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.
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.
Sasha Frere-Jones was recently asked by The Guardian to make a list of perfect songs. I don’t agree with all of his choices — Taylor Swift? — but I can definitely get behind his nomination of “Sucker MCs” by Run-DMC.
This track was the B-side to Run-DMC’s first single in 1983, and was produced by Larry Smith of and Davy DMX of Orange Krush (thus the subtitle “Krush Groove 1.”) It’s beautiful in its simplicity: two guys rapping, an Oberheim DMX drum machine, some turntable scratching, and nothing else. It’s the most minimalist hip-hop song I know of, other than “Top Billin’” by Audio Two.
The word “groovy” originates in jazz slang, referring to music that’s swinging, tight, funky, in the pocket. The analogy is to the groove in a vinyl record — the musicians are so together that it’s like they’re the needle guided by the groove.
The “groove” becomes generalized to any good rhythm, passage, or entire piece of music; “grooving” means making music well, and the adjective “groovy” follows.
I always enjoy when hip-hop artists sample themselves. It makes the music recursive, and for me, “recursive” is synonymous with “good.” You can hear self-sampling in “Nas Is Like” by Nas, “The Score” by the Fugees and many songs by Eric B and Rakim. The most recent self-sampling track to cross my radar is “Unbelievable” by Biggie Smalls, from his album Ready To Die. Here’s the instrumental.
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:
If I had to pick a single track to explain to an alien or time traveler what hip-hop is and why it’s so awesome, I think I’d pick “Nas Is Like.”
Nas has a great flow full of powerful imagery, but what truly sets this track apart for me is DJ Premier’s production. It’s a complex web of samples and scratches that tie together so seamlessly as to be much greater than the sum of their parts. A lot of the samples are from other songs by Nas himself. Here’s a diagram of all the samples, click to see it bigger:
I can’t breakdance. I want to learn. It looks like fun. When I worked for the Parks Department I was involved in their afterschool programs. One of them met in the Alfred E Smith Recreation Center in the housing project of the same name. In the basketball gym, Roc-a-fella (the b-girl, not the record label) and her crew taught classes. Some of the people were beginners, and some were advanced Jedi masters. One guy could spin on his head while nonchalantly taking off his jacket. I watched some of those classes and felt as happy as I’ve ever felt watching other people do anything.
Here I’m going to collect some breakdance media and see if any thoughts emerge. Your suggestions welcome.
Turntablists use record players to play records in ways they weren’t meant to be played. By speeding up, slowing down and reversing the record under the needle, a whole universe of new sounds becomes possible. The record player as musical instrument is still in its early stages of development. DJs already invented the instrumental sound of hip-hop. I wonder what else they have coming.
Herbie Hancock is a musician’s musician. He pushed the boundaries of acoustic piano in the sixties. He found a uniquely personal voice on an array of synthesizers in the seventies. And in the eighties, he helped bring turntablism into the pop mainstream.
People have been experimenting with recording playback devices as musical instruments for a hundred years. But the concept didn’t cross into mass consciousness until the rise of hip-hop turntablism in the early 1980s. The breakthrough moment for a lot of people was Herbie’s song “Rockit” from his 1983 album Future Shock. The song includes turntable scratching over a blend of live and programmed drums and synths, along with some heavily processed robo-vocals. Future Shock is named for the Curtis Mayfield song, which is itself named for the Alvin Toffler book. The basic gist is, “Too much change too fast is stressful for people.” Herbie, at least, has managed to get some pleasure from his future shock. Continue reading →