PoP THEORY : WHY RAP IS NOT MUSIC

Art by Ed Piskor

Form not substance

To avoid any misunderstanding about the opinion I am about to express here, please note that this post is discussing Rap as an art form and NOT a substantive judgement of the merits (or otherwise) of Rap as a genre. Now that that’s out of the way, let us begin.

What is Music?

The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines music as “the art of combining vocal or instrumental sounds (or both) to produce beauty of form, harmony, and expression of emotion” (Concise Oxford Dictionary 1992).

A very general description that is not too helpful. So let’s look to Jan LaRue’s Guidelines for Style Analysis, where an approach to the understanding of musical works is provided.

I have taken the liberty to summarise LaRue’s analysis into five elements viz. melody, harmony, rhythm, form and sound (which includes timbre and texture). To this, one could possibly add lyrics as well.

I believe that this is a reliable means by which one can appreciate music. But also, it provides us with a way in which to distinguish different forms of art from music.

Case in point : Rap.

How it began

Now, let’s define what I mean by Rap. Here’s a useful quote from NPR.

“Rap as a genre began at block parties in New York City in the early 1970s, when DJs began isolating the percussion breaks of funk, soul, and disco songs and extending them. MCs tasked with introducing the DJs and keeping the crowd energized would talk between songs, joking and generally interacting with the audience.”

Based on numerous rap documentaries I have watched, this definition accords with my own understanding of how Rap originated. At its essence, Rap is spoken word over a collage of beats and musical snippets taken from existing songs.

Square pegs in round holes

Based on this understanding on what Rap is, Rap is not music. There is no melody or harmony mainly only rhythm. I think that’s a plain enough observation. This is not a criticism, this is a fact and inherent in the nature of the art form.

After all, the focal point of Rap is NOT the backing but the words. It is the essential component of the genre. Nothing wrong with that – this is what gives Rap its distinctive style and power!

Of course, there are exceptions to this general rule. In the evolution of rap, there have been hybrid forms (rap-metal), where there are melodic choruses, and certainly then, strictly speaking it’s not pure Rap anymore.

This is pop

In the final analysis, the purpose of this understanding is hopefully to lead to a deeper appreciation of how unique Rap really is. You often see detractors dismiss the cultural significance of Rap labelling the form as unmusical.

But these commentators are missing the point, Rap stands on its own as a unique art form, combining spoken word and sound collages to express emotional resonance and power. A valid pop culture genre as much as our beloved rock n roll.

I expect folks to have their own opinions about this. So please share them over at the Power of Pop Facebook page. Keep things civil, alright?
Enjoy!

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