I have a confession to make: I am a rapper. Or rather, I rap. I have an alter ego like Eminem’s Slim Shady. He enables me to say and do things that I would otherwise not get away with. His name is BadBoyYardie. He is a BadBoy, and he is a Jamaican Yardie. Or rather, he thinks he is a Jamaican Yardie. He also thinks he is black, but in reality he is white and comes from a suburban council estate in Hertfordshire; he is a straight up wigga.
I studied Popular Music for my undergraduate degree. One of the modules was called Songwriting and Performance. I was graded for songs that I wrote and for performances I featured in. In the third year we were set a task to write a protest song in an unconventional time signature (that is, anything other than 4/4). It was the same week that Russell Brand’s now infamous appearance on BBC Newsnight aired. It dominated headlines and social media threads (incidentally, this was back when Russell was largely a darling of the British media, indeed, before they turned on him for articulating serious critiques of their work). Our tutor asked us to base our protest songs on his anti-establishment sentiments.
Employing my alter ego, BadBoyYardie, I decided to write a rap protest song in the time signature of 5/4 (unheard of in the history of rap!). It was around the time that Eminem dropped Rap God, a six-minute song in which he raps 1,560 words. It was (and remains) an impressive song and I had been playing it on repeat for weeks. I figured: why not push myself and try to create something similar? So I tried. I constructed a one-chord baseline and a minimalist beat (similar to Rap God) and sampled audio from the speech in Charlie Chaplin’s classic film The Great Dictator (1940) (the libertarian sentiments in the speech are echoed somewhat in Russell’s Newsnight appearance, and in fact in all of his effusions). In true anti-establishment fashion, I called the song F*ck The S*stem. I wrote and recorded it in one night and spent the rest of the week editing, double tracking and tweaking elements of it. It was a pretty amateur affair; all done in my bedroom with an SM58 and my laptop. Before reading on, I recommend you listen to it here.
Making the Grade
The track is not professionally produced, but you get the idea. When I played it to the class the following week it was met with applause and praise from my peers who were of a similar age group (early twenties). My tutor, however, was quite a lot older and of a progressive rock persuasion. He was complimentary about the lyric and execution but believed it needed more ‘melodic variation’. When I submitted it for grading, he gave the song a 2.1. For the musicians and songwriters reading this, here is the feedback I received:
Lyrics: A really a totally lyric–driven rap piece, here [sic]. You say in your rationale notes that the lyric is a ‘mix of intelligence and deep humour’ – a fairly well justified description [he misquoted me here; I actually wrote ‘cheap humour’]. Like many songs in the genre, you use shock and outrage to make a variety of points, in this case laced together in a kind of fast, non-stop ‘rant’ in which you glide rapidly from one subject to another. The piece is performed with wit and a strong sense of theatre – driven by a rhythmic momentum that is both skilled and impressive. The various additional vocal overdubs are used highly effectively.
Melody and harmony: One repeated E minor chord. Although perhaps justifiable to use minimal harmony in a piece like this, it would, I feel, have been worth pursuing ideas that at least added some variety of textural interest to this one chord.
Arrangement (instrumentation/texture): The momentum is carried by the lyric and the song doesn’t follow any conventional structure. There is no use of repeated lines to create any sort of refrain or focal point for the song. In this context, I think this is justifiable given the ‘rant’ like, non stop (perhaps more a tirade, really) nature of the lyric performance.
Rhythm (pulse/groove): A pulsed Em chord and kick drum provide the minimal rhythmic underpinning for the song. The rest of the rhythmic interest is created, very successfully, in the setting of the lyric itself.
Coherence (overall stylistic/structural identity): A compelling sense of rhythmic and dramatic drive holds interest well.
This feedback is clearly positive overall, bar the suggestion it could have benefitted from a ‘variety of [melodic and harmonic] textural interest’. Sure, I thought, it could do with that, but so could a lot of songs these days. In fact, so could Eminem’s Rap God. Does that mean Eminem would get a 2:1? Personally, I believed it deserved a higher mark because, despite the amateur production, it was clearly a very intelligent, outrageous and technically impressive piece of rap, the kind that is unique and that few people would be capable of conceptualising, producing, writing (in one evening) and rapping all by themselves in the time signature of 5/4, within a week.
