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A Question of Rhythm, Tempo and Feel

PostPosted: Mon Jan 30, 2006 4:45 pm
by howard male
A Question of Rhythm, Tempo and Feel

Having just listened to a very hip hop heavy CG show this week, I started to think of what hip hop artists are actually trying to say with those robotic, leaden beats they use most of the time. Jal himself doesn't utilise them much, perhaps because he's a more laid-back, less punchy vocalist and would simply be bounced out of the ring if he did. But a couple of the artists he chose to play had rhythm tracks typical of the genre.

What got me thinking was the fact that it's not as if these guys aren't technically adept enough to program a beat with more feel if they wanted to. So why don't they want to? It must be a deliberate musical decision, either consciously or subconsciously. It must be for a reason. For effectively the quantised beat (that is, the beat which the computer has subtracted all human error from, and therefore all human feel) stops forward movement - it makes the track walk on the spot, or at best, lumber or shuffle forward, handicapped by technology like a battle-scarred terminator.

The rhythm track is the first indication of the mood or feel of a piece of music. Even if we pare it right down to tempo: slow is usually sad or thoughtful;. fast is excited or happy. A drummer will either naturally push the beat forward or lay back with it, and thus set the mood (in conjunction with the bass player) for the whole track. For example, there's a certain kind of jazz drumming were the drummer is, effectively, acting casual. He uses brushes rather than sticks, the ride symbol is hit in a loose, spontaneous manner creating an agreeable continuous soft ringing, instead of, say, the tight, crisp compression and release of a high-hat which often runs metronome-like throughout most dance and rock music. The track's identity is established by the drummer choosing to play in that manner.

Most popular music is uptempo - the message conveyed is the urgent forward motion towards an optimistic future, the finding of love and happiness, the driving of a fast car, or whatever. Or in the case of punk rock and other nihilistic genres - the fast-forward away from what is despised, or the message of violence which speed implicitly implies. Fast tempos are escape, both literally and figuratively. As the tempo is increased our heart rate increases empathically, just as it would if we were physically running at speed.

All music is escape. The alternate escape route is through music which is slower in tempo to our heart rate: we relax out of our anxieties rather than running from them, when we put on classical, lounge, or a favourite ballad. Our body's connection to music is as fundamental as our minds connection. Perhaps music is the one human activity which engages both our physical and mental worlds equally.

But to return to the cold neutral beat of hip hop, perhaps it's because the rhythmic focus with this genre has shifted away from the bass and drums. It's now the voice which carries the punch, sonically, rhythmically and emotionally. It dances around the neutral metronome of the programmed beat, which mustn't in any way distract from the verbal message being conveyed.

The programmed beat has also come to represent the indifference of our mechanised society to the disenfranchised rappers who shout over its cold, unstoppable progress. The great popular musician has always been disenfranchised, but the currency with which he/she can convey their position has to change. The drum machine therefore has become the replacement for the fierce electric howl of the distorted guitar which was the metaphor for the indifferently violent noise of the industrialised city and the unholy war zone from the late sixties onwards.

But the angrily struck power chord is now part of the impotent language of mainstream pop, and has been for thirty years, and so can't convey anger or indifference with the same conviction any longer. In fact I believe the genre of rock should be renamed 'Trad Rock' in the hope that it might encourage young would-be rock bands to do something new just so they don't get put in such a dull sounding box in the record store!

The lumbering, reverbless breakbeat of the hip hop artist is the exact opposite of the growl and scream of the electric guitar at Vol 11. It's muscular and powerful, but emotionless. It's strong but neither driven nor laid-back. It just is.

Drums on records back in the 80's impressed with their size - apocalyptic bass drums and nuclear snares - as engineers and producers played with simulated aircraft hanger-sized spaces with their shiny new reverb units. By the end of that decade such rhythmic histrionics had become - as all painfully fashionable things must - a cliché. Now drums impress with their intimate physical presence with only the lightest dressing of reverb. Bass drums often have such physical subsonic heft that they appear to threatening the very physical integrity of our speakers.

The hip hop drum rhythm has become the sturdy workmanlike but unimaginative armature over which thousands of angry young men and women vent their verbal frustrations with the minimum of musical distractions for either performer or audience, melody having been banished years ago, and rhythm having been stripped of any funk, feel or flavour.

I therefore believe the hip hop rhythm's emotional neutrality is as deliberate as Hendrix's guitar simulations of machine gun fire were on 'The Star Spangled Banner'. But unfortunately that doesn't help me to find a way into enjoying it.

