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Is Rap Music?

Those of you who are, as I am, regular listeners of the Need to Know with Mona Charen and Jay Nordlinger podcast will recently have heard Mark Steyn inveighing against rap music. “I do have a big problem with [rap], in that I think there’s an absence of human feeling in these songs,” Steyn said. “It’s not just that they’re explicit… the idea that rap is the authentic expression of black identity, which is what a lot of these people — the idea that Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald … the idea that any of these authentic black musicians would’ve thought that some guy doing some pneumatic laundry list of his hos is any kind of authentic expression of black culture or black identity is outrageous. Those guys wouldn’t have been on board for that.”

That may well be true, and for all I know, Mona’s right that rap portends the decline of Western civilization. (Whether it does or doesn’t, the certainty and regularity with which those kinds of sentiments are expressed by our side has inspired some commentary. Conor Friedersdorf, writing in The Atlantic, suggests that the refusal of many conservatives to engage with popular culture sufficiently to construct an informed opinion about it, while not hesitating to form an opinion anyway, will forever peg us as judgmental, out-of-touch sticks in the mud. But that’s a subject for another post.)

My question is more basic. Setting aside the problem of lyrical content, is rap or is rap not music?

Jay Nordlinger, who is an expert on classical music, seemed interested in the same question during the podcast. When Steyn first addressed the absence of human feeling in rap, Nordlinger said, “Of melody, of harmony? Of the fundamental elements of music…?” suggesting that to his mind, human feeling is conveyed by the mechanics of music as much as by the words that are spoken. (That argument would seem to be bolstered by an example like, say, Barber’s Adagio for Strings, which I’d imagine even Snoop Dogg can’t listen to without emotion. It applies, indeed, to the vast universe of classical music and other music without lyrics.)

That’s not quite the question Steyn answered, though. He interpreted the question as referring not to those mechanics, but to fundamental emotions and terms of human interaction — the “fundamental things” that apply in As Time Goes By. Few would deny that those fundamentals  are in short supply in most of the rap oeuvre. But the original question remains: is this stuff music or isn’t it? What is music anyway?

In the piece cited above, Friedersdorf links to an interesting comment made on the subject by Jason Lee Steorts of National Review. He writes, 

I don’t know rap well, but I have heard harmonic progressions in it that are more complex than the arrangements of root-position I, II, IV, V, and VI on which so many pop and rock songs are built — not to mention raps that involve choruses, duets between the rapper and a singer, etc. I think resistance to calling it “music” is based mainly on the fact that rappers speak rather than sing; but we call Peter and the Wolf “music” despite its narrator, Wozzeck and Moses und Aron “music” despite their Sprechstimme, and so on.

Now we’re getting to it.

Musical Ricochetti, where do you come down on this? Factoring out the language and the woman-loathing, is there anything musically redeeming about rap? Is rap any more or less musical than, say, thrash metal, and is it more or less of an assault on the whole idea of music? Is it a denial of music? Are the rhythms in any way groundbreaking in musical terms? Is spoken music still music?

In short: is this stuff music or noise?

  1. iWc

    Sound can speak to the body, or to the soul.

    Rap, Hip-Hop, and many other pounding kinds of dance music connect directly wth the body. It is effective, but it does not elevate. On the contrary: it is crass and debasing – think of Beyonce’s halftime show.

    Ethereal and “Eastern” music is essentially rhythmless, and connects to the soul – but does ot bring the body along for the ride, since there is nothing there for the body to recognize. It is no accident that Eastern religions believe in separating the soul from the body. Gregorian chants are in this same category.

    Classical (and IMO religious) music at its best is a fusion. It has enough of a beat to bond with the body, and enough melody to harness the soul. And the net result is that one is elevated by listening to beautiful music of this kind.

    The net result of ethereal music is a disconnect from the body. And the net result of rap music is bumping and grinding.

  2. Caleb J. Jones

    I can’t find the exact quote now but no less an authority on [musical] things African-American/Afro-American/Black than Ray Charles opined that “rap” was neither new nor innovative; that it had been tried and left aside by him and others. While there is something appealing about the primitive beat of rap the first two or three times, it is, nevertheless, ultimately boring and banal; “music” barely on the level of sophistication of nursery rhymes. And the lyrics seem to be a contest to see who can scandalize his or her mother the most.

  3. Foxman

    I cannot stand it myself, even if I ignore the lyrics, but it seems to me that my parents made the same charge regarding Rock & Roll.  One hundred years ago some said that Jazz, one of the great American art forms, was not really music.

  4. Tommy De Seno
    C

    It’s music.

