CHAPTER THREE: Soul Sonic Forces: Technology, Orality, and Black Cultural
Practice in Rap Music
Rap music has inspired me because I know that when Chuck D tells you to â€œbring the
noise,â€ he’s telling you that it’s hard. And when you hear the tribal beat and the drums,
they are the same drums of the African past that draws the community to war. The drum
beats are just faster, because the condition is accelerating so they’ve got to beat faster.
And when your feet are jumping, dancing … it’s the spirit attempting to escape the
entrapment. When you feel that the children have gone mad, if you don’t feel it, and
when you look at the dances you don’t see it and when you listen to the music and you
don’t hear a call, then you missed the jam.–Sister Souljah 1
â€œThe soundâ€ I tell them, that’s the final answer to any question in music–the sound.
–Max Roach 2
In the spring of 1989, I was speaking animatedly with an ethnomusicology professor about rap music and
the aims of this project. He found some of my ideas engaging and decided to introduce me and describe my
project to the chairman of his music department. At the end of his summary the department head rose from
his seat and announced casually, â€œWell, you must be writing on rap’s social impact and political lyrics,
because there is nothing to the music.â€ My surprised expression and verbal hesitation gave him time to
explain his position. He explained to me that although the music was quite simple and repetitive, the stories
told in the lyrics had social value. He pointed out rap’s role as a social steam valve, a means for the
expression of social anger. â€œBut,â€ he concluded, referring to the music, â€œthey ride down the street at 2:00
A.M. with it blasting from car speakers, and (they) wake up my wife and kids. What’s the point in that?â€ I
immediately flashed on a history lesson in which I learned that slaves were prohibited from playing African
drums, because, as a vehicle for coded communication, they inspired fear in slaveholders. I suggested that
perhaps the music was more complicated than it seemed to him, that a number of innovative approaches
Page Image to sound and rhythm were being explored in rap music. He listened but seemed closed to such
possibilities. Having had some experience with these sorts of â€œwhat I don’t know can’t penetrate meâ€
exchanges, I knew it would be prudent to disengage from this brewing disagreement before it became a long
and unpleasant exchange. The ethnomusicology professor who had introduced me ushered us out of the
For the music chairman, automobiles with massive speakers blaring bass and drum heavy beats looped
continuously served as an explanation for the insignificance of the music and diminished rap’s lyrical and
political salience as well. The music was â€œnothingâ€ to him on the grounds of its apparent â€œsimplicityâ€ and
â€œrepetitiveness.â€ Rap music was also â€œnoiseâ€ to him, unintelligible yet aggressive sound that disrupted his
familial domain (â€œthey wake up my wife and kidsâ€) and his sonic territory. His legitimate and important
question, â€œWhat is the point of that?â€ was offered rhetorically to justify his outright dismissal of the music,
rather than presented seriously to initiate at least a hypothetical inquiry into a musical form that for him
seemed at once to be everywhere and yet going nowhere. Let us take his question seriously: What is the
point of rap’s volume, looped drum beats, and bass frequencies? What meanings can be derived from the
sound rap musicians have created? How is the context for its consumption connected to both its black
cultural priorities and its sociological effects? His dismissive question is a productive point of entry into
understanding rap’s sonic power and presence. Rap’s distinctive bass-heavy, enveloping sound does not
rest outside of its musical and social power. Emotional power and presence in rap are profoundly linked to
sonic force and one’s receptivity to it. As Sistah Souljah reminds her audience at Abyssinian Baptist Church:
â€œWhen you feel the children have gone mad, if you don’t feel it … when you listen to the music and you don’t
hear a call, then you missed the jam.â€
Rap’s black sonic forces are very much an outgrowth of black cultural traditions, the postindustrial
transformation of urban life, and the contemporary technological terrain. Many of its musical practitioners
were trained to repair and maintain new technologies for the privileged but have instead used these
technologies as primary tools for alternative cultural expression. This advanced technology has not been
straightforwardly adopted; it has been significantly revised in ways that are in keeping with long-standing
black cultural priorities, particularly regarding approaches to sound organization. These revisions,
especially the use of digital samplers, have not gone unnoticed by the music industry,
Page Image the legal system, and other institutions responsible for defining, validating, and policing
musical production and distribution. Sampling technology and rap producers’ commercially profitable use
of sampled sounds have seriously challenged the current scope of copyright laws (which are based on
notated compositions) and raised larger, more complex questions regarding fair use of musical property
and the boundaries of ownership of musical phrases.
Rap’s use of sampling technology, looped rhythmic lines, coupled with its significant commercial presence
also raises questions about the relationship between industrial imperatives and their impact on cultural
production. Is rap’s use of repetition in rhythm and sound organization (via looping and sampling) a byproduct of the parameters of industrial production (for example, formulas that streamline the sale of music
such as commercial radio’s four-minute song cap or rap’s reuse of previously recorded music). Or, are there
cultural explanations for the musical structures in rap’s use of electronic equipment?
At the same time as rap music has dramatically changed the intended use of sampling technology, it has
also remained critically linked to black poetic traditions and the oral forms that underwrite them. These
oral traditions and practices clearly inform the prolific use of collage, intertextuality, boasting, toasting, and
signifying in rap’s lyrical style and organization. Rap’s oral articulations are heavily informed by
technological processes, not only in the way such oral traditions are formulated, composed, and
disseminated, but also in the way orally based approaches to narrative are embedded in the use of the
technology itself. In this contentious environment, these black techno-interventions are often dismissed as
nonmusical effects or rendered invisible. These hybrids between black music, black oral forms, and
technology that are at the core of rap’s sonic and oral power are an architectural blueprint for the
redirection of seemingly intractable social ideas, technologies, and ways of organizing sounds along a
course that affirms the histories and communal narratives of Afro-diasporic people.
The organizing principle which makes the black style is rhythm. It is the most
perceptible and the least material thing.–Leopold Sedar Senghor 3
Rhythm. Rap music is so powerful because of rhythm.–Harmony 4
Rap’s rhythms–â€œthe most perceptible, yet least material elementsâ€-are its most powerful effect. Rap’s
primary force is sonic, and the distinctive, systematic use of rhythm and sound, especially the use of
repetition and musical breaks, are part of a rich history of New World black traditions and practices. Rap
music centers on the quality and nature of
Page Image rhythm and sound, the lowest, â€œfattest beatsâ€ being the most significant and emotionally
charged. As rapper Guru has said, â€œIf the beat was a princess, I’d marry it.â€ 5 Many of the popular â€œJeep
beatsâ€ feature dark, strong, prominent, and riveting bass lines. 6 These musical lines dominate production–
even at the expense of the rapper’s vocal presence. The arrangement and selection of sounds rap musicians
have invented via samples, turntables, tape machines, and sound systems are at once deconstructive (in
that they actually take apart recorded musical compositions) and recuperative (because they
recontextualize these elements creating new meanings for cultural sounds that have been relegated to
commercial wastebins). Rap music revises black cultural priorities via new and sophisticated technological
means. â€œNoiseâ€ on the one hand and communal countermemory on the other, rap music conjures and razes
in one stroke.
These revisions do not take place in a cultural and political vacuum, they are played out on a cultural and
commercial terrain that embraces black cultural products and simultaneously denies their complexity and
coherence. This denial is partly fueled by a mainstream cultural adherence to the traditional paradigms of
Western classical music as the highest legitimate standard for musical creation, a standard that at this point
should seem, at best, only marginally relevant in the contemporary popular music realm (a space all but
overrun by Afrodiasporic sounds and multicultural hybrids of them). Instead, and perhaps because of, the
blackening of the popular taste, Western classical music continues to serve as the primary intellectual and
legal standard and point of reference for â€œrealâ€ musical complexity and composition. For these reasons, a
comparative look at these two musical and cultural forces is of the utmost importance if we are to make
sense of rap’s music and the responses to it.
Rhythmic Repetition, Industrial Forces, and Black Practice
Unlike the complexity of Western classical music, which is primarily represented in its melodic and
harmonic structures, the complexity of rap music, like many Afrodiasporic musics, is in the rhythmic and
percussive density and organization. 7 â€œHarmonyâ€ versus â€œrhythmâ€ is an oft-sited reduction of the primary
distinctions between Western classical and African and African-derived musics. Still, these terms represent
significant differences in sound organization and perhaps even disparate approaches to ways of perception,
as it were. The outstanding technical feature of the Western classical music tradition is tonal functional
Page Image Tonal functional harmony is based on clear, definite pitches and logical relations between
them; on the forward drive toward resolution of a musical sequence that leads to a final resolution: the final
perfect cadence. The development of tonal harmony critically confined the range of possible tones to twelve
tones within each octave arranged in only one of two possible ways, major or minor. It also restricted the
rhythmic complexity of European music. In place of freedom with respect to accent and measure, European
music focused rhythmic activity onto strong and weak beats in order to prepare and resolve harmonic
dissonance. Furthermore, as Christopher Small has argued, Western classical tonal harmony is structurally
less tolerant of â€œacoustically illogical and unclear sounds, sound not susceptible to total control.â€ Other
critical features of classical music, such as the notion system and the written score–the medium through
which the act of composition takes place-separate the composer from both the audience and the performer
and sets limits on composition and performance. 8 This classical music tradition, like all major musical and
cultural developments, emerged as part of a larger historical shift in European consciousness:
[We see] changes in European consciousness that we call the Renaissance having its effect in music, with
the personal, humanistic viewpoint substituted for the theocratic, universalistic viewpoint of the Middle
Ages, expressed in technical terms by a great interest in chords and their effects in juxtaposition, and
specifically in the perfect cadence and the suspended dissonance, rather than in polyphony and the
independent life of the individual voice. 9
Rhythm and polyrhythmic layering is to African and African-derived musics what harmony and the
harmonic triad is to Western classical music. Dense configurations of independent, but closely related,
rhythms, harmonic and nonharmonic percussive sounds, especially drum sounds, are critical priorities in
many African and Afrodiasporic musical practices. The voice is also an important expressive instrument. A
wide range of vocal sounds intimately connected to tonal speech patterns, â€œstrong differences between the
various registers of the voice, even emphasizing the breaks between them,â€ are deliberately cultivated in
African and African-influenced musics. 10 Treatment, or â€œversioning,â€ is highly valued. Consequently, the
instrument is not simply an object or vehicle for displaying one’s talents, it is a â€œcolleague in the creation.â€
And, most important for this discussion, African melodic phrases â€œtend to be short and repetition is
common; in fact, repetition is one of the characteristics of African music.â€ Christopher Small elaborates:
A call-and-response sequence may go on for several hours, with apparently monotonous repetition of the
same short phrase sung by a leader and answered by
Page Image the chorus, but in fact subtle variations are going on all the time, not only in the melodic lines
themselves but also in their relation to the complex cross-rhythms in the accompanying drumming or hand
clapping…. The repetitions of African music have a function in time which is the reverse of (Western
classical) music–to dissolve the past and the future into one eternal present, in which the passing of time is
no longer noticed. 11
Rhythmic complexity, repetition with subtle variations, the significance of the drum, melodic interest in the
bass frequencies, and breaks in pitch and time (e.g., suspensions of the beat for a bar or two) are also
consistently recognized features of African-American musical practices. In describing black New World
approaches to rhythm, Ben Sidran refers to Rudi Blesh’s notion of â€œsuspended rhythmâ€ and Andre Hodier’s
description of â€œswingâ€ as rhythmic tension over stated or implied meter. 12 Time suspension via rhythmic
breaks–points at which the bass lines are isolated and suspended–are important clues in explaining
sources of pleasure in black musics.
Approaches to sound, rhythm, and repetition in rap music exhibit virtually all of these traits. Rap music
techniques, particularly the use of sampling technology, involve the repetition and reconfiguration of
rhythmic elements in ways that illustrate a heightened attention to rhythmic patterns and movement
between such patterns via breaks and points of musical rupture. Multiple rhythmic forces are set in motion
and then suspended, selectively. Rap producers construct loops of sounds and then build in critical
moments, where the established rhythm is manipulated and suspended. Then, rhythmic lines reemerge at
key relief points. One of the clearest examples of this practice is demonstrated in â€œRock Dis Funky Jointâ€ by
the Poor Righteous Teachers. The music and the vocal rapping style of Culture Freedom has multiple and
complicated time suspensions and rhythmic ruptures of the musical and lyrical passages. 13 Busta Rhymes
from Leaders of the New School, reggae rapper Shabba Ranks, British rapper Monie Love, Trech from
Naughty by Nature, B-Real from Cypress Hill, and Das Efx are known especially for using their voices as
percussive instruments, bending words, racing through phrases, pausing and stuttering through
complicated verbal rhythms.
