Wow. My previous post somehow managed to elicit a few fairly incendiary comments regarding rap music: so I think we’d better have this discussion now. Let’s keep it civil, and aim to have as our ultimate goal the promotion of a greater awareness of all the amazingly great rap and hip hop music that’s out there.
Ok. One listener wrote “I can’t figure out for the life of me why rap is considered music”; another made the rather extraordinary claim that “…rap music is non-music and it is forced on the media to reach kids to pull them into the gansta, dope dealing, guns and prostitution junk while as they depict their lifstyle as the high life.”
This idea that rap somehow “isn’t music,” is pretty prevalent, so let’s check it out. Setting aside the minefields of class and culture and race and just keeping it to the music, I’ll just say that musically speaking the idea that rap is “not music” probably comes from the fairly obvious observation that (en masse and in very general terms) rap songs don’t have melodies in the same way that popular songs do. There are plenty of melodies in rap, and there is lots of great music as well; but the salient point here is to compare what there is in rap songs to what there is in the basic popular song.
Pop songs, folk songs, art songs, and even instrumental music are almost always built around a melody. In most rap, that focal role of the melody is replaced by the voice of the rapper, and by the words. Now it turns out that the vocal cadences of rapping do in fact have a whole music of their own (as do our own speaking voices), and it’s a music that is quite subtle and absolutely bursting with the kinds of deep human information that animate the strongest art. But, to the new listener, or to the listener who is accustomed to singing along with melodies, or who carries with them a certain idea of what music is and is not, it’s worth observing that the fundamental composition of most rap pieces is in fact a radical musical challenge.
As such, if someone were to say that they didn’t like rap in general because they listen to music primarily for melodies, then that would be at least a concrete musical argument.
Melody is not the only element in music, though, and those who would say that rap isn’t music should remember that. Technically speaking, there are at least four main elements to music, and they are pitch, dynamics, timbre, and duration aka rhythm. I mention this because, while music is literally impossible without rhythm (at least in the sense of rhythm as divisions within the general passage of time) it’s quite possible to have music without melody.
Moving on to the main dish in rap, the lyrics, I want to observe the way rap allows for what seems like a 360-degree freedom of language and concept that is quite hard to achieve within traditional song form. Raps can go anywhere, and they do, from references to the most ephemeral cultural wisps like Perez Hilton or Michael Jordan’s baseball career directly into a deep commentary on the systemic injustices of our economy, connecting them and playing off of them.
Also, good rap lyrics are full of the kind of ultra-rich sense information that songwriters cultivate and that animates all the best writing. The good stuff is very, very good writing.
As for the embodiment of aggression, which is often present in raps and is a focus of much criticism, I think there’s something we could all learn from there as well. Yes, there are expressions of anger in some rap music which are reprehensible and probably carry little or no real cultural value, but the presence of anger in the genre has other things to offer. Those feelings are a part of our human nature, and one of the great attractions of rap music is that it allows for a healthy, constructive and artistic expression of anger. A healthy relationship to anger can lead to positive things both in terms of society and also in one’s personal makeup; and the creative, uninhibited expression of personal pride and inner confidence is a great gift to lots of listeners who need to be reminded of their worth.
I will agree that rap hasn’t done itself any favors by also bringing out some of the most crass, violent, nihilistic, vapid, and just simply dull productions one can possibly imagine. In its defense (without defending bad rap), I’d just observe that rap music has been by far the most popular music in the world for let’s say the last ten or fifteen years, maybe longer. It’s been the main global popular music force, and there’s been a lot of it, for better and for worse.
And because of that very fact, I think all music lovers should see rap’s global popularity as a signal of its fundamental importance and worth; and therefore as an opportunity to learn something, to expand their tastes, and to connect with others out there in the larger world.
Essays and books have been written by better writers and thinkers that me on the subject, so here’s where I bail, but as I said before, let’s please keep this civil, and let’s post some examples of great rap that might help new listeners come to hear the power, vitality, and the beauty in the music.
it takes a nation of millions…