Tag Archives: genre

The Long and Rhythmic Road: Getting Into Rap

It’s never been an easy time with rap and I. Of course, I bought The Marshall Mathers LP when it came out, right around my entry into high school, but it was just an end-in-itself. I never sought out any more like, nor did I follow up with any other Eminem albums. I was into it, and then it was gone just as quickly. I was there for the 2000s rap-rock craze, but it never really did much for me (my Marshall Mathers LP story could apply just as easily to Linkin Park’s Hybrid Theory). Since that time, rap – much like its cousin in cliche music non-preferences, country – has never really gotten me excited. Every time I heard it, I would just hear the genre as heavy beats, some dude talking fast and saying ‘yeah’ a lot and reciting their own name incessantly. I would never engage with it, as any time I heard any one of those things, I would just tune it out immediately and say “oh, rap.”

Of course, when at odds with a genre, you just hear the worst in it. You pick out those things you already know you don’t like, and that just reinforces the feeling. It doesn’t help that you’ve probably decided that you dislike the genre based the most popular iterations of it, which is what you would probably hear of it most often, as you’re not going to be seeking out something you don’t think you’re going to want to listen to.  I’d made the decision previously that I didn’t like it and really didn’t feel the need to revise it for the longest time.

It’s not that I hadn’t encountered sort of the basic elements in a different context, with rapid-fire lyrics (for rock music) delivered mostly for emphasis on rhythm rather than melody in amongst my usual listened-to bands – R.E.M.’s “E-Bow the Letter” or Radiohead’s “A Wolf at the Door.” come to mind. I never ventured further, as I just thought them to be neat extensions and experiments of the bands I was listening to rather than something to explore in isolation. The first crack in the armour came with Radiohead’s most recent effort, The King of Limbs. Though there isn’t any rapping on it, whole album is based on wonky rhythms – chopped up drum parts by drummer Phil Selway re-arranged as such as to need two drummers to play the tracks on tour. After a few cursory listens, the rhythm bug got its hooks into me and I couldn’t get enough of it (in fact, this is also what drove me to start making music, realizing  I could generate some pretty good beats with my computer to build on top of).

Now having that solid basis in beat appreciation, there was something more to be found in the rap world for me, but it was still rough going. Kanye West’s “All of the Lights” was the example that I frequently brought up to people. I love the backing track – the instruments, the vocals, the hook, the beats, everything that was going on in the background totally had me hooked. At which Kanye actually came in and started rapping and it all fell apart for me. All it felt that it was doing was dulling the impact of the rest of the song. I couldn’t understand why it couldn’t have been just let be. The problem was that I was still refusing to engage with it as rap. I was trying to listen to it as a pop song or some such and then this rapper kept intruding. I was willing to acknowledge the skill in crafting the song, but that was about it. I still wasn’t ready for rap.

There may be a bright light, however. I recently re-listened to the Doomtree album No Kings, and I think I’m finally getting the hang of things. I think I’m ready to actually listen to rap for what it is rather than what I can appreciate from the view of another genre. I am into the hooks big time, but starting to appreciate the actual rapping that comprises the bulk of the songs. Take a song like “Bolt Cutter”, which reads like a radical manifesto – “my baby gave me a bolt cutter/we like to break in/and reclaim all the spaces they forgot they had taken” – a fact I had never paid attention to before. The rapping during the verses serves to colour in and give a reality to the idea that is only hinted at in the chorus, much as the instruments in most songs do. I’m beginning, too, to appreciate the variance in rhythm and flow that each of the rappers in the group brings to the table, especially when stacked up against one another in the same song, not to mention the impact a second or two of silence from the rapper can have on the rhythm.

It’s taken me awhile, but maybe I’ve listened to the right combination of songs, or maybe the time is right now for me to start to appreciate rap on its own terms. Luckily, Doomtree has seven members, all of whom have solo projects, so I feel I’ll be off to the races fairly quickly as my knowledge about the genre expands.

