Poh-Pih Ni Segassem Neddih: Hidden Messages in Hip-Hop
“Backmasking” is a tricky little way of hiding messages in music by recording words and then inserting them into songs in reverse. To find these hidden messages, you used to need an expensive record player with the ability to play in reverse or you could manually play a record in reverse using your hand. More recently, the move to digital audio has made it super easy for anyone to play and analyze them, with many rappers like Missy Elliott, Eminem, and Jay-Z in on the act.
A Long History
While the phenomenon of backmasking in music is relatively new, the playing of recordings in reverse is a century old practice. Occultist and Magician Aleister Crowley praised the practice of listening to music backwards. In his tome Magick, Crowley suggested magic users learn to think in a reverse manner. Crowley believed listening to music in reverse provided an excellent way to train one’s mind to do so using an external means.
Thomas Edison, the father of recorded audio, also played early recordings backwards. The author of Taboo Tunes: A History of Banned Bands and Censored Songs notes that Edison felt it was quite similar to the proper version at times, but that playing songs in reverse created a completely different, ethereal experience overall.
Messages, whether real or imagined, do pop up from time to time in reversed audio. A classic example comes in Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” where the chorus of the song reverses to sound like the band is leaving the message, “It’s fun to smoke marijuana,” for listeners.
During the 1980s, parents and religious groups sought out demonic messages in metal and rock lyrics. A small number of Christian groups created an outcry by accusing Judas Priest, Electric Light Orchestra (yeah, I couldn’t believe that one either), and Led Zeppelin of including reversed subliminal messages that suggested suicide and Satan worship on their albums. One shouldn’t be too surprised. There are individuals out there who believe Toy Story 3 is rife with subliminal messages.
Birth of the “ish”
Backmasking is actively used to edit four letter words to create the “clean” versions of songs played on the radio and for sale at large retail chains like Wal-Mart. Bizarre sounds are at least better than beeps, dropped audio, or buzzing.
A reversal of the word shit leaves an “ish” sound, which led to the use of “ish” as a euphemism for shit in spoken slang. The Fugees are thought to be the first to make this substitution throughout an album. They used the technique on 1996’s The Score.
Modern backmasking is considerably more deliberate than the assumed messages in earlier songs. Intentional examples of backmasking are popular in hip-hop music. Digital audio formats makes it even easier to find these messages, as a single click can play a song in reverse. Britney Spears is thought to have included an extremely sexual backmasked message in 1999′s “Hit Me Baby One More Time,” but the message itself is garbled at best.
Producer and rapper Missy Elliot included a backmasked line in 2002′s “Work It,” a message so obvious that the sound of reverse words can easily be heard as gibberish throughout the chorus. The message is a bit mundane, however, as Missy Elliot simply repeats the previous line, “I put my thing down, flip it, and reverse it,” backwards. It’s merely a clever inside joke when viewed in the context of the song. Eminem included a similarly benign message by inserting “Yeah, it is Slim…It’s Eminem…It’s Eminem” in reverse into the chorus of “My Name Is” on 1999′s The Slim Shady LP.
The artist Jay-Z is accused of placing the line “666…murder murder Jesus…666” in his track “Lucifer 9″ from The Black Album. This message, however, doesn’t exist on The Black Album version of the track. The satanic line is a construct made in jest by DJ Danger Mouse when he mixed Jay-Z’s vocal tracks with the Beatles The White Album to create his 2004 mash-up, The Grey Album. Jay-Z’s complete lack of involvement failed to stop at least one preacher from making a sermon out of this backmasked message.
This is far from the first accusation of backmasking made against Jay-Z, with Internet conspiracy theorists singling out a line that vaguely sounds something like “We Killed Tupac” in 2011′s “Ni**as in Paris” and suggesting politically charged and satanic messages are present in “Single Ladies” by Beyoncé. Really.
To end on a little bit lighter note, those Juggalo emperors who are not quite cognizant of how magnets work, The Insane Clown Posse, often purposely place backmasked messages in their songs mocking listeners who are looking for something strange, as does The Blood Hound Gang. The latter arguably had the most fun with backmasking on their albums, at times deftly converting Discover Channel-esque dialogue into wild messages. The Blood Hound Gang’s clearest backmasked message, “Devil child will wake up and eat Chef Boyardee Beefaroni,” comes from the track “Lift Your Head Up High” on 1996′s One Fierce Beer Coaster. The forward version sounds like gibberish, but the reverse makes for a nice jab at overly concerned parents acting out in the 1980s. You can hear the backmasked portion of the song below.
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