An Overview of Hip-Hop Music Appreciation

Some of the most common criticisms of hip-hop music come from a lack of understanding of hip-hop’s own value system for evaluating good from bad.

DJ Premier

It’s just like a language, you have to know how to listen to it. If you don’t listen to it the right way, all it sounds like is just a whole bunch of noise with a lot of loud-ass beats bang, bang, banging. And if you don’t know how to listen to it, it doesn’t make sense. My mother’s eighty, she doesn’t know how to listen to no hip-hop.

Many of the things hip-hop fans and aficionados look for in a hip-hop song are almost the opposite of what fans look for in other genres such as rock, jazz, and blues. For example, rappers often note the vast differences between writing a song to be sung and writing a rapped, hip-hop song.

Evidence, Dilated Peoples

People who sing…they can hold one note for so long and have to say so few words to get the message across. “I love you,” “You’re in my heart,” “You’ll be here forever,” and “It’s hard to sleep without you” … that’s a whole verse right there if you held the notes right. With a rapper, we can’t do that—that’s not even half a bar.

Understanding hip-hop’s aims and how they differ from other genres is key to understanding the appeal of the music and properly evaluating it. 

It can be looked at in the same way as film criticism—a horror movie can’t be judged by the same criteria as a children’s movie, as it would be heavily criticized for being too graphic and not lighthearted enough. To fully appreciate hip-hop, you have to know what to listen for, rather than judging the music on a different set of values.

Rhythm and Rhyme Are More Important Than Melody

A frequent criticism of hip-hop, especially in the earlier days when it first emerged, is that it doesn’t use much melody and that rappers aren’t able to sing. 

There are rappers who actually do use a lot of melody, such as Slick Rick, Snoop Dogg, and groups like Bone Thugs-n-Harmony and the Pharcyde who have half- sung deliveries and sections of songs with traditional singing. Also, producers such as Dr. Dre and DJ Quik use live musicians and incorporate a lot of harmony and melody in their music.

Big Daddy Kane

If you really, really want to look at it, [early hip-hop groups such as the] Cold Crush [Brothers], Fantastic, and Master Don and the Def Committee, these cats when they performed were singing. When the Force MDs were the Force MCs they were like, “here is our rap group,” but when they were doing their routines they were singing. The only time they were rapping is when they would freestyle one by one, but the majority of their routine was straight up singing. So that whole melodic thing has always played an important part in hip-hop from the beginning.

Shock G, Digital Underground

[There] was the ’80s wave of hybrid hip-hop groups and melodic MCs, like Jimmy Spicer, Planet Patrol, Full Force, Jonzun Crew, [Slick Rick, also known as] MC Ricky Dee’s outrageous singing on “La di da di,” and especially Queen Latifah, who took rap-singing to a whole ’nother level of believability and harmonic accuracy when she dropped the game- changing “Wrath of my Madness / Princess of the Posse” single in ’88.

However, these are exceptions, as most hip-hop music emphasizes the rhythms and rhymes of the rapping, coupled with the rhythms of the “beats” (as the musical backings are usually referred to).

Rhythm

Hip-hop music normally revolves around the rapping and the musical backing and how these two elements interact. The musical backing is usually based on repetition, with the same or similar rhythms repeated constantly throughout a track. 

The rapping creates variation and continually changes—it is common for the rapped rhythms to change in every line of a verse. These two elements complement each other by doing opposite things. It’s easier to appreciate the changing rhythms of the rapping when you have the stable, repeating rhythm of the musical backing to compare it to. 

If they both varied, there wouldn’t be this contrast, and if they both stayed the same, there wouldn’t be any variation to create interest and surprise. Because of this, experimenting and playing with different rhythms is a big part of the artistry of the rapper.

Aesop Rock

A lot of those little patterns and rhythms are what people find attractive about [hip-hop music and rapping]—it’s such a rhythmic form of vocals.

