Saturday, August 20, 2005

In Defence of Rap

If you are anything like most caucasian people in the United States of America, you probably hate rap music. You are not wrong, you have probably just been misled. When you think of rap (or "hip-hop," as the term was coined by Natalie Merchant many years ago, though I will be calling it "rap" here because there is less typing that way), you probably have the following images:

  • Large-breasted, large-bottomed women dancing shaking their large breasts and bottoms.
  • Lots of gold teeth.
  • Large cars.
  • Matching white suits.
  • Guns.
  • Fish-eye lenses and weird camera angles.
  • Gobs of jewelry.
  • Fancy people drinking champagne.
  • Slow motion.
  • Lyrics about big breasts, cars, guns, money, big bottoms and drinking champagne (or "Cris").
  • Lyrics that don't make any sense or are untelligible.

But you're wrong!

You, Cletus and Clementine Q. American, have been sold a fraud. Yes, most rap sucks, of course. But most of any musical genre sucks too. We only get what they give us. It's nearly impossible to find good music in the current musical climate, for a couple of reasons:

  1. MTV and radio are garbage and will only play the same crap over and over instead of rotating different artists and/or songs.
  2. The record industry punishes oddball and niche artists by trying to get them to become more mainstream (it's happened to every major musical artist since the dawn of time, look it up).
  3. Music media latches onto certain artists and promotes them. (I like Spin magazine, but how many times can they mention Dashboard Confessional, Interpol, the Killers, the Libertines, Death Cab for Cutie, etc., etc., etc before I'm starting to wonder if this is new-Millennial payola.)

So rap, when you look at it in the grand scheme of things, is hardly in a different category. I think it gets a bad ... uh... reputation because it separates itself from other musical genres more easily than many rock acts. For example, few would say that someone like Iggy Pop is typical of rock music, because he is but one facet of the large, diverse rock pantheon. But even a learned music listener may discern that Li'l John is typical of the average rap act, which is just not true.

I'm not saying that you should like rap music. In fact, one of my great maddening pet peeves of music criticism is the way that mainstream (usually white) music journalists give rap -- even obviously shitty rap -- a free pass. Maybe it's a desire to seem more "credible," or just more open-minded to the rap-listening contingent (or maybe it's just a ploy so as not to get shot by Fiddy Cent), but it's sickening that no rap album gets less than a "B-" or a "6/10" in any mainstream music magazine. Are you seriously telling me that some Ying-Yang Twins album is a "B+"? I'll slap you in the mouth!

If you want to hate rap, please feel free. But know what you're hating. Just as one would scoff at putting, say, Nickelback in the same realm as, say, U2, don't put Eminem in the same category as Aesop Rock. (And if you even have any clue who Aesop Rock is, I'm already seriously impressed.) All rap is not the same.

Let's debunk four main myths about rap music together, shall we?


This contention has always amused me. People who say this have clearly not heard any rap since 1986. Gone, dear friends, are the days of one hollow drumbeat and a simplistic rhyme scheme. Condolences. Nearly every modern hip hop song uses some kind of musical accompaniment, be it a sample of another song or some godawful synth. Again, feel free to hate it, just know what you're hating.

Is it not music because there is no singing? Look at any kind of instrumental music, like jazz or techno. There is often no singing there, and hardly anyone could categorize it as non-musical.

Is it because there is sometimes no melody? Listen to the song "Shotgun" from Jr. Walker & the All-Stars sometime. Find the melody for me. What you are hearing (and what is so great about the song) is the groove, with a jazzy saxophone riff. Music is not always about melody, sometimes it's about a pulse. (Please note that I have no knowledge of musical terminology or nomenclature, so you will often find me not quite able to say what I'm saying.)

Find me one song in rap music that is not "musical" in one way or another. You can't do it.


You are probably thinking of a lesser rap artist such as Sean "Puffy" Combs (I'll just stick with his first name from a decade ago rather than play along with his pathetic ever-changing persona) or another such artist who would simply take a small snippet of a popular and obvious song (usually from the disco-era, but not always) and loop the instrumental over and over so the song essentially became a remake, not a rap song.

Look no further than "Puffy" himself, and his versions of "Every Breath You Take", "Kashmir", "I'm Comin' Out", "Been Around the World", etc, all in his off-key sing-song style. You can hate this if you want. I hate this. This is stealing.

But most rap music does not perpetuate "Puffy"'s propensity toward plagiarism. Most rap music does sample, yes, but with a few key differences. Firstly, "good" rap (for lack of a better term) uses obscure songs, ones that you won't hear on some K-Tel retrospective. Most great rap songs use samples from jazz or soul, mostly before 1975. And often, the samples are no more than 3-5 second, non-chorus parts of a song that are repeated. (These are called "break-beats," but I won't get into it here.)

The best artists not only find the most obscure musical samples (a good crate-digger won't even have to cite the source of the clip), but often fashion the sound in a way by which even someone who has heard the song will not recognize where it came from. It is the manipulation of one or several sounds to create a brand new composition, usually having no sonic similarity to the original.

This is a far cry from the wholesale hijacking of pop music that "Puffy" and the like have been trafficking in since the mid-'90s. Hate "Puffy" if you like, don't hate sampling.


This myth comes from the fact that the popular rap music right now is the "club" rap music, like Nelly, 50 Cent, Li'l John and all that other Crunk shit. When young people are in a club, they tend to have sex on their minds, and therefore they listen to the music that makes them feel sexier. What better way to make people feel sexy than to constantly talk about sex? This is why "Hot in Herre" was such a hit: it threw out all subtext and actually had the lyric, "It's getting hot in here / so take off all your clothes." And who says romance is dead?

But it's not just sex. Indeed, violence and materialism also run rampant. Much talk of guns, jewels, cars, money, sex, etc. But you know what? You will probably find that in any Motley Crue video too.

When people satirize rap, or try to illustrate the stereotypes associated with it, they still say things like "bust a cap in your ass" or some such thing. Again, hate to tell you, but the phrase "bust a cap" probably hasn't been used in a legit rap song in 10 years. And no one calls each other "G" either.

The truth is, there is much rap music out there that does not fall into the traps of negativity. Now most rap is not kittens and clowns, but there is much of the genre that does not fall into hedonism. There is, believe it or not, creativity to much of it. And there is a breadth of subject matter the further you go underground.


This is the most insane argument of all.

I want you go to and write a rap song. Make it three verses, and make it good. It's much much harder than you think. It takes talent.

Is it because they don't sing? How is being able to sing a talent, really? Isn't it more than a gift. Some people are not born with a good singing voice, but it doesn't mean they shouldn't try to make good music. Some good singers have bad voices, but still make great songs.

Is it because they don't play instruments? Mariah, Whitney, Celine and all the rest don't play instruments to my knowledge, and most don't even write their own songs. But they are never called "untalented."

There are many rap artists out there who have made it without talent, but there are musicians in every genre who have done the same. Don't hate the game, hate the players.

I'm not trying to get you to like rap, in fact I hate most of it myself. I know it would be a futile attempt anyway. I know, for example, that no amount of persuasion could make me like country music, a genre that I detest almost as much as I detest Oprah. But I know that there is some good country (or country-ish) music out there that I actually like, like Johnny Cash and, well, some others I can't think of right now. But I know what I hate, which is pretty much any country music made in the last 20 years.

And knowing is half the battle...

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