Rap & Hip Hop

How to Rap


By 1970 modern mainstream pop derived from the Blues had sidelined jazz. Jazz had become esoteric ... more like Classical music, music for listening to, not for dancing to. The pleasure required a considerable investment in learning & education before the enhanced rewards could be experienced ...

Perhaps this investment cost distinguished the genres? Perhaps it explained the fiercely promoted & protected perception of enhanced value in avant-garde jazz?

Clearly there were fierce debates.

But the tradition of the Afro American rhythms in Blues and pop developments continued like a golden thread. This pleasure depended on social interaction & dancing folk ... and the groove rhythms were primordial ... the dancing grooves were felt not studied ...

On the African west coast the griots were wandering poets and musicians, educators and custodians of oral traditions, they spun their stories with rhythm. Drums and the kora, spoken word music!

The ring shouts, field hollers, and holy roller spirituals and Blues of early slaves drew on common elements of African music, the drum beat, vocal call & response and improvisation. 'Speech song has been part of black culture for a long, long time'. The embryonic Blues, for song & dance, intensified the excitement with repetitive 4 bars looped over and over. There were later white inspired developments but the main thrust of black American music flowed through Louis Armstrong & Duke Ellington ... surely?

It seemed right that modern rap music had its roots in the 'talking Blues' of the Delta but what was the convoluted route these Afro American rhythms took?.

In the mid-1970s, New Orleans was a backwater & New York City was broke and Louis, Duke and Elvis were dead.

New York was ready for Rap ... but Rap was fed by two strong  streams ... 

Disco DancingDisco Fever.

Rock had gone to the psychedelic stadium and the kids weren't dancing.
There was bound to be a reaction ... sure R&B was alive and well but pop wasn't dancing ...

Disco was a reaction against both the almost total domination of Rock music and the pervasive stigmatization of dance music. But dancing in the disco clubs was a social life on its own ....

Disco was dancing, high energy dancing and Disco was electric ... electric everything ...

Disco was a pop genre containing elements of R&B funk, soul, salsa and psychedelic that was all the rage in the 1970s. Disco, from discotheque, catered for the young clubbers from the African American communities in New York City who wanted to dance and pull.

The disco sound had soaring vocal trajectories over a steady 'four-on-the-floor' drum beat, with an eighth note hi-hat pattern on the off-beat, but with a punching, syncopated, bass line on the amplified electric guitar. This was back to 4 to the bar dance music, hitting every beat, whereas Rock stayed heavy on 1 & 3 and the snare on 2 & 4. Electronic instruments were were used as  big band ballroom orchestrations were played by electronic mixers & synthesizers.

The sound was expensive and producer oriented as DJs played the Disco hits through powerful PA systems. A smooth mix of long single records to kept the kids 'dancing all night long'. The clubs had elaborate lighting systems that throbbed to the beat of the music. Dance was a 'hang loose' style; 'Bumps', 'Penguins', 'Boogaloos', 'Watergates', 'Robots' and in 1975 'The Hustle'. Everything was highly stylized, sophisticated and overtly sexual.

Donna Summer (1948-2012) 'MacArthur Park', The Jacksons, The BeeGees, 'You Should be Dancing'. ABBA; young, exuberant, full of energy and ambition, 'Dancing Queen'.  And the wow film 'Saturday Night Fever' 1977 made Disco 'respectable' with whites and straights.

Michael JacksonMichael Jackson (1958-2009), a megastar during the 1980s and 1990s, originally with The Jackson 5 in 1971 he went on to create new styles of song & dance. Jackson was unique and unlikely to be emulated, he dominated the 1980s and post-disco pop, 'Thriller' 1982.

Jackson's music was out of R&B and Soul and Motown. He was influenced by many ... Little Richard, James Brown, Diana Ross ... and Fred Astaire, Sammy Davis jn and Gene Kelly!

Rock fought back against the Disco onslaught. The punk subculture was consistently hostile to Disco. After 'Disco Demolition Night', some social critics described the backlash as macho and bigoted, an attack on blacks and gays.

