Why hip-hop is interesting

Update: I’ve turned this post into an academic article. Here’s a draft.

The title of this post is also the title of a tutorial I’m giving at ISMIR 2016 with Jan Van Balen and Dan Brown. Here are the slides:

The conference is organized by the International Society for Music Information Retrieval, and it’s the fanciest of its kind. You may well be wondering what Music Information Retrieval is. MIR is a specialized field in computer science devoted to teaching computers to understand music, so they can transcribe it, organize it, find connections and similarities, and, maybe, eventually, create it.

Spectrogram of "Famous" by Kanye West created with Chrome Music Lab

So why are we going to talk to the MIR community about hip-hop? So far, the field has mostly studied music using the tools of Western classical music theory, which emphasizes melody and harmony. Hip-hop songs don’t tend to have much going on in either of those areas, which makes the genre seem like it’s either too difficult to study, or just too boring. But the MIR community needs to find ways to engage this music, if for no other reason than the fact that hip-hop is the most-listened to genre in the world, at least among Spotify listeners.

Hip-hop has been getting plenty of scholarly attention lately, but most of it has been coming from cultural studies. Which is fine! Hip-hop is culturally interesting. When humanities people do engage with hip-hop as an art form, they tend to focus entirely on the lyrics, treating them as a subgenre of African-American literature that just happens to be performed over beats. And again, that’s cool! Hip-hop lyrics have significant literary interest. (If you’re interested in the lyrical side, we recommend this video analyzing the rhyming techniques of several iconic emcees.) But what we want to discuss is why hip-hop is musically interesting, a subject which academics have given approximately zero attention to.

Much of what I find exciting (and difficult) about hip-hop can be found in Kanye West’s song “Famous,” from his latest album The Life Of Pablo. The song comes with a video, a ten minute art film that shows Kanye in bed sleeping after a group sexual encounter with his wife, his former lover, his wife’s former lover, his father-in-law turned mother-in-law, various of his friends and collaborators, Bill Cosby, George Bush, Taylor Swift, and Donald Trump. There’s a lot to say about this, but it’s beyond the scope of our presentation, and also, words fail me. I’ll just focus on the song.

Like all Kanye West songs, “Famous” has some problematic lyrics. Kanye drops the n-word in the very first line and calls Taylor Swift a bitch in the second. He also speculates that he might have sex with her, and that he made her famous. I find his language difficult and objectionable, but that too is beyond the scope of our talk. Instead, I’m going to analyze the music itself.

Hip-hop is a collaborative art form, especially in the elite sphere where Kanye resides. The track’s co-producers are listed as Kanye, Havoc, Noah Goldstein, Charlie Heat, and Andrew Dawson. There are also three “additional” producers, Hudson Mohawke, Mike Dean, and Plain Pat. Kanye created this track in the same sense that Steven Spielberg creates a movie–he supervised a creative team rather than doing all of the hands-on work himself. For the purposes of this post, I’ll continue to say that the song is “by” Kanye for the sake of brevity, but any aspect of the track may have been created by any combination of the producers listed above.

“Famous” has a peculiar structure, shown in the graphic below.

Song structure of "Famous" by Kanye West

The track begins with a six bar intro, Rihanna singing over a subtle gospel-flavored organ accompaniment in F-sharp major. She’s singing few lines from “Do What You Gotta Do” by Jimmy Webb. This song has been recorded many times, but for Kanye’s listeners, the most significant reference point is Nina Simone’s version. The tone is wistful and regretful.

Next comes a four-bar groove, a more aggressive organ part over a drum machine beat, with Swizz Beatz ad libbing on top. The beat is a minimal funk pattern on just kick and snare, treated with cavernous artificial reverb. The snares all fall on the backbeats, with the kick playing more complex syncopated patterns around them.

The organ riff is in F-sharp minor, which is an abrupt mode change so early in the song. It’s sampled from the closing section of “Mi Sono Svegliato E…Ho Chiuso Gli Occhi” by Il Rovescio della Medaglia, an Italian prog-rock band I had never heard of until I looked the sample up just now. The song is itself built around quotes of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. Kanye loves sampling material built from samples.

Verse one continues over the same groove, with Kanye alternating between aggressive rap and loosely pitched singing. Rap is widely supposed not to be melodic, but this is a major misconception. First of all, the border between rapping and singing is fluid, and most emcees cross it effortlessly, as Kanye does here. Even in “straight” rapping, though, the pitch sequences are deliberate and meaningful. The pitches might not fall on the piano keys, but they are melodic nonetheless.

