A Conversation About Pitbull and the Electronic/Rap Fusion
Pitbull's anticipated new album, Planet Pit, hits stores this week. Its first two singles, "Hey Baby (Drop It to the Floor)" and "Give Me Everything," have dominated pop-radio playlists for months, with the latter charting at No. 1 in several countries.
The Miami rapper is yet another example of how the worlds of dance-pop and hip-hop are intersecting. Pitbull has dabbled in both genres for years, as have Flo Rida, Lil Jon, Kid Cudi, Gorilla Zoe and many others. But while rappers increasingly rhyme (and sing) over progressive house and trance-inspired beats, more critics and fans are complaining that it's all just bad pop music made by cynical record labels for an undiscerning audience.
During a lively instant messenger chat, three Rhapsody editors Rachel Devitt (Pop, Latin and World), Mosi Reeves (Hip-Hop and R&B) and Philip Sherburne (Electronic) discussed the merits of Planet Pit, and why it doesn't necessarily represent the best that the new electronic/rap fusion has to offer.
Mosi Reeves: I want to talk about Pitbull's album Planet Pit. I think it's interesting how much electronic music has cross-pollinated with pop music in general and rap music (or at least the mainstream side of hip-hop) in particular. That's not to say that Pitbull's album is a watermark, but it's reflective of this trend that's built over the past few years.
Philip Sherburne: Would it be appropriate to define what we mean by "electronic music," briefly? Because of course hip-hop is also "electronic music," as is most pop. Not that I disagree with the conventional wisdom that pop and hip-hop have "gone dance." (Apologies in advance for all the scare-quotes.)
Rachel Devitt: Sounds like a good idea. Philip, do you want to offer an initial definition? I'm not super-familiar with the official terms for various types of dance music, so I guess I often just use more descriptive language to try to explain what I mean when I talk about it.
P.S.: Well, electronic dance music is always a shifting landscape, but I think it's pretty easy to identify the influence of house and trance in Pitbull (plus of course The Black Eyed Peas and countless other artists in the dance-pop sphere). You've got your four-to-the-floor beats, your oonce-oonce hi-hats, and that's pretty much all you need to know.
M.R.: I think there are distinctions between electronically produced music and electronic music as a specific genre. You could argue that pop-dance, or mainstream club music, is closer to the electronic genre than, say, pop or hip-hop.
P.S.: Definitely, Mosi. I mean, mainstream club music basically branched off from disco and house in the same way that other genres, subgenres and tendencies in electronic dance music did.
M.R.: But I think we're parsing here. Pitbull is seen as a hip-hop artist, not as a dance artist, but he and many others are blurring the lines between them.
R.D.: Something I kept wondering is if the kind of dance pop-icization of pop in general is different than the dance pop-icization of hip-hop. So like, The Black Eyed Peas are making similarly dance/electronic-music-inundated music, but they've been more closely associated with pop than hip-hop for a while now. Whereas Pitbull I think still continued/continues to have a closer association with hip-hop.
P.S.: So what makes Pitbull a hip-hop artist?
M.R.: Good question. I think it's his attitude as well as his past discography and history with Miami bass, Luke, Lil Jon and crunk, etcetera.
R.D.: Yeah, I think a lot of it is self-identification. I feel like B.E.P., for instance, have actively identified themselves with pop, whereas Pit continues to identify as a hip-hop artist to some degree.
P.S.: Mosi, you were in Miami for a time; did you see a lot of crossover between the hip-hop and dance scenes there?
M.R.: When I was in Miami (in the mid-2000s), the hip-hop and commercial dance scenes were fairly separate. In fact, I remember in 2009 when Diddy took Xzibit to Space, which is one of the bigger after-hours clubs there, Xzibit subsequently told rap blogs that he went to a gay club!
But it's interesting how dance music has replaced crunk and street hop as the genres of choice in nightclubs. And even guys like Pitbull want to be where the action is, as opposed to losing audience by sticking to street rap.
R.D.: Well, he's definitely something of an unabashed trend-jockey. And I don't mean that in a negative way. I think he's just been pretty pop-oriented for a while, and pop is a game of following trends, to some degree.