But with hindsight the reality was probably different. Economic (too expensive to produce) and political changes (New York was bankrupt) at the end of the 1970s upped the anti and there was a pervasive burnout from the hedonistic drugs & sex lifestyles.

But there were key Disco elements that led inexorably to Hip Hop - dancing clubs, DJs, turntableism, MCs and all the paraphernalia of electronic music ... samples, synthesizers and mixers with reverb!

Most significantly the early rap songs were created by isolating the punching Disco bass guitar grooves and dubbing over them with the MC raps and rhymes.

The Sugarhill Gang used Chic's 'Good Times' as the foundation groove for their 1979 hit 'Rapper's Delight', the song that first popularized rap music in the United States and around the world.

Then there was a second stream of influence straight out of R&B and Soul ... the rhythms of funk went into Rap ...

James BrownFunk.

Was James Brown (1933-2006) the power behind Hip Hop?

'Good Foot' forward with a funky new sound that later became known to the world as Hip Hop. It's no coincidence that James Brown was one of the most sampled artists in Hip Hop. His rhythmic innovations had a major influence on most popular music styles, including R&B, Rock 'n' Roll, Soul, funk, disco, and, of course, rap. Some of the elements that J B injected into the genre were -

a call & response style which influenced Hip Hop choruses

dynamic rhythms from his records which inspired the break beats and funk drumming

musical showmanship and footwork which inspired the young breakdancers

the 1969 recording with drummer Clyde Stubblefield, 'Funky Drummer', which became the most frequently sampled break in Hip Hop ...

The New York Rap Rhythms of The South Bronx.

The Bronx became a musical magnet for Jamaicans, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, and black Americans from the surrounding areas. A melting pot of subculture innovations ... just as New Orleans was 70 years before ...

rapping or MCing (oral), 'beatboxing', oral percussion.

turntables, looping & electronic effects or DJing (aural), drum machines, samples.

breakdancing (physical)

graffiti art (visual)

This was how it worked ...

Rappers use their voice as an instrument to make the rhythms over a beat. Neither speech, prose, poetry nor song.

One guy, the DJ, played records for the kids to dance to on two turntables.

The DJs learned to move the record back & forth under the needle to create a rhythmic 'scratch' ... or they dropped the needle on the record where the beat was the hottest and played 'the break' over & over, looping to keep the folks dancing.

Another guy was the MC. The MCs 'rapped' over the music to keep the party going, using improvised rhyme & vocal rhythm.

The all important 'flow' involved the rhythms and rhymes of the song's lyrics, the interactions of rhythm and rhyme.
Also included were pitch, timbre, volume effects as well.

Staying on the beat was central to flow. MCs stayed on beat by building accents in time with four to the bar.
Lyrics involved lines with four stressed beats, which were messed with by other syllables to provide variety & surprise but never leaving the pulse of the song.

A description of 'swing'?

New dance styles were spontaneously created and copied in a youthful frenzy of participation with the compelling rhythms. 'Locking' and 'popping' and 'breaking'.

A new culture spin, of rhythms, dance, rap & electronic effects.

White kids were also attracted to this music in the same way as they reacted to the outraged congressmen who decried jazz during the 1920s ... similarly parents disapproved of the violent & sexually explicit lyrics of the excited youngsters.

This was rebellious adolescence again; Hip-Hop was 'cool' and illicit but above all the black American rhythms were infectious and they swung ... this was another revolt against the imposition of culture in a free country ...

Hip Hop, a marginalized subculture started in the South Bronx and then Harlem from 1970s.
Clearly music and dancing developments were at the fore ... yet again, the compelling rhythms of the groove were exciting the dancers. The Bluesmen were reinventing themselves. Nothing new here. Just the same focus on rhythm and responsive dancing with vocal ad valorem.

DJing was new but also a development of the electronic Blues revolution into the Discos of 'turntables' and 'loops' where samples of recorded loops were repeated to produce an ongoing riff based groove. The master of the electronics was becoming a new type of instrumentalist.

