Why hip-hop is interesting

The title of this post is also the title of a tutorial I’m giving at ISMIR 2016 with Jan Van Balen and Dan Brown. The conference is organized by the International Society for Music Information Retrieval, and it’s the fanciest of its kind. You may be wondering what Music Information Retrieval is. MIR is a specialized field in computer science devoted to teaching computers to understand music, so they can transcribe it, organize it, find connections and similarities, and, maybe, eventually, create it.

So why are we going to talk to the MIR community about hip-hop? So far, the field has mostly studied music using the tools of Western classical music theory, which emphasizes melody and harmony. Hip-hop songs don’t tend to have much going on in either of those areas, which makes the genre seem like it’s either too difficult to study, or just too boring. But the MIR community needs to find ways to engage this music, if for no other reason than the fact that hip-hop is the most-listened to genre in the world, at least among Spotify listeners.

Hip-hop has been getting plenty of scholarly attention lately, but most of it has been coming from cultural studies. Which is fine! Hip-hop is culturally interesting. When humanities people do engage with hip-hop as an art form, they tend to focus entirely on the lyrics, treating them as a subgenre of African-American literature that just happens to be performed over beats. And again, that’s cool! Hip-hop lyrics have literary interest. If you’re interested in the lyrical side, we recommend this video analyzing the rhyming techniques of several iconic emcees. But what we want to discuss is why hip-hop is musically interesting, a subject which academics have given approximately zero attention to.

Much of what I find exciting (and difficult) about hip-hop can be found in Kanye West’s song “Famous” from his album The Life Of Pablo.

The song comes with a video, a ten minute art film that shows Kanye in bed sleeping after a group sexual encounter with his wife, his former lover, his wife’s former lover, his father-in-law turned mother-in-law, various of his friends and collaborators, Bill Cosby, George Bush, Taylor Swift, and Donald Trump. There’s a lot to say about this, but it’s beyond the scope of our presentation, and my ability to verbalize thoughts. The song has some problematic lyrics. Kanye drops the n-word in the very first line and calls Taylor Swift a bitch in the second. He also speculates that he might have sex with her, and that he made her famous. I find his language difficult and objectionable, but that too is beyond the scope. Instead, I’m going to focus on the music itself.

“Famous” has a peculiar structure, shown in the graphic below.

The track begins with a six bar intro, Rihanna singing over a subtle gospel-flavored organ accompaniment in F-sharp major. She’s singing few lines from “Do What You Gotta Do” by Jimmy Webb. This song has been recorded many times, but for Kanye’s listeners, the most significant one is by Nina Simone.

Next comes a four-bar groove, a more aggressive organ part over a drum machine beat, with Swizz Beatz exclaiming on top. The beat is a minimal funk pattern on just kick and snare, treated with cavernous artificial reverb. The organ riff is in F-sharp minor, which is an abrupt mode change so early in the song. It’s sampled from the closing section of “Mi Sono Svegliato E…Ho Chiuso Gli Occhi” by Il Rovescio della Medaglia, an Italian prog-rock band I had never heard of until I looked the sample up just now. The song is itself built around quotes of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier–Kanye loves sampling material built from samples.

Verse one continues the same groove, with Kanye alternating between aggressive rap and loosely pitched singing. Rap is widely supposed not to be melodic, but this idea collapses immediately under scrutiny. The border between rapping and singing is fluid, and most emcees cross it effortlessly. Even in “straight” rapping, though, the pitch sequences are deliberate and meaningful. The pitches might not fall on the piano keys, but they are melodic nonetheless.

The verse is twelve bars long, which is unusual; hip-hop verses are almost always eight or sixteen bars. The hook (the hip-hop term for chorus) comes next, Rihanna singing the same Jimmy Webb/Nina Simone quote over the F-sharp major organ part from the intro. Swizz Beatz does more interjections, including a quote of “Wake Up Mr. West,” a short skit on Kanye’s album Late Registration in which DeRay Davis imitates Bernie Mac.