These features are not merely stylistic effects, they are aural manifestations of philosophical approaches to
social environments. James A. Snead, working along the same lines as Small, offers a philosophical
explanation for the meaning and significance of repetition and rupture in black culture. As we shall see,
musical elements that reflect worldviews, these â€œrhythmic instinctions,â€ are critical in understanding the
Â© Lisa Leone
of time, motion, and repetition in black culture and are of critical importance to understanding the
manipulation of technology in rap.
The rhythmic instinction to yield to travel beyond existing forces of life. Basically, that’s
tribal and if you wanna get the rhythm, then you haw to join a tribe.
–A Tribe Called Quest 14
The outstanding fact of late-twentieth-century European culture is its ongoing
reconciliation with black culture. The mystery may be that it took so long to discern the
elements of black culture already there in latent form, and to realize that the separation
between the cultures was perhaps all along not one of nature, but of force.
–James A. Snead 15
Snead suggests that the vast body of literature devoted to mapping the cultural differences between
Europeanand African-derived cultures, which has characterized differences between European and black
cultures as a part of â€œnature,â€ are in fact differences in force; differences in cultural responses to the
inevitability of repetition. Snead argues that repetition is an important and telling element in culture, a
means by which a sense of continuity, security, and identification are maintained. This sense of security can
be understood as, in fact, a kind of â€œcoverage,â€ both as insurance against sudden ruptures and as a way of
Page Image and masking undesired or unpleasant facts or conditions. Snead argues quite convincingly that
all cultures provide coverage against loss of identity, repression, assimilation, or attack. Where they â€œdiffer
among one another primarily [is] in the tenacity with which the â€˜cover-upâ€™ is maintained … grafting leeway
to those ruptures in the illusion of growth which most often occur in the dÃ©jÃ vus of exact repetition.â€ He
suggests that when we view repetition in cultural forms we are not viewing the same thing repeated, but its
transformation, â€œrepetition is not just a formal ploy, but often the willed grafting onto culture of an
essentially philosophical insight about the shape of time and history…. One may readily classify cultural
forms based on whether they tend to admit or cover up these repeating constituencies within them.â€ 16
Snead claims that European culture â€œsecretsâ€ repetition, categorizing it as progression or regression,
assigning accumulation and growth or stagnation to motion, whereas black cultures highlight the
observance of repetition, perceiving it as circulation, equilibrium. In a fashion resembling Small, Snead
argues that Western classical music uses rhythm mainly as â€œan aid in the construction of a sense of
progression to a harmonic cadence (and) repetition has been suppressed in favor of the fulfillment of the
goal of harmonic resolution.â€ Similarly, musicologist Susan McClary points out that â€œtonal musicâ€
(referring to the Western classical tradition) is â€œnarratively conceived at least to the extent that the original
key area–the tonic–also serves as the final goal. Tonal structures are organized teleologically, with the
illusion of unitiary identity promised at the end of each piece.â€ 17
To the contrary, Snead claims that black cultures highlight the observance of repetition, perceiving it as
circulation and equilibrium, rather than as a regulated force that facilitates the achievement of a final
harmonic goal. Drawing on examples in literature, religion, philosophy, and music, Snead elaborates on the
uses and manifestations of repetition in black culture. 18 For our purposes, his analysis of the meaning of
repetition in black music is most relevant, specifically his description of rhythmic repetition and its
relationship to the â€œcutâ€:
In black culture, repetition means that the thing circulates, there in an equilibrium…. In European culture,
repetition must be seen to be not just circulation and flow, but accumulation and growth. In black culture,
the thing (the ritual, the dance, the beat) is there for you to pick up when you come back to get it.â€ If there is
a goal … it is always deferred; it continually â€œcutsâ€ back to the start, in the musical meaning of a â€œcutâ€ as an
abrupt, seemingly unmotivated break (an accidental da capo) with a series already in progress and a willed
return to a prior series…. Black culture, in the â€œcut,â€ â€œbuildsâ€ accidents into its coverage, almost as if to
control their unpredictability. 19
Deliberately â€œrepetitiveâ€ in force, black musics (especially those genres associated with dance) use the â€œcutâ€
to emphasize the repetitive nature of the music by â€œskipping back to another beginning which we have
already heard,â€ making room for accidents and ruptures inside the music itself. In this formulation,
repetition and rupture work within and against each other, building multiple circular musical lines that are
broken and then absorbed or managed in the reestablishment of rhythmic lines.
Rap music uses repetition and rupture in new and complex ways, building on long-standing black cultural
forces. Advances in technology have facilitated an increase in the scope of break beat deconstruction and
reconstruction and have made complex uses of repetition more accessible. Now, the desired bass line or
drum kick can be copied into a sampler, along with other desired sounds, and programmed to loop in any
desired tempo or order. Rap music relies on the loop, on the circularity of rhythm and on the â€œcutâ€ or the
â€œbreak beatâ€ that systematically ruptures equilibrium. Yet, in rap, the â€œbreak beatâ€ itself is loopedrepositioned as repetition, as equilibrium inside the rupture. Rap music highlights points of rupture as it
Snead calls James Brown â€œan example of a brilliant American practitioner of the â€˜cutâ€™â€ and describes the
relationship between established rhythmic patterns and the hiatus of the cut in Brown’s work as a rupture
that affirms the rhythmic pattern while it interrupts it. â€œThe ensuing rupture,â€ Snead claims, â€œdoes not
cause dissolution of the rhythm; quite to the contrary, it strengthens it.â€ Snead’s reading of James Brown as
a brilliant practitioner of the â€œcutâ€ is a prophetic one. Published in 1981, a number of years before hip hop
producers had communally declared James Brown’s discography the foundation of the break beat, Snead
could not have known that Brown’s exclamations, â€œhit me!â€ â€œtake it to the bridge!â€ rapid horn and drum
accents and bass lines would soon become the most widely used breaks in rap music.
Snead’s approach presumes that music is fundamentally related to the social world, that music, like other
cultural creations, fulfills and denies social needs, that music embodies assumptions regarding social
power, hierarchy, pleasure, and worldview. This link between music and larger social forces, although not
widely held in the field of musicology, is also critical to the work of Susan McClary, Christopher Small, and
French political economist Jacques Attali. McClary, Small, and Attali demystify the naturalized, normalized
status of nineteenth-century classical musical structures and conventions, positing an understanding of
music’s role as a way of perceiving the world and suggesting that every musical
Page Image code is rooted in the social formations and technologies of its age. 20 These historically and
culturally grounded interpretations of technological â€œadvancesâ€ shed light on naturalized aesthetic
parameters as they are embodied in equipment, illustrating the significance of culture in the development
Grounding music as a cultural discourse dismantles the causal link between rap’s sonic force and the
technological means for its expression. Rap producers’ strategic use of electronic reproduction technology,
particularly sampling equipment, affirms stylistic priorities in the organization and selection of sounds
found in many black diasporic musical expressions. Although rap music is shaped by and articulated
through advanced reproduction equipment, its stylistic priorities are not merely by-products of such
On the question of repetition as a cultural force, Attali and Snead part company. For Attali and other
cultural theorists, repetition is primarily considered a manifestation of mass culture, a characteristic of
culture in the age of reproduction. The advent of recording technology signaled the emergence of a society
of mass production and repetition. Repetition is, therefore, equated with industrial standardization and
represents a move toward a single totalitarian code. At the point of mass production and industrial
standardization, Attali claims, music becomes an industry and â€œits consumption ceases to be collective.â€ 21
Similarly, Adorno describes the â€œbreakâ€ in pre-swing jazz as â€œnothing other than a disguised cadenceâ€ and
explains that, â€œthe cult of the machine which is represented by unabated jazz beats involves a selfrenunciation that cannot but take root in the form of a fluctuating uneasiness somewhere in the personality
of the obedient.â€ 22 â€œIn mass culture,â€ Fredric Jameson claims, â€œrepetition effectively volatizes the original
object–so that the student of mass culture has no primary object of study.â€ 23
Repetition does, in fact, function as part of a system of mass production that structures and confines
creative articulation; along these lines Adorno, Jameson, and Attali offer vital criticisms of the logic of
massified culture in late capitalist societies. Yet, repetition cannot be reduced to a repressive, industrial
force. Nor is it sufficient to understand repetition solely as a by-product of the needs of industrialization. I
do not mean to suggest that any of the cultural theorists would claim that repetition was nonexistent in
preindustrial society. However, their focus on repetition as an industrial condition encourages
mischaracterizations of the black popular cultural phenomenon, particularly those forms that privilege
repetition and are prominently positioned in the commodity system.
If we assume that industrial production sets the terms for repetition inside mass-produced music, then how
can alternative uses and manifestations of repetition that are articulated inside the commodity market be
rendered perceptible? Rap music’s use of rhythmic lines constructed with sampled loops of sound are
particularly vulnerable to misreadings or erasures along these lines. Working inside the commodity market
and with industrial technology, rap music uses rhythmic forces that are informed by mass reproduction
technology, but it uses it in ways that affirm black cultural priorities that sometimes work against market
forces. Yet, none of this is visible if all mass-produced repetition is understood primarily as a manifestation
of mass culture. If rap can be so overwhelmingly mischaracterized, then what other musical and cultural
practices have been collapsed into the logic of industrial repetition, labeled examples of â€œcultlikeâ€
obedience? Adorno’s massive misreading of the jazz break, beside betraying a severe case of black cultural
illiteracy, is another obvious example of the pitfalls of reading musical structures in the popular realm as
by-products of industrial forces.
Adorno, Jameson, and Attali, by constructing repetition as if it were a singular force, strongly suggest that
mass production sets the terms for repetition and that any other cultural forms of repetition, once practiced
inside systems of mass production, are subsumed by the larger logic of industrialization. Consequently, no
other mass-produced or mass-consumed forms that privilege forms of repetition are accessible or relevant
once inside this larger logic of industrial repetition.
Positioning repetition in late capitalist markets as a consequence of that market, marginalizes or erases
alternative uses of and relationships to repetition that might suggest collective resistance to that system.
Repetition, then, is all too easily vilified, collapsed into the logic of the commodity system and is employed
as a means by which to effectively erase the multiplicity of cultures and traditions present in contemporary
Western societies. I am not suggesting that black culture supersedes the effects of commodification. Nor am
I suggesting that black cultural priorities lie outside of (or completely in opposition to) mass cultural
industries. Quite to the contrary, this is a call for readings of commodification that can accommodate
multiple histories and approaches to sound organization. I am mostly concerned, here, with facile and alltoo-frequent readings of repetition that apply and naturalize dominant cultural principles and consequently
colonize and silence black approaches, which, in the case of American popular music especially, have
significant and problematic, dare I say racist, implications. 24
Give me a (Break) Beat!: Sampling and Repetition
in Rap Production
You see, you misunderstood
A sample is just a tactic,
A portion of my method, a tool.
In fact it’s only of importance
When I make it a priority.
And what we sample is loved by the majority.
In rap, sampling remains a tactical priority. More precisely, samplers are the quintessential rap production
tool. Although rappers did not invent drum machines or sampling, they have revolutionized their use. Prior
to rap music’s redefinition of the role samplers play in musical creativity, samplers were used almost
exclusively as timeand moneysaving devices for producers, engineers, and composers. Samplers were used
as short cuts; sometimes a horn section, a bass drum, or background vocals would be lifted from a
recording easily and quickly, limiting the expense and effort to locate and compensate studio musicians.
Although famous rock musicians have used recognizable samples from other prominent musicians as part
of their album material, for the most part, samples were used to â€œflesh outâ€ or accent a musical piece, not to
build a new one. 26 In fact, prior to rap, the most desirable use of a sample was to mask the sample and its
origin; to bury its identity. Rap producers have inverted this logic, using samples as a point of reference, as
a means by which the process of repetition and recontextualization can be highlighted and privileged.
