(12) digable planets, "rebirth of slick (cool like dat)"
(5) crash test dummies, "mmm mmm mmm mmm"
Read the essays, watch the videos, listen to the songs, feel free to argue below in the comments or tweet at us, and consider. Winner is the aggregate of the poll below and the @marchfadness twitter poll. Polls closed @ 9am Arizona time on 3/9.
benjamin rybeck on "mmm mmm mmm mmm"
“Once, there was this kid who…”
To make any argument about “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm,” the 1993 number one (number one! (in Germany anyway)) single by Crash Test Dummies, feels a bit like rehashing a vicious disagreement over where to eat dinner, twenty years after the fact, to people who never participated in the original argument. Which is to say, who much cares, or understands your one-time emotional heatedness? And, in telling the story, you mostly just feel embarrassed about how serious you once were—and angry about how nobody seems to get it.
There’s something very high-school-health-class-y about this song: strained lyrics about understanding. I mean, like, look around, man. See that kid who has that weird boil on his face? You might laugh, but you don’t know! You don’t know what it’s like! Have some fucking empathy, or something.
(Speaking of health class, I took it senior year of high school, at the last possible moment, and at a time when I didn’t take much seriously. One day in class, I spent the entire period leafing through the liner notes for Silver Jews’ American Water. Another day, practicing CPR, I hit my friend’s chest screaming Harvey Keitel’s dialogue from Reservoir Dogs: “You’re gonna be okay! Say the goddamn words!” I was too cool for that shit. Now, if anybody around me ever needs CPR, I’m certain I will not know what to do.)
Of course, “fucking empathy” was a vaguely popular theme on 90s radio (on which the word “fucking” would be excised, replaced with a weird sound similar to somebody tearing a piece of paper, or dragging a stylus across a record). “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm” slates comfortably next to songs like Third Eye Blind’s “Jumper” (1997) or Everlast’s “What It’s Like” (1998), the latter of which shares Crash Test Dummies’ three act structure. (“You will deny me three times,” Jesus told Peter, to which Dummies’ lead singer Brad Roberts might respond, “But, like, don’t we, as human beings, deny each other every day?”)
I don’t mean to belabor the point, but “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm” is gloriously, blissfully stupid in a way that pop music doesn’t often reach. Not stupid in the way pop music, full of empty platitudes, often scans as stupid, because Crash Test Dummies really want to mean things at you. These are loaded platitudes, and any time you open yourself up to try and sound important, you run the risk of sounding stupid.
“Once, there was this band who / wanted to make you change the way you look at the world…”
Each verse of “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm” recounts a human life under judgment. The first: a kid gets in a car crash, his hair turns white; thus, people judge. The second: a girl doesn’t want to change in the locker room because she has blotchy skin; thus, people judge. The third: someone goes to a church where they, like, lurch and shit; thus, people judge. Fucking people: don’t they get it? The chorus, of course, just goes, “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm,” which is probably the noise Crash Test Dummies want us to make while we listen to this song, hand against chin, ruminating on the philosophy of it all.
Making fun of this song is easy—too easy. (It’s also really fun, which complicates the issue.) But I may as well confess that all of the above I recall from memory: I have not listened to this song in probably fifteen years. Yet somehow I remember it, even though I was only eight when it first came out, even though I have no memory of every actually hearing it. A brief poll of my current coworkers, aged twenty-eight to forty-two, yields something similar: a vaguely encyclopedic memory anchored to no actual experience. This is, I think, the best argument that we are all just replicants, implanted with the same memories to make us feel human. “Mmm,” after all, is a very human noise. Hearing something thought-provoking. Tasting something good. Orgasm-ing. Human, all.
Of course, the song does exist. You can Google it! (I just, in fact, did so. Type in “Mmm,” and Google thinks you want “Mmm Nigeria,” “Mmmbop,” or—hilariously—“Mmmm.” Expand that search to “Mmm Mmm,” and Google immediately knows what you’re looking for.) You can even watch the music video, which features an audience of prim parents watching a school production, in which each of “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm”’s three narratives is explicitly reenacted, making the song itself sound, in retrospect, like one of those “literal video” interpretations that were popular a few years ago, with internet assholes rerecording lyrics to correspond exactly to what’s happening in overly earnest music videos.
