New American Songbook

"In 20 years of listening to hip hop, its music and stories have never left me unchallenged or unchanged. Throughout its history—from Kool Herc to KRS and beyond—hip hop has told the story of America through the styles of noir, memoir, jazz and rhythm and blues, comic books and blockbuster action movies. It is everything we say we are, and those things we maintain we are not. This is the new American Songbook." - KMUW commentator, Zack Gingrich-Gaylord  

New American Songbook can be heard on alternate Mondays, or through iTunes.

Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

An article on the Washington Post blog at the end of last month set out to make the point that poetry is on a downward trajectory towards death, if it’s not dead already. As an example, the author points out that the only cultural activity that polls worse than reading poetry is going to the opera.

Two digs with one stone.

raaphorst / Flickr / Creative Commons

People have been playing with recorded sound since it was first possible to record sound.

What we call this process seems to depend on what we’re talking about. If we’re referring to an art piece, we might say they used a "sound collage." In radio, we’d call it a "montage." For hip hop, we generally refer to the reformatting of recorded sound as "sampling." The word is different, but the process is pretty much the same: take some sound and do something with it: mix it, change it, cut it—anything at all.

Markus Rödder / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

The turntables are to hip hop what the guitar is to rock and roll. Or, more precisely, they are what the guitar, bass, drums and keyboard are to rock and roll.

Hip hop was born from the turntables, and through hip hop, the turntables were transformed from a simple playback device into an instrument that has been featured in countless jazz arrangements and even symphonies.

Merlijn Hoek / Wikiportrait / Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported

Rapper Kendrick Lamar’s new album To Pimp a Butterfly is as much manifesto and rallying cry as it is an LP. While it’s now difficult to listen to hip hop without hearing echoes of Ferguson, Mo., Lamar intentionally places Butterfly squarely in the center of that conversation. The online magazine ‘The Root’ called it the music of the Black Lives Matter hashtag.

Masks are more than a flashy stage gimmick for the emcee and producer MF DOOM. The iron mask, first worn by his namesake, the comic-book villain Doctor Doom, serves as the central conceit for what is now a decades-long exploration of hip hop’s more formal, structuralist elements.

DOOM raps primarily in two bar couplets, heavily coded with slang, and layers and layers of abstraction and association, as in the dizzying verses of the song “Figaro”:

blackouthiphop.com / Google Images / Creative Commons

I read an article criticizing the movie Whiplash that argued its violence is over-the-top and unrealistic— the movie positions violence as part of the relationship between student and teacher. The criticism was that the relationship was so rare as to be unrealistic.

timtimes / Flickr / Creative Commons

One of the primary topics emcees rap about, aside from their own skill on the microphone, is hip hop itself—the music, the fashion, what hip hop is and what it isn’t.

It’s a tautology that, as far as I can tell, is practically non-existent in other forms of music. Rock and roll dabbles in the occasional self reference, but the act is nearly compulsory in hip hop. If every emcee’s first verse is about how amazing they are, their second verse is about how much they love hip hop.

    

In Walt Whitman’s poem “I Hear America Singing”, he writes of “the varied carols” he hears, ”each singing what belongs to him or her, and to none else/Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs”.

hansthijs / Flickr / Creative Commons

When hip hop began, it sounded like this:

This is Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, from 1979-- the year I was born, and six years after DJ Kool Herc invented the breakbeat. As one of the first hip hop records, it’s emblematic of a lot of early rap music: it’s a long track and the emcees throw in pretty much every rhyme in the book. At that point, hip hop was still largely party music, with rappers functioning primarily as boosters for the deejay.

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