I wonder how much of the transition has to do with Pitbull's Latin music identification/influence, though. I feel like a lot of this album is very dancehall-, reggaeton- and Latin dance/hip-hop-oriented.
P.S.: I suppose it's arguable that Latino audiences may be more amenable to various genres of dance music than other segments of the American population.
R.D.: Well, I meant more musically/aesthetically, not ethnically/culturally.
P.S.: Fair enough. But electronic dance music has definitely been a much stronger force throughout Latin America than in the U.S., for years. And the reggaeton rhythms also intersect with what's popular from "Dutch house" right now. Possibly just an accident, but it makes the crossover much easier.
R.D.: I think reggaeton and dancehall have always been more dance-oriented and electronic music-friendly than a lot of domestic hip-hop-affiliated genres. It's a particularly syncopated four-on-the-floor the way Pitbull kind of trips up to the off-beats. That's what sounds Latin to me.
P.S.: Right. And that's also what's big in Dutch house right now. Big, loping, reggaeton-style snares.
R.D.: Classic reggaeton is slower, but contemporary reggaeton has been speeding up considerably. Though that, too, may be the result of house/electronic music's influence ?
M.R.: Can you mention a few songs with that style, Rachel?
R.D.: Sure. The "Shake Senora Remix," for instance. Yes, it's a play on this kitschy Harry Belafonte thing "Jump in the Line (Shake Señora)" but it's also got a really similar beat and sound to what, say, Don Omar is doing right now. But again, chicken or egg, you know? That's maybe not the best example since it's hard to hear it without hearing calypso. "Oye Baby" is a better one, maybe.
P.S.: Ha, nice way to phrase the question. I have to admit I really don't know Murk terribly well. Though "Pause" is, indeed, one of the more tolerable songs on the album, to my ears. On "Pause," to me, at least the sonics are interesting; I like what they do with the booming 808 in the drop.
M.R.:I think this is a good way to address the elephant in the room I mean, is this music any good? Or is it just lowest-common-denominator stuff? To preface there's a huge debate in hip-hop over whether this music is "real hip-hop," or just sellout material.
And yes, there are some shades of "anti-disco" and homophobia in the discussion, too.
P.S.: I mean, I really don't want to use terms like LCD, because everyone has the right to their tastes. But I also really don't like most of this stuff, and I'm trying to articulate why, without falling into a knee-jerk "the underground is more real!"-type argument.
Taking it back to Diddy one interesting thing is that he has definitely logged his hours on the dancefloor at clubs like DC-10, which is sort of Ibiza's headquarters of "underground" house music. But most of what you're hearing here, and in B.E.P. et al, is a much glossier, more commercial sound.
M.R.: Is it too pop?
PS: What I don't care for is the predictability the snare rolls, the rushing white noise, all these cues to trigger a reaction from the audience. I mean, Robyn is pop, but I hear a more interesting take on dance music in her songs.
R.D.: I don't love it either, and I'm the pop editor. But I also can't quite put my finger on why. I think part of it for me is that I kind of lose Pitbull as a figure/personality in it all. And pop is so much about personality.
P.S.: One thing I don't really care for is Pitbull's persona. Like, when he addresses the listener as "b*tch" in the opening "Mr. Worldwide," it's like why am I supposed to care about you again?
M.R.: I mean, Pitbull is true to his name, right? He's a bit of a horndog, like the overly aggressive dude humping on all the girls.
R.D.: Yeah, but I feel like even that gets kind of drowned out by shtick, you know? Or just becomes folded into it. Even literally sometimes you hardly hear him on some of his own tracks. Or at least you hardly recognize him.
P.S.: I think where he works best is as pure voice he does have a great voice, and when he's growling and purring, it works really well, in terms of pure sonics.
R.D.: I agree with that, Philip. It's one of the things I always liked or was drawn to about Pitbull. And that's part of what I feel like gets railroaded here. I'm all for trend-jockeying in pop, but not at the expense of persona, if that makes any sense. Even the hyper-sexuality just feels a bit phoned-in here, you know? I don't know. I'm not sure that's exactly it either, but I also feel that something about this album just doesn't grab me.
