From Plato to Dre these divisions have been synthesized and persisted to exist, in so many hip hop and rap tracks (especially that of 90-00 Dre dominated Gansta Rap) the female vocal has been relegated to the backing track and designated the musico-corporeal position of Dionysian signifier rather than be granted any position of ‘meaning’ or the produced prevalence of it’s stoic, masculine counterpart. Dr Dre has long been the master of reinforcing this hip hop manifestation of platonic and synthetic engendering. Take for example the strict division audible in Eminem’s Drug Ballard. On the one ear we have the faux-sensuous, quasi-orgasmic simmering vocal shimmerings of a honeyed honey’s humming, the experience is sheer breathy corporeality, after the first 20 seconds of the track we are afforded a sonic intimacy with the singers (Dina Rae) lungs, laryx and lips. On the other ear we are not given the same corporaural; instead we told a story, a story about drugs and his (Eminem’s) experience of drugs. We do not contemplate his vocal apparatus, we do not imagine his thin, pursing and viciously rapping lips or the texture of his neck and warmth of his breath, there is no essence or corporeality (even when he is rapping about his body) instead we are transported (aligning with Mallarmean poetics) to his subjective experience of drug use by the semantic power of (his) words. Between these two voices, one phone, one logos – and between this metaphysical chasm… is the beat.
The absurd pantomime of ‘Bad Intentions’, by Dr Dre feat Knockturnal, is another example of such divisions. As before, other than the beat the instruments are so aligned with Dionysian temptations, corpaural moans and Marsyan/Pan pipes one could almost presume that the absurdly macho Dre read a book about how to be the super-logos-Man on record (sup Dre ;-)). At the core of this conformist and platonic ode to pudenda is the pan pipe sample. Pan is interchangeable with Marsyas, their myths entwined and coagulated, both Pan and Marsyas were flautists who beckoned forth the force of nature. The flute (or pan pipe) became a symbol of the corruption of natural instincts:
“Bacchic frenzy and all similar emotions are most suitably expressed by the flute… (Aristotle, 2001, Politics VIII, 1342b 5-6)” (Dolar, 2006, pp. 46)
“…and there was a forth, the dithyramb, as it was called, dealing, if I am not mistaken, with the birth of Dionysus. (…) Possessed by a frantic and unhallowed lust for pleasure, they contaminated laments with hymns and paeans with dithyrambs, actually imitated the strains of the flute on the harp, and created a universal confusion of forms.” (Plato, Laws, 700a-701c)
In metaphysical terms Dre’s choice of sample on Bad Intentions is the most mythically apt and analogous sample he could have programmed to juxtapose the lyrics (in the traditionally Dre productions practice of logos/phone metaphysical dichotomizings). Everything that is Dionysian, ‘sinful’, lustful or feminine is summed up in the taunting pipes of Marsyas and Pan (let’s not forget, due to Pan’s ubiquity in Victorian and Edwardian neopaganism his appearance is the basis of our modern day Satan). Melted into this heady panpipe sample we find feminine corpaural moans, ohs and ahhhs; cringingly clichéd, hammy nudges and winks add to Dre’s preposterous composition, production and lyrics; the platonic, traditionally masculine view of what should be the feminine and corporeal is caricatured against the a-corpus, pro-logos boasts of Dre and Knockturnal. Dre and Knockturnal stand separate, telling stories, bragging and exclaiming from a position isolated from the music and corporeal elements:
“No talkin, fuck how your day go
You want dick (yeeeaah!), will bitch say so”
When the female voice, the content of the tracks music and samples is addressed directly it is only a response to an unheard question, from a woman hoping to talk. The opportunity to enter into any form of dialogue, to exchange logos, to communicate through semantic language is spurned by Dre, logos is for the men. The men tell the stories and offer wisdom and insight whilst the others tend to everything that is corporeal, musical, and apart from logos.
