The untimely demise of cartoon rapper Captain Murphy



It's been a little less than a week since an enigmatic rapper with a sizable Twitter following named Captain Murphy made his debut live performance in LA, a gig that went viral after the Murph revealed that he's actually experimental LA producer Steven Ellison (aka Flying Lotus). Ellison has played a key role in elevating the MC's career even as Murphy's real identity was kept secret; it all started in July when Adult Swim released a new FlyLo track called "Between Friends," which features Murphy spitting with beloved Odd Future member Earl Sweatshirt.

Captain Murphy became a fascinating Internet phenomenon in the passing months, a self-described villain who obscured his voice in deep and syrupy pitch-shifted sound effects, released songs via brightly colored videos, and claimed he was a cartoon. Murphy never let up about his animated reality, at times getting defensive about his two-dimensional world before last month's release of Duality, a psychedelic video montage that's also a mixtape. Considering the aura Murphy managed to create while trying to convince the world that he's a foul-mouthed toon the "big reveal" that he's actually a well-established and respected producer felt like a bad M. Night Shyamalan twist.

Obviously, there's no way to change that Ellison is the mind behind Captain Murphy, but it would have been great to see how far he could take the whole "I'm a cartoon" shtick before pulling back the curtain. True, today's technology isn't so advanced that an animated character could develop consciousness and survive in our reality independent of its creator, but online Ellison managed to do an impressive job sticking by the story; it at least made you want to believe that such a thing could be true. Sticking to a ridiculous and outsized persona that sometimes overshadows (or, hopefully, magnifies) one's musical ability has helped musicians with solid talent become great pop artists—it's part of the reason Riff Raff is an endless source of fascination.

Instead of continuing down the path of cartoon glory Ellison revealed all at the very first Captain Murphy performance, where he wore a golden cape and black ski mask; when Ellison removed his ski mask after performing "The Prisoner," he didn't just unmask Murphy, he made the MC appear, well, less animated. So much of Murphy's brand—and much of the initial interest in the rapper—lay in the mystery of his real identity and keeping that secret a secret that the reveal stripped away whatever fun could be derived out of that ambiguity.

Perhaps Ellison should have sought guidance from another rapper who describes himself as a villain—MF Doom. The critically acclaimed MC has garnered a bad reputation for his live shows, and he's usually described as an apathetic performer who acts as though he's not even onstage. Often he's not even onstage; he cancels gigs, sometimes is a no-show, and, most egregiously, he's been known to send Doom impersonators to play concerts in his place. Those aren't signs of a great performer, but they're certainly signs of a great villain.

It would have been interesting to see if Ellison could embolden Murphy's sinister title with some evil stunts, but it's best not to dwell on the "ifs" and "could have beens." At least we still have all those Twitter posts, a couple T-shirt designs, and Duality to help keep the memory of Captain Murphy's persona alive.

Leor Galil writes about hip-hop every Wednesday.

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