Of course, few people come to pop music looking for nuance, which is my “duh” statement here. (Can you tell? I’m way too cool for this noise.) In 1994, the year “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm” made Billboard’s “Hot 100 Singles” list, Billboard’s number one song was “The Sign” by Ace of Base, which features “mmm”-inducing philosophical lyrics like, “Life is demanding without understanding.” Crash Test Dummies answer this notion with a fairly damning couplet between the second and third verses: “Both the girl and boy were glad / ‘cause one kid had it worse than that.” More than the lazily memorable chorus, this is the lyric I always remember first, and the one that makes this song, for a moment, sort of brilliant: for all of Crash Test Dummies’ self-congratulatory consciousness raising, there’s still an acknowledgement that pretty much everyone, no matter how shitty their lives are, mostly feel good when they encounter people shittier.
“Once there was this song that / accidentally said something kinda smart…”
For most of my adult life, I have been a karaoke lurker, rarely a karaoke singer, which requires a degree of self-erasure that I don’t think I’ve ever experienced fully. I have driven drunk, I have confessed infidelity to a girlfriend, and I have gotten so angry in front of coworkers that I have broken countertops, yet none of these things have shaken my sense of who I am at my core more than singing karaoke. Going to a karaoke night—which I do now maybe once a month—feels more transgressive than pretty much anything I can imagine.
In Houston, there’s one karaoke night I like to go to, governed (all karaoke masters are “governors”) by a man who looks a Saussurean signified of the signifier “karaoke”: pudgy, with long gray hair, clad in faded hair-band t-shirts, capable of doing an un-fucking-believable rendition of “Young Americans.” Whenever I go to this particular karaoke night, I harbor fantasies of writing a book about the entire enterprise of singing other people’s songs, with this man as my star. One night, I observed him ducking outside onto a fire escape between songs to smoke cigarettes, so I went outside, circled the building’s perimeter, and climbed the fire escape stairs to wait for him. I smoked a cigarette there, hoping he’d come out and think me cool, but he didn’t emerge in the time it took me to judge myself, finally, unsuitable for being out in public.
Several weekends ago, at this same karaoke bar, I decided, prompted by this assignment (craving, like, a fun, experiential “hook” for this essay, the way I was taught in MFA school), that I wanted to sing “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm.” This also happened to be the night, out with my girlfriend’s library coworkers, that the bar was invaded by a bachelor party consisting entirely of metal-heads. I was all set to sing “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm,” really I was, when one of the heads—the husband-to-be—took the stage to sing “Killing In the Name Of” by Rage Against the Machine, out two years before Crash Test Dummies’ single. He was big, this guy, probably ten years older than me, and earlier in the night I had watched him ogle my girlfriend during her unexpectedly blockbuster performance of “You Oughta Know” (during which the metal guys were fucking metal).
I hated this man, this husband-to-be, taking the stage. I couldn’t wait for him to fuck everything up so that I could sing, proudly, successfully.
For all the social importance of Rage Against the Machine, the lyrics of “Killing In the Name Of” are no less stupid than those of “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm”: “And now you do what they told you,” or, “Those who died are justified,” or, “Fuck you I won’t do what you tell me,” all repeated, repeated, repeated. But I swear to you, this man, this head, he came off the stage to me, and looked into my eyes, and sang—and when he held the mic out for me, what can I say? Fuck me, I did what he told me, and I sang too—and watching him there, a few nights before his wedding, before a seismic shift that would form a fault line in his life, watching him so fully embody this moment, embarrassment and all, I felt like a teenager may have felt seeing Rage Against the Machine themselves during their prime—or, at least, if not exactly that feeling, the emotional difference was negligible. Nuance, in some moments, has nothing on immediacy.
I did not sing “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm” that night, because I did not think I could do so without irony, and some things are above irony. As I get older, there are moments where I am shocked by the openheartedness of the world, and the eagerness that people have to occasionally be totally uncool—and, frankly, kind of bad at what they’re doing. And that night, I wondered whether those two lines in “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm” ever felt as real to Crash Test Dummies as they felt to me: that there I was, selfishly hoping these metal-heads would bomb, hoping they had it worse than I did so I could sing some shitty song I hate (but actually, have you guessed yet, really sorta love) with appropriate ironic distance.