Verse two, like verse one, is twelve bars on the F-sharp minor loop. At the end, you think Rihanna is going to come back in for the hook, but she only delivers the pickup. The section abruptly shifts into an F-sharp major groove over fuller drums, including a snare that sounds like a socket wrench. The lead vocal is a sample of “Bam Bam” by Sister Nancy, which is a familiar reference for hip-hop fans–I recognize it from “Lost Ones” by Lauryn Hill and “Just Hangin’ Out” by Main Source. The chorus means “What a bum deal.” Sister Nancy’s track is itself sample-based–like many reggae songs, it uses a pre-existing riddim or instrumental backing, and the chorus is a quote of the Maytals.

Kanye doesn’t just sample “Bam Bam”, he also reharmonizes it. Sister Nancy’s original is a I – bVII progression in C Mixolydian. Kanye pitch shifts the vocal to fit it over a I – V – IV – V progression in F-sharp major. He doesn’t just transpose the sample up or down a tritone; instead, he keeps the pitches close by changing their chord function. Here’s Sister Nancy’s original:

And here’s Kanye’s version:

The pitch shifting gives Sister Nancy the feel of a robot from the future, while the lo-fidelity recording places her in the past. It’s a virtuoso sample flip.

After 24 bars of the Sister Nancy groove, the track ends with the Jimmy Webb hook again. But this time it isn’t Rihanna singing. Instead, it’s a sample of Nina Simone herself.It reminds me of Kanye’s song “Gold Digger“, which includes Jamie Foxx imitating Ray Charles, followed by a sample of Ray Charles himself. Kanye is showing off here. It would be a major coup for most producers to get Rihanna to sing on a track, and it would be an equally major coup to be able to license a Nina Simone sample, not to mention requiring the chutzpah to even want to sample such a sacred and iconic figure. Few people besides Kanye could afford to use both Rihanna and Nina Simone singing the same hook, and no one else would dare. I don’t think it’s just a conspicuous show of industry clout, either; Kanye wants you to feel the contrast between Rihanna’s heavily processed purr and Nina Simone’s stark, preacherly tone.

Here’s a diagram of all the samples and samples of samples in “Famous.”

In this one track, we have a dense interplay of rhythms, harmonies, timbres, vocal styles, and intertextual meaning, not to mention the complexities of cultural context. This is why hip-hop is interesting.

You probably have a good intuitive idea of what hip-hop is, but there’s plenty of confusion around the boundaries. What are the elements necessary for music to be hip-hop? Does it need to include rapping over a beat? When blues, rock, or R&B singers rap, should we retroactively consider that to be hip-hop? What about spoken-word poetry? Does hip-hop need to include rapping at all? Do singers like Mary J. Blige and Aaliyah qualify as hip-hop? Is Run-DMC’s version of “Walk This Way” by Aerosmith hip-hop or rock? Is “Love Lockdown” by Kanye West hip-hop or electronic pop? Do the rap sections of “Rapture” by Blondie or “Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift count as hip-hop?

If a single person can be said to have laid the groundwork for hip-hop, it’s James Brown. His black pride, sharp style, swagger, and blunt directness prefigure the rapper persona, and his records are a bottomless source of classic beats and samples. The HBO James Brown documentary is a must-watch.

Wikipedia lists hip-hop’s origins as including funk, disco,
electronic music, dub, R&B, reggae, dancehall, rock, jazz, toasting, performance poetry, spoken word, signifyin’, The Dozens, griots, scat singing, and talking blues. People use the terms hip-hop and rap interchangeably, but hip-hop and rap are not the same thing. The former is a genre; the latter is a technique. Rap long predates hip-hop–you can hear it in classicalrock, R&B, swingjazz fusion, soul, funkcountry, and especially blues, especially especially the subgenre of talking blues. Meanwhile, it’s possible to have hip-hop without rap. Nearly all current pop and R&B are outgrowths of hip-hop. Turntablists and controllerists have turned hip-hop into a virtuoso instrumental music.

It’s sometimes said that rock is European harmony combined with African rhythm. Rock began as dance music, and rhythm continues to be its most important component. This is even more true of hip-hop, where harmony is minimal and sometimes completely absent. More than any other music of the African diaspora, hip-hop is a delivery system for beats. These beats have undergone some evolution over time. Early hip-hop was built on funk, the product of what I call The Great Cut-Time Shift, as the underlying pulse of black music shifted from eighth notes to sixteenth notes. Current hip-hop is driving a Second Great Cut-Time Shift, as the average tempo slows and the pulse moves to thirty-second notes.

