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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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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Sucker MCs

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 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.

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How did the word “groovy” come to acquire its current meaning?

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.

Pick it up, lay it in the cut

The “groove” becomes generalized to any good rhythm, passage, or entire piece of music; “grooving” means making music well, and the adjective “groovy” follows.

From the Online Etymology Dictionary:

1937, Amer.Eng., in slang sense of “first-rate, excellent;” from jazz slang phrase in the groove (1932) “performing well (without grandstanding)”

The generalized sense of “groovy” meaning “cool” might be kind of dated, but among musicians the groove remains a term of art. For example, see my post on how to groove.

Grand Mixer DST

Original post on Quora

Biggie Biggie Smalls Is The Illest

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.

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Eric B and Rakim

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:

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Nas Is Like

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:

Nas Is Like sample map

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Breakdance

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.

Beat Street

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DJ on the one and two

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.

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