“Once, there was this guy who / tried to be cool in the karaoke room…”
And that night, yes, I stalked the karaoke man outside (yet again—I want him to like me), but eventually I went home, and I fell asleep. The next morning, drinking my coffee and pulling at my hair, I was shocked to find a dead strand tangled between my fingers, totally white: the first time in my life I realized that, one day, my hair would lose its color. Unlike the character in the Crash Test Dummies song, it won’t take something as dramatic as a car crash, but it will happen all the same. And in a moment of surprise, I showed it to my girlfriend, who was still sleep encrusted, and I said, “How about that?”
“Mmm,” she said, and closed her eyes.
Benjamin Rybeck is the manager at Brazos Bookstore in Houston. He has some fiction and nonfiction that has appeared in some places. He has taught creative writing at the University of Arizona and for various literary nonprofits around Houston. In 2017, he joined the advisory board for the literary journal Gulf Coast.
michael d. snediker on "rebirth of slick (cool like dat)"
Digable Planets, an early 90’s trio of Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler, “Ladybug” Viera, and “Doodlebug” Irving, married hip-hop to jazz, and like kindred groups such as Tribe Called Quest, P.M. Dawn, and De La Soul, made music in what F.O. Matthiessen might have called the optative mode.  The cover art of Reachin’, the album on which “Rebirth of Slick” appears, shows the three MCs sprouting out of a root system (should one have missed the pun of planet and plant). If the coupling of reaching and rootedness suggests at outset a contradiction in terms, the image’s heliotropism oppositely posits a succinct argument for groundedness and external outward movement as mutually constitutive. While there’s a bracing vitalism in the affective force of harder rap acts like Ice Cube, 2Pac, and Public Enemy, the reflective balm that Digable Planets seems to offer feels no less regenerative. I was old enough to know this song when it first went gold, but I didn’t, not in any substantive way; I’m only really hearing it now. All these years later, I can only imagine how dynamic this music really sounded at its inception. Not unlike “Smoke, Lilies, and Jade,” Richard Bruce Nugent’s infamous Harlem Renaissance soliloquy to indolence as queer activism, this is music that believes in the galvanizing force of a slow burn.
1993, the year that “Rebirth of Slick” won a Grammy, was also the first year of Bill Clinton’s presidency. As though haunted by his ingratiating campaign semi-confession of not having inhaled, the Clinton years ramped up both the rhetoric and police presence of the “drug war” inherited from his Republican predecessors. With the previous decade’s crack epidemic subsiding, the Clinton government turned its attention to marijuana. Arrests and property forfeitures sky-rocketed, and the prison system mushroomed by over fifty percent. In this context, at least, “Rebirth of Slick” comes across as a ganja-friendly rally in the spirit of Michelle Obama’s recent entreaty, “when they go low, we go high.”
Led by Ishmael Butler, the group’s singular sound comes not simply from the jazz it samples, but the generous, conceptually ambitious spirit of the sampling. With the feel of neither ornament nor co-optation, these riffs and licks are spun into an alternative universe, a sort of musical deep time that re-conceives the referential as synchronic (one of several ways we might understand “A New Refutation of Time and Space,” the album’s grandiose but also non-facetious dissertational. In this case, the buoying medium that floats the rhymes along (like a butterfly, Butler might say) is Art Blakey’s late-70s jazz composition, “Stretching.” In Blakey’s original, Valery Ponomarev’s trumpet hits and Dennis Irwin’s bass are bright and fast; Digable Planets slows these down to a simmer.
Have you ever experienced the singular pleasure of watching an expert chef executing a simple meal? In the absence of pyrotechnics, one all the more distinctly imagines one can perceive the acumen of timing or easy brilliance of intuition, isolated from the culinary business of what any amateur might likewise accomplish. One of the most keenly gratifying aspects of such an encounter is the feeling of a certain meditative attention shaped in the instant by the attention toward which it, in turn, is directed, like calibrating one’s somnolent breathing to that of the person sleeping beside you. This isn’t to say the song is a snoozer, unlike Nugent’s text, which is difficult to read without feeling stuporously lulled by its careful, idiosyncratic mesmerism. Instead, the song seems to cultivate the soft eyes of a wakefulness not often associated with an African American attention, a practice of attention informing the startling penultimate metaphor of Rankine’s Citizen: “you have to create a/ truce—/ a truce with the patience of a stethoscope.”