PostPosted: Tue Jan 31, 2006 1:22 am
by Ian M
Oh, Howard, so many assumptions and generalisations there. I really think you're barking up the wrong tree. You are confusing two things which are not always synonymous: hiphop and programmed beats.
Calling hiphop beats leaden or robotic does a terrible injustice to the practitioners - people who often spend vast amounts of time manipulating, stretching, splicing and generally mutating often existing rhythms. There is an enormous amount of unacknowledged craft which goes into these productions.Often sampled, programmed and twisted beats and sounds are stitched together into an invisible whole.
There is real artistry to this. But the crucial point is that hiphop traditionally sourced its rhythms from breaks ie beats played by a drummer which were sampled and then built upon. The point is that the search was for the feel of a groove, which is a human, elusive unquantifiable bit of rhythmical magic.
Hiphop traditionally likes swung rhythm, which is the ryhthm of jazz and (early) rock'n'roll. And is thus far from robotic. Check out A Tribe Called Quest, Eric B & Rakim, The Roots (who play with live musicians), Gang Starr.
Hiphop is also the source of the most interesting sonic innovation - the soundscapes created by Hank Shocklee (Public Enemy), Dr Dre, RZA, and Timbaland are unequalled in most electronic music around. This is where the collages enabled by computer manipulations really come into effect (try DJ Shadow or DJ Spooky). Roots Manuva in this country is similarly creating some fascinating mixes of rhyme, rhythm and dissonance.
For newer artists try Talib Kweli, Common, Kanye West.
The field is vast and diverse, with all sorts of influences, styles and ambitions. It can't be reduced to one easily categorised rhythm or style.

For robotic beats you would have to look to house, and particularly techno, where rigid quantisation is more the order of the day. But nothing like it was in the 80's when the technology first became available. Quantisation is actually as creative in the hands of a skilled operator as any other tool, depends what you do with it. Did anyone mention Kraftwerk or Steve Reich?

There's so much that could be said, but I hope you get the point - there is much out there to enjoy, once you find a way in. Perhaps you ought to get a pair of almighty bass bins after all!

PostPosted: Tue Jan 31, 2006 11:36 am
by howard male
Ian M wrote -

Calling hiphop beats leaden or robotic does a terrible injustice to the practitioners - people who often spend vast amounts of time manipulating, stretching, splicing and generally mutating often existing rhythms.


I know exactly what's involved programming beats, Ian, because I spent several years doing it myself. That's why I made a point of giving the musicians credit by saying :

"it's not as if these guys aren't technically adept enough to program a beat with more feel if they wanted to"

It's now not difficult to get a 'live' feel on a rhythm, which is why one has to conclude that a robotic, clinical, emotionless vibe is what they want. So no injustice done because I'm suggesting that they actually must want that curious stop-start cyclical vibe. I was just trying to theorise as to why that might be.

When they do use a sampled loop pinched from a live rhythm track off another record I suspect the intention is to somehow capture the vibe of that record. Again, from experience, I can say that that's not that hard to do with time and patience.

Ian M wrote -

Hiphop traditionally likes swung rhythm, which is the rhythm of jazz and (early) rock'n'roll. And is thus far from robotic.


Perhaps because I spent so much time myself agonising over trying to get programmed tracks to sound natural, my ears have become very atuned to when they don't. The swing beats you refer to often swing within the two or four bar block of the sample or loop but the feel is often modular - cut off at the end of the loop only to go back to the beginning and start again, as it were. This to me doesn't create a swinging vibe, just this kind of swinging on the spot, thing I refer to.

I totally agree with you that hip hop is far more sonically cutting edge than most other pop genres - and have enjoyed some of the artists you mention, particularly DJ Spooky and Timberland - may I point you in the direction of Kid Koala and a soon to be released album by Birdy Nam Nam which is giving me some pleasure at the moment.

House and techno are just a different kind of rigid beat - a much simpler four-to-the-floor kind - more obviously robotic. But I still hold that a large percentage of hip hop, including much of the innovative stuff you mention, is also robotic, but in a breakbeat, swing kind of way!

I believe there is a deliberate desire for these rather cold beats and I was just wondering why this might be. Think about it: if those guys wanted a more natural feel they would include more drum fills in the music, which I always found was a useful punctuation device for, say, coming in or out of a chorus.

PostPosted: Tue Jan 31, 2006 2:33 pm
by Ian M
Howard, that's interesting, I didn't know you had spent some time at the coalface of beat science! so sorry if I sounded like I implied you didn't know about it. Now you've explained it a bit more, I sort of see where you're coming from.

