Not lying y’all, he’s the best I know
And if I lie my nose will grow
Like a little wooden boy named Pinocchio
And you all know how the story go
We certainly do. Again, not a nursery rhyme but a relatively recent children’s novel. It’s permeated popular culture, most probably thanks to the Disney adaptation. And now little Pinocchio is even immortalised as an emoji. That’s progress.
The final line will be familiar to Nas fans, he sampled it in A Queens Story. It actually turns out I didn’t know how the story goes, or maybe I’d repressed the memory. In the original book, the Blue Fairy makes woodpeckers peck Pinocchio’s nose back to its original size. Charming.
Before we hit the fourth and final verse, there’s time for a quick hook of sorts and an overdue reference to the three little pigs.
[Hook type thing]
Tricks are for kids, he plays much gigs
He’s a big bad wolf and you’re the three pigs
He’s a big bad wolf in your neighbourhood
Not bad meaning bad, but bad meaning good
In case you were wondering, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: metaphors are not welcome around these parts.
[Pointless waste of words]
There it is
More word wastage. I don’t know, it’s like Run DMC didn’t appreciate that in 35 years some nerd on the Internet would be calculating their word to simile ratio.
Anyway, like a certain little piggy, let’s go wee wee similee all the way home.
We’re Run-DMC, got a beef to settle
D’s not Hansel, he’s not Gretel
Jay’s a winner, not a beginner
His pocket gets fat, others get thinner
J-j-j-j-j, jump on Jay like cow jumps moon
People chase Jay like dish and spoon
And like all fairy tales end
You’ll see Jay again my friend, huh
Thank heavens for this final barrage of similes. It saves Run DMC from total embarrassment, although they still enter our simile league table at rock bottom. It would be overly pedantic to point out that the dish and spoon aren’t chased by anyone wouldn’t it? Like that’s going to stop me.
So that’s a pretty measly eight similes in all. Not a huge amount, equal to the number of dry quarts in a peck. I’ve no idea what that means, but it’s how many pickled peppers Peter Piper picked. Which seems appropriate.
The last simile is somewhat tainted by hindsight. Fairy tales normally end with everybody living happily ever after. That’s not the case with our hero Jam Master Jay, who was sadly gunned down in 2002. The murder remains unsolved.
One effect of looking at a tune inspired by nursery rhymes is that – like that one track about birds – it’ll skew our data a bit. Over time, these things should even themselves out. If nursery rhymes and the development of rap are somehow culturally linked, we might have expected to see more references to them. But as it stands, these eight are our only ones. So far.
|Words per simile:||49.63|
|Similes per minute:||2.35|
|How much wood would a woodchuck chuck If a woodchuck could chuck wood:||Probably not a great deal (small paws)|