On Sounding A Bigger Energy: Mumford And Sons

When I first saw Mumford and Sons on Saturday Night Live recently I wasn’t sure what to make of them–which is my fault not theirs. They seem like a throwback to an acoustic bluegrass-folk-rock sound. No synthesizers, sequencers or drum machines, just acoustic guitar and bass, piano/organ, banjo and dobro, a horn section, sing-song group vocals, and a lead singer/guitarist, Marcus Mumford who doubles as a drummer by playing a steady kick drum while standing up and fronting the band. The music is raucous and raw, harmonious and celebratory, but I wasn’t listening too closely–in part because I was staring at the TV wondering if Mumford’s shin muscles might be getting sore from playing that kick drum!

Mumford and Sons originated in the West London folk scene around 2007. Their recent album, Babel, was the fastest-selling album of the year here in the United States and in the UK. A few weeks ago, songs from Babel occupied four of the top ten most streamed songs on the music service Spotify. The music–which critics have called “pop songs couched in the language of the rustic troubadour” and “blockbuster bluegrass”–has clearly struck a chord with a lot of listeners. I spent a few days trying to overdose on Mumford and Sons in a listening experiment much like the one I carried out with country music here. The point of the experiment was just to figure out how everything works and to hear what kind of effect the music has on me.*

One of the band’s most streamed songs is “I Will Wait”, track three on Babel. The song is uptempo with a 4/4 thumping groove and tightly structured as a series of verses as choruses. The verse is a I-IV-V progression over 8 measures. Nothing special here, music-wise, but it sets the song’s reassuring tone. The music soon opens up with the pre-chorus section, which is a vi-v(6)-I-IV-iii-V progression repeated twice. There are twice as many chords in this section as there are in the verse and chorus in about the same number of measures. The phrase “And I’ll kneel down” gets the first three chords as support, lending the section a sense of motion–maybe a musical representation of literally kneeling down?–and a movement towards that last V chord which will lead dramatically back to the I chord that begins the chorus. The chorus is a I-iii-V progression. That second chord is minor and adds a little melancholy to the chorus’s otherwise boisterous feel. The iii chord hits just as Mumford sings “you” at the end of the line “I will wait for you.” Simple but poignant, and the words gain power as they’re repeated.

Much of Mumford and Sons’ music alternates between whisper intimate verses and rousing, bellowing-in-a-pub choruses. “I Will Wait” makes good use of these shifting dynamics to build and release tension. There’s an urgency and intense emotionality to the song which is transmitted through the steady streams of 16-note guitar/banjo strumming and plucking that supports Mumford’s gruff singing. The music sounds old-fashioned–built as it mostly is out of this strumming, plucking, and the rousing vocal harmonies. Rhythm parts don’t come from drumming as much as from the group’s collective thrum. Mumford make use of careful arrangements too. Sometimes the instruments drop out, strumming limited to the downbeat so the vocals can shine a capella-style. The music sounds live–as if we’re all down at the pub singing and sharing our stories with one another, pouring our hearts out over beers.

There are even tiny tempo variations that reinforce Mumford’s authentically live sound. If you have Babel, listen very closely from 2:06 to 2:15. At the end of the second repetition of the chorus–right around 2:11-2:13–the tempo drags ever so slightly for a brief moment. I first noticed this a few weeks ago and couldn’t put my finger on the problem. It’s so subtle as to be almost unnoticeable, but if you tap your foot along from the first time around the chorus you might catch it. You can’t quantize this kind of thing because the whole band is playing together. And maybe it’s not something you’d want to “fix” anyway. After all, it’s little quirks like this (what the ethnomusicologist Charles Keil once called “participatory discrepancies”) that let us know that the music was recorded live. I listened to the song again as I was editing this blog post and snapped to attention at 2:13 while not aware that I was even paying attention to the time.

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So why is Mumford so popular now?

Maybe they’re popular because their live-sounding recordings set them apart from so much contemporary electronic pop. Ok, so I’m comparing apples and oranges here. But to continue the food metaphor: one of the most delicious things about this music is how different it is from most technologically-thick pop. Mumford feels live and sounds acoustic. This is a big deal in the context of the pop charts but not to Mumford’s members. Bassist Ted Dwayne is even an acoustic music purist:

“Electronic music or a DJ playing CDs doesn’t excite me. Acoustic instruments are really raw and have a much bigger energy. That is something I can understand.”

