I think, broadly, that genre can be defined in two ways, and most people tend to prefer the worse one.
The preferred definition of genre is that different types of music can be distinguished by sound. This is not actually wrong; improvisation and riffing are typical of jazz, rhythmic declamations and breakbeats are hallmarks of hip-hop, and house can be easily recognized by its tempo and time signature (120 beats per minute and 4/4 respectively).
But while this is a satisfactory understanding of genre in that it lends classification an element of objectivity — a 12 bar sequence and a I-IV-V chord structure indicates the blues as surely as blue litmus turning pink indicates an acid — it is woefully incomplete, and often simply incorrect.
The other means of identifying genre is to look at the music in context, as a cultural object. This understanding of genre relies on knowing who makes the music, who they make it for, and who it is about. This is more accurate but less satisfying, because who music is by, for and about can be very subjective questions that say as much about the classifier as about the music classified.
But it is a necessity. For instance, look at hip-hop. Of course, there are broad sonic elements that identify a music as being hip-hop, such as rapping, syncopation, sometimes sampling or breakbeats. Yet hip-hop has been so successful in soaking up outside influences that it’s impossible to identify a set of sonic characteristics that make it hip-hop. Compositions created using drum machines and synthesizers like Lil’ Jon’s “Get Low,” Clipse’s “Grindin’,” or Dead Prez’s “Hip-Hop” don’t have much in common sonically with sample-based songs like De La Soul’s “Eye Know,” 2Pac and Dr. Dre’s “California Love” or Kanye West’s “Through the Wire,” or with the songs produced largely with live instrumentation like those of the Roots, Mannie Fresh or Pimp C.
And yet, “Get Low” clearly shares something with, say, Nice n Smooth’s “Sometimes I Rhyme Slow” that it does not with Fischerspooner’s similarly synth-driven “Emerge”; “Eye Know” exists in the same classification as 50 Cent’s “In Da Club” rather than with a similarly sample-based work like Garbage’s “Stupid Girl,” and although both Rivers Cuomo and Mannie Fresh are contemporaneous artists who work with live bands, neither will be confused for the other at any time in the near future.
So what makes hip-hop hip-hop? It can’t be the beats; Nas’s “Queens Get the Money” is beatless, as is every one of millions of decidedly hip-hop a cappella freestyles. And rapping is neither a distinguishing feature, nor is it necessary; Devin the Dude, Kanye West, Pimp C, Biz Markie and Nelly have all been known to make use of a vocal style that is closer to singing than rapping, while the unmistakably rapped “One Week” by Barenaked Ladies is never going to be confused as hip-hop, even though its lyrical structure is more complex than Run DMC’s “It’s Tricky” or Soulja Boy’s “Crank That Soulja Boy.” Even music that fits better under other sonic umbrellas is recognizably hip-hop: see Kid Cudi’s Euro-dance “Day N Nite,” Snoop Dogg’s country novelty “My Medicine” and the pan-generic dabbling of any Roots live show. Jim Jones didn’t suddenly become indie rock when he rapped over MGMT. Body Count sounded like a metal band, but Ice-T remained a contemporary of Ice Cube, not Metallica.
Better than trying to understand hip-hop as a set of sounds is to see it as a cultural product that is, as Toni Morrison calls, “A conversation among and between black youth from one part of [America] to another,” or, as Imani Perry puts it:
“The manner in which the music became integrated into the fabric of American culture was as a black American cultural product, through an overwhelmingly black American audience (no longer the case) and using black American aesthetics as signature features of the music.”
Of course, hip-hop is also made by, consumed by and uses some artistic ideas created by non-black Americans (and there is a vast diaspora of hip-hop worldwide that has hybridized this African American artform with local cultures), which is why understanding genres as cultural ideas rather than musical ideas is less satisfyingly simplistic than separating them by strict sonic elements. But the sprawling idiosyncrasies of hip-hop, as well as many other genres, are better understood as being unified by culture.
For example, this also works excellently for indie rock (what does Pavement really have in common with Phoenix or Death Cab for Cutie or The Replacements or No Age?) and teen pop (try looking for a common sonic thread connecting Aly & AJ, Britney Spears and New Kids on the Block). Ever since Billboard discarded the term “race music,” pop music made by black people has been labelled “R&B,” to the extent that it is still extraordinarily rare for a white singer to adopt that tag or a black singer to escape it. And though a cultural definition of genre should never discard sound entirely — metal has a lot to do with suburban white boys, but it also has a lot to do with distorted guitar riffing and displays of virtuosic talent — it should treat it as one more element contributing to an understanding of the whole.
Now, I’m going somewhere with this, which we’ll see over the next couple of days. I’ll just finish with a thought that perhaps as important as culture is in understanding genre, so too are dominant business models; the underground economy of hip-hop, the boutique industries that are independent rock labels and the classic top-down structure of teen groups from boy bands to Disney stars. Yet culture can also render business models meaningless; mainstream stars like Jay-Z remain hip-hop working within the mainstream economy; Modest Mouse is as indie as ever on Sony (a reminder that definition should not be confused with etymology); and MySpace is full of teen pop acts without a svengali, a label or a teenage audience. Still, you won’t see them getting signed to Sub Pop any time soon. Culture overrides all.