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 But they are also withdrawn from the world, fearing that getting involving in other people’s struggles will destroy what makes their culture so unique and beautiful.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.

Deconstructing the bassline in Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon”

If you have even a passing interest in funk, you will want to familiarize yourself with Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon.” And if you are preoccupied and dedicated to the preservation of the movement of the hips, then the bassline needs to be a cornerstone of your practice.

Chameleon - circular bass

Here’s a transcription I did in Noteflight – huge props to them for recently introducing sixteenth note swing.

And here’s how it looks in the MIDI piano roll:

The “Chameleon” bassline packs an incredible amount of music into just two bars. To understand how it’s put together, it’s helpful to take a look at the scale that Herbie built the tune around, the B-flat Dorian mode. Click the image below to play it on the aQWERTYon. I recommend doing some jamming with it over the song before you move on.

B-flat Dorian

Fun fact: this scale contains the same pitches as A-flat major. If you find that fact confusing, then feel free to ignore it. You can learn more about scales and modes in my Soundfly course.

The chord progression

The opening section of “Chameleon” is an endless loop of two chords, B♭-7 and E♭7. You build both of them using the notes in B-flat Dorian. To make B♭-7, start on the root of the scale, B-flat. Skip over the second scale degree to land on the third, D-flat. Skip over the fourth scale degree to land on the fifth, F. Then skip over the sixth to land on the seventh, A-flat. If you want to add extensions to the chord, just keep skipping scale degrees, like so:

B-flat Dorian mode chords

To make E♭7, you’re going to use the same seven pitches in the same order, but you’re going to treat E-flat as home base rather than B-flat. You could think of this new scale as being E-flat Mixolydian, or B-flat Dorian starting on E-flat; they’re perfectly interchangeable. Click to play E-flat Mixolydian on the aQWERTYon. You build your E♭7 chord like so:

B-flat Dorian mode chords on E-flat

Once you’ve got the sound of B♭-7 and E♭7 in your head, let’s try an extremely simplified version of the bassline.

Chord roots only

At the most basic level, the “Chameleon” bassline exists to spell out the chord progression in a rhythmically interesting way. (This is what all basslines do.) Here’s a version of the bassline that removes all of the notes except the ones on the first beat of each bar. They play the roots of the chords, B-flat and E-flat.

That’s boring, but effective. You can never go wrong playing chord roots on the downbeat.

Simple arpeggios

Next, we’ll hear a bassline that plays all of the notes in B♭-7 and E♭7 one at a time. When you play chords in this way, they’re called arpeggios.

The actual arpeggios

The real “Chameleon” bassline plays partial arpeggios–they don’t have all of the notes from each chord. Also, the rhythm is a complicated and interesting one.

Below, you can explore the rhythm in the Groove Pizza. The orange triangle shows the rhythm of the arpeggio notes, played on the snare. The yellow quadrilateral shows the rhythm of the walkups, played on the kick–we’ll get to those below.

The snare rhythm has a hit every three sixteenth notes. It’s a figure known in Afro-Latin music as tresillo, which you hear absolutely everywhere in all styles of American popular and vernacular music. Tresillo also forms the front half of the equally ubiquitous son clave. (By the way, you can also use the Groove Pizza to experiment with the “Chameleon” drum pattern.)

As for the pitches: Instead of going root-third-fifth-seventh, the bassline plays partial arpeggios. The figure over B♭-7 is just the root, seventh and root again, while the one over E♭7 is the root, fifth and seventh.

Adding the walkups

Now let’s forget about the arpeggios for a minute and go back to just playing the chord roots on the downbeats. The bassline walks up to each of these notes via the chromatic scale, that is, every pitch on the piano keyboard.

Chromatic walkups are a great way to introduce some hip dissonance into your basslines, because they can include notes that aren’t in the underlying scale. In “Chameleon” the walkups include A natural and D natural. Both of these notes sound really weird if you sustain them over B-flat Dorian, but in the context of the walkup they sound perfectly fine.

