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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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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Musical simples: Stir It Up

The I-IV-V chord progression is one of the cornerstones of Western music, uniting everything from Mozart to Missy Elliott. Bob Marley’s “Stir It Up” is as clear and concise an introduction to I-IV-V as you could ask for.

The song uses three chords: A, D, and E. They’re shown in the diagram below as turquoise, blue, and pink lines respectively.

stir-it-up-chords

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The Amen Break

If you had to name the most influential drummer in contemporary music, who would you pick? If you’re a rock fan, you might go with Ringo Starr, John Bonham, or Keith Moon. A jazz fan might choose Max Roach, Elvin Jones, or Tony Williams. You probably wouldn’t think to name Gregory Cylvester Coleman. But he’s as strong a candidate as anyone.

The Winstons

Coleman was the drummer in a sixties soul band, The Winstons. His claim to fame is a five and a half second break in an obscure song called “Amen, Brother,” the B-side to the minor Winstons hit “Color Him Father.” That doesn’t sound like much of a case for Coleman’s importance. But his short drum break is widely considered to be the most-sampled recording in history, ahead of “The Funky Drummer” and “Apache” and “Cold Sweat” and all the rest of the classic breakbeats.

Here’s “Amen, Brother.” The famous drum break comes at 1:27.

Here’s a visualization I made of the famous break:

The Amen break - polar coordinates

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