Samplers are computers that can digitally duplicate any existing sounds and play them back in any key or
pitch, in any order, sequence and loop them endlessly. They also have a preprogrammed library of digital
sounds, sounds that have not been â€œliftedâ€ from other previously recorded materials but may also be
arranged in any fashion. Harry Allen explains: â€œRecord the sound of these pages turning as your TV plays
the â€˜One Life to Liveâ€™ theme in the background. Or record your boss yelling. Or a piece of Kool and the
Gang, whatever, for up to 63 seconds. Loop it, so it plays end-on-end forever, or hook the $900 (sampler)
up to a keyboard and play whatever you recorded in a scale.â€ 27
Samplers allow rap musicians to expand on one of rap’s earliest and most central musical characteristics:
the break beat. Dubbed the â€œbest part of a great recordâ€ by Grandmaster Flash, one of rap’s pioneering DJs,
the break beat is a section where â€œthe band breaks down, the rhythm section is isolated, basically where the
bass guitar and drummer take solos.â€ 28 These break beats are points of rupture in their former
contexts, points at which the thematic elements of a musical piece are suspended and the underlying
rhythms brought center stage. In the early stages of rap, these break beats formed the core of rap DJs’
mixing strategics. Playing the turntables like instruments, these DJs extended the most rhythmically
compelling elements in a song, creating a new line composed only of the most climactic point in the
â€œoriginal.â€ The effect is a precursor to the way today’s rappers use the â€œloopingâ€ capacity on digital
WORKING IN THE RED
To make the noise that characterizes rap’s most creative producers and musicians requires approaching
sound and sound manipulation in ways that are unconcerned with the intended or standard use of the
samplers. Rap producer Eric (Vietnam) Sadler explains:
Turn it all the way up so it’s totally distorted and pan it over to the right so you really can’t even hear it. Pan
it over to the right means put the sound only in the right side speaker, and turn it so you can’t barely even
hear it–it’s just like a noise in the side. Now, engineers … they live by certain rules. They’re like, â€œYou can’t
do that. You don’t want a distorted sound, it’s not right, it’s not correct.â€ With Hank (Shocklee) and Chuck
(D) its like, â€œFuck that it’s not correct,
Page Image just do this shit.â€ And engineers won’t do it. So if you start engineering yourself and learning
these things yourself–[get] the meter goin’ like this [he moves his hand into an imaginary red zone] and
you hear the shit cracklin,’ that’s the sound we’re lookin’ for. 29
Using the machines in ways that have not been intended, by pushing on established boundaries of music
engineering, rap producers have developed an art out of recording with the sound meters well into the
distortion zone. When necessary, they deliberately work in the red. If recording in the red will produce the
heavy dark growling sound desired, rap producers record in the red. If a sampler must be detuned in order
to produce a sought-after low-frequency hum, then the sampler is detuned. Rap musicians are not the only
musicians to push on the limits of high-tech inventions. 30 Yet, the decisions they have made and the
directions their creative impulses have taken echo Afrodiasporic musical priorities. Rap production
resonates with black cultural priorities in the age of digital reproduction.
Volume, density, and quality of low-sound frequencies are critical features in rap production. Caribbean
musics, especially Jamaica’s talk over and dub, share a number of similarities with rap’s sound. Each
feature heavily amplified prominently featured drum and bass guitar tracks. Both insist on privileging
repetition as the basis of rhythm and rhythm as the central musical force. 31 As writers Mark Dery and Bob
Doerschuk point out, rappers’ production philosophy reflects this emphasis on bass and drum sounds: â€œTo
preserve the urgency of rap at its rawest, while keeping the doors of innovation open, a different philosophy
of production and engineering has had to evolve … a new generation of technicians is defining the art of rap
recording. Old habits learned in MOR, hard rock and R&B do not apply. Like rap itself, the new rules are
direct: keep it hot, keep the drums up front and boost that bass.â€ 32 Rap producers use particular digital
sound machines because of the types of sounds they produce, especially in the lower frequencies. Boosting
the bass is not merely a question of loudness–it is a question of the quality of lower-register sounds at high
volumes. The Roland TR-808 is a rap drum machine of choice because of its â€œfat sonic boom,â€ because of
the way it processes bass frequencies. Kurtis Blow explains: â€œThe 808 is great because you can detune it and
get this low-frequency hum. It’s a car speaker destroyer. That’s what we try to do as rap producers–break
car speakers and house speakers and boom boxes. And the 808 does it. It’s African music!â€ 33 Not only have
rap producers selected the machines that allow for greater range of low-frequency resonance, they have also
forced sound engineers to revise their mixing strategies to accommodate
Page Image rap’s stylistic priorities. 34 Gary Clugston, rap engineer at INS Recording in New York, explains
how rap producers arrange sounds, first pushing the drums to the foreground and at the center of the piece
and then using effects to manipulate the bass sounds: â€œIf you’re using a drum sample in a rock record, you
want it to sit in the mix with everything else. In rap, you do whatever you can to make it stand out–by
adding effects, EQ, bottom–and make it sound dirty.â€ â€œSo strong is this fixation with the bass,â€ claim Dery
and Doerschuk, â€œthat producers and engineers had to adapt their usual mixing formulas to make room for
the rumble.â€ Steve Ett, engineer and co-owner of Chung House of Metal, a popular studio among rap’s most
prominent producers elaborates: â€œI always put that super-loud long sustaining 808 bass drum on track 2. I
don’t put anything on 1 or 3. If you put the bass drum on 2 and the snare on 3, the bass drum leakage is
tremendous. It’s the only bass drum in the world I’ll do that with…. For me, rap is a matter of pumping the
shit out of the low end. The bass drum is the loudest thing on the record. You definitely hear the vocals but
they’re very low compared to the bass drum.â€ 35 Ett programs the 808 bass drum knowing that it will have
to leak in order to get the desired rumble. This leakage means that the bass will take up more space than is
â€œnormallyâ€ intended and bleed into other deliberately emptied tracks, which gives the bass a heavier,
grittier, less fixed sound. In traditional recording techniques, leakage is a problem to be avoided, it means
the sounds on the tracks are not clearly separated, therefore making them less fixed in their articulation.
Rock and heavy metal, among other musical genres, have used distortion and other effects that also require
manipulation of traditional recording techniques. Like the use of distortion, if rap’s desired sounds require
leakage, then leakage is a managed part of a process of achieving desired sounds, rather than a problem of
losing control of fixed pitches.
Hank Shocklee prefers the E-mu SP-1200 for its versatility and associates the TR-808 more closely with
house music, a dance music cousin of rap. 36 Most important about his description of these machines is his
explanation of how each sampler performs the same technical functions in significantly different ways.
Each sampler creates a different feel, thus allowing greater articulation of different rhythmic qualities and
[The 1200] allows you to do everything with a sample. You can cut it off, you can truncate it really tight, you
can run a loop in it, you can cut off certain drum pads. The limitation is that it sounds white, because it’s
rigid. The Akai Linn [MPC-60] allows you to create more of a feel; that’s what Teddy Riley uses to get his
swing beats. For an R&B producer, the Linn is the best, because it’s a slicker machine. For house records,
you want to use the TR-808, because it has
Page Image that charging feel, like a locomotive coming at you. But every rap producer will tell you that the
1200 is still the ultimate drum machine. 37
Shocklee prefers the 1200 because it allows him greater cutting and splicing mobility, even though the
process of cutting on a 1200 is â€œstiff.â€ His production work employs the â€œcutâ€ extensively, demonstrating its
capacity to suspend and propel time and motion. 38 Sounding â€œwhiteâ€ is his reductivist short-hand
description for the equipment whose technological parameters adhere most stringently to the Western
classical legacy of restricted rhythm in composition. Eric Sadler claims that the TR-808 is still very popular
in rap production because of a digital preprogrammed drum sound called the 808 drum boom: â€œIt’s not like
a regular kick drum. It’s this big giant basketball that you hear on just about every record now … Boom …
Boom. Big and heavy, just like a reggae sort of feel.â€ Sadler adds that the engineering boards themselves are
critical to the feel and sound of rap music, to the process of sound reproduction: â€œOne of the reasons I’m
here (in this studio) is because this board here is bullshit. It’s old, it’s disgusting, a lot of stuff doesn’t work,
there are fuses out … to get an old sound. The other room, I use that for something else. All sweet and crispy
clear, it’s like the Star Wars room. This room is the Titanic room.â€ 39 Sadler’s reference to the Titanic studio
can be read as an interesting revision of one of the most well-known black folk toasts â€œThe Titanic.â€ In it,
Shine, the black boiler room operator on the Titanic, tries to warn the white passengers that the ship is
about to sink, but his warnings go unheeded. The Captain claims that his water pumps will keep back the
water, even though Shine can clearly see they are failing to do so. After a number of warnings, Shine finally
jumps over board saving his own life, saying, â€œyour shittin’ is good your shittin’ is fine, but here’s one time
you white folks ain’t gonna shit on Shine.â€ Sadler’s dubbing that studio the Titanic is his way of saying that
it is old and obsolete, suggesting that he chooses the faulty, obsolete equipment deliberately because it
allows him to construct his own historical, sonic narratives. The latest, slickest equipment in the Star Wars
room denies him access to those sounds and that history. In the hip hop version of â€œThe Titanic,â€ Sadler,
like Shine, ignores the white man’s definition of technical use and value (â€œthese new valves are betterâ€), but
in this case, he does so by staying with his ship, by holding on to the equipment that has been deemed
obsolete but best suits his needs. Refusing to follow dominant conceptions of the value of new technology
against their better judgement, Shine and Sadler â€œsaveâ€ their own lives and narratives respectively.
These samplers, drum machines, and engineering boards are selected
Page Image and manipulated by rap producers partially because they allow them to manage repetition and
rupture with break beats and looping and cutting techniques and because of the quality of sounds they
reproduce. Shocklee and Sadler’s comments are important to this discussion, because they illuminate
cultural parameters as they are articulated in advanced electronic equipment. The equipment has to be
altered to accommodate rap’s use of low-frequency sounds, mixing techniques revised to create the
arrangements of and relationships between drum sounds. And second, they make clear that rap producers
actively and aggressively deploy strategies that revise and manipulate musical technologies so that they will
articulate black cultural priorities.