Billboard always wrestled with the identification of new genres - Harlem Hit Parade 1942, Race Records (1945–49), Hot Soul Singles (1973–82), Jerry Wexler’s Rhythm & Blues 1950s, Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs 2000s.

1969 James Brown, a funk-hit 'The Good Foot', and a dance on the stage.

The most famous DJ in The Bonx was, perhaps, Jamacian Kool Herc ... he was from James Brown and he made the block parties swing ... but he first had a sound system and second some rhymes.

The roots of rap lie in African and African American verbal games.

The first rap recording was 'Rapper's Delight' by Sugarhill Gang in 1979, and it became a novelty hit almost immediately. It wasn't until 1986, however, when Run-DMC re-recorded 'Walk this Way' (a popular Aerosmith song) that Rap gained popularity among white audiences.

Although the roots were many and varied the first big selling hit can be identified ...

Rapper's DelightThe Sugarhill Gang and 'Rapper's Delight' 1979, the rap song that popularized Hip Hop in the United States. The record featured a catchy bass groove that drove the music forward, as the jolly rapper celebrated himself as a ladies’ man and a great dancer. Soon, kids across America were rapping along with the nonsense chorus -

I said a hip, hop, the hippie, the hippie,
to the hip-hip hop, ah you don’t stop
the rock it to the bang bang boogie, say
up jump the boogie,
to the rhythm of the boogie, the beat.

No sign of celebrating street violence, profanity, drugs, homophobia, racism, misogyny, rape and promiscuity here. But by 2002  'Gangsta Rap' and 'Don’t Give a Fuck' were anti social?

Things took a turn for the worse when the party atmosphere of the clubs became a platform for resentment of authority, and antisocial behaviour Graffiti was perhaps creative & harmless, but crime became integral parts of the general irreverence. The graffiti was a new cultural add on which didn't directly impact on jazz?

Almost inevitably like Rock 'n' Roll in the 1950s, Hip Hop was disdainfully opposed by the old conservatives who unnecessarily confronted exuberant youth but understandably objected to the violence, law breaking, drugs and the gang culture which became associated with the culture.

Liberals all know the difference between healthy disrespect for authority and anti social behaviour. You & I are free to choose but not free to harm others ... confronting restrictions of freedoms or crimes where innocents were harmed?

As Louis said -

'every time they changed the name they got a bigger pay check, but there ain't nothin' new it's the old soup we played in New Orleans used over ...'

And Louis was rapping on 'Stardust' a long time before Eimen ... ?

Ice-T (1958-) 'Rhyme Pays' 1987 explicit! Gangsta rap was not meant to be nice ...

Eminem (1972-) 'The King of Hip Hop', shuttled between Missouri and Michigan, living in a largely black lower middle class Detroit neighborhood ... Rap was the music he heard ...

Slim Shady was nasty and Eminem was white and record producers loved the possibilities. Was this Elvis all over again as black rhythms were popularised by poor white boys from the ghettos?

And did the New Orleans Brass Bands reclaim the old rhythms?

The New Orleans Hip Hop Brass Bands.

Kermit Ruffins (1964-) and the Rebirth Band in 1983.

The music involved two different clave patterns & their interplay. But it was loose just like the Blues. The foundations were learned in the Olympia. Then the best started off just playing the Blues without music; hear it and feel it. 4/4 time most of the time, it was melodic, most of the tunes had a melody and a bridge. Some had a turn around, some modulated. The basics, the tuba or sousaphone started the tune off, the bass line riff, the foundation. Then the drums came in and built the claves on top of that, sometimes the drums started. Usually it started from the back row and then built from there. You went on to the melody and the words which were emulated (imitated) by the trumpets and saxophones and then trombones.

All forms of music, all dynamics and articulation were included ... rap the popular music of the day was included in.

Young urban kids, spitting out rhythms in a repetitive formatted way ... the groove.

From genius to nerds & Computer Software?

How do you produce killer grooves in machines? How does software like 'Band in a Box' work?

The modern drum machines were awesome. And there were many factors involved in creating a realistic natural, human feel to the grooves.