Del the Funky Homosapien

Rhythmically, how you swing, and playing something funky or with a groove, is [like] you’re playing with it. It would bore you to just sit up there and [rap] it normally, just straight and stiff, so to entertain your own self, you like doing other shit with it. Think of it like [this]: Somebody that’s a pro at [the video game] Street Fighter is not gonna want to sit on Street Fighter and just play stiff, normally—they’re gonna want to entertain themselves by doing [lots of techniques]! They’re gonna floss with it a little bit. So anybody that’s looking at them playing, it’s damn near like watching a cartoon, they’re so good.

There are of course occasional exceptions to this—some songs do have musical backings which have significant changes throughout (such as work by DJ Shadow or J Dilla) and sometimes a rapper will decide to do a track using the same rapped rhythm all the way through (Gift of Gab of Blackalicious and Busta Rhymes have both used this kind of structure). But these are deviations from the standard template.

For many rappers the creative process begins with improvising rhythms before the lyrics are even written—the combination of the rhythm and rhymes of a rap are often referred to as the flow.

Royce Da 5’9″

I come up with the flow before I write anything down. Once I figure out the flow, then I gotta figure out the words and I just have to figure out how to fit the words into that flow. I usually pick the flow before I even start writing the verse.

Masta Ace

What I do, I’ll play the beat and I’ll start mumbling words, a flow to that beat. And the words don’t make any sense, they just sound like gibberish, but what I’m trying to formulate is how the [lyrics] that I’m gonna create are gonna flow into that beat. So the beat comes on, and I just start kinda mumbling, and once I get the bounce of how I wanna rhyme, then I start to turn those mumbles into actual words.

With rhythm in hip-hop music, it’s important to listen for the variations that the rapper uses, as well as the fixed rhythms of the musical backing. 

There will usually be drums doing one rhythm, bass doing a rhythm on top of that, and so on, stacked on top of each other to create the fixed musical backing that repeats. The rapper’s varying rhythms sit on top of the rhythms of the musical backing, as another musical instrument.

Gift of Gab, Blackalicious

I’m basically trying to be like another instrument on the track. I want to ride it like the bass line is riding it, only with words. I wanna ride it just like the guitar or the violin or whatever instrument, just riding it.

Rhyme

The other important element that listeners of other genres may not be used to assessing is rhyme. While you may get a few rhyming words at the end of each line of a regular rock song, for example, in hip-hop the most advanced rappers like to fill each line with a lot of rhyming words, often creating complex rhyme schemes that constantly change and evolve over a verse or song. A lot of rappers judge their peers on the work they put into their rhymes and rhyme schemes.

Eminem

You really gotta live it—my mind 24/7, aside from family stuff obviously, is constantly thinking of ways to bend words. What I love about rap, is it feels like puzzles to me, words are like puzzles and trying to figure out a puzzle, trying to figure out where it could go here, and how many words can I make [rhyme]. I’m real into the craft of just MCing and I always think like, “how can I figure this puzzle out?” Like how can I take words and put them at the end of the sentence, but in between maybe make some words rhyme that rhyme in between, like sandwich them. So sandwich those words and try to make them rhyme inside of the phrase and then come back outside and try to rhyme with the word that I ended on the snare [drum]. I’m kind of real into the technical part of it.

Masta Ace

You got guys that just rhyme cat with bat and hat, and that’s it, but there’s so much more to it if you want to put some time in. To hear a whole album of cat, bat, hat, it just sounds boring. That’s why as an artist, when I listen to other rappers, there’s guys that I really appreciate because they’ll come up with combinations of words that rhyme [where] I would have never thought of that.

A heavy emphasis on rhyming is a key feature of the rapping styles of Kool G Rap, Big Pun, Eminem, and R.A. The Rugged Man, all known and lauded for their complex rhyme styles. Because other genres don’t put as much emphasis on the level of rhyming in the lyrics, this is often overlooked by listeners who aren’t used to this being a major feature of the music.

So where a listener expects to hear a melody, there often isn’t one—instead the emphasis of the artist is on complex rhythms and rhyme schemes. These are the elements to listen for in order to get the most out of the technical side of rapping, as it is rare that melody will be the most prominent feature.

