Radio Hits One: Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, And Other Urban Radio Staples Turn To Clappers
Lately, when I turn on a hip-hop station, I feel like I'm being applauded, and I don't always feel like returning the favor. I'm not referring just to the default use of handclaps (sampled or, more likely, emulated by drum machines) as snare drums in beats, which has been a common practice and has been prevalent since Lil Jon's reign in the mid-2000s. I'm referring to the fast and steady eighth note clap-clap-clap-clap pattern running through several current hits on Billboard's R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, including Big Sean's remix of "Dance (A$$)" featuring Nicki Minaj, which recently peaked at No. 3, and Rihanna's controversial Chris Brown-assisted remix of "Birthday Cake," which rocketed to No. 4 last week after only five weeks on the chart. I like to call these songs "clappers" in homage to both the sound-activated light switch and to the '60s Northern Soul scene, in which British fans of American R&B gravitated toward heavily rhythmic "stompers" that had a snare drum hit on every quarter note (think "I Can't Help Myself" by The Four Tops).
Why is this woman smiling? Because you're clapping along with her song.
"Dance (A$$)" and "Birthday Cake" call attention to the rhythm with repetitive monosyllabic vocal hooks that land on every clap ("ass ass ass ass," "cake cake cake cake"). And those two songs aren't the only clappers on the charts at the moment: Tyga's "Rack City" recently peaked at No. 5 on the R&B chart, while a mellower pop crossover clapper, "Ass Back Home" by Gym Class Heroes, peaked at No. 12 on the Hot 100 thanks to Top 40 airplay. In general, though, this is at the moment almost purely an urban radio phenomenon, one that's been increasingly unavoidable since Travis Porter's "Bring It Back" hit No. 18 on the R&B chart a year ago. Minor hits like "Why Stop Now" by Busta Rhymes featuring Chris Brown (No. 84) are crowding the field, and as we speak countless producers and rappers must be scrambling to jump on this groove while it's hot.
Of course, these relentless patterns rarely run through a whole song; they're usually featured on just the chorus, or just on half the bars of each verse (or even less, in the case of "Rack City"). And not all clappers feature actual handclaps: Jay-Z and Kanye West's recent R&B chart-topper "Niggas In Paris" featured a more traditional snare drum sound, but it still stomped down on the same rigid eighth note pattern as the aforementioned clap-driven songs, as did Beyoncé's critically beloved minor hit "Countdown," which peaked at No. 12 on the R&B chart. All these songs are widely varied in terms of BPM, the texture of the drum sounds, or in the rhythmic emphasis of the kick drum patterns underneath the claps, but that eighth note stomp is a constant throughout, a groove that was rarely heard on urban radio before 2011 and is suddenly inescapable in 2012. Over the years, many hip-hop songs have featured a hook based around handclaps, like "Make It Clap" by Busta Rhymes, "I Know What Them Girls Like" by Ludacris, and even the recent "Round of Applause" by Waka Flocka Flame. But those songs all featured quick clap patterns woven into the chorus, not as a steady rhythmic undercurrent.
There have been a number of eighth note clap patterns on urban radio before this recent wave, but they were less frequent, and didn't quite adhere to the same rigid groove. And often, they owed their sound to some regional hip-hop, dance or funk subgenre like Miami bass, New Orleans bounce, Baltimore club music, Washington, D.C. Go-Go and Chicago juke and stepping music. "The Cha Cha Slide" by Chicago's Mr. C The Slide Man came out of the stepping movement and peaked at No. 24 on the R&B chart in 2000. "Choppa Style" by Choppa and Master P, one of the last New Orleans rap hits to come out of P's No Limit Records, peaked at No. 49 in 2003. And Wale, a recently minted national rap star from Washington, D.C., has scored a couple of minor hits featuring both a hometown Go-Go influence and eighth note claps: "Pretty Girls" featuring Gucci Mane (No. 56 in 2009) and "Bait" (No. 2 on the Bubbling Under R&B/Hip-Hop chart in 2011).