As you approach the entrance, you know you’re in the right place. You almost feel it before you hear it. A few more steps and there remains no doubt. The unmistakable thump of some serious bass brings with it the promise of some serious hip-hop.
This club is much like any of a number of similar clubs you can find anywhere in any major metropolis. As with any musical event, the evening starts with the little-known people, the upstarts, those that feel they have something to say and need to prove that what they have is worth saying. And, as the night advances, you move into the established names, the ones people pay money to see.
But unknown to most in the audience – and most of the performers themselves – this show, and many others like it, may actually feature an unexpected artist. He’s a rapper that’s been likened to a guerilla musician, sneaking his rhymes in, sometimes as himself or sometimes through others. The audience may never notice. Depending on the cognitive state of the artist who’s actually on the bill, he or she may not even notice. But if you pay attention, whoop, there it is.
A recent phenomenon, this guy, when he makes himself known at all, goes by the name of M’Licious RTL. Once you get over the surprise that he even exists, the next obvious question is, so what? Is there really a problem with some unexpected lyrics? And how the heck can someone get in unnoticed anyway?
Well it turns out that, in many cases, no one really has a problem when this occurs. Nothing really bad happens, no one is really paying that much attention, the artists are all, shall we say, in their own little worlds, so more or less it all comes off ok and everyone goes home happy or, at worst, a little annoyed. But some promoters are much more particular about controlling the content of their shows. There may be specific dignitaries in the crowd that they don’t want to offend, or they may be recording for a CD.
But that’s not the worst of it. According to producer eNeMe40, “If the audience is in what you might call a volatile state, the wrong messages could really do some damage. These kids, you know, you can get their energy all whipped up, and all bets are off. It’s not something you can just let happen, yadada mean?”
As to how someone can sneak in like this, it’s really something that wouldn’t have been possible in the past, when it was easy to know who was performing. “You always knew exactly who was playing and where they came from,” says eNeMe40. “But today there’s so many guys working together, and this guy brings in that guy to work with, but he doesn’t really know what he’s gonna say, and they didn’t really rehearse together, so it’s not like anyone knows everything that’s supposed to happen anymore. It’s hard to tell when something’s up until it’s too late.”
Because he’s so new, there aren’t a lot of easy ways to combat M’Licious RTL. An industry organization, DJs Against Frontin Creative Artists (DAFCA), has been looking into techniques they could use to thwart him, and they have a range of ideas. Company spokesman Boogaloo “Bugs” N. deChip says, “M’Licious RTL can be a real problem, but if you get crazy trying to watch out for him, you end up ruining the experience for everyone and spending way too much money on it, too. You got to strike a balance.” They’re working on three particular approaches, all of which could be mixed and matched and changed up throughout a show.
The first idea takes advantage of the fact that every artist has a body of work, or oevre, that starts to form at some point. People who go from show to show and notice these things will start to recognize certain rhymes and lines that turn out to be M’Licious. They’re building a library of these, along with observers that can be trained to listen for various patterns. Because of the intensity of concentration, each listener can really listen for only one pattern, which could mean having to hire dozens and dozens of listeners if all known rhymes are being checked. In reality, they tend to hire fewer listeners and swap around the lines they’re listening for. So not all M’Licious rhymes may be caught at any given time, but the chances are slim that he’ll get through the show undetected.
“What’s exciting about the listening team,” explains deChip, “is that they can be retrained to look for something different at any time. So even if, in the middle of a show, we learn of some new lines that we’d never heard of before, we can have our guys start listening for them right away, without having to wait until the next show.”
They can also craft more complex scenarios. For example, there may be songs that are known but that have too much to listen to in detail to identify them completely. So the listeners can simply listen for the first lines of a number of songs, and if one of them hears one, then he can flag it, and they can each get different lines from that one song to listen to. Notes deChip, “This is one way of trying to re-use your listeners in as many ways as possible.”
Of course, this works only on M’Licious stuff that’s been done before. Unfortunately, he also comes up with new material all the time, so another approach they use is simply to have some guys look for strange behavior that doesn’t seem consistent with the way the rest of the show is going. deChip calls these guys “guards;” they stand around looking for things like unauthorized access to the sound board or a mike, or perhaps a strange interaction between two of the artists, which might indicate that they’re confused about what’s going on.
Once you’ve detected a problem, however, the next obvious question is what you do about it. And that depends on what the producer wants to do. You can shut off the M’Licious mike or power down his equipment. There are also cases where he doesn’t actually do the lines himself, but hijacks one of the other performers, who may be reading lines without realizing he just got a sheet with some M’Licious lines. In that case, you may just have to shut down that performer. “It’s a drag for him,” says deChip, “but it’s better than having M’Licious RTL mess up the works. If there’s a chance he can slip through, you gotta be ready to do what you gotta do.”
Which brings up the third counter-tactic option: making sure that, if M’Licious RTL is lurking around, he never gets access to the equipment or artists. They do this by putting in a layer of protection between the stage and the rest of the building, perhaps by allowing only certain specific people to have access or by requiring a handshake for access to the stage that is known only to the people working there. You can also make sure that everything is running smoothly by having some sort of signal that goes back and forth every so often between the stage and the crew. “It’s like a heartbeat,” says deChip, “except that it’s more complicated, and it’s different for each show. If it gets messed up or stops, then that probably means that something’s up and it’s time to tighten the net.”
While it’s still early in the effort against M’Licious RTL, deChip notes that they’re not really having to develop any new talent or skills in the people they use. “We’re using the standard DAFCA team, people we’ve already used to make sure concerts go smoothly from a logistics standpoint. We’re just organizing them differently and having them look for new stuff.” It’s a bit early yet to tell how much success they’re having. “We’re still fighting the battle to let people know that this guy’s out there and that he’s a problem,” says deChip. “At the same time, we’re trying to figure out how to deploy all of this more easily. We kind of have to play it by ear right now, but if promoters want it, we can package it all up a bit better.”
“We’re also looking at how many guards or listeners are most cost-effective. Each of them takes up only a little room, but if you have too many of these guys, they take too much space, and either you’ve got to move to a larger venue, which can cost a lot more, or you have room for a smaller audience, which means you get less money in ticket sales. We usually try not to take up any more than one to three percent of a good-sized floor.”
DACFA notes that if this pans out as they think it might, they will likely have much more to say about this in the coming year. And they’re not trying to go it alone. Says deChip, “We’re working with others on this to try to bring as many forces to bear as possible. Our guys play a critical part, but they can use help.”
It’s hard to miss the determination in his voice. “One thing is for sure: we will shut down M’Licious RTL.”
In case it’s not obvious, DAFCA doesn’t stand for DJs Against Frontin Creative Artists; they’re an SoC validation company looking into the use of their real-time engines to combat malicious RTL in SoC designs using some of the specific kinds of techniques illustrated above. There is no one named eNeMe40, nor will you find Bugs N. deChip. At least we hope not.