Pop Talk: Mike Jones (Who?) and Technological Angst, by Justin D Burton

by justindburton on December 12, 2011

I’m Mike Jones/(Who?)/Mike Jones/The one and only/You can’t clone me

A rapper obsessed with his name is nothing new. “Still D.R.E.” “Forgot about Dre,” “Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” “Big Pimpin,” and “My Name Is” all feature hooks built around musicians’ names—names uttered not by the rappers themselves but by colleagues, protégés, and choruses of adoring women.

Snoop Dogg is perhaps the most prolific composer of the name anthem. From “Drop it Like it’s Hot” to “From tha Chuuuch to tha Palace” to “Doggy Dogg World,” Snoop never passes up an opportunity to remind us of his name. His most indelible contribution to the genre, “Who Am I (What’s My Name)?” comes from his first album. Most listeners were familiar with his signature mellifluous flow after his breakout appearance on Dr. Dre’s Chronic, but Snoop doesn’t risk the possibility that we might have forgotten him. The chorus answers the question Snoop poses at the end of each verse: “What’s my motherfuckin name?”

Snoop Doggy Doooooooogg (the bomb)
Snoop Doggy Doooooooogg (Dogg)


His name is soulfully sounded by a consort of adulatory women and punctuated (“the bomb” or “Dogg”) by a basso profundo. This is a bedroom encounter where Snoop comes out on top and the rest of us—from the highest voice to the lowest and all registers in between—are left to call out his name in satisfaction and wonderment.

Mike Jones’ use of his name is curious by comparison. On his 2005 album Who Is Mike Jones, the rapper’s name appears fifty-eight times, but it never crosses any lips but his own. Moreover, nearly every time Mike Jones tells us his name, the response comes back, “Who?” This creates a stuttering effect—”I’m Mike Jones/Who?/Mike Jones”—that throws a real wrench in any toasting plans Jones has. He brags anyway, but his boasts ring hollow when no one knows who he is. Even when he isn’t asked who he is, Jones employs a repetitive style that results in lines being repeated as many as three times before he moves forward with the song (cf. 1:28-1:45 in the video below). Jones’ constant repetitions and ongoing struggle to verify his identity create an anxiety that emanates from every track. Unlike Snoop Dogg, Mike Jones finds himself in the subordinate position. Why?

A few answers suggest themselves, from the underdog mentality many Houston rappers project (despite its many contributions to hip hop, Houston remains home to artists who aren’t particularly well known to casual fans) to his own weight and sex appeal, which is the central topic in “Back Then.”

I remember back then
Most of dem hoes couldn’t stand me
But now dem same hoes beggin me to pull down their panties
A coupla dem said I was cute but I was just too chubby
Same size, a year later, the same hoes wanna fuck me

Beyond these reasons, though, I’d like to suggest that one explanation for Mike Jones’ subordination stems from a general technological angst that haunts the edges of his entire album. Alexander Weheliye, in his study of posthumanism in R&B, notes that black musicians often construct hybrid identities that incorporate technologies in a manner that strengthens human expression. [1. Weheliye’s Phonographies: Grooves in Sonic Afro-Modernity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005) is certainly relevant here, but I’m mostly thinking here of his 2002 essay, “‘Feenin’: Posthuman Voices in Contemporary Black Popular Music,” Social Text 20:2 (2002): 21-47.] Mike Jones seems, on first blush, to do this, too. In addition to mentioning his name so many times on his album, he also calls out his phone number (281-330-8004) fourteen times, album name twelve times, and website (whomikejones.com) twice. Again, rappers rarely shy away from this sort of promotion, but Who Is Mike Jones features these various technologies at an uncommon rate, and it’s these technologies that combine with his name to represent his full identity on the album.

And this identity, as we’ve already noticed, is slipping away from Mike Jones, whose frantic reiterations of his name only underline that fact. As opposed to the artists discussed in Weheliye’s work, Jones’ use of technology projects a fragmented existence, one that is being pulled apart at the seams. Here, technology doesn’t deepen Mike Jones’ humanity; it threatens to erase it.

[dailymotion x2quu]

Six years later, Who Is Mike Jones could be just a curiosity. “Back Then” and “Still Tippin” still make it onto the radio now and again, and a sample from “Back Then” can be heard in internet sensation ASAP Rocky’s “Purple Swag,” but Jones hasn’t vaulted to stardom, and his phone number doesn’t even work. It seems more than a curiosity, though, and may instead be indicative of a very specific point in time.

It can be difficult to remember how different the digital music world was in 2004, when much of the music for Who Is Mike Jones was recorded. iTunes had only just become available on Windows machines, and the iPod still featured a grayscale screen with no pictures. Apple and others were beginning to tame digital music, but most digital consumption occurred in a lawless P2P jungle. Many songs were circulated among P2P users that featured misidentified artists or incorrectly titled songs. With no liner notes or elaborate CD inserts to guide listeners to the proper information, these mistakes could be passed endlessly from one user to the next, denying artists’ their proper due.

Of course, it wasn’t so bad. Most of us who read this site are probably meticulous enough with our collections that we were careful to avoid such mistakes. And within a couple of years, iTunes would rule digital consumption, closely followed by a number of other online outlets that would discipline the passing of files among fans.

Still, for a rapper like Jones, who suffers from an inferiority complex to begin with, it isn’t hard to imagine that the state of digital music at the time he recorded Who Is Mike Jones could seem just unstable enough to effect a certain paranoia about technology and its ability to deliver one’s identity to listeners intact. And so Mike Jones inscribed his name (and number, and website, and album name) in every track of Who Is Mike Jones. Without ever really trusting the technology to carry him through, Jones relied nonetheless on recording and playback machines to hold his name, his identity, for listeners. He left behind a technological angst that sounds like a product of its time, an album birthed into a unique music technology milieu that echoes across every track.

Justin D Burton is Assistant Professor of Music at Rider University. His work revolves around posthumanism and hip hop. He has forthcoming essays in The Oxford Handbook of Mobile Music Studies and the Journal of Popular Culture. He is also web editor for IASPM-US.

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