Here’s a phrase from the second verse that’s delivered “in the clear” (without instrumental backing), as visualized by Melodyne:

"We never gonna die" - Melodyne

I used Ableton’s audio to MIDI feature to try to map this melody to the closest piano-key pitches. Here’s what I came up with:


The verses are twelve bars long, which is unusual; hip-hop verses are almost always eight or sixteen bars. The hook (the hip-hop term for chorus) comes next, Rihanna singing the same Jimmy Webb/Nina Simone quote over the F-sharp major organ part from the intro. Swizz Beatz does more interjections, including a quote of “Wake Up Mr. West,” a short skit on Kanye’s album Late Registration in which DeRay Davis imitates Bernie Mac.

Verse two is much like verse one. At the end, you think Rihanna is going to come back in for the hook, but she only delivers the pickup. Instead, the section abruptly shifts into an F-sharp major groove over fuller drums, including a snare that sounds like a socket wrench. The lead vocal here is a sample of “Bam Bam” by Sister Nancy, which is a familiar reference for hip-hop fans. I recognize it from “Lost Ones” by Lauryn Hill and “Just Hangin’ Out” by Main Source. “Bam Bam” is Sister Nancy’s complaint about the misogyny she faces in the male-dominated reggae world–the chorus means “What a bum deal.” This makes it an odd choice for Kanye’s own misogynistic persona, but maybe the juxtaposition is intentional. Sister Nancy’s track is itself sample-based–like many reggae songs, it uses a pre-existing riddim or instrumental backing, and the chorus is a quote of the Maytals.

Kanye doesn’t just sample “Bam Bam”, he also reharmonizes it. Sister Nancy’s original is a I – bVII progression in C Mixolydian. Kanye pitch shifts the vocal to fit it over a I – V – IV – V progression in F-sharp major. He doesn’t just transpose the sample up or down a tritone; instead, he keeps the pitches close by changing their chord function. Here’s Sister Nancy’s original:

And here’s Kanye’s version:

The pitch shifting gives Sister Nancy the feel of a robot from the future, while the lo-fidelity recording places her in the past. All the way around, it’s a virtuoso sample flip on Kanye’s part.

After 24 bars of the Sister Nancy groove, the track ends with the Jimmy Webb hook again. But this time it isn’t Rihanna singing. Instead, it’s a sample of Nina Simone herself. (It reminds me of Kanye’s song “Gold Digger,” which includes Jamie Foxx imitating Ray Charles, followed by a sample of the Ray Charles original.) Kanye is doing some showing off here. It would be a major coup for most producers to get Rihanna to sing on a track, and it would be an equally major coup to be able to license a Nina Simone sample, not to mention the chutzpah it takes to even want to sample such a sacred and iconic figure. Few people besides Kanye could afford to use both Rihanna and Nina Simone singing the same hook, and no one else would dare. I don’t think it’s just a conspicuous show of industry clout, either; Kanye wants you to feel the contrast between Rihanna’s heavily processed purr and Nina Simone’s stark, preacherly tone. He also wants you to feel the disjoint of two famous voices, one belonging squarely to the present, the other to the past.

Here’s a diagram of all the samples and samples of samples in “Famous.”

Kanye West - "Famous" samples

In this one track, we have a dense interplay of rhythms, harmonies, timbres, vocal styles, and intertextual meaning, not to mention the complexities of cultural context. This song embodies perfectly why hip-hop is interesting.

You probably have a good intuitive idea of what hip-hop is, but there’s plenty of confusion around the boundaries. What are the elements necessary for music to be hip-hop? Does it need to include rapping over a beat? When blues, rock, or R&B singers rap, should we retroactively consider that to be hip-hop? What about spoken-word poetry? Does hip-hop need to include rapping at all? Do singers like Mary J. Blige and Aaliyah qualify as hip-hop? Is Run-DMC’s version of “Walk This Way” by Aerosmith hip-hop or rock? Is “Love Lockdown” by Kanye West hip-hop or electronic pop? Do the rap sections of “Rapture” by Blondie or “Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift count as hip-hop?

If a single person can be said to have laid the groundwork for hip-hop, it’s James Brown. His black pride, sharp style, swagger, and blunt directness prefigure the rapper persona, and his records are a bottomless source of classic beats and samples. The HBO James Brown documentary is a must-watch.

