Rap sheets: putting Puff to paper

Finding sheet music to today's rap music hits isn't easy, but it's out there, complete with profane lyrics (and even melody).

June 13, 1999|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,Sun Staff

"Beware thoughts that come in the night," wrote William Least Heat Moon in his cross-country odyssey, "Blue Highways." In honor of Writer With Four Names, also beware thoughts that come over lunch at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Why, a journalist -- gobbling pinkish salmon in yellow rice -- might hatch a question such as: Is there sheet music for rap music? The question diabolically sets in motion other questions. If rap sheet music exists, what does it look like? And who sells it?

"We don't. We stay away from violence and profanity. I don't know anyone who carries it," says a helpful woman at Shubert Music in Pikesville. They have many music books -- will even mail you music -- but they don't do rap.

Other area music stores also recoiled at the notion of selling sheet music featuring, for example, the rap of such artists as DMX, Master P, Public Enemy or Mobb Deep, whose new CD is titled "Murda Muzik."

Perhaps, then, rap sheet music is only a figment of our over-fed imagination. Perhaps beginning piano players or vocalists will never have the opportunity to study the musical renderings of Insane Clown Posse or Snoop Dog. Instead, beginning musicians might forever be stuck with the sheet music to "I'll Be Home for Christmas" or Billy Joel's "Piano Man." Or, forgive them, the sheet music to Titanic's "My Heart Will Go On."

Before the dim light of our idea went out, though, we did in fact find rap sheet music. Bill's Music House in Catonsville gladly held for us a music book called "Puff Daddy & the Family 'No Way Out' (for Piano, Vocal Guitar)." A quick study of Puff Daddy's "I Got The Power" sheet music reveals this isn't our daughter's sheet music to "Beauty and the Beast."

The notes for "I Got The Power" consist mainly of a flat line of X's -- not whole notes or those notes with those little flags attached to them, just X's, measure after measure, scary X's. (You can picture Warren Beatty in "Bulworth" rapping to it.) The X is not a musical note at all but a rhythm notation. You could set a drum machine to it.

Then, there are the lyrics published beneath the X-shaped notes:

... Shorty bop the wolop, in the spot with the dollop.

Pot full of acid, I got the game mastered.

Move dimes, hit twenties addicted to gettin' money.

It could be a hundred degrees and never look sunny ...

You know, Shorty, maybe rap music isn't made for sheet music. In truth, it's an uproarious mismatch. The conventional tempo instructions on these unconventional songs seem superfluous. "Moderately slow, with a beat" is the cue for Puff Daddy's "Is This the End?" Does one have to be reminded to play rap music with a beat? While reading rap music, musicians aren't likely to stumble on valse moderator (moderate waltz tempo), largo (slow and stately) or andante (walking speed). Just play it forte!

The eclectic publisher of Puff Daddy's music is Hal Leonard, a leading publishing company out of Milwaukee that produces sheet music for hundreds of artists, from the Beatles and Metallica to Disney and George Strait. The company publishes sheet music for two rap artists, Puff and Will Smith. And no one appears to be clamoring for more.

In fancy economic terms, rap sheet music doesn't sell. For instance, the sheet music to Smith's mega-hit "Gettin' Jiggy Wit It" sold 1,500 copies, says Keith Mardak, Hal Leonard president. Not bad for a rap song. But they sold about a million copies of the sheet music to "My Heart Will Go On."

If people want the lyrics to rap songs, they can buy the CD. They don't need the sheet music. Also, Mardak says, sheet music is mainly driven by love songs or movie and Broadway themes. Rap is more spoken than sung.

"There's really no melody," Mardak says. "What are we going to print?"

Then there's the pesky business about the sometimes bleeping lyrics. Puff Daddy's songbook contains some rough (and genuinely interesting) language, and some music stores have returned the songbook to Hal Leonard because of the language, Mardak says. "But we're publishers -- not censors."

He's been around all kinds of music for a long time; rap doesn't scare him. Remember, he says, even the golden age of melody and lyric had its steamy side.

"Remember Cole Porter's 'Let's Do It'?" Mardak asks, and then starts crooning into the phone: Birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it ... We all know what's going on here.

Here's an idea: For fun, remix Porter's classic with instructions for a medium groove and maybe add a loop of flat-lined X notes. Throw in a melody from another hit song, and you've produced a Cole "Puff" Porter rap song. Maybe Hal Leonard would publish the sheet music.

And remember all you beginning piano players, play it with a beat.

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