[I edited this piece on 27/01/2016 to make a stronger start by moving some stuff to the end.]
Today I want to focus on an idea from my first post. I claimed that Gang Starr’s 1993 hip hop track “The Planet” celebrates the process of making music and developing skills. This idea of an African-American “processual” aesthetic stayed in my head. Recently I realised what it was missing: how respect for creative work applies to creative work happening right now – in the moment and “in time” to the beat.
Hip hop and jazz and jazz both value a performer opening their imagination and voicing ideas while staying cool (represented by controlled time feel and timbre). In jazz this is called spontaneous composition. Although rap is usually much less free than jazz soloing, it nonetheless privileges the idea of improvisation. Many features of rap are clearly improvisers’ techniques: routines and cliches which give the rapper time to think, repeating of words or lines as if correcting a mistake, and free, intuitive association of thoughts or sounds.
I believe that hip hop values in particular the willed act of in-the-moment creative expression. This is clear in the spoken introductions prefacing so many classic tracks. They are a ritual hyping up of the upcoming creative act. For example…
Burnt Batch’s “Artform” features a beautiful spoken intro and outro that lays out the song’s purpose: to “explain this artform of hip hop”.
It invokes two qualities of virtuosic improvisation: transportive/visionary power, “take me on another journey”, and unexpected switches of scale, “in a twisted world where everything is in the palm of your hand”. The speaker’s voice creates a great vibe by using the pitching, although not the strict rhythm, of rap. Still, his timing is very intentional, as in the hesitant “You know what I mean it’s like… takin’ a trip… you ain’t comin’ back” finishing right before the bass-heavy beat enters with a snare drop and a sublime laid-back kick on the downbeat at 0:24. It’s a lovely build-up.
These intros represent and stylise the social function of cheering on the performer. This is a facet of call-and-response, an archetypal feature of African and African-American music. A clear example of that is the chorus chant in Freestyle Fellowship’s “Cornbread”.
T-Spoon Iodine calls out “Aceyalone I hear ya” to the main performer, reacting and spurring him on. By the way, this brilliant rap has many indicators of improvisation – free association, leaps of imagination, playing with sounds, filler lines, etc. – whether or not it was spontaneous.
Big L, in this radio performance, claims that he is improvising “I don’t know how I’ma do this” even though the actual rap is pre-written. It’s just one of a few stock phrases he uses to build up to his rap – and a good demonstration of the idea of improv in hip hop.
His tone of voice and even facial expression change when he switches to full-on rapping. This mental transition, and the “here it comes” feeling, are integral parts of the performance – as are the exclamations and contributions of the others in the studio. I believe that in this aesthetic, there is a unification of intention, invention, utterance and audience reaction. There is no word in standard English that covers all of these (“expounding” and “holding forth” have no connotation of creativity) – but later we’ll see what terms rappers themselves have used.
Let’s not forget that I’m looking at a little slice of music history here. Actually, I should put my hand up and say first of all that categorising and defining aspects of black music that I only know from records puts me at risk of making the similar mistakes, and perpetuating the same racialised dynamics, that plagued many white blues/jazz commentators. I try stay aware of that!
Anyway, my point was that these techniques have a different meaning today than in the mid-90s, because they’ve been assimilated into mass culture. The chorus of Jurassic 5’s pleasant but backwards-looking “What’s Golden” (2002) uses a typical crowd-interaction/call-and-response chant as a convenient stand-in for classic hip hop: “We’re taking it back to yes-y’allin’“. What was a behaviour becomes more like a sign.
And I should also make clear that these African-derived techniques have become transplanted into other cultures. For instance I saw an all-white, all-European jazz band in JJ Smyth’s last week that made exuberant use of call-and-response, when drummer Eric Ineke punctuated bassist Ronan Guilfoyle‘s solo phrases with detailed rhythmic comments.
So with that said, and having looked at the hyping introductions, let’s examine celebration of improvisational thinking in the actual lyrics. I isolated two types of tropes: metaphorical descriptions of the in-the-moment creative act; and mind-blowing imaginative leaps. The metaphors celebrate improv with heroic comparisons, while the flights of fancy celebrate it by demonstrating mastery of it.