Putting it all together

The full bassline consists of the broken arpeggios anticipated by the walkups.

If you’re a guitarist or bassist, you can play this without even shifting position. Use your index on the third fret, your middle on the fourth fret, your ring on the fifth fret, and your pinkie on the sixth fret.

              .          . .

If you’ve got this under your fingers, maybe you’d like to figure out the various keyboard and horn parts. They aren’t difficult, but you’ll need one more scale, the B-flat blues scale. Click the image to jam with it over the song and experience how great it sounds.

B-flat blues

There you have it, one of the cornerstones of funk. Good luck getting it out of your head!

Freedom ’90

Since George Michael died, I’ve been enjoying all of his hits, but none of them more than this one. Listening to it now, it’s painfully obvious how much it’s about George Michael’s struggles with his sexual orientation. I wonder whether he was being deliberately coy in the lyrics, or if he just wasn’t yet fully in touch with his identity. Being gay in the eighties must have been a nightmare.

This is the funkiest song that George Michael ever wrote, which is saying something. Was he the funkiest white British guy in history? Quite possibly. 

The beat

There are five layers to the drum pattern: a simple closed hi-hat from a drum machine, some programmed bongos and congas, a sampled tambourine playing lightly swung sixteenth notes, and finally, once the full groove kicks in, the good old Funky Drummer break. I include a Noteflight transcription of all that stuff below, but don’t listen to it, it sounds comically awful.

George Michael uses the Funky Drummer break on at least two of the songs on Listen Without Prejudice Vol 1. Hear him discuss the break and how it informed his writing process in this must-watch 1990 documentary.

The intro and choruses

Harmonically, this is a boilerplate C Mixolydian progression: the chords built on the first, seventh and fourth degrees of the scale. You can hear the same progression in uncountably many classic rock songs.

C Mixolydian chords

For a more detailed explanation of this scale and others like it, check out Theory For Producers.

The rhythm is what makes this groove so fresh. It’s an Afro-Cuban pattern full of syncopation and hemiola. Here’s an abstraction of it on the Groove Pizza. If you know the correct name of this rhythm, please tell me in the comments!

The verses

There’s a switch to plain vanilla C major, the chords built on the fifth, fourth and root of the scale.

C major chords

Like the chorus, this is standard issue pop/rock harmonically speaking, but it also gets its life from a funky Latin rhythm. It’s a kind of clave pattern, five hits spread more or less evenly across the sixteen sixteenth notes in the bar. Here it is on the Groove Pizza.

The prechorus and bridge

This section unexpectedly jumps over to C minor, and now things get harmonically interesting. The chords are built around a descending chromatic bassline: C, B, B-flat, A. It’s a simple idea but with complicated implications, because it implies four chords built on three different scales between them. First, we have the tonic triad in C natural minor, no big deal there. Next comes the V chord in C harmonic minor. Then we’re back to C natural minor, but with the seventh in the bass. Finally, we go to the IV chord in C Dorian mode. Really, all that we’re doing is stretching C natural minor to accommodate a couple of new notes, B natural in the second chord, and A natural in the fourth one.

C minor - descending chromatic bassline

The rhythm here is similar but not identical to the clave-like pattern in the verse–the final chord stab is a sixteenth note earlier. See and hear it on the Groove Pizza.

I don’t have the time to transcribe the whole bassline, but it’s absurdly tight and soulful. The album credits list bass played both by Deon Estus and by George Michael himself. Whichever one of them laid this down, they nailed it.

Song structure

“Freedom ’90” has an exceedingly peculiar structure for a mainstream pop song. The first chorus doesn’t hit until almost two minutes in, which is an eternity–most pop songs are practically over that that point. The graphic below shows the song segments as I marked them in Ableton.