“E-Bow the Letter”

“A Wolf at the Door.”

“All of the Lights”

“Bolt Cutter”

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List-O-Mania: 5 Songs Where the Artist Went Outside the Box

Sometimes, a band just gets pigeonholed into a sound and feels the need to break the monotony with something wacky. Sometimes you just found a new instrument and want to see what it’s capable of (see The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood”). Sometimes, you let the drummer write a song. Whatever the case may be, I love hearing bands taking a stab and something totally outside of their wheelhouse. It makes one sit up and take notice (for better or for worse) and maybe even develop an appreciation for the curiosity of the members of the band. Either way, here are five tracks where artists went “outside”:

1) The Police – Mother

One of the few Police songs not penned by Sting, this track by guitarist Andy Summers takes the old I-IV-V blues progression and hangs on it an Arabian-tinged dirge more suitable for a slasher movie soundtrack. A far cry from their reggae-flavoured pop/rock, a synthesizer plays a maddening chromatic decent while Sting on the oboe winces in the background. Summers takes the lead vocal, screaming Oedipal declarations (“Well every girl that I go out with/Becomes my mother in the end!”) and laughing maniacally. Stuck in the middle of their pop masterpiece Synchronicity, which spawned both “Every Breath You Take” and “King of Pain”, it’s pretty jarring to hear, but not unwelcome. It’s refreshing that they were still open to that kind of experimentation up to what would be their swan song.

2) The Decemberists – Like A Lion

A far cry from their usual jangly folk-rock, “Like A Lion” does feature Colin Meloy and an acoustic guitar, but everything else seems…off. Based around a sample of an orchestral flourish that intrudes at odder and odder intervals, the acoustic guitar doesn’t have it usual deftness but instead is being hammered and sounds stunted and low, which fits the funereal atmosphere. When the song drifts away momentarily, it’s a gentle beeping which brings us back in. Later on, string scratches and feedback join the festivities and refuse to leave, building up an ugly wall of sound as it heads towards the finish. Meloy’s usual sprightly voice is dour and double-tracked, mournfully delivering a paean to that moment after you’ve held your breath and how “time stands still/until now”. Attempting to make sense of what he experienced at the birth of his son, “Like A Lion” is, on the surface, majestic, but one layer deeper, profoundly confused.

3) Peter Gabriel – Excuse Me

Before Peter Gabriel really found his groove with the rhythms that would define his later solo career, it released a rather eclectic first album after splitting from Genesis. One experiment he would not duplicate was the barbershop and light jazz of “Excuse Me”. On the introduction with Gabriel’s theatrical, exaggerated lead, you can practically hear the straw boater hats and canes. The a capella group is nary to return for the rest of the song, but are soon replaced with honky-tonk piano, slide whistle and tuba as Gabriel ends every verse by stating “I wanna be alone” as he yearns for everyone to get out of his mind, out of his life and out of his way for just a moment. The song is very much reminiscent of Queen’s “Seaside Rendezvous” as being a total throw back to 20s/30s music, but where Freddie Mercury adapted his voice to sound as if it emanated from the era, Gabriel sounds like his is stuck out of time and only has a 20s backup band available to get his thoughts across, so he might as well use ’em.

4) David Bowie – Yassassin (Turkish For: Long Live)

Bowie is well-known for being an experimentalist and trend-setter and has made a career out of getting to and defining the ‘latest thing’. An album after his side-long ambient experiments with Eno, Bowie released Lodger, which, as the title suggests, deals with his feelings as a world traveller. Though he doesn’t explore a whole lot of world music on the album, there are a couple of spots where the international flavour is felt and no more so than on “Yassassin”, which combines two styles, neither of which Bowie would return to much later on in his career: reggae and Turkish folk music. The offbeat reggae rhythm starts off the track, soon joined by a tinny organ, and then a wandering violin gives us the Turkish tune that goes for pretty much the whole song, gently soloing in an Eastern mode. It, strangely enough, works pretty well, with Bowie giving enough deference to both genres and giving a slightly accented vocal about being “just a working man/no judge of men” and an all male backing chorus telling us to “look at this!”