"Rebirth of Slick” opens with the isolated, decelerated shimmer of Irwin’s bass. Around the eleventh second, the song adds to the bass a steady series of spondaic snaps, the listener perhaps experiencing, here, the frisson of Blakey’s layered beat being recreated as if from scratch (onions thrown into the skillet’s heated oil). There are approximately ten seconds of this austere beat of bass and snap, until the drums come in. At this point—like following someone’s breath or counting out one’s own—one might not be surprised when this trio of sounds lasts just another ten seconds before giving way to the song’s (both songs’) inimitable brass. That the first half-minute of “Rebirth of Slick” is a triptych can’t help but figure the three members of the group, although as Sasha Frere-Jones has noted in a 2011 review in The New Yorker, Butler’s own intellectual repertoire was influenced by that of his father, a UVA history professor versed in revolutionary black jazz artists such as Sun Ra and Pharaoh Sanders and in this vein, the song’s opening play of thirds no less conveys the opening incantation of a spell commensurate with Sun Ra’s own investment in esoterica: “we be to rap what key be to lock.”
“Rebirth of Slick (Cool like Dat)” is a one-hit wonder only insofar as the national metric by which it is recognized is a white one. That the song beat out Arrested Development, Cypress Hill, Dr Dre. and Snoop Dogg, and Naughty by Nature for a 1993 Grammy is erroneously invoked as an apogee that the band was never able to repeat. But since when have the Grammys gotten it right? I’m not suggesting that the song didn’t deserve the award, but that winning doesn’t say enough when the Recording Academy continues to celebrate music mostly to the extent that it contributes to the consolidation of bourgeois taste at the expense of music that otherwise interrupts or complicates it. After all, the Grammys that celebrated “Rebirth of Slick” over the above acts is the same one that celebrates Adele over Beyonce. What the Grammys got wrong in 1993 was their apparent misconception of the Digable Planets sound as that of an African American lounge act, a cool-without-content message that seemed enough innocuous (by white American culture standards) that it might be absorbed by white culture and redirected. After all, the early nineties in American music culture would never be known more generally as the Rebirth of the Slick so much as the advent of Tipper Gore’s Parental Advisory labels for records with “explicit content.”
In this context, the industry’s myopic celebration of Digable Planets anticipates the song’s use in an inane 2009 commercial for Tide Cold Water. The ad opens with a series of washing machine dials in close-up, flipping of their own volition from hot to cold, like Mickey’s broom in Fantasia, records spinning themselves. Never has the refrain of “Cool like dat,” felt so literal, so toothlessly de-racialized, as when the commercial’s thirty-second spot turns to the genre’s paradigmatic scene of comparing the brand at hand to one of its ostensible inferiors by showing two otherwise identical pieces of clothing in split-screen. We have, here, two white t-shirts. Their whiteness wouldn’t so much conjure the very spirit of Tipper Gore and Susan Baker—let alone the white hoods in the closets of Alt-Right Trump-supporters—were the shirts not stained, of all things, with chocolate pudding.
Tide Cold Water, cool like dat, restores the shirt on the left to a pristine perfect white, reiterated at commercial’s end by a woman (resembling a young Laura Bush) evidently inspecting the said shirt, pleased. “Rebirth of Slick” supplies to the commercial a hipness that has nothing to do with laundry, notwithstanding Tide’s subliminal positing of molecular affinity between the music and the detergent at hand. Bowdlerizing if not literally sanitized, the music practically lifts the chocolate from the fibers of a cotton shirt that can’t not speak in the context it itself proposes of the indelibly brutalizing legacy of slavery on which the antebellum cotton industry depended.