Anyway, I guess what I was objecting to was tarring them all with the same brush. As you may have gathered I like the jazzier end of hiphop, and probably ignore the vast majority of stuff that's about. But that's the case for lots of genres, ie ratio of rubbish to the worthwhile. So I still think that there is some great funky, swinging hiphop, and nothing that is inherent to the genre to make it necessarily so robotic as you describe. Don't Timbaland and the Neptunes use drummers and pretty amazing programming? Maybe you are saying they are exceptions to the rule.

I have never heard of the intriguingly named Birdy Nam Nam - who on earth are they, and where are they from? My appetite is whetted!

PostPosted: Tue Jan 31, 2006 3:06 pm
by Con Murphy
howard male wrote:I know exactly what's involved programming beats, Ian, because I spent several years doing it myself.


I'm sure the vast majority of the rest of us haven't though, so there's a lot to be gained from both your explanations being aired, IMO. And thanks to both of you for doing so. I can see where Howard's coming from, there are a large proportion of hip-hop acts whose rhythms seem quite hard and soulless. On the other hand, Ian has listed a lot of artists who defy the generalised criticism that Howard makes. I think you've just about covered all the US/UK hip-hop acts that I like. I'm not entirely happy with the way that Roots Manuva is taking his sound, but there's no doubt that he's doing some interesting things for the UK rap scene.

Is the answer that many hip-hop practitioners are just 'keeping it real'? In other words, they would no more revert to 'natural' drum rhythms from the computerised backing-tracks against which they developed their skills, than a jazz drummer would abandon drums(ticks) for beating a djembe with their bare hands in order to produce a more 'natural' sound. It's just part and parcel of their musical culture.

Just a thought to throw into the mix, as it were.

PostPosted: Tue Jan 31, 2006 3:57 pm
by howard male
Ian M wrote -

so sorry if I sounded like I implied you didn't know about it. Now you've explained it a bit more, I sort of see where you're coming from


Don't worry about it Ian - I'm never as affronted as I come across in print! In fact I'm not affronted at all.

Although my own music was in the area of experimental pop rather than hip hop, years of toying with a Roland 505 which didn't have any facilities for accommodating human error, and quantised one's efforts automatically, has left me with a sensitivity to rhythm tracks which is perhaps akin to the wine taster who notices a hint of chocolate or sandlewood in the plonk that the rest of us either just likes or dislikes.

Sometimes it can be a blessing as much as a curse when the ears focus in on the point at which a rhythm stops and then starts again - it can be a bit like Chinese water torture and it makes much hiphop unlistenable to me.

Once technology and price caught up with musicians needs in the late 80's it was a different story and programming became as much of an art as playing the drums themselves. In fact one when we had an important recording session lined up, I got a drummer to do the programming. I can still remember the amusing sight of him hunched over this little grey box going through the physical motions of playing a fill before then daintily pressing the liitle buttons to program the same fill into the machine. We often used a machine because of the time it saved in the studio rather than out of any artistic preference. It could take a day to set up and sound-check a drummer and then they still might speed up towards the end!

Ian M wrote -

I guess what I was objecting to was tarring them all with the same brush


There's always going to be a certain amount of brush tarring going on when one generalises but, to restate my point, I wasn't necessarily saying such clunky rhythms were bad and I do believe, because of the studio savvy of many of these musicians, they must be deliberate - they must intend to construct a distancing, joyless vibe to complement the bleak nihilism of their lyrics.

And yes, Timberland and co are far more interested in making great dance music and do it brilliantly, therefore managing to make me forget to listen out for the join.

Ian M wrote -

I have never heard of the intriguingly named Birdy Nam Nam - who on earth are they, and where are they from? My appetite is whetted!


Birdy Yam Yam arrived in the post the other day, and are a French collective of four DJ's. Their album is essentially instrumental and soundtracky but quite involving. And they seem to enjoy the deliberately clunky drum track, which in this case seems to nicely complement the unerving worlds they have conjured by lifting a muted trumpet here and a ripple of piano there, from their vast joint collections of vinyl. I suppose it's white art house hiphop, for want of a better description. Their name apparently comes from a Peter Sellers line in the 1968 film 'The Party'. I doubt 50 Cent would be looking to an old Blake Edwards movie for inspiration! It's out on the 27th Feb.

And, Con, the 'keeping it real' theory does, in my opinion, add something to the mix. Every musical subculture always seems to contrive it's own unwritten laws. With punk it was brevity, no guitar solos, and no love songs. But we should remember that our love of 'feel' in music isn't universal - we're probably just being very old fashioned! Maybe many hiphop artists actually like to not be groovy. It would certainly explain a lot.