I. Influences (1984-2005)
Numerous interviewers over the years have coaxed Ezra Koenig into discussing his musical influences. And he seems to enjoy talking about childhood love for rap and wordplay quite a bit! Koenig's parents, his father in particular, bought records including Tom Tom Club (really the first white rappers, influenced by Jamaican sound clashes) and Run-DMC. Said father, a movie set designer, brought a young Koenig on the set of Spike Lee's Malcolm X when it was filming in New York City
By early high school, he got into A Tribe Called Quest and Jay-Z and began to immerse himself in the New York canon, though his tastes were far more eclectic than that would suggest, e.g. Three Six Mafia (and later, in college, UK rap like Dizzee Rascal and The Streets). Koenig wasn't averse to popular rap, either: He and music writer Jonah Weiner, he of "no 'no homo'" with the rap alias Spiderfang, once discussed covering Pimp C's verse on "Big Pimpin'" on Twitter. His romantic associations with many of these purchases are still available on a blog he wrote as a senior in college called Internet Vibes. On there, Koenig's enthusiasm for bachata and dancehall is very evident. The latter is a huge influence on Modern Vampires of the City. Though Koenig admits he sounds young on there, it still has a lot of great information and fans !
Koenig, who is said to have written his Columbia admissions essay about Nick Drake, told the Nerdist podcast that he wrote and recorded a rap album in high school that not even he owns. And he has likened British New Wave artists like Elvis Costello, Squeeze, and Nick Lowe to their own rap sub-genre. He seems to be referring to their dense internal rhyme about class scrappiness. Compare a verse Koenig once cited from Costello's "The Loved Ones" ("Don't get smart or sarcastic/He snaps back just like elastic/Spare us the theatrics and the verbal gymnastics/We break wise guys just like matchsticks") to "Check your handbook, it's no trick/Take the chapstick, put it on your lips/Crack a smile, adjust my tie" in "Oxford Comma," which otherwise recalls Costello's "This Year's Girl." He eschews popular Squeeze ("Tempted") for deeper cuts, but "Cool for Cats" is among their better known songs for the vibe he's talking about
For Pitchfork's 5-10-15-20 series, Koenig told Tom Breihan that a high school friend got him into De La Soul, Digable Planets, and a Tribe Called Quest. From there, he immersed himself in early Nineties rap. Working later at the Walkmen's Harlem studio, and as an intern at Hoboken's WFMU, Koenig listened to demo tapes that probably gave him a pretty good idea of what he wanted in his own sound. In 2003, Koenig praised the "fucked-up version of American music" of Dave Longstreth of Dirty Projectors, who later attributed inspirations from Beyonce's B'Day and Afropop while writing Rise Above and the New Attitude EP. Koenig and Batmanglij toured in support of those records with Longstreth and with Jona Bechtolt of YACHT, whose beat production has been compared to that of Timbaland
II. L'Homme Run (2004-2006)
At Columbia, Koenig, Chris Tomson, and their friend Andrew Kalaidjian (now a PhD candidate in English literature) performed local shows as L'Homme Run -- still on MySpace! -- and insisted the project was meant to be funny but emphatically not satirical -- a "serious" rap group, in other words. They recorded "Bitches," "Interracial Dating," and "Pizza Party." They also recorded "Giving Up Da Gun," which became "Giving Up The Gun" in more or less identical form. (If anyone has lyrics and mp3s for other work, please post on Rap Genius!) "Pizza Party" specifically bites Jay-Z's "99 Problems" and the Beastie Boys' "Paul Revere." Vampire Weekend is far more like the Beastie Boys than what Carles of Hipster Runoff once called "white man's indie" after Kanye's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy received a 10 from Pitchfork. Koenig seems indebted to MCA in particular and tweeted a lyric from "Bodhisattva Vow" ("in times of doubt I can think on the dharma/and the Enlightened Ones who've graduated samsara") on the day of his death
Koenig's own emcee name was Ezra Factory. "I thought you could look at it in a few different ways," he said in 2010. "A factory that produces Ezra because my shit is so hot. And I liked the reference to Factory Records, which is, of course, a very cool [former] record label in the history of rock." That's a reference to Factory Records, a Manchester, England-based level at the forefront of British punk and New Wave
"I still to this day get the most inspiration from rap lyrics," he said
Vampire Weekend's first magazine cover story in SPIN, which appeared before the official release of the first album, mentions L'Homme Run. Supposedly there is still a Lacoste alligator L'Homme Run logo airbrushed on a Columbia dorm
Discovery, Batmanglij's R&B side project with Koenig's longtime friend Wes Miles of Ra Ra Riot, is analogous. Angel Deradoorian of Dirty Projectors sings a very Dirty Projectors circa B'Day influence R&B hook on "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend," and Koenig guests on "Carby." "Slang Tang" is named for "Sleng Teng," a computerized Jamaican riddim
III. Vampire Weekend (2006-2008)
