Toynbee Tile in Philadelphia (photograph by Bruce Durling, via Flickr)

A Toynbee tile in Philadelphia (photo by Bruce Durling, via Flickr)

Tiles embedded in busy intersections around North and South America have been appearing for two decades. No one knows who their creator is, but the Toynbee tiles, as they’re called, have been the subject of a 2011 documentary and extensive archiving and mapping of their locations. Now the cryptic phenomenon has its own rap epic.

Raj Haldar, aka Lushlife, created the “Toynbee Suite” with collaborators including RJD2, Dark Horse Orchestra, and Yikes the Zero. The composition is in four parts, referencing the four parts of the message repeated on the tiles:

“Toynbee Idea
In Kubrick’s 2001 [sometimes Movie 2001]
Resurrect Dead
On Planet Jupiter”

A Toynbee Tile, or a tribute to them, in Memphis, Tennessee (photograph by the author)

A Toynbee tile, or copycat, in Memphis, Tennessee, along with a work by Stikman (photo by the author)

You can find over a hundred known tiles in New York, Chicago, Rio de Janeiro, Santiago de Chile, and in cities everywhere between; I was startled to find one in quiet downtown Memphis. It’s possible that some of them might be the work of imitators, as later tiles get more violent, with references to the “house of hades” and “dead journalists.” Yet there’s almost certainly a single creator behind those first tiles spotted in the 1980s in Philadelphia, where their mastermind is believed to originate.

If you’ve ever noticed a Toynbee tile, you’ll have wondered how it got there, lodged in the asphalt beneath the driving traffic. The prevailing theory is that the tiler cuts messages into linoleum, which he leaves in the street to be pressed down by car tires. But the meanings of the messages themselves are the more haunting mystery, and there’s been speculation that they reference everything from Ray Bradbury’s “The Toynbee Convector” to an obscure one-act David Mamet play called 4 A.M., which centers on a crazed person who calls in to a talk show, spouting about humans on Jupiter. Arnold J. Toynbee, the 20th-century philosopher cited in the first line of the message, was intensely interested in the successes and failures of civilization.

Lushlife’s “Toynbee Suite” contains 10 minutes of references to the Toynbee theories, bookended by lulling strings that finally transition into a lonely clarinet. The second segment, responding to “In Kubrick’s 2001,” uses the computer HAL’s “Dave, stop” lament from 2001: A Space Odyssey in a loop. At times the rapper inhabits the character of the tiler, blurring it with his musician self in a contemplation of the strangeness of being, death, resurrection, and, of course, Jupiter. As he shared last week on Studio 360:

Both of us in our own ways are kind of tirelessly pursuing one static goal in the face of glacial amounts of time. For him it’s like 20 odd years of wanting to communicate the Toynbee philosophy to the world, and for me it’s how I want to make rap records, and in that way I really do relate to the Toynbee tiler.

YouTube video

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print and online media since 2006. She moonlights...

2 replies on “A Rap Epic for the Enigmatic Toynbee Tiles”

    1. You’re right, as I note in the piece, the Hades-referencing ones are likely by someone else. I should have named stikman… will add.

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