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The flow’s mad jazzy like Dizzy Gillespie

Dizzy Gillespie playing the trumpet in a jazz club

Image: William P. Gottlieb/Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund Collection, Library of Congress.

  • Track: Suntoucher
  • Artist: Groove Armada feat. Jeru the Damaja
  • Album: Goodbye Country (Hello Nightclub)
  • Year: 2001

With the long bank holiday weekend still lingering in the memory, it’s fitting that today we’re looking at a very long track. At over six minutes, this one is an epic. But having said that, it’s mostly instrumental and the rapping doesn’t start until after the two minute mark. So don’t worry if you’re reading this in the loo, there’s plenty of time, depending on how many eggs you ate this Easter.

Suntoucher is the beautiful opener on Groove Armada’s 2001 album Goodbye Country, Hello Nightclub. This was the year I finished university, and a better four word summary of the experience would be hard to find. It’s probably also the first time I heard Jeru the Damaja, so thanks to Groove Armada for that one.

Like a zookeeper practising her public speaking, let’s address the elephant in the room. If you take one ambient bit of electronica, sprinkle with a dash of breakbeat and add a liberal amount of MCing, do you have hip-hop pie? Awkward metaphor aside, I’d say so. The four elements of hip-hop are rapping, graffiti, breakdancing and DJing. Groove Armada are DJs and Jeru’s a rapper. That’s 50% of the pie right there, a hip-hop quorum if you will. Maybe it’s not strictly speaking hip-hop. But when the outcome is this good, does it matter? If I keep my database entry policy lenient, then things will be more interesting. Just like countries and nightclubs. Variety, as they say, is the spice of life.

This is the third consecutive post looking at New York artists who came up in the ’90s. This was completely unintentional, but please ignore what I said just now about variety. Familiarity, as no-one but me says, is the parsley of life. I’ll try and look further afield for the next one (say…Luton?), although hip-hop and the Big Apple are obviously fundamentally linked.

And Jeru the Damaja is New York through and through. He got his big break with Gang Starr, and DJ Premier took on production duty of Jeru’s first two albums. I think Premier might be responsible for half of the tracks in the database at this point. And like Premier, Jeru is an enthusiastic collaborator. Discogs lists 126 guest appearances on a surprising spice of life of genres. Fancy some rap with your drum and bass? Jeru’s got you covered

Jeru’s rapping style is unconventional. A proper analysis would include something about meters and enjambments. But I want to keep it light and also I don’t know what those words mean. There’s a strange jaggedness to his delivery, a kind of jerkiness. Sometimes you’re left wondering how he’s going to complete a rhyme, and then he pulls the rug from underneath you with a lyrical flourish. This isn’t a criticism. It makes for good listening, and his lyrics are often intelligent and thought-provoking.

The track’s title brings to mind Icarus, and the fable about the dangers of over-confidence and hubris. Well, Jeru’s happy to completely ignore all that. The lyrics fall into familiar ‘I am better at rapping than everyone’ territory. He’s got the skills to not only let him get near to the sun, but to touch it too. And I think it’s maybe a nod to his 1994 debut album The Sun Rises in the East. Maybe.

Before we begin, a warning for everyone reading at home: do not try and touch the sun. It’s way too far away and you’ll end up looking quite the fool.

The lyrics

View full annotated lyrics on genius.com

[Intro]

One, two
About to drop this
Right now for you
The original suntoucher
Lettin’ you know what’s up
It goes like this

We about to put it on you right here, right now
Let you know how it goes down
This, this is what it is

Jeru’s flow can be quite disorientating (like jazz), despite his obvious technical brilliance. It’s easy to get caught off guard. It also makes it hard to split the lines up in sensible way so I can insert poorly-researched, glib comments. You’ll notice nice little couplets and several run-on sentences (also known as ‘enjambments’; I lied about not knowing what that meant).

[Proper bit]

It’s the urban organic mic mechanic
Superhuman MC powers help me fly around the planet
Touch the microphone device, whole countries get frantic
Saving damsels in distress, so young girls, don’t panic
Putting MCs under pressure till they crack like ceramic
Always thought they could float but sink like the Titanic

Jeru’s in self-confident mode straight off the bat, and he doesn’t let up from here. These are database debuts for ceramic and its rhyming simile partner Titanic. And while we’ve spotted cars and trains out on the hip-hop simile horizon, this is our first ship.