Some critics say that the authenticity of Mumford’s live and acoustic folk sound is simply context-related–that it sounds the way it does in part because so much other popular music feels synthetic rather than acoustic, groovy but not folky. As critic David Smyth observes, the band’s music “certainly feels authentic within the context of the charts, which are full of auto-tuned vocals and super-produced R&B songs.”

Finally, listening to Mumford has me thinking about musical style and how style usually changes quite gradually. It’s for this reason that the sound of the pop charts is quite homogenous–different songs by different artists (is “artist” even the appropriate word in this era of think-tank songwriting?) each having a similar feel and texture. Because of this, the sound of contemporary pop will seem like a static thing for a long while. As if in a game of Copy Or Perish, everyone uses similar sounds, similar beats, similar lyrical gestures to keep up with one another until…Someone comes along and does things differently. Maybe Mumford’s success will prompt a stylistic tipping point, or maybe not. Maybe they’re just a one-off–too much “rustic troubadour” to copy. Besides, one thing to remember about musical style is that homogeneity often coexists with fractionalization: there is a niche for every style that can make a case for itself. And in this regard at least, Mumford and Sons succeeds.

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* Also: listening experiments help me address musical information overload. From my perspective, we have three choices:

1. Listen to a bit of everything. I do this all the time. It’s exciting but glosses over the details.

2. Listen to nothing. If nothing else, this is a good way to cleanse the ear palette.

3. Listen to one thing over and over for a while. This allows me to notice and obsess over details and also hear the music as a model of a social world. Listening to a music over and over helps me hear the world through the feeling of this one style, this one group, this one song.

On Voice, Authenticity, And Not Being Fake

In a recent online interview excerpted in The Guardian, musician and Portishead member Geoff Barrow discusses the idea of singing with a “fake” voice. Leading the pack in Barrow’s view is the late Amy Winehouse, a white singer who sang, some people say disparagingly, like a black jazz or soul singer from an earlier era–or like someone doing an imitation of such a singer. (There is an excellent article on this topic by Daphne Brooks in The Nation.) Barrow just doesn’t buy Winehouse’s voice, saying that “her actual voice was fake. She had a real life with a fake voice”–a singer who “had become just a comic character of herself and how she sang.”

You can decide for yourself. Here is Winehouse singing her song “You Know I’m No Good”:

Out of curiosity, I read up on Winehouse on Wikipedia. I found a quote from the jazz singer Tony Bennett, who maintained that Winehouse’s voice was the real deal–not fake at all, but steeped in the jazz tradition: “she was the only singer that really sang what I call the ‘right way’ because she was a great jazz-pop singer. . . She was really a great jazz singer. A true jazz singer.”

In contrast to Winehouse, Barrow mentions a few other female singers—including PJ Harvey, Barrow’s Portishead bandmate Beth Gibbons, and Bjork–who “change their voices while remaining themselves.” Presumably what Barrow means by this is that each of these singers assume a singing voice which, while not their speaking voice per se (after all, whose singing voice is?) is nevertheless somehow true to who they are. But how can a listener make this determination?

I have always liked Bjork’s voice, mainly because it’s so unique–a flexible tool that can sing those unusual Bjorkian melodies. And come to think of it, Bjork’s singing voice is just like her speaking voice but louder and more melodic, arising organically out of the same Icelandic source. Bjork sings in a way that sounds like a heightened spoken voice–as if she’s singing-explaining some very cool things to curious elementary school kids and getting carried away. Her voice seems to be true to who she is.

Here is Bjork singing her song “Moon” (which, by the way, features some devastatingly good overdubbed background vocals):

As for that best-selling singer of recent years, the Englishwoman Adele, Barrow adds: “Strangely enough I think Adele sings in her own voice, I think it’s her trying to be a big voice and that’s her.” But again, how does Barrow come by his insight? How can a listener know Adele is “trying” to be a big voice? Maybe she just has a powerful, big voice.

Here is Adele singing her huge hit “Someone Like You.” One thing I noticed about it compared to the Bjork and Winehouse songs is how massive Adele’s recorded vocal sound is. This is due to her big voice but also to a pristine recording that really booms:

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These are all interesting notions: What does Barrow mean by singing with a “fake voice”? How do we know when a singer’s or instrumentalist’s artistry is fake or authentically the real McCoy? And what does it mean to change one’s singing voice while remaining oneself?

