Arizona State Fair Concerts

Using His Electronic Talk Box, Phoenix’s MC Magic Creates Latin-Funk Futurism

You know MC Magic when you hear him, and not only because the Phoenix producer/rapper/singer often intros himself at the top of his songs.

Whether on one of his own records or features for Latin rappers like Brown Boy, Arion, and Ms. Krazie, Magic (real name Marco Cardenas) is instantly recognizable. Tube hanging from his mouth, plugged into a synthesizer bearing his Magic City logo, Magic brings a singular flavor to each performance: the sound of his electronically processed voice run through his signature “talk box.”

Magic’s use of the talk box has become a signature facet of his music. If you’re the kind of person who’s shelling out $100 for a customizable dedication on his Nasty Boy Records website, chances are that processed, electronically layered sound is what you’re paying for. It’s unmistakable, a technological effect that’s become an integral part of Magic’s brand of Latin R&B. The sound’s become shorthand for romance and vulnerability, a hallmark of lowrider oldies and DJ Art Laboe’s old-school radio show. As a stylistic touch, the vocal treatment helped define Magic’s sound and kick-start his career with “Down For Yours,” from his group Nastyboy Klick’s 1997 debut, The First Chapter, with electro-soul pioneer Roger Troutman in tow, which broke regionally and then on a national scale. 
A tool which allows players to “vocalize” patterns from their mouth to an instrument via electronic transmission, the sound of the talk box has proved a reliable novelty in pop music. Playing his modified pedal steel, Nashville’s Pete Drake created a “singing guitar” sound. His 1960 single “Forever” still sounds like it comes from a far-off Western future. In 1976, rocker Peter Frampton took his talk box-plus-guitar theatrics to arenas, capturing the energy on his double live-album smash hit Frampton Comes Alive!

But few have utilized the effects unit to the extent of Roger Troutman. In the late ’70s, while working as the singer of Ohio funk outfit Zapp, he adopted the device, crafting a synthesized bounce that took the future-centric grooves of Parliament/Funkadelic into robotic territory. Troutman built his music identity with the talk box, and would become widely recognized as a hip-hop forefather, his processed melodies setting down a foundation for the deeply melodic beats of Dr. Dre. That’s him on Snoop Dogg’s breakout 1993 album Doggystyle; that’s Troutman singing the memorable hook on Tupac’s “California Love.”

Following Troutman’s death in 1999, his protege Magic has become a standard-bearer for the sound. In the years since Magic’s biggest hits, vocal manipulation has reached new heights in hip-hop. Auto-Tune software was originally designed for pitch correction, but rappers like Florida’s T-Pain quickly recognized its creative potential, pushing its capabilities to create distorted melodies with their voices. Inspired by electronic artists like Daft Punk — the French androids themselves no strangers to a talk box or two — Kanye West took digital processing of his voice even further with 808s & Heartbreak. The 2008 album established a template picked up by younger artists like Future, Young Thug, and Chief Keef, whose gurgling vocal tics have created new synthetic soundscapes.

But like the talk box, the key to Auto-Tune’s connection to listeners is that while undeniably mechanized, it still feels human. It still requires breath, control, and a sentient input source. It is, as Neil Young suggested with his 1982 synth-dappled album Trans, not a sound beyond human, but rather one that’s extra-human.

It’s the sound of a person plugged directly into machine. The talk box gives MC Magic’s words — his tender dedications and promises of eternal love — a surging electronic resonance, fulfilling one of technology’s greatest promises: the ability to truly convey human expression.

MC Magic is scheduled to perform at the Arizona State Fair at Veterans Memorial Coliseum as part of Fiesta Friday with Baby Bash, Amanda Perez, Kap-G, and Mob Fam on Friday, October 14.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jason P. Woodbury is a music and pop-culture writer based in Phoenix. He is a regular contributor to the music blog Aquarium Drunkard and co-host of the Transmissions podcast.