Hip-hop, You Saved Me

Hip-hop, You Saved Me

I have a confession to make: I love hip-hop. I love underground rap. I love turntablism. A few weeks ago I went to a Lupe Fiasco concert at the House of Blues Houston (for those of you didn’t get the reference, the title of this blog post comes from his song “Hip Hop Saved My Life”), where B.o.B. was the surprise opening act. Last week I went to see duo God-des and She at the Lips Lounge in El Paso. I love recognizing phrases from fJ5, QN5, Rhymesayers, Quannum Projects, A Piece of Strange, Invisible Scratch Pickles. You say “wu-tang” I say “killer bees on the swarm.” I’m working on putting together an all female DJ set featuring rappers from Jean Grae to NickiMinaj to Amanda Blank to Queen Latifah.

I’m not saying this simply to name-drop. For the past few years I’ve been trying to reconcile my love for hip-hop with my love for new music. The two are practically like oil and water, nearly impossible to mix. Hip-hop is almost entirely about repetition of a steady beat, which approximately 80% of the time will consist of a 4/4 time signature with snare hits on 2 and 4. If you sit down and transcribe the rhythms of your favorite hip-hop songs, generally you’ll end up bored and disillusioned. What sounds cool is never half as cool on paper. Sometimes I feel like there’s a switchboard in my brain and whenever I listen to new music I turn about five switches on and three switches off, but when I change to rap I turn off those five switches and on the other three.

I fully recognize I’m not the only one with this problem. One of my peers at Rice recently attempted a piece for full orchestra and rapper. Last week my composition professor recommended I check out Gene Pritsker and Sound Liberation. This past Wednesday there was a NewMusicBox article on beatboxer Shodekeh. And last semester Project Trio stopped by and played a show at the Shepherd School of Music. Then why should I be nervous, for example, about inviting a local rapper to join in on a composition of mine for a small chamber ensemble?

I’d like to hear your thoughts on hip-hop and new music. Do you see a possibility of them influencing each other in the near future, or is it best that they stay two separate worlds? Can you recommend any artists who you feel are breaking down the walls?

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9 thoughts on “Hip-hop, You Saved Me

  1. footholds

    DJ Spooky and DJ Olive are the first two that come to mind.

    I feel like a lot has been written about the whole notion of “sampling culture” that is so central to hip-hop, but your post raises the issue of its purely musical characteristics. Spooky’s remixes of Meredith Monk, Steve Reich, et al embrace the 4/4-ness of the genre and still demonstrate the creative potential within this rhythmic regularity.

    Lawton Hall

  2. pgblu

    I know very little about hip-hop and I’m not proud of that fact. All I’m here to contribute is encouragement — not to see this switch turning on and off thing as a problem. There is no grand unification theory of the brain. The needs that music serves (I should say “that musics serve”) are not monolithic. Your supposedly conflicting interests are not a problem but evidence that you’re simply paying attention.

  3. sgordon

    If you sit down and transcribe the rhythms of your favorite hip-hop songs, generally you’ll end up bored and disillusioned

    Don’t transcribe the rhythm of the beats – if you must transcribe something, transcribe the rhythm (and dynamics) of the vocals. Rap is primarily a lyrical art. The beats drive it, yeah, and creates a mood – but it’s all in service of the vocals. That’s what gets our attention, what we flow with. Some lyricists, sure, just follow the 4/4. But in a great rapper’s hands phrases will stretch across measures, rhymes and accents fall in unexpected places, the lyrics will dance around the beats without ever losing them, before resolving. Early Rakim is a great example – Follow The Leader has moments where the vocals float like a Joey Baron drum solo.

    As to instrumental hiphop / turntablism, that’s a different matter, but the rhythms and phrasing seem to be mostly influenced by vocal delivery. Depends on who’s doing the turntabling, obviously.

    DJ Spooky’s work I find terribly blah. It’s kind of like, “gee, he’s playing Wuorinen over an old Sly Dunbar beat” – “oh, now it’s Xenakis over Scorn” – it gets old after awhile. There isn’t much in terms of playing with structure, just layering stuff. DJ Olive I find far more interesting, though.

