A Brief History of the “Schoolhouse Rock!” Song “Figure Eight” in Rap
The cultural footprint of the spellbinding 1973 song about times tables and infinitude goes deeper than Elliott Smith and Noah Baumbach.
Late last year I was sent a transfixing and nearly ambient single by an artist named body/negative called “Figure 8,” which instantly bludgeoned me with an overwhelming sense of nostalgia, if not déjà vu. “Bludgeoned,” I know, is a pretty aggressive word for a track as wispy as this, but there’s an uncanniness to the recording that was quickly resolved not when I saw that it was a cover of the Elliott Smith song (which I—sorry—had never heard before), but only when I saw that that song was a cover of a Schoolhouse Rock! track from the ’70s. The disarming lullaby, written by SHR! composer Bob Dorough and sung by jazz vocalist Blossom Dearie, soundtracks the math-class daydreams of a student seemingly competent enough in the subject that she’s worked her eight-centric times tables into gymnastic fantasies while zoning out in class. It’s a deepcut both in the sense that it didn’t accrue the ubiquity and cultural cache of “I’m Just a Bill” or “Conjunction Junction” and in the sense that it seems to have cut deep into the psyche of folks who probably haven’t heard it in decades.
Or did it retain some cultural cache? Upon encountering the song in popular culture for a second time recently (propping up the beat on Tame One’s track “Concerto” from a 2003—the same year T-Rock borrowed that sample—mixtape from the Weathermen, the underground hip-hop clique boasting membership from El-P, Aesop Rock, Cannibal Ox, and other East Coast scenesters from the early-’00s), a little bit of research reminded me that I had come across the sample before: The track was boldly used—lyrics listing multiplication tables and all—during a particularly eerie montage in The Squid in the Whale that sees Jeff Daniels’ grade-school-aged son experimenting with whiskey and contraceptives while left at home alone, oddly playing into the song’s stark duality of its responsible-babysitter motive and viscerally unsettling instrumentation. Aside from straight covers of the track by Smith and body/negative, it seems like the cultural impact of the song plays much more heavily into the latter trait, as its interjection into the Def Jux extended universe was preceded by a couple high-profile hip-hop tracks dealing with heavier subject matter than the shit-talk verses of “Concerto.”
A different Smith beat Elliott to the punch by a few months at the turn of the Willennium. Big Willy worked a jazzed-up sample of “Figure Eight” into his track “Afro Angel” from the very-Y2K album boasting the song from Wild Wild West the same year the Schoolhouse Rock! track also made an appearance in a PsychoDrama single. The nearly spoken-word tales of turbulent youth familiar to Black American life (paralleling, in a way, the pitfalls of privileged white Americans growing up in Park Slope with absentee, literati fathers who use words like “philistine”) on the Will Smith single is soundtracked by a near-subliminal usage of the sample with two-thirds of the notes missing in the looped instrumental before becoming much more noticeable during the chorus. Even more subliminal—and more ahead of the curve—is a credit on the title track form The Fugees’ 1996 album The Score, which dropped shortly after a brief moment in hip-hop in the early-’90s where the sample served as an intro for a pair of albums, and was noticeably embedded in the DNA of others.
With all that in mind, it’s hard to tell whether someone like Princess Nokia is paying homage to Schoolhouse Rock! or any one of the aforementioned rappers when she raps over a beat heavily lenient on a sliver of “Figure Eight” on her 2017 single “Goth Kid,” which both fondly recalls the bite of “Yonkers”-era Tyler and foresees rap’s convergence with Hot Topic (the album it appears on is called 1992 Deluxe, perhaps aligning it with the Diamond D and/or Compoton’s Most Wanted tracks). At this point it doesn’t really seem to matter—the Schoolhouse Rock! song feels much more ethereally bound to our culture than concrete reference points like Lolly and her adverbs or Reginald’s interjections. My guess is “Goth Kid” won’t be the last we hear of it, either, as our culture is certainly one of circles turning around upon themselves. FL