"Put Your Hands Together":
The Theological Meaning of Percussion
and Percussiveness in Rap Music

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Spring 2011, Volume 10, Issue 1
http://www.americanpopularculture.com/journal/articles/spring_2011/nelson.htm

 

Angela Nelson
Bowling Green State University


A framework for studying rap music is related to the social and artistic textures of African-American popular culture. These textures are best understood through the concept of repertoire (Hall 289) and relate to the aesthetic beliefs and values of Africana people. Rap music is a product of popular culture that is drawn from an African-American cultural repertoire, which consists of the specific devices, techniques, ideologies, expressive art forms, or products of people of Africana descent that influence part of their culture (whether as context, texture, or text). Often derived from the folk tradition (see Soitos 37) and dominant culture, these components form a foundation of a black aesthetic and are used to create black popular cultural products. Religion, theology, and spirituality as they relate to beliefs and values lie within the social textures of rap music. Rhythm, percussiveness, and call-response lie within the artistic textures, or cultural repertoire, of rap music as well.

Eleven components of the black repertoire appear in African-American popular culture: religion and spirituality; middle-class ideology; orature and auriture; music including rhythm, percussiveness, and call-response; dance and gesture; city; church and night club; food and cuisine; heroes and stereotypes; worship service and party; and the black body. While all eleven components of the repertoire do not appear in all African-American popular art forms, the inclusion of at least three or four in one black popular cultural product simultaneously forms a holistic construct imbued with cultural meaning, symbolism, and significance. In rap music, rhythm, percussiveness, and call-response form a holistic construct imbued with religious and theological meaning. In this essay, I will examine the texture of rap in a search for theological traits in this aspect of the music. As stated above, rhythm, percussiveness, and call-and-response comprise some of the elements of the theological aesthetic of black music.

Several studies have been published about rhythm in black culture 1.; therefore, I will focus on the psychological as well as theological purposes and functions of percussion and percussiveness in rap music with particular attention to lyrics from 1979 to 1991. This time frame is of particular interest because it is when rap music began to be distributed to national and international peripheral audiences marking the beginning of its meteoric rise and transformation to hip hop and its acculturation in almost every nation and ethnic group in the world. Theologian Paul Tillich asserted in 1959 that religion is “home everywhere,” an “ultimate concern,” and is “manifest in all creative functions of the human spirit” (7-8). This paper will examine how religion and spirituality is manifested in rap music - a form of culture thought to be bereft of religious or theological significance - through the concept of the repertoire component percussiveness. This is an important exercise to conduct because hip hop music and culture has become a global phenomenon that successfully speaks to and is received by people from very different backgrounds, contexts, beliefs, values, norms, and experiences. Although birthed as a postindustrial, urban American form of black music in the early 1970s, rap music can be found in warm, densely populated islands such as Hawai’i and in cold, vast country sides such as Russia. The element that shows the most promise of connecting these disparate global cultures is one that transcends language, politics, geography, and intimate human relationships. The only aspect of culture that can do this is outside of the visible, audible, and performative: it is the invisible, yet tangible, religious and spiritual realm.
           
Several studies by black and white scholars suggest that elements such as rhythm, percussiveness, and call-response are always present when religious transcendence, or what anthropologist Victor Turner calls "communitas," occurs. "Communitas" is to Turner a heightened form of community that suppresses hierarchical differences of rank, class, status, and so forth (Spencer, Protest and Praise 183). For African Americans, "communitas" is attained when the gathered cultus achieves communion with the divine Spirit. There is no question that rhythm, percussiveness, and call-response patterns have a functional effect since these elements must be present in African-American popular and folk musics in order for transcendence or "communitas" to occur. W.E.B. DuBois noted this when he said the preacher, the music, and the frenzy characterized slave religion (Baraka and Baraka, 270). The "preacher" represents the calling forth of words followed by continual responses from a congregation, the "music" represents rhythm and percussiveness, and the "frenzy" (or the state of spirit possession) is that level of communitas or transcendence that blacks in any performance context seek to reach (Baraka and Baraka 270). The "frenzy," or "the shout," is the functional effect of the use of rhythm, percussiveness, and call-response patterns. Jon Michael Spencer, in his essay titled "Rhythm in Black Religion of the African Diaspora," says rhythm combined with drums (percussion) or black preaching (percussiveness) and the call-response (collective participation) of the worshipers moved them to "shout” (Spencer, "Rhythm" 67-69). 
           