All great grooves seemed to be driven and built on great bass lines, with interplay on the drum kit and the beat on the bass drum (latin), or the snare (rock) or the hi-hat (syncopated) or the cymbal (jazz)

Toe tappability involved - 

the sound itself - the quality of the samples and the DXi plug-ins, Virtual Studio Technology - the timbre of sounds change not only with the instrument but also with volume and all manner of different effects; attack  reverb, vibrato, chorus, equalisation, flange, distortion, echo, panning ... 

the timing nuances in the pattern - the quality of the loops - drummers don't mechanically repeat & they do mistakes - play patterns in real time - cut & paste to get away from meaningless random changes and into groove - the groove function was based on careful analysis of the rhythmic pulse of the style.

the tempo - not strict tempo, within the pattern small variations behind the beat or ahead of the beat, an ebb & flow, pulling & pushing ... 'messing' with the beat  ... and why not speed up for the out chorus? ...

Technical breakthroughs -

 Swing - the second 8th note within each quarter note was delay and produced the characteristic 'kicking quaver'.
Playing was behind the beat, the lateness of the 8th notes and the spacing of the 8th notes were varied but not randomised because real musicians created patterns, or 'grooves'. A legato effect was induced by reducing the note durations. These variations at certain tempos generated a 'feel', or a 'swing'. It was not 'strict tempo' and it was not rubato but a groove which induced or compelled folk into bodily movement.
The effect was produced by Louis Armstrong, a musical genius, quite naturally, but was reproduced quite realistically by experimenting with software settings.

 Live Midi - drummers produced a groove, perhaps on a hit hat, by varying not only the timing but also the volume of each strike, the result of years of practice. Midi drums enabled grooves to be recorded directly into the software thus retaining the real effect.
Midi keyboards and midi guitars enabled similar grooves to be recorded directly into digital software. These added further elements of realism as the chord voicing originated from real musicians.
Of course, good drumming & instrument skills were needed.
These techniques removed the wooden, stiff mechanised nature of strict tempo quantised grids and analysis indicated clearly the digital cause of the effects.

 Accurate Playback Timings - the swing effects were so subtle and timing so critical that the beat had to be subdivided into at least 120 ticks. And playback had to be instant without gaps, delays or latency.

 Basic Beats - 'swing' feel & dynamics and other tricks didn’t do you any good unless there was a good beat in the first place. As Baby Dodds suggested drummers didn't just beat out a beat; the beat itself had a groove. And the beat was essential for creative improvisation.

 Music or Technology - some popular music moved from live performance for dancing to electronic recording where effects and mixing were adjusted almost at will.
But the technology led to an understanding of the music and greatly assisted teaching ... but technology was never a satisfactory substitution for creative innovative music ... by definition.
The machines were not replacing Louis Armstrong they were imitating him.
Technology was not magic, but it helped the understanding of the subtleties of the timing dynamics that made rhythms for dancing.

NB by the turn of the millennium electronic technology and understanding of swing became so sophisticated that backing tracks began to sound realistic and they swung ... from understanding of motor-sensory coupling technical devices could be lifted of the shelf and technical producers carved out a role alongside musicians
BUT machines were only a half way house ... you always had great fun playing with swinging backing tracks ... but the machines never interacted with you ... you had to interact with them ... and call & response was always fundamental to jazz improvisation ... it was a one sided conversation ... listen to Baby Dodds ... 

Band in a BoxBand in a Box.

Any jazz band trying to get to grips with a lousy sound & a lousy groove should heed the words of an enthusiastic saxophone tutor who insisted on practice, practice, practice ... not in the woodshed on your own but with 'Band in a Box' -

'Launched in 1989, as it says on the tin, MIDI software for auto-accompaniment, an indispensible teaching / learning tool. The backbone is a chord sequence with is played by the accompanying instruments - piano, bass, drums, guitar plus another - in the set key, tempo, style feel and song structure. Editable patterns of 1 to 2 bars written on a C7 chord for 'intelligent' 'humanised' play back. In 2007 'real tracks' were introduced - real recorded audio style performances - up to 8 un-editable bars following in time & pitch the chord sequence & tempo. In 2014 'user tracks' (self recorded tracks) & 'performance tracks' (recordings of MIDI & real tracks) were introduced. Acidised loops can also follow the chord sequence and tempo of the song.

