Let’s start with what seems like a simple question: what’s the difference between singing and speaking? Provide a technical answer, one that we might not be able to follow, or offer something so basic that it misses the target. Or . . . let the creative tangents split off and waft to the sky, so we can bathe in the glorious weirdness of “culture”, that is, endeavors otherwise deemed all-too-human.
What about the word “rap”, which seems to have entered the language long before it designated a kind of music? If we get past get past the “official” definition (“there was a rap on the door”), the vague etymology states: North American, casual. In that case, this type of usage (“what are you cats rapping about?”) seems, like the musical genre, to be decidedly African-American, that continuously denigrated cultural influence that nevertheless permeates all aspects of “Americanism”.
To return to “common usage” or the less idiomatic, the definition of “cadence” (apropos my title) states (according to Oxford Dictionary of English): “a modulation of the voice, a rhythmical effect in written text, a fall in pitch of the voice”. All of which indicates . . . singing.
Rhythm is the quality, whether applied to film, music or literature, that allows the viewer/ listener/reader to easily move through and into the medium, to be cast into the flow (as it were), to get into the groove. It’s an applied aesthetic that might be called graceful as opposed to awkward, smooth as opposed to rough. In prose, it’s all about the transition from one section to another. When applied to the poetic rhyming scheme, it not only aids memorization, but adds dedicated beats to the recitation.
Obviously, it’s poetry, the lyric, that’s easily transposed to singing. In point of fact, which came first? We will never know, but we can speculate, ruminate as well as fantasize. What’s all-too-easily noted in our era, is the opinion that “rap” (a kind of poetry) is not music. But just as literacy (or “the page”) usurped orality, rhythm, as applied to prose also adds an element of poetry to a form that is decidedly not poetry.
For whatever reason, it was Jazz, and in particular Be-bop and post-Be-bop Jazz, that triggered a contemporaneous poetic addendum, particularly in that ultimate Jazz destination, the Big Apple, New York City. And while the etymology of Beat Poetry (or the literary movement) is somewhat vague, pointing to beatitude as well as exhaustion, much of the literary output of that amorphous movement clearly had a flow (most particularly in the prose of Jack Kerouac) that was indebted to Be-bop. Jack is soloing/wailing (as it were) as well Jazz musicians being repeatedly name-checked in his Beat-template, “On the Road”.
But surely, long before there was a thing called Be-Bop or Beat Poetry, Langston Hughes of Harlem Renaissance renown was named “the first Jazz poet”. In the 1920s and 30s, Hughes utilized Jazz for his subject matter as well as letting its rhythms influence his meter, for example in the directly-stated homage “Jazzonia” from 1922. Hughes worked Jazz into his literary style, as well as being decidedly involved in elevating all forms of African-American culture, including Jazz, to their rightful position in the “high art” pantheon of American art and artists.
Hughes’ and Kerouac’s literary adherence to the feeling of Jazz delineates the fine line between reading/writing, recitation/speaking and singing, or the interplay between music and lyric, lyric being a term equally applied to the song and the text, a set of circumstances that perhaps became more indefinite in the move from oral (or spoken) to literary (or written) culture. Under the influence of Jazz, that mix-up was, to a certain degree, straightened out as its speed or tempo permeated what we call “life style” or “ways of being”, which in terms of speech, as opposed to song, can be demonstrated in the innovative lingo of Jazz saxophonist Lester Young who, by way of example, is said to have popularized the term “cool” as well as introducing “bread” as a synonym for cash.
Those kinds of literary interactions naturally led to the idea of reciting poetry while accompanied by a Jazz ensemble; the proximity was that close, close enough to combine efforts in the studio and on stage while still not exactly establishing a distinct genre such as “rap”. Given all that, it’s more-than-pertinent to recall that Billie Holiday’s ground-breaking anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit”, began as a poem by Lewis Allen (the pseudonym of Abel Meeropol).
The trip-up, or accidental circumstance, or that thing that was right-in-your-face-all-the-time, the element that established a distinct genre in which performers recite rather than sing a song/lyric, the genre that we now call Rap or Hip-Hop, can be traced to the terms first used to designate this type of performer: the “M.C.” or in Jamaican parlance the “Toaster”; an addendum to the “main show” or headliner, whose original function was simply to announce or introduce: the master of ceremonies, the person making a toast; a role expanded under the influence of the radio or discothèque’s “DJ”, whose patter didn’t step on a live performance but established where and how one was listening to a song, a recorded song rather than a live performance. Take it from there.