“let us dispense with the flute-girl who just made her entrance; let her play for herself or, if she prefers for the women in the house. Let us instead spend our evening in conversation. (Plato, 1978, Symposium 176e)”
Perhaps not coincidentally, Dre and Knockturnal are continuously swamped in large coats and velour track suits, unlike the sleek, Rick Owens clad silhouettes of ASAP Rocky and Robb Bank$. Dre’s and Knockturnals Disneyesque vision of their priapic ivory tower positionings as wise speaker, story teller and engaging insight giver is as deluded as Plato’s assertions.
For every rap there is a beat, for every line there is a voice, for every poem there is the animating minds eye of the reader making music. At every step we contemplate rap (arguably the most musicalized of semantic voices) we encounter the beat, we encounter rhythm, something so corporeally infective, with such physical manifestations that it can be argued that the most cerebral and internal aspect of poetry is also that which is most externalized and corporealized. An a capella rap is the rap most overtly enjoyable as the vitality of rhythm and semantics conjoin. From the dark, repressed backgrounded realms of musicality and rhythm and from the brightly, ever foregrounded territories of semantic/logos/speaker dominance we can appreciate a penumbra of vocal semantics as rhythm, of words as beats. The voice as extimatic dyad, Mobius Voice operating most autonomously as both logos and phone, not one, nor the other can be glimpsed in a capella rap tracks. Voice is not chastised by it’s traditional position in musical contexts (outside of music), but becomes music; yet simultaneously Voice is not ‘mere’ sonic but ultimate story conveyer, of ultimate semantic position, of speaker at the front, in sonic spotlight. It is both and neither. This lack of a division is peculiar to comprehend after such theorizing upon the Rap Voice. It is strange to relinquish our conditioned readings of millennia of synthetic metaphysical divides and engenderings. But is this peculiarity, the incomprehensible, un-knowable, unheard of chasm between logos and phone that is manifested in Voice (especially in the a capella rap) not also the magic of voice, song, music, rapping, speaking, uttering, singing, shouting and wailing? Perhaps the voice would remain more powerful, more enthralling if we maintain the guise of such divisions? Or are these divisions our gods and bangs? Elabourate exclamations of a word we do not know, of a song we cannot sing?
(1) See Negarestani’s Corpse Bride, pp. 129-130. Collapse Journal, Vol IV: Concept Horror, Ed. Robin Mackay, 2008.
(2) A particularly overt example of RZA’s Godlike treatment of the rap vocal can be heard at around 2:20 into Bob N’L, on Birth of a Prince (2003), however this technique is present on many RZA productions, also see Ol Dirty Bastard’s Raw Hide on Return to tha 36 Chambers (Old Dirty)
(3) Although we differ on the timbral merits of Method Mans larynx.
(5) RZA’s producer alter ego is Bobby Digital, and is it not coincidence that one of the most legendary producers of gangster rap chose the loaded intellectually superior title of Dr Dre?
(6) Rick Owens designs are so sensitively corporeal and ergonomic that they are very much aligned with the feminine aspect of imposed synthetic metaphysical divisions. Heidi Slimane on the other hand, is fiercely Masculine, his designs are sharp, a-ergonomic and aggressive.
(7) My term but see Dolar’s definitions of extimacy of the Voice: Dolar 2006, pp. 81
With regards to semantic capacities the poet rapper has the opportunity to say something, however, the producer does not have this semantic possibility. Alternatively, in the sonic context, the rapper instrument has voice but is not speaking, instead pursuing the phonic extension into the sonic realm, but this realm is the kingdom of the producer, who will always have greater sonic possibilities than the limited sonic ranges of the rap as instrument. When the flautist Marsyas challenged Apollo to a musical duel his simple practice of blowing his voice through a reed instrument was not enough to impress the Muses, Apollo’s digital dexterity and informed complex compositional choices won the music contest:
“The satyr who had lost to Leto’s son
The contest when he played Minerva’s pipe,
And paid the penalty. ‘No! no!’ he screamed
Apollo stripped his skin; the whole of him
Was one huge wound, blood streaming everywhere,
Sinews laid bare, veins naked, quivering
And pulsing. You could count his twitching guts,
And the tissues as the light shone through his ribs.”