First, being “fake” in musical terms usually means making use of a style or idiom or timbre that isn’t “natural” to you, isn’t authentically yours. In the case of Winehouse, her detractors feel that she wholesale appropriated her vocal sound rather than…Rather than what? Developed it in isolation, free of stylistic influence? You can see the can of worms this opens up: How do we hear the difference between someone authentically inhabiting a sound as opposed to just fakingly co-opting it in a tourist-y kind of way? Maybe with singers, their voices either ring true or not, although a lot of singing–from pop to opera–sounds affected anyway. With instrumentalists, judging authenticity is even more problematic because instrumentalists can to some degree hide behind their instrument’s sound. All this to say that it’s hard to ever really know how genuinely artists lay claim to a sound and come by their knowledge of its stylistic conventions.

Second, whether we’re talking about singers or instrumentalists, we judge fakeness or authenticity by listening and trusting our guts, and I suppose, our eyes: Does this sound make sense coming from this person? By this measure, Winehouse’s slurred slinkiness, Bjork’s wandering wide-eyed rapture, and Adele’s bellowing all ring true. Each singer inhabits her own kind of authenticity.

Finally, as for changing one’s singing voice while remaining oneself, I’m not sure I understand what this means. Why does it matter whether or not one remains oneself as one sings or plays an instrument? Hasn’t making music always been a kind of theater anyway, a way for performers to try on different hats?

On Small Things And Big Pleasures: David Guetta’s “Titanium”


I get excited by small things. The other day I bought a mechanical pencil to highlight books with as I read. While holding the pencil that evening and underlining, I was struck by the pleasure this $2.19 purchase had brought. It’s precise, light, and helps do a job, with the added grace of having an eraser on the end should I want to backtrack. Other little things that pack big pleasures come to mind:

The texture of a perfectly cooked soft-boiled egg whose yoke is in that liminal state between overcooked and runny–just right.

Or the feel of new soft socks that are cushiony marvels of cotton and other materials (Lycra?) that magically mould to the foot. Ahh.

None of these things cost much, but they deliver a whole lot of good.

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One of music’s delights is how it creates a space for lots of small things to happen and be heard at the same time. Almost not matter what music you listen to, there’s a lot of this simultaneous micro activity happening. Sometimes this activity isn’t heard as much as felt, but either way it forms the tangible part of music’s texture and deeply shapes how it impacts us. Take David Guetta’s recent-ish dance pop smash (104 million views on YouTube) “Titanium”, which was written by the smooth Australian singer Sia who also sings on the track. On the face of it, this is an oversized anthem of a song–all big featured and perhaps not so subtle. But for me, the elements that makes it work and have the impact it does are Guetta’s little production effects and arrangement decisions that keep the music compelling and moving along.

Structurally, “Titanium” is a simple verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus-chorus-chorus affair. The piece begins with a muffled electric guitar plucking away a four-bar chord progression in e-flat major: E-flat (I), g-minor (iii), and c-minor (vi). The first time I heard it I thought of the Police’s ballad “Every Breathe You Take”–same muffled and arpeggiated guitar (only the guitar on the Police song opens with an eight bar, four-chord progression). Soon a kick drum and a bassline enter the mix for the second half of the verse. When the chorus arrives, the chord progression changes to A-flat major (iv), B-flat major (V), g-minor (iii), and c-minor (vi). The chorus also momentarily sets Sia’s voice free of the drums and bass which abruptly cut out–a classic DJ compositional move–only to return a few bars later. After the chorus, the song continues to the next verse, but this time around the rhythm section joins in sooner. Then back to the chorus, a bridge (well, a quasi-bridge, since it’s sung over the same chorus chords), and a few more choruses to the end. At a tempo of around 126 BPM, “Titanium” clocks in at 3:50–the ideal pop song length.

Now for those little things in Guetta and Sia’s song that deliver a whole lot of musical good:

First, if you listen to the four-bar guitar part on the verse, you’ll notice some small amounts of a reverb tail added in specific spots. You can hear it on beat four of bars one and two, as well as on all four beats of bar four. The reverb makes it sound like the guitar has been placed in an echoey stairwell for just a moment, making those muffled staccato notes momentarily become un-detached and blur together in a mass of sound that grows in intensity. The addition of the reverb lends the guitar part a subtle kind of accentuation which might be represented as: 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4. This reverb-accent creates a forward momentum that makes the downbeats of bars one, two, and three seem all that more exciting.

