Sunday, May 29, 2011

Hip hop is like chess

As with minimalism and spectral music, I respect hip hop as a genre and I'm glad that others are out there exploring its creative possibilities, but I'm not too interested in getting into it myself. At its core, it's fundamentally defined by its near absence of many of the things I enjoy most about music. Meanwhile, I have been getting more and more into chess, and I now spend a decent chunk of my downtime playing it on the computer, reading up on openings and strategies, and trying to solve various chess puzzles. So I found it interesting the other day when I drew an analogy between hip hop and chess.

Hip hop in relation to melodic pop music is like chess in relation to competitive athletic sports in that they both require fewer discrete skills. There's no limit to how far one can develop and master those particular skills, of course; but in terms of quantity, there are just fewer of them. A rapper doesn't need to practise staying in tune, just like a chess player doesn't worry about the fine motor skills needed to advance a pawn. For this reason, they can concentrate all their focus on those few skills that do matter in their respective fields.

This makes it easier to start out, but also tougher to stand out. With fewer means to branch out in ways that are uniquely interesting, it becomes that much more important to be exceptionally good, to be the best of the best within a narrow range of abilities. This seems like an impossibly Herculean chore to me, because what happens when you reach a plateau? In such cases, I find it helpful to have the option of switching my attention over to other areas. And oftentimes, the fresh perspective I gain from this allows me to tackle and overcome my plateau in the previous area when I finally do return to it.

Taking a break from songwriting and working on this comic book, for example, has really improved my spatial visualisation, helped me to appreciate fine details, and given me ideas for exploring analogous relations between colour theory and harmony. Everything I do to make my music better also benefits me in ways greater than the sum of its parts. I don't actively try to make that happen with my progress in chess. Don't get me wrong, I love chess, but it's really just a fun pastime for me; it won't get me anywhere in life, and I enjoy it for that reason.

So my conclusion is that different genres and disciplines offer different prospects for advancement, and a general rule of thumb is that these prospects are inversely related to the ease in which an individual can start out already looking fairly competent. You love what you love, of course, but all things being equal, if you're hoping for recognition then it seems most advantageous to plant your feet in a genre that encompasses a wide range of components--and then, on top of that, to always lean with one foot poised to step out further.