(Ovid, 2009, pp. 133)
Marsyas’ punishment was as gruesome and macabre as anything threatened by Method Man or Ghostface on 36 Chambers. With regards to possibilities in the realm of musico-sonic capability the apollonian producer will always have the advantage, the producer will always flay a rappers being, destroying the lyricists presence and semantic weight in order to furnish his masterpiece with fragmentary vocal sonics. As Robb Bank$ and ASAP Rocky’s vocals are increasingly phonically phormulated as sonicized instruments rather than semanticized voices/raps we may sympathize with their penchant for Rick Owens brand clothing.
"Raf Simmons, Rick Owens - usually what I'm dressed in" – (ASAP Rocky)
"Saggin' and my drawers showin'
You like Rick Ross? Well bitch, I like Rick Owens
Say it cause you ain't noticed
How cashmere my dressed clothes is" – (Robb Bank$)
After all, as their traditionally masculine and platonic position of the reasoning voice of semantic wisdom is ‘relegated’ to that of sonorous instrumental vocal component it is understandable that they would feel a strong metaphysical urge to clothe themselves in the most luxurious fashion. But their penchant for Rick Owens contains further theoretical anchors that, once dredged to the surface, will elucidate contemporary raps metaphysical dilemma in the context of Marsyan flaying and the emasculation of de-semanticizing the vocal poetry for (pimping) it’s sonic . We may suppose that: 1) Luxury Designers may hold an appeal to those who have wealth, this is not a particularly unusual trait for rappers attire preferences, however, Rick Owens designs do not display wealth, the labels niche is carved from an aesthetic that does not display wealth or luxury; the luxury is introverted, endophilic, and self-centered:
“I try to make clothes the way Lou Reed does music - minimal chord changes, and direct. It is sweet but kind of creepy. It's about giving everything I make a worn, softened feeling. It's about an elegance being tinged with a bit of the barbaric, the sloppiness of something dragging and the luxury of not caring. At Revillon, I felt it isn't about displaying one's wealth, but rather giving the woman a selfish pleasure. It is about using sable as the lining under a very humble jacket, the luxury is all hers." (Rick Owens)
“With both men and women, I’m kind of more into how a garment feels than how it looks. Personal luxury and a discreet tone is what I’m going after more than display of status – not caring who you impress is one of the biggest luxuries of all” (Owens, 2011, pp. 89)
Owen’s designs do not display luxury, but invisibly imbue luxuriousness upon the skin of the wearer. The metaphysical parallels to old, velvet lined instrument cases, manifestations of fashion as protection, donning second skins and so forth need not be expanded. 2) The layers. Owens’ designs have consistently concerned themselves with the corpo-aesthetic interplay of drape dynamix. Twisting seams, doubling layers, stretching hems have all been beautifully ‘glunge’ manifestations of an obsession with how different fabrics interact with one another, the body and gravity. Garments are washed, treated, cut, ripped, worn, sewn, washed, dyed and treated before leaving the factory; cottons shimmer and drape like silk, after months of artisanal torture cashmere is sacrificed to hang a-cross the wearers frame. Rappers sporting Rick Owens cashmere, donning comfy designer retro-dermis, may feel they are rewarding their skins with a Herculean adornment, but perhaps they are also swaddling themselves against the Marsyan fate that awaits them as their careers of battling apollonian producer mega-stars accelerate towards the inevitably painful metaphysical outcome? 3) The femininity. If we posit that music/corporeal/sonic lies in a realm designated feminine, that of Echo maintaining the Voice Sonic but not any semantic capacity of her own, of the Sirens tempting sailors with wails and warblings, but not words, and the countless other metaphysical engenderings voice has been subject to:
“Let the music follow the sense of the words. Keep it simple and ingenius. One must condemn pretentious music which is devoid of sense and effeminate” – Chinese emperor Chun (c. 2200BC) (Dolar, 2006, P.43).