Second, Sia’s vocals undergo a shift as the song moves from the verses to the choruses. Listen closely and you hear her overdubbed voice double tracked on the chorus–super high notes mostly on the right, and lower harmony on the left singing “you shoot me down, but I won’t fall …”–leaving the space in the middle of the stereo mix curiously devoid of her lead vocal. That lead vocal from the verse that should be in the middle of the stereo mix just disappears for a few seconds. Interesting.

Third, the percussion on this song is fairly sparse. On the verses, it’s mostly the 4/4 kick drum. Eight bars in, just when you think a snare drum will join the mix on beats two and four, it doesn’t. Instead it’s replaced by a light and fluttering electronic brush sound playing an off-beat pattern. When the chorus arrives, all of the percussion cuts out entirely for the first eight bars. Then a snare drum enters, playing on beats 1,2,3 and 4 of the second four bars. On the final eight bars the snare cuts out the kick drum returns. In terms of what a real drummer might do, this is one awkward and disembodied drum part. But it’s a programmed part, and virtual musicianship has more leeway than would be accorded to a real musician. Guetta’s percussion–the kick, the fluttering electronic brush, the snare–holds together more because it’s quantized than because it sounds like a real drummer.

Which brings us to a fourth little thing that holds “Titanium” together: the fact that the whole mix sounds like it’s pulsating along the 8th-note groove set up at the outset by the arpeggiating guitar. This can be heard in a big way on the choruses when the kick drum returns and along with it a pulsating set of chords and a throbbing baseline. Production-wise, it’s quite simple to make a pulsating or throbbing sound by putting a compressor effect on say, a bass or keyboard part, and chaining this compressor to the song’s 4/4 kick drum. Each time the kick drum hits, the compressor on the bass or keyboard part will, well, kick in and “duck” the sound out of the way or momentarily lower its volume. It’s this ducking out of the way that gives a lot of electronic dance music its signature pumping sound. Not only that, but while the technique was originally used to make mixes “tighter” and more energized, it can be used to an extreme too. Listen again to the chorus of “Titanium” when the kick re-enters. To my ear it sounds like compression overkill that makes for a squashed and flattened mix. But maybe this is what works well in huge performance venues?

This sense of pulsation can be heard in more discreet ways too. For instance, I notice it on the little delays added to Sia’s vocals that become more intense as the song unfolds. The delays are synced to the song’s tempo and you can hear them bouncing off into the soundstage horizon long after Sia finishes singing her brief lines, helping build the momentum and make the music feel inevitable.

In sum, “Titanium” uses a number of small production techniques to make itself hum and thrum. If I may offer a scenario not as a criticism but more as a thought experiment: if you were to render this song on an acoustic guitar with a single voice overtop it might not be as much to listen to, and may not even convincingly hold together…Well, okay, scratch that idea, because it turns out that there are acoustic covers of the song that do hold together, such as this one. Nevertheless, Guetta’s digital incarnation of “Titanium” coheres with the help of computer stitching on the disembodied drum kit, the reverb and compression effects, and the little slights of ear like Sia’s overdubbed voices.

It turns out that this song offers a number of musical subtleties. And as with the pleasures of a mechanical pencil, a soft-boiled egg, or soft socks, “Titanium” doesn’t cost much in terms of your attention, yet delivers a whole lot of good.

On Four Tet’s Good Taste

“It’s very rare for me to use instruments or synths or anything like that.” – Kieran Hebden

I have long felt that the electronic musician Four Tet (aka Kieran Hebden) has good taste. He makes what critics once labelled “folktronica” music, a term that probably came about in an effort to describe how Hebden deftly combines the best of the acoustic and electronic worlds. What gives him good taste though, is something more subtle. It’s his sounds, sure–nothing too exotic, and always invigorating. But also his arrangements that lean towards song forms, as well as the proportions within them–how, for instance, things repeat, but repeat just enough. Things don’t exactly loop Hebden’s world, but rather continue for a precise time. In a word, the music is considered.