Wikipedia lists hip-hop’s origins as including funk, disco, electronic music, dub, R&B, reggae, dancehall, rock, jazz, toasting, performance poetry, spoken word, signifyin’, The Dozens, griots, scat singing, and talking blues. People use the terms hip-hop and rap interchangeably, but hip-hop and rap are not the same thing. The former is a genre; the latter is a technique. Rap long predates hip-hop–you can hear it in classicalrock, R&B, swingjazz fusion, soul, funkcountry, and especially blues, especially especially the subgenre of talking blues. Meanwhile, it’s possible to have hip-hop without rap. Nearly all current pop and R&B are outgrowths of hip-hop. Outside the commercial mainstream, meanwhile, turntablists and controllerists have turned hip-hop into a virtuoso instrumental music.

It’s sometimes said that rock is European harmony combined with African rhythm. Rock began as dance music, and rhythm continues to be its most important component. This is even more true of hip-hop, where harmony is minimal and sometimes completely absent. While some songs have harmonic interest (like “Famous” does), more than any other music of the African diaspora, hip-hop is first and foremost a delivery system for beats.

Hip-hop beats have undergone considerable evolution over time. Early hip-hop was built on funk and its commercial cousin disco. Funk is the product of what I call The Great Cut-Time Shift, as the underlying pulse of black music shifted from eighth notes to sixteenth notes. Until about 2000, hip-hop was built almost entirely on the James Brown rhythmic template, with the occasional rock or Latin or techno rhythm for variety. As hip-hop becomes more computer-driven, the beats are getting less organic and more robotic. The average tempo is slowing, and the pulse is moving to thirty-second notes in a second Great Cut-Time Shift. The finer grid subdivisions support impossibly intricate drum patterns far removed from what a human might perform.

Like all other African-American vernacular music, hip-hop uses extensive syncopation, most commonly in the form of a backbeat. In this amusing clip, you can hear the blues musician Taj Mahal teach a German audience how to clap on the backbeat. (“Schvartze” is German for “black.”) Hip-hop has also absorbed Afro-Cuban rhythms, like the omnipresent son clave. This traditional pattern is everywhere in hip-hop: in the drums, of course, but also in the rhythms of bass, keyboards, horns, vocals, and everywhere else. You can hear son clave in the snare drum part in “WTF” by Missy Elliott.

The NYU Music Experience Design Lab created the Groove Pizza app to help you visualize and interact with rhythms like the ones in hip-hop beats. You can use it to explore classic beats or more contemporary trap beats. Hip-hop beats come from three main sources: drum machines, samples, or (least commonly) live drummers.

Hip-hop was a DJ medium before emcees became the main focus. Party DJs in the disco era looped the funkiest, most rhythm-intensive sections of the records they were playing, and sometimes improvised toasts on top. Sampling and manipulating recordings has become effortless in the computer age, but doing it with vinyl records requires considerable technical skill. In the movie Wild Style, you can see Grandmaster Flash beat juggle and scratch “God Make Me Funky” by the Headhunters and “Take Me To The Mardi Gras” by Bob James (though the latter song had to be edited out of the movie for legal reasons.)

The creative process of making a modern recording is very different from composing on paper or performing live. Hip-hop is an art form about tracks, and the creativity is only partially in the songs and the performances. A major part of the process is the creation of sound itself. It’s the timbre and space that makes the best tracks come alive as much as any of the “musical” components. Electronic musicians have control over the finest nuances of the music that live performers can only dream of. The digital studio erases the distinction between composition, improvisation, performance, recording and mixing.

The best producers are the ones most skilled at “playing the studio.” Hip-hop has drawn much inspiration from the studio techniques of dub producers, who perform mixes of pre-existing multitrack tape recordings by literally playing the mixing desk. When you watch The Scientist mix Ted Sirota’s “Heavyweight Dub,” you can see him shaping the track by turning different instruments up and down and by turning the echo effect on and off. Like dub, hip-hop is usually created from scratch in the studio.

Aside from the human voice, the most characteristic sounds in hip-hop are the synthesizer, the drum machine, the turntable, and the sampler. The skills needed by a hip-hop producer are quite different from the ones involved in playing traditional instruments or recording on tape. Rock musicians and fans are quick to judge electronic musicians like hip-hop producers for not being “real musicians” because sequencing electronic instruments appears to be easier to learn than guitar or drums. Is there something lazy or dishonest about hip-hop production techniques? Is the guitar more of a “real” instrument than the sampler or computer? Are the Roots “better” musicians because they incorporate instruments? The debate rages.