Way back in New Orleans the jazz band was a social team. Each individual instrument played together with the others to make the whole band swing. If any individual had a different 'feel' for the time than the rest of the band the swing was destroyed.

One of the most wonderful things about music was the seemingly endless variations the same notes and the same beats could deliver with creative rhythms. Timing & the rhythmic pattern (meter) were vital to define the performance framework. of jazz. Each instrument expected the rest of the band to stick to the rules (perhaps a chord sequence in 4/4 time). For the punters to dance comfortably, the band had to generate a groove where everybody anticipated when the next downbeat was coming.

 However a good band never played bang on the nose of the downbeat. In jazz and most forms of pop music, the beats did not come at rigid equal divisions of the measure, they fitted a groove.

A groove was discovered as folk played and messed with time. One beat or subdivision of the beat, was advanced or delayed slightly, as patterns were established and repeated. It was important that all the players were in it together as they all pushed & pulled the beat in complementary ways to establish the groove. This was especially important for the bass player and drummer who had to 'click' together. The other members of the band were building on top of this foundation. To 'click' there had to be an empathy, or bond, between the musicians, born out of mutual understanding. Everybody had to 'feel' the first beat of bar 5 when the band was grooving. Live playing involved 'finding' the groove, it couldn't easily be notated as each song by each band had to discover a suitable groove for the occasion. 

The gentle nudging of the beat a little early and another a little later was not consciously done. They just tried to sound good as they responded to the others. Most good musicians played in what was commonly called a groove quite naturally.

The groove was nothing new, Classical music contained all the tricks of jazz. But Jazz was relentless with its emphasis on groove rhythms for dancing which were improvised complex rhythms based and the Blues. Classical waltzes often had the second beat of each measure played slightly before the beat. The effect gave the dancers a little 'lift'.

Swing was not strict tempo, electronic quantising of the beat didn't sound like jazz. Jazz needed good sense of timing. In improvised jazz music, it was essential to 'feel' when to mess with the meter with your mates. That was why no step entered quantised electronic music could duplicate a great live performance.

This created a problem for computer software.

Clearly any note could be accurately quantised and placed in a grid with precision anywhere. There were no restrictions, you could set the exact placement, volume, pitch, and duration of every Any note could be step written, anywhere you wanted it in the beat, and it could be moved off beat by as many ticks as you like. But this individual precision of step input was what made some MIDI music sound so mechanical.

In a jazz band it was the interplay between team members which produced the groove and made the music 'breathe' and 'come alive'. What a real band did was not precise and it was not random. Everybody didn't hit every note at the exact same time, and that's why a little bit of 'humanizing' helped. But it didn't produce the sound of live musicians.

The only way to make the music sound live was to input the music live, in real time!

The best results were obtained by playing music live into a sequencer and then importing the snippets of MIDI into a style maker, so they were not quantized, they sound live because they were played live.

'Live drums' and 'Super tracks' enabled drum & instrument parts to be played in.