If such a reading seems histrionic in light of the aesthetic levity that Digable Planets seems to profess, it plays all the same to the latter’s implicit belief in the karma of what goes around comes around, not to mention the song’s performance of an ethics of interconnection capable of dissolving the flint of the first person singular into the relations of which it is an expression. When Butterfly, up first at the mike, intones “I’m Cool like Dat,” the singular pronoun isn’t a sticking point so much as the inception of a lesson in giving itself up: unlike the self at the center of songs disparate as Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” LUNIZ’s “I got 5 on it,” Whitney Houston’s “I’m Every Woman,” the only temporarily singular self of “Cool like Dat” performs its own re-calibration toward a trans-historical, inter-psychical community of “cool.”
Up next, Viera tweakingly shifts the refrain to “I’m Chill Like Dat,” further shifted in Doodlebug’s final set (each of the three taking turns at the mike in performances remarkable, as others have noted, for their lack of posturing machismo or otherwise competing charisma) to “I’m Peace Like Dat.” At some point in an early Washington Post article, Butler insists, contra Arrested Development, that Digable Planets “isn’t talking about peace and happy vibes.” I understand Butler’s assertion not as a wholesale abjuring of peace or happiness, but as a wariness of a culture that inoculatingly reduces either term to the “happy vibes” of commodity fetishism.
The song’s resistance to the strategic frivolousness of the above surfaces most powerfully in the genius of the deictic second half of its hook, like dat: an open but not endless circuit of reference insofar as the universe of correspondences potentially signified is singularly shaped by the difference between the dentalized “d” sound of “dat” and the conventional dental fricative of “that.” The former serves as a shibboleth, pronounceable on some tongues but not on others. “Dat” wishfully conjures a dimension just past the white hand that reaches out to grasp it. Inspired by an excellent group of grad students, I’ve recently been thinking harder about Emerson in terms of race relations. In this light, even those lines I’ve lived with longest acquire a new texture. “I take the evanescence and lubricity of all objects, which lets them slip through our fingers, then when we clutch hardest, to be the most unhandsome part of our condition.” When it comes to race (in our own time, of course, no less than Emerson’s) we might well ask whose condition, whose fingers. How not to hear the slickness of “Rebirth of Slick” as just such a fugitive, lubricious object?
In the face of the machinery of white capitalism into which the physical and psychical labor of this country’s minority persons has never not been fed, “dat” signals many things, including the ideal of an aesthetic commons traceable from the legacy of slave songs and be-bop to hip-hop and afrofuturism. In the words of Langston Hughes, “every time a cop hits a Negro with his Billy club, that old club says ‘BOP! BOP!.... BE-BOP!....MOP!....BOP!.... That’s what Bop is. Them young colored kids who started it, they know what bop is.” Much as the white music industry wishfully might imagine “Rebirth of Slick” apart from this history, some things won’t wash out.
“Cool like Dat” might be mine to love and praise, but it isn’t mine. In 1993, I was sixteen and—to paraphrase Frank Sinatra curving into Chet Baker— it might have been a very good year for small town girls and soft summer nights but not for me. Not like that, not beyond the nonetheless not dismissible statistical situation even as, as far as statistics go, it probably looked good enough just past the narcissism of its own watery, not quite integumental perimeter. I was a white boy in southern CT, thirty miles from the Long Island Sound; a white boy in a white family flanked by two golden retrievers, relentlessly sunny by suburban Trauerspiel standards, like a pair of Dutch tourists, the rough taffy of their tongues lolling like a Darwinian trick: to look most placatingly content while catching one’s breath.
I knew “Cool like Dat” as the song that white boys—in all their puka-necklaced, pop-collared splendor—unsuccessfully tried to impersonate as I unsuccessfully tried to pass as one of them. I’m embarrassed to have been so sheltered, to have taken my own racial responsibility for granted in the panic of my own nascent experience of double consciousness. “Rebirth of Slick” was light years ahead.
 I should say makes, not made, given the excellent news of a Digable Planets reunion tour, starting this coming May.
Michael D Snediker is a writer and a teacher. His most recent poetry book, The New York Editions, the winner of this past year's Poets Out Loud prize, will be published next Fall by Fordham University Press. After years of looking for love in the wrong places, he's coming around again to the notion of a long-distance relationship. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.