Meet the Beat

Hip-hop's here. Deal with it. Check the local MCs and DJs moving up from the underground.

This East/West mess is a shame to me
How some drama killed Pac
And revenge killed Biggie
But we still got to strive
Rap from 9 to 5
'Bout to do it like the Fugees
'Cuz I'm staying alive

-- from "Do Me a Favor," performed by Doom (St. Louis), from the Funk Note collection Stuck in Da' Middle, Volume I

Rap music is not pop music. It can be, though, when it chooses to be. It can be Puff Daddy or Vanilla Ice wrapping a recognizable hook -- the Police's "Every Breath You Take," Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir," Queen's "Under Pressure" -- around the art of rhyming. Those tunes are crossovers, obviously designed to touch a nerve with a white population by providing an easy handle to grasp, then slamming a booty-pumping beat to it that pushes the buttons of both urban and suburban listeners.

In fact, rap in general is surprisingly easy to grasp; it's not hard to distinguish one artist from another by their styles, just as in any other genre, once you dive in. Styles evolve quickly and then, once they make an impression, morph into new sounds. Tom Ray, co-owner of Vintage Vinyl -- which has served as hip-hop's headquarters in St. Louis since the music's birth -- used to say to skeptics that rap is like a newspaper, and once the hot seller is stale on the shelf, a new, updated edition is released. Nowadays, of course, three or four different newspapers come out every week, each with a different editorial stance, and depending on your point of view and your stylistic predilections, you decide which one you're most challenged by.

"Hip-hop is historical music," echoes longtime hip-hop follower and Vintage Vinyl employee Barry Currie. "If you listen to hip-hop in '98 -- if you find the conscious rappers -- you can almost get a bead on what conscious black America is doing. If you find the gangsta rappers, you can get a bead on what the gangstas were thinking in, say, '95. It's historical. They quote stuff that happens around them every day -- not 10 years ago, not 10 years from now -- what's happening right now in my world or in this world, and it records our history through song. People don't see that. It's the only music out there that you do that with. You don't do it with soul; you don't do it with jazz. The sound in jazz can give you an idea; hip-hop can tell you what year it is."

So what's to like about hip-hop? It's just beats and samples. Some jams are faster than others. Some rappers cuss more than others. Some guys are clowns; some are urgent and serious. Some are mean. Some are nice. Other than those superficial differences, all this music sounds the same.

Well, Poindexter, you gotta dive in with both feet. You can't hear the music if the only time it's in your face is when you stumble past MTV moving from the Spice Channel to ESPN. It's tough to hear differences when the music cruises past you in a Jeep Cherokee, turns a corner and vanishes. When you dive in, a whole world reveals itself. First, you must listen to it loud, because between the beats and under the pounding are nooks and crannies, texture and, most important, a context. Hip-hop is a conversation -- a conversation between MC and DJ, between MC and listener, between MC and MC. Verbal sparring matches are the norm; inter-rhyme references to other artists and cuts are everywhere, as well as references to the music's history.

If you approach rap with pop-music ears, you're going to get frustrated. Where are the hooks? Where's the chorus? The melody? All three are there, all three are used and manipulated, but in different ways. Every rap song has a hook, and often both vocal and musical hooks anchor the cut in your brain. It may be a simple piano loop repeated over and over; it may be a freaky kung-fu mantra repeated at regular intervals; it may be a combination. Regardless, it takes as much craft and creativity to construct a tight hip-hop cut as it does to make catchy music in any other genre.

And if you ignore the intricacies of the beat, you're missing half the point. Beats are more than simply the butt butter that gets you moving. Beats can be melodies; beats can be hooks; beats can be choruses. Beats can be beats. Beats are often all the above at the same time. Beats are the uncut funk that keeps everything in its place, but they can also be the springboard that sets a rapper free from the constraints of rhythm. Mos Def of Black Star describes in the liner notes to the group's self-titled CD one particular beat: "That beat! Shawn had played it to me a while back. He was going through some old DATs and this came on. It was actually an old intro to another beat and I bugged out when I heard it, like, 'That's bananas!'"

And that's just the music. On top is the MC, who's working his own rhythm, filling in the gaps that the beats allow with off beats and double-time rhythm. The MC constructs a complex counterpoint sound -- some do it better than others -- that flows along with the beat while adding both a linguistic and a rhythmic punch. "The basic form of a rhyme is to rhyme every sentence at the end," says Finsta of the Ruckus Crew. "So you'd be like, 'Saying a rhyme/all the time/what I design/no one can find.' But anybody can do that part. So what you do is, in between the rhymes you add another rhyme. Instead of rhyming at the end of each sentence, you rhyme at the end of a sentence, in the middle of the sentence, the middle of the sentence again, and then at the end of the sentence -- like, 'My life creation anticipating altercation/complete annihilation of your whole federation.' One big thing about rhyming is the importance of using metaphors. To me a metaphor will explain something better than telling a person straight out. It gives you a picture in your mind; that's one of the main things you do when you rhyme -- metaphors and similes. If you can master the art of similes and metaphors, you'll be a great MC for life."

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