The use and adaptation of rap music into improvisational contexts
Rap music emerged in the late 20th century, specifically within the Caribbean communities in New York city. The genre was most prominent in the Black American community, however it received wider acclaim within a short time, with the biggest names in the genre being Jay-Z, Tupac, Wu-tang clan, among others.The genre is still active and is currently topping the charts. However, in this text, we will focus on a specific period and place of the genre. The East Coast of the United States in the 1990s. The genre has had several names, namely gangsta rap or hardcore rap. That is due to the gritty nature of it and the topics discussed in the lyrics - the lifestyle of the gangs within the neighbourhoods of the rappers. The characteristics of the genre are: repetitive bass lines, aggressive attack on the beat by the vocal, break down moments and rhythmical variations of the vocal lines. For instance, we can compare the style of ODB of the Wu-tang clan, which is reminiscent of a soul singing and is less precise and more flowing over the beat than for example the style of Talib Kweli who attacks the beat with more precision.
The idea to merge rap and improvisation came to me as I have always been a fan of rap music. I am also a jazz musician that likes improvisation. Both genres emerged from Black American culture and have many commonalities. I believe the most defining one is that a lot of jazz music was sampled for rap. For instance, we can look at the Wu-tang clan’s song: “Shame on a Ni***“ which sampled “Black and Tan Fantasy” by Thelonious Monk (1956) or the sample of "Flight Time" by Donald Byrd (1973) in NAS’ “N.Y State of mind”.
Under the moniker of improvised music we will, for the purpose of this article, include all instrumental music in which the performers are allowed to make decisions on the spot, and thus recomposing or rearranging the music in some way spontaneously. Here an acknowledgement must be made - there are many genres that include improvisation in some shape or form, so the definition of the word improvisation in the musical context varies heavily. In this text consider the one provided by the Grove dictionary of music: “The creation of a musical work, or the final form of a musical work, as it is being performed. It may involve the work's immediate composition by its performers, or the elaboration or adjustment of an existing framework, or anything in between. To some extent every performance involves elements of improvisation, although its degree varies according to period and place, and to some extent every improvisation rests on a series of conventions or implicit rules.”
As a composer in the process of merging the two genres, I have decided to first establish my own parameters - the foundation of the songs should come from rap. Which means I would use the core of the rap genre as my guiding principle. I started considering how to use different parts of both genres to fit my creative processes. The genres have retained some similar characteristics, possibly as a result of common ancestry, such as improvisation. Improvised music, jazz and some other genres have of course kept it as a must trait, whereas in rap it is seen more as a sub genre or a kind of “show of skill” moment needed to prove your skill as a poet or DJ.
Historically, all these genres began as underground, known only to a local audience. The artists performed for their respective communities, and the genres only later received mainstream attention and even notoriety. Often the story of gaining notoriety has had racial undertones and often black creators and originators of the music would get overshadowed by white artists who re-recorded their songs and gained much more fame in the process than their black counterparts and original creators of the genres and styles.
By looking at the amount of songs in the rap genre that share similarities, I can state that I believe there is a compositional tradition. The structure of a song is generally: intro; often sampled audio, a beginning beat (an instrumental track) to set up the song or both. Sometimes a spoken word can be the set up for the song; other times a skit where the rappers comment on the concepts and ideas of the song, with or without musical accompaniment. If musical accompaniment is present, it typically constructs the set up for the beat that will lay under the first verse or chorus. The verse usually follows, and then the chorus. At times, there are several verses in between choruses or vice versa. A representative part is also the breakdown part, where the beat will either change or lay low for a while. The rapper will usually change up their style or rhythm in those parts. Throughout the verses and choruses rappers do ad libs to accent certain parts. Another common feature is a ‘solo’ in which the record scratching DJ takes the lead. Songs very often also have an outro. The outro, like the intro, can consist of the beat with sampled audio, ad libbed lines, skits, references to verses or choruses or a mixture of any of the previously listed features.
I decided to narrow my search to my favourite sub genre which would be ‘Gangsta Rap’ of the 90s. The element I have always been most drawn to in that sub genre was the head bopping part and I wanted to learn how to incorporate that into my own music. I believe that the static bass lines as well as the snare hits and hi-hat patterns are a big part of creating that effect. For an example of that we can listen to the song “M.E.T.H.O.D M.A.N.” of the Wu-tang clan. The chords of the piano are chromatic and the bass line is repetitive and simple, while the hi-hat is always playing 8th notes and the snare is hitting on the second beat. Inspired by it, I have decided that the chromatic nature of the melody or harmony, as well as the simplistic bass line and drum accompaniment will be a part of my composition.
