“Rap Isn’t Music,” and Other Nonsense

Ben Shapiro says Rap isn’t music. I firmly disagree.

Twitter exploded yesterday as clip made the rounds which featured conservative commentator Ben Shapiro taking aim at one of his favorite punching bags, rap music. During an episode of his new “Sunday Special,” Shapiro said the following: “In my view, and in the view of my music theorist father who went to music school, there are three elements to music. There is harmony, there is melody and there is rhythm. Rap only fulfills one of these, the rhythm section. There’s not a lot of melody and there’s not a lot of harmony. And thus, effectively, it is basically spoken rhythm. It’s not actually a form of music. It’s a form of rhythmic speaking. Thus, beyond the objectivity of me just not enjoying rap all that much, what I’ve said before is that rap is not music.” Twitter did what Twitter does, memeing the statement to death and launching Ben to the top of the trending page, but was he right? No. No he wasn’t.

First of all, the claim that rap lacks melody and harmony is plainly false. Rapping is not purely speaking, as every single artist in the history of the genre has added some form of melody, though often rudimentary, to their vocal. But far more importantly, Shapiro is making the false implication that “melody,” and “harmony,” must come from the lead vocal, which is plainly false. Rap music often features some of the most intricate and creative instrumentals in the entire music industry, from the magnificent jazz influence on a record like Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly to the luscious beats of the 90’s West Coast scene.

That being said, if this was simply a story about Ben Shapiro’s failure to appreciate hip-hop instrumentals, it wouldn’t be worth writing about. I’m far more irritated by his rather dry definition of music itself. In fairness, what he’s referring to is an over simplified form of what many hardline music theorists and philosophers of music may claim as a definition of music itself, but one must distinguish between a purely intellectual definition of music and the colloquial form which Ben is attempting to appeal to. The intellectualized definition is essentially useful in narrowing one’s scope to that of Western classical music in order to study its form and style. On the other hand, the colloquial definition of what is and isn’t “music,” has far more to do with cultural influence and a seat at the table in the ongoing conversation that is modern music.

In this more useful definition, rap music is not only “music,” but perhaps the most lively and important genre in all of modern music. In contrast to a genre like country music, which has its own form of royalty in the form of long running musical families and grandiose events, rap is far more anarchic.

Rap has, from its earliest days, been an outlet for social and political statements, and because of its relatively small production cost compared to genres with full bands, nearly anyone could be a part of this conversation. Because of this, icons of the genre like Tupac Shakur and N.W.A. were able to rise to prominence with bold and often offensive statements from the very beginning of their careers. Thanks to this lower cost and the open minds of rap fans, artists like these and newer artists like Kendrick Lamar and Killer Mike are able to boldly speak their minds without censorship from their label or fear of losing their income.

Most importantly, rap music has long been the most culturally recognized outlet for the conversations and opinions of an oppressed minority in America. Unlike the more personal focus of rock or pop music, rap has always been largely political and socially conscious, and it has provided a massively lucrative outlet for African Americans to assert their place in society and shine a light on their struggles. To hear this incredibly important social conversation play out over the airwaves is not only fascinating, but one of the brilliant examples imaginable of music’s power and prescience in modern society.

Still don’t believe me? I’d suggest anyone who is still skeptical about rap music and it’s magnificent cultural impact simple take a listen to Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 LP To Pimp a Butterfly. The album is a daring commentary on race in America with instrumentals which runs the gamut of traditionally black genres like jazz and soul, and lyrics that provide an unflinching picture of fame, discrimination, class, and family. It’s a brilliant work of art and it’s exactly the kind of album which could only be accomplished within the rap genre.

Highlights of My Vinyl Collection

I’ve been collecting vinyl for awhile now. A few years and a few hundred albums later, here’s five highlights from my collection!

5. Richard Edwards – Pity Party LP

R-11145459-1519071279-3636.jpeg     On first glance, this may not seem like much. It’s been kept in relatively great condition, the cover is minimalistic and interesting, and the lightning blue vinyl is striking. What makes it special, however, is it’s status. The record only sold about 500 copies, and hasn’t been reprinted since. It was produced as a collectors edition, and as a place holder between Edwards’ excellent solo debut, Lemon Cotton Candy Sunset, and his even better follow up, Verdugo.