Rhymes rip through your skull like icebergs through the hull
Survive the impact and the Arctic cold freezes your soul

I like this bit. The object of Jeru’s scorn is being put through a Rasputin-like ordeal. It’s not the ceramic-cracking pressure, nor the iceberg collision, that’s done them in. It’s the Arctic waters. Quite the poetic finishing blow.

Now let’s get warmed up with a pack of similes that come in at such a rate they’re harder to track than Boris Johnson’s child support payments.

Create a new style and then break the mould
Compositions are controlled and liable to explode
Like landmines
, my crew blow through like wind chimes

There’s little doubt who’s in charge here. Jeru’s emphasising that his explosive rhymes are deadly yet deliberate. Weaponry-based imagery is no stranger to hip-hop simile (mostly guns and the odd knife so far), but it’s our first outing for landmines. Then, in just half a line, Jeru wrenches us to something more tranquil: the effortlessness with which he and his crew take on all comers. Brilliant.

Make it hot like fire, 200 proof like moonshine
Whiskey
, playing yourself is risky
And the flow’s mad jazzy like Dizzy Gillespie

This is ihhsdb.com gold, people, the sort of thing that gets my simile-juices flowing. It’s a great three lines, with a double simile rammed into the first, and a reference to Jeru’s most famous track. You’d think that fire might be a common hip-hop simile theme, but this is only the second time we’ve seen it (out of nearly 500). Alcohol similes are rare too, although Jeru’s doing his best to top the count up with three in this track.

One thing we have seen a lot of is musical similes. Over 25 individual musicians are in the database already, and jazz legend Dizzy Glllespie is our latest. Given the influence jazz had on hip-hop, I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of him. If I’ve correctly interpreted some of the more ambiguous similes coming up, we’ll be adding a couple more musicians before the sun goes down on this one.

And the sound be harmonious and deadly
Like a harpy
, call me The Great One like Wayne Gretzky
No man can test me, so why try?
Focus like a samurai, stronger than a Mai Tai

Depending whether you take your mythology cues from the Greeks or Romans, harpies are either beautiful or ugly half-human-half-bird things. They’re certainly deadly, but (pedantry alert) I think Jeru may be confusing them with Sirens. These are the harmonious hotties who drew sailors to their doom with song. But as Wikipedia had barely started when this tune came out, I’m willing to let him off.

Despite being great, Wayne Gretzky is more or less unknown in the UK (unless you played this videogame in the mid-90s). His legendary ice hockey skills earned him a pretty cool nickname.

And here’s another delicious simile double to savour. The samurai one is fine and that, but isn’t going to win any simile awards. I like how Jeru threads food and drink imagery throughout his verse. Mai Tais are, of course, a quintessential beach cocktail

These two ‘stronger than’ similes are the only times that Jeru strays into comparative territory. That’ll please the simile purists out there.

Or a tsunama, I mean tsunami
I rock it from MTV to the BBC

Sorry to interrupt the flow. As I said earlier, it’s tricky to know when to interject when the current of similes is so fast. This one includes an odd little motif: deliberately mispronouncing a word. As far as I can tell a tsunama is not a thing (unless Jeru plays a lot of World of Warcraft). But we all know how strong a tsunami can be. Abdominal certainly did way back in track five.

There will now be a short break from the simile madness. Jeru’s ready to dial up the audacity even higher, as with each line he flies a little closer to that sun.

Radioactive waves short out your TV
Aliens be checking for me in the next galaxy
Put it in a time capsule till the next century
In a blackout use it for electricity
Danger, high voltage, don’t feed me their daily dosage
I break it down mathematically, 99.9 is the percentage
Like clothes and fine wine, the rhymes are vintage
And the universal will give me strength like spinach
With danish, I eat it like a tofu sandwich with cabbage
Ask your girl she knows that I’m not the average

Just as we’re letting our guard down, Jeru storms back in with a flurry of similes. The lyrics seem a bit off here, and even looking at two separate sources I don’t think ‘danish’ can be right. Luckily there are two points of interest here to take our mind off that.

