2009-01-29

"A Milli", The Clave and Diatonic Rhythms

Note: This post disappeared off the server for no identifiable reason. I'm reposting it again (saved through the magic of Reader) in the hope that it was a random blip and not a DCMA takedown. (The DJ Phabyo track dissappeared earlier today, maybe DivShare and Blogger have a deal?) I'm also attempting to repost Wayne's comment, and mine.

Wayne's incessant posting on A Milli-type clones got me revisiting just what makes Lil' Wayne's A Milli great. The idea of using small, syllabic vocal samples to build up a groove is hardly new, and the genealogy inevitably includes some prog rock mellotron samples, and more relevantly this and this, but the totally rhythm-oriented use in A Milli makes it stand out. I made a comment over at Wayne's that it somehow reminded me of Baile Funk, and pulled up a random file for my computer to prove it:

DJ Phabyo - Ta Pensando O Que Boladao


About 1:14 into this file there's a section where the vocalist goes (and excuse my transcription because I don't speak portugese) "um-pa-da um-pa-da um-pa" and so on, which reminds me very strongly of A Milli.

Of course, the number of syllables and how they're used is not exactly the same. But the nature of their use is very similar. If you could the number of syllables per word in the track above you get 3, 3, and 2, which (noting the equal length of all the syllables) corresponds exactly to the 3+3+2 pattern which is prevalent in dancehall. Now, the A Milli beat goes like this:

Counting the syllables here we've got a 3+3+3+3+2+2 instead, or perceptually probably closer to a 3+3+3+3+4. This is another pattern that is very common in electronic music.

So what does 3+3+2 and 3+3+3+3+4 have in common? There's a very insteresting account of this in a book called "Unlocking the Groove" by University of Pensylvania scholar Mark J Butler which I've recently read. Butler claims that rhythms like these have two very distinct qualities. First, they're what he calls diatonic rhythms: they're the ideal way of distributing an uneven number of drum hits over an even number of beats - 3 hits in 8 beats for 3+3+2, and 5 hits in 16 beats for 3+3+3+3+4. (In this sense they're similar to diatonic scales that distribute 7 tone values over 12 semitones, hence the name.) Second, the "unevenness" helps establish meter by breaking the pattern of straightforward beats - you get the feel of a new measure being established when you hear one beat "too little" in 3+3+2 or one "too much" in 3+3+3+3+4.

It's not an unconvincing argument he makes (read the book!), but I think there might also be a historical reason for the affinity between these two rhythms and the frequency of their appearance, which A Milli demonstrates very well. The 3+3+3+3+4 pattern is joined and strengthened in some bars by a snare drum pattern:

In other bars the drum pattern is a basic crunk-influenced one, with a kick drum and a hand clap/finger snap. Now, as Wayne has demonstrated so marvellously in his Another Crunk Genealogy, this pattern is essentially a clave. What I'm considering is whether the snare drum pattern above can't also be read as a kind of clave. Look at all the longer notes present, the three dotted crochets and the dotless ones, and they correspond directly to the famous cuban rhythm.

Could it be that the 3+3+3+3+4 pattern in A Milli and other electronic music, which is only marginally different from a Clave anyway, is connected historically to it? Or the reverse, that they both derive from a similar source? I know a lot of people know their rhythm theory a lot better than me (though I'd like to learn more), so maybe someone out there has an answer for me on this one...

4 comments:

Repost of Wayne's comment said...

The snare pattern in "A Milli" always sounded like a straight up 3:2 clave to me, as does the drumline in "Drop It Like It's Hot" (which I compared to the "A Milli" beat in that post-"Milli" post).

As far as drawing a direct genealogy between them, that's a little trickier. It's quite possible that there's a connection, at least insofar as southern US music (i.e., precursors of crunk) long has had that "Spanish tinge" that Jelly Roll described as essential to jazz and which Bo Diddley directly bequeathed to rock'n'roll. New Orleans rhythms in particular have been a big part of US pop/dance DNA, which does carry forward into techno too (esp via electro-funk; check Cybotron's "Clear" for another 3:2 clave kick pattern).

But perhaps an equally plausible argument is that there are only so many rhythms under the sun, so many ways to chop up an even or odd measure with even or odd units. In that way, Butler's "diatonic rhythm" concept suggests a more -- dare I say? -- universal quality in such patterns.

Birdseed said...

Yes, it would help explain their spread way beyond the afro-caribbean sphere. And it goes down deeper into the perceptual and why these rhythms are appealing. Still, I'd never thought I'd hear an ethnomusicologist support an argument that builds down from a conceptual flight of thought rather than up from observations! :)

The interesting thing about the snare drum pattern is that it's both kinda a clave and a kinda a 3+3+3+3+4, since it hits both the differing beats with equal emphasis. Also, of course, the other two rhythms are respectively a straight 3+3+3+3+4 and a straight clave. Maybe that's part of what makes A Milli work?

w&w said...

Yeah, we're usually pretty hesitant to affirm universalist/non-ethnographic/non-local theories, but these rhythms are so widespread that they really suggest something simpler/deeper at work.

Anonymous said...

I've always thought of 3+3+3+3+4 as a doubled up 3+3+2,which is very common in ragga.I think part of the strength of it is the waiting for the 4.Might I suggest the 'Hard Drive' riddim?