The Gen-Z Clave
The popular rhythm of the 2010s
George Michael’s 1987 classic, ‘Faith’ is one of the most recognisable songs of the ’80s, a catchy bop composed with an interesting interlocking combination of musical elements.
What are these elements? Like most songs, we have the melody, the harmony, the rhythm and the lyrics. Usual suspects. But those components alone don’t make Faith, well…Faith. Something is missing. There’s something that ties all these musical components together in such a unique way that made ‘Faith’ the #1 US single of 1987. What’s this magical musical device called?
Part 1: What is Clave?
Clave is a rhythm that underlies beat music, but it is not the beat itself. Clave is what makes us dance, but it is not what we tap our feet to. Clave is a fundamental rhythm to music, but we may not hear it in the song. Clave as a sonic reference point, a guide, a musical knot that ties all the elements of a song together. Clave makes music feel bouncy, danceable and most importantly, fun. Without Clave, music may be dull & sluggish. Just as an architectural clave, the Spanish word for ‘keystone’ holds structures together, a sonic clave holds music together.
Alright, it’s getting a little pretentious here. Let’s make this more tangible.
There are two main types of Clave: Son & Rhumba Clave, among others. For this article, we’re going to focus on Son Clave. Son is what the guitar plays at the beginning of George Michael’s “Faith” and looks like this:
Son Clave is commonly called a ‘3/2 Clave’, as the first bar contains 3 notes, whereas the second bar contains 2. However, Son clave can be played backwards, a ‘2/3 Clave’ as you can hear in the keyboard at the beginning of Hall & Oates’ ‘You Make My Dreams’.
Straight forward? Let’s move on.
A (very) brief History
Clave originates from Africa, being a central aspect of the African Diaspora, carried to other cultures through the Transatlantic Slave Trades. From here, Clave made its way to Cuba, where Cuban musicians synthesised it into their traditional music. Eventually, jazz musicians travelling to Cuba heard this Clave, and took it back to America, developing Clave through second-line, big band and bebop jazz. However, it wasn’t until Blues musician Bo Diddley released his self-titled 1955 single that Clave began to be popularised in western music. From this, Clave made its way to modern-day pop music, with help from artists such as Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen and many more.
A catchy beat, no doubt. It’s the right mix of being simple enough to dance to, but complex enough to sound like ‘world music’ and make people think they’re more cultured than they really are.
But is that where this Clave stops? Of course not. Look at your scrollbar; you’re only halfway through the article.
Part 2: The Gen-Z Clave
“Faith” as you heard before, is arguably the most popular song with a Son clave. The Clave is played as notated above, without any alterations or alternatives. Seems fine enough. Works for Amy Winehouse.
But recently, things have been changing a little.
Enter: The Gen-Z Clave
Here’s The Black Eyed Peas’ 2009 classic ‘Boom Boom Pow’.
You can hear the Son Clave in there, but it’s sort of….different. Here’s the notation for the rhythm.
There’s a Son Clave, but there’s also one note extra. Cheeky.
You can hear this rhythm in every drum fill in ‘Boom Boom Pow’. It’s bouncy, it’s danceable, and it’s catchy. Almost as catchy as Fergie’s lyrical genius
Boom, Boom, Pow was certainly not the first pop song to use a Son clave, nor was it the first to use the Gen-Z Clave either. But what the Black Eyed Peas did was use this Clave very clearly, unobstructed by other instruments, making glaringly evident that it’s there. Judging by Boom, Boom, Pow’s chart performance, people seemed to like it, and other musicians soon took notice of it. Not long after, this rhythm was popping up in hit songs all over the place. Here are some of the more popular songs, year-by-year:
- In 2010, ‘Fireflies’ by Owl City charted at #30
- In 2011, ‘How to Love’ by Lil Wayne charted at #23
- In 2012, ‘Paradise’ by Coldplay charted at #69
- In 2013, ‘Royals’ by Lorde charted at #15
- In 2014, ‘Chandelier’ by Sia charted at #25
- In 2015, ‘Blank Space’ by Taylor Swift charted at #25
- In 2016, ‘Closer’ by The Chainsmokers & Halsey charted at #10
- In 2017, ‘Thunder’ by Imagine Dragons charted at #51
- In 2018, ‘Meant to Be’ by Bebe Rexha & Florida Georgia Line charted at #3
- In 2019, ‘Without Me’ by Halsey charted at #3
What do all these songs have in common? Aside from making the Yearly Billboard Top 100 chart, all of these songs use some variation of the Gen-Z Clave.
There are some variations to the pattern in each song; some extra notes, some missing notes, little differences and alterations. Listen to ‘Thunder’ — hear that extra kick drum? Or the chorus of ‘Chandelier’; same thing there. What about ‘Blank Space? The Clave is only played every second bar. ‘Fireflies’? The Clave is only played in the verse, and only in the second bar of each four-bar grouping.
What’s the main difference between these and the earlier songs, such as ‘Faith’ and ‘Valerie’? The Clave is much more subtle, often implied, rather than stated. The music doesn’t contain all the notes of the Gen-Z Clave, only some of them, creating a sonic illusion of a rhythm that’s not exactly there.
Listen to the Chorus of ‘Love Yourself’ by Justin Bieber.
Can you hear the Clave? It’s there, in the guitar. But most of it is missing. The guitar merely outlines the Clave by playing some of the notes, but not all of it. Where’s the rest of it? Well, you have to feel it, just as the musicians do.
The Gen-Z Clave: The subtle heartbeat of post-millennium pop.
If you want to listen to any of the music in this article, check out the companion playlist below on Spotify. Enjoy.