One can hear in the original cadences of Rap the influence of nursery-rhyme radio DJ patter, the stylized, practically corny (in hindsight) delivery of someone like Spoonie Gee. What happened next is apropos of all advances or innovations within any musical genre: no need to endlessly repeat in lock-step tradition, but make the thing your own. This was brought about through accent and the manner of lyrical delivery, just compare (for example) yesterday’s Spoonie Gee to today’s Kendrick Lamar.
Having finally come up to speed, pushing the M.C. beyond the simple role of announcer, and in the meantime creating a whole new genre of music, one that was seemingly lying around for decades waiting to be discovered (or firmly established), the creatively curious could now investigate which sounds, besides “Hip-Hop”, might be applied to the skill: Rock? Jazz? On a parallel line, around the same time, “Spoken Word” (as opposed to the written word) introduces a performative on-the-stage mode of address that has the “Poetry Slam” practically concur with the “Rap Battle”. In another significant rap-like procedure, poets such as Linton Kwesi Johnson shift the toasting skills of Jamaica into a sub-genre known as “Dub Poetry”, a mode that (in his case) is not backed by the pre-recorded tracks of King Tubby’s “Sound System” (for example), but a “live” backing band led by British producer/musician Dennis Bovell. This is Reggae (as it were) while Mr. Johnson is wont to push it in other directions. For example:
If you asked the average listener (whoever that is) what kind of music, in the above link, supports Linton Kwesi Johnson’s recitation, I would posit that most of us would say Jazz. Why not ask yourself the same question? We have come full circle from the “raps” of Langston Hughes and Jack Kerouac (backed by a live Jazz ensemble) to Spoonie Gee and U-Roy (backed by sound systems and music generated from pre-recorded music) to the cross-Atlantic Reggae experimentation of Linton Kwesi Johnson and Dennis Bovell to Saul Williams, who eventually winds up rapping/reciting in a Jazz ensemble with saxophonist-extraordinaire David Murray.
Saul Williams himself emerged from the stages of Spoken Word, the 1996 winner of the inimitable Nuyorican Poets Café’s Grand Slam; a wide-ranging collaborator with the likes of Nas as well as Nine Inch Nails. Though I knew of Saul Williams, I needed a lucky breakthrough to push me into the fanatic’s corner, a circumstance readily provided by his appearance at Hong Kong’s 2015 Clockenflap music festival. At that venue, he was supported by a two-man crew, appearing on one of the ground-level “alternative” stages, in front of a small but dedicated audience; the minimal crew rolling out a searing set in support of his latest album “MartyrLoserKing”, and though the audience was intimate by degrees, the set evinced that kind of unforgettable only-so-often vital feedback looped between performer and audience.
Coincidentally, I had also seen David Murray in Hong Kong, at the 2010 Hong Kong Arts Festival, also a blistering set, albeit amongst the more staid sit-down audience of a concert hall as opposed to Clockenflap’s outdoor venues. Murray and his band gave it their all, a seamlessly, intensely integrated ensemble, so much so that when the audience asked for a second encore, Murray seemed to indicate that, for the time being, the band had provided more than enough. So, in 2018, when I tripped across a promotional brochure in Antwerp advertising a gig that featured David Murray along with Saul Williams, I didn’t hesitate to buy my ticket.
If one disparages “Rap”, claiming it isn’t music, one would be hard-pressed to claim David Murray isn’t a musician. What Saul Williams is doing in the above clip isn’t Hip-Hop, though Murray is obviously and astutely tuned into some kind of coincidence. Murray might be called “post-Coltrane”, certainly post-Free Jazz, a trend or sub-genre that met with its own kind of disparagement, but he has taken it somewhere else, acknowledging the whole of Jazz tradition, while making it contemporary.
The disparager of any trend within music that claims “that isn’t music” will be greeted with the Socratic rejoinder: “Then, what is it?” That’s never a bad place to start. And after that: what’s the difference between singing or speaking?