    As to blending hiphop and “new music” (whatever that is) – most classical “crossovers” with popular genres I find fall pretty flat, usually not working as either. Some of it might have to do with classical musicians being notoriously awkward at playing anything else. There are exceptions, of course, no need to list them – but as a general rule, someone who spent years in conservatory learning to play things exactly as written, as a musical cog in a larger machine, have a hard time “feeling” certain kinds of groove. I’m not saying they can’t play expressively – but it’s a different sort of expression. Christopher Parkening couldn’t play R&B funk guitar any better than Prince could play Vivaldi.

    I would say those that approach it from the other direction – making hiphop with more avant-garde elements, say, rather than making a “new music” piece with hiphop elements – tend to fare better. Probably because appropriation and collage are in the very nature of hiphop to begin with. The whole compositional process – at least originally, before there was so much New Jack R&B influence – was about taking assorted things apart and putting them back together in a ways that fit, making something new and funky out of anything from Stockhausen (Jeru The Damaja’s Come Clean) to Slayer (PE’s ‘She Watch Channel Zero?!)

  4. Lisa X

    I’ve been trying to reconcile my love for hip-hop with my love for new music.

    Don’t over think it, there is nothing to reconcile. You are just lucky enough to enjoy a variety of music.

  5. colin holter

    I feel you 100% on this one. It seems like an insoluble problem, doesn’t it? We want our aesthetic positions to be self-consistent, but that consistency seems to be confounded if we divide our attentions between contemporary concert music and hip-hop.

    My thinking is that the way out of this rabbit-hole might be by abandoning the “material” perspective. Rather than try to reconcile samples and beats with the available materials of contemporary music (which should, after all, be unlimited), perhaps hip-hop and new music can be seen as differing cultural practices: We know that the production of hip-hop serves certain socially constituted needs, and that new concert music usually tasks itself with responding to other, non-overlapping socially constituted needs. Clearly you recognize the legitimacy of the first set of needs but aren’t dedicating yourself to fulfilling them, and maybe that’s the problem you have to address in the music you write. Solve that riddle, and I will beat a path to your door. Good luck!

  6. Chris Becker

    Being in Houston, you might want to check out David Dove’s concert this Sunday “Improvised Music Under The Influence of DJ Screw” (link to the event below):


    …and check out Michael Veal’s revelatory book Dub. The roots of hip-hop music and what we might call “common practice” in contemporary popular music begin in Jamaica with the birth of dub music and its pioneering producers. The innovations of dub include compositional practices that unfolded in tandem with experiments in that country with available technology.

    An interview I did with Michael can be found on my blog here:


  7. philmusic

    Do you see a possibility of them influencing each other in the near future, or is it best that they stay two separate worlds?

    The only limit to art is the imagination.

    Go for it!

    Phil Fried who’s Phil’s Style-A-Matic 2000! might come in handy.

    Log in as a guest

  8. genepritsker

    hi Joelle,

    Its Gene Pritsker here, Frank mentioned that your professor recommended me so here are my thoughts:

    hip-hop, Just like any other musical genre or culture, has its beauty and its boring side. i have been listening to hip hop (and metal, jazz, rock etc) since I was a kid. It was natural for me to be influenced by all this music. If you transcribe Hip-hop its not as boring as you think, for instance the flow of the words do not really fit well onto a score, there is a lot of swing and between the beat rhythms happening that
    are pretty difficult to notate (you might get into Fernyhough territory here if you do it exact) just like jazz notation. usually when I notate this out I have to resort to use phrases in the score like “lay back” or ‘Swing”.

    But the sentiment of hip-hop, its repetitive nature, its focus on a ‘sweet spot’ loop (repeating a musical phrase that just sounds good over and over), its power and anger, and of course its rhythm these are the things that make me love it and make me want to expand it.

    I have looped Schoenberg, Wagner, Mozart, Bach etc, I have written complicated scores with simple groove hip-hop rhythms supporting it, with my band Sound Liberation we rap over various complex music. After a while I stopped noticing that I am mixing anything and I just write the music that I feel is missing in the world and I myself want to hear. There should be no apology for loving any type of music, the only apology anyone should be making is ignorance of any part of the large world of music that we have created.

    Keep listening, expanding and inovating

    – gene


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