Participant ethnography of a hip-hop cypher

In this paper, I discuss a rap cypher held during a session of NYU’s CORE Music Program on March 3, 2018. A cypher is a group performance where rappers take turns performing improvised verses. Freestyling is to rap what jam sessions are to jazz: an improvisational form that demands both technical proficiency and a relaxed, casual confidence. I chose the cypher as the subject of ethnographic study because it crystallizes so much of what I love about rap generally. Freestyle rap in particular is an underappreciated art. While hip-hop is the most popular genre of music in the United States (Nielsen 2018), and possibly in the world (Hooton 2015), the American music academy does not afford it much respect. I have heard a demoralizingly large number of musicians and educators opine that rap is not music at all. While I do not believe that rap needs academic validation, it is important to me that my fellow educators understand and appreciate the beauty of this music, so if they will not embrace it, they might at least do less to impede it.

Few rap haters will admit to being motivated by racial or class animus. Instead, they point to rap’s supposed lack of melody, or the programmed and sampled beats. Along with electronic dance music, rap in its instrumental aspect is the most repetitive popular form in American history, and schooled musicians are socialized to be contemptuous of repetition (McClary 2004). Improvisation likewise has a low status in academic settings, because spontaneous musical expression supposedly has less significance than composed works (Nettl 1974, 3). However, closer engagement with improvised rap quickly reveals its depth. For example, the predictability of the beats is a necessity to support the complex play of text, pitch, rhythm and timbre in the emcees’ flow. Only by evaluating the music by its own value system can we recognize its beauty.Like any culture, hip-hop can be viewed as “ordered, limiting, and pervasive”, or as “fertile, elaborative, and liberating” (MacDougall 1998, 62). The former view resembles social science or Marxist theory, while the latter is more like literary description of individual experience. I will argue that rap is ordered and limited by strict musical conventions, but that these conventions are optimized to promote elaborative and liberating expression. In the cypher discussed below, the emcees make their personalities and identities felt immediately and strongly. In so doing, they deploy impressive musical and verbal skill with seeming effortlessness. “Regardless of thematics, pleasure and mastery in toasting and rapping are matters of control over the language, the capacity to outdo competition, the craft of the story, mastery of rhythm, and the ability to rivet the crowd’s attention” (Rose 1994, 75). I was the only “audience” member present during the CORE cypher, and I was indeed riveted.

A note about terminology: I use the terms ”rap” and “hip-hop“ interchangeably throughout this paper, in keeping with the usual practice of practitioners and fans. Strictly speaking, rap and hip-hop are not the same thing. Rap is a style of music, while hip-hop is a culture or aesthetic, one component of which is rap music. There can be hip-hop music without rapping, for example, in turntablism or the instrumental albums of DJ Shadow. Conversely, many genres of music predating hip-hop have used rap, including blues, jazz, soul, country, and rock. Nevertheless, when referring to contemporary mainstream music, rap and hip-hop are effectively coextensive.

My musical life has taken place within the Afrodiasporic traditions that gave rise to hip-hop: jazz, rock, funk, and electronic dance music. I have produced a little hip-hop, too, and done a very small amount of rapping. I grew up in New York City, and do not remember a time when I was not at least passively hearing rap around me. However, I am very much an outsider in hip-hop settings, due to a combination of my race, class, age, and sensibilities. A first-time CORE participant introduced herself to me at a session by saying, “You look important.” I gave that impression because I was the oldest person there, and the most formally dressed, not to mention the fact that I was one of only two white people present.

There is a degree to which I am perfectly at home in CORE sessions. This is true in a literal sense—they happen in my workplace, sometimes in my shared office. I am less at home in the metaphorical sense. I am knowledgeable enough about rap to be able to have a conversation about it, and enthusiastic enough as a fan to be able to cross social divides. The participants are friendly toward me, and the regulars greet me warmly with handshakes, fist bumps, and hugs. But I am self-conscious about being a novice and a tourist, about being wack and corny. This is no false modesty on my part: I am a very good musician, but I am not a good rap musician, certainly not by CORE participants’ standards. 

I have more privilege than the CORE kids in every respect except in terms of coolness. Without exception, all of the kids are cooler than me, and at least outwardly are correspondingly more confident. For this reason, when I am present for a cypher, I am simultaneously thrilled and terrified by the prospect of getting up and spitting a verse. I did beatbox for a freestyle by one of the CORE mentors during a conference presentation, but I have otherwise kept my own musicality to myself among the participants.

I try to approach the rap musicians of CORE with “positive naïveness” (Madison 2012, 32). Some of this naïvety is genuine, and some is strategic. For an American studying American popular music, “there is no formal beginning or end to our research; our participant observation (i.e., experiencing popular music within the context of American society) covers roughly our entire lives, as do the relationships that we rely on to situate ourselves socially” (Schloss 2013, 8). I am not a naïve participant, but I try to keep my history and opinions to weigh too heavily on observation and interviews.

The CORE Music Program is, per its web site:

an artist mentorship lab, event series, and professional network for young creatives committed to self growth and community engagement hosted at the Music Experience Design Lab (MusEDLab) at New York University. CORE Music NYC is a creative network of support rooted in the shared valuing of freedom, innovation, community, honest expression and the music cultures that inspire us.

The program is run by Jamie Ehrenfeld, a graduate of NYU’s music education program and a teacher at Eagle Academy in Brownsville. The name, chosen by the participants, seems like it might be an acronym, but it does not stand for anything. Each Saturday afternoon, rappers, producers, mentors and friends coalesce in studios and office spaces in NYU Steinhardt’s Education building near Washington Square Park. They write, record, rehearse, listen, study, and socialize. Sometimes there are organized workshops on audio engineering or music business, but most sessions are ad hoc and informal. The program has an ethos of liberatory consciousness, so the participants’ music tends to be more woke than commercial rap, with more focus on social issues and less on partying, guns, or drugs.

CORE Music NYC

CORE participants are young men and women in their teens and early twenties, mostly low-SES people of color. Hip-hop is not the only style of music that they create. Some are singer-songwriters working in a pop, R&B, or rock style. However, hip-hop is the unifying thread. While there is an identifiable group of regulars, actual attendance from week to week is unpredictable. Instead, sessions have a clubhouse feel. Most of the time, no one is really “in charge.” Jamie’s role as director is to provide logistical support, and to be emotionally available and supportive—this sometimes means listening sympathetically, and sometimes means pushing or cajoling the participants.

The CORE working style is low-key, social, casual, and, at times, indistinguishable from simply hanging out. This is well in keeping with the broader norms of hip-hop. Despite the apparent lack of focus, this ad hoc working style is richly generative of original music. After extended socializing, rap artists tend to make their creative choices quickly and decisively.

NYU is a fascinating setting for observations of CORE because it brings racial and class disparities into stark relief. For all its political progressiveness, New York is one of the most racially segregated cities in America (Kucsera & Orfield 2014). NYU students and CORE participants are the same age and live within a few miles of each other, but they occupy very different social worlds. NYU is an expensive private institution, and while not all of its students are wealthy, a substantial percentage certainly are, giving the school a pervasive air of casual privilege. CORE participants, on the other hand, are predominately poor and working-class. The two groups strongly signal their class identity through their respective language, clothing and bodily affect. 

CORE meets and works in spaces belonging to NYU Steinhardt’s music technology and music education departments: offices, recording studios, classrooms, conference areas, and lounge areas. During the week, these spaces host academic work, classes, and presentations, where students and faculty work silently or socialize in low-key ways. While NYU’s culture is informal, it is still an academic institution, and the predominant feeling in the common spaces is businesslike. On the rare occasion when music is played in a room, it is almost always during a class or lecture.

The atmosphere during CORE sessions is very different. Music plays through open speakers, sometimes looped endlessly for long periods of time, and usually at high volumes. Socializing is mostly laid back, but can sometimes be loud and rowdy. Both NYU students and CORE participants are casual in their use of profanity, but there is one conspicuous difference: it would be shocking to hear an NYU student to use the word “nigga”, whereas CORE participants say it frequently. One NYU faculty member had brought his young children with him to his office during a session, and he berated me at length about their being exposed to the n-word. I do not like hearing it either, but I understand the difference between its in-group usage and its being spoken in anger. I am teaching my own children to appreciate that difference rather than trying to shield them from the word entirely. In New York, such a thing would be impossible anyway.

CORE periodically records in the James Dolan studio, named for the owner of Madison Square Garden, himself an enthusiastic amateur musician and at one time the parent of two NYU music technology students. The Dolan Studio is one of the best in New York, with top-of-the-line equipment and immaculate acoustics. The monitor speakers alone cost twenty thousand dollars, and the mixing desk costs on the order of a hundred thousand. The CORE participants like working there, because it makes them feel like “real” artists. For all its luxuriousness, though, the Dolan studio is not an optimal space for hip-hop creation. It was designed to capture live performances using Pro Tools, not for creative electronic production with Logic or FL Studio or Ableton Live. For rap purposes, all that is needed is a small soundproof room with a computer, an audio interface, and a microphone. The program has more regular access to such a space, as well as the computers in labs and offices.

