Column: Who controls the music?

“That’s not music, dude. It’s rap.”

That’s a snippet of a conversation I heard on Ninth Street a few days back. If you’ve read my column before, you know I do a lot of thinking about rap and about music in general. Whether or not rappers are musicians is something that I switch sides on a lot, but I’ve narrowed it down to a few determining factors, one of which is emotion.

Emotion has been a motivator of music since day one. Celebration of a successful hunt used to call for dancing and playing tribal drums around the night fire. Debussy used Claire de Lune to strike an emotional (and physical) chord with a girl named Claire. Justin Timberlake brought “Sexyback” to show us he was confident at the same time “What Goes Around… Comes Around” showed us that he’s open to hurt.

Artists — great ones — put honest emotion into their work. I’m reminded of a master class I attended with one of my favorite drummers, Jojo Mayer. The topic of expressing emotion or a feeling with only rhythm came up. He had me sit at a drum set and told me, “Play a solo, but here’s the rule: You can only use eighth notes,” so I did just that. He then sat down at the kit and said, “Now watch me do it,” and continued to play every subdivision from quarter note triplets to quintuplets.

“You see, it created a tension in you because the rhythms clashed,” Mayer said. “And also because I broke the rule.”

Like any form of art, the function of music is a medium for expression. What you hear when music is played are chords and melodies and rhythms that function together harmonically but are also designed to elicit a sympathetic emotional response.

Like a movie or a painting can be dark- or light-hearted, music can have a dark texture, or a saxophone player could have a dark tone. Music feels a certain way.

But what about rap? In conversations I had personally with Wynton Marsalis’s drummer Ali Jackson, he said, “Rappers? Come on, man. I know those dudes. Those m----------rs don’t know s--t,” speaking on the technical musical knowledge of rappers.

And it’s true, generally. Rappers don’t talk much about the awesome chord progressions you find in their music or the melodies they wrote, because they aren’t the ones who wrote them.

An interesting case study is the success of Drake. I don’t know much about Drake’s knowledge of music or his understanding of music theory, but what I do know is that it’s fortunate for Drake that he had whiz producer/audio engineer and catchy melody-writer Noah “40” Shebib to handle the harmonic and melodic feeling of his music.

In an interview with Fader, Shebib said, “Those were always my favorite joints. Even as a kid, I’ve been trying to force-feed R&B to rap music. Make rap more musical.”

What Drake and Noah have done, successfully I’d say, is infuse emotion into rap. They’ve melded the deep relatability of feeling and communicating an emotion with the accessibility of hip-hop, and created their own genre of R&B.

None of this is to say that rap and hip-hop can’t elicit emotion. Both genres have artists who can and do just that. What I’m talking about is specifically using the music, not the words, as a vehicle to convey the way an artist is feeling to his or her listeners. The rappers dictate the words, and they do it well, but I think it’s the audio engineers they have working with and for them who control the music.

But it seems to be working out. Lil Wayne, close friend and mentor to Drake, even included the almost ballad-like “How to Love” on his most recent album, among tracks named “Two Shots” and “Blunt Blowin’.”

Rap and hip-hop are both music. Where the actual musical credit is due though, I think that question is less easily answered.

I’ll leave you with this — if you saw Lil Wayne play guitar on SNL, or anywhere else, you know he isn’t a musician. I’m a fan of his music, and I know that he’s an incredibly intelligent human being, but so far as a fantastic musician? I’d be willing to say that he’s a hell of a poet.

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