Explain rap/hip-hop to a clueless old lady

I occasionally hear something that I assume is either rap or hip-hop blaring forth from the stereo of a car near me in traffic. I know there’s a difference – I’m not even asking what that difference is, because I’m operating at a more profound level of cluelessness.

It seems to me that [assumption 1] there is virtually nothing going on melodically; that the emphasis is on the beat and on the words. Further, it seems like [assumption 2] the rhythms aren’t particularly complex, esp. compared to drum-based musics like, say, Haitian. Thus [assumption 3], the most important part of rap is the words.

So – start by confirming or denying these assumptions.

If my premises are correct – how do you tell “good” rap from “bad” rap? What is it about a particular artist that makes you want to listen to more than one song by that artist? What makes you say I want to listen to this CD vs. that CD?

Assumptions 1 and 2 are generally good, but I’d say that the important thing is the sound of the vocals more than the words (not that clever lyrics don’t count for something). It’s a little difficult for me to explain, but “November has Come” and “All Alone” from the Gorillaz’ Demon Days are good examples–it’s not immediately clear that the lyrics are about anything, but the songs sound just right.

I like a lot of music sung in languages I don’t understand, where the vocal becomes almost like another instrumental – pure sound. Is it like that?

  1. There are definitely hooks in rap songs, but they tend to be created by a sort of synthesis of what’s going on with the beat and the way that the vocals fit over it, combined with what the vocals are actually saying. It’s kind of hard to explain, but when you get a clever rhyme with a good rhythm fitting together with a backing beat that works with it and it all works together, it’s sublime - it’s often more exciting than hearing a great chorus in a traditional song. It’s a sort of alchemy of those three factors coming together and becoming greater than the sum of their parts.

1a. I think the fact that the vocals aren’t singing often confuses older listeners when it comes there being melody in rap music. There’s usually a ton of melody - it’s just that it comes from the backing music, not from the lead vocals. Part of the reason that rap beats have relied on old soul samples for years is the melody.

  1. It depends on the beat, but generally, they’re straightforward. Producers like Timbaland and the Neptunes have made careers off of doing slight variations on the expected rap beat.

  2. I think most important is that synthesis that I referred to in #1; a great rapper over a lackluster beat will still sound bad. A weak rapper over a great beat will still sound bad.

Because we evaluate all of the things that make up a rap song - the actual wordplay and rhyming, the backing music or “beat,” the rapper’s actual sense of rhythm and the way that he fits his words and rhymes to the beat and makes them work with and against it, and most importantly, the synthesis of all of the aforementioned and the way that it all comes together.

For a nice A/B comparison if you’re able and willing, listen to 50 Cent’s “Candy Shop” - a simplistic and underwhelming vocal just sort of mumbling juvenile innuendos over a slick, canned beat, then listen to MF Doom’s “Rhymes like Dimes,” intricate wordplay and rhymes within rhymes over a funky, retro funk sample and playing off of the nuances of the music. There’s a world of difference between the two.

I don’t think that assumptions 1 or 2 are correct.

There are plenty of rap songs with complex beats. . .beats out of time with each other that come back together at the end of loops, and keep in mind that some of the rapping becomes part of the beat itself.

I’m not familiar enough with Haitian music, but it often reminds me of African beats. More complex than rock, country and pop, imo.

How “melodic” rapping is varies from rapper to rapper and producer to producer. Listen to “G’s and Hustlaz” by Snoop Dogg off “Doggystyle” for an accessible song. In the choruses (in particular) he’s using his voice melodically, but also knocking out rhythms that sound like a guy playing drums. That song also has a great beat, and an interesting guitar lick, and the refrains offers a great hook.

Notice how he can make it sound like he’s making up rhymes on the spot, and still nail the breaks. It’s an amazing performance.

When this old (52) lady asked a young (19) person this very question, the answer was “Hip-hop has music. Rap doesn’t.”

Minor hijack, I just wanna say THANKS for this recommendation – MF Doom is amazing! I’ve been trying to educate myself about the scope of hip hop/rap (thanks Rhapsody!) but I had yet to find an artist that I could genuinely embrace (aside from the Beastie Boys, which made me feel like I had some kind of deep-seated racism). This is it. He’s so geeky and so cool at the same time! And it really is musical, in very subtle ways. Love it!!

Next time find a young person without brain damage.

This reminds me of 1980 or so, when record companies and media tried to draw an artificial distinction between “punk” and “new wave.”

All very interesting – thanks!

I’ll rely on ultrafilter to bring his Ipod the next time we do a Philly Dopefest for some examples.

That one’s easy. New Wave is a Punk band with a keyboardist.

It’s very simple, Rap is for people who have no musical teeth. It’s drumbeat pablum for those who have no molars and can’t consume real music. It’s music by the talentless for the tasteless.

If I were to call you a fucking asshole would that be more or less insulting than what you just wrote?

What is a musical tooth?

On Edit: Why do these threads always have to have someone who comes in to denounce rap entirely? What does it prove?

I ain’t no hater, Boooyyyy!! I luvs me some Gnarls Barkley and even Whodini, but most of the crap that they’re pushin’ nowadays is just shitty recycled beats, and thug-a-lug rhymes that’s more tired than yo mamma’s ass. It’s just a contest to see who can drop the lowest bass and blow out your fossgates.

To me music is incomplete without a melody

It’s melody-proficient invididual dentation that wears its enamel backwards.

No, you notice all those gold teeth that rappers have? Coincidence?

They’ve lost their musical teeth… all that bass probably vibrated them loose.

Holding a contrary opinion about an art form is no big deal; sharing that opinion isn’t bad, either (as long as you do more than just shout loudly and walk away); jumping into a thread to insult the participants, however, is being a jerk. Cafe Society is meant as a place to discuss the arts; if all you want to do is to insult and take shots at the conversation, then stay away from the thread.

Sure, it’s pretty insulting–which is why you shouldn’t be doing it in Cafe Society. Insults belong in the Pit. If you think another poster is handing out insults, report the post and let a mod deal with it.

Didn’t Musical Tooth sing “Pass de dentures 'pon de left hand side”?