“It sounds like a human synthesizer”: the evolution of rap, one verse at a time | Music
He sound like a mosquito if he had access to a studio! “I played 645AR in your cradle and all the mice in your walls started to dance”; “It Sounds Like Bedbugs From Future”: Not your comments from standard rap fans, but the Bronx via Atlanta rapper-singer 645AR is… innovative. Her lyrics may cover fierce street narratives and narcotic meanders, but her vocal style is more Minnie Mouse than Migos. And he’s fully committed to it: “the squeak”, as he likes to call it, is present throughout his discography to date and has earned him huge streaming numbers and a collaboration with FKA twigs. . He’s not even the only squeaky rapper; he has an alien falsetto predecessor in Voochie P.
Of course, that annoys “real hip-hop” Grandpa Simpsons, who still hasn’t got over the slurs and Auto-Tune from Future, Young Thug and co. There are entire essays on smoking reddit on “Elmo Voices” and “Drunken Robots”. But that’s what rap is: relentlessly in search of the next, newest thing, and in the process of evolving not just language but the human voice. To try to understand this process and where the “squeak” comes from, we asked a professional rap coach and “How to Rap” YouTuber Drew Morisey and vocal analyst Dr Calbert Graham of the Center for Linguistic Sciences at Cambridge University to listen to some of the most distinctive voices in 40 years of hip-hop history and to trace how the tone of the voice of rap evolved during this period.
Funky 4 + 1
This is the joint (1980)
A classic band cut, straight from the birthplace of hip-hop in the South Bronx and the very first signed rap group
Drew Morisey I always ask: what is the context, and what is the technology used? And that comes from the DJ culture at nightclubs and neighborhood parties. The performance in the late ’70s and’ 80s is a very announcer-like voice, very good at throwing a party: “Hey, let’s have fun, everyone here, everyone over there,” enough choreography. The choice of intonation at this time was mainly dictated by the crowd’s interest in the music. It was just party music.
Dr Calbert Graham There is a very compelling rhythm that comes from disco, jazz and funk. The accompaniment ostinato 1-2-3-4 is sustained, all the syncope is in the vocal part. Overall, it’s convincing, it’s awesome. The language, articulation, and the use of phonetics to build rhythm are kind of cheering you on.
It’s Time to Get Sick (1986)
In which Def Jam fully launched the notion of rap stars as rock bands
DM With Def Jam folks like Beastie Boys and Run DMC, the music consciously avoids the melody in the beats: one chord with those guitar hits. It allows the song to carry the melody, the ups and downs, the divergence of voices. Screaming style really became the norm throughout the 80s, with rap becoming more popular and more competitive.
CG The first impression is to scream with abandon, but there is an audible crackle – a lower tone at the back of the vocal tract – while one of them has a very audible nasal quality penetrating through. They oscillate between nasal, falsetto and chest voices. The skill here is how the voices contrast with each other, how the different aspects of the voice interact – it’s very playful.
Gin & Juice (1994)
With the spotlight swaying from New York to the West Coast, a whole new level of funkness arises
DM Dr Dre, from a production standpoint, reintroduced the melodic chord structures. This led to a more subtly melodic voice like Snoop to sound good; it might not have sounded so dynamic on those Beastie Boys anti-melody type beats. It uses a lot of repetition to make it singing and rather flirty. There’s a whole thing that builds the world, he embodies a character that we in the community would have already known from books like Iceberg Slim, or as an archetype on the streets.
CG It is a very soft and reflective delivery; at first there is a teenage tone, but the rest of the track is lowered using a full tenor chest voice. It’s conversational, but with these little pauses – “Can I… kick… something for the… G, yeah…” there’s a feeling that someone is really in control.
Everything Stays Raw (1996)
Playing on his Jamaican heritage, Busta plays the rapper as a berserker
DM Busta grew up with the culture of numbers: close and competitive rap. To control a room, just standing on a cafeteria table without a microphone, competing with guys who would have turned into Jay-Z and Biggie, you have to be the loudest, the most fantastic, the best performing – like Redman or DMX too. The other thing here is the use of doubles: record a second voice take where he saves some words, like his own hype man. This is again the technology that affects the way the voice sounds.
CG It reminds me so much of Jamaican dancehall, with its high vocal intensity. It’s incredibly complex, almost singing in style, with this breakneck speed. It’s so technical. The consonants are well articulated, the vowels are short, which perhaps signals self-monitoring and a reflection on style. Like dancehall, it’s about imposing control over chaos.
