It’s safe to say that most, if not all, humans have had an experience with an irresistible beat. Perhaps a piece of music playing in a store made you tap your fingers on the handle of your shopping cart. Maybe you found yourself nodding your head at a stoplight to a song on the radio. Around three weeks ago, in fact, I was at a jazz concert, and I found that my crossed leg had become a separate entity, bobbing to Davis’s “All Blues” with alarming intensity while still synchronized with my shaking head. It’s as if you’re a pinball, and the beat is the colorful, blinking walls and obstacles you simply cannot avoid bouncing off of.
When referencing the body-wrangling abilities of musical beats, it’s hard for rap to not find its way into the conversation. It’s the genre that is served on a platter of beats (not to be confused with a platter of beets, a very different phenomenon). Without a beat, rap becomes spoken word. It’s what sets the mood and keeps the heads nodding, and its twists and turns shape the lyrics. Unfortunately for the genre, the Billboard charts have painted the portrait of rap as a somewhat tasteless, image-focused section of the music community, gaining many haters of the mere idea of rap (h8ers? I promise to never type that word on this blog again).
But there is a subdivision of rap, one that spews not only quality lyrics and flow but also beats that have refined bass lines, pure jazz, and real developments. Alternative rap, developed in the 90s especially, set up the foundation for the quality rappers of today. Plus, along with their irresistible beats, one feels pretty awesome blasting their songs through open windows during late night drives (one = me).
The pioneers of respected alternative rap, in my opinion, are definitely the rappers in the group A Tribe Called Quest. From Queens, the group changed the outlook on rap, using intelligent metaphors, artistic verses, and, especially, tasteful beats. Close to all of their songs have strong, funky, beautiful bass lines. These are particularly pronounced in their album The Low End Theory, which produced many unbeatable songs as well as helped solidify the connection between hip hop and jazz, one that seems destined but surprisingly wasn't definite previously. Their song “Jazz (We’ve Got),” which samples Lucky Thompson’s “Green Dolphin Street,” is a perfect example of the Tribe’s ability to be both culturally aware and modern. The bouncing bass line begs to be rapped to, and the long pulses of the (I think) Hammond B3 organ keep the track on its cool course. The chorus, in which the members speak quietly “We got the jaaaazzz, we got the jaaaazzz,” includes Lucky Thompson’s saxophone jumping a perfect fourth and then chromatically descending down in between the original B flat. It’s slightly eerie, but mostly conjures images of smoky, black and white streets at night.
Another A Tribe Called Quest song that demonstrates their influential, groundbreaking status is their song “Electric Relaxation” from the album Midnight Marauders. The song samples Ronnie Parker’s “Mystic Brew,” a cool jam with a simple drum beat, a funky bass line, and three satisfying pairs of chords on guitar. When Tribe used the song, they transposed it down a couple of steps, added a heavier beat, and layered a sound effect over the chorus and select parts of the verses that I can only describe as something that would play as a guy with an afro and bell bottoms walked down the street. “Electric Relaxation” is one of the few songs in hip hop with a three bar loop. The beat is not only addicting, but shows that a hip hop song does not need gunshot sound effects or overly intense electronics to be irresistible—in fact, it’s usually better when it doesn't (the song also has my favorite lyric of all time, rapped by Q-Tip: “They know the abstract is really soul on ice, the character is of men, never ever of mice”). Other pioneering alternative rap groups during the late 80s and 90s include De La Soul, Jurassic 5, and Jungle Brothers.
A Tribe Called Quest’s legacy has inspired many new rap groups who are invading the mainstream with real instruments and attention to the poetry of the lyrics. Atmosphere, a rap group composed of rapper Slug and producer Ant, are probably the most popular group that currently carries on the values of groups like A Tribe Called Quest. Atmosphere’s beats are not based as heavily on jazzy bass lines, but other mostly acoustic styles, ranging from calm guitar to dense, singer-songwriter-like piano to distorted electric guitar licks. Atmosphere’s song “Sound Is Vibration” uses some slightly Debussy sounding harp chords, but paired with the drum beat and the held out pitches, it becomes a perfect foundation for Slug’s and Spawn’s verses.
Another member of the revival of alternative rap is Aesop Rock, an intense and sometimes abstract lyricist who raps in front of a variety of different beats. Slightly more experimental than Atmosphere, his lyrics are seemingly more incoherent, while the beats fit into genres less concretely. Instead of polished, revealing songs, Aesop Rock has the quality of a slam poet, somewhat everywhere, jumbles of sound and words, all coming together for songs that redefine what it means to be a hip hop artist. His song "Shere Kahn" is a calm, slow moving beat with many different flavors. It’s slightly African inspired, slightly orchestral, and slightly Middle Eastern. Much of the song is without lyrics, instead having random spurts of flute and bassoon, brass, oboe, whistling, record scratching, a female singer, and other bursts. When Aesop Rock does come in, however, he’s explosive. The song doesn’t bring to mind the hip hop that we’ve been conditioned to recognize, the world of gold chains and sagging pants, but reminds the listener that hip hop is an art, not just an image. The beat is so strange that it becomes irresistible after a few listens, your head bobbing in a sort of trance.
Alternative rap teaches us many things: hip hop doesn’t have to be a self-involved, shiny, misogynistic genre, beats can be made out of tasteful jazz and acoustic samples, and lyrics can be as poetic as the next spoken word artist’s lines. From pioneering, legendary groups like A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul to members of the modern revival of alternative hip hop like Atmosphere and Aesop Rock, there are beats all around us that are irresistible and draw us in. If you start listening to these masters of rhymes and beats, you’ll soon find yourself bobbing your head, tapping your foot, wiggling your fingers. Or, if you’re like me, driving down the road with the windows rolled down, rapping the chorus into the night.