“let us dispense with the flute-girl who just made her entrance; let her play for herself or, if she prefers for the women in the house. Let us instead spend our evening in conversation. (Plato, 1978, Symposium 176e)” (Dolar, 2006, pp. 46)
We can appreciate the coincidence of the new generation of rappers succumbing to their sonicorporeal position of voice (of themselves as instruments and not, platonically, metaphysically aligned speakers of isolated masculine semantic reasoning) and their fondness for one of the most conspicuously androgynous designers of modern fashion(6). Rather than wax lyrical about the beauty of such androgynous silhouettes and aesthetic compositions I will simply presuppose the readers appreciation that in menswear history a denial of the body, and an insistence on the wisdom-concealing-shell paradigm is the established norm. Alcibiades also references the idea in a mundane outer and an inside of infinite wisdom: “I think he’s (Socrates) very much like one of those Silenus-figures sculptors have on their shelves. They’re made with flutes or pipes. You can open them up, and when you do you find little figures of the gods inside.”. The notion of wisdom and semantic power as a masculine, inner kernel, separate from corporeality and music is not new. For the stoic story telling, poet rapper we can liken his stance to the old Grecian, his words reveal his inner wisdom whilst the sonic and corporeal is left for others. The embracing of such a corporeally sensitive designer such as Rick Owens (who in his earlier years experimented with drag) by rappers signifies their repositioning away from the supposedly ‘masculine’ mantle of a-music word play and arrival at the role of corporeal voice and musical component. I hope to have triangulated ASAP Rocky’s and Robb Bank$ aesthetically manifested metaphysical difference to the Platonic emphasis of logos/the concealed semantic via their choice in fashion and sonic. Especially in the Clams Casino produced tracks of ASAP Rocky and Robb Bank$ There is a fundamental departure of the man and woman, logos and phone, semantic and sonic, story and music, poetry and pussy division from previous rap generations such as Dr Dre.
Clams Casino’s equalization of the rap against its musical/sonic environs, his instrumentalization of the rap, his strategy of leveling the rap to just another voice amidst the swirling cacophony is another step of a continued progression in rap; of rap-music’s shift away from the crudely dichotomized 'rap / track' mode of previous (Dre-Doctrine) generations to a more wholly amalgamated and organically coagulated form of music. It is not that the lyrical content doesn’t matter, but rather that delivery, musicality, rhythm and flow are the primacies of The Rap. Semantic value is subject to the conveyance of musicality, rhythm and flow. I would go as far as to say any form of speaking (not singing) is, hence the rap, the most musical of synthetically logoscentric utterances (oration, presenting, interviewing, conversation) - as opposed to opera, singing, humming, whistling – is inevitably the first of the ‘semantic voices’ to slip around the Mobius strip of Voice and find itself as music and rhythm whereas once it was word.
This is what distinguishes The Rap from mere poetry. Poetry is rhythm and music conveyed through the semantic, it is music semanticized, set to symbols and ignited within post semantic cerebral comprehension of the appreciative reader. Music is often corporeal, emotive and instinctive, it can be meaningful, it can be coded and logosified- but this is not a prerequisite. Music is not subject to meaning, an aria keeps its soul despite language, a poem requires some form of semantic conveyance. To appreciate this further we can contemplate Quentin Meillassoux’s exploration of Mallarmé’s (arguably aphonic) poetics, in particular the “essential aspect of Mallarméan poetics, namely the rivalry between poetry and music.” (Meillasoux, 2012, pp. 63). Mallarmé’s staunchly logocentric position on music and poetry’s ability to conjure meaning may help us render (if the reader will excuse my occularcentric vocabulary) the dilemma of the voice:
“The poet considered that the instrumental form of song was a deficient expression of the latter. Of itself, instrumental music can only produce In the mind of the listener a vague meaning – a line of emotion whose exact signification is fugitive. When associated with lyrics, the uncertain effusions of music can therefore never succeed, according to the poet, in truly marrying the precision of words. Opera, in particular, fails because it merges speech and song: This art produces only a totality of juxtaposition, in which the parts do not engender each other reciprocally but are deployed according to the parallel lines of libretto and score. (…) Only poetry – because it engenders a song with the aid of speech alone – is in a position truly to be able to produce a profound unity between thought and music. It is thus a matter of reclaiming Music from ‘strings, brass and wood’ so as to restore it to Verse. There is not even any need for poetry to be read in declamatory fashion for its (entirely mental) melody to produce its full effects: poetry is ‘silence’s musician’.” (Meillassoux, 2012, pp. 63-64)
With this bold statement upon the intrinsic musicality of word the dilemma(s) of The Rap can be understood. Rap is never not word, it can never jettison its meaning, as much as it can never emancipate itself from music, rhythm and the contingencies of delivery. This peculiarity is evident for any hip hop fan who sits down after the record has finished to study the alien hieroglyphics in the CD sleeve.
