Friday, January 06, 2006

Rakim: The Rhyme Got Rougher

The other day I revisited Eric B. and Rakim's album "Paid in Full". It brought back the moment I first popped the tape in my cassette deck, when my musical consciousness was permanently altered. Rakim led a revolution in rhythm, freeing it from the confines of the barline; what Stravinsky did for concert music, what Charlie Parker did for jazz, Rakim did for rap music. Over the years, the ripples of innovation from his first three albums have spread widely, first throughout the hip-hop scene, then throughout all popular music and beyond.

I often think of the history of rap music as being divided into two periods, Before and After Rakim. In the early days, I remember rap music from Harlem and the Bronx: Fat Back Man, Grand Master Flash, then Run DMC, UTFO, Kurtis Blow, Schooly D, and Stetasonic. New Ro was definitely on the outside fringes, but the echoes soon subsumed lower Westchester, spawning Heavy D and the Boyz, Pete Rock, & C.L. Smooth from money-earnin' Mount Vernon and our own Brand Nubian. Most of my friends on the track team memorized all the rhymes, so I did too; you had to know "Rappers Delight" and "White Line" by heart, later "It's Like That" and "Roxanne Roxanne", otherwise you would be mercilessly taunted on the bus.

1987 was an indelible year: Public Enemy released "Yo, Bumrush the Show!" and Boogie Down Productions came out with "Ghetto Music: The Blueprint of Hiphop". But nothing could have presaged what Rakim was about to drop. The incisive rhymes on "Paid in Full" surged forth in an infectious flow; enjambment manifested in a brand new way; Rakim strung 3- 4- and even 5-syllable rhymes across the 'barline', folded rhymes within eachother, displaced stresses, melted one rhyme into the next, all with a smooth and hypnotizing delivery that made it easy to forget a revolution was taking place. In this way Rakim's arrival mirrored the 'quiet storms' of Debussy or Meredith Monk, innovators who forged entirely new paths without hitting the listener over the head.

It is not only Rakim's rhythmic freshness, but also his ability to create and maintain a consistent language, that defines him as a compositional maverick. He fashions catchphrases, epigraphs, hooks, and metaphors to act as signifiers. He develops unusual syntax, morphs nouns into verbs, redesigns sentence structure to suit his lyrical needs. Rakim's innovations cannot be separated from his musical grammar; they are part and parcel of the same root system, presented in a constant, uniform, and logical way, defined by clear structural limits, parameters, and motivic cells. As in the music of many great composers, this clarity and consistency of language empowers listeners to make connections, to hear the music in larger phrases; it draws us - consciously or unconsciously - into Rakim's musical and metaphysical world.

Over the years I've noticed that much of the scholarship on rap music shies away from hard musical analysis. This may be because writers do not often possess the training to address music-theoretical issues, or it may simply be that they don't find such issues relevant or attractive to discuss. Of course, with most music (that which Duke Ellington refers to as "the other kind") it doesn't really matter, as the materials are largely imitative. However, the trend of ignoring analytical/theoretical issues does a great disservice to complex and thought-provoking rap music by lumping it together with all the rest. In saying this, I don't mean to dismiss the importance of culturally-based scholarship; I simply mean to emphasize that outstanding music transcends its cultural context, and this truism begs to be recognized.

Naturally, all music is created within a cultural framework, and the history of a particular music cannot be divorced from its context. But its influence, importance, and resonance most certainly can. Therefore when technical innovations occur, it behooves writers to acknowledge those innovations independently, rather than treating them as though they have little relevance outside the milieu in which they were engendered. Many of the groundbreaking discoveries in pop music during the last 25 years have taken place within the medium of rap music, but the one-dimensional lens of cultural contextualization tends to trivealize these innovations and marginalizes their importance.

A cursory glance at the history of jazz scholarship in America provides a sobering lesson. The great jazz artists of the 40s, 50s, and 60s - Ellington, Basie, Parker, Monk, Mingus, Dolphy, Coltrane, Evans, Davis, etc etc etc - are still relegated to one separate (albeit large) chapter in the history of American music. Why do serious technical discussions of their work, even today, remain largely neglected? I would chalk it up to a lack of engagement with profound levels of musical structure in these artists' work. During their lifetimes, there wasn't even a sufficient vocabulary to discuss their discoveries or acknowledge their achievements. I hope some of these issues will be resolved for rap music in the near future by a new generation of writers and thinkers who will choose to delve deeply into the rich and sophisticated technique of visionary artists such as Rakim.

Some groundbreaking rap albums in the decade following Eric B and Rakim's "Paid in Full":

Public Enemy (1988): It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back
Beastie Boys (1989): Paul's Boutique
Ice Cube (1990): Amerikkka's Most Wanted
Quest (1991): The Low End Theory
Pharcyde (1992): BizarreRide
Wu-Tang Clan (1993): Enter the Wu-Tang Clan
Common (1994) Resurrection
Nas (1994) Illmatic
The Roots (1995): Do You Want More?
Outkast (1996): Atliens
Mos Def and Talib Kweli (1998): Blackstar
Kook Keith (1999): Black Elvis/Lost in Space
Eminem (2000): The Marshall Mathers LP