Selecting drum samples also involve matters of sonic preference. Rap’s heavy use of sampled live soul and
funk drummers adds a desired textural dimension uncommon in other genres and that programmed drum
machines cannot duplicate. These soul and funk drummers, recorded under very different circumstances,
carry performative resonances that cannot be easily recreated. Bill Stephney, co-owner, with Hank
Shocklee, of S.O.U.L. Records, explains why rappers favor particular sources for samples: â€œThey (rap
producers) hate digital drums. They like their snares to sound as if they’ve been recorded in a large live
room, with natural skins and lots of reverb. They’ve tried recording with live drums. But you really cannot
replicate those sounds. Maybe it’s the way engineers mike, maybe it’s the lack of baffles in the room. Who
knows? But that’s why these kids have to go back to the old records.â€ 40 The quality of sound found in these
1960s and 1970s soul and funk records are as important to hip hop’s sound as the machines that
deconstruct and reformulate them. 41 Rap’s sample-heavy sound is digitally reproduced but cannot be
digitally created. In other words, the sound of a James Brown or Parliament drum kick or bass line and the
equipment that processed it then, as well as the equipment that processes it now, are all central to the way a
rap records feels; central to rap’s sonic force. This is not to say that live drummers are not featured on rap
records, many are; neither is this to say that rap producers do not draw on a wide range of genres, including
rap’s own previously recorded beats and rhymes. For example, rap’s sampling excursions into jazz and rock
are increasing all the time. Still, soul and funk drum kicks–live or recorded–are almost always the musical
glue that binds these samples together, giving the likes of Miles Davis, Ron Carter, Louis Armstrong, and
Roy Ayers a distinct difference and a hip hop frame. For example, A Tribe Called Quest’s â€œVerses from the
Abstractâ€ features Ron Carter on bass but the hip hop drum lines completely recontextualize Carter’s jazz
Page Image recontextualizations of jazz samples can be found on a host of rap albums, such as Guru’s
Jazzamatazz and Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth’s Mecca and the Soul Brother. 42
Sampling, as it is used by many of hip hop’s premiere producers, is not merely a shortcut used to â€œcopyâ€
musical passages. If this were so, then producers would spare the legal costs of clearing usage of other
artists’ recorded material by programming or replaying very similar musical sequences. Furthermore, as
Prince Be Softly of P.M. Dawn points out, finding musical samples can be more time-consuming: â€œSampling
artistry is a very misunderstood form of music. A lot of people still think sampling is thievery but it can take
more time to find the right sample than to make up a riff. I’m a songwriter just like Tracy Chapman or Eric
B. and Rakim.â€ 43 The decision to adopt samples of live drum sounds involves quality-of-sound issues and a
desire to increase the range of sound possibilities. A few years after rap’s recording history began,
pioneering rap producer and DJ Marley Marl discovered that real drum sounds could be used in place of
simulated drum sounds:
One day in ’81 or ’82 we was doin’ this remix. I wanted to sample a voice from off this song with an
Emulator and accidentally, a snare went through. At first I was like, â€œThat’s the wrong thing,â€ but the snare
was soundin’ good. I kept running the track back and hitting the Emulator. Then I looked at the engineer
and said, â€œYou know what this means?! I could take any drum sound from any old record, put it in here are
get the old drummer sound on some shit. No more of that dull DMX shit.â€ That day I went out and bought a
For Marley Marl and other rap producers the sampler is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Nor is it
necessarily a short cut to music production, although some rap producers use samplers and samples in
uncreative ways. For the most part, sampling, not unlike versioning practices in Caribbean musics, is about
paying homage, an invocation of another’s voice to help you to say what you want to say. 45 It is also a
means of archival research, a process of musical and cultural archeology. According to Daddy-O, rap
producer for Stetsasonic; â€œSampling’s not a lazy man’s way. We learn a lot from sampling; it’s like school for
us. When we sample a portion of a song and repeat it over and over we can better understand the matrix of
the song. I don’t know how they made those old funk and soul records. We don’t know how they miked the
drums. But we can learn from their records.â€ 46 In addition, samples are not strung together in a linear
fashion one after the other and then looped. Instead, as Bill Stephney points out, numerous tracks are often
programmed simultaneously, sampled on top of one another to create a dense multilayered effect: â€œThese
kids will have six tracks of drum programs
Page Image all at the same time. This is where sampling gets kind of crazy. You may get a kid who puts a
kick from one record on one track, a kick from another record on another track, a Linn kick on a third track,
and a TR-808 kick on a fourth–all to make one kick!â€ 47 Once constructed, these looped beats are not set in
stone, they are merged with lyrics and reconstructed among other beats, sounds, and melodies. Sadler
describes the architectural blueprint for Ice Cube’s dense and edgy â€œThe Nigger You Love to Hateâ€: â€œThe
original loop [for it] was [from] Steve Arington’s â€˜Weak in the Knees.â€™ It was funky but basic all the way
through. Cube heard it, liked it, put his vocals on it….Then we stripped it apart like a car and put it back
together totally again….erasing musical parts under the choruses and other parts. Every time we got back to
the original song, it would drop down. So we would have to build. That’s why the song just kept going up.
We kept having to find other parts.â€ One of the most dense and cacophonous raps to date, â€œNight of the
Living Baseheads,â€ used nearly forty-five different samples in addition to the basic rhythm tracks and
original music on twenty-four tracks. Sadler explains: â€œNot 48 tracks [which is common in music
production today], but 24. You got stuff darting in and out absolutely everywhere. It’s like somebody
throwing rice at you. You have to grab every little piece and put it in the right place like in a puzzle. Very
complicated. All those little snippets and pieces that go in, along with the regular drums that you gotta drop
out in order to make room for it.â€ 48
Rap production involves a wide range of strategies for manipulating rhythm, bass frequencies, repetition,
and musical breaks. Rap’s engineering and mixing strategies address ways to manage and prioritize highvolume and low-frequency sounds. Selected samplers carry preferred â€œsonic boomsâ€ and aid rap producers
in setting multiple rhythmic forces in motion and in recontextualizing and highlighting break beats. These
strategies for achieving desired sounds are not random stylistic effects, they are manifestations of
approaches to time, motion, and repetition found in many New World black cultural expressions.
BLACK PRACTICES: HIDING IN THE SPOTLIGHT
The world of organized sound is a boundless palette. On that palette you have classical
European music, you have Charlie Parker…the music of the East, African music….
the Middle East, electronic music. Some people think that what they are doing way over
here in one corner is the end of all organized sound. That’s like saying the Earth is the
end of the universe.–Max Roach 49
Because few rappers are formally trained musicians, rarely compose elaborate melodic phrases, and do not
frequently play â€œrealâ€ instruments, rap has been accused of not being music at all. David Samuels’s
Page ImageNew Republic cover story on rap music entitled, â€œThe Real Face of Rap: The â€˜black musicâ€™ that
isn’t either,â€ reduces rap’s history to a commercial ploy to attract white teenagers and suggests that â€œrap’s
hour as an innovative popular music has come and gone.â€ J. D. Considine’s article in Musician magazine,
â€œFear of a Rap Planet,â€ cites a number of examples of antirap media coverage regarding rap’s lyrics but
notes that the most common criticism about rap is not, in fact, related to its racial politics. Instead, he
argues, most criticism of rap has to do with rap’s status as music. Basically, many rock musicians do not
consider rap as music. Considine, attempting to convince Musician readers that rap is music, claims that
â€œeven a seemingly simple rap record…reveals unexpected complexity if you know where to look.â€ During the
same month in 1992, Jon Parales published an article entitled â€œOn Rap, Symbolism and Fearâ€ in the New
York Times that was devoted to mainstream white fears of rap because of its violent imagery and black teen
audience. All of the response letters published two weeks later were in rather aggressive opposition to
Parales’s piece. However, rap’s lyrics and angry audience were not addressed in these letters; rather, the
fact that Parales presumed that rap is music was the source of the respondents’ frustration. Writers claimed
that, â€œloud, pounding rhythm with shouted lyrics and no melody do not constitute music,â€ and â€œmusic
began with rhythm, progressed to melody…reached its developmental culmination with harmony. Rap,
despite its modern trappings, is a regression.â€ These comments clearly support Eurocentric notions of the
terms of cultural progress and link them to music. The significance of these comments is not in the
ignorance they display but in the fact that the New York Times believed that these analyses carry enough
social weight and legitimation to warrant publication without rebuttal. 50
In response, some rap producers offer their lack of training as an explanation for the innovative nature of
their approach. For example, claiming that rap producers are actually more creative than real musicians,
Hank Shocklee defends rap producers’ approach to music and explains the reasons for the antagonism
between rap producers and formally trained musicians: â€œWe don’t like musicians. We don’t respect
musicians. The reason why is because they look at people who do rap as people who don’t have any
knowledge. As a matter of fact, it’s quite the opposite. We have a better sense of music, a better concept of
music, of where it’s going, of what it can do.â€ 51 Shocklee believes that his ignorance of formal musical
training allows him to see beyond what has been understood as correct and proper sound construction,
giving him a greater range of creative motion: â€œIn dealing with rap, you have to
Page Image be innocent and ignorant of music. Trained musicians are not ignorant to music, and they
cannot be innocent to it…For example, certain keys have to go together because you have this training and
it makes musical sense to you. We might use a black key and white key together playing together because it
works for a particular part. A musician will go, â€˜No those are the wrong keys. The tones are clashing.â€™ We
don’t look at it that way.â€ 52 Shocklee’s comments about formal training and its relationship to musical
innovation as well as critical responses to Shocklee’s approaches bear striking resemblance to the criticism
of be-bop pianist Thelonius Monk’s untrained approach to jazz piano playing. As jazz music historian Frank
Tirro notes, in the 1950s, Monk’s eclectic and unconventional compositions, which â€œhad earlier been passed
off as a lack of technical ability (were) now being viewed as a new way of creating musical sounds and
organizing musical ideas.â€ Jason Berry et al. have noted how black musicians find beats in everyday sounds,
even using truck engines as rhythmic inspiration. As vocalist Aaron Neville recalls, â€œMe and [Allen]
Toussaint would ride around with a tape recorder and one day we pulled up next to a big semi-truck. The
motor was going â€˜rumble rum rumbleâ€™ with a nice beat, you know, and Toussaint recorded that beat.â€
Shocklee backs Neville and Toussaint up on this when he asserts that â€œmusic is nothing but organized noise.
You can take anything–street sounds, us talking, whatever you want–and make it music by organizing it.
That’s still our philosophy, to show people that this thing you call music is a lot broader than you think it
Shocklee claims that because their musical instincts are not â€œconstrainedâ€ by formal rules and procedures,
rap producers operate â€œmore freelyâ€ with the available technology. Certainly, some of what Shocklee
suggests about â€œinnocenceâ€ to formal procedures is true. Fewer established parameters generally permit
greater potential range of motion. But Shocklee’s opposition between knowledge and innocence is a bit
misleading. He is really referring to the differences between formal Western and black musical priorities as
they are worked out, often contentiously, in the creative realm and in the marketplace. Shocklee’s
innocence is his lack of formal Western musical training. For Shocklee, â€œtrainingâ€ is formal Western
training, and trained musicians use â€œknowledgeâ€ about a particular tradition to produce a particular
arrangement of sounds that in turn produce particular effects. He, too, employs â€œknowledgeâ€ and musical
strategies, not innocent (value-free) ones, but strategies commonly found in black musical traditions that
often involve different cultural priorities. When he claims that to understand or deal with rap music you
must be innocent, he suggests that a commitment to formal Western musical priorities must be abandoned,
or at the very
Page Image least interrogated and revised, especially as they are articulated in the rules of sound
production and reproduction.
An absence of commitment to classical Western musical traditions is not sufficient to produce rap music.
Shocklee refers to a presence, an alternative tradition that prioritizes openness, ruptures, breaks, and forces
in motion. His inability to identify these characteristics as part of a discrete cultural history, coupled with
the ease with which he references classical standards is an indication of the power of classically derived
standards over creative efforts that represent alternative cultural logics, even in popular culture.
Hank Shocklee’s defense of his musical creativity is connected to the perpetuation of a long-standing
unwillingness to acknowledge black cultural traditions and practices in contemporary popular American
forms. This may seem surprising given the fact that American popular music is a particularly significant
territory for black cultural expressions. Yet, the study of popular music has been quite inattentive to the
specificity of black practices in the popular realm. There is a significant intellectual divide between the
study of black music and the study of American popular music. Not unlike racial segregation, black cultural
practices and popular culture are treated as if they are mutually exclusive categories of analysis. For many
cultural critics, once a black cultural practice takes a prominent place inside the commodity system, it is no
longer considered a black practice–it is instead a â€œpopularâ€ practice whose black cultural priorities and
distinctively black approaches are either taken for granted as a â€œpoint of origin,â€ an isolated â€œtechnique,â€ or
rendered invisible. The last alternative has, so far, been a virtually impossible position to take in reference
to rap music. 54 Yet, the category â€œdanceâ€ music has been a particularly slippery space in which black music
has been linked to technological effects rather than black cultural priorities.
