What’s Under the Mask? Spark Master Tape is Back

Drew Millard explains how the best anonymous artist since Burial made an insanely good album.
By    April 24, 2016

spark master tape

Drew Millard is the fourth most utilized fake MF Doom.

My step-grandmother used to cut hair in Flint, Michigan. One day in the mid-80’s, a guy named Michael, who’d founded the local alt-weekly, came into her shop—she’d cut his hair when he was a kid, but from the looks of him it had been years since Michael Moore had gotten his hair cut. He sat in my step-grandmother’s chair and explained that he’d gotten a job at a magazine out in California and needed to look presentable before he went out there. He wanted his hair cut short, my step-grandma said. “Nothin’ too establishment, though,” he told her.

I have no idea how accurate this story is. I’m trying to remember something my step-grandma told me about maybe five years ago, which had happened to her thirty years earlier. Regardless, Michael Moore’s (maybe misremembered, maybe totally made-up) sentiment rings true. Most of us want things like legitimacy and success for ourselves and the people we love, but there’s always that unspoken line, the one that Metallica crossed when they made The Black Album, the one people cross when they take high-paying jobs at morally bankrupt corporations, the one Michael Moore would have crossed if he’d had my step-grandma give him hair like Gordon Gecko. Too establishment.

It is entirely possible that the enigmatic Spark Master Tape is flirting with that line. After two killer mixtapes that were greeted with shrugs from all but the most ardent of hip-hop heads (i.e., this here site, as well as the actual r/hiphopheads) and a year-long hiatus, it seems like the self-described “phantom in a Phantom” from who-the-fuck-knows where is everywhere. In the past couple of months, the rapper has gotten love from such establishment-ass establishments as FADER, Complex, and RapRadar. Now, this certainly has something to do with the fact that Spark seems to be affiliated with Shady Records—label head Paul Rosenberg might be his biggest fan.

But more than that, Silhouette of a Sunkken City is just insanely good. It places Spark Master Tape on the shortlist of artists who excel at rappin-ass-rappin, and do so in a way that never delves into monotony—or even worse, unnecessary moralizing about the current state of hip-hop. Like Lil Ugly Mane before him, SMT pitches down his vocals while rapping at a normal speed, often deploying flows more dextrous than Nixon with the truth. He’s never corny, and his beats, provided by Paper Platoon (a production squad that’s probably just him), are eerie, rickety lurchers; essentially the sonic equivalent of hopping on the Coney Island Cyclone after ingesting some over-the-counter cough syrup.

His verses are full of these witty little one-liners (“Rock makes paper, no Roshambo” from “Bus Stop”) and dry jokes (“Paranoid I could hit a fuckin’ cop now / Paranoid too much drugs I should stop now” from “Wakkeboi”). Part of “Medicine” is delivered in telegram format, with every line ending in the word “stop.” His music is mastered beautifully—if you listen to it on a pair of decent headphones, you can feel the music move around in your head.

Now, there are two obvious concerns with Spark Master Tape getting “too popular,” whatever that might mean. The first is that someone at Shady Records decides he’s better used as a producer, and all his good beats get siphoned off to be the best part of bad Slaughterhouse records. Suddenly, the hermetically sealed Spark Master Tape world is no more. The second concern, and this is perhaps inevitable, is that Spark Master Tape will have to tell everyone exactly who the fuck he is.

Call it the Burial effect. As Spark Master Tape becomes more and more popular, the speculation about the man behind the mask has become greater and greater. If you jump down a reddit rabbit hole, you’ll find threads alleging that Spark Master Tape is British, that he is Canadian, or that he is more than one person. Unlike Your Old Droog—a white dude that the internet briefly confused with a pitched-up Nas simply because there wasn’t very much biographical information on him out there—Spark Master Tape is a character that someone created with the express purpose of existing in a very specific world.