The slip we hear of the rap lyric into mere musical/production accoutrement signals, like an NYPD Rumbler siren, the possibility of that the poetic facet of the art is lacking. The rap needs to either word up or quit fronting, it needs to be the priapic spot-lit poet or else fall into the orchestra pit and become instrument. I suspect that for rappers of today, with such talented producers available and a monologue of clichés in their pads, the metaphysical choice of becoming instrument is their inevitable fate. “Fuck Flexin’in’in’in”.
So as rappers eschew lyrical content for the musical directness of an instrumentized voice we may recall once more Marsyas. Cavarero observes of how Marsyas “learned that the wind instruments are a prolongation of the mouth and that they are too similar to the voice. (…) they require breath and thus impede the flautist from speaking. In other words, the flute lets itself, dangerously, represent the phone in the double sense of the term: voice and sound. Whoever plays it renounces speech and evokes a world in which the acoustic sphere and expressions of corporeality predominate. .”(Cavarero, 2005, pp. 69). Marsyas’ sounding voice turned sounding instrument is not dissimilar to Robb Bank$’ or ASAP Rocky’s rap-turned-musical-component; semantic speech, logos, saying something, is renounced in favour of musical-sonic immediacy, their Voice is somewhat traded for the instrument of produced rap. If we recall the musical duel between Marsyas and Apollo was can contemplate further metaphysical verisimilitudes. Marsyas renounced semantic content for the song of the flute, the glorification of his own breath and the musicalization of his lungs - this act can be aligned with the rapper as instrument, the rapper who renounces poetry for the sonic beautiful, there is a sonorous voice and little more. Apollo, by contrast, played the Lyre, a string instrument that relies heavily on dexterous digital accomplishments and learned knowledge of modal arrangements. Apollo can be aligned with the producer, the arranger, the composer of infinitely complex possibilities. The practice is a digitalized craft of knowledge, arrangement, composition and execution, on Lyre or Logic(5).
If you want your oratory to leave an impression then you need to sing as much as speak; this is one the lessons that Alcibiades teaches a roomful of merry Grecians at the end of Plato’s Symposium. In the dialogue Alcibiades likens Socrates (the wise teacher of Plato) to Marsyas the flautist. Alcibiades reasons that the power of Socrates’ speeches lies in the musicality of his voice as and that it is this musicality that enthralls as much as the words spoken:
“I hear him, it’s like the worst kind of religious hysteria. My heart pounds, and I find myself in floods of tears, such is the effect of his words. And I can tell lots of other people feel the same. I used to listen to Pericles and other powerful speakers, and I thought they spoke well. But they never had the effect on me of turning all my beliefs upside down, with the disturbing realization that my whole life is that of a slave. Whereas this Marsyas here has often made me feel that, and that the kind of life I lead is just not worth living. You can’t deny it, Socrates. (…) So I tear myself away, as if stopping my ears against the Sirens; otherwise I would spend my whole life there sitting at his feet.” (Plato, 2000, pp. 74)
The power of Socrates’ speech is in his sonorous, musical voice as much as the semantic content; this importance elucidates why the most engaging rap of Dr Dre is often the part that is bound to and bolstered by the other sonic components of the musical whole, his dry, matter-of-fact delivery, is not enough without a technologically afforded addition of musico-rhythmic potency. This is why rap producers must compose with voice as instrument, they must conduct and/or play their spitting collaborators and technologically mold the rap into a more powerful sonic Frankenstein.