In the African-American musical heritage, rhythm and rhyme are used as one vehicle to the transcendence of "communitas." In addition to these, African Americans utilize percussion instruments and an overall percussive approach to performance. "Percussion" refers to any instrument that can be rubbed, shaken, stricken, or scraped. Drums and rattles, for example, traditionally fall into this category. Since the drum was disallowed in most parts of America during the era of African enslavement, the use of drums by blacks did not begin to play a major role again until jazz developed in New Orleans around the turn of the century. Although scholars have reported that the Congo Square of New Orleans was an area where enslaved Africans were allowed to gather and play their drums in a traditional manner (Tanner, Gerow, and Megill 23), drum-playing did not really become prominent until jazz groups emerged.  From Early New Orleans Dixieland jazz to swing jazz, the drums were the primary component of the rhythm section. With the rise of bebop, followed by hard bop and avante garde jazz, the drums, as opposed to their former position as "supporting" instruments, moved to the forefront as solo instruments. 
           
In antebellum America, when the drum was legally disallowed among the enslaved, rhythm was manifested in other ways because it - rhythm rather than the drum per se - was a necessary tool for the achieving of transcendence. This is the reason Spencer calls rhythm "the essential African remnant of black religion” (Spencer 67). Despite the fact that rhythm could be produced by other corporeal means, African Americans, almost at their first opportunity following emancipation, brought the drum back into popularity as a means of helping them achieve the levels of spirituality that rapper Kool Moe Dee refers to as "new heights" (“I'm Hittin' Hard”). Drums (or percussion), along with multiple percussive rhythms, have always been an important theological ingredient in black music. Thus, we find in traditional and contemporary African-American music - jazz, rhythm and blues, gospel, soul, and rap - that the inclusion of drums is highly valued. 
           
It is clear, however, that while Africans in South America, the Caribbean, and New Orleans were allowed and encouraged to play drums, they still had, even when not playing drums, a percussive approach to music-making. They had the ability to produce musical sounds that resembled the percussiveness produced by drumming, including a rhythmic use of body parts and the voice. Today, Africans and people of African descent clap their hands, stomp their feet, and slap their knees, thighs, chests, and mouths. Mouth-slapping, for instance, is strongly evident in rap in what MCs refer to as the "human beat box." This is a synthesization of antebellum "hambone" routines - polymetric clapping, slapping, and pounding the body - and vocal techniques whereby the artist employs precise breath control combined with lip-smacking, lip-popping, and tongue-clicking to imitate electronic music sounds (Slovenz 157).            
           
Black music production is, to reference American culture scholar Ben Sidran, not only an activity but also a specialized technique. Sidran calls it an art of physical, emotional, and social "commitment" that commands a specific methodology in its creation (17). This specialized technique includes the percussive use of the voice, in both black artistic and vernacular speech and song. For instance, musicologist Eileen Southern points out that black gospel singers tend to sing with their mouths wide-open, making their consonant sounds short and distinct and their vowel sounds long and intense (464). This unique attention to vowel and consonant sounds is a logical occurrence to musicologist David Burrows since he contends that consonants have the greater power to convey information in the spoken language, while vowels tend to expand in intensity, duration, volume, and resonance in song (62-3). In addition to Burrows' admitted fascination with rap - calling it an "in-between phenomena" because of its equilibrium of "spoken" and "sung" words (60-1) - the rap technique of producing sounds illustrates the most developed form to date of the percussive use of the voice. For African Americans, this technique fosters a unique manifestation of speech and song whereby consonants and vowels work together to bring out nuances of textual and nontextual theological meaning and to affect the kind of ritualistic and "religious" responses artists want from their audiences. 
           
