OK, so I admit it, hip-hop passed me by in the late 80s and early 90s. I was much more concerned with contemporary classical music, rock and jazz. I mean, I had De La Soul’s Three Feet High And Rising and have long had Gil-Scott Heron’s Moving Target and Reflections LPs on the player for years, but I’ve never really known my MCs from my DJs, let alone my Run-DMCs from my EPMDs. Well, I say that, but who could avoid Run-DMC’s cover of Walk This Way by Aerosmith, a mind-bogglingly atrocious effort that might have been OK without the presence of Tyler and Perry on the recording… and the video:
Singin’ hey diddle-diddle…
Another thing, besides my own laziness and musical prejudice, is that my son has been banging on about hip-hop for ages – so I figured if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. As a result, I decided to fully immerse myself in the music for a week, to see if anything stuck. I’ll get to what happened in a moment, but first a preamble…
Like most musical forms you need to listen to a large selection of that form in order to find out what you like. And if you don’t know what you like, you need to be able to at least listen out for what you might like. And if you can’t do that, or you’re the kind of person who needs other people to tell what to like, well…
Let’s look at it this way… rhythm is the main force in music. Rhythm of beats, and also harmonic rhythm (ie the rate of harmonic change). For me, I mostly prefer music with a high rate of harmonic change and I think this has been my problem with hip-hop over the years. It takes a certain leap of faith to enjoy a contrived one or two chord groove; or a ‘groove for groove’s sake’.
Unfortunately, the way that these beats are created in hip-hop also give fire to musical prejudice, in that people would say: ‘The drum loops are lifted from other people’s music… they couldn’t even be bothered to make their own!’ Sure, but wait a moment, anyone who knows anything about recording/sampling will know that there are many elements at play here: the spirit of hommage, limited access to drums, or skilled drummers, simplicity. There is also the fact that musical education worldwide sucks. So if you’re not from a relatively well-off family then your chances of learning an instrument are limited. Sampling/turntablism is way of making stuff up with only a few pieces of gear, and you don’t need to read music to do it. (Oops, another bugbear of the ‘musician’.)
Public Enemy ‘sampling’ the open air… no copyright on that yet… um…
Similarly, it’s easy to come to hip-hop with all kinds of culturally ingrained standpoints from which we can ignore it: Rap is boring, repetitive, harmonically dull, the lyrical content is misogynistic etc. etc. – all examples of the racial and cultural differences held by white-Europeans/Americans to the form. Sure, hip-hop is repetitive, and harmonically limited in some cases, but this is a feature not a by-product. And while we’re talking about harmonically limited, there is a critical notion that rap is the punk rock of black music. Indeed, there are tremendous similarities: anti-authority sentiments, fashion obsessions, DIY aesthetic, etc. I figure that knowing this might help hip-hop appeal more to a European mindset. Maybe…
The Sex Pistols of Rap?: Geto Boys
So, I started my listening journey from my best point of reference, that being The Golden Age of Hip-Hop, late 80s early 90s. Now, I have quite an extensive collection of R&B & Funk music from the 70s and 80s so I figured that a transition to rap music might be a relatively easy thing to do.
This music is definitely not funk.
It’s nothing like Kool & The Gang. It’s not even like Rick James at his darkest or most stripped down. In fact, it almost seems unrelated to most r&b of the previous two decades.
Why? What’s so different?
No drums, just sampled/glitchy loops? A distinct lack of ‘actual’ instruments? The lyrical content? The vocal delivery?
Yeah, all of them, but basically, there seems to be no grease. Maybe it’s the stuff I’ve started off listening to, but the music is as hard and cold as the rapping that’s laid down on top of it. It really does seem to have more in connection with synth pop and Krautrock than anything else, and that would make sense considering the lineage of early rap.
I was really struggling… and I was being put off by a lot of the self-hate coming from some of these tracks, also the attitude to women and the incessant bragadoccio. Now, I don’t normally listen to a lot of music like this – unless you count Foreigner when I was 15… ; ) – so, I passed on Geto Boys, Dr. Dre, The Notorious BIG and NWA.
Then I listened to A Tribe Called Quest’s People’s Instinctive Travels And The Paths Of Rhythm.
Now here was something. No misogyny. No motherfudgers. Scatological humour. And some jazz and oil in the grooves.
On first listen they bear a strong resemblance to De La Soul; there’s a lightness to their sound that reminds me of Three Feet High And Rising, but I prefer this album as it doesn’t have the ‘skits’ that inhabit most of De La Soul’s work and make it a very disjointed affair.
So, that was ONE.
I then immediately checked out ATCQ’s leader, Q-Tip’s, solo discs. I liked these just as much, maybe more, though I gather they are not as highly-rated due to his lyrics not being as ‘philosophical’ as on the band albums. But that’s neither here nor there. Q-tip is a master of rhythm – just listen to ‘Breathe And Stop’ from his first solo album Amplified:
And that was TWO…
I began to slowly find other bands and rappers to listen to: Prince Paul’s solo discs were excellent, Gang Starr’s ‘Daily Operation’, The Pharcyde’s ‘Bizarre Ride II’, Public Enemy’s first 4 albums – Black Sheep, Eric B. & Rakim… and so I found my journey through rap and hip-hop opening up new doors of music and cultural thought that I feel essential to being a music fan in the 2000s. I know I have a ways to go before I can call myself a fan of the genre, there’s too much here that I find unable to embrace. But, in conclusion, I now realise what I’ve been missing out on – that the inventiveness of the hip-hop form can certainly, at its best, rival any musical genre. However, don’t take my word for it- never trust someone who’s trying to teach you something 😉 – go listen for yourself.