CORE sessions ostensibly start at 2:00 pm, but some participants show up hours earlier, while others arrive hours later. On the day of the cypher I will be discussing, people are still arriving at 4:30, eating, chatting, and listening to music. The session does not really get going until 5:00. The group assembles in a nondescript conference room. There are about twenty people present, including a small camera crew, filming for what purpose I don’t know. No one seems particularly concerned by or even interested in their presence. Certainly no one is signing any release forms. There is a small PA system set up, with music playing a laptop belonging to Brandon Bennett, one of the regulars.

When I enter the room, the song playing is “Everything (Remix)” by G Herbo featuring Chance the Rapper and Lil Uzi Vert (2018). The CORE participants love and admire Chance, but his verse on this song is less woke than usual:

Knew the game, still you gave that bitch a wedding ring
I took her number, gave her NuvaRing and never rang
Never give ’em everything

When I hear this line, I simultaneously feel two strong and conflicting emotions: disapproval of the misogyny, and amusement at Chance’s wordplay. Rap shares many traits with standup comedy, including the use of deliberate offensiveness as a way to provoke laughs. I try to balance my moral indignation with an awareness that white observers of such jokes tend to see the aggression but miss the playfulness (Gates 1988, 68).

Profane and/or violent lyrics go back in black culture as far as the blues and the baaadman tales of the nineteenth century, if not much further.

Irreverence has been a central component of black expressive vernacular culture, which is why violence and sex have been as important as toasting and signifying as playfulness with language. Many of these narratives are about power. Both the baaadman and the trickster embody a challenge to embody a challenge to virtually all authority (which makes sense to people for whom justice is a rare thing), creates an imaginary upside-down world where the oppressed are the powerful, and it reveals to listeners the pleasures and price of reckless abandon (Kelley 1996, 187).

While we should not take irreverent language too literally, it is nevertheless hard on girls and women. Female rap fans and emcees are reclaiming the word “bitch” in empowering and creative ways, but nevertheless, rap’s gender politics are heavily patriarchal.

Black women and girls, who are increasingly “celebrated” in songs and videos as “bad bitches,” are simultaneously rendered irrelevant when it comes to hip hop authorship, video direction, and music production. The same can be said of hip hop’s lyrics and visual themes objectifying black female voices and bodies (Gaunt 2015, 213).

Toni Blackman, a CORE mentor, is deeply politically conscious, but also susceptible to the profane charms of current rap.

I was on a date with my friend [and] that song “All that good kush and alcohol” comes on. It’s one of those songs like [she pauses], I think the music is meditative and trance-like, and I think the melodies [Weezy and Future] use to rap in, they’re just… they’re addictive, you know? Like, literally for two weeks I was waking up singing this song [she chuckles] ya know??! Imagine an 11- or 12-year-old who is not that conscious of how to program their mind and their thoughts, [and] doesn’t have their critical thinking skills yet. And here I am with all of this seasoning and experience, and I can’t control it [she chuckles again] (quoted in Gaunt 2015, 220).

Rap’s gender dynamics will appear in several places in the cypher discussion below.

To begin the cypher, Brandon opens FL Studio and plays one of his original beats. It is a trap beat comprised of a sampled or simulated Roland TR-808 drum machine, a sampled tabla, and a sampled or synthesized bamboo flute. Brandon later tells me that he created the beat in fifteen minutes, beating his previous speed record of thirty minutes. The two-measure beat will repeat for the better part of an hour, with the only variation being the muting and then unmuting of the flute part. 

As is common to trap music, Brandon’s track is slow, with drums accenting fine subdivisions of the beat. Aside from the kick drum on each downbeat, the snare drum hits on the backbeats (beats two and four) are the most stable element in the pattern. The accented backbeat is a characteristic shared by every African-American vernacular music, including jazz, country, rock, funk, techno, and rap. Technically, the backbeat is a syncopation, the rhythmic equivalent of tension or dissonance. However, Biamonte (2014, [6.2]) argues that the backbeat has become a rhythmic consonance through sheer force of repetition. It certainly feels stable compared to the skittering hi-hats in Brandon’s beat.

The tempo of Brandon’s FL Studio session is 140 beats per minute rather than 70. The drum machine interface in FL Studio uses a sixteenth note grid, so to use thirty-second notes, it is more expedient to work in cut time.

Trap beats show the “exaggerated virtuosity of the machine” (Danielsen 2010, 2)–the uncannily fast and perfect drum hits advertise their artificiality. Rap has always been an electronic music, but in earlier eras, there was clear reference to human drumming, either because the beats were sampled from live funk and soul performances, or because drum machines were programmed to have a similar sound to those samples. Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson of the Roots is the best exemplar of an acoustic drummer who plays in a classic hip-hop style. On the other hand, even if Questlove could play trap rhythms, he certainly could not replicate the unearthly timbre of a programmed 808 on a drum kit.

Hearing identical repetitions of a sampled or programmed beat is uncanny to begin with, but hearing those identical repetitions over very long spans is a phenomenological experience with little precedent in music. During the cypher, we heard Brandon’s beat repeat hundreds of times. Tape loops might subtly wobble in pitch, but computer repetitions are perfect. While the experience of endless digital looping may be a futuristic one, it is continuous with the traditions of Afrodiasporic music. The beat is a stable and reliable presence, and “it is there for you to pick it up when you come back to get it… Without an organizing principle of repetition, true improvisation would be impossible, since an improviser relies upon the ongoing recurrence of the beat” (Snead 1984, 67-68). Robert Henke, a musician and co-creator of Ableton Live, points out that the computer is highly amenable to creating stable and reliable beats.

[I]n electronic music, there’s a lot of ways to create something that runs—that is static, but nevertheless, it’s creating something. Take a drum computer: you turn it on and it plays a pattern. And you cannot turn on a drummer. A drummer always has to do something in order to work. And the drum computer, you turn it on and the pattern is there (quoted in Butler 2014, 105).

In the analysis that follows, I juxtapose recordings of the cypher with my own sound writing, both prose and notation. There is some overlap between recording and writing—the word phonography literally means “sound writing.” I could simply let the recording speak for itself, but that would not adequately convey the full experience of being in the room. Weidenbaum (2017) observes that recording never sounds like what he heard—listening is a process of focusing and filtering, of selective attention and interpretation, an experience that is quite different from the microphone’s direct transcription. While Kapchan (2017) wants her sound writing to have the full sensual richness of sound itself, Weidenbaum prefers writing exactly because it does not have the rich texture of recorded sound. Recording playback is a new sensory experience unto itself, one that might be far removed from the one the recordist meant to capture or convey. It is more useful for me to think of the recording, writing and transcription as methods of “flat ethnography, where you slice into a world from different perspectives, scales, registers, and angles—all distinctively useful, valid, and worthy of consideration” (Jackson 2013, 16-17). Between these slices, I hope that the reader can triangulate a fuller sense of the experience of the cypher.

A note about my trascriptions: the pitches are very loose approximations, meant to show general melodic contour only. The actual pitches in rap vocals do not usually align with the piano-key notes, and are not stable even within individual syllables. Rhythmically, my notation is closer to being a literal representation. However, there are many nuances of rushed or dragged rhythm that I do not show, because that would make the notation unreadable. So the rhythms should be understood as somewhat approximate as well. One might well ask why it is worth transcribing rap at all. Anyone who wishes to study the cypher can simply listen to tbe recording. My transcriptions are meant in part as an ironic commentary, a way to represent rap in the language of “real” musicology as a way of commenting on that language. I want this paper to be legible to musicologists, but I do not wish to “go native” as a musicologist either.

[P]revious transcribers of hip-hop music, who were acting (implicitly or explicitly) as defenders of hip-hop’s musical value, have naturally tended to foreground the concerns of the audiences before whom they were arguing, which consisted primarily of academics trained in western musicology. This approach requires that one operate, to some degree, within the conceptual framework of European art music: pitches and rhythms should be transcribed, individual instruments are to be separated in score form, and linear development is implicit, even when explicitly rejected (Schloss 2013, 13-14).

As the cypher begins, participants go around the circle doing verses. There is some freestyling, but mostly people read verses out of their notebooks. The energy in the room is low until Jamie prompts everyone to get up out of their chairs. There are some instrumentalists present: a young woman named LeiOra jams on the viola, and a young man whose name I do not know plays jazzy chords on an acoustic guitar.

Eventually the camera crew and their friends leave the room. About twelve of us remain in the circle. Perhaps not coincidentally, this is when genuine freestyling begins in earnest. (This is also the point where my recording begins.) The tone is playful and jokey for the first few minutes. Then Brandon unmutes the meditative flute track on his beat, which changes the mood—a participant remarks, “Oh, time to get serious now.” The freestyle verses after this point get longer and more adventurous. They are still jokey, but a wider variety of emotions appear as well. For example, Brandon raps about his fear of doctors, heights, and needles. While everyone in the circle participates to some degree, there are three dominant performers: Brandon, Roman, and LeiOra. I profile each of them below.