These nuances of percussive sound imply that because care is given in how something is said there is possible urgency in what is said. As suggested by linguist Geneva Smitherman, a certain urgency is, in fact, expressed when speakers of black English, for the sake of giving emphasis, place stress on subjects in sentences. A speaker or singer of black English will not simply say "The Lord is good to me" but "Lord Lord, He [italics mine] sure is good to me” (Elder Bryant's Sanctified Singers) which not only provides double the emphasis on the subject of conversation but a bit of added rhythmicity. Also, double, triple, and quadruple negatives, particularly unique to African Americans, add extra stress and rhythmicity, as well as urgency, to black speech. A speaker of black English such as Treach of Naughty by Nature tells visitors that “If you ain’t never visited the ghetto, don’t never visit now” (paraphrase mine) (Naughty by Nature, "Everything's Gonna Be Alright”). His vernacular quadruple negatives doubly emphasize the fact that Treach does not want naive visitors in “his” ghetto.             
These two grammatical structures lead us to this one conclusion: If speakers choose to emphasize a point, they usually repeat it. Repetition, then, is the key to the use of double subjects and double, triple, and quadruple negatives by speakers of black English. It is used as a communication device that the African-American linguist Grace Sims Holt says serves to emphasize and drive home an important point to an audience (204). With the help of repetition, the percussive use of the voice is better able to convey "ultimate concern," especially the concern of achieving a collective spiritual harmony with others gathered together for the rhythmic ritual of partying.
           
In African-American speaking, singing, and rapping, urgency is conveyed through deliberate, accentuated percussive attacks on words, stylized grammatical structures, and repetition, as well as through metaphors and elaborate descriptions. Folklorist Zora Neale Hurston points out that while people with highly developed languages have terms for abstract and detached ideas, so-called "primitive" people rely on what she described as "tightly integrated and close-fitting descriptive words” (qtd. in Burley 209). In other words, she explains, people of European descent "think" in written languages while African Americans think in Egyptian "hieroglyphics," pictures or icons (qtd. in Burley 209).
           
Since African Americans think in terms of icons or pictures, according to Hurston, their language is characterized by the heavy use of metaphors and descriptive words. This is especially true of rappers, who obviously have knowledge of abstract words as evident in their deft ("def," as urban black youths would say) use of American English, but their heavy use of "close-fitting" and "descriptive" words contributes to the urgency in rap. When rappers Naughty by Nature describe what it is like living in the projects of East Orange, New Jersey, the emphasis on isolation and despair is made especially clear in descriptive words (Naughty by Nature, "Everything's Gonna Be Alright”). The words chosen by Naughty by Nature help to describe in "hieroglyphics" what life is like in a New Jersey ghetto. Another example of this "thinking in hieroglyphics" is illustrated in Chuck D's rap "Fight the Power," when he describes what his audience is receiving from Public Enemy's rhyme ("Fight the Power”).
           
In aesthetic and cultural terms, African Americans have transformed the effects of polyrhythmic drumming into bodily manifestations. Although these manifestations are seen in rap of the eighties, as in all African-American music forms, rappers go beyond the percussive use of the body and voice. They further exemplify the innovative and improvisatory nature of black music through the use of percussion instruments that DJs made popular - the drum machine, microphone, and record turntable. Before documenting how rappers have transformed electronic technology into percussion instruments, it is necessary to discuss briefly the contributions of enslaved Africans and Mississippi Delta blues singers to this innovative spirit.
           
The grandfather of W. C. Handy, the so-called "Father of the Blues," played the fiddle (violin) as a slave, and he told his young grandson about an early method of making rhythm for dance music. The technique involved having a second person "drum" on the fiddle strings with a set of knitting needles. This percussive technique was also passed to Handy's uncle who occasionally allowed his nephew (W. C. Handy) to accompany him at country dances (Barlow 30). In addition to this percussive technique, the guitar was adapted percussively when blues singers developed the "slide" or "bottleneck" technique, which involved pressing such objects as rocks, knives, or bottlenecks against the strings of a guitar (Barlow 31). The slide technique was not created solely to "make rhythm" as in the situation of W. C. Handy’s grandfather; rather, its purpose was to draw on another African aesthetic that places a high value on the human voice. Therefore, the slide technique approximated the sounds of the arhoolies - field hollers, cries, and whoops - and imitated vocal timbre and diction, thereby extending musical phrases (Barlow 31).
           