For example, in “She Just Likes To Fight” from his 2010 recording There Is Love In You, we hear a 4/4 kick drum, some cymbals, languid electronic guitars (that sound like a gentle take on Malian popular music), a little analog synth and faux strings/pad sounds, an African gankogui iron bell playing in 12-beat meter and a few stick drum samples (maybe a Ghanian kidi drum sample?). There’s at least seven sounds in the texture, yet everything stays unified, understated and calm like a happy sports team on their way to a big game, their positive tension building. You hardly notice that the African 12/8 bell pattern doesn’t line up with the 4/4 kick until after the kick has played twelve hits.

“Circling” is another satisfying Hebden track. It too has a 4/4 kick, but this time with harp, more electric guitar (loops played backwards and forwards from the sounds of it) arpeggiating away, plus a few more abstract pulsating synth sounds. Hebden does little things to make the track hum and stay interesting. For example, the guitar loop is six bars long (instead of the expected eight)–long enough to be compelling, but slightly truncated to keep you on your toes. And once that six bar loop has been in motion for a while, Hebden further plays with its length by repeating just sections of it. As you listen you sense a logic of considered musical decision-making in play, making it feel that nothing is ever plain old repetition. Maybe the key here is that Hebden plays with his materials meaningfully, not relying on technology to make things easy but rather to make possible interesting shifts of texture and proportion.

The other unusual thing about “Circling” is its meter: the piece has a 12/8 meter feel (like the African bell in “She Just Likes To Fight”), each main beat divided into three instead of four pulses as would be the case in electronic dance music’s more conventional 4/4 meter. So even though there’s that steady 4/4 kick thumping away, it’s the three-ness of all the other sounds that gives this aptly titled track its circular vibe.

In this YouTube clip, someone has assembled some old footage that makes for a nice visual counterpoint to Hebden’s piece:

If you are intrigued by Hebden’s music, check out this video from Future Music magazine where he describes his use of the Yamaha Tenori-On, a portable sequencer:

On Capturing Thoughts In Formation: Notes On Listening

It would be a blog post about listening.

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It would be about the relationship between what we listen to and what we create as musicians.

About the tension between wanting to listen to many (new) musics briefly and listening to one (older, familiar) music repeatedly. Is one approach “better” than the other? Or–as it’s more PC to say–are they just “different”?

About how and how much we remember what we listen to. Where exactly does that remembering reside? In our minds or in our limbs, or in both? Do we in fact register some of our favorite sounds and patterns in our muscles, remembering by trying out little copped moves–a half-recollected riff, a personal remix of something we liked a lot? How does musical remembering work?

About what happens in the spaces between our listenings. Is there an optimal spacing here? A day? A week? An hour? Do we synthesize in the days off, or just atrophy?

About whether or not we’re listening even when we aren’t “paying attention.” It turns out that playing Mozart for your baby never did make her smarter–even if she was paying attention. Now then, does being half-attuned to music do anything to us, for us?

If we “pay” for our attention, what currency do we use? Is it just physical energy we expend while listening, or do we somehow deplete reserves of imagination as we venture outward to meet the music halfway, waving hello and inviting it inside us for a spell?

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And it would be a blog post about listening-food analogies.

Can listening “feed” us?

Can music be a toxin? (The composer Arvo Pärt says there are musics that can heal and musics that can kill.) Does its “bad taste” tip us off to its toxicity or its health benefits?

What about overly sweet musics? We call them saccharine, sentimental, New Age-y. Might they be empty sonic calories? Will they make us fat?

About the possibility of binge listening, or conversely, starving ourselves from a lack of nutritious music. Either way, how do you know when you’re in the midst of an extreme listening situation, drowning in excess or devoured by deficit?

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It would be a blog post about listening.

Content, Form, And Versioning A Song Everybody Knows: Gotye’s “Somebody I Used To Know”

Sometime not overly long ago, Gotye’s song “Somebody I Used To Know” went very viral–becoming a song meme that was (and still is) hard to escape, whose video on YouTube has been viewed an astonishing 259 million times (or by some 518 million ears!). At least two or three of those views were mine, the first of which took place a few months ago while I was waiting on some take out fish. Curiously enough, I remember that I was at the fish place that afternoon because I was so impressed by the simplicity and contagiousness of the song. Plus, it features a child’s play xylophone part as one of its musical hooks. Hook, line, and sinker–I picked up my fish while glued to my phone watching and listening to the catchy song.