Like all other African-American vernacular music, hip-hop uses extensive syncopation, most commonly in the form of a backbeat. You can hear the blues musician Taj Mahal teach a German audience how to clap on the backbeat. (“Schvartze” is German for “black.”) Hip-hop has also absorbed a lot of Afro-Cuban rhythms, like the omnipresent son clave. This traditional Afro-Cuban rhythm is everywhere in hip-hop: in the drums, of course, but also in the rhythms of bass, keyboards, horns, vocals, and everywhere else. You can hear son clave in the snare drum part in “WTF” by Missy Elliott.

The NYU Music Experience Design Lab created the Groove Pizza app to help you visualize and interact with rhythms like the ones in hip-hop beats. You can use it to explore classic beats or more contemporary trap beats. Hip-hop beats come from three main sources: drum machines, samples, or (least commonly) live drummers.

Hip-hop was a DJ medium before emcees became the main focus. Party DJs in the disco era looped the funkiest, most rhythm-intensive sections of the records they were playing, and sometimes improvised toasts on top. Sampling and manipulating recordings has become effortless in the computer age, but doing it with vinyl records requires considerable technical skill. In the movie Wild Style, you can see Grandmaster Flash beat juggle and scratch “God Make Me Funky” by the Headhunters and “Take Me To The Mardi Gras” by Bob James (though the latter song had to be edited out of the movie for legal reasons.)

The creative process of making a modern pop recording is very different from composing on paper or performing live. Hip-hop is an art form about tracks, and the creativity is only partially in the songs and the performances. A major part of the art form is the creation of sound itself. It’s the timbre and space that makes the best tracks come alive as much as any of the “musical” components. The recording studio gives you control over the finest nuances of the music that live performers can only dream of. Most of the music consists of synths and samples that are far removed from a “live performance.” The digital studio erases the distinction between composition, improvisation, performance, recording and mixing. The best popular musicians are the ones most skilled at “playing the studio.”

Hip-hop has drawn much inspiration from the studio techniques of dub producers, who perform mixes of pre-existing multitrack tape recordings by literally playing the mixing desk. When you watch The Scientist mix Ted Sirota’s “Heavyweight Dub,” you can see him shaping the track by turning different instruments up and down and by turning the echo effect on and off. Like dub, hip-hop is usually created from scratch in the studio. Brian Eno describes the studio as a compositional tool, and hip-hop producers would agree.

Aside from the human voice, the most characteristic sounds in hip-hop are the synthesizer, the drum machine, the turntable, and the sampler. The skills needed by a hip-hop producer are quite different from the ones involved in playing traditional instruments or recording on tape. Rock musicians and fans are quick to judge electronic musicians like hip-hop producers for not being “real musicians” because sequencing electronic instruments appears to be easier to learn than guitar or drums. Is there something lazy or dishonest about hip-hop production techniques? Is the guitar more of a “real” instrument than the sampler or computer? Are the Roots “better” musicians because they incorporate instruments?

Maybe we discount the creative prowess of hip-hop producers because we’re unfamiliar with their workflow. Fortunately, there’s a growing body of YouTube videos that document various aspects of the process:

Before affordable digital samplers became available in the late 1980s, early hip-hop DJs and producers did most of their audio manipulation with turntables. Record scratching  demands considerable skill and practice, and it has evolved into a virtuoso form analogous to bebop saxophone or metal guitar shredding.

Hip-hop is built on a foundation of existing recordings, repurposed and recombined. Samples might be individual drum hits, or entire songs. Even hip-hop tracks without samples very often started with them; producers often replace copyrighted material with soundalike “original” beats and instrumental performances for legal reasons. Turntables and samplers make it possible to perform recordings like instruments.

The Amen break, a six-second drum solo, is one of the most important samples of all time. It’s been used in uncountably many hip-hop songs, and is the basis for entire subgenres of electronic music. Ali Jamieson gives an in-depth exploration of the Amen.

There are few artistic acts more controversial than sampling. Is it a way to enter into a conversation with other artists? An act of liberation against the forces of corporatized mass culture? A form of civil disobedience against a stifling copyright regime? Or is it a bunch of lazy hacks stealing ideas, profiting off other musicians’ hard work, and devaluing the concept of originality? Should artists be able to control what happens to their work? Is complete originality desirable, or even possible?

