Thursday, October 23, 2008

Rappers Use Robot Voices To Talk About Feelings

When Bob Dylan "went electric" at the 1959 Newport Folk Festival, fans were (allegedly) in tears. The controversy was this: how could a pillar of folksy authenticity take up a less-human, futuristic, piece of technology known as the electric guitar. Robots and trees just don't mix, so to speak.

Hip-hop, by in large, does not have this kind of moral dilemma. Hip-hop was born in the age of the synthetic beat and the sample, and as a result, the usual schism between technology and authenticity seems much less relevant.

Of late, there has been a veritable explosion of hip-hop artists using phase vocoder technology to modulate the voice, making it sound like, what can only be described as "slightly robotic" (example here). Interestingly, many of the songs that employ the phase vocoder are about feelings. These songs are no doubt on the emotional (or emo) end of the hip-hop song spectrum.

Why is this? In some ways it is easier to get emotional through a text message than over the phone or in person. The"less-human" the form of communication, the more emotional we can get without feeling vulnerable. Maybe for these hip-hop icons, it's easier to get emotional when you sound like a robot.

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