Ras Olugbenga

Blues to Trap Soul, and Back Again

Ras Olugbenga
 Blues to Trap Soul, and Back Again

Black Lives Matter. I agree. But an even more abstract concept that has gotten much less attention is: the Black Experience Matters. Magnifying this truth is more important than ever before. With popular music “listicles” dubbing Eminem the best rapper of the first decade of the 2000’s (When Kanye was clearly the rightful winner), or Elvis being labeled “the king of Rock & Roll” when he was known to steal styles from famous Blues musicians such as Chuck Berry, or with Adele and Robin Thicke being the current front-runners in the “blue-eyed soul” department. I am a self-deemed cultural custodian – its my self-appointed job to maintain and sustain the culture from the root to the fruit. What Iggy Azalea and her constituency have repeatedly failed to understand, is that “loving” rap music is not enough, when you don’t respect its origins - the people and social climate that caused its emergence.

Classical hip-hop developed in New York City and is remarkable because it moved the power of literature and poetry within the reach of Black youth. Using arts and humanities to reclaim their humanity.  Telling the stories of the hardships their daily lives, hip-hop was based on blues music. Lamenting the ills of life with friends because there’s power in knowing that you’re not alone. Southern hip-hop developed several years later and had its own unique sound with groups such as the Goodie Mob and OutKast. Southern hip-hop was much more melodic than Northern hip-hop, and has since evolved into a melodic rapping style all its own that is now known as “trap soul”.  Golden era hip-hop artists vocals are reminiscent of drum patterns focusing more on cadence than pitch. Artists like Busta Rhymes stood out because he balanced both. However, trap soul artists use vocals similar a guitar with high pitch riffs that flow effortlessly into a crescendo (i.e. Young Thug’s “yeah” in Best Friend)

Trap souls melodies make it distinct because although the subject matter is similar and in some cases identical to classic hip-hop the artistic focus becomes emotion and not cognition; music for the heart first and the mind second.  Trap Soul is new age Blues music because of the lyrical simplicity, rough vocal intonation, and integral lamentation of daily struggle. Hip-hop artists like Z-Ro, Devin The Dude, Cee-Lo,  Andre 3000, and Nelly (notably, all from southern cities of Houston, Atlanta, and St. Louis) have all been known to incorporate a “sing-song flow” into their rapping style. But the popularity of melodic raps has become increasingly audible for many reasons. For starters, the prevalence can be attributed to the migration of Black people back to southern metropolises like Atlanta.  Atlanta, being in the deep south, is a part of the “bible belt”; meaning that Christian church and church culture permeate many aspects of secular life. So it makes sense that the same melodies and vocal acrobatics heard in church would be incorporated into the music. Unlike golden era hip-hop of the 90’s, which was a medium for urban intellectuals to showcase their wit and knowledge of science and philosophy, the more southern emotive style of hip-hop uses melody to open the realm of expression. Southern hip-hop places more emphasis on how you say not what you say. And with the moans and hollers from Young Thug and Future most white Americans (and some Black Americans) cannot understand what they are saying, anyway. But from all of the pain, hardships, and social impediments associated with living on the fringes of society, the harmonies and hollers of trap soul illustrate these elements with a beautiful artistic precision.

The “trap” part of “trap soul” stems from Atlanta culture as well. Atlanta artists such as goodie mob and T.I. popularized the term. Originally “traps” were one-way streets in rough Atlanta neighborhoods that “trapped” unsuspecting narcotics consumers who were able to be robbed prior to purchasing illicit substances. The “trap” also developed in the south because unlike northern metropolitan areas, street hustlers are unable to post up on blocks and sell their merchandise while camouflaging with the bustling sidewalk traffic. So the trap or “bando” (short for abandoned house, popularized after the financial meltdown of 2008 that left many foreclosed homes abandoned) and other clandestine buildings, allow illegal activities to be hidden in plain sight. Just as blues began from a functional music emerging from songs to accompany work, Trap music began as a form of music that marginalized entrepreneurs could relate. However, trap music was much less focused on lyrical dexterity and moved the repetitive elements of blues back to the forefront.

It is somewhat accurate to say that “blues music came from slave music” however this a boring and incomplete explanation of the origins of blues music. The story goes like this: During the chattel enslavement of Africans, it is commonly known that songs were sung as it was a West African tradition to have a song that accompanied or was to be sung during one’s everyday life.  Contrary to their European captors who only sang hymnals or religious songs, the Africans incorporated rhythm and song into everything they did.  In fact music, dance, and religion are cultural products that are able to permeate facets of life without having tangible artifacts. So naturally as other elements of indigenous culture were stripped, music dance and certain aspects of traditional religions were able to be kept in-tact. Furthermore, the music, dance, and religion were all intertwined. Thus the music and dance took on sacred spiritual elements and the spirituality took on a secular aspect expressed in song and dance.

It was not until the abolition of chattel slavery that Africans in America could sing explicitly about their daily hardships without recourse from “authority”.  This moment in history is where the classic blues developed.  Just as Rich Homie, Young Thug, Future, Ty Dolla $ign, Fetty Wap, and Bryson Tiller are not dynamic singers (and don’t try to be), the unique sounds of their voices are what magnetize the masses to their art. Furthermore, the lack of vocal precision invites the listener to sing along because, well heck… they probably can’t really sing either.

The importance of the vocalist in American-African music stems from enslaved Africans brought to the Americas to toil in the cotton & rice fields. Vocals are the primary instrument in Black music (or as I like to call it “American-African music” since the music technique blends traditional African elements with subject matter borne out of their rough experience in America). Unlike traditional or classic hip-hop music with the 16-bar rhyme scheme and a complementary hook or chorus, trap soul incorporates a heavy reliance on melody, and the voice of the artist is used in a similar fashion as an instrument. The riffs of Ty Dolla $ign, grunts of Future, and unintelligible sounds made by Young Thug all have their origins in classical blues music. It is common knowledge that the best singers come from Black churches (Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Brandy, Fantasia, etc.) and black churches provide a place for Black musicians to hone their craft and make some money. So it is logical to acknowledge the plausibility of rappers coming from Black churches and incorporating those elements into their music. After all, anybody who’s been to a Black church has witnessed how effective the music tends to be. Ty Dolla $ign comes from a musical family has mentioned playing in church and learning music via church is what sets him apart in his opinion.

So why am I taking the time to write all of this? What’s the point?  The call-to-action is this: respect and acknowledge the cultural origins of Black music, the most popular form of American music and arguably the most popular music around the world. In fact, it is not merely popular music, it is the cultural product of the kidnapped West Africans and their posterity’s experience in America.  Amiri Baraka, a renowned poet & culture critic, asks “what if Black people had not been brought here to work as slaves? What if they were brought here to advise, consult or even to play basketball? How then would the cultural artifacts be different? This is why cultural exploitation is important. It disdains the integral reason of “Why” for the very shallow and surface “What”. Black Lives indeed Matter, but along with that the Black Experience Matters. Black music is borne of sorrow, joy, longing, complacency, hopefulness & hopelessness. It is disrespectful to partake of the fruit and scorn the root. Hip-hop music of the 80’s and 90’s was said to be the final frontier and pinnacle of the amalgamation of Black or “American-African” music. But we are blessed to be able to witness the genesis of a new form of music led by the younger generations that venerate the Ancestry of those that came before.