I hope that this will be my last post on Rap. I have received the most critical comments on my blog regarding my views on Rap, so I decided to attend to this matter more carefully. This explains my silence of the past several days. I have taken the comments to heart and listened to over 50 raps in the past week. That, too, is something that I hope I do not have to repeat, however I do believe in being as fair and accurate as possible. In this way, we will all be winners in the end.
Obviously, I do not consider myself an expert, but I certainly have acquired a real experiential knowledge in the past week. This is not to say that I have never heard Rap before, it is just that I have never focused on it so much before. So, to “cut to the chase,” I will admit that Rap is a type of music – it is a kind of percussion music cum poetry. Rappers are, at their best, “verbal percussionists.” To quote my faithful commenter, Thomas Mirus:
“You won’t hear it on the radio, but some of the best rappers phrase over the bar line and in front of and behind the beat, in a way that is more speech-like than most rap yet more tied to the music than beat poetry in the 50s was.”
Indeed, this is true in part. As I listened, I realized that some rappers are better than others in the way they respond to the beat. Eminem and Busta Rhymes are definitely more sophisticated rhythmically than, say, Notorious Big or Jay-Z. Eminem, in fact, often employs quintuplet-based rhythms. Whether or not he realizes it, this is unusual and more sophisticated than the sixteenth-note rhythms many rappers employ. I am not in any way approving of the often hair-raising lyrics of Rap but, as a musician rather than a moralist, I do want to give credit where credit is due. If you want to learn more about this phenomenon, click on this link.
Now my praise of some rappers response to the beat helps us to get to the heart of the matter of what Rap is. And Rap would be absolutely nothing, it would have no existence, if it weren’t for its absolutely clear, omnipresent beat grid.
So, Rap does not really employ speech rhythm – except, perhaps, occasionally and by accident. In fact, I would contend that Rap would be quite meaningless without a beat. To recite a Rap in pure speech rhythm would be pretty much to destroy its nature. Speech rhythm knows no beat grid. It is based on the words, personal characteristics, and emphases of the speaker at any given moment – and these can vary quite widely, even wildly. Although it has rhythm, that is, a series of durations, words in speech are not related to a beat.
Think of it this way. You are looking out of your window on a winter day as it snows and a clock ticks nearby. The clock is the beat – the regular pulsation of time (tick-tock) – but the snowflakes do not fall in rhythm to this beat – not even remotely. I suppose that, theoretically, you could measure their fall to the clock – “Oh, this flake hit the ground 1 2/7 seconds after this one which fell 2 4/5 seconds after this one.” – but it would be extremely complicated and pointless. It would be an artificial imposition of the notion of “beat,” which is not necessary to rhythm, upon the fall of the snowflakes – which do have a rhythm of their own.
Now, if you want an analogy for Rap (and much modern Pop) music, think of putting a microphone in front of the ticking clock. Attach this microphone to an amplifier and some huge speakers and turn the volume up to “10” – Oh, and attach strobe lights which are coordinated with the ticking of the clock. Don’t let the syncopations in the rhythmic ostinati of such music fool you. The absolutely stolid, unyielding and externalized beat often set by the drum set (maybe even a drum machine, these days) is THE foundation of the music. This is the music’s true “Master and Commander.”
But isn’t this necessary? Doesn’t all Pop music have a beat? Isn’t the drum set supposed to set the beat? No, Yes, and No. Listen to this example of Elvis Presley singing “Heartbreak Hotel” in which he establishes the rhythm (and the beat) in his voice in the most incredibly subtle way. Then the combo (including the drummer) joins in with the rhythm Elvis has already established by means of his voice. This is what the philosopher Roger Scruton has referred to as music in which “the rhythm is breathed out rather than pumped in.”
Notice that, in his very voice, Elvis has “got rhythm” in the spirit (if not the original intention) of George Gershwin. He could perform this song all by himself with considerable rhythmic interest. The drummer and guitarist and bass player are more ornamental than constitutive of the piece’s rhythm.
Interestingly, any pitches used in Rap, such as in bass lines and chords, are not in themselves constitutional of the piece. One bass line (and any accompanying harmonies) could be swapped out for any other as long as the beat is respected which is the foundation against which the rapper reacts. Any pitches are “ornamental” and quite incidental. And, aside from the occasional dropping of a beat for shock effect, Rap consists of a steady quadruple simple meter (4/4).
So, Rap as a genre seems to consist of two fundamental things: 1) rhymed words which are rhythmically chanted against 2) an unvarying, beat-driven ostinato rhythm. Going back to the Elvis example, the rhythm and beat come out of the melody, and it is this, as odd as it may seem, that makes Elvis far more traditional than, say, Eminem who is reacting, sometimes quite creatively, against a machine-like externalized beat.
And this, I finally realize, is my ultimate beef with Rap and many other forms of Pop music – hard rock, disco, heavy metal, techno. It is precisely that they aren’t as “rhythmic” as many think, but that there is, instead, a definite rhythmic deficiency. This is not only a problem with Rap. I will fully admit that it has been going on for decades in various types of Pop music. As one example, listen to the Billboard number one hot single of 1979, Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” to get an idea of what I am talking about:
First, rhythm is split up into a series of mechanical pulsations of exact length (often produced mechanically), then rhythm collapses into an externalized beat and rhythmic ostinato into which the melody and harmonies are poured. Rhythm is no longer a relationship in time in which there is give and take. (For example, in a Waltz, beat one is typically held slightly longer to tantalizing “invite” beats two and three into the space.) Instead, in much modern Pop, time is split up into exact units as if by an electronic cheese wire, dressed up with some syncopation added by stressing beats two and four, for example.
The melody of “Heart of Glass” doesn’t have a strong internal logic, but rather seems to lean against the beat as if it were some sort of emotional cripple – although somewhat touching in its naïve simplicity. It would hardly be convincing outside of its own context, though. And what is its context? This is the music of a blasé, jaded young woman who wanders in and out of “relationships.” This is the music of the walking wounded – of a dazed floozie mechanically going through the motions of her life, staggering between (what used to be so touchingly called) “romances.”
The problem is that, though it may be descriptive of the topic at hand, this has become a very common approach to rhythm for many Pop musicians – an unthinking assumption – no matter what the subject of the song is. An unchanging, mechanical rhythm is shot out AT people by the drummer or other rhythm instruments to which they (including the other musicians) must conform or work out some other relationship. Right or wrong, Rap seems to me to be the final denouement of this trend. Melody and melody-related harmony are finally dispensed with entirely. Rhythm as something that emerges from the logical flow of the melody and harmony and is the product of the cooperative relationship amongst various people (and elements of the music) is lost. Instead, in Rap, the only thing that is left is the angry young man raging against the machine-like, externalized beat.