Along these lines, Andrew Goodwin’s â€œSample and Hold: Pop Music in the Age of Digital Reproductionâ€
describes his project as one that will focus on the music itself, via comments on the â€œnew technologies and
their impact on rhythm and timbre.â€ In an attempt to critique overly zealous reading of samplers as
quintessential postmodern machines, Goodwin points out that high-tech samplers have been used most
extensively in dance music, which he considers a communal practice. He argues that:
The most striking point in the analysis of both areas is the fact that music made by machines, or to sound
like machines, has not taken pop’s trajectory into electronic or art music, but has instead become the chief
source of its dance music….Synthesizers, drum machines and digital samplers are identified less
Page Image modern composers…than with dance genres like disco, hip hop, Hi-NRG, and House. In other
words, while cultural studies critics such as Simon Frith debate the essentially critical and academic
distinctions being made between technology on the one hand and â€œcommunityâ€ and nature on the other,
pop musicians and audiences have grown increasingly accustomed to making an association between
synthetic/automated music and the communal (dance floor) connection to nature (via the body). We have
grown used to connecting machines and funkiness. 55
Goodwin is correct to suggest that the deconstruction of recorded sound does not necessarily erase
communal connections; such practices may recuperate history rather than deny it. And he is quite
reasonably suspicious of a bifurcation of technology and community, which may suggest that the notion of
community is a pretechnological condition. Yet, he refers to four major contemporary black dance forms–
disco, hip hop, Hi-NRG, and house–as the bases for his argument regarding the way in which technology is
made funky and the community-based nature of these forms without one reference to black cultural
priorities, black musical traditions, or black people. He makes no mention of black practitioners and the
possibility that these dance artists are using sampling technology to articulate black approaches to sound,
rhythm, timbre, motion, and community. For Goodwin, technology is made Junky but not as a result of
black appropriation. His erasure of the overwhelmingly black approaches to music embodied in disco, hip
hop, and house is at best a pernicious case of the anxiety of influence and at worst contributes to a body of
cultural studies that has not yet confronted black popular presence other than as a stylistic effect ready for
white popular consumption. His position, which reflects an incapacity to imagine the popular terrain as a
site where contestations over black cultural forms take place, contributes to the discursive co-optation of
black contributions in popular cultural criticism. Mead Hunter’s comments on interculturalism in
American music speak to the power dynamics that are inherent in these unequal forms of cultural
exchange: â€œConsidering that the adoption of American dance beats–for they are now effectively American,
however African their lineage–must to some degree insinuate an American sensibility, the end-product
cannot be wholly value free. Regional cultures act not as barriers, but as permeable membranes; even with
the best of intentions, their penetration can be a subtle strain of colonialism.â€ 56
â€œRead it in Braille, It’ll Still Be Funkyâ€:
Technological Orality and Oral Technology in Hip Hop
As I have suggested earlier, rap music is a technological form that relies on the reformulation of recorded
sound in conjunction with rhymed lyrics to create its distinctive sound. Rappers bring black cultural
priorities to bear on advanced technology. 57 Rappers also bring black oral practices into the technological
mix. Rap’s poetic force, its rearticulation of African-American oral practices, and its narrative strategies are
central to rap. However, rap’s oral and technological facets are more interactive than this disjuncture
suggests. Rap music blurs the distinction between literate and oral modes of communication by altering
and yet sustaining important aspects of African-American folk orality while embedding oral practices in the
technology itself. Rap’s orality is altered and highly informed by the technology that produces it; and in rap,
oral logic informs its technological practices. Redefining the constitution of narrative originality,
composition, and collective memory, rap artists challenge institutional apparatuses that define property,
technological innovation, and authorship.
David Toop, one of rap’s early and most thoughtful historiographers, argues that rap is rooted in twentiethcentury African-American poetic traditions: â€œRaps forebears stretch back through disco, street funk, radio
D.J.s, Bo Diddley, the bebop singers, Cab Calloway, Pigmeat Markham, the tap dancers and comics, The
Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron, Muhammad Ali, a cappella and doo wop groups, ring games, skip rope rhymes,
prison and army songs toasts, signifying and the dozens…. No matter how far it penetrates into the twilight
maze of Japanese video games and cool European electronics, its roots are still the deepest in all
contemporary Afro-American music.â€ 58 Toop, although he does have a solid grasp of the more prominent
African-American oral influences in rap, draws a false dichotomy between rap’s African-American roots and
the high-tech equipment to which it is equally wedded. Rap then, is not simply a linear extension of other
orally based African-American traditions with beat boxes and cool European electronics added on. Rap is a
complex fusion of orality and postmodern technology. This mixture of orality and technology is essential to
understanding the logic of rap music; a logic that, although not purely oral, maintains many characteristics
of orally based expression and at the same time incorporates and destabilizes many characteristics of the
literate and highly technological society in which its practitioners live. Harry Allen captures the relationship
between orality and technology in rap when he suggests that, â€œhip
Page Image hop humanizes technology and makes it tactile. In hip hop, you make the technology do stuff
that it isn’t supposed to do, get music out of something that’s not supposed to give you music quite that
Rap is in part an expression of what Walter Ong has referred to as â€œpost-literate orality.â€ Ong suggests that
the electronic age is â€œan age of post-literate orality–the orality of telephones, radio, and television, which
depends on writing and print for its existence.â€ Although his book focuses primarily on the differences in
mentality between oral and writing cultures, his conceptualization of postliterate orality is an innovative
analytical tool for understanding contemporary developments in African-American culture. The concept of
postliterate orality merges orally influenced traditions that are created and embedded in a postliterate,
technologically sophisticated cultural context. Postliterate orality describes the way oral traditions are
revised and presented in a technologically sophisticated context. It also has the capacity to explain the way
literate-based technology is made to articulate sounds images and practices associated with orally based
forms, so that rap simultaneously makes technology oral and technologizes orality.
In oral cultures, authorship is not essential to the performance of folk tales. According to Ong, â€œnarrative
originality lodges not in making up new stories, but in managing a particular interaction with this audience
at this time–at every telling the story has to be introduced uniquely into a unique situation… formulas and
themes are reshuffled rather than supplanted with new materials.â€ 60 For example, the famous AfricanAmerican oral tale of the Signifying Monkey has dozens of versions and no individual author, and
â€œversioningâ€ is an extremely common practice in Caribbean musics. 61
Rappers have redefined this concept of communal authorship. Narrative originality is lodged in creating
new stories, and these stories are associated with the rapper. However, rapper’s rhymes are clearly
influenced by, if not a direct outgrowth of, the African-American toast tradition. The dozen-playing bravado
of toasts such as the Signifying Monkey is brilliantly captured in Kool Moe Dee’s â€œHow Ya Like Me Now.â€ 62
Furthermore, in keeping with oral forms, unique introduction of materials takes on greater significance in
the live performance.
On the whole, rappers carefully prepare and recite rhymes that become permanently associated with its
author. References to the rapper and his or her DJ are extremely common. In Salt’N’Pepa’s â€œGet Up
Everybody (Get Up),â€ Salt says:
Spindarella, my D.J., is a turntable trooper
My partner Pepa, she’s a power booster.
Page Image Word to life, I swear, she’ll seduce ya
Don’t take my word I’ll introduce her. 63
In Eric B & Rakim’s â€œFollow the Leader,â€ the chorus–â€œfollow the leader Rakim a sayâ€–is recited in staccato
repetition to reinforce the identity of the performer. 64 Examples of such naming are endless. Rap lyrics are
closely linked with the author; unlike traditional Western notions of composition in which the composer’s
text is in a separate sphere from that of the performer, rap lyrics are the voice of the composer and the
performer. Rap fuses literate concepts of authorship with orally based constructions of thought, expression,
The content of a rap rhyme is sometimes so specific to its creator that to perform someone else’s rhyme
requires that references to its creator be rewritten. The significance of naming in rap is exemplified by a
revision of L.L. Cool J.’s 1986 hit â€œI’m Bad.â€ 65 In â€œBad,â€ L.L. brags that he is the best rapper in the history
of rap and at a climax point instructs his fans to â€œforget Oreos eat Cool J. cookies.â€ A famous go-go band
from Washington, D.C., Trouble Funk, performed a live go-go version of â€œI’m Bad.â€ To the delight of the
audience, at the same climax point in the rhyme, the lead singer Chuck Brown announced: â€œforget Oreos eat
Chuck Brown cookies!â€ while go-go’s trademark brassy, rolling funky horns and drums supported his bold
appropriation. The go-go audience responded to Brown’s audacious appropriation of L.L. Cool J.’s rhyme as
if it represented go-go’s symbolic victory over rap music. The story told in â€œI’m Badâ€ is L.L. Cool J.’s story
and a rap story. This authorial revision did not erase L.L. Cool J. as author; the absence of L.L. Cool J.’s
name does not silence his presence, it displaces him. The power of Brown’s insertion works best if the
audience knows L.L. Cool J.’s â€œoriginalâ€ version. For another rapper to eat Cool J. cookies would be a major
defeat; for L.L. to eat his own cookies renamed as Chuck Brown cookies is an outrageous moment of
symbolic domination. Without L.L.’s presence and his identity as a rap artist, the theft of the rhyme has
little significance. In this context L.L. Cool J.’s presence and the communal knowledge base it represents is
a necessary element in go-go’s symbolic victory over rap.
Although power is located in the oral presentation of rap, rap rhymes are not the â€œfixed, rhythmically
balanced expressionsâ€ that Ong refers to in his description of oral cultures but rhymes constructed in linear,
literate (written) patterns. They are rhymes, written down first, memorized, and recited orally. In oral
cultures, there is no written context to aid in memorization. As Ong notes, â€œIn an oral culture, to think
through something in non-formulaic, non-patterned, non-mnemonic
Page Image terms, even if it were possible, would be a waste of time, for such thought, once worked
through, could never be recovered with any effectiveness, as it could be with the aid of writing.â€ 66 By
comparison, rap lyrics are oral performances that display written (literate) forms of thought and
Informed by and dependent on literate forms of communication and reproduction for their complexity,
rappers and their rhymes are a far cry from traditional oral poetic forms and performers. For example, in
rap the rhymed word is often in the middle of a long sentence, and punctuated short phrases are worked
against the meter of the bass line. The ability to easily reconstruct the rhyme and the music allows for
greater flexibility in the construction and performance of rhymed lyrics. Simply to recite or to read the
lyrics to a rap song is not to understand them; they are also inflected with the syncopated rhythms and
sampled sounds of the music. The music, its rhythmic patterns, and the idiosyncratic articulation by the
rapper are essential to the song’s meanings.
The rap DJ and producer have a relationship to the concept of authorship and narrative originality that is
more closely related to oral practices. In most rap music, the instruments are samplers that reproduce
synthesized versions of traditional instruments, frighteningly real reproductions of other sounds (breaking
glass, sirens, etc.), and the dynamic and explosive mixing and dubbing of new, previously recorded and
seemingly fixed sound. Many of these samples are dubbed from other rhythm sections, other clearly and
intentionally recognizable bass lines and horn sections, and reformulated in conjunction with beat box
sounds and the rappers’ style and accentuation.
Sampling technology as used by rap DJs and producers is strikingly similar to Ong’s interpretation of
narrative originality in oral cultures: â€œnarrative originality lodges not in making up new stories… [instead]
formulas and themes are reshuffled rather than supplanted with new materials.â€ 67 Rap DJs and producers
reshuffle known cultural formulas and themes. It is in this context that narrative originality is lodged. In
the age of mechanical reproduction, these cultural formulas and themes are in the form of recorded sound,
reshuffled, looped, and recontextualized.
Yet, sampling technology is also a means of composition, a means of (post) literate production. Using
sounds and rhythms as building blocks, rap musicians store ideas in computers, build, erase, and revise
musical themes and concepts. Similar to the way many live bands work through musical ideas, rap
producers work with core concepts, improvising and building around them. Writing music in the age of
electronic reproduction is a complex and dense process in which millions
Page Image of sounds, rhythms, and melodies are made fantastically accessible. Eric Sadler describes how
he writes music using the Bomb Squad’s 20,000 record collection as his main source: â€œYou decide you are
going to write some songs. You just work. You just write, write, write. Sometimes Chuck (D) will come and
say, â€˜Yo I got an idea here.â€™ So what you try to do from there is to take the idea, put (the sample) in the drum
machine, put a beat behind it and move on from there. Sometimes Keith (Shocklee) would get on the
turntable and just start scratchin’, like we were a band. I’d play the drum machine for the sample, and Keith
would be throwing in records.â€ 68 In a world of bytes and microprocessors, large and complex ideas can be
rewritten, revised, â€œsampledâ€ by computers and reorganized by composers. As a musical idea develops and
changes, elements are added and deleted from the memory file. Still the interactive quality of live
instrumentation and song writing remains, as individual contributions rub up against one another in the
studio, creating a final (!) â€œcomposition.â€
Sampling in rap is a process of cultural literacy and intertextual reference. Sampled guitar and bass lines
from soul and funk precursors are often recognizable or have familiar resonances. Some samples are taken
from recent charted songs, making them eminently recognizable. Rap fans can recognize that Eric B. &
Rakim took the bass line for their cut â€œPaid in Fullâ€ from Dennis Edwards â€œDon’t Look Any Furtherâ€ a
popular R&B song that topped the charts only a year earlier. In addition to the musical layering and
engineering strategies involved in these soul resurrections, these samples are highlighted, functioning as a
challenge to know these sounds, to make connections between the lyrical and musical texts. It affirms black
musical history and locates these â€œpastâ€ sounds in the â€œpresent.â€
More often than not, rap artists and their DJs openly revere their soul forebears. Stetsasonic defends this
practice, claiming that it counteracts industry-fostered market conditions that dictate a particularly shallow
shelf-life for black music. Dozens of soul artists’ discographies have been reprinted as a result of rap’s
sampling strategies, and consequently, Daddy-O suggests, these soul artists have been placed in the
foreground of black collective memory:
You erase our music
So no one could use it…
Tell the truth–James Brown was old
Til Eric B came out with â€˜I Got Soul.â€™
Rap brings back old R&B
If we would not
People could have forgot. 69
When Kool Moe Dee’s explosive â€œHow Ya Like Me Nowâ€ opens with â€œAll aboard the night train!â€ sampled
from a James Brown record, it not only verifies Brown as the author, it paradoxically undermines any fixed
link his sound has to the label on which it was â€œoriginallyâ€ recorded. Brown’s exclamation in the context of
Moe Dee’s piece is employed as a communal resource that functions in opposition to the recording
industry’s fixation with ownership. In the opening moment of â€œHow Ya Like Me Now,â€ James Brown is
affirmed and valorized, Kool Moe Dee is situated within an African-American music tradition, and a selfconstructed affirmative and resistive history is sounded.