Freedom '90 structure

The song begins with a four bar instrumental intro, nothing remarkable about that. But then it immediately moves into an eight bar section that I have trouble classifying. It’s the spot that would normally be occupied by verse one, but this part uses the chorus harmony and is different from the other verses. I labeled it “intro verse” for lack of a better term. (Update: upon listening again, I realized that this section is the backing vocals from the back half of the chorus. Clever, George Michael!) Then there’s an eight bar instrumental break, before the song has really even started. George Michael brings you on board with this unconventional sequence because it’s all so catchy, but it’s definitely strange.

Finally, twenty bars in, the song settles into a more traditional verse-prechorus-chorus loop. The verses are long, sixteen bars. The prechorus is eight bars, and the chorus is sixteen. You could think of the chorus as being two eight bar sections, the part that goes “All we have to do…” and the part that goes “Freedom…” but I hear it as all one big section.

After two verse-prechorus-chorus units, there’s a four bar breakdown on the prechorus chord progression. This leads into sixteen bar bridge, still following the prechorus form. Finally, the song ends with a climactic third chorus, which repeats and fades out as an outtro. All told, the song is over six minutes. That’s enough time (and musical information) for two songs by a lesser artist.

A word about dynamics: just from looking at the audio waveform, you can see that “Freedom ’90” has very little contrast in loudness and fullness over its duration. It starts sparse, but once the Funky Drummer loop kicks in at measure 13, the sound stays constantly big and full until the breakdown and bridge. These sections are a little emptier without the busy piano part. The final chorus is a little bigger than the rest of the song because there are more vocals layered in, but that still isn’t a lot of contrast. I guess George Michael decided that the groove was so hot, why mess with it by introducing contrast for the sake of contrast? He was right to feel that way.

Why hip-hop is interesting

The title of this post is also the title of a tutorial I’m giving at ISMIR 2016 with Jan Van Balen and Dan Brown. The conference is organized by the International Society for Music Information Retrieval, and it’s the fanciest of its kind. You may 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.

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 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.

Much of what I find exciting (and difficult) about hip-hop can be found in Kanye West’s song “Famous” from his album The Life Of Pablo.

The song comes with a video, a ten minute art film that shows Kanye in bed sleeping after a group sexual encounter with his wife, his former lover, his wife’s former lover, his father-in-law turned mother-in-law, various of his friends and collaborators, Bill Cosby, George Bush, Taylor Swift, and Donald Trump. There’s a lot to say about this, but it’s beyond the scope of our presentation, and my ability to verbalize thoughts. The song has some problematic lyrics. Kanye drops the n-word in the very first line and calls Taylor Swift a bitch in the second. He also speculates that he might have sex with her, and that he made her famous. I find his language difficult and objectionable, but that too is beyond the scope. Instead, I’m going to focus on the music itself.

“Famous” has a peculiar structure, shown in the graphic below.

The track begins with a six bar intro, Rihanna singing over a subtle gospel-flavored organ accompaniment in F-sharp major. She’s singing few lines from “Do What You Gotta Do” by Jimmy Webb. This song has been recorded many times, but for Kanye’s listeners, the most significant one is by Nina Simone.

Next comes a four-bar groove, a more aggressive organ part over a drum machine beat, with Swizz Beatz exclaiming on top. The beat is a minimal funk pattern on just kick and snare, treated with cavernous artificial reverb. The organ riff is in F-sharp minor, which is an abrupt mode change so early in the song. It’s sampled from the closing section of “Mi Sono Svegliato E…Ho Chiuso Gli Occhi” by Il Rovescio della Medaglia, an Italian prog-rock band I had never heard of until I looked the sample up just now. The song is itself built around quotes of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier–Kanye loves sampling material built from samples.

Verse one continues the same groove, with Kanye alternating between aggressive rap and loosely pitched singing. Rap is widely supposed not to be melodic, but this idea collapses immediately under scrutiny. The border between rapping and singing is fluid, and most emcees cross it effortlessly. Even in “straight” rapping, though, the pitch sequences are deliberate and meaningful. The pitches might not fall on the piano keys, but they are melodic nonetheless.

