Mr. Shapiro’s misguided belief that rap isn’t music …

February 21, 2020

A non-musician friend of mine sent me this “conversation” or “interview (not sure what it is) where Ben Shapiro’s states that’s hip hop/rap is not music and asked me what...

A non-musician friend of mine sent me this “conversation” or “interview (not sure what it is) where Ben Shapiro’s states that’s hip hop/rap is not music and asked me what I thought.

It rather irritated me so I decided to blog on it. To keep it simple, I will just focus on the musicial aspects of hip hop but mind you, hip hop is way more than just a musical art form. It encompasses everything from dance, to visual art, to fashion to lifestyle/culture – it is a far more complex form. As well, he seems to lump hip hop and rap as one. Hip hop and rap are not necessarily synonymous, but for the ease of argument – we will use Mr. Shapiro’s premise. 

Mr. Shapiro, (not sure who you are as I hadn’t heard of you till today, but understand that you are a fine classical violinist and come from an artistic family – your sister is an opera singer and your cousin is Mara Wilson) you are part of the problem in the music industry and not the solution. And makes me sad that we cannot seem to get away from this elitism in music.

The more I study music, these generalizations, these attitudes only increase the separation between genres and really at the end of the day only create extremely elitist attitudes causing problems.

We are in a difficult time in the music industry as it has become very easy to monetize our music but has become difficult to make any real money as artists. Although the power has shifted from record labels, the power of the industry still lies with a few individuals. To make it worse, we all believe that we have “equal” opportunities to go viral but in reality how many do of us actually do?

Furthermore in Canada for the past 30 years or so, our patrons have been the government through both for financial (grants) and support of public spaces (mind you how exactly is this different is this from the Baroque Era where it was a prince paying a composer/musician), but sadly lately this government support is becoming harder and harder to secure.

To recover from all of this, I firmly believe that until we stop judging each other art forms by superimposing our style qualifications onto each a other solutions will not be found. It will only be through respect and understanding that we can make sure that we can find survival as professional working musicians. (Side note: If you want to discuss my belief in music as a village to create musicking – send me a message as I believe this the only way we can have a future collectively.)

Mr. Shapiro’s attitudes does exactly the opposite. We don’t always have to like each other music but we cannot use our styles to qualify other styles. There needs to be a mutual respect.

I’ve been coming across this sense of superiority a lot lately and the more I analyze these things, I firmly believe that these attitudes are rooted in colonialism. How? I’m currently working a larger “document” to explain as I don’t believe one blog is enough to explain.

Also Mr. Shapiro say that he does not have much a lot experience with rap but feels he can comment on this? Wow! Talk about an elitist attitude and a lesson for all of us. We must study a genre before creating a judgement call on it. Mind you at the end of the day – it is will be our individual preference “judgment “ which we are allowed but to say it isn’t music is ridiculous.

So why is Mr. Shapiro wrong?

1. Mr. Shapiro’s qualifiers of “good music” are based in western classical music. Have we not learned yet that we can not superimpose one style’s rules onto another? The rules are different – plain and simple.

2. As Mr. Shapiro does not seem to understand how rap often works let’s break it down into “his terms” so maybe he can understand. Before a rapper receives a back track or what is called in the hip hop world a “beat,” there is a unique musical process that happens.

I have been on teams that created the backtracks for rappers and I can tell you actually these three qualifiers “harmony, melody, rhythm” are used. But the melody and harmony mostly lie in the backtrack versus in a traditional “western” piece where the melody and lyrics are attached. Though it is not always the case, as many rap songs also have a vocalist where melody, harmony, and rhythm become attached.

How does this happen?

A. It is selection of samples from past music often extremely complex jazz or classical music are used. There are specific reasons that the samples are used. Why? It could range from political to nostalgia to you name it. The reason could be very personal or just cause it moved the “beat maker.”

b. The other way is collaborative work done among many musicians to create the backtrack – no one knows where the track will go and having been part of those projects – it is an amazing collaborative experience. And often “beat” covers all three of Mr. Shapiro qualitative requirements. In fact, as often all the musicians will come from different musical backgrounds, I have found many to have extremely complex musical structures.

Then a rapper create his lyrics on top of this, this process could be extremely complex or as one rapper in the video states “to piss off white people.” Is any song different in any genre? I would encourage Mr. Shapiro to look at translations of many classical pieces (perhaps he simply got lost in the translations), the lyrics can be complex or simple or just piss someone off. I remember in music history studying a settling of the Catholic Mass where a drinking song is used. There were different theories why it was used, I remembering one was to “piss off” certain people. How is that different from some rap? Humans seem to have this need to “piss” each other off.

He does not go into it but often another argument is that it is that hip hop/rap is repetitive so therefore somehow less of a musical form as a result. So let’s discuss that for just a moment – listen to any Beethoven or Mozart? I constantly chuckle to myself on how repetitive a lot of classical music often is.

He then goes on to say something to state that it does not sound like a lot of thought is put into some rap. Hip hop is different from a classical music so why use classical rules to decided if this is a qualifier. From my understanding, it is speed rap that is often done quickly. I was told that speed rap comes from rap battles which was an attempt to find peaceful way end turf battles. It had a specific purpose and like anything in art – it quickly became its own form.

Again, he is putting classical qualifiers to decided if it is good. I’ve attended a few rap battles in my day and trust me, some of these guys are masters at this art form. The raps were well thought of and quickly made. As a lyricist, I cannot do that. Can Mr. Shapiro?

And again, there are reports of many “great” composers writing compositions on the way to a performance where a lot of thought was not put into it. Studying some of these compositions, I found some interesting and others rather boring (my personal preference)So how that different? Time spent is not always an indicator if something is “good.”

So what is good music to me? Because at the end of the day that’s all I can say.

To me, good music is about sharing stories, acknowledging each other’s joys and pain so we can all connect. We are all drawn to certain songs because we identify and connect with it – sometimes they can be complex musical but often they can be extremely complex.

In the past, often style/genre was the qualifier to be drawn to a song. Today especially in our younger youth, this is not the case – my younger students love everything from Jayz, to Metallica, to tons of Musical Theatre and some Mozart for good measure.

This makes me happy – let’s break down this idea of “I only like classical music” or “rock is the only music” etc etc. and explore all music. Let’s allow music to move us make that’s a qualifier.


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