The Changing Dialect of Hip Hop

This morning, I stumbled upon the newest music video of Irish hip-hop artist Lethal Dialect. Take a listen:

As you may notice, this young man raps in a thick Dublin accent. Anyone accustomed to American hip hop is likely to find the effect jarring; rap was, for much of its history, the exclusive linguistic province of African American Vernacular English. Yet the past decade has seen a number of artists use entirely different accents, with varying degrees of success.

The question, broadly speaking, is whether certain genres of music are inextricably linked to particular dialects. For example, it’s hard to imagine American country/western music sung without some type of twang. Along the same lines, can hip hop truly be considered hip hop if performed in a dialect different from the one that originally defined it?

Many would argue this is a stupid question. Heck, I might even argue that this is a stupid question. Yet I will confess that as much as I like British rapper The Streets, I am sometimes unsure of how to categorize the music he makes:

This strikes me as a very British style of music that is not entirely contiguous with the conventions of American hip hop. If musical instruments define certain types of music, it seems just as valid to define them by dialects. Pronunciation arguably has the same sonic uniqueness as, say, a banjo.

But I admit this is perhaps a pointlessly semantic line of questioning; music is music, regardless of what ‘genre’ it fits into. And for the record, I’ve found the recent spate of hip-hop artists of so many cultural backgrounds a really great development in music. It will be interesting to see what new dialects the genre will accommodate.

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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33 Responses to The Changing Dialect of Hip Hop

  1. Charles Sullivan says:

    Broadly speaking, I’d argue that hip-hop has more to do with certain drum and spoken rhythm patterns. And if I closed my eyes and didn’t know any better I’d say Lethal Dialect sounds vaguely like Jamaican hip hop.

    • trawicks says:

      It might make more sense to invert the question: what categorizes something as ‘hip hop’ in 2011? It’s similar to the question of what made rock music rock music in the 60’s and 70’s, when bands started deviating from the basic rock combo and incorporating strings, sitars and synthesizers. Hip hop features the spoken word as one of its primary instruments*, so I might argue that incorporating a new dialect or language is a bit like introducing a harp or a ukelele.

      *Although I’ve heard the argument that rap is only a component of hip hop, one that gained popularity to the point where people often mistake it for the genre itself.

  2. Danny Ryan says:

    Also, rap and hip hop are widely performed and enjoyed in other countries in different languages. It sounds authentic when performed in an accent of an underprivileged class of youths with a dodgy past (or future), whether performed in Turkish or Yougoslav influenced German or by the mostly Maghrebinian descended 2nd, 3rd and now fourth generation of kids in the Parisian suburbs.

  3. AL says:

    The different (non-AAVE) dialects add a very interesting spin to it, but I would definitely call both of these videos “rap.” The first one is also hip hop, and the second one might be, but its accompanying music might put it in a different genre (I don’t know what).

    I agree with Charles Sullivan, the rhythm and beat are important characteristics.

  4. trawicks says:

    @Danny,

    And to be fair, one could argue that AAVE was not the ‘original’ dialect of rap. The form is usually traced back to Jamaican ‘toasting,’ and hence a Caribbean dialect.

    @AL,

    Even in terms of rhythm, though, I feel like there has been a lot of deviation as of late. I’m afraid I’m not enough of a music fanatic to elaborate, however!

  5. CaitieCat says:

    I’ve definitely noticed that some languages lend themselves well to rapping, as they’re stuffed with rhymes due to grammatical features (inflection’s a big one). Russian and Spanish rap, among my own spoken languages, I find very enjoyable. Japanese can also be interesting, but my verbal/aural skills aren’t quite up to really following it well.

    Are they rap? Absolutely, just as the work of Linton Kwesi Johnson (technically ‘dub poetry’) is a form of rap. I adore LKJ, have for many years; if any of you saw the series “The Story of English” (link here: http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/story-of-english/), they actually did a segment on him. I think it was Inglan is a bitch they showed (link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zq9OpJYck7Y).