The verse is twelve bars long, which is unusual; hip-hop verses are almost always eight or sixteen bars. The hook (the hip-hop term for chorus) comes next, Rihanna singing the same Jimmy Webb/Nina Simone quote over the F-sharp major organ part from the intro. Swizz Beatz does more interjections, including a quote of “Wake Up Mr. West,” a short skit on Kanye’s album Late Registration in which DeRay Davis imitates Bernie Mac.

Verse two, like verse one, is twelve bars on the F-sharp minor loop. At the end, you think Rihanna is going to come back in for the hook, but she only delivers the pickup. The section abruptly shifts into an F-sharp major groove over fuller drums, including a snare that sounds like a socket wrench. The lead vocal is a sample of “Bam Bam” by Sister Nancy, which is a familiar reference for hip-hop fans–I recognize it from “Lost Ones” by Lauryn Hill and “Just Hangin’ Out” by Main Source. The chorus means “What a bum deal.” Sister Nancy’s track is itself sample-based–like many reggae songs, it uses a pre-existing riddim or instrumental backing, and the chorus is a quote of the Maytals.

Kanye doesn’t just sample “Bam Bam”, he also reharmonizes it. Sister Nancy’s original is a I – bVII progression in C Mixolydian. Kanye pitch shifts the vocal to fit it over a I – V – IV – V progression in F-sharp major. He doesn’t just transpose the sample up or down a tritone; instead, he keeps the pitches close by changing their chord function. Here’s Sister Nancy’s original:

And here’s Kanye’s version:

The pitch shifting gives Sister Nancy the feel of a robot from the future, while the lo-fidelity recording places her in the past. It’s a virtuoso sample flip.

After 24 bars of the Sister Nancy groove, the track ends with the Jimmy Webb hook again. But this time it isn’t Rihanna singing. Instead, it’s a sample of Nina Simone herself.It reminds me of Kanye’s song “Gold Digger“, which includes Jamie Foxx imitating Ray Charles, followed by a sample of Ray Charles himself. Kanye is showing off here. It would be a major coup for most producers to get Rihanna to sing on a track, and it would be an equally major coup to be able to license a Nina Simone sample, not to mention requiring the chutzpah to even want to sample such a sacred and iconic figure. Few people besides Kanye could afford to use both Rihanna and Nina Simone singing the same hook, and no one else would dare. I don’t think it’s just a conspicuous show of industry clout, either; Kanye wants you to feel the contrast between Rihanna’s heavily processed purr and Nina Simone’s stark, preacherly tone.

Here’s a diagram of all the samples and samples of samples in “Famous.”

In this one track, we have a dense interplay of rhythms, harmonies, timbres, vocal styles, and intertextual meaning, not to mention the complexities of cultural context. This is why hip-hop is interesting.

You probably have a good intuitive idea of what hip-hop is, but there’s plenty of confusion around the boundaries. What are the elements necessary for music to be hip-hop? Does it need to include rapping over a beat? When blues, rock, or R&B singers rap, should we retroactively consider that to be hip-hop? What about spoken-word poetry? Does hip-hop need to include rapping at all? Do singers like Mary J. Blige and Aaliyah qualify as hip-hop? Is Run-DMC’s version of “Walk This Way” by Aerosmith hip-hop or rock? Is “Love Lockdown” by Kanye West hip-hop or electronic pop? Do the rap sections of “Rapture” by Blondie or “Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift count as hip-hop?

If a single person can be said to have laid the groundwork for hip-hop, it’s James Brown. His black pride, sharp style, swagger, and blunt directness prefigure the rapper persona, and his records are a bottomless source of classic beats and samples. The HBO James Brown documentary is a must-watch.