Sampling is not the only method of narrative reformulation and resistance. Mixes of the old and the new, or
â€œversioning,â€ as it is referred to by Dick Hebdige in Cut n Mix, is at the heart of all African-American and
Caribbean musics: â€œThe original version takes on a new life and a new meaning in a fresh context.â€ 70
Versioning, unlike sampling, entails the reworking of an entire composition. I concur with Hebdige’s overall
analysis but would like to dub in a different version of his quote. The referenced version takes on
alternative lives and alternative meanings in a fresh context. Versioning, too, redefines traditional notions
of authorship and originality as it incorporates it.
Sampling has had important resistive effects in the recording industry. To reuse portions of copyrighted
material without permission undermines legal and capital market authority. Before rap music began
grossing millions of dollars, the use of these musical passages went unnoticed by publishing administrators
and copyright holders. Sampling clearance was a relatively minor legal issue. Limited visibility, relatively
small profits and legal costs to pursue illegal uses of sampled materials made policing such theft
undesirable for record executives. Furthermore, these samples encouraged the sale of new records. For a
recording label to win a law suit in order to take a share of another label’s profit raised the possibility that
similar profits would have to be paid (in full) in another case. Because all major record companies
distribute sampled material, law suits would be traded rather heavily. Today, rap is big business. With
multimillion record sales by such rap artists as MC Hammer, Tone Loc, NWA, Public Enemy, and Vanilla
Ice, the pursuit of the illegal use of sampled materials has become a complicated and high-profile legal issue
in the entertainment industry.
At the center of the controversy is the scope and intent of the music copyright system and its limited
applicability to sampling as practiced first by rap artists and now by a wide array of musicians and
producers. Derived from nineteenth-century literary law, the current music copyright
Page Image system is designed to protect musical scripts, to protect sheet music from theft or illegal use.
Simon Frith elaborates:
The original musical commodity was a score, and even as the law changed to take account of audio
recording–a new way of fixing sounds–the song, defined as a particular combination of harmony, melody
and lyric, remained the object of legal protection… what is most significant about this is what is not
copyrightable –timbre, rhythm the very qualities that became, with the rise of recording, central to pop
pleasure. And that has served as one way in which black musicians have been exploited by the pop industry,
via the law’s definition of music in European rather than Afro-American terms. 71
Although Frith does not actually raise the issue, one might wonder why the change from harmony to
rhythm accompanied the advent of technology. It could have simply reinforced the centrality of melody and
harmony. Obviously, reproduction technology (e.g., cassette tapes) allows for multiple contexts for usage,
reception, and access to a variety of musics with different cultural priorities. Given the shift to rhythm and
timbre as a source of popular pleasure in the age of reproduction and the undeniable centrality of black
musical forms that heavily privilege rhythm and timbre, then it seems reasonable to suggest that recording
technology has been the primary vehicle for providing access to black music and black cultural priorities,
which have in turn had a critical impact on the terms of popular pleasure.
Computer sampling instruments create access to sounds formerly uncopyable and therefore unprotected. 72
Because very few sampling cases have been litigated (so far, virtually all contests have been settled out of
court), questions regarding proper clearance, when it is necessary, what constitutes a recognizable portion,
and what fee is reasonable for such usage remains unregulated. 73 In some cases publishers have begun to
ask outrageous fees for relatively minor usages; in other cases, rappers have avoided clearing sample uses
and have had to pay hefty fees after the album’s successful release. In some instances, of course, no
clearance is obtained, and the sample usage goes unnoticed by publishers, but, these cases are increasingly
rare. To further complicate matters, the question of rights to future use are in part determined by the terms
of original artists’ contract at the time the â€œoriginalâ€ record was released. This means that if, for example,
the record contract that covered the recording of Aretha Franklin’s â€œRespectâ€ did not have a provision that
entitled her to a percentage of profits for future use of sound recordings or compositions, then she would
not see much, if any, of the money being negotiated today for sample usages. Even more disturbing is the
fact that many black artists do not have publishing rights to their songs, which means that sound recording
use, the least legally protected area,
Page Image is the most likely territory for older recording artists to make claims. In these cases, most
proceeds from sampling claims would go to their record companies. It is also important to remember that,
even when an artist has publishing rights, the record company generally retains over 94 percent of the
record sales proceeds. It is the remaining 6 percent or less–and 6 percent is a generous estimate–that is
paid to the artist. And it is out of this maximum of 6 percent that sampling usage fees are either taken or
Charges leveled against rappers for stealing from their musical forebears are valid; clearly, such musical
forces as James Brown, Sly Stone, and Aretha Franklin should be compensated for the reformulation of
their work. But these cries of thievery against rappers are suspect given that they have been used to obscure
the most serious and profound thefts against black artists. When a sample is illegally used and the song
generates substantial sales, it is the record company that loses control over its â€œproductâ€ and again the
record company that reaps the greatest rewards when such samples are legally appropriated. The primary
theft against the musical forebear took place in the record company offices long before many rappers
finished grade school. 74 Although James Brown has spent substantial time and money in hot legal pursuit
of his share of rap’s profit from his music, George Clinton, the other godfather of rap samples, has taken an
approach that seems acutely aware of this â€œinitialâ€ theft as it were. Clinton has recently released the first of
a six-volume collection of sounds and previously unreleased out takes and songs entitled Sample Some of
Disc, Sample Some of D.A.T. As reported in the Village Voice’s Rockbeat column, â€œwhile the original hits
are still the property of the labels on which they were recorded, jam sessions and live recordings (even of
classic tracks) owned by Clinton can be at your fingertips.â€ Sample Some of Disc is designed to attract
young artists and producers; it features a how-to-get sample clearance guide with a collaborative-minded
fee system: No upfront fee is charged, producers or musicians are â€œcharged only per record sold, so if your
single flops, you won’t be in the red.â€ 75
This issue of sampling thievery usually pertains to fairly recognizable samples, which in legal terms refers
primarily to harmonic, melodic, and lyrical thefts. Drum samples, which are particularly difficult to claim,
are the most widely used samples in rap music, not the â€œhooksâ€ or â€œkey phrasesâ€ that constitute the
traditional material usage issues. So, even with the legal explosion that rap sampling has caused, the
current state of sampling clearance does not begin to scratch the surface of rapper’s use of prerecorded
sounds: â€œWhile a Sly Stone organ sample
Page Image may catch a layman’s ear, the essence of the hip-hop song may be a snare drum from the
Honeydrippers’ â€˜Impeach the President,â€™ added to Ziggy Modeliste’s kick drum, or Larry Grahams’ bass,
rearranged into a rhythmic pattern from J.B.’s drummer John â€˜Jaboâ€™ Starks (if you’ve heard Eric B. and
Rakim, you’ve heard Jabo.) Unless you’re ordained, you may not recognize the source.â€ 76 Maybe rap music
represents the real â€œbig payback.â€ By defining music in such a way as to obscure black contributions and
achievements, the music industry and the legal system have rendered current measurement of black
rhythm, intonation, and timbre–for their profit–virtually inaccessible. The very laws that justified and
aided in the theft from and denigration of an older generation of black artists have created a profitable,
legal loophole and a relatively free-play zone for today’s black artists. This creative cul-de-sac is rapidly
evaporating. The record companies are increasingly likely to hold albums until all samples are cleared, until
publishers and other record companies negotiate their profits. And many artists past and present are
claiming their shares. Sadler and others have been emphatic that the crackdown has seriously affected rap
music production, making bold sample uses, especially samples from the more powerful publishers and
artists less likely. It does ensure that musicians (including sampled rappers) are being compensated for
their work, and on the flip side it encourages more sophisticated cloaking devices–ways to use interesting
material without detection.
Eric B. and Rakim’s 1986 debut album represents a critical moment in the development of rap’s sonic
presence, the articulation of technology as a colleague in the creation and a forthright acknowledgment of
music as commodity. Paid in Full is explicit both about the economic and cultural considerations at work in
rap music. The album cover art features a collection of heavy gold rope chains, rings, and clips, $100 bills,
and a personal check that appears to be signed by Ronald Reagan and whose dollar amount and payee are
obscured by gold chains. Eric B. and Rakim are so good at what they do that even Reagan had to pay up.
Musically speaking, few rap albums have been able to match the gritty, heavy, dark beats and overall
character of Paid in Full, although a number of attempts have been made. 77 The title cut opens with a
multidrum rhythm section and a dialogue between Eric B. and Rakim that locates them within a particular
recording and production camp. The first verse opens with the bass line from Dennis Edward’s â€œDon’t Look
any Furtherâ€; in it, Rakim tells the story of life on the edge and constantly returns to money, the means of
survival. The constant cutting and mixing of Eric B.’s music keeps the listener in a perpetual state of
Page Image anticipation; the walking bass line and the flute riff give the illusion of a lyric and purposeful
gait. Rakim’s deep and ominous voice combined with sarcastic references to life on the edge of
respectability keep the listener on edge:
Thinkin’ of a master plan
This ain’t nothin’ but sweat inside my hand
So I dig into my pocket all my money’s spent
So I dig deeper–still comin’ up with lint
So I start my mission and leave my residence
Thinkin’ how I’m gonna get some dead Presidents
I need money, I used to be a stick up kid
So I think of all the devious things I did
I used to roll up, â€œthis is a hold up–ain’t nuttin’ funny
Stop smiling ain’t still don’t nothin’ move but the moneyâ€
But now I learned to earn cause I’m righteous
I feel great, so maybe I might just
Search for a nine to five
And if I thrive, then maybe I’ll stay alive. 78
After Rakim’s rhyme, they get ready to leave the studio. Rakim suggests that they, â€œpump up the music and
count [their] money.â€ Eric B. then tells Ely, the engineer: â€œYo, but check this out, yo Ely! Turn the bass
down, and just let the beat keep rockin.’;â€ Eric B. and Rakim sign off with â€œPeaceâ€ right before a long and
complex scratch and sample solo by Eric B. Surely Eric B. is not counting his money while Ely mixes this
solo, but the illusion of effortlessness further proves his/their expertise and mastery over technology. A
second conversation between Eric B. and Rakim brings the listener back to the confines of the studio, and,
in what seems to be an afterthought, Eric B. asks, â€œwhat happened to peace?â€ Good question. The piece
closes with â€œPeaceâ€ echoed in the mix. 79
This rap’s acknowledgment of the presence of the recording studio juxtaposed against Rakim’s rhyme about
life on the street without money, demystifies technology and its production and highlights the reality of rap
as a means of upward mobility for young blacks for whom meaningful jobs for meaningful pay are scarce. In
this rap, the studio and the rehearsed monitored production (or absence of improvisation) associated with
it are deemphasized by Eric B. and Rakim. They seem to have just walked in off the street and started
rolling the tapes. Simultaneously, the power of technology (the recording industry) is posited as the reason
for their material success. Eric B. and Rakim suggest that they are in control of what technology produces–
including its on-site manager, Ely, the engineer. Needless to say, actual artistic control over recording
production is quite circumscribed for musicians. Instead, Eric B.
Page Image and Rakim’s control over Ely is to be understood as symbolic domination over the process of
technological reproduction. Their overt concern with profit and commodity production reveals the primary
agenda of the recording industry as well as the real need to be compensated for one’s performance. They
implicitly contradict the myth of artistic freedom and anxiety over mass cultural marketing limits and yet
seem to perform creatively. Eric B. and Rakim resist the masked and naturalized dominance of the
institutional structure by overtly expressing its presence and logic.
