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$$)” featuring Nicki Minaj, which recently peaked at No. 3, and Rihanna’s controversial Chris Brown-assisted remix of “Birthday Cake,” which rocketed to No. 4 last week after only five weeks on the chart. I like to call these songs “clappers” in homage to both the sound-activated light switch and to the ’60s Northern Soul scene, in which British fans of American R&B gravitated toward heavily rhythmic “stompers” that had a snare drum hit on every quarter note (think “I Can’t Help Myself” by The Four Tops).
“Dance (A$$)” 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).
In 2007, Beyoncé’s “Get Me Bodied,” featuring a clap-happy groove by producer Swizz Beatz, peaked at No. 10 on the R&B chart; even though it was a moderate hit, it proved to be quietly influential. In 2008, Beyoncé scored a huge chart-topping smash with “Single Ladies,” which was produced by Tricky Stewart and The-Dream and seemed to build off of the same rhythmic engine as “Get Me Bodied.” The-Dream went on produce one of the biggest recent clappers, Rihanna’s “Birthday Cake.” And last year, first lady Michelle Obama drafted Beyoncé to re-record “Get Me Bodied” as the more kid-friendly “Move Your Body” for a campaign to combat child obesity. “Countdown” came out in 2011 as well.
But I would say the real seeds of the modern clapper were planted by another minor but influential hit. Soulja Boy’s 2008 single “Donk” was one of several lesser hits that the rapper dropped in between his career-defining smashes “Crank That” and “Turn My Swag On.” Though “Donk” only peaked at No. 37 on the R&B chart, its presence on urban radio always seemed larger. And if the word “donk” hadn’t soon after been used to denote another hyperactive musical movement (by Blackout Crew’s Brit dance novelty “Put A Donk On It”), I might be tempted to use that phrase to describe what I’m instead calling clappers.
A year after the Soulja Boy track hit, the ascendant Nicki Minaj used the “Donk” beat as the backdrop for one of her breakout mixtape tracks, “Itty Bitty Piggy.” And in recent years, Minaj has become the queen of clappers: in addition to her scene-stealing appearance on Big Sean’s “Dance (A$$),” two of the promotional singles from her upcoming second album ride hyperactive eighth note claps. “Stupid Hoe” peaked at No. 53 on the R&B chart, and “Roman Reloaded” peaked at No. 57. Even her deep-cut appearance on Drake’s 2009 album Thank Me Later, “Up All Night,” was something of a mellow variation on the clapper; it peaked at No. 59.
Along the way, several outliers in the eighth note clap sound have made waves on urban radio, blips that have no clear relation to the current bubble. “Bad Boy This, Bad Boy That,” the sole hit by Da Band from MTV’s Making The Band 2, peaked at No. 15 in 2004. Jamie Foxx’s “Number One” featuring Lil Wayne only hit No. 7 on the Bubbling Under R&B chart in 2008, and its frantic Just Blaze-produced beat seems to have predicted current clappers even if it probably wasn’t popular enough to influence them. And Kanye West’s 2010 single “Power” (No. 22 R&B) was a widely heard song with eighth note claps, but it also has a much different and slower groove from subsequent clappers. Some of the four-on-the-floor European dance sounds recently flooding U.S. pop radio utilize quarter note claps, but Rihanna’s “We Found Love” rides both a different groove and a distinctly different musical tradition than “Birthday Cake.”
In December, I found myself looking back on the sound of pop in 2011 and having the strange realization that something as ordinary as whistling had quietly become ubiquitous on the chart that year. I joked then, “Perhaps by this time next year we’ll be talking about a sudden flurry of chart hits driven by humming or animal sounds.” But it turns out that my prediction was a little too fancy, and that something as banal as the sound of two hands clapping was already beginning to dominate the airwaves.