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24th February 2015

Feature: The Virtues Of Hip Hop Masters

We spoke to University of Manchester student Louise Middleton, whose research shows that rhyming patterns come as second nature to some of hip hop’s biggest stars

As Louise Middleton walked into The Mancunion office last week, few would immediately dub her a hip hop enthusiast. Calm yet joyful, impeccably dressed though still very young-spirited, Middleton doesn’t fit the type which society would usually associate to the angry, belligerent songs emblematic of the genre.

Still, Middleton recently produced a research project into hip hop language which received local and national media attention and her passion for the musical style is as evident as it gets. Her intention in conducting the project was exactly to break the stereotypes surrounding the genre:

“I did the project because it made me annoyed that people thought that hip hop was so basic and so stupid. I was really fed up of hip hop being viewed so negatively because I don’t think there is much of a reason for that.”

Middleton examined the tracks of artists including multiple Grammy award-winner Eminem and Public Enemy, finding that the rhymes that make them superstars are so intuitive they are not within their conscious control.

She examined the rhyming structures in rap music looking at rhyming patterns, vocabulary size, rhyme rate and the position of the rhyme in or across lines. This was compared with the frequency of half-rhymes, which use similar but not identical sounds and indicate a more natural capacity for rhyming and rapping than the more traditional rhymes taught at school.

“You know when you’re a child and you get asked what rhymes with this or that? You say cat, and then what rhymes with cat? Mat, bat, et cetera. And you notice that they all have that same pattern.

“With half-rhymes that is not what you have at all. For example, you could have rock and hop. So that final consonant sound is different. It doesn’t match up.”

The high vocabulary score and high prevalence of ‘imperfect’ half rhymes and unique sentence structure, over and above the use of more traditional and deliberate rhyming couplets, proved the theory that rap’s biggest stars find their success in their ability to rhyme subconsciously.

“My research found that over 70 per cent of the time artists used half-rhyme. These imperfect rap rhymes are not something that you simply come up with on the spot but something that popular rap artists have the natural ability to create.

“I think that hip hop has the most sophisticated use of rhyme of any genre and when written down and it reads just like poetry.”

The project was developed for Quantitative Research Methodology, a third year module in the Linguistics undergraduate degree at the University of Manchester. Middleton initially suggested several different project themes to her lecturer, who accepted the hip hop one with enthusiasm.

“I couldn’t believe that he took me seriously, not in a bad way, but it was just so nice. Some people would just laugh at you or turn their nose down at you but he was just like ‘no this is cool, go for it!’ and then actually suggested some papers for me to read.”

Dr. Wendell Kimper, the lecturer who supervised the project, said: “Louise’s research helps us to understand how our brains process and understand sounds. It opens up other avenues of research which could allow us to find out why some kinds of rhyme come more naturally than others and why some kinds of sounds work better as imperfect rhymes than others.”

Asked about her plans for the future, Middleton is straightforward: “Hopefully I’ll be starting my Master’s in Linguistics in September here. I would love to write all about this and maybe I will, who knows?”

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