Rap music is a technologically sophisticated and complex urban sound. No doubt, its forebears stretch far
into the orally influenced traditions of African-American culture. But the oral aspects of rap are not to be
understood as primary to the logic of rap nor separate from its technological aspects. Rap is fundamentally
literate and deeply technological. To interpret rap as a direct or natural outgrowth of oral African-American
forms is to romanticize and decontextualize rap as a cultural form. It requires erasing rap’s significant sonic
presence and its role in shaping technological, cultural, and legal issues as they relate to defining and
creating music. Retaining black cultural priorities is an active and often resistive process that has involved
manipulating established recording policies, mixing techniques, lyrical construction, and the definition of
The lyrical and musical texts in rap are a dynamic hybrid of oral traditions, postliterate orality, and
advanced technology. Rap lyrics are a critical part of a rapper’s identity, strongly suggesting the importance
of authorship and individuality in rap music. Yet, sampling as it is used by rap artists indicates the
importance of collective identities and group histories. There are hundreds of shared phrases and slang
words in rap lyrics, yet a given rap text is the personal and emotive voice of the rapper. 80 The music is a
complex cultural reformulation of a community’s knowledge and memory of itself. Rap lyrics and the
sampled sounds that accompany them are highly literate and technological, yet they articulate a distinct
Like many groundbreaking musical genres, rap has expanded popular aural territory. Bringing together
sound elements from a wide range of sources and styles and relying heavily on rich Afrodiasporic music,
rap musicians’ technological in(ter)ventions are not ends in and of themselves, they are means to cultural
ends, new contexts in which priorities are shaped and expressed. Rap producers are not so much
deliberately working against the cultural logic of Western classical music as they are
Page Image working within and among distinctly black practices, articulating stylistic and compositional
priorities found in black cultures in the diaspora. As has been made clear, these practices do not take place
in a cultural and political vacuum. Rap’s sonic forces are often contested on the grounds that they are not
creative, constitute theft, and are nonmusical. In other cases, these black approaches to the use and
manipulation of new technologies are rendered invisible as they are joyfully appropriated. Sampling, as
employed by rap producers, is a musical time machine, a machine that keeps time for the body in motion
and a machine that recalls other times, a technological process whereby old sounds and resonances can be
embedded and recontextualized in the present. Rap technicians employ digital technology as instruments,
revising black musical styles and priorities through the manipulation of technology. In this process of
techno-black cultural syncretism, technological instruments and black cultural priorities are revised and
expanded. In a simultaneous exchange, rap music has made its mark on advanced technology, and
technology has profoundly changed the sound of black music.
1. Sister Souljah speaking at â€œWe Remember Malcolm Dayâ€ held at Abyssinian
Baptist Church in Harlem, New York, 21 February 1991.
2. Cited in Mitch Berman and Susanne Wah Lee, â€œSticking Power,â€ Los Angeles Times Magazine, 15
September 1991, pp. 13-50.
3. Leopold Sendar Senghor, â€œStandards critiques de l’art Africain,â€ African Arts/Arts d’Afrique, vol. 1, no. 1,
(Autumn 1967), excerpted in John Miller Chernoff, African Rhythm and, African Sensibility: Aesthetics
and Social Action in African Musical Idioms (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), p. 22.
4. Rose interview with female rapper Harmony, 14 June 1991.
5. Gang Starr, â€œStep in the Arena,â€ Step In The Arena (Chysalis, 1990).
6. Jeep beats are rap songs with especially heavy bass and drum sounds that are intended for play in
automobiles, preferably with customized stereo systems. Album titles such as Terminator X & The Valley of
the Jeep Beats (Columbia Records, 1991) and Marley Marl, In Control: Volume 1, advertised as an album
designed â€œfor your steering pleasure,â€ illustrate the centrality of heavy prominent beats in rap production.
Â© Lisa Leone
The August 1991 issue of The Source, a popular magazine that covers hip hop music culture and politics,
also featured a Jeep slammers section that reviewed recent releases based in part on their value as jeep
beats. Favored albums received comments such as, â€œfatter beats, thunderous beats, and street feel.â€
7. Chernoff, African Rhythm; Dick Hebdige, Cut n Mix: Culture, Identity and Caribbean Music (London:
Methuen, 1987); Levine, Black Culture, Black Consciousness; Maultsby, â€œAfricanismsâ€; Eileen Southern,
The Music of Black Americans (New York: Norton, 1971).
8. Christopher Small, Music, Society, Education: An Examination of the Function of Music in Western,
Eastern and African Cultures with its Impact on Society and Its Use in Education (New York: Schirmer,
1977), pp. 20-21. See also Christopher Small, Music of the Common Tongue (New York: Riverrun Press,
9. Small, Music, Society, Education, pp. 9-10. See also John Storm Roberts, Black Music of Two Worlds
(New York: William Morrow, 1974).
10. Rap’s â€œhuman beat boxâ€ shares many vocal sounds found in African vocal traditions. Marc Dery
describes this link: â€œThe hums, grunts and glottal attacks of Central Africa’s pygmies, the tongue clicks,
throat gurgles and suction stops of the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert, and the yodeling, whisding vocal
effects of Zimbabwe’s m’bira players all survive in the mouth percussion of such â€œhuman beat boxâ€ rappers
as Doug E. Fresh and Darren Robinson of the Fat Boys.â€ Marc Dery, â€œRap!,â€ Keyboard, November 1988, p.
11. Small, Music, Society, Education, pp. 54-55.
12. See also Ben Sidran, Black Talk (New York: Holt, Reinhart & Winston, 1971), and Olly Wilson, â€œBlack
Music as Art,â€ Black Music Research Journal,no. 3, 1-22, 1983.
13. Poor Righteous Teachers, â€œRock Dis Funky Joint,â€ Holy Intellect (Profile, 1990). See also Ice Cube, â€œThe
Bomb â€ AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted (Profile, 1990), and the Fu-schnickens, Take It Personal (Jive, 1992).
Bear in mind that not all rap music deploys these characteristics equally. In particular, some of the earliest
rap recordings used the instrumental side of a disco single verbatim as the sole musical accompaniment.
This may, in part, be due to limited musical resources, as disc jockey performances that predate these
recordings demonstrate substantial skill and complexity in rhythmic manipulation.
14. A Tribe Called Quest, â€œYouthful Expression,â€ People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm (Jive
15. James A. Snead, â€œOn Repetition in Black Culture,â€ Black America Literature Forum, vol. 15, no. 4, 153,
1981. Special thanks to AJ for this reference.
16. Snead, â€œRepetition,â€ 146-47. Culture is one of the most complex words in the English language. Culture,
as I use it and as Snead uses it, is both a â€œwhole way of life, which is manifest over the whole range of social
activities but is most evident in â€˜specifically culturalâ€™ activities–a language, styles of art, kinds of intellectual
work; and an emphasis on a â€˜whole social orderâ€™ within which a specifiable culture, in styles of art and kinds
of intellectual work, is seen as the direct or indirect product of an order primarily constituted by other
social activities.â€ From Raymond Williams, The Sociology of Culture (New York: Schocken, 1981), pp. 11-12.
See also Raymond Williams, Keywords (Glasgow: Fontana, 1976).
17. Snead, â€œRepetition,â€ p. 152., my italics; Susan McClary, Feminine Endings(Minneapolis: University of
Minnesota Press, 1991), p. 155.
18. Snead also demonstrates that the recovery of repetition in twentieth-century European literature (e.g.,
Joyce, Faulkner, Woolf, Yeats, and Eliot) suggests that the dominance of nineteenth-century repression of
European traditions that favored privileged uses of repetition and verbal rhythm in the telling â€œin favor of
the illusion of narrative verisimilitudeâ€ may have â€œbegun to ebb somewhat.â€ Ibid., p. 152. For a range of
discussions on form and meaning in black music and culture, see Graham Lock, Forces in Nature: The
Music and Thoughts of Anthony Braxton (New York: Da Capo Press, 1988); Wole Soyinka, Myth,
Literature and the African World (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990); and Gates, The
Signifying Monkey. Gates affirms Snead’s argument regarding the centrality of repetition in black culture:
â€œrepetition and revision are fundamental to black artistic forms from painting and sculpture to music to
language use,â€ p. xxiv.
19. Snead, â€œRepetition,â€ p. 150.
20. Susan McClary and Richard Leppert, eds., Music and Society: The Politics of Composition,
Performance and Reception (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), and McClary, Feminine
Endings; Small, Common Tongue, and Music, Society, Education; Jacques Attali, Noise: The Political
Economy of Music(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985).
21. Attali, Noise, p. 88.
22. Theodore W. Adorno (with the assistance of George Simpson), â€œOn Popular Music,â€ in Simon Frith and
Andrew Goodwin, eds., On Record: Rock, Pop and the Written Word (New York: Pantheon, 1990), p. 313.
Also see T.W. Adorno, â€œOn the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening,â€ in Andrew
Arato and Eike Gebhardt, eds., The Essential Frankfurt School Reader(New York: Continuum, 1982), pp.
23. Frederic Jameson, â€œReification and Utopia in Mass Culture,â€ Social Text,Winter, 137, 1979.
24. Richard Middleton’s Studying Popular Music (Philadelphia: Open University Press, 1990) attempts to
grapple with the question of repetition in popular music in his chapter on pleasure, value, and ideology in
popular music (see esp. pp. 267-93). He finds that â€œpopular common sense tends to see repetition as an
aspect of mass production and market exploitation but often also associates it with the phenomenon of
being â€˜sent,â€™ particularly in relation to â€˜hypnoticâ€™ rhythmic repetitions and â€˜primitiveâ€™ audience trance….
How can we square a psychology of repetition and the historically specific Adornian notion of repetition as
a function of social control?â€ (pp. 286-87). Middleton suggests that multiple determinations are operative
at once. To illustrate his point, he compares Freud, Barthes, Deleuze, and Guattari, Jameson, Rosolato, and
Lacan on the question of repetition. The multiple determinations he offers cannot accommodate the kind of
black approach to repetition as articulated by Snead and Small. In fact, none of the approaches he offers
ground black practices in African traditions. Although he is quite aware of black cultural influences in
popular music, in his mind these influences do not reflect an alternative approach to cultural production;
they are discrete black practices that are not constructed as part of a larger approach. So, although he
agrees that black musics privilege repetition (although not rhythmically complex uses of repetition, but
â€œriffs, call-and-response, short unchanging rhythmic patternsâ€), it is a technique, not a manifestation of an
25. Stetsasonic, â€œTalkin’ All That Jazz,â€ In Full Gear (Tommy Boy, 1988).
26. See Charles Aaron, â€œGettin’ Paid: Is Sampling Higher Education or Grand Theft Auto?,â€ Village Voice
Rock â€™nâ€™ Roll Quarterly, Fall, pp. 22-23, 1989; Jeff Bateman, â€œSampling: Sin or Musical Godsend?â€ Music
Scene, September/ October, pp. 14-15, 1988.
27. Harry Allen, â€œInvisible Band,â€ Village Voice, 18 October 1988, p. 10 (eletromag section).
28. Phone conversation with Tricia Rose, 14 August 1991. There is quite a large underground market for
break beat records. These LP records are comprised of several rerecorded break beats compiled from other
albums. I am aware of at least twenty-five to thirty volumes of such break beat records.
29. Tricia Rose interview with Bomb Squad producer Eric (Vietnam) Sadler, 4 September 1991.
30. Decades ago, blues musicians jimmied amplifiers and guitars to get desired sounds, and punk
musicians have ignored the official limitations of musical equipment to achieve sought-after effects. For
other examples, see Kyle Gann, â€œSampling: Plundering for Art,â€ Village Voice, 1 May 1990, p. 102; Andrew
Goodwin, â€œSample and Hold: Pop Music in the Age of Digital Production,â€ in Simon Frith and Andrew
Goodwin, eds., On Record: Rock, Pop and the Written Word (New York: Pantheon, 1990), pp. 258-73.
31. See Hebdige, Cut n Mix, especially Chapter 10. Rap music is heavily indebted to Jamaican musical
practices. As mentioned in Chapter 2, such early rap DJs in the Bronx as DJ Kool herc were recent
Caribbean immigrants and brought with them black Caribbean sound system practices, including sound
system wars between DJs. It is also important to stress Jamaican sound systems’ emphasis on bass tones.
