While much of the discourse around popular music might emphasise the importance of singers, it’s really all about the beat, argues Martin Hall
“The music started in the hearts and drums, from another land
Played for everyone, by sons, of the motherland
Sendin’ out a message of peace, to everybody and
Came across the oceans in chains and shame
Easing the pain, and it was without name
Until some men in New Orleans on Rampart Street
Put out the sounds, and then they gave it a beat”
‘Jazz Music’ – Gang Starr
Martin Scorsese’s 2003 documentary, Feel Like Going Home, traces the development of the blues from its roots in West Africa through to the Mississippi Delta, and up to Chicago and the other northern centres. It’s not about jazz, unlike the rap lyrics quoted above, and later developments like hip-hop aren’t mentioned in this first of seven episodes of The Blues.
However, they are there implicitly, with the connections made explicit in episode 5, Godfathers and Sons (Marc Levin, 2003), in which Chuck D and Common work with Marshall Chess and members of Miles Davis’s seventies band such as Pete Cosey to bring a new flavour to Muddy Waters’ 1968 album, Electric Mud.
Scorsese’s film situates the beginning of what would become the blues in Mali, and we see forms of music – such as the fife and drum still extant in northern Mississippi – that very clearly share a common language with the countries from which black people were snatched and subjected to the Middle Passage.
What is the point I’m trying to make here? That it’s all about the beat. I want to suggest that all changes in popular music in the last 100 years have been about changes in rhythm, and that, of course, those rhythms began in Africa. The changes have been material, based on new rhythms and new technology.
That’s not a contentious position per se, though it’s certainly the case that European-derived music and its attendant criticism place far more emphasis on melody, harmony, and a view of history that privileges composition and genius over the groove. But in popular music, singing styles come and go, as do particular guitar tunings, even instruments, but it’s the changes in rhythm that point forwards in the music we’ve all grown up listening to, regardless of our age.
Even when musical cultures have involved going back into the past, and techniques that we might consider forms of bricolage, as we get with hip-hop, it’s still been rhythmically pointed to the future, albeit often casting a look back.
A selective list focussing on jazz might begin in the 1920s with Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens, and the beginning of the age of the soloist, but within a fairly constrained group setting that emphasised the collective; then we get swing, itself a hotbed of different rhythms depending on whether you were in Kansas or New York; then bebop, at least partly as rhythmically and harmonically complex as it was as a way of attempting to prevent white musicians stealing styles and making more money.
Following that, we get free jazz and within it what was known as the New Thing, based on the polyrhythms of drummers like Elvin Jones. Concurrently, there was the rise of soul-jazz, then jazz-funk in the 1970s, feeding into the production styles of hip-hop producers from the 1980s onwards. In terms of tracking the changing nature of the beat, an entire article could be constructed based just on a timeline of Max Roach, Elvin Jones, Andrew Cyrille, Milford Graves, and other drummers who freed the instrument from its traditional role as timekeeper.
With the blues, there are the folk stylings of players like Son House, who used the guitar as a rhythm instrument, both in terms of how he percussively played the strings and hit the instrument with his hand to keep time. Why? Because drums had been banned by many slave owners in the 19th century, as they were worried that they were being used as a means of communication (they were), so people found news ways to tap out a beat.
The genre starts to point towards the modern with Robert Johnson, then of course Muddy Waters and a thousand others electrify the sound in Chicago and other northern cities, laying the basis for r ‘n’ b and rock music.
Soul becomes funk once James Brown starts getting his band to emphasise the downbeat, and the chords used are extended, like in jazz. From there comes hip-hop, which began with American and Jamaican DJs in the Bronx wanting to play the rarest breaks from funk 7s they could find, and extend them through the use of two turntables and a mixer, itself a technique used by Jamaican dub producers.
Emceeing or rapping was itself a new form of rhythm; again, Jamaica is important here, and particularly the toasting styles of people like U-Roy. Once again, we have a material history based on what makes us all move, with not a small amount of class consciousness as well: disco, with its culture of glamour, wasn’t speaking to the working-class kids who went to block parties in the mid-1970s.
A quick word on the Caribbean and Britain: ska and bluebeat changes rhythm and becomes reggae as we would recognise it in the 1970s, from which comes dance hall rhythms and jungle in the 1990s. Ska then returns with a dash of punk with Two-Tone at the end of the 1970s, the best example of a multicultural musical form coming from working-class Britain.
From British black music has come many new forms, both analogue and digital: garage; dubstep; grime, and so on. Of course, garage is a form of soul, which takes us back to the US, so it’s hard to create discrete categories.
Another quick word on Britain: being a mod in the 1960s meant being up with what was modern, which was the latest soul and jazz sounds from the US, and the latest fashions from the US and Italy. It didn’t mean being into the Who, nor the other British bands comprising mods.
It’s of interest that British cities which had jazz scenes tended to produce better and more successful bands in the 1960s than those that didn’t. Why? Because they were ports, and consequently had boats, with seamen bringing in the latest rhythms from the US: this was true of London; Manchester; Liverpool and Newcastle. Those bands then taught white America about the music that existed around the corner and which it had ignored.
Similarly, in the 1980s, hip-hop culture in its electro form merged with fashions from the terraces to give us British b-boys and b-girls, and casual. There are earlier and later examples, too. These were strongly working-class cultures, with white and black coming together in a shared love of the beat.
The myriad places where African-based rhythms have penetrated tells us something about how culture works: yes, it can be stolen, and this piece has not gone into the varying ways in which black musicians have had their work bastardised, ruined and downright robbed over the years. That’s a different article.
But it’s also the case that the drums and the rhythm have tried to break through every barrier put in their way, and have done more to bring people together and combat racism than any theory that suggests that the white working class people dancing next to their working-class black neighbours have benefitted from the oppression to which the latter group are subjected .
So let us celebrate the importance of the beat: to communicate; to dance to; to replicate with your voice. From the rhythmical changes there has come almost everything new you have ever listened to in your life, so appreciate those sounds, and know where they came from.
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