In A Melancholy Mood: On Hip-Hop Quiet and Instrumental Music

Madeleine Byrne pens an essay on the power of instrumental hip-hop.
By    March 14, 2018

Madeleine Byrne drinks 2%.

In 1933, Junichiro Tanizaki published In Praise of Shadows, an essay that recognized that “beauty (lay) not in the thing itself, but in the patterns of the shadows, the light and the darkness that one thing against another creates.”  The Japanese novelist celebrated what he called an “Oriental” (see Japanese) love for art, architecture that bore the “marks of grime, soot and weather…that call to mind the past that made them.”

Central to Tanizaki’s argument was that Westerners through their art and approach to life sought to “expose every bit of grime an eradicate it,” while Japanese people believed that beauty in art came from its “relation to life,” while embodying the fact that “our ancestors forced to live in dark rooms” discovered that beauty came from the “glow of the grime.”

Darkness as a word and concept is often associated with hip-hop, usually in terms of the genre’s lyrical content. My interest here is to develop the idea of darkness, or shadows in the Tanizaki sense, in terms of music, using three instrumentals from the ’90s by Onyx, Miilkbone and The Speedknots as examples of an aesthetic that I’ll call Hip-Hop Quiet.    

Tanizaki’s essay made a big impression on me when I read it many years ago and then stayed in my mind as I started listening to hip-hop again, seeking out artists that I had frequently never heard of, largely by chance online. Most of my attention was given to generally little-known, obscure instrumentals by East Coast artists from the ’90s.  Something about this music touched me, especially its emphasis on mood and the way it upset expectations. In a culture that so often celebrates display and boasting, this music was introspective, private and (often) had a sweetness to it.

“Japanese music is above all a music of reticence, of atmosphere,” Tanizaki wrote. “When recorded, or amplified by a loudspeaker, the greater part of its charm is lost. In conversation, too, we prefer the soft voice, the understatement. Most important of all are the pauses.”

Certainly, this introspective quality is not confined to these instrumentals, running alongside them are examples from better-known producers [from Pete Rock, Nujabes, J Dilla, for example] who created music of delicacy, refinement and grace in the same period or later. Yet, the fact that these instrumentals exist in a kind of parallel universe, are not widely known or appreciated is central to their appeal in this context.

The music of the celebrated producers, moreover, is marked by the character of their makers; it has a confidence and logic, or design behind it, so that you can recognize the artist’s voice immediately when you hear the music. In contrast, the output of these frequently forgotten producers is lo-fi, naïve, basic in its technique while operating in a hard to define space within the culture.

Madlib, possibly, is a producer with feet in both camps; interested in keeping his beats “unfinished,” conscious of the power of keeping elements unfiltered and material, yet there is a self-awareness (and often humor) in his music that makes it different in tone.

When speaking of this ‘quiet,’ I’d prefer to keep it open to interpretation, other than to note that this music is defined by emptiness and mystery. Emptiness in the Buddhist sense of no form, no clear organizing pattern that corresponds with our expectations about musical development, enacted via the use of stasis and repetition.

One of the most interesting aspects of hip-hop production is the way individual sounds are often more important than melody or development. This reflects a debt to jazz, where the interplay between the individual and the group is made manifest in a focus on sounds in isolation, distorting them, twisting and shaping them to return to the key refrain.

To understand the mechanics of hip-hop then you need to strip away the elements, to break it down. As you will see here in these instrumentals, they’ve already done much of the stripping away for you. The music also represents non-movement, a refusal to connect in a way that might offer comfort to the listener. In effort to explore this further, let’s consider three instrumentals to see how their bare aesthetic creates a unique sound as examples of Hip-Hop Quiet.

I. Onyx, “Last Dayz,”  (produced by Fredro Starr; Def Jam Records, 1995)

The repeated vocal sample becomes a sound in some unknown language. There’s a link to Burial that emerges, something like “Near Dark’’ from 2007, a warping of sampled words takes place, weaving in and out of almost naked drums. This brings us back to the quality of emptiness. Perhaps you could make connections with minimalism, but to me that word lacks the emotion this instrumental conveys.

Particularly striking is the contrast between the qualities of the sounds—the harsh vocal sample compared to the reassuring swirl and comfort of the bass-line, the stop-start effect between them that operates like a conversation. Then, around two minutes in, the sample shifts to a single-note, as if it were an exposed heartbeat.  

How are we meant to understand the way the beat stops and then restarts, broken, and then returning to the center? The beat is following its own poetic logic, exposing an emptiness at its core. To appreciate how this instrumental operates in its own space, listen to the track with vocals:

Underneath the bombast of the lyrics, you can hear the instrumental providing its own essential mystery, or emptiness.

II. Miilkbone, “Keep it Real” (produced by Mufi: Capitol Records, 1995)

At its heart, sample-based music has the potential to upset traditional notions of success. A commercial failure can become prized, simply for its rarity; an obscure sample can reawaken an interest in—and even reinvent the artistry of—musical trash from the past. 

