Hip Hop and the Black Urban Experience
From its conception, hip hop has been branded as music for uneducated street hoods. But, the debut album of the obscure group, Midnight Voices, shatters this stereotype with its thought-provoking commentary on the Black experience in urban America. Featuring saxophone, keyboards, guitar, bass, and percussion, along with the scratches and cuts typically found in rap, Midnight Voices delivers its urgent message of racial injustice with its equally impressive music. The group merges the styles of hip hop
and funk to create a refreshing alternative to mainstream rap, which is often characterized by the repetitive sample of beats. In doing so, the band effectively expresses the lyrical content of the songs through its music, and succeeds in creating a complementary blend of provocative lyrics and musical ingenuity.
True to the mysterious character of their name, Midnight Voices opens the album
with a curious chant titled “If You Knew Us.” Beginning with a gradual fade-in, the group chants the puzzling phrase “If you knew us, then uh . . .” repeatedly and without any musical accompaniment. A steady rhythm is maintained throughout, even when the Voices modify their chant by including their names. After the chant is repeated a few more times, the group throws in yet another mysterious line, which further heightens the listener’s curiosity. The line, “If you knew the voices, then uh . . . you would know the world and uh . . .” provides a hint to the listener of the social commentary to come. The chant then returns to its first verse, and slowly fades out. This short piece serves as an introduction to both the group and the general message of their music and album.
The driving rap “Cold” follows this chant and establishes one of the central themes
of the album: the struggle to maintain African American pride and identity. In terms of instrumentation, the song begins with a bass line and builds up in tempo and texture with cymbals and drums. Then, after a few beats, the bass and percussion stop abruptly and are contrasted sharply by a harsh, thin piano melody. In effect, this dissonance creates a sense of uneasiness and tension. Quickly, however, the bass and percussion reappear, and the vocalist begins soon after. As the vocalist progresses through his first verse, the texture becomes increasingly layered with faint sounds of people talking in the background, scratches, snatches of saxophone and guitar melodies, and the same harsh, thin piano melody as heard before (Section A).
The form of the song then changes to a new section of music in the chorus, “Cause the Mystic is Cold.” In this section, the texture thickens with a saxophone melody, scratches, and percussion (Section B). This A/B form then repeats itself. Thereafter, it progresses to a variation of A in the fourth and final verse; the texture of A becomes thicker with a new piano melody. As a result, a counterpoint is produced between this new, much faster piano melody and the slower, harsher piano melody, creating a sense of tension and restlessness. This tension ends when the music stops abruptly at the vocalist’s last line, “Cause the Mystic is Cold.”
In effect, these numerous changes in musical accompaniment serve to emphasize and flesh out its lyrical content. Immediately, as vocalist Mohammed Bilal begins, the medium-fast tempo of the bass line and percussion help support and emphasize the speed of Bilal’s rapping. As the first verse progresses, we hear the dissonant background sounds of people talking, scratches, and a brief blare of the saxophone. Collectively, these sounds create a slightly uneasy atmosphere, which reinforces the lyrics. Bilal recites metaphors of coldness that represent an African American man’s experiences with racism in America—namely, an African American rap artist’s experience of being exploited by the white-dominated music industry: “Rearing a rapper rough and ready/to be cut like paper/tossed like confetti/icy and grim/from a Polar bear’s land/harder still/cause I’m a Black man/freezer burner/to make you cringe, infringe/imperturbable like Stonehenge/so listen [pause]/and do as you’re told/cause the Mystic is Cold.” The second and third verses are also similar in terms of their musical accompaniment and lyrical discussion about how African Americans are discouraged from succeeding at a very young age. The lyrics are again reinforced by dissonant background sounds, including a police siren and traffic, therefore conjuring up the image of a crime-ridden city.
As the final verse begins, the dynamics increase in loudness with the addition of a faster piano melody, which runs counter to the slow, harsh piano melody that appears throughout the song. Furthermore, dissonance increases as well. This dissonance fits well with the lyrics describing an increasing despair and frustration with racism, for it creates the feeling of claustrophobia and restlessness. Furthermore, Bilal’s reaffirmation of his African American identity is also reinforced by the dissonance, but in a different manner. As Bilal raps, “I found myself/through fro-centricity/self-awareness/self-reality/realization/home of creation/Black man’s mind/on a long vacation,” the tension between the faster and the slower piano melodies lends a positive feel to the song rather than a negative one. This can be explained by the shorter, more concise lyrics, which, in turn, slow down the tempo and allow Bilal to recite the lyrics more assertively. As a result, this creates a sense of finality and contentment, a sense of rejoicing for the realization of ethnic pride and identity.
In contrast to the complex musical arrangement of “Cold,” “ABC” serves as a strikingly different yet equally interesting example of the group’s talent in combining thoughtful lyrics with an appropriate musical accompaniment. It opens with MC William Wylie imitating a grade school teacher’s call for his students’ attention. His lines (“Gather around kids/come on kids, come on, gather around now/the lesson for today/the lesson for today is . . .”) serve to set the meaning and context of the song, that is, that learning about racism is as basic to our education as learning the ABCs. At the same time Wylie begins reciting the alphabet, the drums and bass kick in. These two instruments are the only instruments used in this song. By relying on this sparse accompaniment, the group reinforces the basic nature of the lyrical content. Consequently, the listener focuses mostly on the lyrics of the song and pays very little attention to the musical background. By not using any fancy accompaniment, the group shows that the power and effectiveness of their music need not necessarily be enhanced by any studio tricks commonly used in today’s hip hop and popular music in general. Wylie even comments on the effectiveness of this simplistic approach in raising issues to his listeners: “R you ready for the relevant rapper/rampaging never running/with knowledge I’m stunning/and gunning/down ridiculous rhymes/that rely on Romper Room beats/no knowledge? Why?”
Throughout the album, Midnight Voices manages to dispel the popular belief that hip hop is not “real” or “respected” music. Through the group’s gripping lyrics and original music, Midnight Voices has succeeded in proving that rap should be recognized as a unique cultural expression, as worthy of respect as any other art form out there.