In the heat of the battle between labels and streaming services fighting for your hard-earned dollar, it’s easy to take entities like Adult Swim for granted. Starting off as little more than Cartoon Network’s alternative adult programming block back in 2001, the gang over at Williams Street has expanded AS into music, online games, and even their own annual cruise in New York City. Williams Street Records in particular, founded by AS’ VP of marketing and creator of TOONAMI Jason DeMarco in 2007, has blossomed into a haven for some of the best independent music you can find anywhere, regardless of genre. Their infamous bumps have helped launch the careers of countless beat makers (Flying Lotus, Thelonious Martin) and even helped revitalize the careers of Killer Mike and El-P, which resulted in the birth and explosion of Run the Jewels. The zanily complex web of music at Adult Swim can be traced back to one central knot: The Mouse and the Mask.
Yes, we can thank the collaboration between the metal-faced villain (MF DOOM), Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton, and Adult Swim for effectively giving birth to Adult Swim’s music scene. “[DangerMouse] had been providing music for Cartoon Network for a show I worked on called TOONAMI and he came to me with the idea of he and DOOM doing an album using only TOONAMI samples,” DeMarco mentioned in a 2012 interview with The Hollywood Reporter. The out-of-left-field decision struck DeMarco as a risk for TOONAMI, but he figured that the zany experimental vibes of Adult Swim were “a perfect fit.”
By 2005, Doom was well past his Zev Love X days and had firmly established himself as independent hip-hop’s literal and figurative lyrical super villain. The internal rhymes and obscure pop culture references peppered throughout his music, including solo projects released under different names (King Geedorah, Viktor Vaughn) and one-off group efforts (Monsta Island Czars, Madvillain) had already proven that “The super flow with more jokes than Bazooka Joe” was plenty zany on his own before Adult Swim came into the picture. Ditto for Danger Mouse, whose Jay-Z by way of The Beatles remix project The Grey Album launched him into the stratosphere only a year prior.
The two had been on record together before, working on a Zero 7 remix from 2004, Prince Po’s “Social Distortion,” and most notably on Gorillaz’s “November Has Come,” but the duo’s pairing with Adult Swim seemed to put them in the mood for fun. The Mouse and the Mask marks the first time that Doom’s rhymes were backed by production with an equal air of vintage playfulness, which is boosted by the Adult Swim motif. Hip-hop courtroom stories don’t come weirder than the ominous xylophone-tinged “Basket Case,” bookended with vocal cuts from Harvey Birdman: Attorney At Law; neither do songs about piss, which Doom manages to craft an entire 30 bars around on the aptly titled “Vats of Urine” with help from Aqua Teen Hunger Force‘s Mooninites.
Listening to Doom wax esoteric of his own accord is always a treat (especially on the Talib Kweli-assisted “Old School”), but when he and Danger Mouse factor in Adult Swim, it’s obvious that the trio was born to work together. “Space Ho’s” is little more than Doom hi-jacking an episode of Space Ghost Coast To Coast and “calling out” the network (“How they gave his own show to Tad Ghostal? Any given second he can go mad postal“), while “Perfect Hair” and “A.T.H.F.” are brief synopses of their respective shows that border on blatant advertisement (Doom even voiced Sherman the Giraffe on Perfect Hair Forever); all of which is intercut with skits of Aqua Teens’ nominal leader Master Shake leaving Doom increasingly heated voicemails.
But even if you don’t know your Sealab 2021 from your Venture Bros., The Mouse and the Mask still stands as an impressive showcase of the duo’s pure skill. All things considered, this is the lightest and most fun record in Doom’s discography. Across 14 tracks, only Talib Kweli, Cee-Lo Green (whose hook on “Benzi Box” might have kickstarted Gnarls Barkley shortly after), and fellow super villain Ghostface Killah drop features, and Danger Mouse’s knocking beats bring out the hunger and the heart in each MC.
Released on Epitaph Records in 2005, The Mouse and the Mask turned out to be a surprise hit for everyone involved; Danger Mouse formed Gnarls Barkley with Cee-Lo Green shortly after and earned himself a Producer Of The Year nomination at the Grammys, while Doom’s lyrics appealed him to Danger Mouse’s home at Lex Records, a company that Doom’s worked closely with since and also reissued this LP for its 10th anniversary this year. As for Adult Swim, the success of Mouse led to the free 7-track EP Occult Hymn a year later and collaborations with record labels like Stones Throw and Definitive Jux that eventually blossomed into Williams Street Records, which led to some show soundtracks and was Adult Swim’s first official dip in the pool before the Adult Swim Singles Program premiered in 2010. Leave it to a super villain to spawn a movement that would expand the reach of late-night TV.