Playing with Language, Not Emotions

Another popular criticism of hip-hop music is that it doesn’t engage listeners’ emotions as often as other forms of music. 

A number of hip-hop artists do specialize in emotional content—numerous classic hip-hop songs are notable particularly because of their emotional content, such as Pete Rock & CL Smooth’s “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.).”

Dante Ross

[Pete Rock & CL Smooth’s song, “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)” is] a strange rap record to be a hit song, because when you’re dealing with loops and rap music in general, especially at that time period, the music wasn’t necessarily emotional. That song is like almost a blues song, it’s very melancholy, and atypical of a hit rap record. It’s a song that never goes away … it tells a story, CL is talking about how he met Trouble T Roy [who died accidentally] … “They Reminisce Over You” spells “Troy.”

Big Daddy Kane

When you look at artists like Melle Mel, Chuck D, 2Pac Shakur, when you look at artists like these cats, it’s the type of thing where what they’re talking about is something that you’ve experienced, something that you’re probably having a problem with. And they just touched upon it in song and you felt it, because this is something that’s been messing with you mentally. You felt it and it touched you that way—it hits your heart.

However, many of the most acclaimed rappers aim to impress the listener with clever wordplay and flow, rather than trying to get a “deeper” emotional response. It can be equated with hearing an impressive solo on a percussion instrument, where the focus is on showcasing the technical proficiency of the musician. In hip-hop, this is sometimes done with the inventiveness of the content and other times it’s done with impressive rhyme schemes and rhythms. It can also be done with rapid-fire, fast rapping styles, or styles that continually vary throughout a song.

Myka 9, Freestyle Fellowship

The average dope MC that’s really tight, they’ll tell you [that] in your mind you’re constantly thinking of metaphors. Every time you see a street sign or a billboard, you’re thinking, how can I tie that into a rhyme? So [you] constantly think of metaphors, analogies, things of that nature.

If there does not seem to be an obvious attempt to connect with the listener in a deep, emotional way in a particular song, it’s usually because the focus is on other areas. 

There may be a lot of rhyming words being used, the rapper might be employing a series of complex rhythms, or there could be a lot of wordplay or witty metaphors. Whereas a rock ballad would almost always try to give the listener an emotional response of some kind, this is often not the case with a lot of hip-hop songs, especially where it is a pure demonstration of skill.

It Can Be Flow and Delivery, Not Meaning

Hip-hop content can often confuse first-time listeners who are expecting the lyrics to have a clear meaning. For example, Das EFX’s “They Want EFX” begins with lyrics which are essentially a collection of nonsensical sounds. 

A lot of hip-hop lyrics do have an obvious meaning, especially if they are story raps, or raps filled with interesting metaphors and similes. In certain songs, hip- hop lyrics sound like they don’t make sense until you understand the slang, such as a lot of Wu-Tang Clan or E-40 songs, which use very dense slang.

E-40 

I was the first one who put [the slang term fo’ shizzle meaning for sure] out there real tough in 1996 on my song “Rappers Ball.” We were saying “fo’ sheezy,” and “fo’ shizzle.” I told Jay-Z after he used it on his record, I said, “That’s a Bay Area word, man.” That’s from the land where they pop their collars and jack their slacks. Then I took it to “fo’ shiggedy” to “fo’ shiggadough” and now “fo’ shiggadale,” that’s the newest. You know, it don’t stop. 75 percent of the words I made up. Even before this rap game, my ear’s always been to the street. I’ve been making up slang words since the first grade, you smell me? I stay coming with something to keep the game interesting. I tell them the rap game without [E-]40 is like old folks without bingo.

​​But often the actual meaning of the words is secondary to the way the rap is being said, and to the rhythm and rhyme schemes—the flow of the rap. 

A string of rhyming words doesn’t always have to “mean” anything in particular, it can just be an impressive run of words, like a drummer doing a fast drum roll. This explains the Das EFX example—it is an opening vocal drum roll of sounds, launching into the first verse.

Myka 9, Freestyle Fellowship 

It’s kinda gibberish if you’re just writing and putting stuff down that you don’t really understand, but even in that sense, gibberish is a style. There’s many different styles to the form—we call that wild style, where you’re just putting random words together because you like the way the syllables and the consonants ring.