Brandon is a nineteen year old Bronx native. He is tall and thin, with tidy waist-length dreadlocks and a beard that gives him a shamanistic look. He raps and performs as a DJ, but he considers himself to be primarily a producer, and is an extremely prolific one. His style spans trap, hip-hop, RnB, and house, and he favors a lo-fi sound, with thick reverb, vinyl noise, and a softened high end. Brandon produces using FL Studio, Pro Tools, Logic Pro, and an SP-404A sampler. He has been making beats since age 14, and has taught production workshops at a professional level. His SoundCloud and BandCamp accounts are mostly beats, but when he does appear as an emcee, he rhymes with seriousness and vulnerability. His main SoundCloud account has over a thousand followers, and he pays close attention to their feedback. However, since his followers reacted negatively to some his more experimental music, he started a second account to host that material.

In hip-hop and other electronic popular forms, the term “producer” has come to encompass songwriting, beatmaking, MIDI sequencing, instrumental and vocal performance, and audio manipulation (Moir and Medbøe, 2015). Danielsen (2010) asks what word we should use to describe a user of a program like FL Studio: producer, engineer, composer or performer? The answer is all of the above, or none of the above. There are no clear boundaries between such roles in the digital studio context.

Roman is a high school senior. He is baby-faced, and looks younger than he is. I have never seen him without his white Beats headphones on his ears. His given name is Maximus, and he draws his emcee name and iconography from ancient Rome. For example, his crew is called Vongola, the Italian word for clam. (Roman explains that vongolas clean dirty water.) Roman continues to be close to his crew, even though they no longer all attend the same school.

Identity in hip hop is deeply rooted in the specific, the local experience, and one’s attachment to and status in a local group or alternative family. These crews are new kinds of families forged with intercultural bonds that, like the social formation of gangs, provide insulation and support in a complex and unyielding environment and may serve as the basis for new social movements (Rose 1994, 55).

Roman is intensely committed to emceeing. He uses the same learning process as a jazz musician: continually memorizing other people’s verses by ear from recordings, a line at a time. He has even learned a few verses in foreign languages phonetically.

A few weeks after the cypher, Roman gives me an in-depth listening tour to some emcees he admires. He is particularly interested in Midwest Chop, a technically demanding style that crams as many syllables into the bar as possible without sacrificing clear articulation or wordplay. Roman plays me verses by Logic, Joyner Lucas, Tech N9ne, Eminem, and Busta Rhymes as examples. You can get a good sense of the style from Busta Rhymes’ extraordinary verse on “Worldwide Choppers” by Tech N9ne (2011). Roman’s favored rappers span generations—Logic is currently popular, but Busta Rhymes is from my era. The trait they share is dazzling virtuosity. If you think of Rakim Allah as corresponding to Charlie Parker, then Tech N9ne is more like John Coltrane in his “sheets of sound” phase.

Some scholars (e.g. Wilson 2001) compare rap to scat singing in jazz. Listening to Midwest Chop reminds me more of vocalese, where jazz vocalists write lyrics for recorded improvised solos. The best vocalese practitioners, like Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, sing intricate bebop lines packed with syllables. Roman is impressed by sheer syllable count, and is pushing himself on his speed, but he has not lost sight of wanting to be funny, and, sometimes, heartfelt. His favorite artist is Chance the Rapper, who has technical ability but is best known for being vulnerable and emotionally direct. Roman maintains a fan-curated SoundCloud playlist of Chance’s live performances. He particularly admires Merry Christmas Lil’ Mama (2016), a Christmas-themed mixtape Chance created with the R&B singer Jeremih. On these songs, Chance reminisces about his childhood and mourns dead family members, setting an emotional tone that is far removed from his verse about the NuvaRing.

I do not know LeiOra well; she is not a regular, and the day of the cypher is her first time at a session. She is 23 years old and Latina. She is in the building for a recording session in the Dolan Studio with Toni Williams, a singer-songwriter who graduated recently from NYU and is part of the CORE circle. After recording, LeiOra is invited to the cypher, and she joins spontaneously.

LeiOra has a gift for creating memorable hooks off the top of her head, several of which she repeats in chantlike fashion, both in her own verses and as background for others. She shows remarkable self-assurance in her willingness to freestyle among a group of complete strangers, nearly all of whom are male. Nevertheless, she is less assertive in the cypher than Brandon or Roman, as I will discuss below.

When emcees improvise, “they use words and expressions in the same way as jazz/rock musicians use scales and riffs in their improvisations” (Söderman & Folkestad 2004). The cypher is emblematic of what Turino (2008) describes as participatory performance. In such performances, the audience/artist distinction is blurry or nonexistent. The participants may have widely varying skill levels, so the music has a low floor for core participation (e.g. shaking a shaker steadily) and a high ceiling for elaboration (e.g. playing virtuoso lead percussion). The form of participatory music is open, cyclical and very repetitive. There might be extensive improvisation, but it takes place within predictable structures. Beginnings and endings of songs are “feathered”—unscripted, loose, and sometimes disorderly. The music is game-like, though usually without “winners” or “losers.” People in participatory cultures prefer skillful musicians over inept ones, but the social aspect of the music is the most important one, and it is good manners to keep critical judgment of the performance to oneself. CORE participants enact this participatory value when they are sharply critical of commercial recordings, but rarely criticize each other.

Rap cyphers have less structure than other participatory improvisational forms. Cyphers resemble improv comedy more than jazz or blues jams. In a jazz jam session, solos come in predefined units, e.g. thirty-two bar choruses. In a cypher, by contrast, each person begins and ends whenever they want. The rhymes are not completely unstructured, however; they follow a formal “model” (Nettl 1974, 12) that resembles written rap. For example, emcees almost always rap phrases whose lengths in bars are powers of two. Rhymes usually fall at the end of phrases, though more advanced emcees also use internal rhymes. Rose (1994) points out that for all of its technological innovations, rap music “has also remained critically linked to black poetic traditions and the oral forms that underwrite them. These oral traditions and practices clearly inform the prolific use of collage, intertextuality, boasting, toasting, and signifying in rap’s lyrical style and organization” (84). The subject matter in the cypher is wide open, but the tone is not. Rappers have a very particular affect, which I describe as “fresh.” The meaning of the word in a hip-hop context can refer to any of its conventional senses: new, refreshing, appetizing, attractive, or sassy (Hein 2015). Rappers must be irreverent, culturally attuned, and above all, cool.

In the sections below, I discuss three excerpts of the cypher in depth. The entire recording is available for download here.

Excerpt one: 0:14 – 0:40

The cypher participants form an approximate circle, with the three main emcees at the points of an equilateral triangle. Brandon stands, with his gaze directed at a point on the floor in front of him. He is inward-directed, though still responsive to the room. Roman stands too, with his gaze directed outward. A few members of his crew stand and sit nearby. LeiOra sits on a table, with her gaze also outward-directed. Amid the hubbub of the film crew leaving, Brandon begins warming up, getting into his flow. He lists foods and other things he likes, using a formulaic construction: an eighth rest, “I like” on sixteenth notes, then the object of the phrase:

I like shakes, I like tacos
I like tacos, I like burritos
I like Doritos and Cheetos
I don’t like Fritos cause they kinda too salty
So get up off me
I like, I like schools, I like Snickers
I like Twix and action figures

In many rap songs, “the meaning of the text is often secondary to its interaction with the music” (Adams 2008, 43), and that is certainly true here. Brandon is choosing words for their sound more than trying to convey any particular meaning. Some of his rhymes are direct (burritos/Doritos/Cheetos/Fritos), while others are slant rhymes (salty/off me, Snickers/figures). Throughout this excerpt, other people are shouting out foods they like and joking around, but Brandon gradually draws the focus of the room. He and the other emcees will keep returning to the theme of food throughout the cypher.

Adams (2009) recommends that we analyze rap by examining the metrical and articulative aspects of emcee flow. Metrical aspects include the placement of rhymes and syllabic stresses, the relationship between bar lines or hypermeasures and lyrical phrase boundaries, and the syllable count per beat. You can see the metrical aspects of Brandon’s flow in the way that he varies his simple formula, displacing the phrase forward and backward in the meter, placing it on stronger and weaker beats. Articulative aspects of rap include the use of staccato or legato, the articulation of consonants, and the placement of syllables ahead of or behind the beat. You can hear Brandon’s articulative technique in the way that he slightly drags the timing of “kinda too salty” and “get up off me,” and the way he indicates ironic exasperation by raising his pitch on “off me”.