   The album itself is a combination of tracks from the two aforementioned projects, each performed solo on an acoustic guitar with minimal production. Edwards has such a gorgeous voice and talent for commanding attention to stripped back performances. In most cases, the less barrier between him and the listener, the better. In the end, this is one of his best projects to date, and I only wish it was in full circulation for those who weren’t able to procure it on it’s first and only print.

4. Tool – Lateralus LP

tumblr_n55pmsbyt01rgojw1o1_500_600x   Turning from one of my favorite folk artists to may absolute favorite hard rock group of all time, my second choice has got to be my Lateralus by Tool. The design on the case is gorgeous enough, sporting the colorful spirals associated with the record’s theme, but the picture discs on the inside are even more impressive. They show the upper half of a human body, removing one layer for each side of the two discs. It’s a purely Tool design, and it sets the mood before the record has even played.

   Musically, what is there to say? It’s a Tool album. It’s fantastic. Lateralus is the band’s most technical work, mixing in complex mathematical elements and executing polyrhythms with a rare precision. Instrumentally, this album is a peak, especially for Justin Chancellor’s bass work, as he begins to find his footing with the group in a major way. Maynard’s vocals and lyrics are, of course, incredible, and overall, the album is just a pure master work.

3. Pink Floyd – Collection

  From progressive metal to pure progressive rock, we’ll turn to my personal choice for the greatest band of all time, Pink Floyd. My collection is missing only a few entries, namely Wish You Were Here and A Momentary Lapse of Reason, but the bulk of their massive discography sits comfortably near the front of my record box. The designs are breathtaking in their simplicity, one of my favorite qualities of Floyd’s album covers. Dark Side of the Moon and Atom Heart Mother in particular create so much meaning with basic covers.

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   When it comes to content, as I said, I consider Pink Floyd the greatest rock band of all time. Listening to their discography in order, you’ll hear them grow and breathe as a group with very few stumbles along the way. Their prime period, from Dark Side of the Moon in ’73 to The Wall in ’79, is nothing short of perfect. However, their earlier, more experimental work is fun and exciting and their later work is expansive and powerful. They’re simply the best to ever do it.

2. Kendrick Lamar – Autographed Damn. LP

Screen Shot 2018-10-18 at 8.42.39 AM.png   Though rap music doesn’t have nearly the tradition in the vinyl world that other genre’s do, I just can’t resist including this gem. The blood red vinyl references one of the best tracks on the album and Kendrick’s enigmatic face peaks out irresistibly as one flips through their stacks of records. Above all, however, the autograph elevates this LP above the rest of my Kendrick collection.

   Musically, DAMN. certainly isn’t my favorite album from Lamar’s discography. That being said, it’s still one of the best records of 2017 by a mile. The heavy trap influences and simple aesthetic is a notable difference from To Pimp a Butterfly’s jazzy, maximalist style. Kendrick’s flow is blistering, and his lyricism is second to none in modern hip-hop. He’s one of the greats, and it is a pleasure to be alive during his run.

1. Margot and the Nuclear So & So’s – Broadripple is Burning/Holy Cow SINGLE

R-745551-1518276605-9152.jpeg   This was my white wale, and last year, I finally caught it. The debut single for one of my favorite bands is the reason I started collecting vinyl in the first place and it was brutally hard to get my hands on. I eventually got my hands on it for less than $100, a score as far as I’m concerned, and it now sit’s proudly atop my collection. The cover is simple and hand-drawn, the disc is a basic black, and the packaging is fairly worn, but it still stands as my crown jewel.

   The lead track is beautiful, as one would expect from a band fronted by Richard Edwards. His voice is youthful and the instrumentation is full in a way that it wouldn’t be on later releases. Lyrically, it’s one of my favorite tracks of all time, as evidenced by the line from it’s second verse which rests permanently on my arm. The B-side, “Holy Cow,” is fun as well, sounding much more like the band’s later work, but nothing tops “Broadripple is Burning.” I’ve collected nearly 200 records at this point, but none of them have given me the feeling of excitement I got from this single.