Soul Sides / Sliced: Breaking Beats Down

Breaking Down: Cypress Hill's "How I Could Just Kill a Man"

Cypress Hill: How I Could Just Kill A Man (Ruffhouse, 1991)

Click on the audio player on the right to initiate the breakdown of "How I Could Just Kill a Man." Annotations will appear automatically as the song plays. Let the song play out and follow the annotations. Then come back and read this:

The following is a commentary provided by Professor Loren Kajikawa, a musicologist at the Univ. of Oregon, who I asked to provide some additional insights into the song:
I've been thinking lately about Tricia Rose's description of rap music as "flow, layering, and rupture," and I think Cypress Hill's track exemplifies that concept through moments where the beat gets changed up, or it just drops out for dramatic effect.

The ruptures keep things interesting, and I think they create moments of tension and release as the song unfolds. In Western classical music, tension and release are discussed as purely harmonic phenomenon, for example, a dissonant chord that needs to be resolved. It's Beethoven's skills at managing these harmonic changes that music theorists have devoted the majority of their time to analyzing.1 No wonder rhythmically sophisticated music like hip hop has been dismissed as uninteresting for its "repetitiveness."

But hip hop producers DO create moments of tension and release in their tracks. And one way they do so is by managing the layers in their beats, adding and subtracting them at key moments. Doing so calls attention to certain words or points in the song-making that make them stand out. For example, "Hummin', comin' atcha...don't you know I have to gat-cha'!"

This "rupture" in the established beat highlights those lyrics and adds greater emphasis to the idea that B-Real and Sen-Dog are hungry to pop a cap in that ass. Furthermore, when the beat returns, it feels as if the energy has been taken up a notch, even if technically speaking it's the same loop that was playing before. I think we could look at a lot of the changes in the beat this way: do they contribute to a build-up in tension that has some dramatic effect? Do they function as a release that marks a certain moment as significant? Although we often think about beat making as the completion of something--like a dope 4-bar loop--these changes remind us that a producer's job is also about managing change over time. Producers are, after all, producing songs, and I think these elements deserve more attention.

A few other things that stand out to me when I listen to this track:

1) The basic beat has such powerful swing. The hi-hat in the Manzel drum sample has a rhythmically diffuse sound, the opposite of a crisp, clean hit. Instead of a very precise attack--tic, tic, tic, tic--you get: tsshhickkkk-tsshhickkkk-tsshhickkkk-tsshhickkkk.

I don't know if it's because the hi-hat was partially open when it was struck, or if the drummer, Steve Garner, was smashing the shit out of them with his sticks (a drum-playing friend suggests the latter), but it gives the song a rhythmic backbone that bounces.

Add to this the "Tramp" guitar chord coming down like a hammer on the downbeat (or "one") and the vocal sample pulling us back up on the "and" of the third beat, and you have a fundamental syncopation that makes this a certified head nodder.

2) The use of panning effects. Listen to this song with headphones and it sounds like they're moving that "dentist drill" from one ear to the other--through you're brain of course. "Insane in the membrane" indeed.

3) The electric guitar loop in the chorus sampled from Jimi Hendrix's "Are You Experienced."

I can't help but hear this in the context of 1991 when the electric guitars of the heavy metal era were rapidly losing ground to rap music. As a historian, I see it as symbolic of this huge shift in popular culture. Consider how different the use of rock guitar is here from Run-DMC’s “Walk This Way.” In '86 Def Jam was engineering rap's break into the mainstream by aligning it with rock; by '91 rap has its own place in popular culture and the electric guitar is just one of many sounds a producer can choose from. That said, I do think the electric guitar sample brings with it some associations that perfectly match the theme of song: "something you can't understand."

In the sample's original context, Hendrix's guitar solo is actually the evidence that he's "experienced," which could have meant having achieved a higher level of consciousness through sex, LSD, or other countercultural rites. Although few listeners of "How I Could Just Kill a Man" would have recognized the origin of the sample, it nonetheless contributes to a vibe that sounds powerful, manly, and just crazy enough, perhaps, to put a “hole in the head.” Many listeners in 1991 would have heard the sample as a sound borrowed from rock, where the electric guitar symbolized, among other things, power. For headbangers in the late 1980s, the electric guitar solo was often a phallic display of bravado, or for darker acts, even a flirtation with madness or the occult—associations Cypress Hill would hardly be in a position to disavow.

4) How entertaining this song is. Despite the theme, which is supposed to be threatening, the track is suffused with humor; not explicit jokes per se, but a levity embedded in its sound. I can hardly think of a more fun group, despite the violent and confrontational lyrics. I'm sure others that listened to hip hop and hung out with people who listened to hip hop in the 1990s can confirm this. Cypress Hill was (and is) good party music.

In his thoughtful critique of recent efforts to canonize rap as poetry, Kelefa Sanneh suggests a possible reason for Cypress Hill’s humor by calling attention to the percussive, musical elements of rap that often threaten to “deemphasize the meaning of a word by emphasizing its sound.” “Rapping,” he explains, “is the art of addressing listeners and distracting them at the same time."

B-Real's and Sen Dog’s flows ride the beat in such a way that what we end up paying attention to is less the words' literal meaning and more what Jay-Z would call their “rhythmic argument.” Take, for example, the call-and-response chorus: B-Real’s line decelerates from sixteenth-notes ("here is some-thing you can't") to three eighth-notes ("un-der-stand") that lag deliciously behind the beat, setting up Sen Dog to deliver the title lyric in a rapid-fire syncopated pattern that begins just after the "Tramp" chord. The two phrases compliment each other perfectly, transforming a violent lyric into an infectious hook. Add to this both rappers’ (but especially B-Real’s) unique vocal qualities and the song features a truly captivating range of sounds.

1Even Dr. Dre is a fan.

What the heck is Scalar?

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