Visualizing hip-hop melodies

I’m continuing to gather materials for my upcoming ISMIR 2016 presentation on Why Hip-Hop Is Interesting. One of my big themes is the melodic content of rap. Emcees are deliberate in their use of pitch, whether they’re singing or rapping or some combination of the two. In the post, I’ll analyze segments of three great emcees’ flow. I made the graphics by loading acapella tracks into Melodyne, and then added the lyric annotations by hand using Omnigraffle. The selection of these tracks represents the intersection of “songs that I like” and “acapellas that are available to me.”

Eric B and Rakim – “Follow The Leader”

Emcee: Rakim Allah

Rakim Allah stands out among eighties rappers for the complexity and subtlety of his flow. Here’s an excerpt from verse one:

I'm everlasting

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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.

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Prepping my rap and rock class at Montclair State

This summer, I’m teaching Cultural Significance of Rap and Rock at Montclair State University. It’s my first time teaching it, and it’s also the first time anyone has taught it completely online. The course is cross-listed under music and African-American studies. Here’s a draft of my syllabus, omitting details of the grading and such. I welcome your questions, comments and criticism.

Rap and Rock

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Hip-hop top 100

I was asked on Quora to give a list of my favorite hip-hop songs, because what better source is there than a forty-year-old white dad? (I am literally a mountain climber who plays the electric guitar.) I did grow up in New York City in the 80s, and I do love the music. But ultimately, I’m a tourist in this culture. For a more definitive survey, ask Questlove or someone. These are just songs that I like.

Run-DMC

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Ch-ch-ch-check out, check out check out my melody

My computer dictionary says that a melody is “a sequence of single notes that is musically satisfying.” There are a lot of people out there who think that rap isn’t music because it lacks melody. My heart broke when I found out that Jerry Garcia was one of these people. If anyone could be trusted to be open-minded, you’d think it would be Jerry, but no.

I’ve always instinctively believed this position to be wrong, and I finally decided to test it empirically. I took some rap acapellas and put them into Melodyne. What I found is that rap vocals use plenty of melody. The pitches rise and fall in specific and patterned ways. The pitches aren’t usually confined to the piano keys, but they are nevertheless real and non-arbitrary. (If you say a rap line with the wrong pitches, it sounds terrible.) Go ahead, look and listen for yourself. Click each image to hear the song section in question. Continue reading

Visualizing song structures

How do you write out a pop, rock or dance song? There’s no single standard method. Some musicians use standard western notation. Some do everything by ear. Many of us use methods that fall somewhere in between. One such compromise system in widespread use is the lead sheet:

Other systems for song documentation include chord charts and the Nashville numbering system. But plenty of musicians are unfamiliar with these systems, and may not have any method for writing down songs at all. This leads to a lot of confusion during rehearsals and recording sessions. Any given section of a rock or pop song is likely to be simple, a few chords in a particular pattern, but the difficulty comes in figuring out and remembering the bigger structure: whether the guitar solo comes after the second verse or the chorus, how many bars long the bridge is, what beat the ending falls on.

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Eric B and Rakim

In 1987 I remember having my ears grabbed by this track on the radio called “Pump Up The Volume” by MARRS.

Now that mashups are so common, this track doesn’t sound particularly remarkable. But in seventh grade it was startling to hear a house music track full of random samples. “Pump Up The Volume” was part of the same UK dance music movement that spawned the KLF’s “Doctorin’ The Tardis” and “Rush” by Big Audio Dynamite. I wasn’t enough of a hip-hop head in 1987 to recognize where the phrase in the title comes from, but now I do, it’s from “I Know You Got Soul” by Eric B and Rakim. Listen at 0:43:

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The Champ

Music blogs, magazines and cable channels like to run lists of the best albums of all time. Certain albums get listed again and again: Sgt Pepper, Pet Sounds, Highway 61 Revisited.

If you were to compile the best albums as measured by how often they get sampled by hip-hop producers, the list would look very different. There would be some famous names on it — James Brown, Led Zeppelin, P-Funk — but it wouldn’t necessarily include their best-known songs. And you’d see a lot of names that would be totally unfamiliar, unless you were a really devoted crate-digger. In the top ten, alongside tunes by The Honey Drippers, The Soul Searchers and The Incredible Bongo Band, you’d  find “The Champ” by The Mohawks.

Hip-hop fans will instantly recognize the organ riff that kicks off this song. It’s everywhere. Yet I had never heard of the Mohawks before looking into the source of the riff. They were an ad-hoc band of session musicians led by a British organist named Alan Hawkshaw, best known for his commercial jingles, library music and TV theme songs. He also played on records by Barbra Streisand and Olivia Newton John. Not the likeliest source of inspiration for Big Daddy Kane and Ol’ Dirty Bastard, is he? But the album grooves hard.

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Ashley’s Roachclip

I’m continuing my tour through hip-hop’s most classic breakbeats with “Ashley’s Roachclip” by the Soul Searchers. The drum break at 3:36 is one of those hip-hop workhorses, like “Impeach The President” and “The Funky Drummer” and “Apache.” It seems like it’s always been there.

The Soul Searchers were led by guitarist Chuck Brown, known in Washington DC music circles as “The Godfather of Go-go.” Go-go is a regional flavor of  funk using a heavy swing feel and a lot of happening syncopation in the kick drum pattern. Early in my funk connoisseurship, I would have used the go-go beat as the definition of funk. The beat in “Ashley’s Roachclip” isn’t actually very typical of go-go since it uses straight eighth notes. You can hear a more typical one on Chuck Brown’s official web site.

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Impeach The President

Hip-hop sampling has a way of elevating obscure tracks into the cultural pantheon.  “Impeach The President” by the Honey Drippers is a perfect example (the president in question is Nixon.) While the song itself isn’t well-known outside of sample geek circles, I can guarantee you’ve heard its opening few seconds. According to WhoSampled.com, it’s the most-sampled breakbeat in history.

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