Fast forward to Robb Bank$. Tumblr hype hip hop buzz word for a couple days in June 2012. The Clam Casino produced Counting (March) (from Calendars LP) begins with a sample of Britne Oldford (who plays Cadie in the realitrite MTV show Skins) saying “I think I might be happy” underneath this sample is a grainy creaking wail; the top end breaking as if the volume is too high. A Siren, a voice lost in digitization, a howl of pain, despair and isolation. Whilst Britne Oldford exclaims the word happy a bass heavy, DJ Screwesque ‘yeah’ engulfs the auditory frame. We have three voices; and this is even before the beat starts and Robb Bank$ lethargically mutters “shorty”. For the most part Bank$’ delivery has zest and confidence if not finesse – but this doesn’t matter, because unlike rappers from previous generations his voice does not need to occupy the front of the sound stage. In Counting (March) there is always at least a half dozen vocals vying for attention. Clams Casino’s operatic scale pana-sonics do not require lead vocalists. We have a vaguely choiresque cacophony of disparately sourced vocals, cracking screams, ghoulish wails, domesticated utterances pilfered from MTV and Robb Bank$’ interlocking raps garnish the composition – Robb Bank$’ rap vocal does not sit at the front, it does not posture, despite his zealously pronounced efforts his voice does not maintain the priapic center stage position of previous generations raps (such as early Snoop Doggy Dog), rather his voice is just another voice in the Clams Casino conducted Choir. Admittedly his vocal skills are not as refined as the more artful rappers connected to Dr Dre or The Wu-Tang Clan and the lyrical content mostly concists of boasts or puerile one liners rather than subtle wordplay or insightful observations. But there is one nugget of sublimely telling truth in Counting (March). Around 2.50 Robb Bank$ exclaims “Fuck Flexing” his voice reverberates and echoes and sinks beneath the other wails, the voice that uttered this seems knows its context amidst the contemporary hip hop musicological territory; is it not the performative rap vocal par excellence?
Listen again to Counting (March) and we notice the lines overlapping; Clam Casino has taken a Burroughs/Gysin liberty. Each line is different, some softer and more rounded than others. Despite the overlying cacophony of ghoulish wails and howls in the “backing” track we can just make out the shifts in Robb Bank$ raps, some are sharp, some crisp, some are cloaked in reverb, some gyrate stereophonically or disintegrate into shards of echo. There is so much music in the rap, so much production that even if one was to strip away everything but the vocal track we still wouldn’t be left with a true a cappella(4).
ASAP Rocky’s raps are also technologically musicalized, spliced, stretched, de-tuned and warped. In “Wassup” we hear a cacophony of his nasal whine, receding, bouncing echoing and tumbling amidst the ethereal and vaporous respiration of the Clams Casino’s “backing” track. The bittersweet, neo-Eno, vocal atmospheres of the “backing” track lap and swell around ASAP Rocky’s vocal like the surf would swell around a Siren. There is a dreamy swaying interplay between the two, traditionally unequal, parts of the rap song; between track and rap. We hear now how the rap is somewhat dethroned from its throne at the forefront of audition, it relinquishes semantic clarity, but marries into a wealth of sonic power and emotive possibility.
