Connections: blues and hip hop
Published: Friday, May 1, 2009
Updated: Friday, May 1, 2009 21:05
Maybe it was seeing Muddy Waters next to Nas in my iTunes library that made me realize it was time for an evaluation. These artists represent my two favorite, but seemingly disparate, musical genres—blues and hip hop. I wondered what common ground, if any, there was between blues and hip hop music.
After all, it's difficult to hear very much similarity in the sounds of, say, Mississippi John Hurt and T.I. After thinking on the issue for a while, however, I began to see that there are indeed some broad commonalities between these two musical worlds.
First, and perhaps most obviously, both of these genres are rooted in the social experience of blacks in America. Although they have since been adopted by people of varied races, ethnicities and nationalities, both matured as art forms during eras of American history that were characterized by significant struggles for blacks in particular.
The blues were born in the post-slavery environment of the South ruled by Jim Crow laws and hip hop took off in response to the realities of inner city life in the 1980's which were greatly affected by the crack cocaine epidemic and its associated rise in crime. Artists in both genres use music as an outlet to respond to their respective social conditions.
Scholar Cornel West has described the blues as an "autobiographical chronicle of a personal catastrophe expressed lyrically," and with that framework it is unsurprising that some of the best blues songs have a strongly personal statement. For example, it seems to me that Eric Clapton's version of "Have You Ever Loved a Woman" with the band Derek and the Dominoes wouldn't have been nearly as an affecting song had Clapton not recorded it while he was actually falling in love with his best friend's wife, as the song's lyrics describe (that friend happened to be George Harrison and the relationship also inspired the song "Layla").
In the realm of hip hop we also find raw statements of personal experience: Jay-Z's memories of a childhood without a father ("Now all the teachers couldn't reach me / and my momma couldn't beat me / hard enough to match the pain of my pop not seeing me"), Tupac's brutally honest account of his most personal thoughts ("So much pressure in this life of mine, I cry at times / I once contemplated suicide and would've tried / But when I held that nine all I could see was my momma's eyes"), and Biggie's portrait of the only options available to a young black male from the ghetto ("Either you're slinging crack rock / Or you got a wicked jump shot").
Furthermore, I see both traditions as being strongly referential to past works in the genre. In the blues, cover songs are not the territory of amateur musicians, but rather provide an artist the opportunity to put their original stamp on a classic tune. I go back to the example of Clapton's "Have You Ever Loved a Woman" which was actually a cover of a song by one of his idols, Freddie King. I find it remarkable that Clapton was able to find in the blues tradition a song that so perfectly fit his personal situation at the time, a fact that serves as a testament to the universal quality of the blues.
Hip hop music may be even more directly reliant on the music of the past because of its heavy emphasis on sampling as a production method. Many hip hop songs are built on bits and pieces (sometimes obvious, sometimes not) of previous works. Picking from the many examples out there, consider Jay-Z's "Dead Presidents" whose chorus contains a vocal sample from Nas' "The World Is Yours."
Both the blues and hip hop are typified by a special relationship between parts of the instrumental music and the voice of the artist. In the blues, normally this instrument is the guitar, and electric blues especially is built on the interplay between an artist's voice and the "voice" of their guitar. B.B. King puts it this way, "When I sing, I play it in my mind; the minute I stop singing orally, I start to sing by playing Lucille [his guitar]."
In hip hop. I think a similar relationship exists between the vocals and the beat. In hip hop, the best vocals fit fluidly into the instrumental track and become almost merged with it, much like vocals in blues. Jay-Z describes his rapping process this way, "I'll try to figure out what is the track saying, the emotion of the track and then I'll try to find a pocket… just to find where to sit as an instrument." Although the relationship between the vocals and the music is important in any genre with lyrics, I think they are especially critical in blues and hip hop.
In both genres, styles are categorized by the geographic regions in which they originated. In blues there are, among many other styles, delta blues, piedmont blues, Chicago blues and west coast blues. Similarly, hip hop styles are also often defined by place, whether it be east coast, west coast, the south (which is always "dirty" for some reason) or any other region. Interestingly, while blues was born in the rural south and immigrated north to cities along with many black artists in the early 20th century, hip hop took the opposite route. It was originated in the major urban center of the north, New York City, and has since spread throughout the country.
Nas' appropriately titled song, "Bridging the Gap" links together many of points I've tried to make thus far. The song features Nas' father, Olu Dara, himself a blues/jazz musician who was born in Mississippi but migrated to New York—a subject often referenced in Nas' more autobiographical songs. Additionally, the track is built on a riff from Muddy Waters' popular song "Mannish Boy" and its lyrics reference that artist as well as blues great Howlin' Wolf.
Nas neatly comments on the relationship between his father's music and his own when he says, "All these years I've been voicin' my blues." I guess he's known all along what I'm just now starting to realize.
Evan Eskew '11 is a biology major from Spartanburg, S.C. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.