Why hip-hop is interesting

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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Here comes the sun

Today in the NY Times there’s an article about NASA’s new Solar Dynamics Observatory. Check out this amazing video of the sun in action.

The sun was on my mind today anyway, it being so nice and cloudless outside. But days like today also cause me anxiety. I’m a fair-haired sunburn-prone type, and my dad died from skin cancer, a combination of Scandinavian genes and long hours as a young guy on a ladder helping Grandpa paint houses, plus many more hours on boats and beaches with no sunblock. I stick to the shade, wear hats and generally play it very safe, but still, I feel some dread about the amount of radiation I’m getting from the great thermonuclear reactor in the sky.

My dread does have an upside. It’s fueled a lot of fascination. The sun is a bottomless source of interest if you’re a science geek like me. Continue reading