The prevailing pop music form these days seems to be a combination of a singer and rapper, with randomly free-flowing male rap verse and largely disconnected melodious warbling from a female songbird like Rihanna. It has become such a formula that for Katy Perry’s E.T. music video Kanye West was brought in to ramble on top of the track in order to give it ‘cred’ or something. It is as though the big industry execs are afraid to let either genre stand on its own – pop-rappers and pop-singers are being melded as they fear losing the cross-over appeal of the combination, or that they fear the ability for a single performer to carry the entire song.
But it wasn’t always that way. Back in the late 80’s and early 90’s hip-hop groups like A Tribe Called Quest called upon classic jazz songs for inspiration, creating melodic and harmonic styles that were at once modern and classic – which is why when you ask a jazz fan about hip-hop they will be fans of groups like ATCQ, Black Sheep (The Choice is Yours), and so on.
But there was a darker side to that era – so-called Gangsta Rap. When we think of that time, we think of urban violence, police brutality, gangs, ‘cop killers’, music bans, the advent of music warning labels for lyrics, Frank Zappa in front of Congress, Tipper Gore, and so on. We think of a resurgence in the use of ‘the N word’ – ironically by those who should be the most opposed to its use! We had songs with more foul language than ever before – used for the expression of anger as well as to evoke a shock response.
Yet what seems to have been overlooked it that the songs themselves were pretty standard song forms with AABA verse-chorus and a depth of melody and harmony missing form later recordings in the genre.
Specifically I am thinking of N.W.A.’s ‘Straight Outta Compton’. The recordings have lost some of their edge since most of the members have been in either bad comedies or one or another Dick Wolf procedural crime drama, and with time the 80’s musical influence has become more apparent. But the songs are edgy, still not something you will be hearing played as Muzak in your local Wal-Mart.
The song ‘Gangsta Gangsta’ is very typical of N.W.A.’s stuff, and is extremely infectious with the ‘I’m the type of N that’s built to last, if you F with me I’ll put a foot in your A.” And so on … leading into the ‘Gangsta Gangsta’ chorus. And just when you think you have the pattern, Easy-E breaks in just before the chorus and restarts the whole thing again. There are sirens and samples dropped on top and other voices, but ultimately what you have is a reinterpretation of every pop song format since the mid-50s with a verse that leads into a chorus before jumping back to a second verse and so on. Cleverly done in that the songs feels very comfortable in form while the lyrics were decidedly UN-comfortable.
Obviously there is a ‘explicit lyrics warning’ needed for the entire song, to the point that many should just leave it alone. But if you are curious about a well formed song hidden underneath a ‘Gangsta’ veneer, this song is very well done and is actually more fun than shocking at this point.