Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Role of the Ride in Hip Hop

Role of the Ride (Cymbal)

            It’s the jazz cymbal, if you were wondering.  The ride cymbal is that sizzling, soft, and delicate presence in many (most) jazz songs. The big one that is usually on the right side of the drumset, above the floor tom.  It has quite a history, but at the moment, I’m only concerned about its use in one genre.
            The ride cymbal in hip hop is somewhat of a rarity.  Plenty of artists and producers utilize it, but the driving cymbal behind a hip hop song has ALWAYS been the hi hat.  The hi hat is that steady driving cymbal behind most DJ Premier beats. It also happens to be the stuttering and overused cymbal in most commercial rap beats now.  The makeup of your average hip hop beat consists of a bass drum (usually a loud and prominent one), a snare drum (which can be made up of almost any sound, as long as it lies in the right order in the structure of the song), and a hi hat.  Because this has become the formula, it is used regularly and experimented with often.  Yet, the inclusion of the ride cymbal changes the entire feel of a given hip hop song.
            Imagine it’s a humid day. You can feel that stickiness in the atmosphere.  It is almost as if somebody put a swamp in zero gravity and made New York state wade through the watery air.  Take my negative connotation away and apply this to hip hop.  The ride cymbal fills the atmosphere of the song with a lasting and heavy presence that seems to affect all other aspects of the song.  Like humidity, when it is there you feel it.  It is nearly impossible to ignore. 

People Under the Stairs – San Francisco Knights

            You already know by the first few seconds that this song is an anthem for the mellow rap enthusiasts.  Soft, clean guitar notes let us know that this song is jazzy.  However, 0:11 seconds into the song is where the heart kicks in.  Thes One, PUTS’ producer and half of the rap duo, is known to put filters on his percussion. The filter on the ride cymbal here phases it in and out slightly, and muffles some of the harsher sounds that might come off the ride.  The result is a dreamy and warm sound that makes the eyelids heavy.  The ride has an absolutely integral role in the song, and leads the percussion without masking the rest of the elements in the song.  There is a subtle hi hat in the background, which I assume is to add more of the hip hop feel, as well as some other softer percussion, but the ride is doing the real work.  If you were to zap the ride out of SF Knights, it would be like pulling the rappers off, it would be bare and begging for some substance. Hit the jump...

The Roots – Web

            A welcomed switch-up.  It can be exhausting to hear rappers spit over the same drum beat over and over and over again (see “Impeach the President” by the Honeydrippers, or “Synthetic Substitution” by Melvin Bliss).  It is damn refreshing to hear the slightest of alterations in a typical hip hop drum beat meant for lyrical focus, rather than musical.  Questlove, the greatest hip hop drummer to ever live, knows percussion like the back of his hand, and I’m sure it wasn’t an accident that he used the ride on “Web.”  One bass guitar note, a snare drum, a bass drum, and the ride are the ingredients of the song, and to add anything else would detract from Black Thought’s lyrical showcase.  The ride rings out as Black Thought spews for 3 minutes and allows the listener to devote their full attention to his words.  Nobody does it like The Roots.

A Tribe Called Quest – Jazz (We’ve Got)

            The first few seconds prior to the beat drop set the tone for the song.  Bass heavy, but not in your 2012-banger kind of way.  Bass heavy like you’re sitting too close to the run-down amplifier in a dark jazz club circa 1925. The ride, in addition to the jazzy snare drum and sultry organ, creates the vibe for the song, while the hi hat and hip hop snare, which are eventually added, tell the listener that this is indeed a hip hop song.  Zap the ride out of this track and you’d be shocked to hear how dry and empty it would sound.  This jazz influenced sound is part of the reason why ATCQ were so praised by all, and this song would be nothing without it’s hissing ride cymbal. 

Drake – Dreams Money Can Buy

            At 0:42 seconds into the song, right after the line “And tell me how much they hate it when they apart from me,” the ride enters the song.  Subtle, simmering, filtered, barely audible.  But it’s there.  And it symbolizes the beginning of the song’s progression. The more elements that are added to the song, the deeper Drake delves into his mind, pulling out thoughts and analysis on his life as he goes.  The ride is emotional in this song.  It is so soft and hidden amongst the other elements that it does not stand on its own as much as it works together with the rest of the drums and ambient instruments that producer, 40, favors.  Just because it may be underplayed and gentle on the ears does not mean that the ride is an expendable aspect of the song.  Its context in jazz history immediately adds layers of complexity and sentiment, and the lyrical content of the song match the instrumental elements accordingly. 

J Dilla – Anti American Graffiti

            Unless you count the MF Doom cut (which is entitled “Sniper Elite”), no one raps on this track.  Without a rapper, the listener can pay much more attention to the makeup of the instrumental, and Dilla definitely made tracks to study.  There is so much musical mass in a Dilla song that to take one element out and analyze it barely scratches the surface of what the song contains. Allow me to try though.  The ride comes in at 0:11 seconds, right where the song bites past its skin into the meat of the track.  This time, the ride adds to a tone that is quite different than what I’ve been describing thus far.  Whereas it can be used in jazz for that sizzling and sexy feel, the ride in “Anti American Graffiti” adds to a frantic and chaotic mood that is guided by obscure spoken ramblings, crunchy distorted guitar, hand claps, and vinyl scratching.  Sly & The Family Stone’s album There’s a Riot Goin’ On is often noted for its paranoid and dark vibe, which clashed with Sly’s usual melodic, more upbeat sound.  This is the sort of feeling I get from “Anti American Graffiti.”  The kind of song that you light fires to and throw Molotov cocktails to, the kind of song that serves at the soundtrack to an inciting riot.  The ride cymbal, which is hit pretty hard by the original drummer, has a steady presence in the song, and doubles up on what the hi hat might be in the average hip hop song.  The doubletime adds a deranged attitude to the song, which is helped by the confusing rant being performed during the song’s entirety.  When I hear this track I think of someone pulling their hair out in a mental asylum.  It really doesn’t even sound so aggressive, but the collection of all of the layers of the song to create a manic energy, guided by the ride.