Bob 'Notes' Norton, a maker of BiaB styles, explained more ... Musical 'expression' is not 'tone'. Expression is the art of playing music with emotional communication. The elements of music that comprise expression include dynamics, phrasing, timbre, articulation, color, intensity, energy and excitement. These devices are the performer's interpretation of the composer's intention, or in the case of the Blues the performer's interpretation of the song.
The performer elicits responses of sympathetic feeling in the other bandsmen and the audience. Attempting to excite, calm or otherwise sway the physical and emotional responses. The great artists feel that it is the soul not the notes that is communicating.
Expression can be closely related to breathing, and a natural ability to express feelings, sentiments and emotions. The the element of musical performance which embodies recognizable emotion, causing a sympathetic emotional response in others. The emotional content of musical expression is distinct from the emotional content of specific sounds, like tone, but nevertheless cannot be completely separated from the context.
Expression is in the groove, phrasing, ornaments, dynamics and a host of other things musicians do subconsciously when they play. All these devices are developed during practice, but when it comes to playing, the 'left brain' is turned off and expression flows as easily as sentences are spoken without thinking about grammar, spelling, timing and dynamics.
To make a good Band in a Box style, Bob plays each part over an appropriate chord progression for the style. Often discarding the first 16 bars because it takes a bit to get into the groove. So the parts come out of BiaB like they are played, not like they are programmed.
Each musician has a different style. Just as Les Paul doesn't play like Jimi Page, but different. It all comes down to personal taste.
MIDI gets a bad rap because it's easy for non-skilled musicians to make a MIDI file. Some of them sound terrible. It's not the sound, it's the expression (or lack of) that makes them sound bad.
After all, MIDI instruments are used in almost every hit record on the rock, pop, country and other charts, and have been embedded in the DNA of recorded music for 30 or so years. If MIDI sounded bad, it wouldn't be on hit records.
Remember Electric Guitars, Rhodes Pianos, and even Saxophones were considered bad sounding or 'not real' when they were first introduced.
To swing nicely MIDI styles, just like the Real Styles must be played by a musician.

The midi styles in BiaB were originally 1 or 2 bar phrases written on the C7 chord or a drum grid. The patterns were played back with altered sounds, pitches & tempos to follow the chord sequence & tempo of the song. The frequency of each pattern played back was 'weighted' to match typical patterns with the musical style.

'Live Drums' and 'Super Styles' were similar to 'Real Tracks' which were recorded audio files/loops, which were pitch adjusted and time stretched to fit the chord sequence and tempo of the song. In this way the best MIDI music involved playing in 'live' patterns in 'real time' using a midi keyboard, midi guitar or drum pads. The 'live' feel comes from 'live' input into the computer. The style maker had to be an accomplished musician and recorded and listened to fix the groove into the head for the live input. Other track parts were recorded built on the same groove producing remarkable realism and swing.

The technical software problems were associated with time stretching, pitch adjustment and the seamless transitions over changing chords of the audio files?

Mechanical sounding, grooveless rhythm sections were usually the result of the old technology of step entering and quantizing. Quantising midi was dangerous as the end result of quantizing was to make the part sound more like it was step entered. With step writing it was easy to sound mechanical. While playing live, it was actually very difficult to sound mechanical! Quantized music for most dancers, would be a turn off.

The longest recordable pattern in the original Band in a Box was 8 beats long, this was too restrictive as some groove phrases could be longer.

On the other hand, all the high end sequencers had groove filters or groove quantisers, which were complex quantization algorithms which made the rhythm of whatever was being played fit the groove of a particular style or genre or band. But crucially the groove patterns were taken from snippets of recordings or played in by expert musicians. Groove quantising helped by providing a groove pattern, a model for all instruments so that the whole band sounded locked in together, even though they were all out of time!

The problem with this was that in modern popular music, each song and each band tended to have its own groove, and often different parts of the song had a different groove.

Bands and songs all swing in slightly different ways, so applying a generic 'swing quantization' to a long run of 8th notes in will make all songs sound the same ... and 'mechanical'.

The better grooves involved a better flow of the rhythm which was more comfortable both to play and to dance to.

Jazz was also a melody driven music, melody is one of the factors that combined with rhythm to form what we now call Jazz.
When the whole band kind of 'breathes' with the melody player. That was the groove.

The groove is an incredibly difficult and complex concept and practice to grasp. It is usually the last aspect of jazz that the whole band has to master. Jazzers learn by playing with others by listening and imitating. After 'paying your dues' empathy and a groove will emerge. Same thing with the Blues.

Modern software like BIAB was constructed as an accompaniment package which was better than a metronome for practice. Now that the 'Live Drums' and 'Super Tracks' features have been added practice can be done 'in the groove'.

Is 'Bongo Flava' a new genre?


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