There’s no escaping the fact that one of Adult Swim’s greatest achievements as a television network is establishing itself as a force for good in the modern music world. The bumps and promos done by the network do a great deal to expose many producers to the network’s viewing audience, and a number of their shows work to make music an integral part of the experience, whether it’s using the music from those artists as soundtrack pieces/theme songs or even having said artists themselves play characters/do cameo roles in their shows. Ever since 2007, Williams Street Records has acted as the crux of all the network’s musical endeavors, working to release a multitude of free compilations to give their music to their audience as well as funding the recording of full studio albums, both paid for and completely free. Despite the label being active for nearly 10 years now, the story of Adult Swim’s rise to musical fame actually started 2 years prior to the label’s formation when, in 2005, they helped promote an album that would go on to be considered a modern classic and one of the seminal hip-hop records of the 2000s: The Mouse And The Mask.
The Mouse And The Mask was released on October 11th, 2005. The album was the product of the DANGERDOOM project, a collaborative effort between then up-and-coming producer Danger Mouse and the enigmatic emcee MF Doom. While the album was released by Epitaph Records, a label primarily known for its alternative rock and punk/metalcore outfits, the actual recording and production was funded entirely by Adult Swim. The idea for the album came from the group’s producer Danger Mouse, who prior to its recording had actually worked pretty closely with Cartoon Network, providing beats and music for the network’s Toonami block. The album was originally pitched to Jason DeMarco as a Toonami-themed record, with Doom rapping over various block-specific beats and samples. DeMarco suggested going with an Adult Swim-themed record instead as it might have a broader appeal, and network head Mike Lazzo agreed with the idea and helped to fund the album’s recording. The project was not only a huge success for Adult Swim but also for MF Doom himself. Doom, prior to the mid-2000s, was still somewhat of an underground name in the hip-hop scene, but the commercial success of The Mouse And The Mask and 2004’s Madvillainy (released under the Madvillain project) provided the one-two punch that helped bring Doom into the limelight and make him a more mainstream musical fixture than ever before.
Stylistically, The Mouse And The Mask is a perfect storm for every party involved. Doom’s production is generally well known for incorporating/remixing music and dialogue samples from various classic television shows and movies, perhaps best demonstrated on 2004’s Mm.. Food which borrowed many dialogue clips from various old comic book cartoons. His style fits right at home with an Adult Swim-themed album, a network whose original programming works on much the same principle: taking mainstream and obscure nostalgic properties and essentially “remixing” them into surreal and off-beat new programs. The same can also be said of Danger Mouse, a producer who remained relatively underground until his 2004 release The Grey Album, a remix album that combined an acapella rendition of Jay-Z’s The Black Album with beats taken from The Beatles’ White Album.
The overall production of the album is quite strong, with lots of catchy classically hip-hop styled beats and fun uses of sampling to add a playful tone to the album. Certain standout tracks included the album opener “El Chupa Nibre” with its jazzy retro-futurist vibe, the “New York streets at night” imagery conveyed in the Harvey Birdman homage “Basket Case”, and the usage of the classic Keith Mansfeld tune “Funky Fanfare” in “Old School” to capture the feeling of spending time watching television. In fact, “Old School” is a strong summation of the album as a whole: the beats, combined with the various dialogue samples and original recorded skits from various Adult Swim characters, work together to simulate the experience of sitting in your living room with the lights out in the dead of night watching these strange cartoons.
Of course, at the end of the day, the main attraction of the album is Doom himself. His signature deep booming voice, offbeat flow, and cryptic lyrics constantly make him one of the most engaging and commanding presences in the hip-hop scene, and that holds especially true here. It’s worth noting that his lyricism here functions not just as an homage to the specific original aspects of Adult Swim, but to the network as a whole and everything it represents. “El Chupa Nibre” is named after and directly references a creature once featured in an episode of Futurama, a series that obviously wasn’t an AS original but managed to find solid popularity through constant syndication, and there’s even a quick Family Guy sample thrown in there as well, a series that was famously revived from cancellation thanks to strong DVD sales and reruns on the network. In addition, there’s a funny line in the song in which Doom compares the attraction between him and woman to, of all things, the romance between the leads of the anime series Inuyasha. It’s safe to assume that means the two of them just repeatedly yell each other’s names when they’re together. The lyrics also mix in a multitude of other topics like how great he is, his problems with other rappers and modern hip-hop in general, and even broad nods to the concept of TV viewing and not just AS specifically, although certain songs do devote themselves to very specific references.
A good chunk of AS original programs are referenced throughout, but Aqua Teen Hunger Force is no doubt the most referenced show on the album, as not only were many samples taken from specific episodes for songs like “Sofa King”, but the voice cast of the show repeatedly cameo as themselves in multiple skits throughout the album, including on the show-specific track “A.H.T.F.”. Meatwad tries to prove his hip-hop skills to Carl, and Shake constantly tries to hit up Doom over the phone to help with album, and it’s indeed hilarious. The other show-specific track is “Perfect Hair”, a show entirely dedicated to spoofing anime tropes and conventions. This song was a no-brainer to include on the album, as Doom himself had a role as a giraffe in the series. Apart from Doom and the various Adult Swim character cameos, there’s some solid guest spots from Doom’s and Danger Mouse’s various preferred collaborators such as Cee-Lo Green (who formed Gnarles Barkley with Danger Mouse) and Ghostface Killah, who’s collaborated with Doom on many occasions.
10 years later, and The Mouse And The Mask still holds up today with its strong production, great sense of humor, and top-quality emcee skills from Doom himself. The album was AS’s first major foray into producing new music, and by all accounts it was a massive success, delivering one of the most essential albums of the 2000s and making Doom a bigger name than ever before. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this lookback at this classic record, and I’ll see you next time.