The first is something known as “playing behind the beat.” This means that a musician plays their notes slightly later than the actual felt beat of the music. It is a very small delay, though, so it doesn’t feel like a shorter duration length of note. Instead, it’s simply expressive. In rap, you have to have a very discerning ear to hear it, but a pretty clear example is Mos Def’s verse on “RE: Definition:”:
The most obvious one is at 2:10, on the “-ssem-“ syllable of “assemble it.” That syllable “-ssem-“ is still accented heavily, and it feelslike it’s on the beat, not syncopated like the word “did” back in his line “Like Moby Dick did Ahab.” But he’s actually way after it, to an almost startling extent.
This expressive delay also happens at 1:52, on the “sti” of “Palestinians”; The word “day”, at 2:00; The “syn” of “synonym” and the “fem” of “feminine”; and even others.
Compare this to a video of Miles Davis’ solo on “Freddie Freeloader”:
It has the notated music in the video. But, actually, that sheet music (note that it is Western music notation) is all wrong. Those notes that are written down don’t actually fall on the beat, as the notes indicate; they fall way after, as you can hear.
This is something African drumming music, and jazz, does a lot as well.
Another thing people will compare between rap and jazz or African drumming music is “polyrhythms.” But, just like jazz is being used to justify rap, “polyrhythms” isn’t really the right word, if they want to make the comparison such a commentator thinks they’re making. Polyrhythms is when more than one rhythm is being played at the same time, and since a rapper can only say one note (or word) at a time, it’s hard to see how they could ever make polyrhythms.
Instead, what I really think such commentators are alluding to is the fact that rappers can touch on many different metric divisions of the beat, all in a short span of time.
For instance, a polyrhythm, such as that from Western African drumming music, might be one where 1 drummer plays 3 notes in the same time duration during which another drummer plays 2 notes. This is what that sounds like:
And if rappers are using polyrhythms, they could, at most, only be switching between alluding to that level of 2 notes at a time, and alluding to that level of 3 notes at a time. But again, I’d maintain this isn’t a polyrhythm, but complex rhythmic subdivisions of the beat, since the rapper is only saying one note at a time. That is, they aren’t thinking bottom up (add 3 notes together, then 2 notes, etc.); they are thinking top down (divide the beat/bar however I want.) This doesn’t reflect how the rapper is consciously thinking at the time they are making their rap, but the different musical traditions they are working with (classical, which would be bottom up, vs. jazz/African traditions, which is top down.)
At a much more complex level, this is what Kweli is doing in that same notation from “RE: DEFinition” that we looked at last week. As a reminder, this is it:
You can hear that song here:
To help you understand those rhythms, I've isolated them and had them played back by a simple triangle:
For a while I have been notating rap rhythms exactly as they sound — behind the beat, all of these complex rhythmic subdivisions — while other people simplify them. When you simplify them into straight notes, you lose much of what I’m talking about: rapping behind the beat, displaced accents, complex subdivisions. But if you look at that notation from Kweli, you will see all of it. In order to see the complex subdivisions I’ve just been talking about, compare how many different note lengths there are. Sometimes this, (called a sixteenth note), as on the first instance of the word “is”:
Sometimes there is this other length of a note (called a dotted sixteenth note), as on the word “so”:
Sometimes there is still different length, that of the dotted 32nd note:
And still others. Again, you don’t need to be able to read music to get this; just see how many different note lengths there are, and how quickly Kweli changes between all of them. Compare this now to a zenith of Western music, the “Ode To Joy” melody from the final movement of Beethoven’s 9th’s symphony. This is the first 3 bars:
Unlike Kweli’s music, here, there is 1 length of notes: a quarter note. This is a great, physical example of the difference between Western music and African-influenced musics (like jazz or the blues.)