Excerpt two: 3:11 to 3:40

Like most contemporary emcees, Roman and Brandon use what Krims (2000) calls a “speech-effusive style,” featuring the casual enunciation and loose rhythms of everyday spoken language. By contrast, LeiOra’s style is what Krims describes as “sung,” a schoolyard chant feel with on-beat accents and strict couplet groupings. In this excerpt, Roman also moves into a “percussion-effusive” style, a more rhythmically complex flow that is more free with metrical boundaries and rhyme schemes, but which still has crisp articulation and clearly discernable regular rhythm patterns. You can hear the influence of Midwest Chop in his doubletime phrasing:

Chicken and rice, sofrito with spice
Flip it on my plate, makin’ it nice

LeiOra replies with a parodic singsong, in an exaggerated Nuyorican accent:

Don’t forget Adobo, don’t forget Adobo, cause you already loco

Roman takes LeiOra’s cue, adopting the same accent and rapping in Spanglish:

Makin’ fine desayuno with that queso frito

LeiOra begins chanting “Que wepa! Wepa!” repeatedly. She brings a raucous harshness into her voice, an example of the way that black musics cultivate a wide range of vocal sounds connected to tonal speech patterns, ranging across different registers (Rose 1994, 86). Brandon jumps in over her chant–one of several instances where male emcees interrupt her–and extends the Nuyorican theme:

So when I get chicken, put Adobo and Sazón,
If you ain’t got Sazón, don’t allow me in your home!

The rest of the room yells in approval.

Excerpt three: 3:53 – 4:17

LeiOra’s best hook is this one: “Dab when you cough, dab when you sneeze,” repeated in her singsong cadence. It refers to an internet meme (SchoolMemes 2017). Roman and others do little interjections in between her lines, e.g. “Achoo!” Then, after twelve times through LeiOra’s chant, Roman jumps forward and interrupts with a punchline: “I’m so nice with it, I dab with my knees!” The entire room erupts with laughter. This is an example of signifying, an unexpected satirical twist on a familiar element.

It is as if a received structure of crucial elements provides a basis for poeisis, and the narrator’s technique, his or her craft, is to be gauged by the creative (re)placement of these expected or anticipated formulaic phrases and formulaic events, rendered anew in unexpected ways. Precisely because the concepts represented in the poem are shared, repeated, and familiar to the poet’s audience, meaning is devalued while the signifier is valorized (Gates 1988, 61).

We can look at freestyle rap through “the lenses of containment and possibility” (Hayes 2010, 31). The flows are contained by the unvarying beat and the demands of rhyme and musical structure. Their possibilities include community, humor, and cultural confidence. When a cultural conservative like Scruton (2014) dismisses “the tuneless aggression of rap” (n.p.), he does not just insult a rich musical tradition. He insults the young people around the world who use that tradition for validation, support, and representation. Furthermore, to dismiss rap is to dismiss a valuable set of tools for understanding other forms of music as well. It can be enlightening to listen to Western art music through a hip-hop frame, to hear how much it loses by eschewing repetition, to taste its lack of freshness, to examine its timbres with a producer’s ear, and to question its assumptions. “[O]nly when others are freed to pursue their own trajectories can Western music properly acknowledge the multiplicity of differences lying beneath its authoritarian binaries and become productively other to itself” (Middleton 2000).

Jamie Ehrenfeld once commented to me: “I got a music degree without ever writing a song” (personal communication, April 29 2017). She similarly had no opportunity in her schooling to engage with the creative processes behind popular music. Her experience is a typical one—composition and songwriting are rarities in American music education settings (Beckstead 2001). In an era when any laptop or smartphone can be used as a full-flight production studio, this is a grievous missed opportunity. It has never been easier in recent memory for young people to produce the music that is culturally relevant to them. The only remaining obstacle is institutional lack of respect for the music. 

References

Adams, K. (2015). The musical analysis of hip-hop. In J. Williams (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Hip-Hop (pp. 118–134). Cambridge University Press.

Adams, K. (2008). Aspects of the Music/Text Relationship in Rap. Music Theory Online, 14(2). Retrieved from http://www.mtosmt.org/issues/mto.08.14.2/mto.08.14.2.adams.html

Adams, K. (2009). On the Metrical Techniques of Flow in Rap Music. Music Theory Online, 15(5), 1–12. Retrieved from http://www.mtosmt.org/issues/mto.09.15.5/mto.09.15.5.adams.html

Beckstead, D. (2001). Will technology transform music education? Music Educators Journal, 87(6), 44–49.

Biamonte, N. (2014). Formal Functions of Metric Dissonance in Rock Music. Music Theory Online, 20(2). Retrieved from http://www.mtosmt.org/issues/mto.14.20.2/mto.14.20.2.biamonte.php

Butler, M. (2014). Playing with Something That Runs: Technology, Improvisation, and Composition in DJ and Laptop Performance. Oxford University Press.

Danielsen, A. (2010). Musical Rhythm in the Age of Digital Reproduction. Ashgate. http://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781107415324.004

Gates, H. L. (1989). Signifying Monkey. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gaunt, K. (2015). YouTube, Bad Bitches, and an M.I.C. (Mom-in-Chief) : On the Digital Seduction of Black Girls in Participatory Hip-Hop Spaces. In T. Gosa & E. Nielsen (Eds.), The Hip Hop & Obama Reader (pp. 207–226). New York: Oxford University Press.

Hayes, E. (2010). Songs in Black and Lavender : Race, Sexual Politics, and Women’s Music. University of Illinois Press.

Hein, E. (2015). Mad Fresh. Retrieved March 24, 2015, from http://www.newmusicbox.org/articles/mad-fresh/

Hooton, C. (2015). Hip-hop is the most listened to genre in the world, according to Spotify analysis of 20 billion tracks. Retrieved from http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/news/hip-hop-is-the-most-listened-to-genre-in-the-world-according-to-spotify-analysis-of-20-billion-10388091.html

Jackson, J. (2013). Thin description : ethnography and the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem. Harvard University Press.

Kapchan, D. (2017). Theorizing Sound Writing. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.

Krims, A. (2000). Rap music and the poetics of identity. Cambridge University Press. http://doi.org/10.2307/3595215

Kucsera, J., & Orfield, G. (2014). New York State’s Extreme School Segregation: Inequality, Inaction and a Damaged Future. Retrieved from http://civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/research/k-12-education/integration-and-diversity/ny-norflet-report-placeholder

MacDougall, D. (1998). Transcultural Cinema. Princeton University Press.

Madison, D. S. (2012). Methods: “ Do I Really Need a Method ?” A Method … or Deep Hanging-Out. Critical Ethnography: Method, Ethics, and Performance. Sage Publications. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781452233826.n2

McClary, S. (2004). Rap, minimalism, and structures of time in late twentieth-century culture. In D. Warner (Ed.), Audio Culture. Continuum International Publishing Group.

Middleton, R. (2000). Musical belongings: Western music and its low-other. In G. Born & D. Hesmondhalgh (Eds.), Western Music and Its Others : Difference, Representation, and Appropriation in Music (pp. 59–85). University of California Press.

Moir, Z., & Medbøe, H. (2015). Reframing popular music composition as performance-centred practice. Journal of Music, Technology & Education, 8(2), 147–161. http://doi.org/10.1386/jmte.8.2.147

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Schloss, J. G. (2013). Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip-hop. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

SchoolMemes. (2017). Bad Acronyms – Don’t spread germs! DAB when you sneeze! Retrieved May 3, 2018, from http://knowyourmeme.com/photos/1280450-bad-acronyms

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Discography

G Herbo featuring Chance the Rapper and Lil Uzi Vert (2018). Everything (Remix) [digital download]. New York: Machine/150 Dream Team/Cinematic/RED. (February 15, 2018)

Jeremih and Chance the Rapper (2016). Merry Christmas Lil’ Mama [digital download]. Self-released. (December 22, 2016)

Tech N9ne featuring Busta Rhymes, Ceza, D-Loc, JL B.Hood, Twista, Twisted Insane, U$O and Yelawolf (2011). Worldwide Choppers. On All 6’s and 7’s [digital download]. Lee’s Summit, MO: Strange Music. (May 1, 2011)

The orchestra hit as a possible future for classical music

In my paper about whiteness in music education, I tried to make a point about sampling classical music that my professor was (rightly) confused about. So I’m going to use this post to unpack the idea some more. I was in arguing that, while we should definitely decanonize the curriculum, that doesn’t mean we need to stop teaching Western classical music entirely; we just need to teach it differently. Rather than seeing the canonical masterpieces as being carved in marble, we should use them as raw material for the creation of new music.

When I think about a happy future for classical music, I think of the orchestra hit in “Planet Rock” by Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force, a sample that came packaged with the Fairlight CMI.

Fairlight CMI

The orchestra hit is a sample of “The Firebird”by Igor Stravinsky.

This sample is the subject of an amazing musicology paper by Robert Fink: The story of ORCH5, or, the classical ghost in the hip-hop machine. If you don’t feel like reading the paper, there’s also this delightful video on the subject.

Why would Afrika Bambaataa (or any other hip-hop musician) want to appropriate the sound of the symphony orchestra? Maybe producers use it just because it sounds cool, but Fink sees a deeper meaning in the sound’s Afrofuturism.

