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.
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