Wikipedia lists hip-hop’s origins as including funk, disco,
electronic music, dub, R&B, reggae, dancehall, rock, jazz, toasting, performance poetry, spoken word, signifyin’, The Dozens, griots, scat singing, and talking blues. People use the terms hip-hop and rap interchangeably, but hip-hop and rap are not the same thing. The former is a genre; the latter is a technique. Rap long predates hip-hop–you can hear it in classicalrock, R&B, swingjazz fusion, soul, funkcountry, and especially blues, especially especially the subgenre of talking blues. Meanwhile, it’s possible to have hip-hop without rap. Nearly all current pop and R&B are outgrowths of hip-hop. Turntablists and controllerists have turned hip-hop into a virtuoso instrumental music.

It’s sometimes said that rock is European harmony combined with African rhythm. Rock began as dance music, and rhythm continues to be its most important component. This is even more true of hip-hop, where harmony is minimal and sometimes completely absent. More than any other music of the African diaspora, hip-hop is a delivery system for beats. These beats have undergone some evolution over time. Early hip-hop was built on funk, the product of what I call The Great Cut-Time Shift, as the underlying pulse of black music shifted from eighth notes to sixteenth notes. Current hip-hop is driving a Second Great Cut-Time Shift, as the average tempo slows and the pulse moves to thirty-second notes.

Like all other African-American vernacular music, hip-hop uses extensive syncopation, most commonly in the form of a backbeat. You can hear the blues musician Taj Mahal teach a German audience how to clap on the backbeat. (“Schvartze” is German for “black.”) Hip-hop has also absorbed a lot of Afro-Cuban rhythms, like the omnipresent son clave. This traditional Afro-Cuban rhythm is everywhere in hip-hop: in the drums, of course, but also in the rhythms of bass, keyboards, horns, vocals, and everywhere else. You can hear son clave in the snare drum part in “WTF” by Missy Elliott.

The NYU Music Experience Design Lab created the Groove Pizza app to help you visualize and interact with rhythms like the ones in hip-hop beats. You can use it to explore classic beats or more contemporary trap beats. Hip-hop beats come from three main sources: drum machines, samples, or (least commonly) live drummers.

Hip-hop was a DJ medium before emcees became the main focus. Party DJs in the disco era looped the funkiest, most rhythm-intensive sections of the records they were playing, and sometimes improvised toasts on top. Sampling and manipulating recordings has become effortless in the computer age, but doing it with vinyl records requires considerable technical skill. In the movie Wild Style, you can see Grandmaster Flash beat juggle and scratch “God Make Me Funky” by the Headhunters and “Take Me To The Mardi Gras” by Bob James (though the latter song had to be edited out of the movie for legal reasons.)

The creative process of making a modern pop recording is very different from composing on paper or performing live. Hip-hop is an art form about tracks, and the creativity is only partially in the songs and the performances. A major part of the art form is the creation of sound itself. It’s the timbre and space that makes the best tracks come alive as much as any of the “musical” components. The recording studio gives you control over the finest nuances of the music that live performers can only dream of. Most of the music consists of synths and samples that are far removed from a “live performance.” The digital studio erases the distinction between composition, improvisation, performance, recording and mixing. The best popular musicians are the ones most skilled at “playing the studio.”

Hip-hop has drawn much inspiration from the studio techniques of dub producers, who perform mixes of pre-existing multitrack tape recordings by literally playing the mixing desk. When you watch The Scientist mix Ted Sirota’s “Heavyweight Dub,” you can see him shaping the track by turning different instruments up and down and by turning the echo effect on and off. Like dub, hip-hop is usually created from scratch in the studio. Brian Eno describes the studio as a compositional tool, and hip-hop producers would agree.