A key aspect of the Afro-futurist imagination lies in a complex identification with the science-fiction Other, with alienness, on the part of an Afro-diasporic culture still dominated by the dark legacy of subjugation to more technologically advanced colonialism… [I]n the sound-world of electro-funk, it is European art music that is cast, consciously or not, in the role of ancient, alien power source (351-352).

Ancient alien power sources are a deathless science fiction trope. Think of the vibranium meteor in Black Panther, bugger technology in the Ender’s Game series, Spice in Dune, Endurium and the Crystal Planet in Starflight, and the fifth element in The Fifth Element (a movie that makes zero sense, but that does creatively combine classical music and techno.) The world that gave rise to the classical canon no longer exists, outside of music schools and similar institutions. But its remnants are everywhere. Why not repurpose them for the making of future music?

Jazz musicians have done plenty of creative repurposing of classical music. My favorite examples are Django Reinhardt’s take on a Bach concerto and the Ellington Nutcracker. Classical music’s biggest influence on jazz is mostly behind the scenes, in the training that many musicians received before jazz was taught formally, in Charlie Parker’s love of Stravinsky and Miles Davis’ admiration for Stockhausen, and in John Coltrane’s study of Nicolas Slonimsky. For creators of hip-hop and electronic dance music, the notes and the concepts aren’t as useful as the recordings. It’s all the lush and varied timbres of classical music that have the most to offer the world now.

“Planet Rock” was only the first of many hip-hop songs to sample classical music. “Blue Flowers” by Dr Octagon samples Bartok’s Violin Concerto #2.

I also love Kelis’ sample of The Magic Flute, and The Streets’ sample of the New World Symphony. Here’s a Spotify playlist with many more examples.

There are also a few performance ensembles attempting to bridge the rap-classical divide. For example, the daKAH Hip Hop Orchestra performs rap classics live.

The idea of reproducing sampled recordings with instruments would seem to me to miss the point of sampling–that sitar riff in “Bonita Applebaum” isn’t just a sequence of pitches, it’s a specific timbre from a specific recording. But I appreciate the spirit.

A much better idea is to bring the alien power source of the orchestra to bear on the  creation of new works. The producer Max Wheeler wrote Grown: a Grime Opera, which combines emcees and DJs with a large orchestral ensemble. I think it’s a fantastic idea, and it’s well executed. (Though I’m not totally objective here, I’ve met Max personally and like him.)

My own interest lies mostly in the possibilities of sampling and remixing. Joseph Schloss, in his must-read book Making Beats, says that producers listen to records “as if potential breaks have been unlooped and hidden randomly throughout the world’s music. It is the producer’s job to find them.” We have barely scratched the surface of the classical canon’s unlooped breaks and hooks. Vassily Kalinnikov’s Symphony number one includes a gorgeous four-chord progression that could well be the saddest chord progression ever. But it’s buried among a ton of other material, and Kalinnikov only repeats it once. This, to me, is a tragic waste. I want to hear that progression repeated many more times than that. Fortunately, thanks to the magic of Ableton Live, I can!

I have more classical music remixes here.

The Music Experience Design Lab has been creating called Variation Playgrounds, which let you playfully remix classical works in the browser.

MusEDLab Variation Playground

The Variation Playgrounds are visually beautiful and cool, but sonically they’re unsatisfying, because they use fake-sounding MIDI versions of the music. Like I said above, the real creative potential for classical remixing isn’t in the notes, it’s in the timbres and textures, all the sonic nuance that you can only get from humans playing instruments.

It would be nice if classical music institutions took a liberal attitude toward sampling. (Most of the canonical works are in the public domain, but the recordings are owned by the record label or organization that made them.) Even better, music organizations could start creating sample libraries. There’s an existing model to follow, the New World Symphony remix contest run by the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin. The DSO posted a bunch of pristinely recorded excerpts on SoundCloud and encouraged the internet to go to town. That is the world I want to live in.

So here’s my fantasy scenario: classical institutions create sample libraries for every canonical work. They categorize the samples by instrument, key, and tempo, along with scores, MIDI files, background information, video of the performances, and whatever other context might be of interest. They use a licensing scheme that automatically grants sample clearances in exchange for some reasonable fee or revenue-sharing scheme. They encourage transparency of sources: “Hey trap producers! Here are some suitably bleak sounds. Be sure to link back to us from your SoundCloud page.” Classical music might be a tough sell for casual music listeners, but producers listen to a lot of unusual things, and we listen closely. We might not be inclined to buy concert tickets, but we might eagerly comb through recordings with the right invitation.

I recognize that this idea is kind of a tough sell. My observation of classical institutions is that they aren’t particularly interested in fostering the production of more beat-driven electronic music; they want people to learn to appreciate the canon as it is. I don’t have much investment in that goal. My goal as a progressive music educator is to help young people find their own musical truths, through discovery or invention. Most music educators still see their goal as being the preservation of the canon, and are either indifferent or actively hostile toward the music that the kids like. I think the odds of keeping the canon alive are better if it maintains cultural relevance, if it isn’t just “musical spinach” that you eat because it’s somehow good for you. I don’t believe classical music to be any more intrinsically nutritious than anything else (it’s packed with melody and harmony, but deficient in other necessary musical vitamins, like groove.) But if preserving the canon is your goal, then sampling producers might be powerful allies.

Chord pizzas

The Groove Pizza uses geometry to help visualize rhythms. The MusEDLab is planning to create a similar tool for visualizing music theory by merging the aQWERTYon with the Scale Wheel. When you put the twelve pitch classes in a circle, you can connect the dots between different notes in a chord or scale to form shapes. My hypothesis is that seeing these shapes along with hearing the notes will help people learn music theory more easily. In this post, I’ll talk through some concept images.

First, let’s look at two different ways to represent the pitch classes on a circle. On the left is the chromatic circle, showing the notes in the order of pitch height (the way they are on a piano keyboard.) On the right is the circle of fifths. These two circles have an interesting relationship: the circle of fifths is the involute of the chromatic circle. Notice that C, D, E, G-flat, A-flat and B-flat are in the same places on both circles, while the other six notes trade places across the circle. Pretty cool!

The chromatic circle and the circle of fifths

The colors represent the harmonic function of each note relative to the root C. Purple notes are perfect (neither major nor minor.) Green notes are major or natural. Blue notes are minor or flatted. You could technically think of, say, B-flat as being the sharp sixth rather than the flat seventh, but that usage is rare in real life. G-flat is a special case–it’s equally likely to be the sharp fourth or flat fifth. I represented this ambiguity by making it blue-green. (We could make it blue if we knew it was flat fifth from Locrian mode, or green if it was the sharp fourth from Lydian mode.)

Once the Scale Wheel and aQWERTYon get combined, then whenever you play more than one note at a time, they will be connected on the circle. Here are some common chord progressions, and what their shapes can tell us about how they function. First, let’s look at the I-vi-ii-V jazz turnaround in C major.

Major scale chords

Seeing things on the circle really helps you understand the voice leading. You can see how the notes move very little from one chord to the next. To get from Cmaj7 to Am7, you just move the B to A while keeping the other three notes the same. To get from Am7 to Dm7, you move the G to F and the E to D while keeping the other two notes the same. To get from Dm7 to G7, you move the A to G and the C to B while keeping the other two notes the same. Finally, to get from G7 back to Cmaj7, you move the D to C and the F to E while keeping the other two notes the same. In general, any chord you can produce by moving the notes as little as possible from the current chord is likely to sound smooth and logical.

The pitch circle doesn’t represent musical “real life” perfectly–while pitch classes are circular, actual notes belong to specific octaves. That makes the voice leading harder to figure out, because you will need to introduce some jumps or additional chord voices to make it work. That said, thinking in terms of pitch class rather than pitch makes it easier to learn the concept; then you can work out the logistics of voice leading actual pitches from a place of understanding.

Next, let’s look at the Mixolydian mode I-bVII-IV-I turnaround that’s ubiquitous in rock, e.g. the “na na na” section in the Beatles’ “Hey Jude.”

Mixoydian mode chords

The circle of fifths view is more clear here. Getting from the Bb to the F is just a matter of rotating the little triangle clockwise by one slot. If you voice the C7 chord like a jazz musician and leave out the G, then the voice leading in this progression becomes exquisitely clear and simple.

Finally, here’s a more exotic-sounding progression from Phrygian dominant, the I-bvii you hear in Middle Eastern and Jewish music like “Hava Nagilah.”

Phrygian dominant mode chords

Seeing these chords on the circle of fifths is not very enlightening–while Western functional harmony keeps things close together on the circle of fifths, non-Western harmony jumps around a lot more. But on the chromatic circle, you can see exactly what’s happening: To get from C7 to Bb-7, B-flat stays the same, but all the other notes move one scale degree clockwise. To get from Bb-7 back to C7, B-flat stays the same while the other notes move one scale degree counterclockwise. This is very close to the way I conceptualize this progression in my head. It’s like the notes in Bb-7 are lifting or pulling away from their homes in C7, and when you release them, they snap back into place. You could also think of this progression as being iv-V7 in the key of F minor, in which case the Bb-7 is acting more like C7sus(b9 #5). Here the suspension metaphor makes even more sense.

