Afronaut

goldfsh helmet

… there will be no opera, no Viennese waltzes, no country music, no hip-hop and nothing ponderously slow.

– Crotchety Man Home Page

Two of the blogs I follow have recently suggested that hip hop is a genre that can not be dismissed by any music fan who claims to have an open mind. One of those blogs is centred on progressive rock, the other on indie rock and alternative styles. As it was the Crotchety Duty to give them a fair hearing I listened carefully to the tracks they offered as examples.

The progressive rock site provided eight pairs of music videos. The first of each pair was a hip hop track that sampled a theme from its companion video, which was in each case a well-known prog track. And I must admit those hip hop songs did have some good stuff in them. The prog samples were excellent; the artists who selected them clearly have good taste in that respect, at least. But my analysis of the hip hop substrate in which they were embedded produced a reading somewhere between excessively repetitive rap, rap, rap and intensely irritating scratch and squeal.

The indie/alternative post offered a 23-song playlist covering a fairly broad range of musical styles, only two or three of them hip hop. As I listened to them I found they all affected me in one of two ways: either I liked them or I hated them. There was nothing in the middle ground. And, of course, the ones I hated were the hip hop ones. It’s worth noting here that all of the hip hop artists and a number of the others in that playlist were completely unknown to me; in most cases I had no idea what was coming next so I don’t think I can be accused of bringing biased baggage to the experiment.

on film

The issues raised by those posts have been exercising the Crotchety Mind a lot over the past week or so. Are those bloggers right to accuse those of us who don’t like hip hop of being deliberately blind to its merits? Am I throwing out the baby with the bath water when I reject this genre or that? Are my fellow bloggers being unfair or is it me? And that inevitably leads us on to the deeper question of “How can we evaluate a work of art?” and even the philosophical “What is art?”.

In the midst of that dark, swirling maelstrom of questions and doubts a new recommendation from bandcamp shone out like a beacon from a sturdy lighthouse planted on solid, unshakable rock. It’s beam illuminated the scene enough to see a few shadowy answers.

The suggested bandcamp listening was an album called Driftglass by the SEED Ensemble. It’s a jazz album; every track falls squarely into the ‘jazz’ category. But it comes with West African and Caribbean influences, and guest artists provide some hip hop embellishments, too. Here’s Afronaut featuring some hip hop style vocals from XANA.

Now this, thought Crotchety Man, is how to do hip hop. It reminded me of Kate Tempest’s excellent work on her Let Them Eat Chaos album. If your words are important, as Kate’s are, it’s OK to deliver them in a more or less tuneless chant. If the music is an accompaniment to your poetry it’s OK for it simply to follow the metre of the spoken lines. A strong tune, a complex rhythm or delicate harmonies would only distract from the poetic language.

But if all you have to offer is a simple beat and gabbled rhyming couplets you don’t have a work of art. And you can’t save it from the metaphorical trash can with endless repetition, scratchy noises or an overtly aggressive attitude. You need to take a lesson from the likes of the SEED Ensemble and layer your verses over some genuine music – you know, pleasing sounds with elements of melody, rhythm and harmony.

Driftglass grabbed Crotchety Man’s attention right from the start with some extraordinarily fluid jazz licks played on that least agile of instruments, the tuba. Eight tunes and 51 minutes later my flexible friend, the credit card, paid for the digital download. Here’s the opening track, The Darkies. Listen out for the tuba at about the 4 minute mark.

The meat of the album consists of original modern jazz tunes arranged for a ten-piece orchestra: six horns, piano, guitar, bass and drums. Several tracks feature vocals – there’s hip hop in Afronaut and Interplanetary MigrationThe Dream Keeper is a lounge jazz song; and W A K E (for Grenfell) has the feel of a traditional West African/Caribbean song. There are also two short palate-clearing instrumentals that divide the album into three roughly equal parts.

Driftglass is a wonderful album and the hip hop vocals don’t spoil it one little bit. So, you see, I don’t reject the hip hop genre simply because I haven’t given it a chance. I reject hip hop music because it’s a style I don’t like. After all, we name different styles so that we can find what we do like and avoid what we don’t. There doesn’t have to be a value judgement attached to particular genres. Opera is supposed to be one of the highest forms of the musical art, but it’s not for me. Or, to put it another way …

When you spoke to God you knew he’d understand.
He said stick with the rap and I’ll be your God in hand.
But don’t ask me what I think of that –
I might give the answer that it’s all just crap.

2 thoughts on “Afronaut

  1. Thank you for your response! I appreciate that you took the time to listen to each of the samples.

    To clarify, I think my original text was that, with context, hip hop can be better understood, and then possibly appreciated, though that was included parenthetically as a ‘possible’ option. I think you’re absolutely right to say that it’s all a matter of taste, and it’s good of you to include opera, which is often viewed as “high art” despite it being largely for the masses in its day, as an example of where tastes can leave us.

    I don’t think understanding music means liking music- I feel like my classes in college helped me understand Schoenberg and experimental music, but I don’t really have any place in my life where that music comfortably fits. What is tiring, for me, is when any type of art is dismissed without any consideration for context or any sort of concerted effort. I did that for years as a “prog snob” and I regret willfully closing myself off to music (like pop, punk, heavy metal…or even Collins-era Genesis) simply because my tribal affiliation has some sort of arbitrary beef with it to which I cling.

    I think your willingness to engage with the music and consider what you like and don’t like shows a willingness that is rare in the “prog” scene, and it’s also wise of you to recognize that it’s ultimately up to taste, rather than some objective measure of art (like those that believe that something is only worthwhile if it is complex).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Got here from the Proglodytes site. I agree with you that the hip-hop examples focus too much on the hardcore side and gives readers the impression that the genre is a monolith of rapping and constant harsh beats. I feel that really throws a lot of creators under the bus, like the ones who has a jazzy sound, an ethereal sound, a kind of ambient yet harsh sound, or even just hip hop producers who don’t speak English but still wanted to put their own spin on it. The fact that you said that you don’t like hip hop as a style despite praising a jazz rap track right before demostrates my point pretty well. Still, I personally wouldn’t accuse you of being “blind to the merits of hip hop”, especially because those blog posts aren’t making a good case for them.

    With that said, I’m confused by the “hip hop artists should take a cue from this jazz band” sentiment. While the album is brilliant (especially the track “W A K E (for Grenfall)”), I find it a piece of art because it has a great sense of improvisation and blends the non-jazz elements well while also carrying great social messages, and not because it has pleasing tunes. My definition of art isn’t just limited to those aspects, but if anything, the pleasing tunes requirement makes any guy with a piano an artist, given how much pleasant-but-nothing-special piano music I’ve listened to.

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