    As mentioned above, rap and hip hop are not at all necessarily the same space on a Venn diagram; they overlap, yes, but they’re not the same, and there are definitely elements of each that can be found without the other – dub poetry, toasting, reggaeton’s beat-based categorization.

    Really enjoying this post, as a long-time fan of ska/reggae-background music. Definitely agree that the “original” dialect for rap should be a Caribbean one, probably Jamaican patois. Thanks!

  6. Jamie says:

    Is hip-hop a (strict?) subset of rap? Dependent on the rhythmic and melodic style, perhaps.

    I would definitely classify The Streets as “English rap” rather than hip-hop.

    Incidentally, I couldn’t really identify Lethal Dialect as a Dublin accent despite being told that’s what it was.

    • trawicks says:

      My understanding was always that ‘rap’ was more of a subset of hip-hop than the other way around. The semantics of the genre are a bit confusing!

      Lethal Dialect speaks a variety of what people refer to as ‘local Dublin.’ In some ways, it isn’t easily recognizable as an Irish accent unless you’re used to hearing it. It is occasionally non-rhotic (meaning the ‘r’ is sometimes dropped at the ends of words), the vowels in words like ‘face’ and ‘goat’ are diphthongs (rather than monophthongs as they are in more stereotypical Irish accents), and the intonation strikes me as much more flat.

      • Josh McNeill says:

        Rap isn’t so much a subset of hip-hop as what an MC does over the music. I think the problem is that, in the 90s, “rap” definitely seemed to be the most common term used to describe the music (particularly with shows like Yo MTV Raps being prominent) even though “rapping” was only one aspect of the sound. When turntablist groups, like the Invisibl Skratch Piklz, started popping up, calling the music “rap” became inappropriate. There was no “rapping” in this music yet it was still clearly the same music. Combine that fact with the burgeoning “culture” of hip-hop that came to include dancing, art, etc, and you can see why the name would change (although I guess the word “rap” could have just taken on more meanings too).

        You can take this with a grain of salt as I’m not scholar, just an avid fan. Anecdotally, I can’t recall the last time I heard a hip-hop artist refer to their music as “rap”.

    • Craig says:

      Are you Irish? Because it would make me feel better to know that even Irish people have trouble identifying Irish accents sometimes 🙂

    • Qaoileann says:

      It’s definitely a Dublin accent (there are a few, and they can sound very different). But as a Dubliner, I had no problem identifying it as Dublin, though it may be exaggerated/moderated slightly to fit the song.

  7. The Chinese rap video featured on Language Log in 2009 is the only music of its kind I’ve ever really enjoyed. Rap isn’t my thing, but I’d consider buying an album of music like this: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=1179

    As for rap vs hip-hop, all I know is that around here, at least, “rap” has been a commonly heard term for significantly longer than “hip-hop” has been a commonly heard term. Which doesn’t tell you which actually came first, as the younger may simply have spread faster, but it does indicate why the claim that hip-hop came first is something of a surprise to me.

  8. Charles Sullivan says:

    If someone brings up ‘old school’ vs ‘new school’ rap or hip-hop, we’re f8cked.

  9. Lethal Dialect says:

    Appreciate the post, the accent is indeed a strong Dublin accent or ‘local Dublin’ as somebody referred to. As you said in your original post, rap is definitley of African-American descent, however alot of our influence comes from old irish ballads which, alot of it is at the same tempo as hip-hop, sometimes even faster and almost ‘rapped’ with a melodic delivery.

    Somebody said the track reminds them of Jamaican hip-hop. Funnily enough, a documentary I watched recently explains how it was irish slaves, sent to the Carribbean by Oliver Cromwell that influenced the Jamaican accent so maybe that could explain that. Poetry and spoken word ballads are very much a part of irish culture so hip-hop was the first musical genre I identified with.

