Before streaming video and iPods, before Blu Ray and IMAX, there was only one way to see the sort of illusions we take for granted: stage magic. A strange combination of theatricality, science and hucksterism, stage magic set the precedent for the early cinema and — just as the book The Prestige suggests — was intricately involved in the harnessing of electricity and other scientific breakthroughs (Nikola Tesla thought of himself as a bit of an illusionist). But the most famous stage magician, Harry Houdini, focused less on sleight of hand (though he was adept at it) and more on escapology and will power. In a trick that later inspired the likes of David Blaine, Houdini spent part of August 5, 1926 in a “casket” submerged in the pool of the Hotel Shelton in New York. He stayed there for just over 90 minutes, besting one of his rivals by a half hour. It was one of several “Buried Alive” tricks for Houdini and sadly one of his final public illusions: He met his tragic death on Halloween in 1926.
His name carried on with Whodini, the lyrical magicians who helped bring hip-hop to a mass audience in the early 1980s. Though one of the members (Ecstasy) tended to dress like Zorro, the group did tend to nod toward magic imagery — one of their early singles was called “Magic’s Wand,” and their most popular album was named after Houdini’s greatest feats: Escape. That album contained the group’s signature song, “The Freaks Come Out at Night.” Check out the video, which also contains a great intro: an a capella version of “Friends,” which you may recognize as an oft-used sample in tracks like Nas’ “If I Ruled the World” and Tupac’s “Troublesome 96.”