Not exactly breaking news, but humor me: scan the Billboard Hip Hop chart and you’ll see that it is hard to find a rap song with a snare drum on the back beat. Why?
Let’s go back to the late 90s for a moment. From groups like OutKast, No Limit Soldiers (Master P, Mystikal), and Cash Money Millionaires (Juvenile, Birdman) sprung a new era of southern music which began to seep into America’s collective consciousness. Still, with artists like Eminem, Jay-Z, Kanye West, and 50 Cent (and production teams like Neptunes and Timbaland), it would be another half a decade or so before the South virtually became Top 40 rap.
Growing up in Atlanta, I had a somewhat distorted view of the influence of southern rap. In fact, just the other day I was discussing this very topic with a well-known East Coast rap mixer and discovered that songs like “Back That Azz Up” didn’t have the nearly the impact on the national level that they did in Georgia. In fact, he said that Mystikal’s “Shake Ya Ass” was the song that, for him, signaled the entrance of southern music into the mainstream.
The south officially became mainstream with the Crunk movement, which is when all the clapping and snapping started. For me, the turning point was when “Get Low” came out and Lil Jon became The Face of Crunk on the national and international levels.
Which brings us back to the initial question: Why? While the actual reason probably has something to do with tools available, the whims of producers, and the butterfly effect…
A clap or snap provides two distinct advantages over a snare drum (1) It leaves room for other elements in the mix (does not compete with the vocal) and (2) provides a human element.
As Phil pointed out in a previous post, when it comes to a mix, in order for something to be big, something else has to be small. While it may seem that layers upon layers of sounds would lead to a bigger mix, it also leads to a smaller vocal, smaller drums, smaller bass. When you’ve only got a clap, an 808, and a vocal, each of those elements can be huge. Unlike the epic snare drums that typify the rock idiom, claps are humble, unassuming, and fun.
Many people simply do not enjoy instrumental music because there is nothing human to connect with. They need a lead vocal to connect with the song. To a lesser extent, claps and snaps serve as this same kind of human element. (If I really wanted to get academic about this, I could relate this to the call-and-response aesthetic seen in traditional African music… but I’ll abstain.)
Slowly but surely, Crunk has split off into two genres which are in effect today:
The first branch is known as snap music. In my mind, snap music is the only authentically southern rap around because it is still exclusively being made in the South (in other words Kanye isn’t stealing it). Here are its signature characteristics, in order of importance:
- A single-note bassline (no chord progression)
- Sparse arrangements
- 808 kick sound
- Monophonic, short, riff-based melodic elements
- Snaps on beats 2 and 4
- Fruity Loops-esque synth patches
- Syncopated snare-fills
Perhaps even more importantly, it’s a lot more convenient to snap while dancing than to clap (not to mention cooler-looking).
The other branch is what I would simply call mainstream rap: your Lil Waynes, your T-Pains, your TIs. This style is characterized by the following:
- Auto-Tune/choruses with singing
- Claps on beats 2 and 4
- 808s, either supplementing or serving as the kick sound
- A melodic bassline (in other words, there is an actual chord progression)
- Futuristic, techno-like synth patches
This form of southern rap is so far-reaching that virtually every Top 40 artist uses claps, from New York to New Orleans.
Next time you’re composing a track, remember that the samples you use play an enormous role in defining that song’s style and determines the demographic to which your music appeals.
*Note: There are several notable exceptions to this rule right now:
One is Jamie Foxx’s “Blame It,” which utilizes a combination of both a clap and a snare on beats 2 and 4. The tune has reached #6 on iTunes and #1 on the Billboard Hip-Hop chart.
TI’s “Live Your Life” feat. Rihanna uses a snare on the backbeat, but it has a syncopated snare pattern too, which gives the song a kind of majestic, almost military band sound.
Perhaps the most complete exception is “Swagga Like Us,” with only a snare on beats 2 and 4. This choice was undoubtedly very conscious–because of the gravity of this collaboration, they were able to use an unusual instrumental and be perceived as innovative rather than out of touch. I think that it was inspired by the movie Drumline based on the feel established by the kick drum pattern.