The first Vampire Weekend single, "Ladies of Cambridge," is really a ska cut, but tracks ee cummings' "The ladies of cambridge who live in furnished souls." Koenig seems drawn to proto-rap free verse like that and William Carlos Williams. (Strangely, the band almost never refers to the Columbia rap of/on the Beats.) The epiphanic quality of the New Yorky lyrics is also reminiscent of Frank O'Hara's Lunch Poems -- and everything to everyone, which is the whole problem in writing about this band. Let the stuff wash over you, or don't. Simon Reynolds called the band "everywhere/everywhen pop" in his book Retromania
It would be useless at this point to rehash complaints about the band's cultural appropriations, which seem to have originated in an essay by Charles Mudede for the Stranger about nostalgia for garbage in "Mansard Roof." Jessica Hopper, writing for the Chicago Reader would later reignite the discussion in her review of Contra, to which Nitsuh Abebe responded in New York magazine. Koenig read the Abebe essay and mentioned it several times online, as if simpatico. Cataloging Paul Simon and Talking Heads callbacks--recall, though, that Tom Tom Club was a Talking Heads side project and both did spoken-word over breakbeats--is similarly fruitless. For the purposes of this overview, it's worth mentioning (the band hasn't) that a few reviewers have likened Koenig's lyrics to Donald Fagen of Steely Dan
Like Koenig, Fagen is a New York Jewish graduate of a New York school, dark and oblique and relentlessly specific, not too wed to pop form but accessible nonetheless. Steely Dan was essential to the history of sampling, and "Black Cow" is immortalized on "Deja Vu." Listen to Donald Fagen rap "Uptown, baby!" to his own hook here! Koenig is a better rapper
While touring in support of the EP in 2007, Vampire Weekend played a number of shows with Harlem Shakes, a likeminded experimental pop band from New York (who, full disclosure, went to college with the RapGenius founders and told Koenig about Rap Genius in late 2009 or early 2010 when it was still called Rap Exegesis). Harlem Shakes lyricist Alexander Benaim, whose father is the organic chemist and perfumier behind luxury cologne hip-hop standards like Ralph Lauren Polo, often discussed how rap operated in his writing. He reminisced about "singin' UGK forever," complained "I don't even know what I'm in the game for," and reverted to hip-hop-like cadences in his him-esque lyrics (say, the staccato of "you say I'm blind and deaf and dumb, your gamesomeness a loaded gun/you guard your nerves like they're your sons"). Benaim and Koenig also shared an allegiance to rhyme in pop songwriting, which was not popular among most Brooklyn bands that came up with them. One New York Press profile recounted Harlem Shakes and Vampire Weekend discussing the gender politics of Wu-Tang and joking about Benaim and Koenig forming a Gnarls Barkley-style hip-hop collaboration. They also dabbled with publishing a music magazine along the lines of Internet Vibes, like a less stuffy n+1 or New York Review of Books (for which Benaim was once an intern). The publication would connections between rap and global politics. For whatever reason, it never materialized. Soon after, Vampire Weekend opened for the Clipse at Columbia, and the Vampire Weekend caricature most listeners know emerged
At the time, Koenig had recently resigned from a two-year do-or-die contract with Teach for America to teach middle school English and social studies teacher at JHS 263 in Bedford-Stuyvesant. He has said that "The Kids Don't Stand a Chance" is not explicitly based on the classroom, but initially reflected his ambivalence about college friends going into finance careers. While TFA was hardly Koenig's first encounter with poverty, it impressed on him enough that he rarely addresses the experience in interviews. TFA is a polarizing organization, one known for encouraging teachers to incorporate hip-hop inspired chants written by Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) charter school leaders into classroom materials to amp up student participation and compliance with disciplinary plans. So you can forgive listeners for wondering how the experience might have influenced his bona fides. His former students teased him as "K-No" and doubted his cred until Koenig resigned and several attended early Vampire Weekend shows. The New York Times reported nonetheless that Koenig is now working with The Kid Mero, a former paraprofessional in the New York City public schools, on a treatment for a screenplay about teaching. As it happens, there is also a Teach for America rap on Rap Genius, as performed by Steve Zahn on David Simon's Treme
Aside from the "Get Low" bite on "Oxford Comma," the hip-hop influences on the Vampire Weekend EP are less overt. Listeners have sampled it and mashed it up with Jay-Z, among others, anyway. The most immediate is probably the opening to "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa" ("As a young girl, Louis Vuitton/And your mother, on a sandy lawn/As a sophomore, with the reggaeton/And the linens you're sittin' on"). Though LV is an eternal luxury brand, it was a particularly potent namedrop then, following the ubiquitous appearances of the funfetti Murakami purse print in photographs of celebrities like Paris Hilton and Kanye West. As for reggaeton, that is just ambient music in Washington Heights, the neighborhood directly adjacent to Morningside Heights, where Koenig lived for several years. The rise of Vampire Weekend roughly coincided with the ubiquity of "Gasolina" by Daddy Yankee, which still dame the creeps. While on tour for this record, Koenig, putting the frontin' in frontispiece, also asked Asher Roth to autograph his copy of The Razor's Edge by Somerset Maugham.
