Musicology – rap’s expansion of popular aural territory (Rose)


“Rap music is a technologically sophisticated and complex urban sound. No doubt, its forebears stretch far into the orally influenced traditions of African American culture. But the oral aspects of rap are not to be understood as primary to the logic of rap nor separate from its technological aspects. Rap is fundamentally literate and deeply technological. To interpret rap as a direct or natural outgrowth of oral African-American forms is to romanticize and decontextualize rap as a cultural form. It requires erasing rap’s significant sonic presence and its role in shaping technological, cultural, and legal issues as they relate to defining and creating music. Retaining black cultural priorities is an active and often resistive process that has involved manipulating established recording policies, mixing techniques, lyrical construction, and the definition of music itself.
The lyrical and musical texts in rap are a dynamic hybrid of oral traditions, postliterate orality, and advanced technology. Rap lyrics are a critical part of a rapper’s identity, strongly suggesting the importance of authorship and individuality in rap music. Yet, sampling as it is used by rap artists indicates the importance of collective identities and group histories. There are hundreds of shared phrases and slang words in rap lyrics, yet a given rap text is the personal and emotive voice of the rapper.” (p.104)

“Sampling technology and rap producers’ commercially profitable use of sampled sounds have seriously challenged the current scope of copyright laws (which are based on notated compositions) and raised larger, more complex questions regarding fair use of musical property and the boundaries of ownership of musical phrases.
Rap’s use of sampling technology, looped rhythmic lines, coupled with its significant commercial presence also raises questions about the relationship between industrial imperatives and their impact on cultural production (for example, formulas that streamline the sale of music as commercial radio’s four-minute song cap or rap’s reuse of previously recorded music). Or are there cultural explanations for the musical structures in rap’s use of electronic equipment?
At the same time as rap music has dramatically changed the intended use of sampling technology, it has also remained critically linked to black poetic traditions and the oral forms that underwrite them. These oral traditions and practices clearly inform the prolific use of collage, intertextuality, boasting, toasting, and signifying in rap’s lyrical style and organization. Rap’s oral articulations are heavily informed by technological processes, not only in the way such oral traditions are formulated, composed, and disseminated, but also in the way orally based approaches to narrative are embedded in the use of the technology itself. In this contentious environment, these black techno-interventions are often dismissed as nonmusical [-p.99] effects or rendered invisible. These hybrids between black music, black oral forms, and technology that are at the core of rap’s sonic and oral power are an architectural blueprint for the redirection of seemingly intractable social ideas, technologies, and ways of organizing sounds along a course that affirms the histories and communal narratives of Afro-diasporic people.” (pp.98-99)

Rose offers these quotes before continuing:

“The organizing principle which makes the black style is rhythm. It is the most perceptible and the least material thing.”
– Leopold Sedar Senghor

“Rhythm. Rap music is so powerful because of rhythm.”
– Harmony

Rose again: “Rap’s rhythms – “the most perceptible, yet least material elements” – are its most powerful effect. Rap’s primary force is sonic, and the distinctive, systematic use of rhythm and sound, especially the use of repetition and musical breaks, are a part of a rich history of New World black traditions and practices. Rap music centers on the quality and nature of rhythm and sound, the lowest, “fattest beats” being the most significant and emotionally charged.[…] The arrangement and selection of sounds rap musicians have invented via samples, turntables, tape machines, and sound systems are at once deconstructive (in that they actually take apart recorded musical compositions) and recuperative (because they recontextualize these elements creating new meanings for cultural sounds that have been relegated to commercial wastebins). Rap music revises black cultural priorities via new and sophisticated technological means. “Noise” on the one hand and communal countermemory on the other, rap music conjures and razes in one stroke.
These revisions do not take place in a cultural and political vacuum, they are played out on a cultural and commercial terrain that embraces black cultural products and simultaneously denies their complexity and coherence. This denial is partly fueled by mainstream cultural adherence to the traditional paradigms of Western classical music as the highest legitimate standard for musical creation, a standard that at this point should seem, at best, only: marginally relevant in the contemporary popular music realm (a space all but overrun by Afrodiasporic sounds and multicultural hybrids of them). Instead, and perhaps because of, the blackening of popular taste, Western classical music continues to serve as the primary intellectual and legal standard and point of reference for “real” musical complexity and composition. For these reasons, a comparative look at these two musical and cultural forces is of the utmost importance if we are to make sense of rap’s music and the responses to it.” (p.99)

Unlike the complexity of Western classical music, which is primarily represented in its melodic and harmonic structures, the complexity of rap music, like many Afro-diasporic musics, is in the rhythmic and percussive density and organization. “Harmony” versus “rhythm” is an oft-sited reduction of the primary distinctions between Western classical and African-derived musics. Still, these terms represent significant differences in sound organization and perhaps even disparate approaches to ways of perception, as it were. The outstanding technical feature of [-p.100] the Western classical music tradition is tonal functional harmony. Tonal functional harmony is based on clear, definite pitches and logical relations between them; on the forward drive toward resolution of a musical sequence that leads to a final resolution: the final perfect cadence. The development of tonal harmony critically confined the range of possible tones to twelve tones within each octave arranged in only one of two possible ways, major or minor. It also restricted the rhythmic complexity of European music. In place of freedom with respect to accent and measure, European music focused rhythmic activity onto strong and weak beats in order to prepare and resolve harmonic dissonance. Furthermore, as Christopher Small has argued, Western classical tonal harmony is structurally less tolerant of “accoustically illogical and unclear sounds, sound not susceptible to total control.” Other critical features of classical music, such as the notation system and the written score – the medium through which the act of composition takes place – separate the composer from both the audience and the performer and sets limits on composition and performance. This classical music tradition, like all major musical and cultural developments, emerged as part of a larger historical shift in European consciousness.” (pp.99-100)

“Rhythm and polyrhythmic layering is to African and African-derived musics what harmony and the harmonic triad is to Western classical music.” (p.100)

Like many groundbreaking musical genres, rap has expanded popular aural territory. Bringing together sound elements from a wide range of sources and styles and relying heavily on rich Afrodiasporic music, rap musicians’ technological in(ter)ventions are not ends in and of themselves, they are means to cultural ends, new contexts in which priorities are shaped and expressed. Rap producers are not so much deliberately working against the cultural logic of Western classical musics as they are working with and among distinctly black practices, articulating stylistic and compositional priorities found in black cultures in the diaspora.” (p.105)

Ref: (emphases in blue bold mine) Tricia Rose ‘Soul Sonic Forces: Technology, orality, and black cultural practice in rap music.’ pp.96- Eds Ron Sakolsky and Fred Wei-han Ho Sounding off! music as subversion/resistance/revolution. Autonomedia (and Contributors): New York. 1995


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