27 May, 2013Issue 22.3EssaysLiteratureMusicPolitics & Society

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Harder Than You Think

Matthew Western

Harder Than You Think

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In December 1963, an intriguing article by one William Mann was published in The Times. Its prose was elaborate, eloquent, and above all rooted in the vocabulary of musicology: “pandiatonic clusters”, “submediant key switches” and “Aeolian cadence” were just some of the more obfuscatory terms used. Mann also made a deliberate effort to place the subject of his article firmly within the Western “classical” tradition to which these terms belonged, making comparisons with Mahler and Peter Maxwell Davies among others. The subject of this academic rhapsodising? A new but rapidly ascending band called The Beatles.

It is tempting to simply gaze upon Mann’s article with mild bemusement. The Beatles certainly did: Lennon later remarked “I still don’t know what it means at the end, but it made us acceptable to the intellectuals”. However, the article is simply an older symptom of a dilemma that still plagues us today: why and how should we analyse popular music? On the one hand, making claims to value on the same grounds as the “high art” canon results in the apparent betrayal of the popular side of pop and the application of woefully unsuitable analytical techniques. On the other, a new method of analysis for popular music seems almost oxymoronic: the very term “analysis” suggests a search for what is hidden, whilst “popular” implies a music in which nothing is hidden; its emotional power will be immediately apparent. This quandary is even reflected in non-academic writings on popular music: compare Alex Ross, who writes about Björk and Radiohead on the grounds that they are heirs to 20th-century experimentalism, and Garry Mulholland, who actively refutes the idea of a musical canon to celebrate pop’s sheer entertainment value.

The answer I would tentatively propose is this: we analyse pop music for what it is. Pop is above all a social medium; the ideologies of its creators are embedded within it, and our arguments about genres or authenticity are reflections of differing views about how the world works. This makes the concept of genres and their conventions essential: when a piece of music breaks or transcends its genre’s conventions, it also breaks the narrative we expect it to embody, thus prompting us to reconsider that genre’s values. And if we view pop as a social discourse, then its analysis has a clear purpose: we are articulating our own response to that discourse and it is only natural that we should search for the rules and conventions underlying it.

A good case study for the method outlined above, then, would be a genre with both clearly defined conventions and an explicit social message. Perhaps one of the most powerful—and controversial—social-musical movements of recent years is hip-hop, which brought with it its own distinctive aesthetic conventions. “Harder Than You Think“, a song released in 2007 by the iconic hip-hop group Public Enemy, yields particularly interesting results when examined in this manner.

The aesthetics of hip-hop can essentially be summarised as the interaction between sampling and lyrics, two elements with extraordinary rhetorical potential. Lyrics move the listener through the wordplay, rhythm and rhyme in which they present their subject (this movement is encapsulated in the nebulous term “flow”). Sampling, on the other hand, can contradict, reinforce or subvert the lyrics through its semantic connotations and appropriation of other musicians’ material.

From its first sample, “Harder Than You Think” is laden with multiple connotations. The electric guitar riff of the intro recalls the 70s R&B hip-hop mined for samples, while the spectacular horn sample that announces the first verse suggests black funk such as that of James Brown, who Public Enemy and others looked upon as a Black Power predecessor. So where are both of these samples taken from?

They’re actually from an obscure Shirley Bassey single, “Jezahel“. The significance in this case isn’t one of musical allusion; no one could reasonably be expected to recognise the song. Instead, the message is one of sheer mastery. Ever since DJ KoolHerc began washing the labels off his records so rivals couldn’t copy his breakbeats, the discovery of an obscure but brilliant beat has been a sign of skill in hip-hop. And on How You Sell Soul To A Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul?, the album the song is taken from, demonstrating mastery is especially important. This is Public Enemy’s tenth album, released 20 years after their debut. A recurring theme throughout is the reaffirmation of their musical power (a theme that is combined with the critique of the commercial tendencies of contemporary rap alluded to in the album’s title).

Public Enemy’s claims for supremacy are also present in Chuck D’s opening verse, both in its subject matter and in its lyrical dexterity:

Rollin’ stones of the rap game, not braggin’
Lips bigger than Jagger, not saggin’
Spell it backwards, I’m a leave it at that
That ain’t got nothin’ to do with rap

The opening words both cement Public Enemy’s place as founding fathers of hip-hop and play on the proverb “a rolling stone gathers no moss”, alluding to their unstoppable momentum. Chuck’s gaze then turns to his younger contemporaries, criticising their constant use of the term “niggas” (“saggin’’ spelt backwards) as a perversion of rap’s social purpose. A closer look at this opening quatrain shows its internal construction to be noteworthy. The idea that all rappers improvise their rhymes is mistaken; some do, such as Jay-Z, but even in such cases rap lyrics work in a considered grammar that deserves examination. Here, we can see that Chuck is working in blocks of 10 syllables: the first and third bars match this exactly, whilst the second and fourth contain nine syllables with a brief pause at the beginning, lending the verse its propulsive force. Compare this with the second quatrain:

Check the facts expose those cats
Who pose as heroes and take advantage of blacks
Your government’s gangster so cut the crap
A war going on so where y’all at?

