Magoo Was A True Hip-Hop Original

todayAugust 15, 2023

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Rap has lost one of its last true originals in Melvin “Magoo” Barcliff, who died earlier this week at the age of 50. Best known as the rhyme partner of superproducer Timbaland, Magoo occupied a unique position in the spectrum of the genre. He was much more than a sidekick, as he shared co-billing with his do-it-all bandmate, but never actually a solo artist. He was something like a combination of A Tribe Called Quest’s Phife Dawg and Outkast’s André 3000 – but at the same time, nothing like them (or anyone else, really) at all.

I was, like most rap fans in the late 1990s, introduced to Magoo through his contributions to Timbaland & Magoo’s 1997 debut album, Welcome to Our World – especially its groundbreaking singles, “Up Jumps da Boogie” and “Luv 2 Luv U” and their eye-popping music videos. Those videos dominated the music video countdown shows in a lot of ways – while they certainly usually landed high on those lists, they also stood out because there was nothing else like them.

This was the heyday of Blackground Entertainment, as it was called then under its distribution deal with Atlantic. This was when positive word-of-mouth from Aaliyah’s 1996 sophomore album One in a Million was enough to generate buzz for practically anything Timbaland touched as a producer. Ginuwine’s Ginuwine…the Bachelor and Missy Elliott’s Supa Dupa Fly were megahits of hip-hop and R&B, and then, before going solo himself, Timbaland made sure to put on his oldest friend, Magoo, who he’d met in high school along with fellow future Virginia Beach superstar Pharrell Williams.

Back then, Tim, Magoo, and Pharrell had formed A Tribe Called Quest-esque trio called Surrounded By Idiots and recorded a demo that somehow survives on YouTube to this day. Listening to it, you can hear the formation of the lyrical chemistry between Timbaland and Magoo, the off-kilter sense of humor that could disarm and charm even the most skeptical listener. What younger readers have to understand about Magoo’s style is how unique it was at the time, and how impressive it was that he and Tim decided to do their own thing on that debut.

The year before had seen the releases of something like a dozen of hip-hop’s most pivotal albums, including but not limited to Nas’ It Was Written, Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt, The Fugees’ The Score, Lil Kim’s Hardcore, De La Soul’s Stakes Is High, and Redman’s Muddy Waters. Hip-hop was grimy. It was soaked in funk and soul, in gritty gangster tales and dizzying displays of internal rhyme and witty wordplay. If, in the early ‘90s, it had been a goofy teen, all bright colors and bouncy dances and The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air, by the late ‘90s, it was more of a pretentious art school student, hanging up a Boondocks Saints poster in its dorm room in an effort to be taken seriously.

And into that climate came Magoo, all nasal pitch and unadorned penmanship, whose most famed lyrical quote to this day is still a hilarious flip of The Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird.” Yes, Tim’s soundscapes set the projects he produced apart from what the rest of the world was doing in a huge way. But his futuristic funk was anchored by the old-school leanings of his rhyme partners, Magoo and Missy Elliott, who stripped down the hyper-verbal wording of their contemporaries and just… well, rhymed.

Magoo could catch you off guard with unexpected references, and skewed boasts like, “Offbeat and on beat, old school like Beat Street / I stink like Pop’s feet, make sweat with no heat.” His verses were always worth a listen because you never knew what he was going to say next. Over the course of their partnership, Tim and Magoo released three albums, never quite reaching the heights of their first after hip-hop finally started to catch up with them. But for a time, Magoo was one of rap’s most innovative and unique voices, paired with one of its most forward-looking producers. Magoo is an indelible part of hip-hop history, a one-of-one.

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