Little-known samples operate as a code between producers and fans; those who can hear it, those who recognize it. And the music is also shown respect by the very fact that it has been returned to, reborn. The fact that samples can’t be named (even though they are easily found online via the many websites devoted to this) because of copyright infringement threats adds another dimension to the mix. For all these different reasons these sounds exist in this kind of non-space.   

All of this explains how Miilkbone—the white rapper from New Jersey, with a knack for spoof-like album titles (his 2001 LP was called U Got Miilk?)—can produce something of ongoing cultural worth.

Challenging Complex magazine’s designation as one of hip-hop’s best “one hit wonders,” Miilkbone’s “Keep It Real” has continued to shape hip-hop musical culture well into the twenty-first century. Produced by Mufi, the track’s distinctive mood has kept it alive.

Central to this is Mufi’s highly skillful and imaginative use of a sample from “Melancholy Mood,” a 1983 recording by the Marian McPartland Trio. Have a look at the fan comments below the video, it’s very sweet to see the two worlds colliding here.   

As with the Onyx instrumental, the elemental simplicity of “Keep It Real” is what makes it so powerful. The music is carried by a lack of adornment; the sounds in their pure form can breathe. Much of the self-conscious fanciness that dominates in so much contemporary “soul-based” production—where producers rustle up multiple interlocking elements to show off their finesse (often drowning out the sample’s essential lyricism or the MC’s delivery in the process)—is side-stepped.

This quiet is also found in the sharp contrast of the beat’s sounds. There’s the insistent and jagged horn sample, the piano on a constant repeat. They create a false naïveté to the music, which is affecting. Simplicity and reticence are often the markers of great beauty. Again, the strange kind of non-momentum is present—that stop-start—so the song often seems to be on the cusp of development.

This music contains its own entire universe. When you hear the instrumental with Miilkbone over the top, the music retains its own internal space as if completely uninterested in interacting with, or buffering, the MC.

In terms of the instrumental’s ongoing significance and recognition, Big L and Jay-Z reinvented it the same year on the Stretch and Bobbito show; it has been used on a BET awards ceremony and by various MCs. Most importantly, though, almost two decades later, Freddie Gibbs re-applied the music on his 2010 track “The Ghetto” (produced by Melvin L. Dinkins), featured on his album, Str8 Killa No Filla, with no apparent changes. Gibbs repeatedly chants the song’s title—The Ghetto,” over and over—echoing the original jagged sample embedded in the instrumental. Gibb’s subject matter, the sample, and overall sound of Mufi’s beat slowly become one.

By using this sample, Gibbs and his producer are asking us to listen to the two tracks together; his and the earlier Miilkbone, to encourage a kind of echo or commentary.

III. The Speedknots, “The Zone” (produced by Stress/War: Bloody Hook Records, 1998)

As with the other instrumentals featured here, “The Zone” has a powerful feeling, carried by the sound of seagulls. 

This music is the epitome of hip-hop quiet: self-contained, reticent, and mysterious, with little or no development. It starts suddenly three seconds in, with all the effects brought in at the same time, then follows an almost mathematical precision of 30 second intervals. At 1 minute 30 there is an incredibly brief stop when you’d expect it to build and it doesn’t, and then at 2 minutes there is a perfect pop-break, quick like a hiccup or intake of breath (at 2 minutes 20 it deepens but doesn’t move and then there is the ‘pop’ again three minutes in).  

In Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip-Hop Joseph Schloss explores the idea of “ambiguity” in hip-hop production. Schloss relates ambiguity to the “idea of code, that certain forms of communication must be shielded.” He writes: “Ambiguity is a factor in this process because the best codes are those that do not even appear to be transmitting information at all; they have a secondary meaning that serves to draw attention away from the code’s central message.”

Earlier, Schloss explains that the very nature of creating sample-based music out of music that already exists encourages a kind of doubling, where the listener appreciates the sounds in their original form and then how they are recreated. He writes that the, “aesthetic goal of the hip-hop producer is not to resolve these ambiguities [the fact that the music is live and also not live], but—quite the contrary—to preserve, master, and celebrate them.”

Ambiguity here refers to an unclear meaning or to multiple meanings in an intellectual sense. And yet none of the above instrumentals are ambiguous in the sense that they have more than one meaning. They do not make you think, they make you feel. Central to this is the stop-start of the beat alongside a strong emotion of longing; none of this makes this music soft or sentimental, quite the reverse.

Not so long ago, I read a commentator argue that he felt that the intellectual component of Black American culture is often downplayed and dismissed. This surprised me as someone who returned to hip-hop after listening to jazz for many years. As any jazz fan knows, the intersection between the mystical, the intellectual, and the political is central to the genre, from the ’60s onwards.

Thinking about these instrumentals in terms of their quiet, their emptiness, and darkness, is one way of recognizing their achievement, while making connections with other cultural moments, whether it is an essay on Japanese aesthetics or Spiritual Jazz, or whatever it might be. And yet, there is something unique about these instrumentals, indelibly located in a time and place, which makes them timeless.

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