Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the Holiday 2015 issue of Catster print magazine. Click here to subscribe to Catster magazine.
It’s a crisp fall evening, and I’m talking to EL-P, the musical alias of the Brooklyn-based hip-hop artist Jaime Meline, about making songs from an audio library of Lil BUB’s purrs and meows. It’s a conversation that might have sounded bizarre even a couple of years ago, but these days the record in question, Meow The Jewels, has become not only the world’s first cat-rap album but also an iconic sign of the times. Here’s how it happened.
The back story to Meow The Jewels is a testament to the Internet’s collective cat power and sense of shared humor. In 2014, Meline and his recording partner Michael Render (aka Killer Mike) were readying the release of their second album together, Run The Jewels 2. As a last-minute joke, they listed a number of fanciful pre-order packages for the project: For $25,000, the Show And Tell option promised they’d turn up to the school of the fan’s child, read a story, and provide 24-hour bully protection; the $350,000 Self-Righteousness For Sale edition would see them spending six months “pretending to care about whatever you care about.” Then there was the Meow The Jewels package for $40,000, which claimed they would “re-record Run The Jewels 2 using nothing but cat sounds for music.”
A feline-friendly fan tested Meline and Render’s mettle and launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise the money via collective donations. (Profits would go to charitable causes.) You guessed it: After news of the ruse spread through social media channels, Meow The Jewels sailed past its original goal and hit more than $65,000 in pledged money.
At that point, Meline — whose music usually takes an acerbic and uncompromising tone — was faced with the very real situation that he was obliged to craft a record made up of sampled cat sounds. After initially cursing himself out for not stopping the joke in its infancy, he came to a point of acceptance about this “unexpected mechanism to give back to people and do something for charity.” With a trademark sarcastic lilt he added, “If the people like this idea and want to make something happen for that reason, as well as just to watch us suffer while we try and create a cat record, then it will be worth our time.”
Something about the challenge of remaking a critically acclaimed and artistically obstinate record via the slapstick medium of cat sounds resonated with the Internet’s collective consciousness. Fans began creating feline-themed artwork homages to the project; other musicians got in on the enterprise, including the British trip-hop troupes Portishead and Massive Attack, the melodramatic singer-songwriter Zola Jesus, and a producer named Boots who contributed songs to Beyonce’s self-titled 2013 album.
A key ally emerged from the cat world when Lil BUB’s owner, Mike Bridavsky, reached out and requested that Lil BUB be a part of the project. (Her cherubic yelps appear on the opening song, a reworking of Jeopardy that’s now titled “Meowpurrdy.”) Read our interview with Cyriak, who created the video below.
Meline said the various musicians took a studious but humorous approach to working with cat sounds. (The definition of “cat sounds” was broad, so a kitty’s bell ringing would be a valid inclusion.)
“That was one of the cool things about the project,” he explained, “that you had all these really amazing producers being forced to be really terrible producers! Basically being forced back to square one, it was the great leveler — no one is particularly great at producing a record with cat sounds.”
Out of this uncharted cat sounds territory, a listenable and iconic record emerged. Some songs, such as the Alchemist’s “Creow,” take a playful approach, with a sweet series of cascading meows resonating like a children’s TV theme tune. Others, like Geoff Barrow from Portishead’s “Close Your Eyes and Meow To Fluff,” furrow a minimal and avant-garde approach, with the song anchored by deep, rolling, elongated purrs instead of a traditional bass-line.
Crucially, even the album’s darkest moments, like the eerie “Pawfluffer Night,” retain a patina of humor; as a listener, you flit between enjoying the song, trying to work out how they did it, and succumbing to a wry smile when you realize you’re genuinely listening to music made from the sounds your own cat uses to welcome you when you come home.
Meline sampled his late cat, Mini Beast, for the album’s opening song and said he hopes the record gives people “a smile and a laugh and even on occasion a little bit of enjoyment.” But there’s a broader angle that propelled Meow The Jewels from a crowd-sourced prank to a moment in pop culture history.
“The bigger idea behind it,” Meline said, “is that we can all, with our own humor and our own community and our own culture, come up with weird and interesting ways to do good things for other people. If it takes some inside joke to make it happen, then I’m all for it.”
And if cats are crucial to making it happen, we’re all winners.