There are a huge number of metaphors for rapping. One important type is physical metaphors, most obviously of violence. “I’ma hit ya with the blow of death” from Rakim’s “Microphone Fiend”, or “I wake you with hundreds of thousands of volts” from Rakim’s “Lyrics of Fury”. Rap may be viewed as a “slang blade” (Binary Star, “Slang Blade”) or a “rappin’ sword” (EPMD, “You Gots To Chill”), or a gun, “be prepared for the mental head shots” (Company Flow, “Vital Nerve”). Also physically-derived are the many verbs used for the intentional creative act I’ve been discussing: bust, kick it, flip shit, flow, hit, drop…
One rapper was a master of these verbs and he is Guru of Gang Starr. It’s no coincidence that he popularised jazz-rap and collaborated with top jazz players: he obviously prioritised the aesthetic of spontaneous composition. Check out the incredible amount of terms for the creative act in his early track, “Manifest”:
I select a clear message
I go for glory
I narrate, relate and equate, dictate and debate
I’m kickin’ clout
Right about to spin it
I impress upon you
Let me uplift and shift my gift
To ignite, excite and delight
I’m about to let off
I give you lyrics to live to
Guru was also conscious of the effect of using all these words in the first-person present tense: to say “I speak” is to prove the truth of the words, collapsing the distance between word and reality. Guru intentionally played with truth and “realness”, I think.
Another class of metaphors are those about unleashing, or threatening to unleash, hidden energy – an essential component of black cool, Questlove claims.
“Wanna rhyme one time, to release the steam”
“Because I float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”
“My rhymes are hungry plus they haven’t been fed” – “You’re A Customer” – EPMD
“I come in peace to release the effect of my voice” – 2 Deep – Gang Starr, Step In The Arena (holy shit that is such a good line it gives me goosebumps… check it out in context, it’s at around 2:47)
“Grab the microphone and let your words rip” – “Check The Rhyme” – A Tribe Called Quest
“Your optics will not be able to detect/The deadly hypnotical gases” – “Releasing Hypnotical Gases” – Organized Konfusion
Releasing hidden energy isn’t a common trope, but it’s important to me because it crops up in a few of my absolute top-rated tracks. For instance, this line by Pharoah Monche of Organized Konfusion, comparing his rapping to a volcano, is one of the heaviest I’ve ever encountered.
“…I strike/Sight beyond sight, sound beyond sound/Which comes from below the magma, the granite, the ground/The surface will separate, dispersing harmful ashes”
(Notice the utterly virtuosic shift of perspective in one line from deep in the earth to where the listener stands on top of it, and the tricky switch-up – like a fighter or dancer’s – of the phrasing “Which comes from”, prepared by the abstraction of the previous line.) That, and the first line of his verse, “I am the one who is one with all things”, are powerful expressions of what Amiri Baraka called “the classic African sensibility… everything that exists… is part of, connected as, the same thing”.
These head-melting shifts of location, context and/or scale are a trope too: agility of imagination. E.g. Gang Starr’s “Comin’ for Datazz”:
“True indeed I believe in taking my words’ power/Across the seas and deserts through the trees and grass, and if you ain’t on point then we coming for that ass”
Just like Monche, Guru creates a progression of locations homing in on the listener. This tricky thought switches context from foreign lands and oceans to the here and now. Nas pulls a similar stunt in his classic “N.Y. State Of Mind”: “Don’t put me in your box if your shit eats tapes”, bringing the message home to the listener’s cassette player.
So what kind of conclusion can we draw from surveying these tropes and aesthetic tendencies? Well, I’m reminded of a thing Vijay Iyer said in the Banff International Workshop in Jazz & Creative Music in 2012: Great Black Music contains within itself the codes for transformation: of yourself, your community, and your surroundings.
Transformation of everyday situations by manifesting a rhyme happens to be the final hip hop trope I want to mention.
“Rhymes attract the crowd once I got em down pat” – “Slave To My Soundwave”, Lord Finesse
“When I rock street kids rejoice” – “Mostly The Voice” – Gang Starr
What I’ve picked up from thinking through all this, is a view of creativity as a social act of generosity and courage – bringing joy to a situation by unleashing, and trusting in, subconscious powers. Two kinds of discipline are involved: the woodshedding discipline of internalising patterns that can be used later in the moment; and the performance discipline of trusting in imagination and controlling sound and time feel, which comes down to being connected to your body and to the present moment.
I hope you enjoyed the read and that you picked up some new ways to listen to rap lyrics and improvise, and to think about creativity. Please comment!
[Here are two paragraphs that were originally at the start of the piece, about the politics of technology.]
Writing comments is unpaid labour, or so it was suggested on The Quietus yesterday. Is blogging similarly a donation of work to corporations monetising ad clicks? Do they deserve it for the services they provide?
I guess it comes down to whether you broadly agree with the way our technological world has gone. From a musician’s perspective, the internet reduced investment in recorded music. In return it’s given us free music to listen to, which can be handy. Vijay Iyer hopes that the spontaneous emergence of deeply organised structures from apparent disorder is the future of music. But honestly, I haven’t seen this yet on the internet – though I appreciate how Youtube, Google Drive and Facebook let me swap musical ideas with bandmates.