I love you (2003)
Mainstream grime explosion lets British accents confidently define rap styles for the first time
DM It’s oddly conversational. Her voice whines “WHAT ARE YOU SPEAKING ABOUT THIS?” It’s not clean, it looks real. Plus, those very basic computerized notes, like the Def Jam stuff, leave more space for vocal variation, so it can be very expressive. One thing that I coach rappers in is that the simpler the beat, the more fun things you can do with your voice.
CG This one is really interesting with its frequent switching to the falsetto with relative ease. The consonants are not particularly strong, and there is no audible crackle, which gives him a surprising sweetness even if he is angry. It would be interesting to study in detail how the British experience creates different tones than the Americans.
Never Afraid (2003)
South takes over: Atop Atlanta crunk, Bone Crusher’s Hulk roar could be heard from coast to coast
DM Another technological change is that the vocals are layered over the chorus to make it look like a large crowd is singing, causing the audience to think, “I should sing along with that.” It was very common in those days of rap – Kanye, Nelly, Lil Jon, Ja Rule. And with crunk in general, we come back to the question of context and purpose: its base in Atlanta is the strip club. “IT’S FRIDAY EVENING, EVERYBODY: BLOWS!” So Lil Jon or Bone Crusher, their vocals are going to sound really good in a strip club with ice cream and money all over the place. It’s strong, it’s exciting.
CG It’s super performative. A bass / baritone voice, with a very rough timbre, projects an imposing physical presence. It really is a super-direct statement of power, strength and control; it’s very interesting to compare that with Snoop doing the same thing in a completely different way.
The Last Straw (2008)
The epitome of London road rap: the best of Peckham calmly exposes his beef with MTV, 1Xtra and anyone else who might have come across him
DM The lineage of how Giggs delivers this song is like Cam’ron and Dipset and their street mixtapes. He starts off in that almost bored tone. But saying things so fierce with that voice makes him more threatening. 50 Cent is another example: not his hits, but street songs from the 2000s; he delivers things in a very regular man’s voice, while saying that he is going to kill you.
CG It’s very conversational, very low – I guess it’s lower than his normal voice – but the closest we’ve heard to normal speech patterns. The combination of pitch, rhythm and well-articulated consonants gives him this haunting and detached performance. It’s really interesting to hear a black British voice that’s also clearly cockney, with almost no Caribbean or other influence on phrasing or tone.
Kanye West with Nicki Minaj
Even alongside the biggest egos on the planet, Trinidad-born Minaj not only holds her place in her guest verses, but completely dominates.
DM If you want to understand Nicki’s interest in different accents, going from high to low, you want to look directly at Eminem’s first two albums; take that character use and run with it. Lil Wayne is also important here. In his mid-2000s mixtapes, he changed vocals every four bars, with the rhythm changing. He has great control over it. A definite Caribbean influence here: Nicki is from Trinidad, Wayne is from New Orleans which has a huge Caribbean population.
CG This verse may be short but it is so intense. The tonal switching control makes it very firm, convincing, domineering. There are these very pronounced consonants, a little more lengthening of the tones; when she crescendos, her voice becomes more squeaky and all of this is clearly very conscious.
Jamaican / Puerto Rican / Brooklyn MC Shows Uncompromising Impatience On This Quadruple Platinum Single
DM Listen to the way she draws the words: “bro code”, “low blow”, “no-no” become the melody in the absence of a real strong note. It’s something I openly teach students: let the rhythm breathe, find places to stretch the words; this is where you have fun with it. On records now too, since the mid-2000s, we are a long way from style-defining live performance; you can stitch together multiple takes in the studio, and refine and experiment with the emotion of your voice. It’s more like cutting a movie together than a take throughout.
CG This is a deep voice, with what appears to be a very narrow pitch range. The lengthening vowels and the use of a descending tone simulate both drunkenness, as well as a feeling of sadness and detachment, but at the same time, it’s smooth and controlled. You can hear the Latin heritage strongly in vowels and also in softened consonants, sometimes to the point that C’s and C’s are not understood at all.
And so to the squeak: funky, hallucinatory and deeply bizarre
DM It’s pretty extreme, but what’s happening in the rap world, like so much culture, is that we become a decentralized content structure; a lot of niche fame as opposed to popular fame. You can be a rapper with only 100,000 fans, but still make a lot of money from how social media works. This means that it is more and more difficult to say “rap is like that”. You have your World Drakes, but for each of them there is someone unique who is not successful in the Top 20 but still makes a good living.
CG It almost looks like a human synthesizer. Obviously he uses a lot of falsetto, the higher notes sound like they’re made by straining the thyroid muscles in order to shorten the vocal cords. I don’t imagine a musician would say this is the right way to produce a falsetto, so it’s innovative! Hip-hop has always been about vocal creativity, and that’s what’s going on here: phonetically, it raps. But he’s testing the limits of what constitutes rap… creating almost an entirely new form.