Aside from the human voice, the most characteristic sounds in hip-hop are the synthesizer, the drum machine, the turntable, and the sampler. The skills needed by a hip-hop producer are quite different from the ones involved in playing traditional instruments or recording on tape. Rock musicians and fans are quick to judge electronic musicians like hip-hop producers for not being “real musicians” because sequencing electronic instruments appears to be easier to learn than guitar or drums. Is there something lazy or dishonest about hip-hop production techniques? Is the guitar more of a “real” instrument than the sampler or computer? Are the Roots “better” musicians because they incorporate instruments?

Maybe we discount the creative prowess of hip-hop producers because we’re unfamiliar with their workflow. Fortunately, there’s a growing body of YouTube videos that document various aspects of the process:

Before affordable digital samplers became available in the late 1980s, early hip-hop DJs and producers did most of their audio manipulation with turntables. Record scratching  demands considerable skill and practice, and it has evolved into a virtuoso form analogous to bebop saxophone or metal guitar shredding.

Hip-hop is built on a foundation of existing recordings, repurposed and recombined. Samples might be individual drum hits, or entire songs. Even hip-hop tracks without samples very often started with them; producers often replace copyrighted material with soundalike “original” beats and instrumental performances for legal reasons. Turntables and samplers make it possible to perform recordings like instruments.

The Amen break, a six-second drum solo, is one of the most important samples of all time. It’s been used in uncountably many hip-hop songs, and is the basis for entire subgenres of electronic music. Ali Jamieson gives an in-depth exploration of the Amen.

There are few artistic acts more controversial than sampling. Is it a way to enter into a conversation with other artists? An act of liberation against the forces of corporatized mass culture? A form of civil disobedience against a stifling copyright regime? Or is it a bunch of lazy hacks stealing ideas, profiting off other musicians’ hard work, and devaluing the concept of originality? Should artists be able to control what happens to their work? Is complete originality desirable, or even possible?

We look to hip-hop to tell us the truth, to be real, to speak to feelings that normally go unspoken. At the same time, we expect rappers to be larger than life, to sound impossibly good at all times, and to live out a fantasy life. And many of our favorite artists deliberately alter their appearance, race, gender, nationality, and even species. To make matters more complicated, we mostly experience hip-hop through recordings and videos, where artificiality is the nature of the medium. How important is authenticity in this music? To what extent is it even possible?

The “realness” debate in hip-hop reached its apogee with the controversy over Auto-Tune. Studio engineers have been using computer software to correct singers’ pitch since the early 1990s, but the practice only became widely known when T-Pain overtly used exaggerated Auto-Tune as a vocal effect rather than a corrective. The “T-Pain effect” makes it impossible to sing a wrong note, though at the expense of making the singer sound like a robot from the future. Is this the death of singing as an art form? Is it cheating to rely on software like this? Does it bother you that Kanye West can have hits as a singer when he can barely carry a tune? Does it make a difference to learn that T-Pain has flawless pitch when he turns off the Auto-Tune?

Hip-hop is inseparable from its social, racial and political environment. For example, you can’t understand eighties hip-hop without understanding New York City in the pre-Giuliani era. Eric B and Rakim capture it perfectly in the video for “I Ain’t No Joke.”

Given that hip-hop is the voice of the most marginalized people in America and the world, why is it so compelling to everyone else? Timothy Brennan argues that the musical African diaspora of which hip-hop is a part helps us resist imperialism through secular devotion. Brennan thinks that America’s love of African musical practice is related to an interest in African spiritual practice. We’re unconsciously drawn to the musical expression of African spirituality as a way of resisting oppressive industrial capitalism and Western hegemony. It isn’t just the defiant stance of the lyrics that’s doing the resisting. The beats and sounds themselves are doing the major emotional work, restructuring our sense of time, imposing a different grid system onto our experience. I would say that makes for some pretty interesting music.

Ultralight Beam

The first song on Kanye West’s Life Of Pablo album, and my favorite so far, is the beautiful, gospel-saturated “Ultralight Beam.” See Kanye and company perform it live on SNL.

