The fake and the real in Chance the Rapper’s “All We Got”

Every semester in Intro to Music Tech, we have Kanye West Day, when we listen analytically to some of Ye’s most sonically adventurous tracks (there are many to choose from.) The past few semesters, Kanye West Day has centered on “Ultralight Beam,” especially Chance The Rapper’s devastating verse. That has naturally led to a look at Chance’s “All We Got.”

All the themes of the class are here: the creative process in the studio, “fake” versus “real” sounds, structure versus improvisation, predictability versus surprise, and the way that soundscape and groove do much more expressive work than melody or harmony.

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The Vocoder, Auto-Tune, Pitch Standardization and Vocal Virtuosity

Writing assignment for History of Science and Technology class with Myles Jackson. See a more informal introduction to the vocoder here.

Casual music listeners know the vocoder best as the robotic voice effect popular in disco and early hip-hop. Anyone who has heard pop music of the last two decades has heard Auto-Tune. The two effects are frequently mistaken for one another, and for good reason—they share the same mathematical and technological basis. Auto-Tune has become ubiquitous in recording studios, in two very different incarnations. There is its intended use, as an expedient way to correct out-of-tune notes, replacing various tedious and labor-intensive manual methods. Pop, hip-hop and electronic dance music producers have also found an unintended use for Auto-Tune, as a special effect that quantizes pitches to a conspicuously excessive degree, giving the voice a synthetic, otherworldly quality. In this paper, I discuss the history of the vocoder and Auto-Tune, in the context of broader efforts to use science and technology to mathematically analyze and standardize music. I also explore how such technologies problematize our ideas of virtuosity.

Ableton vocoder

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The vocoder and Auto-Tune

This post documents a presentation I’m giving in my History of Science and Technology class with Myles Jackson. See also a more formal history of the vocoder.

The vocoder is one of those mysterious technologies that’s far more widely used than understood. Here I explain what it is, how it works, and why you should care. A casual music listener knows the vocoder best as a way to make that robot voice effect that Daft Punk uses all the time.

Here’s Huston Singletary demonstrating the vocoder in Ableton Live.

This is a nifty effect, but why should you care? For one thing, you use this technology every time you talk on your cell phone. For another, this effect gave rise to Auto-Tune, which, love it or hate it, is the defining sound of contemporary popular music. Let’s dive in!

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Chance the Rapper’s verse on “Ultralight Beam”

One of the best guest verses in the history of hip-hop is the one that Chance The Rapper does on Kanye West’s beautiful “Ultralight Beam.”

The song is built around an eight bar loop. (See this post for an analysis of the chord progression.) Chance’s verse goes through the loop five times, for a total of forty bars. It’s not at all typical for a rap song to include a one and a half minute guest verse–it’s almost enough material to make a whole separate song. By giving up so much space in his album opener, Kanye is gaving Chance the strongest endorsement possible, and Chance makes the most of his moment.

Chance The Rapper

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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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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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