In order to establish why I believe Hip-Hop is a perfect genre for the Christian Artist to work in, I must first break down just what makes the genre what it is. I will start in this post by discussing the non-vocal aspects of hip-hop and their affect artistically.
The basis and beginning of hip-hop, and thus the best place for us to look when trying to judge its value, is sampling. This sampling began with Kool Herc in the mid 70’s when the DJ started looping the best parts of the songs when he would spin records. Out of this evolved an entire culture which was based, artistically, on the reclamation of the world around them. Originally, a DJ would sample a break beat (often a break in a song which would have only the drums playing) and an instrumental section of one or more songs. By layering these elements a new song was created. This is perhaps the most pure form of deconstructionalism in music as it literally involves the deconstruction of a song into a new piece of art which could be thematically opposed to the original piece and is, on some level at least, a reaction against those in power. I am not saying that the innovators of hip-hop consciously worked in the post-modernist philosophy; Kool Herc did not read Derrida. However, I do believe that they were influenced by the themes of alienation, fragmentation, deconstruction, and the explosion of data. In all the major art forms, from the 60’s onward, we kind find post-modern themes at the forefront: The Taxi Driver, Apocalypse Now, A Brave New World, Pink Floyd, The Sex Pistols, Scream, 1984… Concerns about the individual and his/her increasingly degraded value in the world and society were (and still are) simply a part of the consciousness of humanity at large. So while they might not have recognized what they were doing, on some level at least I am confident that they were heavily influenced by the philosophical issues of their day. By taking very small pieces of data (a snare hit, a horn sample, a bass line) from the mass of information swirling around them and reforming those pieces into something new, the hip-hop artist was etching out a spot in the world for himself.
In the beginning, the emphasis was on finding samples that would get people to dance; there was no major intellectual thought behind the choice to sample, it was done mostly out of necessity, as the originators were not wealthy enough to afford instruments and lessons. But this does not diminish the fact that the art form that was born was a genuine response to the issues of the times it arose from. In fact, we can see this same reclamation style in almost all the various branches of Hip-Hop culture. The break dancer can perform on street corners or sidewalks with a piece of cardboard as a cushion-thus claiming the streets as a stage, the graf writer tags on virtually any object in his environment-creating a piece of art on a bench or a wall or a train in such a way that the physical object is a part of his art. In the same way the producer and/or DJ takes samples from various sources in the environment around him and makes those elements a part of his art. How can one deal with the alienating and dehumanizing forces of data/information/marketing that flood the world? Deconstruct them and then reform them into works of beauty (although this is not an excuse for vandalism). In recent years there as been a move away from sampling and an emphasis on synthesizers and other ways of producing hip-hop music, however I believe that this spirit of reclamation still remains in the best hip-hop: finding, etching a place in the world and identifying one’s value (or lack thereof) remains the underlying theme of the genre (with the exclusion of those who do not treat the music as an art form—see my first post on hip-hop for a discussion of this).
Essentially, a beat is made up of either several individually sampled drum hits (snare, high hat, ride, bass, toms…) or a 1+bar of a drum break/loop. This is both one of the major defining features of the genre and—to some—its most irritating. Instrumentally, hip-hop tends toward minimalism and drums are a great example of this. In a typical rock song a drum part will repeat over and over for a single section and the next section, a chorus for instance, will mean a new part. In hip-hop this is rarely done, except in a few circles. The result is that the beat creates a rhythmic cycle which forces the listener to ignore the music (and focus on the lyrics) and yet it also makes a stage or backdrop to aid in the flow of words. The goal of the beat is to support the rapper and his/her message through regularity, non-distraction, and thematic agreement. (By thematic agreement I am referring to when the various elements of a work of art all work towards or suggest the same thing thematically. For more on this please see my post entitled “The Struggles of Christian Art: Part One.).
If the beats of hip-hop are often regarded as annoying due to their repetition, the actual instrumental portion is even more so. In other forms of music there tends to be several significantly different instrumental sections to a song: intro, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, chorus, outro. A typical hip-hop song might incorporate a similar arrangement lyrically, but musical there tends to be far less difference between the individual parts than we would see in rock, pop, country, or other similar genres. The result of this is to again cause the focus of the song to be placed on what does change: the lyrics. Generally a producer will find an instrumental sample that reflects the basic theme or vibe of the song. This limits most hip-hop because it does not allow for more refined thematic agreement between the lyrics and the music. I.E. a song about a lost love might have a verse which describes how wonderful it was to be with that person and a chorus that mourns their loss. While the general theme is loss, there is a very real difference in feeling between what would be described in the verse and in the chorus and by not reflecting this difference in the music hip-hop often misses out on a certain level of thematic depth. That said, there is a benefit to this simplicity in that the listener is not distracted by the instrumentation. Many rock songs are liked merely for the way they “sound”, (an oft repeated statement by teens to their parents who disapprove of the lyrics of a rock song is “mom, I just like the way it sounds, I don’t listen to the words…”). Rock is often appreciated for the way it sounds rather than what the song means or what the singer says. Part of this is due to the fact that rock (and other similar genres) offer a lot instrumentally so that one really does not have to know, understand, or agree with the words!—I believe this has been a source of apathy within the rock community, since writing genuine lyrics is not necessary, that has heralded the death of the genre…but that is for another post.
This component is similar to the other two in that in evolves taking another piece of art and using it to make something different from and sometimes in rejection of the original art (or at the very least those who market that art). The major difference is that DJing is the most blatant or obvious element of reclamation/deconstruction in hip-hop. Often times a DJ will play and cut-up a vocal sample that is very familiar, mixing it in with other sounds or beats. The result is a sort of sound collage which is composed of scattered pieces of data. Again, this is a genuine response to the issues and concerns of our time, as it deals directly with individuality, value, beauty, and power in the modern world. It neither glorifies nor ignores these issues; rather it acknowledges them and attempts to sort out an adequate response.
In my next post I will deal with the single most important aspect of Hip-Hop music: Rapping.