Beyond the fact that it looks cool, seeing geometric representations of music gives you insight into why it works the way it does. The main insight you get from the circles is that perfect symmetry is boring. On the Groove Pizza, squares and equilateral triangles produce steady isochronous rhythms, like the four on the floor kick drum pattern. These rhythms are musical, but they’re boring, because they’re perfectly predictable. The more exciting rhythms come from shapes that don’t evenly fit the metrical grid. On a sixteen-step grid, pentagons produce clave patterns, while hexagons make habanera and tresillo.

The same concept applies to the pitch wheel. A square on the pitch wheel is a diminished seventh chord; an equilateral triangle is an augmented triad; and a hexagon is a whole tone scale. (Interestingly, this is true both on the chromatic circle and the circle of fifths.) These sounds are fine for occasional use or special effects, but they get tedious very quickly if you repeat them too much. By contrast, the harmonic devices we use most commonly, like major and minor triads and seventh chords, are uneven and asymmetrical. The same uneven seven-sided figure produces the major scale and its modes on the pitch wheel, and the “standard bell pattern” on the Groove Pizza. Food (ha) for thought.

Hip-hop teaches confidence lessons

I’m working on a paper about music education and hip-hop, and I’m going to use this post to work out some thoughts.

My wife and I spent our rare date night going to see Black Panther at BAM. It was uplifting. Many (most?) black audience members came dressed in full Afrofuturistic splendor. A group of women in our section were especially decked out:

Black Panther audience members at BAM

I was admiring their outfits and talking about how I wasn’t expecting such an emotional response to the movie. One of the women said it was as big a deal for them as the election of Barack Obama in 2008. I know representation is important, but this seems like it’s more than just seeing black faces on the movie screen. Black Twitter is talking about how this movie is different because it isn’t about overcoming historical pain or present-day hardship; it’s about showing black people as powerful, rich, technologically advanced, and above all, serenely confident.

Black Panther is heavily overdetermined, like all superhero movies. But I’m especially interested in the way we could read it as a metaphor for music, with the Wakandans as representing African musical traditions and Eric Killmonger as representing the global rise of hip-hop. I see Killmonger this way not only because he’s American, but because so many of his qualities and mannerisms remind me of the role of hip-hop in the public imagination. He’s stylish, effortlessly charismatic, and seemingly indifferent to anyone else’s approval. He’s funny, too, not in the warm and good-natured way that Shuri is, but in a more aggressive and sarcastic way. He’s both arrogant and vulnerable, using implacable cool to conceal deep hurt. And he wants to remake the world by fomenting black revolution, by any means necessary. The Wakandans, meanwhile, are uncomplicatedly strong, self-possessed, and at ease with their own power. But they are also withdrawn from the world, fearing that getting involving in other people’s struggles will destroy what makes their culture so unique and beautiful.

I want to emphasize that this reading is based solely on my watching the movie and reading Twitter. I have no special insight into the writers’ or actors’ intentions. But they do seem to be saying something about how the African diaspora in America has attained global reach and influence while also showing the malign influence of capitalism and imperialist violence. It’s significant that Killmonger isn’t just a criminal capitalist like Klaue; he honed his murder chops as a member of the US military. The American empire taught him how to kill mercilessly, and now he wants to use that same force to bring the empire down. I’m thinking here about the Public Enemy poster in his dad’s Oakland apartment, the one with the crosshairs. I was terrified of Public Enemy back in the late 80s, as I’m sure was the point of their imagery.

I am not a moralist about hip-hop’s violent content. I don’t believe that portraying something is the same thing as endorsing it, or that listening to music directly causes antisocial behavior. It’s too easy to blame rappers for being bad influences while giving a pass to The Sopranos or Breaking Bad. The only difference between Walter White and any gangsta rapper’s persona is whiteness. But just like I wouldn’t let my young children watch Breaking Bad, I’m not eager to have them listen to Lil Wayne either. And it’s going to be difficult to explain and contextualize all the harder rap songs in my iTunes library when the time comes (though I guess no harder than explaining why I love violent prestige cable dramas.)

I spend so much time defending hip-hop from its detractors that I haven’t given a lot of thought to why I think it’s so beautiful and great. Usually when I do, I point to formal aspects of the music–the grooves, the hypnotic quality of electronic beats, the intertextuality and timbral invention of sample-based production, and the spectacular verbal and vocal virtuosity of the best emcees. But there are more basic emotional reasons why I’m a hip-hop fan. When I listen to the music, I hear effortless cool, the power that comes from strong emotions held in reserve, and a defiant sense of pride.  I hear confidence, and that is a quality I have been severely deficient in for most of my life. As I get older, I have become more confident, but when I was younger I was desperately awkward and socially anxious, and that part of me is never far from the surface. I need swagger lessons, and hip-hop is an excellent teacher. I am not unusual among white rap fans for feeling this way.

It’s totally weird that the wealthiest and most powerful population of humans in history should be so uncertain in ourselves, and it’s equally surprising that we should be looking to the musical expression of our country’s most marginalized and oppressed minority group for help. All of America’s popular music has its origins in the African diaspora, but hip-hop is remarkable for the fact that most of its prominent and commercially successful artists are black. Imagine if the Roma utterly dominated Europe’s musical culture. There are plenty of Europeans who love Django Reinhardt, but not the way that Americans love Kanye West. I’m sure white Americans listen to rap for all kinds of reasons. But I believe that many of us are mostly drawn to it for confidence lessons.

I teach in a couple of music schools, and if I had to pick one adjective to describe the students, “confident” would not be it. Last spring, I was present for two recording sessions in NYU’s James Dolan Studio on two successive days. The Friday session was with NYU undergrads in my Music Education Technology Practicum class, a crash course in audio production for future music teachers. The Saturday session was with CORE (formerly known as Ed Sullivan Fellows), a community mentorship program for young rappers and producers. There were some stark socioeconomic differences between the two groups. NYU music education students are mostly white and Asian, and they tend to come from privileged backgrounds. They are mostly classical musicians, with a small minority playing jazz. The CORE members are nearly all black and Latinx, and are uniformly of low SES. They are almost all rappers or beatmakers, though some also work in the singer-songwriter or R&B idioms. Everyone in both sessions was recording material of their own choice, but while the NYU students all chose existing repertoire (classical pieces, jazz standards, musical theater songs), the rappers’ music was all original. I might naively have expected the NYU students to be confident and the rappers to be nervous, since the NYU students were “on their own turf,” while the rappers were in a new and unfamiliar environment. But the opposite turned out to be true.

During the NYU students’ session, the anxiety in the room was palpable. Recording can be stressful under the best of circumstances—the environment is daunting and clinical, like being under a microscope, and the clock is always ticking. But this was more than performance anxiety; one of the students was on the verge of panic just sitting and listening in the control room. The next day, then, I was surprised to find that the rap kids evinced little to no anxiety whatsoever. They were similarly new to the studio, and under the same pressures, but if anyone felt any nerves, they didn’t show it. The atmosphere was casual and relaxed, even to a fault. A greater sense of urgency might have made for a more productive session. But anxiety was no obstacle. This was all the more remarkable given that they were recording originals. Instead of being nervous about exposing their own feelings and ideas, apparently it added to their confidence.

The CORE kids are sometimes shy about opening up their material to scrutiny, especially if they consider it to be unfinished. But they will perform or play back finished work with remarkably little hesitation for their age. I wasn’t willing to play my original songs for people until deep into my twenties, and I wasn’t willing to sing them myself until my thirties. Meanwhile, the most proficient CORE emcees are sure enough of themselves to effortlessly freestyle in front of an audience. I have never in my life had the courage to do that.

Shamus Khan’s Privilege is a study of the ease taught by elite schools to their students. He argues that traditional markers of upper class status like tailored suits or a taste for classical music no longer function; in an era of (supposed) meritocracy, the elite must prove that they deserve their privilege because of their talents, abilities, and hard work. “Class” can be learned by anyone, but ease has to be carefully enculturated over time. I bring mention all of this because the third chapter of the book begins with an epigram by Jay-Z, from TI’s song “Swagga Like Us”:

But I can’t teach you my swag
You can pay for school but you can’t buy class

The whole point of Khan’s book is that the One Percent use exclusive institutions like St Paul’s to reproduce its privilege across generations. So what is Jay-Z doing in the book? He might be a member of the elite now, but he certainly wasn’t born to it. Khan talks about the way that white St Paul’s students treat POC as arbiters of cultural prestige, which is synonymous with authenticity. To be a real member of the elite, you can’t be a snob; now you have to an omnivore, in touch with “common people’s” music, and that means hip-hop. You have to both know Jay-Z’s music and be able to emulate his swagger if you want to grow up to run the country.