If Jeru had said ‘or’ instead of ‘and’ I’d have awarded him two similes there (one for clothes, one for fine wine). But as it is, our old friend ‘the rule of or’ forbids it, and ‘clothes and fine wine’ must remain as half of a single simile. Harsh, but I don’t make the rules. Well I do make the rules, but I don’t decide if they make sense or not. I keep meaning to start a glossary of my daft terms and rules, which would help.

It’s also interesting that we’ve seen two Popeye-related similes in a row. This one may not mention him directly, but I’m going with it because there’s little interesting to say about spinach. It’s quite a hard word to rhyme so hats off to Jeru for having a go.

If you’re thinking that Jeru’s sandwich choice sounds disgusting, you might be interested to learn he’s a committed vegetarian. So am I as it happens, but I wouldn’t sink that low.

Nigga who claims to pull the trigger
Reality’s the root of the rhymes that I configure
Phoney, baloney, swear they’re Don Corleone
But when shit hit the fan they start crying like Pretty Tony
Tender like roni but wish to be bad like Bobby
Been there, done that, smashed up, rockin’ rhymes is my hobby

This is where things get a bit awkward for the committed simile categoriser. Pretty Tony is probably the 80s Miami dance pioneer rather than the real estate agent turned ‘sassy rapper’. There’s also Pretty Toney, one of Ghostface Killah’s many aliases. But that album was released three years after this one. And why Tony might be crying beats me too. Sigh. I’m filing this one under ‘unsolved hip-hop simile mysteries’, an idea I’m thinking of pitching to Netflix.

At least ‘tender like roni’ is less of a mystery. Tenderoni is a gross-looking packet pasta thing. This is the first sighting of a special form of simile for a while. I call it the switcheroo (regretting that one to be honest), whereby one ‘half’ of the simile is split (red like a snapper, not as White as Barry). Switcheroos are like simile-pun hybrids, and I love them.

We end today’s simile journey with another possible case of mistaken identity. I think it’s another switcheroo, but who is Bobby? We can probably discount Jeru being an avid Dick King-Smith fan but you never know. I did wonder if it might be another Wu-Tang alias reference, but it would be a pretty obscure one. So I’ve settled on funk artist Bobby Glover’s 1984 album instead. That’s some marvellous cover art.

So all that remains is for Jeru to reiterate how good he is at this rapping business. And who are we to argue? The proof’s right here.

Pop quiz for apprentice simile spotters: have I missed a simile in the next line?

You’re probably like ‘what’s he on?’
Because I rock it from the start till the beat is gone
Not in the mafia but I’m the microphone don
And the words that I shoot out my mouth are teflon
Jeru never touch ya, microphone wrecker
Leave out in the stretcher, step up in my sector
Try to match wits but the mental will crush ya
Jeru the Damaja, the suntoucher
Peace

Pop quiz answer: no. I occasionally get twisted up on these, but it doesn’t feel that the use of ‘like’ here is comparing two things. With a bit of generous interpretation it could be, but I’ve had a bit much of Jeru’s boasting and am teaching him a lesson. Someone should write a cautionary fable about that.

[Outro]

Ya
This is it right here
Our flow gettin’ down

I’m not gettin’ down. Quite the opposite, I can barely contain myself. Jeru delivers a simile masterclass in this tune, packing in 19 in a little over two minutes’ of rapping time. That is remarkable.

Yet this is a six and a half minute track. And so a potential record similes per minute (SPM) score is reduced to a relegation-zone threatening 2.96. But let’s not forget SPM’s less glamorous metric cousin, the words per simile (WPM) score. At a truly economical 18.2, Jeru is straight in at the top of that scoreboard. Maybe he has earned the right to brag after all.

Practically every line of this rap is either simile or metaphor. If I were cataloguing hip-hop metaphor too, we’d have been here all day. Stunning stuff.

The stats

Similes:19
Words:382
Words per simile:20.11
Length:6m31s
Similes per minute:2.96
Exact percentage of time Jeru spends rapping on this track:33.76%

Leave a comment. Bonus points for similes.