Of all the things suggested by Royal Society Open Science’s massive study of Billboard Hot 100 hits, hip-hop’s revolutionary qualities shoudn’t have been so surprising.
No one questions the genre’s radical sense of identity that came from taking elements from dance, graffiti, and vocal storytelling from marginalized worlds to make something wholly orginal out of separate parts.
But the musicality of hip-hop - the way melodic samples of existing music are chosen and manipulated, the way funk breakbeats are chopped up and slowed down to create an entirely new approach to rhythm and bass -- was entirely new to popular music. And for all the inherent weirdness of attempting to quantify popular culture through this study, it’s good to see that innovation acknowledged here.
For all of pop music’s lionization of rock ‘n’ roll and the British Invasion as the defining musical revolution of the late 20th century, bands like the Beatles and Stones were openly elaborating on the ideas of acts like Howlin Wolf, Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Phil Spector and Motown. The music got more sonically innovative as careers went on, but it’s no knock to say that each of those bands got started by putting an attractive new spin on covers from R&B, rock and blues artists they admired.
Hip-hop (and, to a lesser extent in this study, electronic pop), really was something unprecedented. Even though the genre is built on stock electronic instruments like drum machines and samples of other artists’ recorded material, that concept in itself was a measurably new idea that opened up a whole range of never-before-heard musicality. Guitarists and drummers could find their own style, but they were always limited by the structures of their instrument. Hip-hop production turned that inside out, and rebuilt the palette of pop composition by mining its own history.
The same is true of hip-hop’s vocal delivery, which pulled from a century of African American talking blues, spoken word and block-party culture to find its own structures of melody and rhythm. It shouldn’t be a shock that when you lay that craft out in waveforms and measure it, that it would represent the biggest shift in the history of American pop. But it’s validating to see that impact not just felt, but measured.
One wonders if this same study, pushed forward a few years, would have a bump in the electronic music graph that reflects the totalizing influences of computer sounds and EDM over the last decade. Even hip-hop has mingled with it to the point that these two pop music trends have now synthesized into a new default sound of top-40.
Quantifying culture as a means of explaining its relevance has its limits. But go ahead and savor the contrarian pleasure when you show it to the surly Baby Boomer rock fan in your life. Hip-hop wasn’t just people talking over pieces of someone else’s music. It was also totally -- and provably -- new.
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