Protest Becomes Practice
Not being one to let the system beat me, I took action. Indeed, this was the first semester of the third year and a number of my peers and I complained to the faculty about our grades. Consequently, the rules were changed; all grades from semester one became provisional. We were thereafter allowed to rework the tracks we had submitted and resubmit new versions of them for final grading in semester two. As it happened, the tutor who had originally graded my song left the university by the time the second semester submission deadline arrived. Suspecting that the grading of these songs was somewhat of an arbitrary process, I cheekily submitted exactly the same version of F*ck The S*stem to be graded by a different marker. Hey presto! I got a first this time around. Again, for the musicians and songwriters reading, this was the new feedback from the new marker:
An utterly and completely compelling lyric, with the stream-of consciousness technique perfectly aligned to the subject-matter which is deployed with great creativity and commitment; the cut-ups also work wonderfully well. Both intelligence and humour (particularly welcome in this genre) are displayed. Musically it works perfectly well in service of the lyrics: for an even higher achievement the music would develop an identity of its own not simply in the service of the words.
My suspicion was correct: the grading of these songs was, and is, to some extent arbitrary; that is, one marker’s interpretation of a song may differ from another’s, just like all of our personal tastes do. This was an important lesson for me because it was evidence that markers – and processes of marking more generally – are not infallible. Furthermore, while markers may be guided by certain established marking criteria, these criteria are not immune from subjective interpretation by the marker.
But alas! Defenders of the system (i.e. your tutors) will reassure you that there is always a ‘second marker’ to ensure the criteria is abided by and that the first marker’s judgement is sound. But consider the following: the new marker who gave my song a first also happened to be the second marker when it was originally given a 2:1. There are, as far as I can deduce, three possible explanations for this: one) he simply capitulated to the first marker’s judgement, despite holding the contrary view that the song deserved a first (this explanation would render the second marker’s role obsolete); two) his thoughts and interpretation of the song evolved over time (this explanation would undermine the reliability of any established marking criteria, as well as the consistency of the marker’s judgement); or three) he simply had not listened to my song when he was the second marker and therefore approved the first marker’s grade without knowing it was disputable (again, this explanation would render the second marker’s role obsolete). Whichever way one looks at this, it does not reflect well on the marking process.
For me, this particular grade did not matter as I was already going to graduate with a first overall. However, if the margins had have been closer for me then the difference between a first and a 2:1 for that song could have meant the difference between graduating with a first or second-class degree. This in turn could have meant the difference between impressing a potential employer (i.e. getting a job) or not, or even being granted a scholarship (as I later was) to embark on further study. The ultimate point here is that in some cases the difference between a student’s success and failure may rest on the arbitrary, subjective distinctions of markers. My advice therefore to all students being graded for their musical compositions – or indeed any student engaged in the process of being graded for their creative works – is to ALWAYS challenge and question your markers and the grades they give you. Do not be afraid. As the late Christopher Hitchens, who himself graduated from Oxford with a third-class honours degree, once said: ‘picture all experts as if they were mammals’. Indeed, F*ck The S*stem!
P.S. for the final assignment, as a final F*ck Y*# to the system, I wrote, produced and submitted this song (do listen!). Needless to say, the genius of it ensured that the tutor had no choice but to award me a first. Again for those interested, this was the feedback:
The recording is highly effective and in its self-confessed postmodernism manner it anticipates its own critique (why an instrumental chorus when the key to most protest songs is a repeated refrain?) as well as revels in its contradictions (it is an accomplished pastiche that complains about having to accomplish pastiches). So, how to mark it? It is highly tempting to give this work a 2.1 grade. However, you are highly accomplished at playing the academic game even though you complain about it. This work successfully fulfils the assignment’s criteria and also displays originality. As such, it is deserving of a first.