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.