Born in 1980, Gotye (Wouter De Backer) is a Belgian-Australian multi-instrumentalist, singer, and songwriter. In July 2011 he released “Somebody I Used To Know” as the second single from his record Making Mirrors. The song has an old-fashioned twang about it, built around just a few acoustic guitar chords in d minor, with some small Theremin-like electronic flourishes, bits of flute, some bass, and that dry-as-sand staccato xylophone refrain. Gotye shares the singing duties with New Zealand singer Kimbra. But perhaps most significantly for a pop song in 2012, “Somebody I Used To Know” is without a drummer besides the guitar part slapping the strings on beats two and four. Despite having a partial rhythm section, the song unleashes itself in the chorus as Gotye pushes his voice from a mumble into vintage Sting-like high reaches of affect. That’s the main charm of the song: it’s mellow and dark for the most part, but then takes off in the choruses. The other charm of the song is its timbre. Gotye’s motley collection of instrument sounds (some of which may or may not be samples: see the KCRW performance below where a laptop is in play) have a vintage aura about them–like they have been run through the audio equivalent of the Instagram photo app. Gotye, by the way, records and releases his music himself.

Perhaps because of its instrumentation, its catchy chorus, its vocal performances, or its subject matter, “Somebody I Used To Know” slowly grew on listeners even without much radio play in Australia or anywhere else. Something about it resonated authenticity–real music as opposed to industry-created fodder. And then, thanks to few celebrity Tweets and some television appearances, Gotye’s song exploded, eventually reaching number one on the Billboard charts in not one but twenty countries. Talk about a hit song.

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When a song becomes popular, people not only talk about it but record cover versions of it too. This is the ultimate musical compliment–it’s as if your fellow musicians recognize the endless capacity of your sturdy song to withstand alternate versions. Sometime this summer, I noticed a version of Gotye’s hit booming from the bass-heavy stereos in cars slinking around my New York neighborhood. In full nerd-sleuth mode, I would stand still as the booming car drove by, looking like my dog sniffing the air for answers, trying to register the audible differences: the tempo is faster, there’s an electronic drum part…Is this a remix? Why yes, yes it is a remix by DJ Mike D. This version packed more dance punch that Gotye’s original, thanks mostly to its added electronic drum track. But perhaps because it’s a remix, the vocals seemed a tad more out of place: happy to be along for the ride in the new machine, sure, but from a different place.

Another Gotye cover is Mike Dawes’ remarkable instrumental rendition on acoustic guitar. Using fingerstyle techniques, strumming, hammer-ons, and harmonics, Dawes effortlessly coaxes all of the melodic and harmonic details of Gotye’s original version out of his six strings. His groove is impeccable too.

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Something that comes to mind as I think through the popularity of Gotye’s song is the friction between an artist’s original statement (the “content” as it were) and its absorption into the public music sphere (the alternate “forms” as it were, such as cover versions and remixes, etc.). Simply put, when a piece of music widely connects with many, many people, it suggests not so much the machinations of the music industry at work (though industry is always at work) but of the labor of an artist–and in Gotye’s case, quite an independent artist–who has said something singular in a way that resonates honestly. And even when it’s possible to digitally mix and match anything with anything, like add an electronic beat to a Gotye song or do an instrumental cover version, this isn’t the same thing as making that original statement–saying something singular that resonates for many folks and gets ball rolling. That for me, is why songs like “Somebody I Used To Know” are significant: they remind us that there’s always room at the top for thoughtful and new quirky creative stuff.

On The Beastie Boys And The Hip Hop Enculturation Of 1980s Suburbia

With the news last week that Beastie Boy member Adam Yauch (aka MCA) had died, I thought about the seismic impact hip hop had when it first burst the bubble of kids living in suburbia all over North America and beyond during the 1980s. As the producer Rick Rubin noted in a recent interview, “The Beasties opened hip-hop music up to the suburbs. As crazy as they were, they seemed safe to Middle America, in a way black artists hadn’t been up to that time.”

