People who aren't fans of rap have plenty of reasons for disliking the music, but the most persistent excuse seems to be its lack of melody. Unlike rap fans, who can not only tell the difference between a chorus and a verse in a rap hit but identify beats as easily as Stones fans recognize guitar lines, the non-fan hears little more than a bunch of guys talking over a beat. How, they wonder, can such a thing even be called music?
Which, at first glance, seems a reasonable question. After all, it's pretty hard to hum along with Public Enemy's "Bring the Noise," much less imagine a Muzak version of an L.L. Cool J's "Mama Said Knock You Out." Catchy as those singles are, they're not tuneful in any traditional sense of the term; rhythm seems more their element.
Still, pointing out that rap records are long on rhythm is not quite the same thing as saying they have no melody. In fact, there's quite a lot of musical content in rap records these days. All you need to know is how to listen for it.
Start with "Downtown Science" (Def Jam/Columbia 47092), the self-titled debut of one of New York's hottest rap teams. Unlike some of the more pop-oriented rap acts, which simply swipe an obvious groove from an established hit then toss a few rhymes on top, this duo uses its borrowings to build a totally original groove. Both Sam Sever and Bosco Money treat their sampled sound bites the way an arranger would treat individual instruments, painstakingly orchestrating each rap until it begins to articulate a definable sense of mood and dynamics. As such, the music ends up as much a part of the narrative as the words themselves.
But what about the melody, you ask? That's there, too, although not in the same way it would be in a pop song. In "Catch the Wave," for instance, the most obvious melodic content derives from the lumbering bass line, which the group fleshes out with loping percussion and jazzy saxophone obbligatos. Yet there's also a certain musicality to Bosco Money's rap. It's nothing you could sing, really, but his measured, leisurely phrasing, subtle inflections and sly syncopations provide a strong enough suggestion of a tune to justify calling what he does melodic.
Nor is that an isolated instance. On the wry, dreamy "If I Was," Money's punchy phrasing and artfully delayed rhymes build off the rhythm bed the way a soul singer would -- except, of course, that he's rapping, not singing. By contrast, "Radioactive" applies fairly static rhythms to the vocal, relying on regular accents, recurring meters and the like, but constantly changes the colors of beat beneath, alternating between eerie keyboards, spacy sound effects, and a relentlessly chugging bass-and-guitar pulse.
Varied as its musical menu may be, Downtown Science's sound is positively austere when compared to the stew of samples served up by Leaders of the New School on "A Future without a Past . . ." (Elektra 60976). Not only does this group draw from a wider variety of sources -- rock, soul, early jazz and '50s gospel are but a few of the flavors on hand -- but they pack far more material into each of their raps. Try to catalog the number of samples employed employed in "Case of the P.T.A.," and you'll probably lose count halfway through.
Yet the Leaders' sound never seems cluttered. Because the group modulates the density of each track, there's always a sense of flow to the sound, of tension and release, buildup and climax. Sometimes that's played as pure theater, but it can also add a strong melodic element to the raps, as when the jazzy piano in "P.T.A." turns the catch phrase "It's just another case of that ol' P.T.A." into a pop-friendly chorus.
Not every rap act pays such obvious attention to its musical dynamics, of course. New Jersey's Naughty By Nature, for instance, seems on the surface to be strictly old-school in its approach -- syllable-splattering rhymes splashed across a monolithic rhythm loop. Listen closely, though, and there's much more than that bubbling behind the beats of its debut, "Naughty By Nature" (Tommy Boy 1044).
For starters, the instrumental tracks are rarely as blunt as they seem. Taking a cue from reggae, Naughty By Nature maintains its sense of rhythmic flow by subtly varying the rhythm bed, adding and deleting instruments periodically to goose the beat along. That provides part of the excitement in "O.P.P." (the group's current single), where the insistent, stuttering bass line is pushed into overdrive whenever the vamp from the Jackson Five's "A.B.C." makes an appearance; the rest comes from the rising and falling line of the rap itself, which pushes the beat along with equal fervor.
The real payoff, though, comes with call-and-response chorus -- "You down with O.P.P.?/ Yeah, you know me!" -- a hook as strong as anything you could play on a piano. Of course, catchy, singsong phrases have been a staple ever since rap emcees started chanting, "a hip-hip-hop, and you don't stop," and
"Naughty By Nature" is full of them; listen closely, and it will be hard to keep from joining in on the "clap your hands" chorus of "Rhyme'll Shine On" or the profane counting exercise of "1,2,3."
Cypress Hill also puts a lot of stock in verbal hooks, but with a slight twist; instead of simply making the listener rap along, this group also wants to make a point about what is being rapped.
Their debut, "Cypress Hill" (Ruffhouse 47889), is full of standard verbal hooks, from the Chuck D. soundbite that gives "How I Could Just Kill a Man" its title to the P-Funk chant (sampled from "Aqua Boogie") that grounds "Psychobetabuckdown." But it also finds the group slipping repeatedly into the singsong cadences of schoolyard taunts, something which makes the rhymes both memorable and melodic. This is not kid stuff, though; catchy as it may be, there's something utterly terrifying about any chorus that goes, "A hole in your head/ You get a hole in your head."
Cypress Hill's nyah-nyah delivery makes this talk of shotgun murders seem both banal and tragic -- which, in a way, is not unlike real gang violence. And by setting up that connection between childishness and cruelty, the group not only uses the musical elements of its rap for an inspired bit of irony, but offers a critique that cuts to the heart of L.A. gangsta rap.