I’m planning to devote my dissertation research to hip-hop educators, to the ways that they think about preparing the next generation of artists, and to the ways that their approach differs from traditional music pedagogy. In particular, I’m interested in the improvisation-centered approach of Toni Blackman. Of all the mentors involved with the CORE program, Toni has the most unusual resume. She is the first Hip-Hop Cultural Envoy with the State Department, and has traveled to forty-six countries to give talks and perform. She has been a teaching artist for a variety of other institutions as well, ranging from the Soros Foundation to local community groups. Toni has a particular method based on the cypher, a circle of emcees in which everyone takes turns freestyling. Toni uses the cypher as a way to help her students develop not just their flow, but their emotional well-being. In person, she has the calm, attentive affect of a good therapist, which is effectively what she is. I was unsurprised to learn that Toni does public speaking coaching for politicians and businesspeople as her “day job”—she is a professional teacher of confidence, inside or outside the context of hip-hop.

Etymology Online tells me that word “confidence” comes from the Latin word confidentem, meaning ”firmly trusting” or “bold.” A confident person inspires “full trust or reliance.” This certainly describes Toni. At her keynote talk at last summer’s NYU IMPACT Conference, she wanted to do some freestyling, as she does in all of her presentations. She asked someone in the audience to come up and beatbox for her. It was 9:30 in the morning and no one was jumping to volunteer, so I finally raised my hand. I had never beatboxed in public before, but Toni knows how to empower people, even nerdy white dads. It felt great up there, effortless in fact, like all peak music experiences do. I was up there to earn Toni’s approval, while simultaneously feeling like I already had it, just for sticking my neck out and performing. If I ever have the courage to do a cypher, it will probably be under Toni’s leadership.

During the same conference, the CORE participants did a showcase concert. It was mostly the kids doing their own songs, along with appearances by a few mentors and pros. The concert began with a cypher–everyone in the concert came onstage and while the band put down a groove, they took turns freestyling verses. I struggle to imagine a group of conservatory students beginning a recital by all improvising a piece off the tops of their heads, but the CORE kids pulled it off with effortless cool. I still remember one of the entire verses verbatim. It was by Lady Logic, who is a bit older than most of the other CORE participants, but still very young. She rapped:

I’m begging your pardon, ain’t no snakes in my garden
I’m begging your pardon, ain’t no snakes in my garden
I’m begging your pardon, ain’t no snakes in my garden
I’m begging your pardon, ain’t no snakes in my garden

She didn’t come up with this line off the top of her head; I was told later that it’s something she has used in verses before. But she had the audacity to stand up there and just repeat it four times. It didn’t sound like she couldn’t think of anything else to say; it sounded like she knew the right line to use, and that it would only get better and more impactful with repetition. And she was right, it slayed.

Most music educators might believe themselves to be teaching confidence. But very often, they are trying to force kids to make particular kinds of music that are remote from the kids’ own interests and sensibilities. I recently had two white music teachers from a majority-black school visit my music technology class at Montclair State University. My lesson that day was on drum programming, on what makes a good beat. In a semi-joking tone, I warned the class that I was going to make a racist generalization, that Europeans like music that’s harmonically interesting and rhythmically boring, while Africans like music that’s rhythmically interesting and harmonically boring. After class, the older of the two visiting teachers wanted to talk to me about that comment. He leads his school’s chorus, and they sing Christmas carols around the school every year. While they were singing “Angels We Have Heard On High,” the girls in the chorus kept trying to add a beat by stomping and clapping. I was about to say what a great idea that was, when he said, “Of course I made them stop. I mean, “Angels We Have Heard On High” with a dubstep beat?” He meant to commiserate with me about how rhythm-obsessed black students are, and how hard it is to get them to focus on making music the “right” way. A version of this interaction plays out in music classrooms across America every day.

The CORE program is run by Jamie Ehrenfeld, a graduate of NYU’s music education program, who now teaches at Eagle Academy, an all-boys school in Brownsville. Like me, she had a left-wing Jewish upbringing with a strong social justice component. Most of the CORE participants are Eagle students who she recruited, or their friends. One is Keith (not his real name), a tall, quiet kid with a serious demeanor. He raps a little, but his main interest is beatmaking. Since finishing high school, he has been camped out in different studio spaces and computer labs at NYU, assiduously teaching himself Logic and making tracks. I’m interested in learning more about his creative process. One afternoon recently, Keith was hanging out in the Music Experience Design Lab office with Jamie, and I had a chance to talk to him at length.

I have a general idea how Keith learned his musical skills: informally, socially, along with his peers. However, I was curious if he has any more formal experience, in school or church or privately. At first he said no, but after some prompting, mentioned that he played in a steel pan ensemble with his dad, who is Trinidadian. I responded that steel pan counts. But Keith has that side of his musical life compartmentalized; it belongs to his dad, while beatmaking is all his own. I’d love to listen to Keith’s tracks in progress, and ask him about his creative choices at a granular level. But this is going to require building up more of a relationship with him. I figured I would start somewhere less sensitive, by asking about his favorite artists. He immediately mentioned Chance the Rapper, who is popular with other CORE participants too. Keith also likes Kendrick Lamar, but that’s like a rock fan saying they like the Beatles, it’s not a distinctive or interesting preference. Keith didn’t offer any more names until Jamie prodded him to bring up Mali Music (an American singer, not a national genre), and “Bust Your Windows” by Jazmine Sullivan. This is all music that Jamie described to me as being “for the cookout,” songs you play when your grandmother and little brother are present. Chance is perfect cookout music, what with his rhymes about “soil as soft as Mama’s hands.”

Keith and his friends also like a lot of music that’s not suitable for the cookout, that’s full of guns, drugs, and sex. After he left to go make beats, Jamie told me about some other rappers that he and his friends listen to, like 22 Gz and Nas Blixky. This is the most commercially successful kind of hip-hop at the moment, and it’s the kind that cultural conservatives blame for corrupting our nation’s youth. Some hip-hop heads are dismayed by it too. Tricia Rose blames commercial pressures for emphasizing the most destructive aspects of the music, and suppressing its consciousness-raising aspects.

By ignoring the extraordinary commercial penetration of hip-hop, and I use that word advisedly … what we’ve allowed to happen is to render meaningful criticism of the commercial takeover of a black cultural form designed not only to liberate, but to create critical consciousness and turned it into the cultural arm of predatory capitalism in the last thirty years.

Toni Blackman isn’t thrilled about misogynistic and violent lyrics, either, but she understands those songs’ appeal. She has described a particularly appalling Lil Wayne song as being “meditative”, “trance-like,” and “addictive.” I feel the contradiction too, feeling both attracted and repelled by the hardest edges of rap. For example, I feel equal amounts of awe and horror about “Got Your Money” by Ol Dirty Bastard, which includes this lyric:

I don’t have no trouble with you fucking me
But I have a little problem with you not fucking me

I choose to find that line funny, which helps me feel better about the fact that I walk around involuntarily repeating it to myself on a regular basis. Hip-hop has mostly been a youth music so far, and like all American youth musics, one of its purposes is to shock authority figures. As authority figures get harder to shock, musicians have to up their rhetorical firepower. It takes confidence to defy authority. There’s a ridiculous amount of cognitive involved in a privileged white person like me listening to music that was designed to help non-privileged non-white people cope with being oppressed by the likes of me. I’m hoping to use my dissertation to get out of my own head on these issues, and learn to see them more from rappers’ own perspectives.

The aQWERTYon pitch wheels and the future of music theory visualization

The MusEDLab will soon be launching a revamped version of the aQWERTYon with some enhancements to its visual design, including a new scale picker. Beyond our desire to make our stuff look cooler, the scale picker represents a challenge that we’ve struggled with since the earliest days of aQW development. On the one hand, we want to offer users a wide variety of intriguing and exotic scales to play with. On the other hand, our audience of beginner and intermediate musicians is likely to be horrified by a list of terms like “Lydian dominant mode.” I recently had the idea to represent all the scales as colorful icons, like so:

Read more about the rationale and process behind this change here. In this post, I’ll explain what the icons mean, and how they can someday become the basis for a set of new interactive music theory visualizations.

Musical pitches rise and fall linearly, but pitch class is circular. When you go up or down the chromatic scale, the note names “wrap around” every twelve notes. This naming convention reflects the fact that we hear notes an octave apart as being “the same”, probably because they share so many overtones. (Non-human primates hear octaves as being equivalent too.)

chromatic circle

The note names and numbers are all based on the C major scale, which is Western music’s “default setting.” The scale notes C, D, E, F, G, A and B (the white keys on the piano) are the “normal” notes. (Why do they start on C and not A? I have no idea.) You get D-flat, E-flat, G-flat, A-flat and B-flat (the black keys on the piano) by lowering (flatting) their corresponding white key notes. Alternately, you can get the black key notes by raising or sharping the white key notes, in which case they’ll be called C-sharp, D-sharp, F-sharp, G-sharp, and A-sharp. (Let’s just briefly acknowledge that the imagery of the “normal” white and “deviant” black keys is just one of many ways that Western musical culture is super racist, and move on.)