Indeed, when I was in high school in Canada in the late 1980s, there was a definite, turning point moment when hip hop music ignited the collective mind of our mostly white suburban school. As I remember it, there was a pre-hip hop era, and then a post-hip hop era. In the pre-hip hop era, most kids listened to a lot of white bands and idioms–like rock and UK synth pop–partly, I think, because these were just the sounds that were around us, accessible and marketed to us, and considered cool. (I added Glenn Gould, New Age music, and jazz fusion to the listening mix, but then again, I wasn’t cool!) Then, as if out of nowhere, the soundscape was changing with the sounds of Public Enemy, Run DMC, LL Cool J, KRS-1 and Boogie Down Productions, Big Daddy Kane, and the Beasties too. I remember this post-hip hop era well because I made mix tapes (yes, cassettes) of a friend’s record collection (yes, vinyl LPs), soaking up all these new sounds from far away urban milieus. It struck me that while rock and synth pop were about constructing certain kinds emotion and a sense of what even back then I thought was an overly self-indulgent moodiness, hip hop worked by way of a different mechanism. I felt different listening to this music but wouldn’t have been able to describe to you what exactly the feeling was. All I knew was that the sounds were hard-hitting, but unlike rock music, also infectious, syncopated, and poly–with lots of different rhythms going on at the same time. In a phrase: hip hop was cooly energized music. And even if the lyrics didn’t necessarily speak to our immediate experiences in the suburban northern latitudes the music and the beats made you feel like a cool insider just for listening to them.

The Beastie Boys were part of this wave of hip hop culture that hit our school. They were, of course, three middle-class white guys from Brooklyn who had appropriated the hip hop habitus, sound, and fashion sense, but they put their own spin on everything in an honest way, recording for Rubin’s Def Jam record label, gaining the respect of their musical peers (Chuck D. of Public Enemy once said that the Beasties “had the best beats”), and selling millions of records too. Of the three Beasties, Yauch had the most raspy and grainy voice that set it apart from his band mates’ more whiny-sounding vocal timbres. His was a breathy, soulful voice.

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One of the Beastie Boys’ releases that made an impression on me was their 1989 album, Paul’s Boutique. Produced in collaboration with a pair of sound-hound producers from California who go by the name the Dust Brothers, Paul’s Boutique features over a hundred samples from other songs (which cost the Beasties around a quarter of a million dollars in licensing fees, this just before all the big lawsuits that would considerably drive up the cost of sampling others) to make an intricately layered and funky sound. My favorite track was the irresistibly funky “Hey Ladies” on which you can hear among numerous other samples, the voice of James Brown chuckle-intoning “Ain’t it funky now?” every now and then. I re-listened to the song recently and it still sounds good.

On Pop Music Production Geneologies: Ester Dean’s Compositional Process

In his recent New Yorker article “The Song Machine”, John Seabrook explores the songwriting process behind contemporary pop music. Today’s Top Forty hit, says Seabrook, “is almost always machine made: lush sonic landscapes of beats, loops, and synths in which all the sounds have square edges and shiny surfaces, the voices are Auto-tuned for pitch, and there are no mistakes” (50). Much of this electronic pop is sung by woman such as Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Nicki Minaj, and Rihanna. And it sells a ton too. Rihanna, for instance, has sold upwards of 120 million digital singles.

But what makes pop–even electronic, Auto-Tuned pop–pop are its catchy hooks. Enter Ester Dean, a singer-songwriter with a deep talent for writing snap-crackle melodies. Dean collaborates with producers (such as the Norwegian duo known as Stargate) who write instrumental tracks for her to sing over. The collaborations have led to numerous hit songs made famous by others including Rihanna’s “What’s My Name” (which I have written about here) and “Rude Boy”, and Nicki Minaj’s “Super Bass” (which I have written about here).

Dean’s compositional process is to intuitively groove with the song, initially singing nonsense vocables–which may well explain the hook in Rihanna’s “What’s My Name”: “Oh, na-na, what’s my name?“–that mesh well with the rhythm of the track. From there, she fleshes out words that make lyrical sense. What’s interesting about Dean’s process is that it effectively captures her initial viscerally rhythmic response to a track and then systematically builds upon this energy. As Seabrook describes Dean’s particular (and lucrative) skill:

“Somehow she is able to absorb the beat and the sound of the track, and to come out with its melodic essence. The words are more like vocalized beats than like lyrics, and they don’t communicate meaning so much as feeling and attitude…”(49).

Below are clips of both Dean and Rihanna singing Dean’s song “What’s My Name”:

You can read Seabrook’s article here.