Ultralight Beam

The song uses only four chords, but they’re an interesting four: C minor, E-flat major, A-flat major, and G7. To find out why they sound so good together, let’s do a little music theory.

“Ultralight Beam” is in the key of C minor, and three of the four chords come from the C natural minor scale, shown below. Click the image to play the scale in the aQWERTYon (requires Chrome).

Ultralight Beam C natural minor

To make a chord, start on any scale degree, then skip two degrees clockwise, and then skip another two, and so on. To make C minor, you start on C, then jump to E-flat, and then to G. To make E-flat major, you start on E-flat, then jump to G, and then to B-flat. And to make A-flat major, you start on A-flat, then jump to C, and then to E-flat. Simple enough so far.

The C natural minor scale shares its seven notes with the E-flat major scale:

Ultralight Beam Eb major circles

All we’ve really done here is rotate the circle three slots counterclockwise. All the relationships stay the same, and you can form the same chords in the same way. The two scales are so closely related that if noodle around on C natural minor long enough, it starts just sounding like E-flat major. Try it!

The last of the four chords in “Ultralight Beam” is G7, and to make it, we need a note that isn’t in C natural minor (or E-flat major): the leading tone, B natural. If you take C natural minor and replace B-flat with B natural, you get a new scale: C harmonic minor.

Ultralight Beam C harmonic minor

If you make a chord starting on G from C natural minor, you get G minor (G, B-flat, D). The chord sounds fine, and you could use it with the other three above without offending anyone. But if you make the same chord using C harmonic minor, you get G major (G, B, D). This is a much more dramatic and exciting sound. If you add one more chord degree, you get G7 (G, B, D, F), known as the dominant chord in C minor. In the diagram below, the G7 chord is in blue, and C minor is in green.

Ultralight Beam C harmonic minor with V7 chord

Feel how much more intensely that B natural pulls to C than B-flat did? That’s what gives the song its drama, and what puts it unambivalently in C minor rather than E-flat major.

“Ultralight Beam” has a nice chord progression, but that isn’t its most distinctive feature. The thing that jumps out most immediately is the unusual beat. Nearly all hip-hop is in 4/4 time, where each measure is subdivided into four beats, and each of those four beats is subdivided into four sixteenth notes. “Ultralight Beam” uses 12/8 time, which was prevalent in the first half of the twentieth century, but is a rarity now. Each measure still has four beats in it, but these beats are subdivided into three beats rather than four.

four-four vs twelve-eight

The track states this rhythm very obliquely. The drum track is comprised almost entirely of silence. The vocals and other instruments skip lightly around the beat. Chance The Rapper’s verse in particular pulls against the meter in all kinds of complex ways.

The song’s structure is unusual too, a wide departure from the standard “verse-hook-verse-hook”.

Ultralight Beam song structure

The intro is six bars long, two bars of ambient voices, four bars over the chord progression. The song proper begins with just the first half of the chorus (known in hip-hop circles as the hook.) Kanye has an eight bar verse, followed by the first full chorus. Kelly Price gets the next eight bar verse. So far, so typical. But then, where you expect the next chorus, The-Dream gets his four-bar verse, followed by Chance The Rapper’s ecstatic sixteen-bar verse. Next is what feels like the last chorus, but that’s followed by Kirk Franklin’s four bar verse, and then a four-bar outtro with just the choir singing haunting single words. It’s strange, but it works. Say what you want about Kanye as a public figure, but as a musician, he is in complete control of his craft.

Space Oddity: from song to track

If you’ve ever wondered what it is that a music producer does exactly, David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” is a crystal clear example. To put it in a nutshell, a producer turns this:

Into this:

It’s also interesting to listen to the first version of the commercial recording, which is better than the demo, but still nowhere near as majestic as the final version. The Austin Powers flute solo is especially silly.

