This book — The Concise Guide to Hip-Hop Music (A Fresh Look at the Art of Hip-Hop, from Old-School Beats to Freestyle Rap) by Paul Edwards — is wonderful mix of research, insights by Edwards, and voices of oral histories by many rappers and artists on the Hip-Hop scene, talking about influences and origins of the music and culture.
The history of rap angle didn’t uncover much new for me (but I still enjoyed it), as I am interested in the music as an art form. I did appreciate all the elements of the research that Edwards has done into how the music is made (and was made, as things have changed over time with the emergence of technology). Many of the musicians here talk about the past production of hip-hop, of scouring records for beats and bass and then finding ways to isolate sounds, pulling them together to form the backbeats.
In particular, the use of Flow Diagrams by rap songwriters was something I had not come across before. Some rappers use Flow Diagrams (of various sorts) create columns for rhymes, and move across the columns as they rap. This allows for intentional internal, double-word and other kind of rhyme patterns. In the book, some rappers talk about setting up these kinds of charts as ways to use rhyme for rhythmic elements — words as beats and off-beats. I love when the process of writing is exposed like that.
(This flow diagram comes from a Genius page about a Pharcyde song. The annotated page is from Edwards.)
Interestingly, much of the discovery of how to use samples from other tracks was often accidental. A rapper/DJ/producer tries to do this, only to discover that. They were smart enough to have their ears open at all times for opportunities, and when mistakes happened that sounded good, they took that and ran it with. The early days, it was not about the money (as it seems to be today), but about pushing the art-form into new terrain, and impressing others on the scene.
Of course, litigation for using unlicensed sounds made the old-school way of remixing sounds nearly impossible, so the collage-like, layered production work that went into albums like Paul’s Boutique by The Beastie Boys (and the Dust Brothers production team) or landmark tracks by Run-DMC, NWA and Eric B & Rakim might never be replicated now (without huge financial support from a company on the licensing side).
But I figure this … there are still plenty of people making tracks and creating new sounds on their own, and it is likely that those tracks are finding paths to listeners. Like so many businesses, the music industry is being upended, or has been upended, by technology and social media. While that may have diminished the field of music listening to some degree (it’s a time when all radio stations seem to be owned by corporate interests, and radio DJs have no say over what is being played, the landscape becomes rather hum-drum .. radio that I listen to here is nearly identical to radio that you listened to there), it has also opened up doors for more intimate connections to more niche bands and musicians in ways that were not possible just a few years ago.
I also wondered about the connections to what we think of as Digital Writing, and now remix and a new lexicon of song/writing construction might fit under that umbrella. It raises the question: when is writing a song a form of Digital Writing? Is it? It seems to me that Flow Diagrams and borrowing snippets seems to have interesting ramifications about language.
Edwards, whose book bio calls him “the Aristotle of Hip-Hop Poetics,” does a fine job here of exploring the historical perspectives of hip-hop music but he seems to conclude that its best days of innovation are far behind it, now that hip-hop is the touchstone of pop culture and a cash cow. I don’t quite agree, or maybe, I have faith that innovation is happening — even if many of us don’t see it. I just hope we can eventually hear it.
Peace (sing it),