If you really set the stage, or the podium, or the Twitterverse, on fire in 2013, there’s apparently only one way to celebrate: You drop the mic. This relatively new kind of celebration is everywhere. Earlier this month Mindy Kaling dropped the mic at a rap battle on The Mindy Project, and just last weekend people used mic drops to Tweet about everything from the Inauguration to the Sundance Film Festival. So who popularized the mic drop?
Barack Obama. The mic drop has been employed by rappers and comedians since at least the 1980s, and it’s grown steadily in popularity since 2007, but it’s only in the last year or so that it’s become a full-blown meme throughout American culture. And no single person has been associated with the mic drop more frequently than the president.
Obama didn’t create this association by himself. To kick off 2012, arguably the year of the mic drop, Key & Peele ran a sketch in which the president (played as always by Jordan Peele) wins a rap battle by jumping on the mic and declaring matter-of-factly, “I’m the leader of the free world.” Afterward he holds the mic out, drops it, and drives away.
In April, the leader of the free world dropped the mic himself. In an appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, Obama “Slow Jammed the News” with the Roots to deliver a message about student loans. After finishing his discourse about Pell Grants, the president (rather shyly) dropped the mic, and Fallon followed his lead. The YouTube video of the segment got millions of views, and Obama’s mic drop was singled out for attention. Google Trends shows that more people started wondering about the “mic drop” after that performance than ever before.
After the president’s comeback performance in the second presidential debate, his fans online joked about expecting him to drop the mic, and Saturday Night Live picked up on it: In their parody of the debate, Obama ended by walking up to Mitt Romney, holding his arm out in front of him, and dropping the mic. After the skit aired, search traffic for “mic drop” set a new record.
In stand-up comedy and hip-hop, the mic drop has been around for about three decades. Perhaps one of the earliest mic drops on film comes in Eddie Murphy’s 1983 stand-up special Delirious. At one point, an inaudible comment from an audience member prompts someone else in the audience to yell back, “Shut up, bitch!” When Murphy hears it, he drops the mic. Murphy then takes credit for the retort, saying “Y’all didn’t know I was a ventriloquist, too.”
One could argue that this is not a classic mic drop, coming as it does mid-performance. But Murphy knew about dropping the mic. Just check out his turn as Randy Watson, lead singer of the fictional band Sexual Chocolate, in Coming to America (1988). After singing “The Greatest Love of All,” Watson triumphantly shouts out, “Sexual Chocolate!” and drops the mic. (The character may seem minor, but he made enough of an impression on Questlove, of the slow-jammin’ band the Roots, that Questo named one of his side projects the Randy Watson Experience.)
As Murphy shifted his focus to film, comedians including Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock also became associated with dropping the mic. Rock often drops the mic after finishing a successful set, as at the end of his Kill the Messenger (2008) special for HBO. The special was filmed in multiple cities, but he ends each set the same way.
As for Chappelle, you can see him drop the mic in this “Dean Scream” sketch about “Black Howard Dean.”
By 2006 it had become common enough to worry audio technicians. In a 2006 post titled “God I Hate Dane Cook,” a blogger identifying himself as the house manager at a theater pled for comedians to stop:
I know for a fact few things piss off house managers more than damaging equipment in a joke. A comedian might think it’s cool to drop the mic after a successful set, but in reality it is damaging a wireless Shure Vox mic that costs a few hundred bucks.
Did Murphy and his fellow comedians borrow the mic drop from hip-hop? It’s hard to say. It may be worth noting that when Seinfeld did an episode about the importance in comedy of “going out on a high note,” in 1998, Jerry and co. never dropped the mic. And rappers were dropping the mic by the time Eddie Murphy began rising to stardom. In Eric B. and Rakim’s classic single “I Ain’t No Joke,” Rakim boasts, “I used to let the mic smoke/ Now I slam it when I’m done and make sure it’s broke.” According to Rakim, he does it so that nobody will step up and “mess up the scene.” Years later, 8 Mile (2002) brought an explosion in interest in rap battles and freestyling, but Rabbit never drops the mic: When he finishes his climactic freestyle and prepares to walk off the stage, he just passes the mic back to his opponent. (Eminem did rap about “dropping the mic” in 2004.)
Whether or not comedians invented the mic drop, they have arguably played a larger role in popularizing it than their hip-hop counterparts. In 2008, Saturday Night Live—whose cast members have played an especially large role in popularizing the mic drop—introduced the little-noticed Bobby Moynihan character “Obnoxious Microphone Guy.” The character only does one thing: steal the microphone from the emcee, scream “Whaaaaat!” into it, hold it out, and drop it to the floor.
Mic drops have also made at least two notable appearances on the Amy Poehler-starring Parks & Recreation. In an April 2011 episode, the character Jean-Ralphio (Ben Schwartz) told Tom (Aziz Ansari) to drop the mic at the end of his best man speech. A few months later, Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott) was shown dropping the mic at the end of a speech at the model U.N.
In recent years, awards show have gotten in on the act. To close out the 2011 Tonys, Neil Patrick Harris recapped the night’s events in rhyme and topped it off by tossing the mic. At the 2012 BET Awards, Kanye West capped off his GOOD Music performance with a mic drop.
Even on the night that Obama dropped the mic on Fallon, he wasn’t the only one to do it: Just a few channels away you could spot a mic drop from Utah Jazz player Enes Kanter.