The RZA’s execution of taking a rap and spectralizing it, plucking it from the mic and launching it into the musical stratosphere is astounding. He acts as God; sacrificing his vocal sons for a greater metaphysical presence within the track-universe. In many tracks a vocal is ripped from its precarious position of dominance and plunged into the production, the vocal becomes the production and is immortalized in a spectral resonance. An utterance is plucked from the rap, looped, reverb is layered, echoes bounce, it travels, the rap becomes Siren as it falls away from the sonic front and into the infinitely expansive black hole of auditory space conjured by the sono-matics of the track. We hear the Doppler effect of a human rap falling from the mic into the metaphysical fantasy the sonic-scape(2). We hear the cold icy semantic voice melt and morph into a sublime music. The effect is that of the sublime: striking, unnerving, uncanny weird and delightful. A surreal sonic world is available to the bedroom eavesdropper, to hear such fantastic transformations of the voice is an experience; as TM Wolf comments:
“As I listened, I found that The RZA and his producer protégés (The Wu-Elements) had more weapons than unquantized drums and kung fu snippets. They had vocal samples, audio snatches of human voices that they looped and layered into their beats. While the rappers would rap, the vocals would cycle and spiral, sometimes chopping up the flow, sometimes synching with it. RZA and The Wu-Elements didn’t pioneer this sampling technique, but they probably trademarked it. The list of Wu songs with vocal samples is long (and dope): GZA and Method Man’s “Shadowboxin’”; Raekwon, Ghostface and Cappadonna’s “Ice Water”; Ghost and Rae’s “Motherless Child”; The Clan’s “Cash Still Rules/Scary Hours” and “Hollow Bones”; Bobby Digitals “Can’t Lose”… to name a few. These songs dynamited something in my mind. For all the talk of rappers as musicians who use their voices as instruments, RZA and co found a way to take human voices and put them into instruments, turning vocals into loops that bubbled and tumbled.” (TM Wolf, 2012, The Wire 342, pp. 90)
The phenomena of RZA’s sacrificial vocal, or Dr Dre’s pyrrhic attempts to maintain raps dominance over music (resulting in cacophony) should not be seen as anything new, in fact it is due to the synthetically established asymmetry of voice and music that such production phenomena sounded ‘new’. The voice has always been music, the rap has always been music – it’s just harboured a dark occularcentric bias to set itself apart from the realm of sound. Admittedly the raps of Dr Dre and RZA are heavily semantic monotone soliloquies; a cappella versions do not ooze rhythm and unique timbres in the same manner as other closely related rappers. Recall Method Man’s caramel glottis’d verses, or the frenetic yelps and bizarre croons of Old Dirty Bastard – RZA’s lisping word play feels stale in comparison. The same difference burdens Dr Dre, whose raps (especially in his later works) are constantly juxtaposed with his vocal/musical superior, in song, dexterity, delivery and humour: namely Snoop Dogg and/or Nate Dog. Of all the Wu-Tang Clan or Dr Dre LP’s the raps that birth earworms are not those stoic and monotonous monotone monologues of RZA or Dr Dre but the skillfully delivered songs of more musical vocals (ODB or Method Man for RZA or Nate Dog or Snoop Dog for Dr Dre). To be heard you need to play and sing your rap.
The power of voice turned instrument, of a voice played, of a rap played, is also heard by Wolf(3): “I didn’t tap into Raekwon’s reality-paralleling narratives, Ghost’s stream of consciousness raps or Method Man’s singsong snarling. I looked to RZA’s vocal samples”. It is not surprising that for me and Wolf the excitement of the vocal lies in the moments it is played, when the vocal becomes music, no doubt RZA and Dr Dre also understood this, their job was to layer, polish and twist a vocal until it manifested it’s most powerful sonic state – this would always lead to instrumentalizing the voice. For the mic is not an instrument, it is merely micro-phone. Here we may understand that for the rapper and the producer the sonic vocal, the timbral rap, is where the energy can be found. If you want to be heard you better sound good.
When did rap get so sonomatic? When did poetical parlance turn and succumb to the singers sonnet? When did The Rap congeal with the sonomatics that threatened to engulf it? When did this tensely posturing, platonic vocal cave in to the music? When did rappers begin emancipating their voices from the masculine shackles of dry semantic content?
Rap production has always been musical and cinematic - Cypress Hill’s Sativaian paranoia, Eminem’s early rain drenched soundscapes or the claustrophobic, anxiety ridden defenses of Dr Dre's neo-noir 2001 all exhibited a penchant for the LP pana-sonic: the creation of a big stage for epic aural experiences, be it in four minutes or over an hour. The capacity to enthrall, to transport the listener in the same way a carefully choreographed Hitchcockian camera pirouette can is the power behind many classic Rap LP's. The Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA attempts to create this epic effect almost unashamedly. His frantic splicing of Kung-Fu, obscenities, soul, jazz and funk breaks is a post-modern culture-as-material juggle akin to any Tarantino storyboard (who RZA would ultimately end up providing soundtracks for). Rap used to be about rap, about telling a story, the content was in the words, the delivery of the words in juxtaposition with Roland ticks, smacks and thuds created the flow and rhythm of the rap - but at the centre, in the front was the vocal. As rap changed through the 90's and 00's this sacred plinth of oratory prowess became dwarfed by it’s sonic neighbors.
