2006-06-01 / Sam Bari

You can't beat a system you can't understand

Who's gonna take the rap?
By Sam Bari

For the last few decades, popular music has taken an odd degenerative twist. You can hear it on every street in every city. From New York to Los Angeles, and around the globe, the air is thick with the rhythms and rhymes of rap. The term "hip-hop" is used interchangeably with "rap." Rap tunes purport to offer insightful lyrics combined with a strong and socially aware political message in an array of languages. This strikes me as just odd, and I find it disturbing. Now, I'm not passing judgment on the content, the artists, or even the concept. What disturbs me is that it is nothing more than a marketing ploy that was unleashed on the young people of this country some time in the '70s. The concept has been around for years, and it was basically - just stolen.

If we want to talk about the use of the concept in modern times, we can visit the beatniks and early hippies of the '50s and '60s. They were joining politically charged lyrics to rhythmic backgrounds long before Puff Daddy, P. Diddy, or whatever his name is, Snoop Dog, or their fathers were even a consideration. The art form was called "poetry." And I do believe that has been around for some time. When I grew up, songs were sung and poetry was recited. I don't ever recall "saying" a song.

I believe in the traditional definitions of the words poetry and tune. A "tune" has a melody. If that is true, then how can a "rap tune" exist, if rap is indeed, spoken? For most of my life, if a song weren't sung, it could still be played on a musical instrument like a guitar, piano, saxophone, or trumpet. I would be hard-pressed to play any so-called "rap tune" on a piano or any other instrument, for that matter. I am disturbed because this stolen art form has taken over the recording industry, selling even more than country, and certainly more than traditional rock 'n' roll.

If the trend continues, "songs" as we know them, could well become non-existent, thrown to the wayside in favor of the spoken word married to the thumpathumpa of bass and drum lines blasted through outsized subwoofers in some teenager's hopped-up Honda Civic.

Perish the thought.

"Rap" even has its own dictionary of esoteric terms that are the tools of the trade in the socalled art form. The volume contains nearly 3,000 explicitly defined words. Many are contrived, and many are traditional, normal words with assumed meanings. For instance, four, fours, or four-and-a-half-pounder, are synonyms for guns. The logic is that a .45 caliber pistol weighs about 4 to 4.5 pounds and the assigned rap code word is based on the numeral 4. Somehow, I think it takes a considerable stretch of the imagination for the terms to relate, but they do, at least in the minds of rappers.

However, for the moment, forget the more than suggestive and often obscene lyrics of rap recordings. Forget that rap artists who have done hard time and can boast lengthy criminal records stand a better chance at success than well-behaved competition, and look at what the "hip-hop" culture is doing to music.

Could it be that actual melodies will cease to exist? Can we look forward to Pavarotti reciting the lyrics to the aria from "Don Giovanni"? Will Verdi's quartet from "Rigoletto" be reduced to little more than mundane conversation without melody? Will Rod Stewart release an album of old standards spoken to a background of thumpas? I hope not.

I suppose there is a chance that the pendulum will swing in another direction and real songs will return to the airwaves. However, after two decades of the rap trend growing and the hip-hop culture gaining a firmer grip on the youth market, any change appears to be doubtful. Unfortunately, music has fallen into that category of a system we just can't understand.

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