P.S.: What did you guys think about the Diddy Dirty Money album?
M.R.: Um, I didn't care for it because of the Auto-Tune. I thought some of the female vocal arrangements, like "I Hate That You Love Me," as well as Drake's guest spot on "Loving You No More," were nice. Unlike some hip-hop fans, I really like dance music. But I haven't really found current rap that successfully fuses the two, with the exception of Diddy's work with DJ Hell and some of Kid Cudi's tracks.
P.S.: What you say is funny, because of course hip-house is a testament that they CAN work together.
M.R.: But hip-house is so '80s! I guess I'm talking about current rap.
P.S.: Sure. I can't think of a ton of successful crossovers except of course for grime, which turned into a "purer" kind of hip-hop pretty quickly.
M.R.: Pitbull is like the modern version of hip-house, I guess. I hate to keep repeating this, but aggression is so ramped up in modern hip-hop that it doesn't allow for the kind of femininity that made hip-house so great.
P.S.: That's too bad ... those dudes need to listen to more Dam-Funk. Not that he's feminine, but his whole persona oozes humility. Dam-Funk is all about giving it up for his predecessors, as opposed to the macho world-domination fantasies of Pitbull et al.
M.R.: Rachel, what do you think? Have you heard any records that successfully blend electronic and hip-hop?
R.D.: Not really. I was trying to go through the charts to look for examples, actually, and there isn't a lot. The thing is, a lot of charting hip-hop artists aren't doing it, it seems. Would you agree?
And I did keep wondering if it had to do with the way genres are currently gendered kind of in line with what you were saying, Mosi, about contemporary hip-hop being skewed so masculine-aggressive. The electronic music movement has been most closely associated with pop stars and with feminized pop genres in particular, I feel like.
M.R.: Lil Wayne, Drake, Kid Cudi, Kanye West ... they've all done dance tracks. But it has less to do with adopting the "softer" sounds of electronic pop that using it as an expression of macho sexuality. Kid Cudi is a notable exception.
P.S.: Although in Pitbull, a lot of the danciest elements are trance music in its fluffiest, most melodic form. A very "feminine" touch, I think it's fair to say.
M.R.: I think Kid Cudi actually fuses the "lose yourself" ethos of nightclubbing with a hip-hop sensibility. But I never get the sense that Pitbull ever loses himself in the music. He's always aiming for some kind of reward, whether it's women or money.
P.S.: That's something interesting to talk about this ethos of nightclubbing. Because pop dance, lately, is all about "the club" ... "Dance tracks about dancing," I believe the Village Voice called it. I think it's instructive to compare Kid Cudi's "Memories" with Pitbull's "Give Me Everything" they're both about anticipating events we'll remember later. It reminds me of an MIT professor who recently wrote a book about social media, noting how you used to experience something, then share it ... and now, on Facebook, people don't feel like they've had the experience until they've shared it.
Anyway, I was thinking specifically of Pitbull's lines "I might drink a little more than I should tonight, and I might take you home if I could tonight" and how they compare to "Memories." It's all about the club as this free zone of libidinal impulses. And yet it's all in the future tense.
M.R.: But Philip, I think club music has always been about an adventure of sorts.
P.S.: Sure, but now it's like an adventure with CliffsNotes attached. "This is the part where we do JÃ¤ger bombs."
M.R.: Is that because rap lyrics are so specific that they spell out the impulses instead of inferring them?
P.S.: Sure, maybe. I mean, I've always gravitated toward instrumental dance music, so I'm definitely biased here. But it's like they're in the car with Rebecca Black, figuring out whether to choose the front seat or the backseat.
P.S.: First listen, The Cataracs sound like a vaguely hip-hop-influenced version of electroclash.
M.R.: Rachel, what do you think about The Cataracs, Ke$ha, etcetera? Do you see that as separate from this thread? Perhaps I'm casting the net too wide here.
R.D.: Yeah, that's what I was trying to get at way back at the beginning is this movement in hip-hop different than the movement in music that's more closely associated with mainstream pop? (Ke$ha might be an interesting case study on both sides of the argument.)
