Is Rap Music? If It Quacks like a Duck

By Wynn, Ron | The New Crisis, January/February 2001 | Go to article overview

Is Rap Music? If It Quacks like a Duck


Wynn, Ron, The New Crisis


Though still a stepchild to many in the family of music lovers, the pervasive presence of rap renders academic the cavils over whether or not it is "music." Rap is created by people who are apparently expressing their experience of life through replicable patterns of sound and rhythm, that is, music. It is produced and distributed by the "music industry," and its "consumers" respond like pop music lovers have over the several-generation evolution of the mass-market recording industry. So, since it walks, quacks, swims, and eats like a duck....

Rap is the musical component of the hip-hop lifestyle, which covers fashion, language, and attitudes and acts that are at best antiEstablishment and at worst criminal and nihilistic. Rap artists give outsiders a window into this milieu, while affirming for those born or inducted to the hip-hop world their intrinsic worth. And there are other ramifications.

Rap, like the bebop insurgency in jazz, represents a new synthesis of art and life. Such beboppers as brass man Dizzy Gillespie, pianist Thelonious Monk, reed player Charlie Parker, and drummer Max Roach were innovators. They came of age during the swing era, learned the conventions, then found the prevailing musical vocabulary and syntax to be inadequate for expressing their experiences, consciousness, and musical imaginations.

Some people theorize that a poverty of music curricula in urban schools denied rap's young inventors musical instruments and instruction, obliging them to "make do" with the tools at hand: rhythms inherent in the language and the body; "doggerel" rhyme; raw streams of life data for "lyrics" that are composed on the fly rather than pored over in lonely, sentimental solitude.

Whether or not this deprivation model of rap's origins holds water, it's clear that rap's creation coincides with the predominance of recorded (canned music) over live music, with electronic over acoustic sound, and with the personalization of sound technology (a la the personal computer).

The musical sensibilities of rap's creators and devotees are attuned to a gestalt of a capella vocalizations, rhythm, and prerecorded sound rather than to discrete acoustic instrumental sounds moving through well-defined, complex harmonic and rhythmic patterns behind a leading melodic "voice," either human or instrumental (for example, the sax). Insofar as the latter is one's definition of "music," rap is not-not that "music" at least.

Rappers have taken the same revolutionary approach to language and music that the beboppers took to melody and rhythm. Rappers operate with sounds and words, experimenting with their own vocal pitch and flow, then reconfigure the lyrics into a streamof-consciousness delivery. It's not surprising that ajay-Z or Nas tells reporters they don't "compose" their raps like arrangers and lyricists used to sit down and put notes to words.

Rappers speak over prerecorded beats, listen for hours to records, find samples (snippets of melody and rhythm), then place these on tape loops and begin narration. Sometimes rappers even use conversations as a compositional springboard, or develop rhymes while riding in cars.

There's no question 21st-century rap production is much more sophisticated than mid-'40s jazz sessions, not only because of technological evolution but also because the fundamental aims are different. To jazz musicians and its sound engineers, the recording was a vehicle to carry the art from maker to listener. In rap, it is the art.

Rappers utilize multi-tracking, insert snippets and melodic fragments, and weave their words in and out of thick sound montages. A rapper will change the formula of his presentation, altering enunciation, pronunciation, and cadence to make the point. The Sugar Hill Gang didn't try to recycle the melody when it borrowed the rhythm from Chic's hit song "Good Times," choosing instead to recite rhymes over it and call the resulting new sound "Rapper's Delight. …

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