Check Out My Melody: How To Listen To Rap, Chapter 1
We all know those people.
It could be anyone: your friends, your family, random strangers on the street.
Could be the bus driver who gives you a look as you get off at your stop, playing your mp3 player just a little too loudly for her taste.
Could be your parents, who talk about the songs and bands from their younger days as if the time was a Golden Age for the entire art of music.
Could even be your classmates who talk about “real” music, with “melodies” and “chords”, as if they could even define what those words actually mean if asked to do so.
We all know those people. They’re people who just don’t get it.
“Can you believe all the disgusting things rappers talk about?”
“It’s just a bunch of no-talent gangstas who found a mic and put a bunch of random loops together until they had a song.”
“Rappers are sexist, racist, homophobic bigots who don’t know a thing about music.”
It is useless to try and refute any of those criticisms. Not because it can’t be done, but because their criticisms betray such a misguided understanding of rap, and music more generally, that they have already defined the argument so that rap will always appear devoid of any and all value. In a way, these people cannot be blamed. You hope that they would take some time to actually get to know the genre, but such an approach is not often found today in our 142-character world. Besides, it is not often nowadays that a person comes into contact with an entity, especially an art form, as devastatingly honest as rap music is, in every sense of the term. When one of the most celebrated pieces of music in the 20th century is five minutes of silence, where can someone go to hear the reflection of deeper thoughts that the listener by themselves could not put into words?
Do you know why Eminem has a song, “Kim”, a murder fantasy of killing his wife that ends with him screaming, “Bleed, b*tch, bleed!”, while his real life daughter cries in the background?
Why Nas casually raps about a ghetto shoot-out against a rival gang on the song “Represent”, from his album “Illmatic”?
Why Notorious B.I.G. describes the rules that every drug dealer should follow to become successful, on his song “Ten Crack Commandments”?
Because that crap actually happens. Yes, in real life. Yes, in our neighborhoods, our cities, our schools. Rap has the audacity to talk about such difficult topics because of its counter-culture origins. For every violent rap song like those just described, there are even more songs like Eminem’s “Mockingbird”, where he apologizes to his daughter for everything his career has put her through. There are songs like Nas’ “Thugz Mansion”, where he imagines a heaven with no ghetto violence, or Notorious B.I.G.’s song ”Juicy”, where he describes how he had to deal drugs just to feed his daughter. And instead of receiving credit for starting a conversation about a multitude of hot-button issues, rap gets blamed for making these issues worse in the first place by daring to talk about it openly.
It is a myriad of factors that leads rap to become part of the national debate every time a new moral panic breaks out. Rap, because of its ubiquity, devastating breadth of variety, and unique demographic origins, has now become a mirror in which the beholder sees whatever contemporary crises they think deserve the most attention.
The sexual revolution.
The urbanization of today’s youth.
Rising violent crime rates.
It’s hard to recall any electronic dance, jazz, folk, pop, or classical pieces from the era that dealt with major social problems in such a direct way. And yet politicians blame musicians like Eminem for creating a “culture of violence”. Such criticisms miss the point, because it critiques a version of rap that simply doesn’t exist. If we took every rapper’s word for how many people they’ve killed, there wouldn’t be a single human being left on the planet. Eminem didn’t actually kill his wife. Nas never actually shot anyone. They expressed the powerful, darker side of their emotions in public yet safe ways, in ways one hopes that more people would adopt instead of actually picking up a gun. If Eminem and Nas had really committed those crimes, they would not get on a microphone and then brag about it. Rappers are largely the only pop artists to not only adapt completely new names for their work but also completely new personas, with histories and everything, that often have nothing to do with their previous life in the real world. They adapt these personas to such extents that they are even called these names in conversation by their friends, family, and new acquaintances, as if there was no Curtis Jackson before 50 Cent, or at the least, Curtis Jackson is simply another persona for the same rapper.
And so critics deal with an imagined version of rap that is made up of only text and words, or, if the critic happens to be somewhat attuned to the changing tides of modern literary criticism, modern-day poetry (Heaven forbid!) As we shall see though, that is only half of the rap equation. More than just text, rap is the rhythms that the rapper speaks on the mic. More specifically, rap is the rhythmic structure that arises from the interaction between a rapper’s words and the strictly musical rhythms of those words as he or she says them.
And the perception of that rhythmic structure is exactly what this book will teach you.
Because if all you hear when you listen to the opening of Busta Rhymes song “Holla” is, “Team select, please collect, Gs connect these niggas direct with trees to the smoke fest,” well then a criticism of stupid subject topics in rap would be completely valid. But if instead you hear, “team seLECT / please COLLect / Gs connect / THESE niggas DIRect with TREES…to the SMOKE fest,” where all of the words are separated into different groups simultaneously by italics (rhymes on “team”), underlines (rhymes on “select”), capitalized letters (the underlying beat of the song), and slashes (the grammatical phrasing), you start to understand why rap is both a poetic AND musical phenomenon. And you will understand why the rapper’s words only make sense in the context of the rhythms, not the other way around.
This book will begin by giving you all of the tools you need in order to follow along to a rapper’s rhythms in a song. We’ll then describe the 5 major factors that altogether are able to quantitatively describe a rapper’s flow. There will then be some case studies of different famous rappers, like Eminem, Nas, Kanye, and some more underground ones like Jean Grae and Talib Kweli as case studies that will put our newly gained vocabulary into use. After that, we’ll finish up with some extensions of this system in order to describe more unique instances of flow, and the perception of rap in general.
So sit back, and prepare to show all those people just how wrong they are.