The syllable pattern here becomes 7-12-10-9, as Chuck already begins to twist the boundaries of his structure. The third and fourth lines remain unchanged, but the first line now has a pause at the end and two of its syllables are moved into the second line. Perhaps most important is the way the horn sample from “Jezahel” interacts with this; its fanfares coincide with the start of each bar, accentuating Chuck’s pauses, whilst its high climax coincides with the “punchline” at the end of each quatrain.

So, the picture which these elements of the song paint is one of Public Enemy unfazed by the changing rap landscape, defiantly preaching the same message of black liberation that they were in 1987. But there is a shadow lurking behind this front of optimism: one of nostalgia and longing for the past. One of the most obvious examples of this is a sample we have not yet discussed: the intro and outro of “Public Enemy No.1“, a song from their 1987 debut. These samples of Chuck D’s hypeman FlavorFlav here serve as a framing device, reporting an overheard criticism of Public Enemy at the start of the song that Chuck proceeds to refute, whilst the outro eggs on and encourages Chuck between choruses. However, their use creates a disjuncture in the song, a crack in its triumphal image. The whole point of the intro sample is that it demonstrates continuity, being equally relevant both in its original context and the present one: both alert Chuck to his detractors and his polarisation of opinion, and both times Chuck goes on to justify his actions. But the outro sample (beginning “Yeah, that’s right, Chuck man”) breaks this rule—it is played twice, thus revealing itself as external and independent from the narrative of the song. The second time it is played, then, sounds like a reference back to the first, evoking the temporal past through our sense of musical time. This is accentuated by the echo applied to the samples; whereas in “Public Enemy No.1” FlavorFlav’s voice sounded close to the ear, sharp, jolting the listener to attention, here it sounds like a distant memory.

Once one becomes aware of this contradiction in the song, its confident façade swiftly crumbles. Compare the sampling in “Harder Than You Think” to the 1988 song “Bring The Noise“, in which a staccato saxophone riff combines with a constant white noise of scratching and drum machines. Similarly, compare the neat rhyming couplets and four-square rhythm shown above to the opening of “Don’t Believe The Hype“:

Back
Caught you lookin’ for the same thing
It’s a new thing check out this I bring
Uh Oh the roll below the level
‘Cause I’m livin’ low next to the bass C’mon
Turn up the radio
They claim that I’m a criminal
By now I wonder how
Some people never know

Some of the rhymes remain the same, as in the opening couplet, but other features make this verse immediately arresting, such as the internal rhyme and assonance of “roll”, “below”, “level”, “low” and “radio”. The same crossing of the barline is reflected in Chuck’s phrasing structure: he accentuates “same” and “this”, giving the lines a syncopated power, but before this tactic gets old he knocks our expectations again by carrying on unbroken through the next line and not pausing until “low”.

When one takes the reference to the past initiated by Public Enemy’s sampling and views the whole song from that perspective, the musical difference is shocking: whereas before Public Enemy were intentionally uncomfortable and jarring, communicating the tension of the Black Power movement through their music, “Harder Than You Think” sounds settled and secure. For all Chuck D’s claims of continuing the revolution, the music’s implicit admission is that, for Public Enemy, the revolution is over.

Thus this song, while initially appearing to be a triumphant celebration of Public Enemy’s continued relevance in a milestone album and year, in fact contains the sound of Public Enemy becoming an anachronism. Indeed, the coda, in which FlavorFlav proudly proclaims the cities in which they remain Public Enemy No.1, is an outright falsity. A look at the other rappers releasing records in 2007—Kanye, Soulja Boy, Chamillionaire—shows the new generation which rap’s critics were railing against. What makes this even more poignant is Public Enemy’s misrepresentation of contemporary rap: just as there were fewer political bands in Public Enemy’s heyday, today’s socially conscious rappers like TalibKweli, Common and MosDef exist uneasily in the rap scene which they criticise. The rap revolution hasn’t died out completely; it’s just left Public Enemy behind.

Finally, why is it important that we learn this? Because at first listen, it is easy to misread the reality of the song’s context and be swayed by Chuck D’s hard-hitting lyrics. In fact, such a “misreading” recently achieved quite a high profile, as the song’s use in inspirational 2012 Paralympics adverts briefly propelled it into the UK charts. Such misreadings do an injustice to hip-hop history and the voices that went into the song’s creation. And this is why we analyse popular music: if we are going to debate social discourses through music, then we should make sure we understand one another first.

Matthew Western is reading for a BA in Music at Somerville College, Oxford.