This cross-fertilization is even more complex than immigration patterns suggest. Hebdige demonstrates
that reggae’s roots are actually in Post-WW II black American music. He claims that large powerful sound
systems became a popular means by which black American R&B music could be played to large numbers of
Jamaicans. See Cut n Mix, Chapter 7.
32. Mark Dery and Bob Doerschuk, â€œDrum Some Kill: The Beat behind the Rap,â€ Keyboard, November
1988, pp. 34-36.
33. Cited in Ibid., p. 34 (my italics).
34. For a discussion of the transformation of the role of recording engineers and their relationship to
musicians, see Edward R. Kealy, â€œFrom Craft to Art: The Case of Sound Mixers and Popular Music,â€ in Frith
and Goodwin, eds., On Record, pp. 207-20.
35. Cited in Dery and Doerchuk, â€œDrum Some Kill,â€ pp. 34-35 (my italics).
36. Hank Shocklee is a member of the Bomb Squad rap production team, which also includes Keith
Shocklee, Carl Ryder (Chuck D), and Eric (Vietnam) Sadler. Also, note that house music, a contemporary
dance music similar to disco, has been combined with rap to produce Hip House, a popular dance music
with rap lyrics.
37. Cited in Mark Dery, â€œHank Shocklee: â€˜Bomb Squadâ€™ Leader Declares War on Music,â€ Keyboard,
September 1990, pp. 82-83, 96.
38. Shocklee’s passion for the cut can be best observed in the work of Public Enemy. See especially â€œDon’t
Believe the Hype,â€ â€œBring the Noise,â€ â€œTerminator X to the Edge of Panic,â€ and â€œNight of the Living
Baseheads,â€ It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back (Def Jam Records, 1988). Similarly, see Eric
Sadler and DJ Jinx’s work on Ice Cube’s â€œThe Bomb,â€ AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted (Priority Records, 1990).
39. Rose interview with Eric Sadler. For a transcription and interpretation of â€œThe Titanic,â€ see, Bruce
Jackson, Get Tour Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me(Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1974).
For a provocating reading of the cultural and psychological significance of the sinking of The Titanic
particularly as a symbolic representation of the death of civilized European culture, see Doane’s reference to
Slavoj Zizek in Mary Anne Doane, â€œInformation, Crisis and Catastrophe,â€ in Patricia Mellencamp, ed.,
Logics of Television (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), pp. 229-39.
40. Cited in Dery and Doerchuk, â€œDrum Some Kill,â€ p. 35. Although Stephney suggests that rappers do not
use live drummers with desired success, many albums do feature live drummers in the credits.
41. Sampling attorney Micheline Wolkowicz, who investigates and clears rap samples for Berger, Steingut,
Tarnoff, and Stern (a firm that counsels and clears samples for Marly Marl, DJ Jazzy Jef and the Fresh
Prince, the Beastie Boys, and other artists), states that the vast majority of samples cleared by rap
musicians are taken from black music performed and created by black musicians. Interview with Rose,
42. A Tribe Called Quest, â€œVerses from the Abstract,â€ The Low End Theory(Jive Records, 1991).The title of
this album is an obvious affirmation of the importance of low-frequency sounds. Pete Rock and C.L.
Smooth, Mecca and the Soul Brother (Elektra, 1992); Guru, Jazzamatazz (Chrysalis, 1993). See also Ed
O.G. and the Bulldogs, â€œBe a Father to Your Child,â€ Life of a Kid in the Ghetto(Polygram Records, 1991).
43. Cited in Jon Young, â€œP.M. Dawn Sample Reality,â€ Musician, June 1993, p. 23.
44. Cited in Havelock Nelson, â€œSoul Controller, Sole Survivor,â€ The Source,October 1991, p. 38. According
to Marley Marl: â€œâ€˜Marley’s Scratchâ€™ was the first record to use sampled drums, but the innovation really got
noticed when it appeared on MC Shan’s â€˜The Bridgeâ€™ (1986) and Eric B. & Rakim’s â€˜Eric B. Is Presidentâ€™
(1986).â€ Both of these raps were critical successes among hip hop fans and were produced or remixed by
45. Hebdige, Cut n Mix, p. 14.
46. Cited in Aaron, â€œGettin Paid,â€ p. 26.
47. Bill Stephney, cited in Dery and Doerchuk, â€œDrum Some Kill,â€ p. 36.
48. Rose interview with Sadler, 4 September 1991.
49. Cited in Mitch Berman and Susanne Wah Lee, â€œSticking Power,â€ Los Angeles Times Magazine, 15
September 1991, p. 50.
50. David Samuels, â€œThe Real Face of Rap,â€ New Republic, 11 November 1991, pp. 24-29 (my italics); J. D.
Considine, â€œFear of a Rap Planet,â€ Musician,February 1992, p. 35; Jon Parales, â€œOn Rap, Symbolism and
Fear,â€ New York Times, 2 February 1992, Section 2, pp. 1, 23; letters to the editor, New York Times, 16
February 1992. I presume that a lengthy reminder of the power of editorial decision making in legitimating
and simultaneously refusing to legitimate ideas and sentiments is not needed.
51. Dery, â€œHank Shocklee,â€ p. 82. Little has been published on the sound of and process involved in creating
rap music. In attempting to garner respect for rap among traditional musicians, Dery supports his technical
description of rap’s style with a criticism of the rock establishment for considering rap musicians â€œmusical
52. Ibid., p. 83.
53. Cited in Frank Tirro, Jazz: A History (New York: Norton, 1977), pp. 306-307; Jason Berry, et al., Up
from the Cradle of Jazz (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986), p. 5; Dery, â€œHank Shocklee,â€ p. 83.
54. Except for those discussions that focus on rap’s use of technology as a postmodern technique rather
than a black practice. For discussions that make this distinction and focus on the former, see Frith and
Goodwin, eds., On Record; Simon Frith, ed., Facing the Music (New York: Pantheon, 1988); Bruce Tucker,
â€œTell Tchaikovsky the News: Postmodernism, Popular Culture and the Emergence of Rock n Roll,â€ Black
Music Research Journal, vol. 9, no. 2, 271-94, 1989.
55. Frith and Goodwin, eds., On Record, p. 263. It should be mentioned that in this large collection on
popular music, there is no discussion of black popular forms, nor is there any consideration of race as a
category of analysis in relation to the category popular music. Although the collection is not limited to
American popular forms, it focuses a great deal on American and British popular music.
56. Mead Hunter, â€œInterculturalism and American Music,â€ Performing Arts Journal, vols. 33/34, 186-202,
57. The quote in the heading is from Ice Cube, â€œParental Discretion Is Advised,â€ AmeriKKKa’s Most
Wanted (Profile Records, 1990).
58. David Toop, The Rap Attack: African Jive to New York Hip Hop (London: South End Press, 1984), p.
19. (my italics). For other analyses regarding rap’s use of black oral traditions, see Charles P. Henry, Culture
and African American Politics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990); Wheeler Winston Dixon,
â€œUrban Black American Music in the Late 1980s: The Word as Signifier,â€ Midwest Quarterly, vol. 30
(Winter), 229-41, 1989; Cheryl L. Keyes, â€œVerbal Art Performance in Rap Music: The Conversation of the
1980s,â€ Folklore Forum,vol. 17 (Fall) 143-52, 1984; and Jon Michael Spencer, ed., The Emergency of Black
and the Emergence of Rap, Special Issue of Black Sacred Music, vol. 5, no. 1 (Spring), 1991.
59. Allen, â€œInvisible Band,â€ p. 10 (electromag section).
60. Walter Ong, Orality and Technology: The Technologizing of the Word (London: Methuen, 1982), p. 42.
61. See Jackson, Get Tour Ass in the Water, for transcriptions of Signifying Monkey and other AfroAmerican oral folktales. See also Hebdige, Cut n Mix, in which he notes that Caribbean artist Wayne
Smith’s â€œUnder Mi Sleng Teengâ€ prompted no fewer than 239 versions of the song.
62. Kool Moe Dee, â€œHow Ya Like Me Now,â€ How Ya Like Me Now (Jive Records, 1987).
63. Salt ‘N’ Pepa, â€œGet Up Everybody (Get Up),â€ Salt with a Deadly Pepa(Next Plateau Records, 1988).
64. Eric B. & Rakim, â€œFollow The Leader,â€ Follow The Leader (UNI Records, 1988).
65. L. L. Cool J., â€œI’m Bad,â€ Bad (Def Jam Records, 1987).
66. Ong, Orality, p. 35.
67. Ibid., p. 42.
68. Rose interview with Sadler, 4 September 1991.
69. Stetsasonic, â€œTalkin’ All That Jazz,â€ In Full Gear (Tommy Boy Records, 1988). For an in-depth reading
of poetic and narrative complexity in â€œTalkin All That Jazz,â€ see Richard Shusterman, â€œThe Fine Art of
Rap,â€ New Literary History, vol. 22, no. 3 (Summer), 613-32, 1991. Not only have records been reprinted,
but artists such as Parliament and Chic are touring and drawing crowds too young to have heard their
music when it was first released. A recent Parliament concert at the Apollo was heavily attended by young
hip hop fans who were familiar with De La Soul’s use of their bass lines.
70. Hebdige, Cut n Mix, p. 14.
71. Simon Frith, â€œPicking Up the Pieces,â€ in Simon Frith, ed., Facing the Music, pp. 121-22 (my italics).
72. Under the U.S. Copyright Act, authors of copyrighted compositions and copyright holders of sound
recordings control usage of their materials. The Act has schedules of royalty rates for use of compositions,
but no such schedule for sound recordings. As Charles Aaron explains: â€œIf permission is granted to
appropriate a composition or sound recording–to cover a tune or to sample one–the artists doing the
appropriating receives a compulsory royalty license under section 115. With a mechanical license for a
composition, the rate for a cover version is 5.25 cents per record sold, or one cent per minute, whichever is
larger. No rate scale exists for sampling compositions or for sampling sound recordings.â€ Aaron, â€œGettin’
Paid,â€ p. 23.
73. This recent settlement has accelerated the process of legally defining the terms of sample use. Rapper
Biz Markie used an uncleared sample of Gilbert O’Sullivan’s â€œAlone Again Naturally,â€ and a Federal judge in
New York ruled that it was a case of copyright infringement rather than an example of fair use for artistic or
educational purposes. It is expected that this ruling will have a significant effect on sampling use and
clearance. Chuck Phillips, â€œSongwriter Wins Large Settlement in Rap Suit,â€ Los Angeles Times, 1 January
1991, pp. F1, F12. See also Melinda Newman and Chris Morris, â€œSampling Safeguards Follow Suit,â€
Billboard, 23 May 1992, pp. 1, 80; and Robert G. Sugarman and Joseph P. Salvo, â€œSampling Case Makes
Music Labels Sweat,â€ National Law Journal, 15 March 1991, vol. 14, no. 28, 34.
74. In my interview with Micheline Wolkowitz, she pointed out the increasing complexity of sampling uses
and fee determination. When a rap artist gives away a percentage of his or her royalty fee for the usage of a
sample, that percentage must be multiplied by their royalty rate and prorated by the ten-song standard
contract limit. This is in the case of one sample usage. Increasing legal fees for production, limited access to
actual sales figures for the artists, and the introduction of a myriad of publishing companies and sampled
artists add a great deal of confusion to an already complex, heavily commodified, and legally managed
process. Interview with Rose, September 1991.
75. â€œRock Beat,â€ Village Voice, 6 July 1993, p. 75.
76. Aaron, â€œGettin’ Paid,â€ p. 23.
77. Successful attempts include NWA Niggaz4 life (Priority, 1991) and Tim Dog’s â€œFuck Compton,â€
Penicillin on Wax (Ruffhouse, 1991).
78. Eric B. & Rakim, â€œPaid in Full,â€ Paid in Full (Island Records, 1986). â€œDead Presidentsâ€ refer to U.S.
currency that feature dead presidents. I wouldn’t be surprised if righteous secret service types assumed it
meant assassinating presidents, given that some progressive activists frequently misinterpreted â€œhomieâ€ as
an anti-gay epithet rather than an affectionate term for a friend from the â€œhood.â€
79. The music video for â€œPaid in Fullâ€ supports this interpretation of what happened to â€œpeaceâ€ rather than
â€œpieceâ€ by showing a peace sign during that lyrical passage.
80. See Spin (October 1988) for a hip hop slang dictionary.
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