    • CaitieCat says:

      Lovely to have you commenting here – do you have any video that has you just talking, rather than rapping? I’d love to hear more of this accent, because I’ve got to admit, I’d never have pegged it as Irish, let alone Dublin.

      Also, love the riddim, love the rap.

      • Paul Ó Duḃṫaiġ says:

        CatieCat,

        There are some samples on Youtube. I see for example some “shorts” done with people from the Liberties. These generally speak with “Local Dublin”.

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ulCx8s6jImU&feature=related

        For American readers you could call it the “Blue-collar” accent of Dublin.

        Been from the west of Ireland growing up I would have regarded Lethal’s accent as the classic Dublin accent, we thought those with a “New Dublin” accent were trying to sound British. (affected)

        • CaitieCat says:

          That’s fascinating, thank you very much! It sounds remarkably like a Newfoundlander accent, maybe someone from an outport or something. Wonderful!

        • trawicks says:

          I might also recommend this interview with singer/songwriter Damien Dempsey: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CGw-9bKRqhM.

          It’s a great clip, because you clearly hear the contrast between the interviewer (who speaks more ‘new’ Dublin) and Dempsey (who has more of the ‘classic’ Dublin accent).

        • Paul Ó Duḃṫaiġ says:

          Good example of “New Dublin” is economist David McWilliams, here he is talking bout property bubble in 2003 (4 years before it burst). Both him and “Lethal” could be called Dubs, but they have very different accents.

        • Paul Ó Duḃṫaiġ says:

          David McWilliams video — omitted in previous post

    • trawicks says:

      Thanks, LD! I really enjoyed the video. And forgive me for saying this, but it’s great to hear younger people who still speak ‘local Dublin’–glad to see it’s not dying out!

      The Caribbean countries definitely share a linguistic tie with Ireland, not only because of Irish settlement there, but also because both places maintain features of early modern English uncommon in the UK and the States. I’ve heard more than one person mention the similarity between the accents of Cork and Jamaica!

      • Lethal Dialect says:

        Appreciate it and yeah the accent is going nowhere, its still as prominent in the northside/working class areas of Dublin. We refer to people who speak in a newer Dublin accent as yuppies while they generally refer to us as commoners ha..Their accent is usually attributed to south Dublin upper class areas but working class areas on the southside would have the same accent as us!

        If you youtube ‘Black irish of Montserrat’ you’ll see them talking about the similarities between their accent and the Cork one.

    • gavin nagle says:

      Hey everyone! as a Cork person I noticed all my life the similarities between the Caribbean accents and that of the ones from the south of Ireland. I started visiting London years ago and i heard a song called ‘skeng’ a dubstep[ish] track [from ‘the bug’] about a hand weapon – immediately i recognised the Gaelic word ‘scian’ the Irish for knife. No coincident! Also check out a Doc called ‘redlegs’ or a book called ‘to Barbados or hell!’ . Or visit Ireland. The north side of cork city sounds like trench-town – no exaggeration.

  10. boynamedsue says:

    To be off topic for a minute, the video of the economist linked by Mr Duffy is interesting.

    The man may have a boring accent, but he picked the spin very early.

  11. Laura F says:

    Definitely the differents accents are notable in the two videos, and for sure are differents from the american RAP but for an rare and unknown reason I particular found ease to understand this RAP that the Americans, I’m actually impress by the many accents that can be foun around english, and how they are in a same language so different at the same time.

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  13. ASG says:

    I clicked through eagerly on this post hoping to see lots of “unexpected accents in hip-hop” recommendations in the comments. I was disappointed (but my disappointment was mitigated by the delightful appearance of Lethal Dialect himself).

    I’ll make a recommendation anyway. It’s not Irish, but to this Canadian listener it was equally surprising: Dan le Sac vs Scroobius Pip is a hip-hop duo you might like. Scroobius Pip (né David Meads) is originally from Essex, which I think makes his accent canonical Estuary.