We look to hip-hop to tell us the truth, to be real, to speak to feelings that normally go unspoken. At the same time, we expect rappers to be larger than life, to sound impossibly good at all times, and to live out a fantasy life. And many of our favorite artists deliberately alter their appearance, race, gender, nationality, and even species. To make matters more complicated, we mostly experience hip-hop through recordings and videos, where artificiality is the nature of the medium. How important is authenticity in this music? To what extent is it even possible?

The “realness” debate in hip-hop reached its apogee with the controversy over Auto-Tune. Studio engineers have been using computer software to correct singers’ pitch since the early 1990s, but the practice only became widely known when T-Pain overtly used exaggerated Auto-Tune as a vocal effect rather than a corrective. The “T-Pain effect” makes it impossible to sing a wrong note, though at the expense of making the singer sound like a robot from the future. Is this the death of singing as an art form? Is it cheating to rely on software like this? Does it bother you that Kanye West can have hits as a singer when he can barely carry a tune? Does it make a difference to learn that T-Pain has flawless pitch when he turns off the Auto-Tune?

Hip-hop is inseparable from its social, racial and political environment. For example, you can’t understand eighties hip-hop without understanding New York City in the pre-Giuliani era. Eric B and Rakim capture it perfectly in the video for “I Ain’t No Joke.”

Given that hip-hop is the voice of the most marginalized people in America and the world, why is it so compelling to everyone else? Timothy Brennan argues that the musical African diaspora of which hip-hop is a part helps us resist imperialism through secular devotion. Brennan thinks that America’s love of African musical practice is related to an interest in African spiritual practice. We’re unconsciously drawn to the musical expression of African spirituality as a way of resisting oppressive industrial capitalism and Western hegemony. It isn’t just the defiant stance of the lyrics that’s doing the resisting. The beats and sounds themselves are doing the major emotional work, restructuring our sense of time, imposing a different grid system onto our experience. I would say that makes for some pretty interesting music.

Ilan meets the Fugees

My youngest private music production student is a kid named Ilan. He makes moody trip-hop and deep house using Ableton Live. For our session today, Ilan came in with a downtempo, jazzy hip-hop instrumental. I helped him refine and polish it, and then we talked about his ideas for what kind of vocal might work on top. He wanted an emcee to flow over it, so I gave him my folder of hip-hop acapellas I’ve collected. The first one he tried was “Fu-Gee-La [Refugee Camp Remix]” by the Fugees.

I had it all warped out already, so all he had to do was drag and drop it into his session and press play. It sounded great, so he ran with it. Here’s what he ended up with:

At this point, let me clarify something. To his knowledge, Ilan had never heard “Fu-Gee-La” before using it in his track. His first exposure was the acapella over his own instrumental. His track is quite a bit faster than the original (well, technically, it’s slower, but the kids these days like their rapping doubletime.) Also, we needed to pitch the acapella down a minor third to match the key of Ilan’s instrumental. As of this writing, he has heard his remix about a thousand more times than the original.

And now, let’s consider the Fugees’ “original” song. Ilan used the acapella from a remix, not from the original original, which makes a difference since the remix has some different lyrics. The Fugees’ original original is not itself totally original. It contains several samples, including liberal interpolations of Teena Marie, and a quote from “Shakiyla (JRH)” by Poor Righteous Teachers, which itself contains several samples.

Hip-hop’s sampling culture was still radical back in the 90s when “Fu-Gee-La” was released, but has since become absorbed into mainstream sensibilities. Ilan is ambitious and talented, but his sensibilities are well in keeping with most of his millennial peers. So it’s worth looking into his norms and values around authorship and ownership. During our session, he was interested in the Fugees song simply as raw material for his own creativity, not as a self-contained work that needed to be “appreciated” first (or ever.) Ilan’s concerns about where he sources his sounds comes down one hundred percent to expediency. He buys sounds from the Ableton web site because that’s easy. The same goes for buying tracks from iTunes, if they surface with a quick search. Otherwise Ilan just does YouTube to mp3 conversion. I’ve never heard him voice any concern about the idea of intellectual property, or any desire to seek anyone’s permission.