5) Muse – Madness

Though the song is quintessentially, undeniably Muse, there’s something different about “Madness” that catches the ear on the otherwise totally bombastic The 2nd Law. It’s mainly about control. Most Muse songs wield powerful riffs, lush, orchestrated harmonies, gasping breaths, shouted paranoid lyrics and piercing falsetto (in fact, all of these things can be found on the tracks proceeding it, “Supremacy”). But “Madness” is controlled. It has a simple beat, a plaintive melody, is about love of all things (though seeing love as an encroaching mental illness is very Muse), has measured harmonies and slowly builds up, with each verse adding a couple more layers. The guitar solo is absolutely precise, gorgeous and the perfect length for the song. This is Muse with their powers focused into the 3-minute pop song (well, 4:40) and it just emerges crystalline. Not that they aren’t one of the best rock groups on the planet, but this is just a surprising entry to their oeuvre that produced fantastic results.

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Beyond the Pale: Getting Into Reggae

It was one of those nights, y’know. You’re sittin’ around, playing video games or chatting or what-have-you, and the laptop gets passed around, and each person gets a turn at picking a track on YouTube to serve as the evening’s soundtrack for the next however many minutes, which is both terribly exciting and terribly frightening all at once. You get the chance to sneak in another of your best kept musical secrets, but at the same time it has to fit both the mood of the evening and keep in line with what’s been played previously. It has to progress, like a thinking playlist, and evolve based on similar themes or musical motifs. Anyhow, standard practice. And then my friend Bryce puts on this track.

Now, my experience with reggae is spotty, at best. I’d mostly heard Bob Marley echoing from the dorm rooms of stoned neighbours back in first year, and the playing of Radiodread to the crowd gathered on campus during 4/20; I’d also listened to the Police. Beyond that I never really got any closer, as there wasn’t much that really captured me any time I’d listened to it. And then my friend Bryce puts on this track: “Poor Me Israelites” by Desmond Dekker & the Aces.

After asking Bryce who it was, I was intrigued, as he wasn’t Bob Marley or Peter Tosh or Jimmy Cliff (about the extent of my knowledge of reggae at the time). It made me aware that there might be an entire world I didn’t know about. But more on that later. This song swept me away! Maybe it was the repetition of “Poooooor meeeeee Israelite” after each refrain that turns your ear towards the story of a man wishing to suffer as little as possible. Maybe it was the brisk pace compared to most reggae I’d heard before, or the dramatic slow introduction before the song kicks off. Maybe it was Dekker’s high voice, syncopating all over the place. Maybe the boppin’ bassline. Whatever it was, the moment this song entered my head, it would not come out for at least a month afterwards.

Having it go round and round in there got me to thinking that I could maybe give this reggae thing a try now. I checked out the album the song came from (1968’s Intensified) and Catch A Fire by The Wailers on a friend’s recommendation. After that, as far as I could tell, I was hooked. Wanting to see what was going on in the genre currently, and after goggling at the fact that Bob Marley was still atop the Billboard reggae charts (I don’t know why I was surprised, but it caught me off guard, as my intention was to educate myself in “more than just Bob Marley” by seeing the current trends, with the acknowledgement of how huge Marley is in reggae), I pulled a couple of interesting looking albums (working on Hawai’i 13 by The Green currently), and have been about there ever since (apart from, in that period where I was listening obsessively, I went and recorded a reggae-flavoured song).

The thing that confounds me still, however, is this – did I just hear the right reggae song that got me into it or had I built up enough appreciation for some of the musical tools that it used via other music that the time was now right to accept a reggae song and, perhaps, the whole genre now? I don’t think I’ll ever quite know, but “Poor Me Israelites” gets played in my ears constantly to this day, and I’m expanding knowledge and appreciating the reggae I do hear much more than I used to, which I only figure could be a good thing.

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