How Timeless Human Emotion Connects Beethoven to Hip-Hop

Photo by Matthew Daley

Photo by Matthew Daley

Another evening spent in rush hour traffic as you head home from work. As usual it seems the radio stations blend together as you endlessly flip through them quietly praying to either find something good to listen to or for the cars ahead of you to finally start moving. As begin crawling forward you are greeted with the same ad for some local furniture store you have heard on five other stations you switch stations yet again, you finally find something worth listening to as possibly the most famous four notes in music history emanate from your car's stereo. The opening of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony no. 5 in c minor, op. 67, the bone chilling short short short long motif hits you but something is wrong. You know this is Beethoven’s Fifth but the opening motif is accompanied by a sharp electric snare from a drum machine; something obviously not in the original work. Then the ominous wail of police sirens begins, you hurriedly check your mirrors frantically searching for the cops but you don't see any. Just the same slow moving pack of cars you have been with for the past twenty minutes. Beethoven’s familiar theme fades away as you're still searching for the source of the sirens, wondering if you need to try and get out of the way, then the electric drum kit picks up the pace. Your ears are assaulted by the fast paced 90s style hip-hop sound,

Photo by Wikimedia user Kallgan

as a frantic funk bassline enters just as the police sirens fade and you are left listening to the lightening rhymes that leave you dizzy. Later, you find out that the song is “Battle Creek Brawl” the debut single of the British hip-hop group Gunshot. Still you are left with so many questions; Why did this song start with the opening motif of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony? Were the police sirens all a part of the song? But most importantly what possible link could there be between  Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and a 90s hip-hop group? That last question hangs in the air, it seems like the stretch of a lifetime to connect Beethoven and a 90s hip-hop group from Britain. A seemingly large stretch that in reality leads us to a connection that is much simpler than it may seem, the feeling of paranoia.

Photo by Wikimedia user Sry85

Paranoia Eats the Maestro

Photo by Flickr user Mike H

Photo by Flickr user Mike H

Ludwig van Beethoven is a musical genius known the world over for his incredible impact he has had on the world of classical music and also for the fact that for much of his life he was actually deaf as he was composing many of his monumental works. When he wrote Fifth Symphony his deafness was beginning to become an increasing burden on every aspect of his life. In a letter he wrote he stated that he was going to “seize Fate by the throat; it shall not bend or crush me completely”. This has widely become the understanding of the overarching musical meaning of the Fifth Symphony, with the short short short long opening motif becoming known as “Fate knocking on the door”, shortened to the Fate motif. This reading of the Fifth Symphony was first suggested in the early writings of Anton Schindler, Beethoven's assistant and an early biographer of his.

Ludwig Van Beethoven, Bust by Hugo Hagen c.1892

Fate knocking on the door is an incredibly ominious way to read life, always waiting scared to open the door. This paranoid outlook is something not abnormal for Beethoven. It in fact could be described as a clear marker of his personality. A personality that was a culmination of Beethoven’s life experiences. Peter J. Davies explains this in his book “The Character of a Genius: Beethoven in Perspective” writing; “In Beethoven the predisposing factors which led to the development of a paranoid personality were a cruel, inept father who was particularly sadistic toward him as a child; a mother who, while active in managing the household, did not protect him from his father’s cruelty”.  With this basis of Beethoven’s childhood, it is clear that he exhibits the textbook building blocks that lead the development of paranoia. Davies even later dedicates an entire subsection of his chapter on Beethoven’s paranoid personality just to the effect of Beethoven’s deafness on his paranoia as he says the hearing impairment can have a profound effect on paranoid inidividuals. “It has long been established that paranoid tendencies are aggravated by hearing impairment”. This unfortunate string of events making Beethoven increasingly paranoid during his life after writing the Fifth Symphony, as his deafness couples with his unfortunate homelife to make quite the strong cocktail of feverish paranoia.

Ludwig van Beethoven, portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820.

From the Fifth to Five-O

Photo by Tony Hisgett

Photo by Tony Hisgett

Beethoven’s paranoia, while in his case was rather extreme, is something that many people can relate to. Whether it be the encroaching fear of deafness, the paranoia of forgetting something important, or the fear of the police all fall into the same spectrum of feeling that is paranoia. The song “Battle Creek Brawl” by the UK based hip-hop group Gunshot, was the debut single released by Gunshot in 1990, with it receiving a fair amount of acclaim. The pairing of Beethoven’s Fate motif with the wailing police sirens is not a stretch for the song and is clearly intentional. A pervasive theme of early 90s hip-hop, and much of rap today, is the tense relationship between the rappers, generally from minority backgrounds, and the police. In the second verse of the song this is even highlighted with its opening being “Classed as a minority treated as a reject, if I sold my soul to the charts would I get respect?”. This blatant reading of the paranoia laiden opening motifs of Beethoven’s Fate motif and the police sirens is only reinforced by this bar.

Along with this we can take Peter J. Davies psychological definition of what breeds a paranoid mental state through what he said about Beethoven’s family life and easily transcribe it to police minority relations. With understanding Beethoven’s father, who as Davies states was a “cruel, inept father who was particularly sadistic toward him”, is easily transcribable to police. Simply substitute the word father for cop, and you could have a typical view of the police minority relationship of police brutality. So while Beethoven feared an existential death of “Fate knocking on the door” in the form of his deafness, something that would possibly rob him of the entire meaning of his life, we can also hear the paranoia that brims around the sound of the police sirens that, to some, signify the fear of a literal death. It is clear that from Beethoven’s Fifth to the modern day Five-O, there is a shared experience of looking over one’s shoulder in a constant state of paranoia.

Photo by Wikimedia user Diliff,_London_-_Feb_2007.jpg