So here we have a young musician who created an original track, and then after the fact layered in a commercially released hip-hop vocal track on a whim. If that one hadn’t worked, he would have just dropped in another one chosen more or less at random. This kind of effortless drag-and-drop remixing requires some facility with Ableton Live, which is expensive and has a learning curve. But this practice is easier than it was five years ago, and is only going to get easer. Music educators: are we ready for a world where this kind of creativity is so accessible? Rights holders: do you know just how little the kids know or care about the concept of musical intellectual property? And musicians: have you experienced the pleasure and inspiration of freely mixing your ideas with everyone else’s? This is a crazy time we live in.

Project-based music technology teaching

I use a project-based approach to teaching music technology. Technical concepts stick with you better if you learn them in the course of making actual music. Here’s the list of projects I assign to my college classes and private students. I’ve arranged them from easiest to hardest. The first five projects are suitable for a beginner-level class using any DAW–my beginners use GarageBand. The last two projects are more advanced and require a DAW with sophisticated editing tools and effects, like Ableton Live. If you’re a teacher, feel free to use these (and let me know if you do). Same goes for all you bedroom producers and self-teachers.

The projects are agnostic as to musical content, style or genre. However, the computer is best suited to making electronic music, and most of these projects work best in the pop/hip-hop/techno sphere. Experimental, ambient or film music approaches also work well. Many of them draw on the Disquiet Junto. Enjoy.

Tristan gets his FFT on

Loops

Assignment: Create a song using only existing loops. You can use these or these, or restrict yourself to the loops included with your DAW. Do not use any additional sounds or instruments.

For beginners, I like to separate this into two separate assignments. First, create a short (two or four bar) phrase using four to six instrument loops and beats. Then use that set of loops as the basis of a full length track, by repeating, and by having sounds enter and exit.

Concepts:

  • Basic DAW functions
  • Listening like a producer
  • Musical form and song structures
  • Intellectual property, copyright and authorship

Hints:

  • MIDI loops are easier to edit and customize than audio loops.
  • Try slicing audio loops into smaller segments. Use only the front or back half of the loop. Or rearrange segments into a different order.

final song

MIDI

Assignment: Create a piece of music using MIDI and software instruments. Do not record or import any audio. You can use MIDI from any source, including: playing keyboards, drum pads or other interfaces; drawing in the piano roll; importing scores from notation programs; downloading MIDI files from the internet (for example, from here); or using the Audio To MIDI function in your DAW. 

I don’t treat this as a composition exercise (unless students want to make it one.) Feel free to use an existing piece of music. The only requirement is that the end result has to sound good. Simply dragging a classical or pop MIDI into the DAW is likely to sound terrible unless you put some thought into your instrument choices. If you do want to create something original, try these compositional prompts.

Concepts:

  • MIDI recording and editing
  • Quantization, swing, and grooves
  • “Real” vs “fake” instruments
  • Synthesized vs sampled sounds
  • Drum programming
  • Interfaces and controllers

Hints:

  • For beginners, see this post on beatmaking fundamentals.
  • Realism is unattainable. Embrace the fakeness.
  • Find a small segment of a classical piece and loop it.
  • Rather than playing back a Bach keyboard piece on piano or harpsichord, set your instrument to drums or percussion, and get ready for joy.

Montclair State Music Tech 101

Found sound

Assignment: Record a short environmental sound and incorporate it into a piece of music. You can edit and process your found sound as you see fit. Variation: use existing sounds from Freesound.

Concepts:

  • Audio recording, editing, and effects
  • The musical potential of “non-musical” sounds

Hints:

  • Students usually record their sounds with their phones, and the resulting recording quality is usually bad. Try using EQ, compression, delay, reverb, distortion, and other effects to mitigate or enhance poor sound quality and background noise.

pyt stems

Peer remix

Assignment: Remix a track by one of your classmates (or friends, or a stranger on the internet.) Feel free to incorporate other pieces of music as well. Follow your personal definition of the word “remix.” That might mean small edits and adjustments to the mix and effects, or a radical reworking leading to complete transformation of the source material.

There are endless variations on the peer remix. Try the “metaremix,” where students remix each others’ remixes, to the nth degree as time permits. Also, do group remix activities like Musical Shares or FX Roulette.

