Monday, 20 December 2010

christmas rapping

I don’t listen to rap music, apart from the occasional track by Eminem, Run DMC or the Beastie Boys, so fans of the genre will probably say that I can have nothing worthwhile to contribute on the subject. However, I note that rhyming is seen as a vital part of rapping, and that a rapper will boast of his or her ability to create the most unexpected rhymes and will challenge fellow performers on this score.

This needs to be the case, given that the musical accompaniment is invariably trite and adds little or nothing to the performance. This means, in effect, that the words should be able to stand alone, which is definitely not true of most of the rap music I’ve heard. I will therefore confine my comments to those rap lyrics that do feature clever rhymes and interesting use of words. Take this example:
We ain’t nothing but mammals. Well, some of us cannibals
who cut other people open like cantaloupes
But if we can hump dead animals and antelopes
then there’s no reason that a man and another man can’t elope
But if you feel like I feel, I got the antidote
Women wave your pantyhose, sing the chorus and it goes…

Eminem, The Real Slim Shady.
Overall, this song is an attack on modern pop culture, but I’m interested only in the rhyming involved. First, I note that the first ‘rhyme’ depends on the American pronunciation of ‘cantaloupe’ (the British English pronunciation would rhyme this word with ‘scoop’). Then, after two nondescript rhymes, Eminem switches to assonance (elope…antidote), which the average rapper appears to think is the same as rhyming. It isn’t. ‘Antidote…pantyhose’ is a neat piece of assonance, and a typically abrupt change of scene; the verse ends with another routine rhyme.

The staccato imagery that Eminem’s best work conjures up reminds me of a song released 35 years earlier, and the promotional video that accompanied it. The song was Subterranean Homesick Blues, the singer was Bob Dylan, and the video showed him holding up the key words for the camera, each written in block capitals on a separate piece of paper.
Look out kid
They keep it all hid
Better jump down a manhole
Light yourself a candle
Don’t wear sandals
Try to avoid the scandals
Don’t wanna be a bum
You better chew gum
The pump don’t work
’Cause the vandals took the handles.
Dylan rarely uses assonance in this song (‘clean nose…plain clothes’, from the second verse, is the only clear example). But, although Dylan’s is a more overtly political song, the only significant difference that I can see between it and the Eminem track is the musical accompaniment. There is an illegitimate rhyme—‘manhole…candle’—but the rhyming skills evident in these two extracts are broadly similar. The point to note is that in both cases the need to rhyme creates a series of non sequiturs: there is no obvious reason for a given line, other than that it ends with a rhyming word.

And neither artist can hold a candle to W.S. Gilbert, the man who supplied the words to Sir Arthur Sullivan’s music. It isn’t often appreciated nowadays, when a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta is likely to be regarded as mere light entertainment, that these works were intended as satires on the English middle class. Even The Mikado, ostensibly set in Japan, lampoons the manners and mores of this class. And the barbs are sharper and more to the point:
And the idiot who praises with enthusiastic tone
Every century but this and every country but his own.

W.S. Gilbert, I’ve Got a Little List.
However, Gilbert is seen at his best in I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General from The Pirates of Penzance. The first point to note is the sheer breadth of education required to ‘get’ all the references. Second, every rhyme in this song is a three-syllable rhyme, which requires considerable linguistic virtuosity. And Gilbert was not afraid to invent words if required:
I’m very good at integral and differential calculus,
I know the scientific names of beings animalculous.

I can quote in elegiacs all the crimes of Heliogabalus,
In conics I can floor peculiarities parabolous.
The italicized words are pure invention, but there is no difficulty in apprehending the intended meaning. That this song is partly about rhyming can be deduced from the ending of each verse, where Gilbert deliberately backs the singer into a corner and challenges him to find a particularly problematic rhyme. It is worth quoting the whole of the final verse, which is sung at a much slower tempo than the rest of the song, to see how this works. One can sense the inexorable build-up to the most difficult rhyme of all:
In fact, when I know what is meant by ‘mamelon’ and ‘ravelin’,
When I can tell at sight a Mauser rifle from a javelin,
When such affairs as sorties and surprises I’m more wary at,
And when I know precisely what is meant by ‘commissariat’,
When I have learnt what progress has been made in modern gunnery,
When I know more of tactics than a novice in a nunnery,
In short, when I’ve a smattering of elemental strategy…
Dylan would be more likely to use the word ‘strategy’ than Eminem, although I can’t imagine either of them attempting to find a rhyme for it. This is Gilbert’s solution:
You’ll say a better major-general has never sat a-gee.
‘Sat a-gee’, meaning ‘sat astride a horse’, which is imaginative if not entirely legitimate. And the musical accompaniment, as it is for both the Dylan and Eminem tracks, is bland and does not intrude upon the song. I can envisage such a patter song being sung to a hip hop beat, but I do not believe that any modern rapper is capable of performing, let alone writing, anything similar. For this reason, I say, without equivocation, step forward Sir William Schwenck Gilbert, nineteenth-century rapper extraordinaire.


  1. Wonderful lesson, Dennis. But I walk away thinking how enjoyable it must be to make your living playing with words, and deciding on your own where you will place your bounderies.

  2. Glad you liked it Bruce. Yes, words are wonderful things, and to be able to play with them as well as Gilbert makes me ever so slightly envious.

  3. I think Dylan called it "talking blues."
    Great post Dennis! I would never have thought you to be one to listen to Rap in any form!

  4. I quite enjoyed your discourse on rhyme. I would rather read poetry in 'blank verse' format, rather than endure disjointed thoughts that appear to exist only for the sake of the rhyme. But when I read some of the old masters, where the rhyme raises the pleasure of poetry out loud? Now that's a feast for the ears and mind.

  5. Pat, I don't care for the musical side of rap, but I'm always interested in how people use language. By the way, when I checked online for the lyric to Subterranean Homesick Blues, I discovered that every website had incorrect words. Even Dylan's own site has:

    The man in the coon-skin cap
    By the big pen

    The video has Dylan holding up the words "PIG PEN" (other sites refer to a "coon-skip cap"!).

    PhotoDiction, I agree that a lot of rhyming sounds forced and artificial, but in the case of the major-general's song, I think that Gilbert is actually lampooning this process of rhyming by including such outrageous examples for comic effect (in addition to the obvious target of British army officers of his time).

  6. I can understand what you mean about rap and it just being a only once and a while thing!
    Check me out too:

  7. On the subject of Subterranean Homesick Blues and language, I quite like "Weird" Al Yankovic's song Bob which is based on Dylan's song (the video is almost a direct copy). If you haven't heard the song before and listen to it without the accompanying video, the trick to it may not be immediately obvious, but seeing the lyrics/video should give it away.

  8. I've never been much of a fan of Weird Al, apart from his parody of Michael Jackson's Beat It. He's basically recycling the same joke. However, I did check out the video. I wasn't too impressed, but I did note that one of the commenters on YouTube thought it was "better than the original". Moron.

  9. Thank you very much for sharing your great photos on his blog. Wish you Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! Best wishes. Leovi.

  10. Thank you Leovi. Best wishes to you too. I have a couple of photo essays planned for the near future.

  11. Very nice! I really enjoying singing G&S songs; you can just roll the words in a continual stream and let them do the work. Rap music is also interesting when considering ancient poetry in Greece and Rome, which was musically accompanied to a similarly minimal degree. It's nice when words are more important than a catchy tune or a strong beat for once!


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