There is plenty of noise surrounding the conversation of hip-hop and harmony. Part of the confusion is rooted in the way hip-hop is defined but this is something we’ll talk about later. I remember reading a newspaper report a long time ago where the writer appeared to insinuate that hip-hop and rap, at their core, weren’t even music because they didn’t have harmony or melody.
It’s a really funny thing to read if you know anything about the genre, or if you’ve even listened to it for more than 30 minutes at a time. However, what the writer argued was actually kind of true – in a way – because of what I’m about to explain to you now.
Hip-hop and rap music, in their simplest form, do not have harmony because there has to be more than one melody to create harmony. However, once there is more than one rapper or a musical context such as a beat, then hip-hop and rap can be as harmonically rich as any other genre.
The fact of the matter is you need more than one melody at a time for harmony to exist, and the same thing can be said about singers as well – not just rappers. A great singer without instrumentation or backup singers doesn’t have harmony either. It’s melodic, not harmonic. Moving on though, let’s talk more about when hip-hop, rap, and other genres do have harmony.
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Why Hip-Hop and Rap Music Contain Harmony
Every type of music contains harmony, of course, but some people ask the question of whether it does or not because one single rapper, on their own, technically can’t create harmony.
As I said before, there needs to be more than one melody at once, by definition, for harmony to exist. It helps to understand what melody is in the context of rap and hip-hop, so we’ll briefly explore that without making the whole article about it.
Melody is that part of the song that gets stuck in your head when you listen to a track over and over again. Fundamentally, hip-hop melody can embody the piano, the MC, or any other instrument in the composition.
In hip-hop and rap what happens is that the melody and harmony often take a backseat while the rapper and the rhythm act more as the centerpiece.
This was especially true for the 1990s-era style hip-hop where rappers hadn’t started singing melodically as they do now. Someone like Nas, or DMX, for example, both of those guys are rappers in the traditional sense.
New artists have blurred this line between rapping and singing. Regardless, there were still harmonies in hip-hop/rap of the 1990s too for a simple reason which is what I’ll talk about right now.
By the way, Mark Sarnecki’s Complete Elementary Rudiments (on Amazon) and then the Answer Book (also on Amazon) are a great start to some of these basic theory concepts. I talked about it in this video down below:
1) Hip-Hop Artists Rap Over ‘Beats’ Which Consist of Harmonies (By Definition)
When producers and rappers talk about beats, they’re talking about the actual music. It’s the part of the song with the drums, the piano, synths, guitars, flutes, saxophones, and so on and so forth. Rappers get their hands on one of these beats and then they record their performance over it.
This, by definition, is harmony. Try not to overthink it. The definition of harmony is different notes and sounds played together at the same time in a way that sounds good.
And that’s precisely what rappers are doing when they rap over a beat that has a piano and a flute in it. They’re creating harmonies. Here’s a beat that I made that I think has some pretty nice harmonies in it:
One of the cool things about rap and hip-hop is that it’s fairly versatile and adaptable. In other words, it’s easy to combine other genres with it like Middle Eastern sounds, maybe Chinese instrumentation like the Erhu, and so on. So rap beats can often include harmonies that would normally be associated with a different culture or style of music.
Rap music can be melodic, although according to Eric Bernsen from Sonic Bids – a professional music journalist and specialist in the genre – hip-hop has a whole sub-genre known as melodic rap.
Although hip-hop dates back to the 60s and 70s New York scene, it’s amazing how over the decades it has circulated throughout the known world and been infused with new flavors. These influences change and influence hip-hop harmonies all of the time.
Check out Algerian hip-hop artist Soolking infusing elements of raï (Algerian folk music) into his productions. He is just one of many artists around the world who are influenced by hip-hop harmonies. People like this are introducing a new wave of harmonic sounds into mainstream hip-hop.
2) Harmonies Contain 2 or More Melodies – And Most Hip-Hop Songs Have This
As I stated earlier, the presence of 2 or more melodies creates harmony in hip-hop. Harmonies can be made up of chords and chord progressions in the beat. An example that comes to mind is the aforementioned track “a lot” by 21 Savage ft. J. Cole.
What do we hear in this sample? The rapper 21 Savage flows while a female voice produces a floating melody in the background.
Another hip-hop track that demonstrates harmony and counterpoint is the track, “What’s Poppin,” featuring DaBaby, Tory Lanez, Lil Wayne, and Jack Harlow. You can hear how the vocal melodies move independently while complementing each other at the same time.
Another song playing in my head that reminds me of great melody is James Blake’s “Life Round Here” featuring Chance the Rapper. The song is packed with harmony. Take a listen to the various textures the melodies and the harmonies create.
Hip-hop culture is known for beatboxing. Technically a form of a cappella music, these people are gems who can imitate musical instruments to create the beat. Rappers then use this beat as musical context to deliver their verses and hooks.
I recommend you listen to artists like Juice WRLD, Doja Cat, Post-Malone, slowTHAI, and Nas for more rich harmony. This is not an exhaustive list, by any means, but only a starting place. You’ll develop a palette for hip-hop harmonies that appeal most to you.
3) Rap and Hip-Hop Use Samples
There are thousands of hip-hop and rap songs that use samples of harmonically rich music like jazz, soul, funk, R&B, and blues (here’s my guide on how to sample, by the way). Drake’s “Nice For What” uses the loop of Ms. Lauryn Hill’s “Ex-Factor” from her album Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.