Often the actual topic is just a theme to riff on while coming up with creative flows and vocal styles. But when a run of rhyming words does make sense, it is always particularly impressive.

Tech N9ne 

It’s hard to rhyme and make sense at the same time … if I’m talking about something like [in the lyrics of “This Ring”]: “This ring, got me a top-notch, straight hot fox, we sought rocks … dropped two, playing hopscotch on the block,” it sounds like just a lot of rhyming words, people love it, but if you listen to it, I’m talking about how I met my wife. “Got me a top-notch, straight hot fox, we sought rocks,” [means] we went out and bought rings, “dropped two, playing hopscotch on the block” [means] we had two little girls. To make sense and still make it fun for the MC or the people to listen to, it’s a hard thing to do.

There isn’t always a hidden meaning to untangle from every line of lyrics in hip- hop—sometimes the lyrics are meant to impress through how they sound, rather than through what they mean.

It Covers Its Own Subjects

Hip-hop’s frequent focus on guns, sex, drugs, money, and bragging is easily one of the most common criticisms of hip-hop. 

This complaint can come from too shallow a knowledge of hip-hop, as artists such as A Tribe Called Quest, the Pharcyde, Brand Nubian, X Clan, Public Enemy, Common, Mos Def, Blackalicious, and many more, have numerous songs with messages, positivity, and “substance” to their lyrics. Many of the more “positive” rappers strongly criticize the less positive rappers in the genre.

Melle Mel

I think if [certain rappers] would ever find something to say, [then they] would be decent at least…. Right now [some rappers just rap] about selling dope. [If] you’re sitting on a half billion dollars—you can evolve them rhymes. You can say something that makes people see a whole different reality. [If a rapper is] a half billion up and the only thing he can talk about is how he used to sell [drugs]? You’re proud of that? That’s one of your high points? That should not be a high point in your life. That’s not something you even let somebody else know, much less let them hear you say it with reverence and pride. Say it and then say, “But I’m doing a lot better now.” Say what it really is. The difference between being good and great is when you can change other people’s perceptions and realities. If people still think the same thing about you now, that they thought when you first came out, then you’re doing the same thing. If you look at somebody who is considered great, they’ve changed people’s perceptions. [Some rappers are] stuck in between talking about dope and killing people. I consider guys like that limited.

Brother J, X Clan

We have the opportunity to take what we’ve learned from our teachers and our ancestors and put it into a major media forum. Hip-hop music is a powerful, powerful beast. It relates worldwide—everything is hip-hop. So for us to have the honor to do that here and the honor to put the message of freedom out, that’s where our vibe comes from.

However, a lot of hip-hop’s classic records are based on more “negative” topics, such as acclaimed “gangsta rap” albums by N.W.A., Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Notorious B.I.G., and 2Pac. Inventive lyricists, like in the group Clipse for example, use the topic of selling drugs to come up with creative ways to twist the English language again and again. Wu-Tang Clan’s 36 Chambers album includes many references to violence, yet it is a universally respected hip-hop masterpiece among hip-hop fans and critics.

Sean Price, Heltah Skeltah

[With] my subject matter, I’m not trying to save the world … it might be some crazy shit, but I know I’m writing the crazy shit, and I want to write the best crazy shit I can write.

Again, it can be useful to compare hip-hop songs to films: there are good action films and bad action films, good horror films and bad horror films, good gangster films and bad gangster films. It is pointless to judge an action film using the same criteria you would use to judge a wildlife documentary and vice versa. The Godfather is one of the most acclaimed films of all time—though it’s filled with violence. Similarly, rather than judging a hip-hop track on the topics it deals with, it’s best to judge it on how well it covers those topics.

Crooked I

I don’t care what you are—a political rapper, a conscious rapper, a gangsta rapper, a backpack rapper—[you have to] have some pride in the lyrics you’re putting together, because it’s important.