Telling a story through ambitious sonic production (that is choosing sounds to conjure rather than words to tell) is not limited to Gangster Rap - Backpack Hip-Hop artists such as Dilated Peoples early galactic sci-Fidelity samplings or Stones Throw Records 90's-00's introspective jazz fetish nostalgia also project acute images through sound, be it aliens or creaking swings on a summers day, a large part of the story is adjacent to the lyrics- outside of the rap. Cannibal Ox's breathtakingly industrial LP The Cold Vein would not hold quite so much emotive currency if the vocal component became severed. An a cappella of Vast Aire or Vordul Mega would always leave the listener uncomfortable but it would be difficult to dispute that the nihilistic and misanthropic potency of the LP lies as much in the juddering, scraping, glistening mechanics of backing samples as it does in the vocal.
Particularly in Gangster Rap the vocal had be to be multi-layered upon the beat, in order to impose its own cadence upon the beats and push past the orchestral scale productions. Dr Dre's Forgot about Dre is a powerful example of this; the antagonistically ricocheting laser stabs and hypnotising string synths hog the cochlear nerve to such a degree that upon first listen we do not hear the all the details of Dres testimony (the story of Dr Dre bouncing back and confirming his dominance in the industry). Instead we simply hear a Chorus of Dres exclaiming random facts - "Groceries!", "Both Knees!", "Turn Pop!", "Firm Flop", "Dough Freeze!", "Tracks", "Plaques". The rap cacophony, the strategy of emphasis upon certain words through layering marks the vocal plinths sinking amidst the musico-sonic terrain: "y'all better listen up closely" Dre's vocal croaks – indeed, a voice has never before uttered such sage advice on a rap record! 2001 is as much about the production as it is about the raps; and because of this we hear a sinking lyricist, a drowning rap. The effect is not unlike quicksand, for if Dre wants to emphasize a phrase or stress a word it is not the voice that provides the power to do so, it is the production. Every line we hear the production foreground the vocal we are hearing the production of multi-tracked lyrics and not the true vocal. This effort to preserve the raps dominance, to maintain its position at the front of the auditory stage (by harnessing the power of production) is a pyrrhic victory, it’s selling it’s tonsil for a some water to clear it’s throat. The rap cannot overtake production by relying on it’s abilities to magnify it’s voice, the rap must become the production and relinquish it’s position of dominance in the soundscape. Dr Dre as producer/rapper embodies this, his story is realised as much in the production magic as it is in the rap. 2001 almost signals a shocking sonic mastering- an equalization of vocal and backing track, the dominant vocal descends from it's throne to waltz with the beat machines and samplers (the unaccredited troopers of raps success). The production steps forward to tell a story as much as any rap or lyric. Cacophonies - raps double up to compensate whilst simultaneously the samples are telling the story too.
The Rap used to be about flow and sentiment; meaning married to a 4-4 beat- the masculine partner of the dance. There was the 808, an old jazz break and on top, at the front The Rap. Ironically, 2001 can be heard as a marker of the rap vocal stepping back from the priapic front of hip-hops musical territory to caress the phonic backing track and waltz nose to nape in symphony, in unison.
For the rap to pound, excite, emphasize and grab the thoughts of the listener it needs to (a la nupta cadevera/nupta contagioso(1)) bind itself to the very thing that is destroying it. It becomes auto-phagic, to be heard it must die and give itself over to the sonic otherness of the samples swirling behind it. In doing so the traditional rap is eaten by it’s sonic superior, its exquisitely produced sonic shadow smoothers it. The rap vocal enters the realm of the jazz ghosts, soul apparitions and funk specters.