    Once again Black people have been involved at the genesis of another form of musical art in America (see also gospel, R&B, rock n roll and jazz).

    This time though the contribution to lyrical expression is disappointing.  Way back when I was in high school and it started to mainstream, I thought rap was going to be good.  Then every song became about the rapper – “I’m the greatest, you’re a sucka.”  Blame Muhammad Ali.  

    In jazz Miles Davis was the greatest, but I can’t imagine him involved in a song proclaiming it.  Same for Aretha Franklin.

    As for the music, when it’s original it’s creative.  Rock n Roll is music, but as a dear friend who was a songwriter used to say it’s “3 chord ignorant music.”  But those little hooks grab us and drive us and that’s art.  Rap does the same to those who enjoy it.

    The persona of the typical rapper is an act.  Fear not.  They don’t do what they sing.  They aren’t that scary.

    Ice Cube now stars in children’s movies and Ice Tea plays a cop on TV.

  5. Stephen Dawson

    The constituent elements of music are melody, harmony, rhythm and texture. Rap tends to relegate melody to relative unimportance, raising rhythm in its place. How can you say that isn’t music?

    Consider much of the so-called ‘serious’ music of the second half of the Twentieth Century. Or even earlier. Schoenberg also eliminated melody, at least in a recognisable form. A budding genius such as Webern fell under his sway and we can now at best glimpse hints of his potential under the aimless, formless mess that resulted. John Cage wrote a piece consisting of nothing but silence. I have a CD of harpsichord pieces in which the 17th and 20th centuries are alternated. Anyone can listen to the joyous works of the former, but few to the incomprehensible mess of the latter.

    My preference in rap is for early Eminem. Imagine: you’re brought up in a milieu in which certain language is part of the regular discourse. So you use it.

    Normally in song the voice combines textual meaning and melody. In rap it combines textual meaning and rhythm. Eminem is a master at this. But we conservative are, obviously, uncomfortable with the words he uses.

  6. Percival

    Rap is bad poetry recited in front of a drum machine.

  7. Scott Abel (formerly EstoniaKat)
    Percival: Rap is bad poetry recited in front of a drum machine. · 20 minutes ago

    There’s a lot of bad rap, but that’s true for poetry as well.

    But, although rap isn’t my cup of tea generally, I can appreciate it as a musical art form.

    The Beastie Boys, for example, have been around for more than 20 years, and their music has changed and improved. Their latest album is on my pod, and yeah, there’s some good art AND music there.

  8. outstripp

    I think, thanks to welfare, a certain percentage of the black community has regressed to the West African mean.

  9. MMPadre
    Tommy De Seno: It’s music.

    Once again Black America has been involved at the genesis of another form of musical art in America (see also gospel, R&B, rock n roll and jazz).

    This time though the contribution to lyrical expression is disappointing.  Way back when I was in high school and it started to mainstream, I thought rap was going to be good.  Then every song became about the rapper – “I’m the greatest, you’re a sucka.”  Blame Muhammad Ali.  

    In jazz Miles Davis was the greatest, but I can’t imagine him involved in a song proclaiming it.  Same for Aretha Franklin.

    As for the music, when it’s original it’s creative.  Rock n Roll is music, but as a dear friend who was a songwriter used to say it’s “3 chord ignorant music.”  But those little hooks grab us and drive us and that’s art.  Rap does the same to those who enjoy it.

    Edited 1 hour ago

    This is somewhat akin to Mark Twain’s observation that “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.”  With the notable exception that Twain was trying to be funny. 

  10. Pseudodionysius

    Rap is oral poetry and should be judged against Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey and American jazz. By that measure I agree with the comment by Ray Charles. 

    Personally, I’d force all aspiring rap artists — under threat of waterboarding and doing phone bank calls for Biden 2016 — to watch Finding Forrester. Rinse, lather, repeat.

  11. Songwriter

    In every genre of music, there ranges compositions from the highest quality down to the absolute lowest. Given time, the good music tends to survive, thus supporting Thomas Sowell’s theory that the people, as a whole, are smarter than the average bear. Conversely, even the most popular dreck (think “The Macarena”) tends to eventually wither away. The same will be true of hip hop music. One hundred years from now, music historians will write about the brilliance of a certain few rap artists. In the meantime, those of us who don’t care for the form will have to endure it, since it is ubiquitous.

  12. Scott Abel (formerly EstoniaKat)

    And I will add that rap is a global phenomenon, has been for many years, and as such, has changed and evolved.

    For example, one of the most popular songs right now in Estonia is from a group called Põhja-Tallinn, just some rappers from the northern part of the city. They combined their talents with a girl’s choir and created a little tune that is actually quite haunting. I won’t translate the entire thing, but the chorus is “sometimes we look to the sky because we don’t know how much time we have left”.