Hip-hop often deals with life in inner cities and describes situations where violence and drugs are commonplace, as well as using extravagant imagery and metaphors. Braggadocio content and creating new ways of saying you’re the best are integral to hip-hop and its history. Criticizing hip-hop for covering these topics is like criticizing the blues for focusing on “having the blues,” or heavy metal for being too loud, or classical music for not having a strong enough drum beat.

Sampling & Sound Collage

Hip-hop’s technique of sampling segments of other records is often misinterpreted as simply “stealing” other people’s music or done because the artist didn’t want to learn to play an instrument (many hip-hop artists do play instruments, but still sample records). However, it is almost always done for aesthetic reasons—sampling records creates a certain sound and feel that can’t be acquired in any other way.

Kembrew McLeod

Whether one could exactly re-create a guitar riff [with session musicians] is a moot point for many hip-hop producers, because they want to access the sonic qualities that can only be found on a particular old album recorded in a specific time and place. They are looking for that certain kind of timbre, a certain kind of aura, that signifies, for instance, an old guitar sound taken from a funk-rock record from the 1970s. 22 [There are] certain sounds that can only be accessed through appropriation … the sonic qualities of vintage, analog equipment or a crackly vinyl record can’t truly be recreated through digital plug-ins and audio filters. You can invoke these textures, but you don’t get the same sound from a rerecording of a sample as you do from accessing that particular sound source.

Although sampling has been the primary method for beatmaking overall, not all hip-hop records are created from samples. 

Hip-hop group the Roots play live instruments, producers such as Mantronix and the Neptunes often prefer to use keyboards and drum machines to create their compositions, and Dr. Dre regularly employs session musicians to either create original compositions or to replay samples. However, this live playing or replaying is often still judged on how closely it resembles the feel of the original samples.

Pete Rock 

With the Roots … Ahmir [“Questlove” Thompson] is like the ultimate soul drummer. He’s ill ’cause he listens to all kinds of drumming, from rock to soul to jazz. He’s a beat-head. He can drum and it’ll sound like an SP or MPC [sampling/sequencing machine].

Dr. Dre 

I don’t really dig working with samples, because you’re so limited when you sample … most of my music has been played. Back when we started with the N.W.A. thing, it was a lot of drum loops, drum samples, and what have you. But if we were going to sample something, we would try to at least replay it, get musicians in and replay it. If it was something we couldn’t replay, we would use the sample. I’ve tried to stay away from it as much as possible throughout my career from day one.

The core concept of hip-hop sampling is that records are a resource used to make music, creating a collage from parts of songs. This includes deciding which records to sample, which parts of those records are chosen, and how you combine and manipulate those sounds to create something new, using various forms of technology. 

This is hard to get used to for certain listeners, because it’s so ingrained in other genres that the composer is held in the highest esteem and the credit should go to the people who “wrote” the music, rather than to anyone who has come along later and manipulated that music.

DJ Shadow 

The sampling aesthetic, and the way that I make music, is rooted in the hip-hop paradigm and the hip-hop way of thinking, which is: take what’s around you, and subvert it into something that’s 100 percent you, but also has a cultural connection in the way that it was done before. Andy Warhol’s pop art doesn’t look like another guy’s pop art—but they’re rooted in the same aesthetic.

As a hip-hop beatmaker, you might take the drums from the beginning of a rock song, the organ from the middle of a jazz record, the horns from a soul record, the bass from a funk record, and create a brand-new track.

Hank Shocklee, the Bomb Squad 

When you’re talking about the kind of sampling that Public Enemy did, we had to comb through thousands of records to come up with maybe five good pieces. And as we started putting together those pieces, the sound got a lot more dense.

Domino 

You gotta just take pieces and make them into a whole new thing. You find drum pieces and you can make different styles of drums, just by like piecing them, and making them your own thing.

This sort of collage is common in other artistic fields. In the art world, a piece such as French artist Marcel Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q., where he added a mustache and beard to Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, is a good example of taking a significant portion of someone else’s work and making minor changes to create something new and surprising. 

In literature, Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead uses characters and portions of text from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and puts them in a new context, in much the same way as sampling does in hip-hop.

