In 2001, Cartoon Network was looking for a way to expand its viewership beyond the average 7-15-year-old cartoon lover, resulting in the creation of Adult Swim. Originally a Sunday-only late night block of uncensored cartoons, the network quickly blossomed into its own entity, forever changing the landscape of late night television. While the effect Adult Swim has had on the popularity of animated television and abstract comedy is immediately recognizable through the swell of copycat programming blocks and sheer ubiquity in popular culture, its contributions to hip-hop culture are less frequently talked about, but ultimately just as important.
Adult Swim’s foray into hip-hop culture was subtle at first. Hip-hop references in shows like Space Ghost: Coast to Coast, The Brak Show, and Aqua Teen Hunger Force (which utilized legendary emcee Schoolly D for its theme song and occasionally narration) have been a staple of Adult Swim’s aesthetic since its inception, but it wasn’t until the network started to really expand that it began to turn a generation of animation lovers into hip-hop heads.
A couple years after its creation, Adult Swim started airing “bumps” between shows, which were short text-only messages set to music. The bumps were quirky and hilarious, but often it was the music behind them that stuck out the most. Instrumentals from the likes of J. Dilla, Madlib, Nujabes and more graced the TV screen of millions of Americans, many of them having no idea they were listening to the music of legends between commercials. From day one, it was very clear that the people behind Adult Swim had a healthy appreciation for hip-hop.
Fast forward a few years and Adult Swim’s hip-hop contributions grew as exponentially as their popularity. Not only were the programs on Adult Swim becoming more and more likely to reference hip-hop culture with shows like Boondocks now in their repertoire, but the network itself had thrown its hat into the music realm with the creation of Williams Street Records. The company was born out of a partnership between Williams Street Productions - who handled the programming for Adult Swim - and Warner Music Group, whose first two offerings were collaborative compilations with Chocolate Industries and Definitive Jux, respectively. These projects introduced cartoon lovers across the country to artists like El-P, Vast Aire, Aesop Rock, Mos Def, and more.
Through Williams Street Records, the people behind Adult Swim were able to more directly affect the music scene they had become so entwined with. They formed alliances with labels like Stones Throw, Ninja Tunes, and Warped Records, produced multiple compilation projects, including a way-ahead-of-its-time Atlanta-specific remix album, and are directly responsible for both Killer Mike’s seminal album R.A.P. Music, and eventually the formation of Run The Jewels.
To this day, Adult Swim has a heavy hand in introducing viewers to hip-hop through programming like Black Jesus and Loiter Squad, a collaboration with Odd Future, as well as through their Adult Swim Singles series, which allows underground artists like Flying Lotus, Joey Purp, Freddie Gibbs, and more to shine on a national level, often times years before their breakout moment occurs. Through careful marketing and a genuine love for the music, Adult Swim has seamlessly integrated the fan bases of animation and hip-hop, strengthening and empowering both along the way.
Whether it was hearing a Dilla beat on a bump, inadvertently becoming a Schoolly D fan through ATHF, or simply enjoying the mind-blowing success of Run The Jewels, many a hip-hop fan has a rogue cartoon programming block to thank for a decade plus of musical influence, and with Adult Swim’s popularity and reach steadily growing, who knows what the future will bring in terms of bridging the gap between these two hugely influential subcultures.
By Brent Bradley. Follow him on Twitter.
Photo Credit: Adult Swim