Fluid dynamics—the movement of particles in flow—remains one of the most intractable areas of study in all of science, with fluids in action being among the hardest phenomena to model, even with a very high-speed supercomputer.
The same may be true of hip-hop, if the relative absence of scholarly writing on the principles of the art form is any indication. Enormous swaths of text have been, and are being, composed on hip-hop’s master narrative: The Bronx, poverty, Kool Herc, Danceteria, Run-DMC, etc. Meanwhile, others delve into rap’s social and sexual politics, ad infinitum.
To my thinking, though, the real excitement truly, absolutely, lies near hip-hop’s epicenter, and its most elemental, fundamental questions; those corresponding to its mechanics.
For example, Why does rhyme work? Why does the act of mating like sounds grab a listener’s interest? I mean, when you think of it, why should so simple a trick hold the fascination of grown men and women, or anyone older than an infant?
Or, how do artists make word choices, winnowing away all possible semantics until they have crafted a narrative, or maybe a diatribe?
From what does rhythm derive its power? When a rapper speaks confidently over a strong meter, what new sound is he, by fusion, building, different from either his voice or the track, alone? Is this singing? If not, why not? How is doing this different from the way people made music before hip-hop’s advent?
And, most of all, when these and other queries are considered all together, how, and why, does hip-hop function as a system, one of both cognition and action?
Or, as Dr. Adam Bradley says in his amazing new text, Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop, in one of a seeming cluster of elegantly parsed, yet deeply thoughtful insights, “The MCs most basic challenge is this: When given a beat, what do you do?”
“Rap is what results when MCs take the natural rhythms of everyday speech and reshape them to a beat. The drumbeat is rap’s heartbeat; its metronomic regularity gives rap its driving energy and inspires the lyricist’s creativity. ‘Music only needs a pulse,’ the RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan explains. ‘Even a hum, with a bass and snare—it’ll force a pulse, a beat. It makes order out of noise.’ Robert Frost put it even more plainly: ‘The beat of the heart seems to be basic in all making of poetry in all languages.’ In rap, whether delivered in English or Portugese, Korean or Farsi, we hear two and sometimes many more rhythms layered on top of one another. The central rhythmic relationship, though, is always between the beat and the voice. As the RZA explains, the beat should ‘inspire that feeling in an MC, that spark that makes him want to grab a mic and rip it.’
“Rappers have a word for what they do when the rhythm sparks them; they call it flow. Simply put, flow is an MC’s distinctive lyrical cadence, usually in relation to a beat. It is rhythm over time. In a compelling twist of etymology, the word rhythm is derived from the Greek rheo, meaning “flow.” Flow is where poetry and music communicate in a common language of rhythm. It relies on tempo, timing, and the consituitive elements of linguistic prosody: accent, pitch, timbre, and intonation.”
There are so many good things about writing like this: The clarity of Bradley’s language; the gentle way he uses technical terms, in order to bring readers into his secrets; the subtle manner by which he alludes to hip-hop’s global impact; his ear for pounding quotes; the good sense to mate RZA and Robert Frost, maybe for the first time, ever; the fact that all of this occurs within the book’s first six pages.
I had to make certain that Adam Bradley would be the guest, today, on my WBAI-NY / 99.5 FM radio show, NONFICTION, this afternoon, Friday, April 17, at 2 pm ET. And so he is.
You can hear his ideas by tuning in at 2 pm. If you’re outside of the New York tri-state, check out our stream on the web. If you miss the live show, dig into our archives for up to 90 days after broadcast.