AP Lang and Comp
May 9th, 2019
When listening to rap music in this day and age, the wonder of the ad-lib is unarguable. A large percentage of new hip-hop being released is more or less reliant on ad-libs for the success of their music. The ad-lib has been a part of rap since its beginnings, but the way in which ad-libs have been used has changed drastically throughout the history of hip hop.
What is an ad-lib?
The word ad-lib comes from the word Ad libitum, the Latin word for “at one’s pleasure” or “as you desire”(Merriam-Webster). Ad-libs are normally used in hip hop as short pieces of improvisation, often in between verses and in the background; ad-libs are essentially used as fillers.
Many hip hop historians point to James Brown’s screams and yelps as the major inspiration for hip-hop’s energetic ad-libs (Morel). James Brown, The Godfather of Soul, and other artists thriving in the 60’s,70’s, and 80’s often used a call-and response style with live crowds as a variation of an ad-lib. Often times, these crowd chants would make it on to the final track.
An example of this technique is shown in the lyrics of 1980’s rapper Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks”.
The crowd’s replies are shown in the parenthesis. The call-and-response method is shown here by Blow encouraging the crowd to engage by asking them to respond to his cry. The call-and-respond improv was used widely throughout the period, in gospel music, jazz, and of course, rap.
Throughout this period, ad-libs were used as a stylistic choice, rather than as a filler on the beat.
After the 80’s, the use of ad-libs began to take off. Hip hop group Public Enemy’s Flavor Flav became known for the phrase “Yeah boyeee!” using whenever he saw fit, and giving the listener a break from the rush of political lyrics. Throughout this period, ad-libs were used as a stylistic choice, rather than as filler on the beat. This discrepancy in the way ad-libs are used is one that truly differentiates pre 1990’s ad-libs from the ad-libs of the future.
The Emergence of Crunk
Emerging in the early 90’s, the sub-genre of Crunk music put the use of ad libs on a pedestal. Crunk is an uptempo, club style of music originating in the south, especially Atlanta, Georgia. Crunk music usually involves hoarse chants and repetitive, uncomplicated refrains. The simple lyrics are based on a rhythmic bounce, which is very effective in a club environment (rapbasement.com). Artists such as Lil Jon and Three 6 Mafia led the Crunk movement.
Lil Jon spoke about the motives of Crunk in an interview, “To hype the verse up even more we’ll go behind the verse and we’ll like lay, WHAT WHAT WHAT and that’s basically what we would do in the club”(Genius). This was proven to be successful, as Lil Jon’s YEAHHH!’s and OKAY!’s carried 5 of his songs to the billboard top 10 throughout the years 2000–2005, most notably “Yeah” by Usher featuring Lil Jon and Ludacris, which became an instant classic.
Trap takes over
Ad-libs once again increased popularity with the emergence of trap music. Trap music is a style of hip-hop that sprung out of the southern rap scene in the 1990s, especially in Atlanta. by the signature beat style — stuttering kick drums, hi-hats, 808s, extensive use of synthesizers, and less overall focus on intricate lyricism(Adaso).
Pioneers of trap music such as Jeezy, Gucci Mane, and T.I refashioned the use of ad-libs, as they became a critical part of their music, influencing many young rappers such as future, young thug, whose ad-libs are their most memorable features.
One particular song however, truly put the use of ad-libs into the mainstream. Grammy nominated rapper Drake recorded a verse for the up and coming Atlanta rap group Migos on their 2013 release “Versace”. After the Drake remix, the song went viral, entering the billboard top 100 and showing the world the Migos’ unique, ad-lib heavy style. After this song, it was clear that there had been a stylistic change throughout hip-hop, with artists such as Chief Keef, Lil B, Rich Homie Quan, and many others using the ad-lib generously.
The current state of the ad-lib
Currently, ad-libs are being used more than ever. The ad-lib has become such a phenomenon in hip hop, it is not unusual to hear an ad-lib after every single verse in a song, often adding up to over 100 ad-libs. Migos’ #1 hit Bad and Boujee (Featuring Lil Uzi Vert) was another occasion in which the ad-lib was globalized, but this time more prominently than ever. In this iconic record, there appears to be an ad-lib after each verse in the worldwide hit.
For those who had not been aware of the Crunk and Trap movements, Bad and Boujee was the introduction of the ad-lib for many listeners world wide. The song was frequently played on just about every radio station, and was dubbed “The best song ever” by Donald Glover at the 2016 Golden Globes. The success of this record led to comparisons, many calling Migos “the beatles of our generation”. Bad and Boujee was also nominated for “Best Rap Performance” at the 2017 Grammy Awards, but was beaten by Kendrick Lamar’s, also ad-lib filled “Humble”.
“ Ad-libs provide a rhythmic counterpoint to the lead vocal, for one, and act as a running punchline to the lyrics” (Raymer).