For the purpose of learning how to write in this genre and getting to know its characteristics, I have transcribed a few songs or their elements. The simple bass lines and chromatic lines as well as sixteenth notes or triples in the hi-hat cymbal accompaniment were the most clear parts that were a constant. I have chosen to incorporate those parts in my music sometimes relatively true to the original form and sometimes in a different way. In the example of my composition: for the rhythm of the top voices I have transcribed some lines (mostly rhythmical unless stated otherwise) of various rappers. I have taken simple speech or rap patterns, used a chromatic line which descends and restarts after every pause (or longer note depending on the system of notation). I have positioned this part after the beginning as the first breakdown part. I have used it as a melody or accompaniment of the melody in some other parts as well. The bass lines in the genre of rap are usually relatively simple and are there to support the top voice. They rarely vary except in the breakdown parts. I have chosen to remain true to that role for the bass part in the beginning, however I have later added chromatic notes and doubled or emulated the top voice in others, to fit the desired harmony or to create a more tense effect. I have used the horn that is not the top voice as accompaniment, it plays descending chromatic line, emulating many raps songs where such a line is present. I have also used the skipped beat effect which would originally come from a ‘scratch’ on the record thus emulating the ‘solo’, which is typically performed by a DJ (notable example would be DJ Premier). I have done this by simply ‘losing’ a beat by making a 4/4 bar a 3/4 bar.
After the dissection part and the structuring of my parts within the rap part of the genre, I have come to the point of incorporating the improviser part of my practice in this process. I wanted the structures of the songs with enough solo parts to give the musicians plenty of freedom - as many parts where they could express themselves. The drums and the bass will set up the groove and find their gritty sound in the intro, where the bass will slowly build up the groove with drums joining it and working on creating the first layer of the song. For the saxophone solos I have chosen the solo form structure, where the bass line and the drum accompaniment will remain and play the same pattern as in the beginning. The horn that will not be soloing will continue adding another layer of accompaniment. Between the solos and after the second solo there is a break down part, giving an indication that the next solo or the next part of the song is coming. For my orchestration I have chosen the quartet setting with an alto and tenor saxophones, drums and the double bass. I believe that this orchestration will also lend itself well to their gritty sound characteristic as it is quite limited and will leave a lot of space for the soloists to improvise. The drums will generally keep the snare on the second beat while playing eight notes on the hi-hat, the bass drum will most of the time play along with the bass line. Of course keeping in mind that the drummer will have certain freedoms in his approach to those parameters as well in their variation.
As an avid fan of both improvising, as well as rap, I have always felt that there is a certain angst that looms in both. This of course depends on the definition of the word improvising, in this case I mostly point to the concept of improvisation that evolved out of the black american music genres, namely jazz and blues, and later free-jazz. Improvisation by this definition has many similarities with rap, both historically and musically. For instance in the concept of lyric improvisation. Many blues artists, whose general structures of songs (the famed “call and response/question and answer”) have allowed artists to expand or embellish their song or story, allowing them to prolong the song. It is not uncommon for a rapper to do a similar thing while performing. Adding verses or lines to their rap, or having hype men expanding the songs beyond their recorded structures, as well as ad libbing back lines and vocals. Similarly jazz musicians will often play a theme of a song, either an original or a ‘standard’, and later expanding or improvising over its basic structure. The accompanists also vary in the way they accompany the lead voice or the soloist, while keeping the main structure of the song in place. Regardless of the liberties taken in those parts, musicians subsequently return to the theme (or written melody) to finish the song.
Clearly, the arts community is facing a big crisis in the last couple of years (or months). The loss of many abilities to perform and lower royalties from the streaming services has made it clear that composers, improvisers, performers or anyone in the performing arts will have a hard road ahead. The entire community will have to take some lessons from the world of improvisation and approach many things in a new way. We will have to deal with new media and new ways of performing, we will all have to use some new technologies that we might be less familiar with at the moment.
Artists have and will continue to present the struggles that humans face daily all over the world. Rap has often focused on the struggles of their community and of the broader world. Many rappers and related artists have used their art and subsequent success to bring attention to the issues in their communities. The amplifications of the voices of many previously marginalized groups have already had geopolitical impacts. Currently, we are seeing this on an unprecedented scale due to new media and the technological advancements. They allow the creators a more direct and unfiltered access to their audiences, which in turn allows the communication of less filtered messages as the role of the “gatekeepers” becomes diminished.
The genres are both significant in todays’ world - as an expressive art form and as a means of approaching composition. I have chosen to approach this topic in a very technical way, furthering my own progress on the topic and gaining better understanding of the merger of these genres. For me, it is crucial to firstly have an in-depth understanding of what it is that I am actually researching or writing. In the last couple of years as I have started to compose more, I have found that the technical approach is the easiest to begin with when approaching a new subject. It helps to reduce the constant search for the notes to guide me, but rather allows me to guide the notes. Understanding is necessary in order to present a message in a clear way, whether a statement is one with real world implications or one of mere self expression. The need to understand extends to the domains of the context, historical timing, or socioeconomic happenstance of any given material. Everything comes from somewhere and exists within a context and these factors may effect the message when the material is used. In that spirit I hope to continue to research, learn and create. At the very end, I thank those who support and enable me - AS fundacija, the Slovenian Ministry of Culture whose scholarship I receive, my mother who is my guiding light and my girlfriend who has tolerated my stressed days of writing.
Dré A. Hočevar
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Tisa Neža Herlec