    Rap music isn’t just one thing, and hasn’t been for awhile.

  13. Pseudodionysius
    Percival: Rap is bad poetry recited in front of a drum machine. · 31 minutes ago

    I’ve followed local news stories about sexual assaults and rapes and a frequent note by the journalist is “while loud rap music was blaring from speakers in the house”.

    I don’t mean to be churlish, but I don’t think there’s a great number of Chopin inspired sexual assaults on the police blotter these days, though I defer to Jack Dunphy.

  14. Foxman
    Pseudodionysius

    Percival: Rap is bad poetry recited in front of a drum machine. · 31 minutes ago

    I’ve followed local news stories about sexual assaults and rapes and a frequent note by the journalist is “while loud rap music was blaring from speakers in the house”.

    I don’t mean to be churlish, but I don’t think there’s a great number of Chopin inspired sexual assaults on the police blotter these days, though I defer to Jack Dunphy. · 0 minutes ago

    Sigh… Do I need to quote the same things being said about Rock & Roll 50 years ago?

  15. Matthew Hennessey
    C

    So many great comments here. I would only add that the fundamental things do apply if you consider that there’s no accounting for taste.

    Friedersdorf is young, so he thinks that the culture of the moment–even if rap’s moment has been going on rather longer than moments usually do–is likely to remain relevant 25, 40, or 100 years into the future. Ragtime was a big deal a century ago, not so much these days (although its influence surely lives on). The point is: Steyn and Nordlinger (and conservatives generally) are wrong to despair. Cream rises. Also, my guess is that Friedersdorf has formed opinions on a great many things that he knows next to nothing about, so his advice to conservatives in this regard is not terribly useful.

    No one will thank us for or for ensuring that the fundamental things survive the relentless onslaught of “history.”

    So just get up on it and yell “Stop,” yo.

    I’m out.

  16. Tony Martyr

    It’s music – no question. If Om (Gregorian Stoner Metal) is music, then Eminem, Gang Starr, Eric B & Rakim, etc must make the grade.

  17. Pseudodionysius
    Foxman

    Pseudodionysius

    Percival: Rap is bad poetry recited in front of a drum machine. · 31 minutes ago

    I’ve followed local news stories about sexual assaults and rapes and a frequent note by the journalist is “while loud rap music was blaring from speakers in the house”.

    I don’t mean to be churlish, but I don’t think there’s a great number of Chopin inspired sexual assaults on the police blotter these days, though I defer to Jack Dunphy. · 0 minutes ago

    Sigh… Do I need to quote the same things being said about Rock & Roll 50 years ago? · 12 minutes ago

    Have you watched a rap music video lately?

  18. Mollie Hemingway
    C

    Bad rap is worse than bad examples from any other kind of music. But there is very good rap and it’s worth getting into (if you can deal with the language, etc.). It’s a great way to explore life’s troubles. Jean Grae’s work may not abide by our Code of Conduct, but I love her rhymes — very complicated with a nice syncopated rhythm. Erykah Badu, Common and the Roots in general — very nice. Lauryn Hill’s Miseducation is one of my favorite albums ever. The Fugees as well.

    Actually, as I’m thinking of all the rap I like, I have to admit I’m totally on the other side of this battle. Music is the combining of sounds to produce beauty of form, harmony, and expression of emotion. Obviously it has the emotion, form and chords — and what’s created can be beautiful (or not). Sometimes it has more of these than other forms of music we never question.

    Tribe Called Quest? Anyone? That stuff is great! Or what about funnier guys? Doug E. Fresh, Biz Markie?  Now I’m getting all sentimental about rap and will include this first rap anthem:

  19. Foxman
    Pseudodionysius

    Foxman

    Pseudodionysius

    Percival: Rap is bad poetry recited in front of a drum machine. · 31 minutes ago

    I’ve followed local news stories about sexual assaults and rapes and a frequent note by the journalist is “while loud rap music was blaring from speakers in the house”.

    I don’t mean to be churlish, but I don’t think there’s a great number of Chopin inspired sexual assaults on the police blotter these days, though I defer to Jack Dunphy. · 0 minutes ago

    Sigh… Do I need to quote the same things being said about Rock & Roll 50 years ago? · 12 minutes ago

    Have you watched a rap music video lately? · 21 minutes ago

    No, and I don’t intend to.  Nobody would call what I do with a camera art.  That does not mean that photography is not art.  Just because some, or even most, of the “artists” are turning out trash does not mean it is not an art form.

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