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Saturday, June 23, 2012

Hip hop is just a noise

Yesterday I bumped into a distinguished academic. He was on his way to record an item for the Today programme about whether rap music had a corrosive effect on society. He was going to argue that rap was all part of a rich tradition of words. Similarly, Annie Nightingale is in The Times this morning talking up Radio One's Hackney show and saying that Plan B is "a brilliant wordsmith".

Hip hop, if we can call it that, certainly features a lot of words but it isn't about words so much as sound and that sound comes from the way it's done. This music and all the variants that have come along in the last thirty or so years is about hooks, drama, personality, comedy, sex, tone of voice, anything it takes to achieve the required air of sad swagger. That's why in all those thirty years it hasn't really produced a single worthwhile song, not in the sense of one that you could sit down and play. That's why live performances of hip hop always look like a bit of an afterthought.

Fifty years ago they used to have the same arguments about Bob Dylan. Was he a poet or just a noise? This was the wrong question, the same wrong question they now ask about rap. As a poet Dylan was mediocre. As a noise he was immense.

8 comments:

  1. "That's why in all those thirty years it hasn't really produced a single worthwhile song, not in the sense of one that you could sit down and play"

    In the last months I have listened to London Posse's How's Life in London almost 3 times a day every day. I think it's the best single to come out of the UK. So I'm not sure I would agree with the above.

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  2. I know where you're coming from but I think you could create a top 20 best hip hop songs which would match the equivalent rock songs. Your measure is not quite right. You couldn't play My Bloody Valentine, that's just noise but beautiful. I think you have to look wider than whether you can convert to sheet

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  3. Doesn't it depend on your definition of "Song" ?.
    Hip Hop tells stories in the same way as folk music does but songs in the "traditional sense " almost certainly not.

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  4. An interesting view. But are we considering hip hop as a musical and cultural influence or as a strand of songwriting? Agreed, unless featuring a prominent sample hip hop has proved to be quite difficult to regale at family parties. But for producing great lyrical moments over the past 30 years, hip hop can often stand strong. Those that serve - Rakim, Guru, Nas, Chuck D for starters.

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  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  6. That's like saying poetry is "just words", jazz is "just notes". I also think there are examples of artists 'covering' hip-hop songs successfully in a more 'traditional' form - Tricky's cover of the PE's Black Steel comes to mind.

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  7. For forty years pop music was all about classic hooks,great playing and great singers/vocalists,plus in some cases attitude. With hip hop all its ever had is attitude.

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  8. Agreed. Rap and hip hop is about words and 'the way it's done'. The execution is everything. Any song of these genres to have enjoyed wider appeal has had a melodic pop hook or pop sample driving it. What is Warren G and Nate Dogg's 'Regulate' without the Michael McDonald 'I Keep Forgettin' sample, or Eminem's 'Stan' without Dido's 'Thank You'? Arguably, with the exception of 'Television (The Drug Of The Nation' by the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, words alone are rarely enough.

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