You can represent any scale on the chromatic circle just by “switching” notes on and off. For example, if you activate the notes C, D, E-flat, F, G, A-flat and B, you get C harmonic minor. (Alternatively, you could just deactivate D-flat, E, G-flat, A, and B-flat.) Here’s how the scale looks when you write it this way:

C harmonic minor - monochrome

This is how I conceive scales in my head, as a pattern of activated and deactivated chromatic scale notes. As a guitarist, it’s the most intuitive way to think about them, because each box on the circular grid corresponds to a fret, so you can read the fingering pattern right off the circle. When I think “harmonic minor,” I don’t think of note names, I think “pattern of notes and gaps with one unusually wide gap.”

Another beauty of the circle view is that you can get the other eleven harmonic minor scales just by rotating the note names while keeping the pattern of activated/deactivated notes the same. If I want E-flat harmonic minor, I just have to grab the outer ring and rotate it counterclockwise a few notches:

E-flat harmonic minor

My next thought was to color-code the scale tones to give an indication of their sound and function:

C harmonic minor scale necklace

Here’s how the color scheme works:

  • Green – major, natural, sharp, augmented
  • Blue – minor, flat, diminished
  • Purple – perfect (neither major nor minor)
  • Grey – not in the scale

Scales with more green in them sound “happier” or brighter. Scales with more blue sound “sadder” or darker. Scales with a mixture of blue and green (like harmonic minor) will have a more complex and ambiguous feeling.

My ambition with the pitch wheels is not just to make the aQWERTYon’s scale menu more visually appealing. I’d eventually like to have it be an interactive way to visualize chords too. Followers of this blog will notice a strong similarity between the circular scale and the rhythm necklaces that inspired the Groove Pizza. Just like symmetries and patterns on the rhythm necklace can tell you a lot about how beats work, so too can symmetries and patterns on the scale necklace can tell you how harmony works. So here’s my dream for the aQWERTYon’s future theory visualization interface. If you load the app and set it to C harmonic minor, here’s how it would look. To the right is a staff notation view with the appropriate key signature.

When you play a note, it would change color on the keyboard and the wheel, and appear on the staff. The app would also tell you which scale degree it is (in this case, seven.)

If you play two notes simultaneously, in this case the third and seventh notes in C Mixolydian mode, the app would draw a line between the two notes on the circle:

If you play three notes at a time, like the first, fourth and fifth notes in C Lydian, you’d get a triangle.

If your three notes spell out a chord, like the second, fourth and sixth notes in C Phrygian mode, the app would recognize it and shows the chord symbol on the staff.

The pattern continues if you play four notes at a time:

Or five notes at a time:

By rotating the outer ring of the pitch wheel, you could change the root of the scale, like I showed above with C harmonic minor. And if you rotated the inner ring, showing the scale degrees, you could get different modes of the scale. Modes are one of the most difficult concepts in music theory. That is, they’re difficult until you learn to imagine them as rotations of the scale necklace, at which point they become nothing harder than a memorization exercise.

I’m designing this system to be used with the aQWERTYon, but there’s no reason it couldn’t take ordinary MIDI input as well. Wouldn’t it be nice to have this in a window in your DAW or notation program?

Music theory is hard. There’s a whole Twitter account devoted to retweeting students’ complaints about it. Some of this difficulty is due to the intrinsic complexity of modern harmony. But a lot of it is due to terminology and notation. Our naming system for notes and chords is a set of historically contingent kludges. No rational person would design it this way from the ground up. Thanks to path dependency, we’re stuck with it, much like we’re stuck with English grammar and the QWERTY keyboard layout. Fortunately, technology gives us a lot of new ways to make all the arcana more accessible, by showing multiple representations simultaneously and by making those representations discoverable through playful tinkering.

Do you find this idea exciting? Would you like it to be functioning software, and not just a bunch of flat images I laboriously made by hand? Help the MusEDLab find a partner to fund the developer and designer time. A grant or gift would work, and we’d also be open to exploring a commercial partnership. The aQW has been a labor of volunteer love for the lab so far, and it’s already one of the best music theory pedagogy tools on the internet. But development would go a lot faster if we could fund it properly. If you have ideas, please be in touch!

Update: Will Kuhn’s response to this post.

People of the MusEDLab: Jamie Ehrenfeld


Jamie Ehrenfeld

EMPATHETIC

t. @artseducation

i. @jamieehrenfeld

Currently Student, Alum Partner & Educator.


 

 What project are you currently working on?

The Ed Sullivan Fellows Program! It’s a community arts mentorship lab, designed in the ethos of MusEDLab as a whole, that supports young musicians growing up in New York City as they explore, build, and launch creative careers.

What do you like about working at MusEDLab? 

The lab has always felt like home for me. Having grown up with the lab over the past four years, the opportunity to learn and evolve with such a brilliant interdisciplinary team has drastically impacted the way I relate to my work and what is possible.

What excites about music education and technology? 

How each (music, education, and technology) influence one another as they evolve separately and as intersecting domains. How humans with different experiences and contexts relate to music, education, and technology, and how these human contexts influence how we develop tools and resources.
What advice would you give to prospective students at MusEDLab?

Get ready to choose (+create) your own adventure!

Your current favorite song?

Devastated by Joey Bada$$

 

People of the MusEDLab: Yilu Guo


Yilu Guo

DREAMER, CREATOR, DOER

f. yilu.guo

Currently a Staff/faculty

 

 


 What project are you currently working on?

MusEDLab International Expansion Plan; Meditation Album “In the Bamboo Forest”

What do you like about working at MusEDLab? 

 

Self-directory working environment; Everybody here is being really supportive to each other; Never stop exploring new things; You will always get inspired.

What excites about music education and technology?

How to design project-based interdisciplinary music education by leveraging the new tech?

Your current favorite song?

“La Vie En Rose” by Melody Gardot


People of the MusEDLab: Martin Urbach


Martin Urbach

ACTIVISM, LIBERATION, ENJOYMENT

f. Martin Urbach

t. @mrmartinisays

Educator

 


What project are you currently working on?

I am working on creating a comprehensive curriculum that is informed by critical pedagogy, informal music learning, social justice activism, youth development, anti racist practices and adaptive technology for learners of all abilities.

What do you like about working at MusEDLab? 

 

The people are mighty brilliant, amazing, giving, warm and funny.

What excites about music education and technology?

We are in fertile ground to revitalize that which is stagnant, revive that which is dead and heal that which is broken in music education. We have the tools and we have the people and we have the technology AND we have the students. Now we just have to do it, together.

Your current favorite song?

“Freedom” by Beyonce ft. Kendrick Lamar


People of the MusEDLab: Sumanth Srinivasan


Sumanth Srinivasan

RADIOHEAD, IS, AMAZING

t. @reckoner165

Alumni

 

 


What project are you currently working on?

I’m currently working on a physical game that personifies internet protocols into Kafkaesque role playing.

What did you like about working at MusEDLab? 

A very friendly atmosphere and freedom to pick and choose the work I can commit to. Also leeway to learn on the job.

What excites about music education and technology? 

I learnt music informally and almost exclusively via internet and computers. I see it has come a long way. I’m always excited to give back to this community.

What advice would you give to prospective students at MusEDLab?

Pick a field you don’t know too well and feel your way through it. It’s very gratifying.

Your current favorite song?

Soon by My Bloody Valentine


People of the MusEDLab: Sunny Choi


Sunny Choi

CURIOUS, DRIVEN, RESILIENT

f. sunnychoimusic

t. @thesunnychoi

Currently a Student

 

 


 

What project are you currently working on?

I’m currently working on developing an online music course in partnership with Soundfly, where I take

the course subscribers through my creative process for reinterpreting songs from today’s latest popular music as solo piano music.

As an active member of MusEDLab all throughout the summer, I’m on the committee team to prepare for the launch of our annually-hosted IMPACT Conference that’s to be held from August 1-5. Our conference theme this year is on music experience design for education, health, interactive media and social impact.

I’m also active as Steinway & Son’s popular music recording artist for Spirio pianos, providing my uniquely interpreted solo piano music on today’s popular music

What do you like about working at MusEDLab? 

I consider MusEDLab as my “safe space”, where I feel entirely free to explore all of my curiosities that are related to music. Music is not just some abstract subject that is to remain exclusive amongst certain individuals, but a powerful path that contributes to the development of one’s being. At the lab, I invest time in getting to know cool people that are doing innovative things with music. Some of these people may include educators that are embedding technology in their classrooms, physicians that are interested in connecting the brain activity of music with medicine, and technology companies that passionately care for developing tools for music learning for people in the 21st century. The definition of music is rapidly changing with the evolvement in technology, and it could not be a more exciting period than now to research and explore how music is experienced today.

Your current favorite song?

“Brand New” Day by Hiromi