IV. Contra (2010)
Vampire Weekend considered titling Contra "Young Money" after yuppies, "Bedrock," and whatever other associations you can make of that. They changed their minds after Koenig met with a musician he admired, the Scottish-Japanese performance artist (don't ask! ask!) Momus, who, like Koenig, is a kind of pop ethnographer. Music critics came over, and to, the band's genre-hopping, including, rimshot, hip-hop
The "Horchata" freestyle may have originated in his English classroom. It has elements of Kanye West's "Coldest Winter" ("winter's cold is too much to handle") or Eric B. and Rakim's "I Know You Got Soul" ("here comes a feeling you thought you'd forgotten" versus "it's been a long time, shouldn't have left you") Koenig once told the New York Times that Kanye won him over on 808s and Heartbreak, whereas the rest of the band was already on board
On "California English," "livin' like the French Connection but we'll die in LA" evokes William Friedkin's gangster movies. In a 2008 New York Times profile, Koenig bought another gangster movie, New Jack City. The Contra B-side "Giant" is an homage to "Envy Me" by The Game and 50 Cent and begins with a nod to Biggie's "Juicy" ("It was all a dream/I used to read Thrasher magazine") A fan made a "Giving up the Sunshowers" remix with the M.I.A. track
You could argue that "Cousins" is a diss track to ether Koenig's haters. The video was filmed in New York's Cortlandt Alley (Chinatown/TriBeCa), former home of the Mudd Club and one of the last few really "street" looking places in the whole city. Koenig has said that his father used to go to the Mudd Club, to which he also seems to allude on "Giving Up the Gun" ("I heard you played guitar/at a city bar/where skinheads used to fight"). He has said that the song was otherwise inspired by his father, who gave him a book with the title. Rostam Batmanglij's favorite artist is Jean-Michel Basquiat, also a Mudd Club regular, as was much of the early hip-hop scene (hence the earlier connection between rap and Tom Tom Club). A reader of a ScoutingNY blog even asked if MC Hammer's "Turn This Mutha Out" was filmed there--it may have been ! The "Cousins" video was thought to have ripped off tape art by the Brooklyn artist Aakash Nihalani, who soon afterward designed the Das Racist Shut Up, Dude album cover. And yet fans balked when RZA and Li'l Jon appeared in the "Giving Up The Gun" video. What you on about?!
In "Diplomat's Son," probably the most obvious predecessor to the rap referents in "Step," the band samples M.I.A. ("Hussel") and Toots and the Maytals ("Pressure Drop," also covered by The Specials and The Clash). The diplomat's son in question is the character in the song, drawn from fiction Koenig wrote as a senior in college, as well as Joe Strummer of The Clash, but could just as well be The Diplomats. The members of Vampire Weekend were living in Harlem at the height of Dipset's influence, though they have never talked about them too extensively. Dipset had an enormous cult following among Ivy League English and philosophy majors, who marveled at Cam'ron's insane version of scansion. Koenig's flow here even begins to resemble one of his other favorite rappers, Fabolous, when he says "Cause I'm gonna take it from Simon/If I ever had a chance, it's now then."