M.R.: I think they're similar ... it all concerns a return to uptempo dance beats as a dominant club/pop style.
P.S.: And then there's also dubstep's incursion into mainstream pop, whether Britney or Katy B ...
R.D.: Right. I definitely feel like that's part of the same family tree, but not the same branch. I actually think Ke$ha and Dev come off (or want to come off) pretty hip-hop-influenced. Maybe dance/electronic music (and its current relationship to hip-hop) then becomes a point of entry for a white girl like Ke$ha? Whereas I feel like Britney, for instance, was specifically trying to align herself with dance music and specifically, with gay club music. Or gay club scenes, anyway.
P.S.: Is it cynical of me to assume that much of this is determined by focus groups and marketing managers?
M.R.: Uh, perhaps :-)
P.S.: Dance music is hot, Ke$ha needs a differentiating factor, hey! We'll give her a "dance" angle. Pitbull's guest roster definitely has a whiff of the boardroom to it.
M.R.: I think a lot of this is more organic than you think. I've been to some of these clubs, and not to sound corny or anything, but this is how people live music.
P.S.: What kind of clubs does this stuff get played at? That's something I've never understood.
R.D.: Places where Kardashians get paid to go?
P.S.: Like, the Billboard Hot Dance Airplay chart has nothing to do with any club I've ever seen in my LIFE. I realize my perspective is limited, but still.
M.R.: I would say that club life in major metropolitan cities and smaller cities can be very different in terms of choices. For example, if you want to go to a dance club in Sacramento, Calif., you're going to one of those clubs where Flo Rida and Ke$ha get played every hour. Whereas in major cities, you can probably avoid them.
I also think that many people go to dance clubs for that kind of experience: lots of flirting, eye candy, dancing to loud music. Like you said, Philip, it's like a CliffsNotes version of "this is what I do at a dance club."
P.S.: I'm sure there are kids throwing underground parties in Sacramento, they're just not reporting to Billboard! But yes, point taken.
M.R.: But I want to summarize here before we go too off-track. It seems like you guys are pretty dismissive of this whole trend?
P.S.: Not if you mean the potential crossover between hip-hop and dance music, no. But it would help if the rappers would listen to better dance music!
I mean, Timbaland here's a guy who could bring together strains of electronic dance music with hip-hop in a totally mind-blowing way. And even Kanye's last album has some breathtaking production on it. But I don't hear much taking of chances on the Pitbull album.
R.D.: I think the gendered aspects are really fascinating, but I just haven't found much to grab onto yet. Sonically, I mean.
P.S.: You know, I thought Marc Anthony was a woman on "Rain Over Me." Which made the whole "let it rain" all the stranger. Also, I totally imagine divas voguing during the breakdown on "Pause." But I think those gendered tangents are probably just in my imagination.
R.D.: I like that image for "Pause!" Now I'm going to see that every time!
But I mean, the gendered aspects of hip-hop artists taking up this kind of dance-pop, I guess. Which, to me anyway, is represented much more strongly and more closely associated with female artists and feminized pop genres on the charts.
I also and let me reiterate here that I'm not really very knowledgeable about electronic music cannot help but hear gay dance clubs in so much of this stuff. More so with the mainstream pop artists' take on it. And definitely more so with the dubstep-leaning stuff. But then it's hard not to hear the relationship of, say, Pitbull to J.Lo, especially since they reiterate it.
M.R.: Sure, and I think that you could look at Pitbull and, say, Ke$ha as two sides of the same coin, except that women still have the opportunity to make less rigid gender statements in pop music. I guess men's roles have grown so formulaic because their masculinity is constantly at stake.
R.D.: I totally agree that's what's fascinating about it! Seeing someone like Pitbull try to negotiate these gender politics is really interesting. I just don't find the music on this album super-fascinating.
So maybe it's the threat to hip-hop and/or Pitbull's own brand of masculinity that makes him be more conservative in his explorations of the hip-hop/dance music overlap?
(p.s. I first totally accidentally typed "sexplorations!" ha!)
M.R.: I think people in the U.S. still don't get electronic dance culture(s). They see it as a one-dimensional thing.