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    2-Chord Beats in Hip-Hop

    The primary purpose of this post is to mine the many ears and brains who discourse on this forum about the following: I'm looking for examples of beats from the hip-hop repertoire that involve oscillation between two chords. I'm primarily interested in exploring the relationship between this "category" of beats and the lyrics/subject of the song. If you are interested, please share any examples you can think of that fit this description, particulalry ones where the two chords (and perhaps the non-harmonic elements that go along with them) reflect or support the text/subject of the song.

    What do I count to be hip-hop? What do I count to be "two-chord oscillation"? Well I don't know if I can say exactly, but if you think the example fits what I'm looking for (even if there is a shred of a chance that it might fit the description "two-chord oscillation in a hip-hop song"), please share it. I'd rather have more examples and end up finding that some of them aren't what I'm looking for than have nobody respond because they don't think the example they have in mind would work for me. I realize that harmony and tonality in hip-hop (and pop music generally speaking) is finicky; and in hip-hop there's absolutely an argument to be made (one that I would agree with) that harmony is not the most significant musical feature. But I'm becoming interested in it, so what's the harm?!

    The example that has piqued my interest and that you might base your own example-sharing on if you have anything in mind is Kendrick Lamar's "Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe" from his 2012 album good kid, m.A.A.d city. The beat throughout this song oscillates between two chords that can be construed as "i" and "VI" if one considers F minor to be the more important chord (I hesitate to use the word "tonic" here). What I find expressively significant about the harmony of this beat is the way it supports the subject of the song: although within the album it seems like the song is about Kendrick's dad pleading Kendrick's mom to leave him alone and "cut [his] mother@#!$ing oldies back on," Kendrick Lamar has said the song actually expresses his feelings towards people in his life all wanting to have creative control over his writing and production process. It's as if "i" (the F minor chord) represents the reailty of things–many people trying to befriend Kendrick and influence his style without considering that they might be annoying him–and "IV" (the Db major chord) represents the way Kendrick wishes things were–relaxed, happy, vibing. The non-harmonic elements of the beat reinfornce the way that the DbM chord feels like a relaxed escape: it lasts a longer amount of time that the Fm chord and rhythmic activity is somewhat suspended as the the DbM chord arrives. 

    If you can think of any examples, I would really appreciate hearing about them. Or if you have any critical thoughts about this approach to rap, I would love to hear those as well.


    Stephen Gomez-Peck 

    MM Student, Indiana University

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    • 4 Comments sorted by Votes Date Added
    • LL Cool J's "I Need Love" comes to mind. Most of the song essentially alternates between F-major and E-minor triads, but in a F-e-e-F four-measure hypermeter parallel to the I-V-V-I design of classical presentation phrases. There are other triads (G major, D minor) participating in the parallel voice leading, but Ithey are not nearly as long, suggesting that they are embellishing the fundamental two-chord oscillation, which I imagine could readily be connected to the meaning of the words in a variety of ways.

    • A few methodological points. 

      1) Who put the harm in harmony? Let's grant that harmony "is not the most significant musical feature" in hip-hop. Let's even push this to an extreme view and say that harmony, or tonality is "nothing but  a secondary parameter" for this repertory.  None of this then suggests that you stop observing harmony, and incorporating your observations into your analysis. A change of harmony is a change of state in some parameter that our ears are tracking. Any change of state is an event,  whether it's clarinets replaced by flutes; high pitches replaces low pitches; isochronous rhythm replaced by jagged rhythm, smooth voice replaced by grainy one, syllabic declamation replaced by melismas;  etc. Any event (= change of state in some parameter) has a potential to influence  how we group. And how we group will condition our observations of most everything else that we might like to build into an interpretation 

      2) You never need to apologize for making observations. No one has the right to tell you "do not observe that thing that you are observing." They can tell you that your observations are ideologically primed, etc., and invite you then to interpret them differently. But that's a different thing. 

      3) Two-state alternations,  in any parameter or style, invite many questions and many kinds of modeling. They have the  virtue of simplicity (at least they do if one brackets them off temporarily from issues of meaning and signification, which rarely have that virtue ). They invite questions of content (which two from among the universe of possibilities, and what is their relation); of pacing (regular or irregular, fast or slow); and of higher -order rhythm (are they organized according to a parallel scheme AB AB AB or a switchback scheme ABA BAB ABA?)


      4)  The distinction between a tonic and 1st scale degree is not clear to me. They both signify the same cluster of metaphors (That which is most "stable" "at home" "attracting" "resolving" "relaxing" and so forth) and to that extent they are indistinguishable; so the choice between them is a matter of taste and decorum rather than of theoretical content. The model that you would build of a two-state universe where you labelled it"1st scale degree" is isomorphic to the one that you build if you labelled it  "tonic" or "a "modal center" or "do" or "pa".


       The more interesting question is whether you want your two-state universe to be asymmetric (you have a valued member and a less valued one) or symmetric (the two states are of equal value). For this second kind of universe, the question of "which is tonic" or "first degree" or "do"  is not relevant.  There was a branch of  music theory that dealt with these questions with respect to harmony several decades ago, known as neo-Riemannian theory. On the view developed there, the relation between f minor and D-flat major, could be described as a symmetric one, and could be labelled as an L (for Leittonwechsel). At least one member of your faculty at IU, Jay Hook, has done some work in this area and might be a good resource here.

      --Rick Cohn

    • Professor Murphy,

      Thanks! This is definitely what I'm looking for, I like this example quite a bit.


    • Professor Cohn,

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. I posted this because I just had a inkling of an idea and now I feel as though I have some perspective with which to refine things with quite a bit of nuance!