The percussive use of conventional instruments like the guitar is further illustrated in the blues of Mississipi Delta singers Charley Patton and Robert Johnson. Both Patton and Johnson played their guitars more like a percussion instrument than string instrument. Blues scholar William Barlow points out that Patton "picked" propulsive bass runs, "hammered" percussive patterns on the treble strings, and "hit" the "sound box" or hollow guitar body with the palm of his hand like a bass drum (Barlow 36). Similar to his mentor, Patton, Johnson used his thumb to play on the lower guitar strings almost like he was playing a drum part (Barlow 47). Blues scholar Robert Palmer says Johnson made his instrument sound like a full band by furnishing a heavy beat with his feet (footstomping), chording shuffle rhythms, and picking out high treble string leads with his slider (Barlow 47).
           
Rappers follow in this long improvisatory tradition of creating innovative percussive sounds through the use of the turntable. The turntable makes it necessary to expand the definition of "percussion" to include "scratching” (Hebdige 138). By using this "instrument" in this creative way, deejays developed a craft that revolutionized electronic sound. While the use of the turntable extends the dexterity of the hands, as they seek after virtuosity capable of producing creative percussive sounds, the use of the microphone extends the percussive use of the voice. What the Fat Boys call the "human beat box” ("Human Beat Box”) is, as folklorist Madeline Slovenz suggests, an economical and aesthetic development (157). However, its utilization, combined with the percussive use of the microphone, serves to augment and amplify the percussive vocal techniques that distinguish the "human beat box" from other vocal techniques, such as whooping and yodeling. Despite the fact that the creation of the "beat box" was one of an aesthetic and economic necessity, its combination with the microphone creates a new percussion instrument and illustrates another percussive approach in rap music performance.
           
I have stated that the turntable is a percussion instrument that extends the dexterity of the hands and that the microphone is an instrument that extends the percussive use of the voice. This brings us to the final innovative instrument in African-American popular music that I wish to discuss: the drum machine. The use of the drum machine parodies yet extends the concept of, the use of drums. The drum machine as used in rap still requires dexterous hands as well as knowledge of how best to use the rhythms. Popular culture critics Mark Costello and David Foster Wallace comment in their book, Signifying Rappers, that established evaluators of popular music see the rappers' and deejays' use of state-of-the-art technology as a sign of hypocrisy and laziness (85-6). Rappers and deejays are not "lazy hypocrites"; these are common stereotypes of black people into which these critics have fallen too easily. Rather, rappers are practical innovators. While white popular music performers also use synthesized drum sounds in their music, they tend not to achieve the same kind or level of polyrhythmic activity that black rappers and deejays do. The difference, first of all, is that African Americans have mastered the technique of multiple rhythms by practicing with the "elders" of the craft. Second, the soulful involvement of black performers in their creative moments of rhythm-making encourages their audiences to become emotionally involved in the event of music-making.  To put my point in the language of rappers themselves, black artists who use synthesized sound with a unique virtuosity have, as rappers Whodini say, the "funky beat" in their souls ("Funky Beat”).
           
In rap, the technique and function of percussion instruments and the percussive approach in music performance is crystallized in the phrase "funky beat." The term "beat" automatically brings to mind thoughts of drumming, such as when Queen Latifah says, dance to the beat of the drum ("Come Into My House”). However, Kool Moe Dee's use of the term "beat" suggests that the playing of uniquely composed "black beats" brings about a basal human response because the beats are like a home run in baseball and slam dunking a basketball (“How Ya Like Me Now”). Kool Moe Dee's conceptualization is further explained in his "Knowledge Is King," where he says his beats are like a lit torch ("Knowledge Is King”). That is, his beats are like a torch that leads people out of darkness and confusion because those beats carry a divine and salvific knowledge.
           
Even with the mastery of a driving beat, rappers must always be, in their terms, "funky."  This term has a unique meaning within African-American music and culture that implies a certain attitude or consciousness. The term "funky" is usually associated with the bodily odors resulting from sexual activity and heavy perspiration; but by the mid-1950s, when hard bop jazz emerged, it took on new meaning. Amiri Baraka says the adjective "funky" qualifies black music as meaningful (Jones 219) so that "funky" and "soul" (referring to the popular music forms) are synonymous terms in African-American music. In the 1950s and 1960s, "funky" and "soul" meant black jazz musicians, such as Art Blakey, Milt Jackson, Max Roach, and Horace Silver, were reaching back to the wellspring of black music in the African-American church (Baraka and Baraka 272). "Funky soul music" also meant blacks had created a basic and elemental music that could be perceived in extra musical ways (Baraka and Baraka 272). Thus, having soul and being funky was perceived as the elements of a black nationalistic consciousness directly related to the African-American experience (Baraka and Baraka 273). To be sure, MCs rap "soul music" and label their rhymes or beats "funky," but it is not the "funky" simply rooted in the African-American church. Their "funky beats" have deeper roots, roots that drink from the traditional wellspring of African music. 

