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Wale, Black Star and the Zunguzung Meme

There’s something so familiar about Wale’s “TV in the Radio” that it didn’t strike me until just now, late in the evening when I should be fast asleep. Yes, the song is catchy as all else, but seems so grounded in a historical sense of hip-hop. Something fresh, yet something experienced.

It hit me after examining the chorus of the track. It’s reminiscent of the excellent Black Star song “Definition.”

Which is reminiscent of something else.

MIT professor Wayne Marshall calls it the Zunguzung Meme, and its a musical theme in hip-hop that stretches back to the genre’s zygotic state. The melody began with Jamaican reggae artist Yellowman with the song “Zungguzungguguzungguzeng“:

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Though Yellowman isn’t exactly a musician most hip-hop listeners can name drop, that one singular song has had more impact on hip-hop than many rappers today can count personal hits. As hip-hop evolved out of reggae, Marshall’s observation of the Zunguzung meme is an excellent example into the transformation of one song from a singular culture into a veritable musical family tree that bridges nationalities, languages and genres.

As far as the Zunguzung meme’s role in hip-hop prominence and the veritable lack of any archetypal reggae in many hip-hop tracks in the meme, Marshall puts it all into perspective:

…This is partly KRS-One’s fault, for he so successfully infused his influential recordings with reggae borrowings that they almost immediately became more familiar than foreign. But it is no doubt also in part the fault of Biggie and Tupac, whose uses of the melody were likely more widely heard than any others and yet made no overt reference to Jamaica.

And yet, there’s something about Wale’s “TV in the Radio” that made me think of the meme a lot faster than I might have previously. Perhaps it’s because I’ve had the pleasure of taking a couple of classes with Marshall, who’s deft ability as an instructor is something that must be witnessed: when he rolled out the Zunguzung meme, you could practically hear the gears in 100+ students heads turning at a higher speed than they had in any class that day/week/month/year. (Be sure to check out Marshall’s mix of the meme at the bottom of his post here.)

Still, beyond Marshall’s intelligent insight, there’s something about Wale’s track that harkens back to the reggae undertones that have been buried over the years. Perhaps the horns match up with that in Yellowman’s original track. Or the near-patwa sounding rasp of the chorus. Whatever it is, the track is an excellent edition to the Zunguzung meme and a reflection of Wale’s individuality to boot.

Wale – “TV in the Radio”:

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Black Star – “Definition”:

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