Over the course of three tapes and several years, Spark Master Tape has carved a niche for himself as a drug-guzzling supervillain with bone-dry gallows humor and a weird technology fetish, who wears the cliches of his genre like hypebeasts dipped in Supreme. He often samples other, vastly more famous rappers’ verses wholesale as if they were his collaborators, something so audacious and downright obvious that few have thought to do it before. As a whole, the mise en scéne feels ripped straight from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil: retro-futuristic, byzantine, counterintuitive, complicated, and just functional enough to be sort of brilliant.

Because I feel like this piece needs to be longer in order to justify my starting it with a sort of boring story my step-grandma told me, I will now run through all the possibilities of who Spark Master Tape might actually be, or at least all the possibilities that I could think of while walking my dog earlier.

Spark Master Tape is a character created by someone who is already well-established in the music industry

If you watch Spark Master Tape’s high-budget videos and listen to his astonishingly put-together music, it’s obvious that he has access to some capital. Maybe he’s like a long-con version of Captain Murphy, the anonymous rapper who wowed the world and ended up being Flying Lotus. Maybe he’s the creation of some behind-the-scenes engineer or ghost-producer who was going crazy on the equipment when he wasn’t cranking out tracks for Diplo to slap his name on and pretend to have made. Maybe he’s an MF Doom-esque persona created by someone like Asher Roth, a once-buzzing rapper who blew their shot and might be looking for a second shot at stardom. Maybe he is Shady Records affiliate Royce da 5’9, which while it doesn’t actually make sense is an a possibility that we must consider, if only because Spark Master Tape retweeted someone saying that he was Royce da 5’9.

Spark Master Tape is not a character at all

In this scenario, Spark Master Tape is an actual terrifying criminal mastermind who remains anonymous because he does not wish to expose himself to the authorities. This is more than probably not true, but it’s certainly fun to think about.

Spark Master Tape is the work of multiple people

This theory has also been thrown around regarding Andrew W.K., who at times has claimed the character of “Andrew W.K.” was created by himself and a select group of people who wanted to design the ultimate rockstar. This would mean that Spark Master Tape is essentially a collective, and that rather than all taking their own names the members opted to share one master persona. It could also mean that Spark Master Tape used to be somebody, but then they sold the character and persona to someone else, sort of like how there’s an illegal black market for selling Twitter accounts with high numbers of followers. This would also explain why Spark Master Tape disappeared for a year and then resurfaced with the random Shady Records affiliation, I guess.

Spark Master Tape is secretly a bodybuilder

OK, so my evidence for this one is pretty flimsy, but a while back on the storied bodybuilding.com forums, some guy posted Spark Master Tape’s The Swoup Serengeti and posited, “He’ll be an internet darling… after his next mixtape drops,” also noting that the tape was good “lifting music.” HOW DID THAT GUY KNOW SPARK MASTER TAPE WOULD END UP BEING SORT OF A BIG DEAL??? OH WAIT, I KNOW, HE KNEW BECAUSE HE WAS SPARK MASTER TAPE.

Spark Master Tape is just some random who remains anonymous because he doesn’t want to deal with being famous

Alternatively, Spark Master Tape might be some random who wants to get famous by pretending he’s remaining anonymous because he doesn’t want to deal with being famous.

Spark Master Tape is just some guy who’s put way less thought into this than I have

This is probably actually what’s going on here.

As fun as it is to speculate, caring about Spark Master Tape because you want to figure out the name he writes down on his tax forms is like interpreting The Big Lebowski as a movie about rug thievery. In a way, anonymity is a way of separating the art from the artist, something that we the hip-hop consuming public have a huge problem with. We get upset if every word from a rapper’s mouth can’t be declared sound by a New Yorker fact checker, as if the veracity of someone’s statement is also a measure of how interesting it is.

Let’s just all enjoy Silhouette of a Sunken City for what it is—a ridiculously good body of work—while we can, before Spark Master Tape gets too establishment and has to acknowledge he’s playing a character, rather than letting us play along with him.

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