There are jazz and blues harmonies in Kanye West’s “Drive Slow” from a sample of Hank Crawford’s 1973 track “Wildflower.” Let’s not forget Kanye West’s “All Falls Down.” This track lights up the harmony in Lauryn Hill’s melodic sample “Mystery of Iniquity.”
Sampling is what makes hip-hop harmonies sound fresh. Most listeners don’t know that a song is sampled unless they are familiar with the source.
For example, Motown and Diana Ross fans may catch the sample of the “I Thought It Took a Little Time (But Today I Fell in Love)” in 21 Savage and Metro Boomin’s “Runnin.” Doja Cat’s song “Streets” starts off with a nostalgic sample from Paul Anka’s “Put Your Head on My Shoulder.”
4) Modern Rappers such As Drake Sing More in Their Songs
Drake is the kind of rapper that sings more than other rappers. He even sings when he is featured in other rappers’ songs. When you listen to a song like “Sicko Mode,” it is easy to pick up on Drake’s part among the multiple harmonies.
Drake’s singing has become very much a part of his signature style. Drake is featured in the Migos hit “Walk It Talk It.” Listen to how you can clearly pick up that it is Drake’s part when he sings.
6LACK and J. Cole’s “Pretty Little Fears” is another great example of singing in harmony. Notice 6LACK is more of a singer than J. Cole. 6LACK harmonizes so well with the aid of the percussion set. The point is that the song consists of chord progressions and 6LACK sings melody over them. In its most practical form, this is the definition of harmony.
Another great example of singing in harmony that comes to mind is Travis Scott’s “Can’t Say,” produced by Saint Laurent. And let’s not forget how Travis Scott and James Blake harmonize with each other in “Mile High.” This collaboration between Metro Boomin, James Blake, and Travis Scott is among my favorites in hip-hop harmony.
Modern rappers choose to sing to diversify the kind of harmonies and melodies found in their songs. This creates space for the listener to experience the emotions of the song in between harmonies. In the sentimentally-charged harmony of “Ride Slow,” Russ’ tenor vocals harmonize to the beat, creating ballad-like drumming and humming patterns.
5) Beat Makers Use Arpeggiator and Soundscape Instruments Which Have Harmony By Definition
In some songs, it may be challenging for certain parts to stand out as different from one another. It helps to introduce pads and other tools to spice up the harmonies in a song while still honoring what makes each part unique. Let’s explore creative ways beatmakers use technology in their favor to create harmony in hip-hop tracks.
Tools like arpeggiator and soundscape instruments are popular in synthesizing hip-hop harmonies. All you have to do is play a C in an arpeggiator instrument, and it’ll play all kinds of notes and sounds that are in harmony with each other. This makes using these tools both fun and relatively easy.
Using an arpeggiator instrument gives beat makers options to play chords in various patterns (i.e., think ascending, ascending and descending, random). LANDR gives a shortlist of how to get started on using arpeggiators in your tracks.
Similarly, soundscape instruments offer a comparable luxury to beatmakers. Since chords and chord progressions are the foundations of hip-hop harmony, technology like this, with built-in harmony, supports beatmakers in creating more captivating loops.
Given these digital instruments have harmony by definition, it keeps the – sometimes – arduous creative process simple. In the song “What They Want,” Russ plays with funky beats that are reminiscent of a dancehall-like rhythm.
The harmony created here highlights accented claps, and the rapping reminds me of listening to a dancehall rhythm. This feeling comes from the way his raps harmonize with the kick.
6) 808 and Bass Patterns Are Made in Harmony With the Instrument and Vocal Melodies
This is self-explanatory but worth mentioning on its own. Whenever a producer makes a beat, they have to make sure their 808 pattern is in the same key as the rest of the song. Metro Boomin’ is really good at making 808 patterns that sound great (here’s my guide on how to make sure your 808s are in tune, by the way).
Metro Boomin-produced bangers “Space Cadet” and “No Complaints” are good examples of his classic 808 patterns. And we can’t forget the 808s in Rich the Kid’s “Plug Walk.” I also like the 808 patterns on Post Malone’s “Zack and Codeine.” They are well defined and you can almost hear a reverb-like quality to them.
When a producer wants to round out the sound of the kick they actually increase the attack time on the kick. According to Anthony Albanese from LANDR, this is a good way to help your 808 bass pop from the other low-bass elements in your track.
Let’s listen to an example of these bass patterns harmonizing with the vocal melodies of Kanye West in ScHoolboy Q “That Part.” Contrast this harmony to the aesthetic in the well-defined kick sound of Post Malone’s “Motley Crew.” Each time the 808 and bass patterns hit, they’re are aligned with the harmony and other instruments and vocal melodies.
Important Things to Note About Hip-Hop and Harmony
1) Some People View Hip-Hop As One Giant Culture Which Rap Is Merely A Part Of
I didn’t want to make this article about semantics, so I added this section down here. There is a lot of variation in the genre due to personal style and preference. For instance, you could say that one rapper, on their own, actually can create harmony because they can just rap over a recording of a beat – which many of them do.
I’m thinking of Dreamville “Sacrifices” featuring EarthGang, J. Cole, Smino, and Saba. Rap by itself, or rap with only a beatboxer, is not as harmonically rich as other kinds of rap. Viewing hip-hop as a cultural phenomenon, and rap as its musical expression pushes us to approach and appreciate harmony in a new and interesting way.
It can include dance, rap, music, style, fashion, etc., whereas rap almost exclusively refers to rap music. According to MIDI Nation, the differences between rap and hip-hop do exist. In this view, while rap is a music genre, it is born from hip-hop. Hip-hop, in turn, is more than merely a musical genre. It is also a lifestyle and a way of life.