Maybe we discount the creative prowess of hip-hop producers because we’re unfamiliar with their workflow. Fortunately, there’s a growing body of YouTube videos that document various aspects of the process:

Hip-hop is built on a foundation of existing recordings, repurposed and recombined. Samples might be individual drum hits, or entire songs. Even hip-hop tracks without samples very often started with them; producers often replace copyrighted material with soundalike “original” beats and instrumental performances for legal reasons. Turntables and samplers make it possible to perform recordings like instruments. The Amen break, a six-second drum solo, is one of the most important samples of all time. It’s been used in uncountably many hip-hop songs, and is the basis for entire subgenres of electronic music. Ali Jamieson gives an in-depth exploration of the Amen.

There are few artistic acts more controversial than sampling. Is it a way to enter into a conversation with other artists? An act of liberation against the forces of corporatized mass culture? A form of civil disobedience against a stifling copyright regime? Or is it a bunch of lazy hacks stealing ideas, profiting off other musicians’ hard work, and devaluing the concept of originality? Should artists be able to control what happens to their work? Is complete originality desirable, or even possible?

We look to hip-hop to tell us the truth, to be real, to speak to feelings that normally go unspoken. At the same time, we expect rappers to be larger than life, to sound impossibly good at all times, and to live out a fantasy life. And many of our favorite artists deliberately alter their appearance, race, gender, nationality, and even species. To make matters more complicated, we mostly experience hip-hop through recordings and videos, where artificiality is the nature of the medium. How important is authenticity in this music? To what extent is it even possible?

The “realness” debate in hip-hop reached its apogee with the controversy over Auto-Tune. Studio engineers have been using computer software to correct singers’ pitch since the early 1990s, but the practice only became widely known when T-Pain overtly used exaggerated Auto-Tune as a vocal effect rather than a corrective. The “T-Pain effect” makes it impossible to sing a wrong note, though at the expense of making the singer sound like a robot from the future. Is this the death of singing as an art form? Is it cheating to rely on software like this? Does it bother you that Kanye West can have hits as a singer when he can barely carry a tune? Does it make a difference to learn that T-Pain has flawless pitch when he turns off the Auto-Tune?

Hip-hop is inseparable from its social, racial and political environment. For example, you can’t understand eighties hip-hop without understanding New York City in the pre-Giuliani era. Eric B and Rakim capture it perfectly in the video for “I Ain’t No Joke.”

Given that hip-hop is the voice of the most marginalized people in America and the world, why is it so compelling to everyone else? Timothy Brennan argues that the musical African diaspora of which hip-hop is a part helps us resist imperialism through secular devotion. Brennan thinks that America’s love of African musical practice is related to an interest in African spiritual practice. We’re unconsciously drawn to the musical expression of African spirituality as a way of resisting oppressive industrial capitalism and Western hegemony. It isn’t just the defiant stance of the lyrics that’s doing the resisting. The beats and sounds themselves are doing the major emotional work, restructuring our sense of time, imposing a different grid system onto our experience. I would say that makes for some pretty interesting music.

7 thoughts on “Why hip-hop is interesting

  1. The “N-Word” is used once in Kanye West’s “Famous”. Not before “every line” as you write in your article.

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  3. For me hip hop beats and bass lines are simply funk. Often just straight ripped from loops. I tend to see hip hop as a music as an extension of funk. That ultra tight ultra repetitive almost robotic rhythm funk demanded as black music moved away from Miles Davis drums to James Brown’s drums is just continuing on today. It was then the vocalists responsibility to add the rest of the good stuff.

    Many hip hop producers of the 90s relied so heavily on sampling entire funk loops they didn’t survive so well when sampling died out. Dr Dre was seen as a “genius” for his Chronic album, but he was just lifting from funk records. The genius was in the “feeling” of the new music. Hip Hop is masterful at creating a feeling, and atmosphere in the music. Many of the great hip hop producers are some of the most creative editors and sculptors of atmosphere modern music has seen.

    As for the rapping, again James Brown really was doing it in the 60s and 70s. He was even talking and telling stories in poetry form over funk drum loops (see King Heroin).

  4. Trying to remember who the famous jazz musician was who said the new interesting solos and melodies will come from rappers. This is where I don’t agree with anyone who says hip hop is lacking in melody and harmony. It’s in the raps themselves

  5. Hi, I came to this article through twitter and I’ve been enjoying reading through your blog since, I just wanted to leave some things that came to mind as I read this. Full disclosure I’m from the classical music world (as a performer and also a composer of electronic music), and I can see you don’t feel too positively about us, but I do want to try and get more into hip hop. It’s probably the only pop music I have any interest in (though I guess that may change as it influences more and more), but my interest is at this point is more theoretical than based on actual listening and I’d like to change that.

