Monday, April 10, 2006

That's a Rap

My friend forwarded me the following link, and I felt compelled to respond.

What the F**k Happened to Black Popular Music?

I respect his passion and a few of his viewpoints, but I think overall the article is flawed.

I believe that he is mistaken by chastising rap based on 50 Cent and Ludacris. This is a common mistake made by critics of rap (ie picking on a few bad seeds and applying that to the entire genre). What he's not acknowledging are the 100s of other players who truly are artists, on the scale of Gil Scott-Heron and Marvin Gaye. See A Tribe Called Quest, Mos Def, The Roots, Talib Kweli, Common, Erykah Badu, Guru, and Jurassic 5, as examples. All of these artists have strong positive messages in their music, about uniting people, about love, about pain and trying to survive in tough environments, about family, etc. All of these have very strong musical backgrounds or foundations, and all of whom have music that do exemplify his "three musical elements" of harmony, melody, and rhythm. They are indeed musicians, of a different ilk than Miles, John, or Dizzy, but musicians nonetheless.

Secondly, we may not like it or approve of it at all times, but music is undeniably a representation of culture. It's hard for us to believe in hindsight, but throughout at least this century critics and parents have disapproved of many popular artists and their messages. You can trace this back to George Gershwin and continue on through Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Sex Pistols, and now to current hip hop (and others). There are reasons behind that - I believe that this sort of "disapproval" has to exist in music - it is a field in which in order to survive children and parents almost necessarily have to clash. Music thrives as an identity for each generation - it is something that becomes (and represents) their culture, makes them unique from the past and future generations. How is Bob Dylan representing the voice of the hippie movement different than 50 Cent representing the voice of urban black youth? I know that may sound shocking and incite some anger, but if it weren't true, would 50 Cent sell as much as he has? Whoever is buying his stuff is seeing something of worth there, though you and I may not. We may see "Coke Rap" as a representation of the decline of music, but what about those for whom these lyrics actually do ring true? On of the strengths of the (oscar-winning) song "It's Hard Out Here For A Pimp" is that in that movie ("Hustle and Flow"), that song actually meant something. We may not be pimps ourselves or even exist in that world, but we must also acknowledge that it does exist, and within that world, this song may speak to its audience in profound ways. It certainly made a lot of sense in the movie.

Each single band or genre is not for everyone - most times it is for a single audience and that audience alone. It is not for outsiders to judge what is right and what is wrong for each person - who are we to say what music speaks to another?

To his other point about "musical elements" ("melody, harmony and rhythm"), though I agree that these are in fact 3 of the musical building blocks (by the way, don't get me started on the idea that he's missing a ton of other qualities crucial to defining music - ie tonal quality, lyrics, orchestration, etc), not all music needs to represent all these qualities. For example, Bach's Partitas for solo violin or his solo cello suites have strong melodious elements, some rhythmic elements, but limited harmonic elements (save for a few chords/double stops here and there). And yet those pieces are some of the most magnificent pieces in all of western music's repertoire. And for the jazz lovers, Dave Brubeck's "Take Five", widely considered a masterpiece, was primarily a study in rhythm. Yes, there are melodic and harmonic qualities, but that wasn't the focus.

Similarly, good rap is generally focused on rhythm, yes, but also fails if it doesn't have the "hook", which usually comes in the form of a bass line or some harmonic quality. In addition, most good rap music has a chorus which is often extremely melodic ("you know it's hard out here for a pimp!").

Finally, to the point below:

"Our culture has been dumbed down to the point where your average dumb-ass American can't tell the difference between a truly great musician and somebody who's been studying their instrument for a week. Playing a musical instrument at a high level is no longer a well-respected skill in our society."

It's a harsh take on it though there is some truth to it, but at the same time I question whether your "average dumb-ass American" could EVER tell the difference. Sometimes it simply takes a musician to qualify another. Sure, many could say that Jimi was a great guitarist, but I challenge most to actually say "why", unless they themselves are a musician. Similar is true in other fields - everyone agrees Einstein is a genius - how many people outside of physics can really explain why? I do wish that more Americans could distinguish greatness from mediocrity, but it's unfair to ever expect that when so many are not musically trained.

By the way, for all the criticism about rap and it's messaging, I cite the below:

"And if 50Cent was really shot nine times, why couldn't one of those bullets have hit a vital organ? Who the fuck was shooting at him: Stevie Wonder? And as far as all these black rappers getting shot, how about a little equal opportunity violence here? Can't somebody pop a cap in Eminem's white ass?"

Get your message straight, Kenny. Don't criticize a whole genre because of two people. Don't fail to see musicianship simply because you are blind or refuse to acknowledge it. And please, don't criticize lyrics for "stupidity and negativity" when you are just as guilty of it in your own writings!


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