What the Herd Heard

What the Herd Heard

One of the things that a recent debate confirmed for me is that there exists a group of very creative musicians who believe that rap music is devoid not only of melody and chord changes, but of socio-political messaging as well.

Written By

Ratzo B Harris

I was recently engaged in a discussion on a popular social networking message board that focused on whether or not rap music is primarily inclusive of messages of socio-political dissent. For obvious reasons, I won’t link to the board or reveal the identities of those who I debated, but I’m sure it will come as no surprise that it was I who argued that the socio-political messaging is there. I even went as far as to suggest that this messaging is similar to that found in the music of Woody Guthrie. I tried to invoke the research of Michael Eric Dyson on the subject, but he was pooh-poohed as “a member of a ‘non-underclass culture’” (a term I introduced earlier in the debate) who “may not be the best authority” on the subject. The debate, which is several days old now, has slowed considerably; not the least of the reasons being that I’m currently involved in the commendable (so I’m told) process of jury duty. One of the things that the debate confirmed for me, though, is that there exists a group of very creative musicians who believe that rap music is devoid not only of melody and chord changes, but of socio-political messaging as well.

I don’t think I can agree less with either thesis. Rap music and most hip-hop-based music uses bass lines, background riffs (often sampled from old jazz recordings), and melodic “hooks” that are inclusive of chord progressions as well as melodies. While I’m not very experienced in hip-hop culture, I’ve noticed that the bulk of the music is poetry backed by drum beats (often vocalized) and non-pitch specific “scratching” on vinyl LPs, and I keep hearing overarching tonal movement and structure that gives each song a subtly unique sonic identity. There are introductions that set up pitch centers (that might include microtonal relationships between sampled materials) and present non-textually inclusive melodic themes that recur, like Baroque ritornelli throughout a single work. The music is also loaded with culturally-specific coded messaging of socio-political dissent that incorporates anti-social themes, such as: gun-related violence, misogyny, irresponsible and perverse sexual behavior, and the overly conspicuous display of material goods or “bling.” Make no mistake, I do not condone the use of guns, murder, beating and/or humiliating woman, child pornography, or making the display of expensive items more important than feeding the hungry. But these themes are not specific to rap music. They are, however, traditionally part of the American Culture Machine’s output in movies, books, and television that has been shaping the minds and mores of generations.

Be that as it may, I have come to the conclusion that the difference in opinion between myself and “them” is that I listen to rap music differently than they do. Maybe it’s because, as a bass player—and, since the bass, along with drums, is the instrument primarily used to carry the identity of genre and subgenre in American music—I’m constantly analyzing the structure of music from cultures other than the one I grew up in (mostly classical, rock ‘n’ roll, and jazz). So I find myself paying attention to bass parts, and how they interact within a “rhythm section,” with an analytical ear long before I pay attention to textual messaging. This indicates to me that act of listening is related much more to one’s personal agenda than I had heretofore believed. The point was underlined for me by another essay that appeared earlier this week on NewMusicBox. While the essay’s author focused on the problem of music that is inappropriately (or even dangerously) loud, I was struck by his concept of “listening as an act of [non-selfless] submission,” by intentionally suspending the personal critiquing of what is heard. This is what improvising musicians strive to do when they interact in their performances; with as little critical listening done as possible, instead trusting in their ability to play what must be played. One of my debaters is a saxophonist, an instrument that is traditionally used to play melodies and melodic improvisation. Not many saxophonists are involved in “the groove” (although notable exceptions are found, principally in baritone and bass saxophone playing), and find themselves misidentified as the identity of the music being played. (Even though the sound of swing is absolutely reliant on what the bass and drums play for its identity, the name Lester Young is more known than Walter Page—and the word “bebop” usually conjures the name of Charlie Parker, but if Bird were playing with Bootsy Collins, the music would no longer bebop, no matter what Parker played.) Maybe that’s why I’ve found many saxophonists to be critical, or even hypercritical, of what is played by “their” rhythm sections; their musical voices are actually defined by their accompaniment.

So, this has me wondering to what degree music listening is “agenda-ized” by the players of different instruments. I know that when I go out to hear music with other bass players, we tend to react to the same things. It’s not that we only listen to the bass—we don’t, but I think we might hear what the other instruments are playing with a different “filter” than what might be employed by different instrumentalists, vocalists, and/or composers. I’d be curious to know what you think of that. I’d also be curious to know how rap music fits into your understanding of American music.