Now, a moment for us: At a March 2010 promotional event for *Contra* at the New York Public Library, Koenig said he read Rap Genius and discussed his longtime love of the mealtime verse of "Rapper's Delight." Apparently, he preferred the name Rap Exegesis (so did I, son). "What is 'Rapper's Delight' all about?' he asked. "It's something that I thought about since I was 12. It's about sex in one verse, and there's also the verse about 'Did you ever go to a friend's house to eat, and the food just ain't no good.' To me that's a fundamentally different way of thinking about lyrics than what came before."
Like Koenig, Sugar Hill Gang was the brainchild of an appropriator from northern New Jersey, but you like that record, don't you?
V. Modern Vampires of the City (2013)
Koenig has talked a lot about the album title, a reference to Junior Reid's "One Blood." He was interested in bringing even more dancehall and hip-hop elements to the album, citing Horace Andy as an influence in one interview, but was denied. The most cited rap reference on this record, "Ya Hey" as a "Hey Ya" joke, is in fact NOT a deliberate influence: Ezra Koenig told Time Out Kuala Lumpur that it was NOT a reference to "Hey Ya," but that he nonetheless once had a quasireligious experience hearing "Hey Ya" for the first time while driving a car. He compared the experience to Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys hearing "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" in a car, with the whole hymnlike or folksong like quality and cultural appropriation angle
This album better reflects the influence of epiphanic works of fiction like James Joyce's *Dubliners*, which Koenig has said was one of his favorite books from high school. "My soul swooned when I faintly heard the sound" on "Ya Hey" parallels the final sentence of Joyce's "The Dead." Remember when Beck rapped about James Joyce on "Que Onda Guero?" And who raps better than *James Joyce*?! How is the opening of *A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man* any different than "Rapper's Delight"?
A few notes on flow: The spoken-word interludes on "Ya Hey" and "Finger Back" that Rap Genius -- not the band itself ! -- lovingly called "batshit" could be from anything or anywhere. Like the speed flow on "Worship You," for example: It reminds some people of Twista or Busta Rhymes. And some "Ya Hey" listeners were reminded of Jim Morrison's languid free verse after Koenig's complaints on the press junket about feeling low in L.A. before writing it. The one in "Finger Back" is in the same incantatory monotone, but better reflects Brill Building-style "boy from the wrong side of the tracks" writing as filtered through hip-hop. (Of course, at the Brill Building Carole King and Gerry Goffin and Paul Simon and Neil Sedaka were outer borough Jews writing for African-American groups, its own political problem.) Speaking of which, could "turnaround" on "Obvious Bicycle" be connected in any way to Hall and Oates' "Las Vegas Turnaround"? They're sampled all the time! So let's pretend. Koenig once soloed on saxophone on Chromeo's H&O ho-mage "I Could Be Wrong," and the band was a huge favorite of Brooklyn indie rock stars who posted about themselves on Twitter in 2011
According to an interview with Batmanglij and co-producer Ariel Rechtstaid ("Climax") in *Electronic Musician*, the bass drum used for the original "Apache" breakbeat can be heard on the record. Dirty Projectors had earlier covered "Climax," paving the way (of sorts) for the viral cover of "Blurred Lines." On tour, Vampire Weekend sometimes blurs numbers together with a riff from LMFAO's "Shots."
On "Don't Lie," Koenig calls his characters "youngbloods," consistent with other Rastafarian allusions to Babylon and Zion on "Ya Hey" and young lions on "Young Lion." It would be impossible to recap the history of rap and Rasta culture here, though there may be a connection to Nas and Damian Marley's *Distant Relatives* (2010), which includes a track called "Nah Mean." (Maybe "Ya Hey" sounds more like "Jah bless"--or, yeah, Yahweh.) It's not like "nah mean" is uncommon, but Damian Marley is clearly an influence on their work, as is the entire Nas catalog separately. So, why not together? Koenig likes conspiracy theories. He also gets a kick out of Five Percenters theology, a huge black nationalism trope in hip-hop best described by RZA in the Tao of Wu
The LA Review of Books compared Koenig to the hero of a picaresque. Those are rogues who get by in high class society on their wits, meaning rappers. Ergo, Vampire Weekend are rappers. Tajai of Souls of Mischief told HipHopDx he was at first skeptical of stately, plump "Step"--but you better just check out the main page for how well it, and rap, turned out. There are too many references in that to pick apart here--the original sample's history, Run-DMC's Tougher than Leather among them--and they turned it out.
And remixed it with Heems and Despot and Danny Brown.
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