Saturday, February 09, 2008

Music For America, Part II

In my previous post, I mentioned lights blaring in my head as I read about the liberty within jazz. Not just jazz, however; I also mentioned pieces coming together as I understood something for the first time that should have been clear from the first. Much of the talk about hip-hop as an exciting art form (it used to be limited to rap; I think the larger form, which embraces not just rap but r&b as well, works far better), something American suddenly became clear to me. Maybe I'm a decade or more behind the curve; or maybe I am preaching to those who refuse to listen. I do know that, until that moment of clarity, I was one of those who turned my nose up at the limits of hip-hop, its penchant for the outright theft (called "sampling") of riffs, even whole musical ideas, with a thin overlay of vocal and a gut-wrenching, head-pounding bass line. This is music made for two things, really (and perhaps this is one reason so many people who think of themselves as appreciators of music disdain it) - dancing and sex. Indeed, since there are rarely distinctions (I am in full agreement with the view that dancing is the vertical expression of a horizontal desire) and hip-hop blows those distinctions out of the water with its blatant sexuality, and its insistent beat that reminds one that rhythmic repetition can be a joy encompassing all sorts of things.

In many ways, hip-hop is a sub-genre not of r&b (which it in fact encompasses and transcends), but of jazz. Like jazz musicians who take old tunes and remake them in their own image - Coleman Hawkins playing "Body and Soul" like it has never been played, before or since is a great, historical example - hip-hoppers (and here the producer becomes important again) take riffs and chords and even melodies, overlays and underlays different beats, cuts and chops bits we know well and remake them in their own image, and put a different sensibility on them. Instead of doing it with a quartet that knows the changes of "West End Blues", however, it is a producer who hears breaks in "Ventura Highway" or "Kashmir" that those who wrote it didn't even know were there, and takes those songs apart, putting them back together again in a new way as the background for a whole new song. Janet Jackson and P. Diddy managed to take two classic rock songs and find nuggets within them, in the latter case even getting Jimmy Page to come along for the ride.

I know there are purists out there who howl at this kind of thing, because I was one of them. The problem, however, is that, to take Led Zeppelin as an example (since they were mentioned above), they were nothing more than ripping off, first, the Rolling Stones, and also Delta Blues (represented by Willie Dixon, especially on their first album), but recast with dirge-like beats, over-amplified, and a very dark mood. In other words, those being ripped off were, in their day, nothing more than musical thieves, taking what they loved and recasting it in their own image. It takes no less talent to do this kind of thing with a computer and musical editing software than it does with a guitar, bass and drums. One still needs that most essential, and most rare of gifts, an ear for what is and is not musical, and how best to recast that music, to take what we know and make it fresh and new, even (perhaps) different.

Hip-hop, I think, represents possibilities. We can treasure our past, but we can take those elements from the past that we love the most, discard elements that are outmoded, outdated, or non-essential, and put not so much a veneer but the reality of contemporaneity upon them - those beats, those vocals, those sentiments - and make them not just new but really, actually different. There is something so wonderfully American about this, a kind of musical syncretism, even (dare I use the word?) micegination, about this. We are in the presence of something wonderful, something that, in Ellington's often overused phrase, is "beyond category", except, perhaps for that most important category - American music.

Virtual Tin Cup

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