Migos poster boy Quavo is known as one of the masters of the ad-lib in the rap game, his 2017 joint album with fellow ad-libber Travis Scott drew much media attention. Currently one of the most popular rappers in the game, Scott, too, is known for his ad-libbing. Scott is credited for popularizing the phrase “It’s Lit!”, his favorite ad-lib, which he throws into just about every song. Many music gurus feared that the combination of Scott and Quavo would be too much ad-libbing, but apparently, there is no such thing, “When Travis takes a breath on a verse and you expect to hear nothing, Quavo comes in and fills the void in the most satisfying way. It makes the song carry and flow more succinctly. And it adds energy and presence that wouldn’t otherwise be there”(Maleki).
Quavo and Scott essentially leave no space without sound, keeping the energy flowing throughout the whole track. Travis and Quavo’s joint album debuted at #1 on the billboard charts for hip hop albums, once again proving the popular nature of ad-lib heavy rap.
“What was once seen as a silly one trick pony to some, has been taken, and realized as a genuine sonic tool”(Maleki).
Other notable artists known for their abundant use of ad-libs include Lil Pump, Playboi Carti, and Lil Uzi Vert, all three extremely successful.
“Ad-libs are so ubiquitous, they have become the focal point of certain hits. The ad-lib has become just as important, if not more than the verses in the songs” (Morel).
Many artists seek to develop a signature ad-lib, unique to them so that listeners are assured and can easily identify who is rapping. In this day and age, many rappers are rapping about the same few things: money, jewelry, designer clothes, women, and guns. A rapper developing a signature ad-lib is often a way to differentiate their music from everyone else. One example of this is Miami rapper Rick Ross, who uses his trademark chesty grunt repeatedly in the majority of his music. Dubbed “the holy grail of ad-libs” by billboard, the Rick Ross grunt has become a recognizable ad lib in the rap game; when one hears the signature “Uhn!” it becomes clear that Ross is on the track.
Rick Ross’ grunt helped define rap in the late ’00s, becoming as popular as his features themselves, and one of the most imitated ad-libs among rap fans (Maher).
Often, a rapper’s signature ad-lib gives off a lighthearted, comical vibe. Funny ad-libs draw in listeners and make it difficult not to sing along with the track. One especially unique signature ad-lib comes from Blocboy JB. The Memphis rapper famously coined the phrase “That’s on my momma” and can be heard frequently in most of Blocboy’s tracks. 18 year old miami rapper Lil Pump has recently popularized his catchphrase “Esskeetit”. Although slightly comical, the ad-lib is undoubtedly catchy, leading to many fans adapting Lil Pump’s lingo and using such phrases in normal conversations.
Contemporary ad-libs are evaluated on a range of qualities: funniness, the element of surprise, and the odds that you’re going to rap along to them instead of the main vocal”(Raymer).
Although many rappers have their signature ad libs, it seems that the same few are used throughout most of the songs being released as of late. A few of the most widely used mainstream ad-libs include “skrrt” “yeah” “aye” and “drip”. While the repetitive use of generic ad-libs has been described as “annoying” and “unclever”, it is clear that ad-lib filled music is selling a tremendous amount of records, and winning awards. Worldwide selling artist Cardi B recently won the 2019 grammy award for album of the year. Cardi’s “Invasion of Privacy” is filled with her signature ad-libs “Okurrr” and “Owww” that millions of fans around the world have come to love. The ad-lib is clearly a fan favorite.
How did it change?
From James Brown’s grunts and screams to Cardi B’s humorous clamors, the role of ad-libs throughout the history of hip-hop has greatly changed. The sheer amount of ad-libs being used is one significant difference, however the way in which artists are using them is the most symbolic. The ad-lib is now used as a tool; artists insert catchy, often playful ad-libs to keep energy flowing in the track, and leave no space for silence. Ad-libs have also become a useful way to differentiate artists based on their signature ad-lib sounds and style. Year by year, the ad-lib is being increasingly infused into the culture of hip hop.
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“Ad-Lib.” Dictionary.com, Dictionary.com, www.dictionary.com/browse/ad-lib.
“Ad Libitum.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ad%20libitum.
“Crunk Music.” Rap Basement, 6 Oct. 2006, www.rapbasement.com/hip-hop/genres/crunk-music.html
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“Migos (Ft. Lil Uzi Vert) — Bad and Boujee.” Genius, 27 Aug. 2016, genius.com/Migos-bad-and-boujee-lyrics.
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pump, Lil. “Lil Pump — ‘ESSKEETIT’ (Official Music Video).” YouTube, YouTube, 12 Apr. 2018, m.youtube.com/watch?v=DPxL7dO5XPc.
Winkie, Luke. “10 Best Migos Songs.” Red Bull, Red Bull, 31 Jan. 2017, www.redbull.com/us-en/top-10-best-migos-songs