The phrase "funky beat" is also related to Baraka's earlier definition of soul as a form of social aggression attempting to reverse the social roles of blacks and whites within American society by redefining what is or is not "valuable” (Jones 219). Rappers are redefining the canons of "white" values in part by denouncing the dominant culture's repulsion toward their blackness and their "funky beats." Many rappers would agree with the summation and interpretation of this "funky" situation by the 1970s funk band, the Isley Brothers. In 1975, they sang about being accused of playing their music too loud and getting the turnaround when they attempted to talk about it. Still not finding an appropriate release or outlet for their music in American society, when the Isley Brothers resolved to go along with the system, they “got knocked to the ground” by all the “bull---- goin’ down” ("Fight the Power”). Just as the Isley Brothers put it, rappers of the 80s and 90s were criticized for the loudness and so-called "violence" of their music. They have tried talking to America's dominant media industries, but they have gotten the turnaround, and some rappers have gone along with the system and have been manipulated. In the final analysis, many rappers conclude that the negative attacks against rap are unfair, and they must fight the system that is in place (Public Enemy, "Fight the Power”).        
   
Rappers, deejays, and their followers regard the dominance of percussiveness in their music as having some functional effect. For those who come into her house, raps Queen Latifah, the functional effect of percussiveness is "a chance to move." Why? Because black music is soothing (Queen Latifah, "Come Into My House”). Soul music (whether it be rap or gospel) indeed soothes, for it brings the African-American community together, not only physically for various ritual activities but also spiritually and emotionally as its sounds are disseminated over the communities' radio airways.

I have attempted to demonstrate in this essay that a theology of rap music is implicit and explicit in the repertoire component of percussiveness. In African-American music, percussiveness encourages and maintains spiritual harmony, a sense of group solidarity, and validates aesthetic and cultural values. Percussiveness itself serves as an “important cultural restorative” (Soitos 162; see Hazzard-Gordon) that has the ability to impart new life or promote recuperation to Africana peoples. That is, the uses of percussiveness in black popular cultural productions embody the solutions to the problems of Africana people around the world. In other words, the application of the black repertoire in general and percussiveness in particular by African-American popular creators has a ritualistic quality that “restores,” “reconciles,” “regenerates,” and “recuperates” the humanity of black people. In the case of rap, the use of percussiveness by African-American rappers is seen in the heavy use of metaphors and descriptive words, and the transformation of the mouth, body, and electronic technology into percussion instruments. African-American popular and folk musics, in general, utilize rhythms, a dominance of percussiveness, and call-response patterns to encourage the attainment of "soothing" transcendence. Since transcendence is an "ultimate" goal, these elements are repertoire components that facilitate reaching that spiritual end. The texture of African-American popular and folk musics that make up the fundamental aesthetic of these musics, progress to the heart of what African Americans recognize as essential and important in their culture: reaching transcendent communitas, thus enabling them to overcome their unique obstacles in America. 

 

Note

1. See Jon Michael Spencer, "Rhythm in Black Religion of the African Diaspora," Journal of Religious Thought 44.2 (Winter-Spring 1987): 67-82; John Miller Chernoff, African Rhythm and Sensibility: Aesthetics and Social Action in African Musical Idioms (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1979); Jon Michael Spencer, The Rhythms of Black Folk : Race, Religion, and Pan-Africanism (Trenton, NJ: Africa World P, 1995); Jon Michael Spencer, “A Revolutionary Sexual Persona: Elvis Presley and the White Acquiescence of Black Rhythms,” in Search of Elvis: Music, Race, Art, Religion, ed. Vernon Chadwick (Boulder, CO: Westview P, 1997), 109-122; Angela M. S. Nelson, ed., “This Is How We Flow”: Rhythm in Black Cultures (Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1999).

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