Chuck D, Public Enemy

We thought sampling was just a way of arranging sounds, to blend sound. Just as visual artists take yellow and blue and come up with green, we wanted to be able to do that with sound.

Taking a sample from another genre and making a hip-hop record usually changes it significantly just by placing it in a starkly different genre, even if the riff is the same. For example, if you compare Dr. Dre’s “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang” to the record it samples, Leon Haywood’s “I Want’a Do Something Freaky to You,” it is immediately apparent that a section of music has been sampled. 

But they are significantly different overall as records in tone and genre —the hip-hop track sounds like a laid-back, West Coast, gangsta-rap track, with some aggression due to the lyrics. The song it samples from sounds like a funk/soul record with various musical movements throughout and it is essentially a love song. By putting the sample in a different setting, the same segment of music becomes something different and new—it is transformed.

Various “rules” often come into play when discussing the merits of a particular hip-hop song or producer, and these can vary from person to person. Credit is often, but not always, given to those who find rare records to sample, and who look to unusual genres for sampling material.

DJ Shadow 

I sampled a lot of funk stuff that I was into at the time. I sampled a really long South Korean break-beat record that I’ve never found another copy of. The sample on [my track] “Building Steam” is from a kind of singer-songwriter thing—a lot of stuff that I was sampling was outside of the soul LP vein. 

Because still, a lot of people were only sampling stuff like P-Funk and Sly Stone, and, you know, more obscure records by groups like the Nite-Liters, or early Kool and the Gang stuff that’s hard to find. But I was trying to find a sound different from everybody else’s, so the source material had to be different from everybody else’s. I was looking for records that I felt like were really obscure. Whether those were funk 45s, which nobody was up on yet, or kind of weird rock albums.

Credit is also often given to beatmakers who use samples in particularly innovative ways. For example, chopping up a horn solo into twelve parts, rearranging those parts, and laying them over drums from somewhere else might be seen as more creative than simply repeating the main riff from a popular song.

Hank Shocklee, the Bomb Squad 

Sampling was a very intricate thing for us. We didn’t just pick up a record and sample that record because it was funky. It was a collage. We were creating a collage.

Beatmakers with a purist approach, who continue to make hip-hop tracks the way they have traditionally been made, typically suggest that all sampling should be directly from vinyl records (rather than CDs or digital files) and should not include too much live instrumentation.

Jake One 

There’ll always be some sampled element in what I do. I think that’s what kinda makes it hip-hop. If you’re just playing … a bunch of instruments and there’s no sampled drums, scratches or something, I don’t think it’s … I mean, it’s hip-hop, I guess … I don’t know. It just doesn’t sound authentic. There’s something about the way the old records sound when put together right. You can’t really recapture ’em when you play [live].

However, the final product is often the key measure—if it sounds great and works well with the rapping, even a simple looped sample can be held in high regard. Basic samples have formed the basis for a lot of hip-hop classics, such as Wu-Tang Clan’s “C.R.E.A.M.” and Cypress Hill’s “Hits from the Bong.”

Steinski 

That’s a stylistic thing [when someone samples a large piece of a record]. You can choose to be disappointed [that they didn’t change it much, but] there’s a lot of things I’ve heard where somebody picked up a chunk of something and used it—and it’s like, man, that’s really great! I’m not that discriminating [when it comes to how much is sampled and how much is changed]. I’m like Alfred E. Neuman [from the Mad magazine comics], walking around with this big smile on my face going, “Huh, huh, I like it,” and that’s pretty much it.

Cut Chemist, Jurassic 5 

I’ll sample anything. My whole vinyl-only kind of banner-waving ways are dead. I think you have to embrace technology in order to grow as an artist and evolve. When I saw the CDJ I was sold. I was like, “cool, vinyl’s done,” and I was scratching on CDJ’s. Not solely, but I’m down to use it. And [digital DJing system] Serato. But you know, I sample off vinyl, I sample off a lot of cassettes, a lot of stuff I use are live recordings that maybe nobody else used. So I’ll use that and also sample live musicians.

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