This rare study found three key moments on the charts; the 1991 emergence of hip hop music on mainstream charts, the synth-led new wave movement of ’83 and the arrival of The Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Who and the rest of the Brit rockers in the early 1960s.
The study, that was published Wednesday in the journal Royal Society Open Science and was conducted by the University of London and Imperial College, found emcees from Afrika Bambaataa and KRS-One to Jay-Z and Andre 3000 were more profound than the lyrics penned by John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Bob Dylan.
They stated the rise of rap and related genres represents “the single most important event that has shaped the musical structure of the American charts in the period we studied.” On the other side of the coin, the study found that the British bands followed existing trends.
So how exactly did they do this study? They used 30-second bits of 17,904 songs that were on the Billboard Hot 100 list from 1960 to 2010. That represented 80% of all the songs that made it on the Hot 100 list during that 50 year span.
“But rather than focus on the kind of qualitative descriptions listeners might attach to their favourite songs”, explained the release, they “cataloged quantitative features that corresponded to chords, rhythms and tonal qualities.”
Each song was then assigned to one of 13 style groups, based on the pattern they found. They used Last.FM to double-check their classifications. By large, songs that the algorithms classified as Style 2, for example, had received Last.FM tags such as “hip hop”, “rap” and “old school”. Songs that the computer sorted into Style 8 had been described by listeners as “new wave”, “dance” and “electronic”.
This was when they found that hip hop was the leader. “That surprised me”, admitted Armand Leroi, an evolutionary biologist at Imperial College London, who helped oversee the research. “Being a victim of boomer ideology, I would have guess it was 1964.”
The researchers discovered that the stand-out bands didn’t bite the widespread changes associated with the genre of their era. Rather they accelerated those changes by popularizing new trends.
“You can say `this is really what happened'”, he said, “It’s not just, ‘things were really cool at CBGB’s or on the Sunset Strip back then'”.