Should we even consider these three recordings to be the same piece of music? On the one hand, they’re all the same melody and chords and lyrics. On the other hand, if the song only existed in its demo form, or in the awkward Austin Powers version, it would never have made the impact that it did. Some of the impact of the final version lies in better recording techniques and equipment, but it’s more than that. The music takes on a different meaning in the final version. It’s bigger, trippier, punchier, tighter, more cinematic, more transporting, and in general about a thousand times more effective.

The producer’s job is to marshall the efforts of songwriters, arrangers, performers and engineers to create a good-sounding recording. (The producer might also be a songwriter, arranger, performer, and/or engineer.) Producers are to songs what directors are to movies, or showrunners are to television.

When you’re thinking about a piece of recorded music, you’re really talking about three different things:

  1. The underlying composition, the part that can be represented on paper. Albin Zak calls this “the song.”
  2. The performance of the song.
  3. The finished recording, after overdubbing, mixing, editing, effects, and all the rest. Albin Zak calls this “the track.”

I had always assumed that Tony Visconti produced “Space Oddity,” since he produced a ton of other Bowie classics. As it turns out, though, Visconti was underwhelmed by the song, so he delegated it to his assistant, Gus Dudgeon. So what is it that Gus Dudgeon did precisely? First let’s separate out what he didn’t do.

You can hear from the demo that the chords, melody and lyrics were all in place before Bowie walked into the studio. They’re the parts reproduced by the subway busker I heard singing “Space Oddity” this morning. The demo includes a vocal arrangement that’s similar to the final one, aside from some minor phrasing changes. The acoustic guitar and Stylophone are in place as well. (I had always thought it was an oboe, but no, that droning sound is a low-tech synth.)

Gus Dudgeon took a song and a partial arrangement, and turned it into a track. He oversaw the addition of electric guitar, bass, drums, strings, woodwinds, and keyboards. He coached Bowie and the various studio musicians through their performances, selected the takes, and decided on effects like echoes and reverb. He supervised the mixing, which not only sets the relative loudness of the various sounds, but also affects their perceived location and significance. In short, he designed the actual sounds that you hear.

If you want to dive deep into the track, you’re in luck, because Bowie officially released the multitrack stems. Some particular points of interest:

  • The bassist, Herbie Flowers, was a rookie. The “Space Oddity” session was his first. He later went on to create the staggeringly great dual bass part in Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side.”
  • The strings were arranged and conducted by the multifaceted Paul Buckmaster, who a few years later would work with Miles Davis on the conception of On The Corner. Buckmaster’s cello harmonics contribute significantly to the psychedelic atmosphere–listen to the end of the stem labeled “Extras 1.”
  • The live strings are supplemented by Mellotron, played by future Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman, he of the flamboyant gold cape.
  • Tony Visconti plays some flute and unspecified woodwinds, including the distinctive saxophone run that leads into the instrumental sections.

You can read a detailed analysis of the recording on the excellent Bowiesongs blog.

The big difference between the sixties and the present is that the track has assumed ever-greater importance relative to the song and the performance. In the age of MIDI and digital audio editing, live performance has become a totally optional component of music. The song is increasingly inseparable from the sounds used to realize it, especially in synth-heavy music like hip-hop and EDM. This shift gives the producer ever-greater importance in the creative process. There is really no such thing as a “demo” anymore, since anyone with a computer can produce finished-sounding tracks in their bedroom. If David Bowie were a kid now, he’d put together “Space Oddity” in GarageBand or FL Studio, with a lavish soundscape part of the conception from the beginning.

I want my students to understand that the words “producer” and “musician” are becoming synonymous. I want them to know that they can no longer focus solely on composition or performance and wait for someone else to craft a track around them. The techniques used to make “Space Oddity” were esoteric and expensive to realize at the time. Now, they’re easily within reach. But while the technology is more accessible, you still have to have the ideas. This is why it’s so valuable to study great producers like Tony Visconti and Gus Dudgeon: they’re a goldmine of sonic inspiration.

See also: a broader appreciation of Bowie.