    Anyways, to start with the article I found the discussion of the Kanye West song a little incongruous with your opening and reason for writing this. For example, you begin by pointing to the privileging of melody and harmony of MIR and how that doesn’t really work well for hip hop. I’m completely on board with you so far, I think across the world there’s so much music around the world that can’t be described in an interesting way in terms of melody or harmony there really aren’t great analytical models to address that. However, after saying that and recognizing those aren’t hip hop’s strengths, a good chunk of your analysis of the Kanye West song relates to those things. I think your argument is actually weakened by the use of western musical ideas like keys, modes, roman numerals,etc. because either a reader doesn’t understand them and doesn’t care, or they do understand them. And if that’s the case, then they probably also can recognize that things you talk about aren’t really particularly interesting or special. If you just wanted to describe the song that’d be one thing, but as a representation of why a genre is interesting, a modulation from F# sharp major to minor and a reharmonization of a melody fall flat for me.

    I wish you had gone deeper into sampling instead because I think that’s the best argument for why hip hop is special and in my opinion much more interesting than other pop music. Musical quotation and dense intertextuality are nothing unique to hip hop in themselves but the sample really takes those ideas to a new level in that you move away from abstractions. With the sample the importance is no longer just about say a melody Nina Simone sang once, but rather the actual sound of her voice, and that seems historically monumental to me and rich with meaning.

    I’m also more than a little skeptical of Timothy Brennan’s argument you mention at the end. I believe there could be something to it and that it rings true for you and others, but I think proclamations like that spring from the same mindset that leads people to think they’re being virtuous just listening to classical music, and they’re something that should be taken with a big grain of salt. His idea is romantic but for me it’s tough to square that with millions of white frat boy hip hop fans who gain the most from western hegemony. In that vein, you mention (or possibly paraphrase) the idea of hip hop as a tool for resisting industrial capitalism. But how do you reconcile that with the fact that hip hop’s global spread is not in small part due to the immense power of the American pop music industry (and the Britain’s pop music industry as well)? Now I’m not at all saying that hip hop wouldn’t be popular without the recording industry because of course the only reason they were willing to start pumping so much money into it was because it obviously already had some popularity. But even so, it’s a little hard for me to believe hip hop culture would have spread like it did without the help of that same capitalist machine.

    Sorry for the long comment, but thanks for the article despite any criticisms I did enjoy reading it and thinking about it!

    • Hi Marcela, thanks for reading. I like classical music and classical composers just fine; I just think our education system is too Eurocentric. Hip-hop is the most interesting pop music for me too.

      It’s a good point about all the harmonic analysis of the Kanye song. I chose it because of its production and the intertextuality of the samples; the harmonic interest only emerged when I started listening to it more closely. The post was prompted by a presentation I’m giving to a technical audience, so all the Roman numerals make sense for them. I’d use different language if I were writing for a hip-hop audience, or the general public.

      I talk extensively about sampling elsewhere on the blog. You can follow links in the post, or I’m happy to point you to posts that I think are particularly interesting. I do think it’s a huge deal to hear Nina Simone and Rihanna singing the same line in the same song, but am hoping that just hearing them and knowing who they are is enough to convey the significance of it. I can certainly try to state more explicitly why it’s a big deal.

      To me, Brennan is the key to the whole thing. The millions of white frat boys support Brennan’s thesis–they might benefit materially from capitalist hegemony, but they’re desperately impoverished culturally, and they know they are. Frat dudes wouldn’t so hungrily assimilate black culture if it wasn’t doing emotional work for them.

      It isn’t so much that I think hip-hop makes you virtuous; it’s that it makes life more tolerable in America (and other capitalist countries) because it addresses the specific problem of disconnection from the body brought on by our Puritanical Judeo-Christian values.

      Hip-hop attained its mammoth global impact more in spite of the US pop culture industry than because of it. We’re all used to rappers being megastars, but for the first couple of decades of its existence, the music was a grass roots phenomenon. In the 1980s and 1990s, radio and TV were promoting rock, not hip-hop. The culture industry is reactive to popular tastes. It’s powerless to create them (it would be a very different industry otherwise.) Every city in the world has its homegrown hip-hop scene that’s informed by the US and UK but not totally a copy of it. My Polish cousins love the Wu-Tang Clan because Krakow in 2016 is pretty similar to Staten Island in 1994, so it makes sense that the music would appeal to them.

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