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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Ultralight Beam

The first song on Kanye West’s Life Of Pablo album, and my favorite so far, is the beautiful, gospel-saturated “Ultralight Beam.” Say what you want about Kanye as a public figure, but as a musician, he is in complete control of his craft. See a live performance on SNL.

Ultralight Beam

The song uses only four chords, but they’re an interesting four: C minor, E-flat major, A-flat major, and G7. To find out why they sound so good together, let’s do a little music theory.

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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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Why is there so much Auto-Tune on everything?

When we talk about Auto-Tune, we’re talking about two different things. There’s the intended use, which is to subtly correct pitch problems (and not just with vocalists; it’s extremely useful for horns and strings.) The ubiquity of pitch correction in the studio should be no great mystery; it’s a tremendous time-saver.

Auto-Tune

But usually when we talk about Auto-Tune, we’re talking about the “Cher Effect,” the sound you get when you set the Retune Speed setting to zero. The Cher Effect is used so often in pop music because it’s richly expressive of our emotional experience of the world: technology-saturated, alienated, unreal. My experience with Auto-Tune as a musician has felt like stepping out the door of a spaceship to explore a whole new sonic planet. Auto-Tune turns the voice into a keyboard synth, and we are only just beginning to understand its creative possibilities. (Warning: explicit lyrics throughout.)

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Teaching mixing in a MOOC

This is the third in a series of posts documenting the development of Play With Your Music, a music production MOOC jointly presented by P2PU, NYU and MIT. See also the first and second posts.

So, you’ve learned how to listen closely and analytically. The next step is to get your hands on some multitrack stems and do mixes of your own. Participants in PWYM do a “convergent mix” — you’re given a set of separated instrumental and vocal tracks, and you need to mix them so they match the given finished product. PWYM folks work with stems of “Air Traffic Control” by Clara Berry, using our cool in-browser mixing board. The beauty of the browser mixer is that the fader settings get automatically inserted into the URL, so once you’re done, anyone else can hear your mix by opening that URL in their own browser.

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Frank Ocean’s Real Love

Frank Ocean is the R&B singer of the moment. Does he merit all they hype? There’s no doubt but that the man can sing. I first heard him in Jay-Z and Kanye West’s tremendous “No Church In The Wild,” which owes a lot of its intensity to Ocean’s vocals. He’s been releasing some good mixtapes too. Some of his sudden fame is also due to his implicit coming-out moment, a remarkable Tumblr post talking openly about his feelings for another man. In a world where Jay-Z’s voicing ambiguous support for gay marriage is headline news, Ocean’s open love letter is bold indeed.

The online Frank Ocean buzz reached such a pitch that I finally took the plunge on his first major-label release, Channel Orange. It’s the first full album of new music I’ve bought since The Archandroid by Janelle Monáe. Does it merit the hype? I don’t know yet. I think so. It’s strange and idiosyncratic. Some of it is boilerplate R&B, some of it is wildly experimental. Most falls somewhere in between. One song that jumps out at me is “Super Rich Kids,” featuring the utterly affectless rapping of Earl Sweatshirt.

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What we talk about when we talk about Kanye West

Here’s an email conversation I’ve been having with my friend Greg Brown about Kanye West’s recent albums. Greg is a classical composer and performer with a much more avant-garde sensibility than mine. The exchange is lightly edited for clarity.

Greg: I’ve been listening to 808s and Heartbreak and Twisted Fantasy. I’m really enjoying them. Far more than I thought I would. I think Auto-tune here is somehow protective for Kanye when he is expressing emotion in a genre where that is not really smiled on. I haven’t quite put my finger on it, but I think the dehumanizing of the human voice is somehow a foil for the expression of inner turmoil. It’s haunting.

Ethan: Yes! Absolutely. The Auto-tune gives Ye a way to be the sensitive, vulnerable singer, as opposed to the swaggering rapper. And I like the similar sonic palettes between 808s and Fantasy, except 808s is sparse and Fantasy is full. And the thing of using tuned 808 kick drums to play the basslines is so hip.

Greg: The hard part for me to wrap my head around is the fact that Auto-tune is a filter, a dehumanizer, and it manages to make Kanye both closer and more human.

Ethan: I have a broader philosophical idea brewing about the concepts of “dehumanizing” and “posthuman” and how they’re really kind of meaningless, at least as applied to music. How can things that humans create be dehumanizing? Everyone involved in the production of Kanye’s albums is human. Auto-tune is a novel way of sounding human, but it’s still human, just like the sound of reverb or EQ or compression.

Greg: Yes — I have similar issues with natural vs. unnatural in general. Humans are natural, therefore everything we do is also natural.

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The Makossa diaspora

The first time I heard Manu Dibango’s “Soul Makossa” was courtesy of Motorcycle Guy, a prominent Brooklyn eccentric who drives around on a tricked-out motorcycle bedecked with lights and equipped with a powerful sound system. I encounter him every so often and he’s always bumping some good funk, soul or R&B. One night, he was playing what I thought was an extreme remix of “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” by Michael Jackson, with the end chant slowed down and pitch-shifted radically. As it turns out, I got the chronology reversed. Here’s Manu Dibango’s song:

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What are the greatest basslines ever?

The bassline is neglected by most non-musicians. But if you want to write or produce music, you quickly find out how important it is. The bassline is the foundation of the whole musical structure, both rhythmically and harmonically. The best basslines interlock with the drums and other rhythm instruments to propel the groove, without you necessarily even noticing them. I like the complex walking lines in jazz and melodic lines in highbrow rock, but the ones that really hit me where I live are basic riffs that loop and loop until they lift you into an ecstatic trance.

Here are my favorite basslines of the last fifty years, across genres.

John Coltrane – “My Favorite Things”

Simple, hypnotic, effective. Read more.

John Coltrane – “Equinox”

Another devastatingly simple groove.

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