Concepts:

  • Collaboration and authorship
  • Sampling
  • Mashups
  • Evolution of musical ideas
  • Musical critique using musical language

Hints:

  • A change in tempo can have dramatic effects on the mood and feel of a track.
  • Adding sounds is the obvious move, but don’t be afraid to remove things too.

Self remix

Assignment: Remix one of your own projects, using the same guidelines as the peer remix. This is a good project for the end of the semester/term.

Song transformation

Assignment: Take an existing song and turn it into a new song. Don’t use any additional sounds or MIDI.

Concepts:

  • Advanced audio editing and effects
  • Musical form and structure
  • The nature of originality

Hints:

  • You can transform short segments simply by repeating them out of context. For example, try taking single chords or lyrical phrases and looping them.

Serato

Shared sample

Assignment: Take a short audio sample (five seconds or less) and build a complete piece of music out of it. Do not use any other sounds. This is the most difficult assignment here, and the most rewarding one if you can pull it off successfully.

Concepts:

  • Advanced audio editing and effects
  • Musical form and structure
  • The nature of originality

Hints:

  • Pitch shifting and timestretching are your friends.
  • Short bursts of noise can be tuned up and down to make drums.
  • Extreme timestretching produces great ambient textures.

Mobile music at IMPACT

Writing assignments

I like to have students document their process in blog posts. I ask: What sounds and techniques did you use? Why did you use them? Are you happy with the end result? Given unlimited time and expertise, what changes would you make? Do you consider this to be a valid form of musical creativity?

This semester I also asked students to write reviews of each others’ work in the style of their preferred music publication. In the future, I plan to have students write a review of an imaginary track, and then assign other students to try to create the track being described.

The best way to learn how to produce good recordings is to do critical listening exercises. I assign students to create musical structure and space graphs in the spirit of William Moylan.

Further challenges

The projects above were intended to be used for a one-semester college class. If I were teaching over a longer time span or I needed more assignments, I would draw from the Disquiet JuntoMaking Music by Dennis DeSantis, or the Oblique Strategies cards. Let me know in the comments if you have additional recommendations.

Beatmaking fundamentals

I’m currently working with the Ed Sullivan Fellows program, an initiative of the NYU MusEDLab where we mentor up and coming rappers and producers. Many of them are working with beats they got from YouTube or SoundCloud. That’s fine for working out ideas, but to get to the next level, the Fellows need to be making their own beats. Partially this is for intellectual property reasons, and partially it’s because the quality of mp3s you get from YouTube is not so good. Here’s a collection of resources and ideas I collected for them, and that you might find useful too.

Sullivan Fellows - beatmaking with FL Studio

What should you use?

There are a lot of digital audio workstations (DAWs) out there. All of them have the same basic set of functions: a way to record and edit audio, a MIDI sequencer, and a set of samples and software instruments. My DAW of choice is Ableton Live. Most of the Sullivan Fellows favor FL Studio. Mac users naturally lean toward GarageBand and Logic. Other common tools for hip-hop producers include Reason, Pro Tools, Maschine, and in Europe, Cubase.

Traditional DAWs are not the only option. Soundtrap is a browser-based DAW that’s similar to GarageBand, but with the enormous advantage that it runs entirely in the web browser. It also offers some nifty features like built-in Auto-Tune at a fraction of the usual price. The MusEDLab’s own Groove Pizza is an accessible browser-based drum sequencer. Looplabs is another intriguing browser tool.

Mobile apps are not as robust or full-featured as desktop DAWs yet, but some of them are getting there. The iOS version of GarageBand is especially tasty. Figure makes great techno loops, though you’ll need to assemble them into songs using another tool. The Launchpad app is a remarkably easy and intuitive one. See my full list of recommendations.

Sullivan Fellows - beatmaking with iOS GarageBand

Where do you get sounds?

DAW factory sounds

Every DAW comes with a sample library and a set of software instruments. Pros: they’re royalty-free. Cons: they tend to be generic-sounding and overused. Be sure to tweak the presets.

Sample libraries and instrument packs

The internet is full of third-party sound libraries. They range widely in price and quality. Pros: like DAW factory sounds, library sounds are also royalty-free, with greatly wider variety available. Cons: the best libraries are expensive.

Humans playing instruments

You could record music the way it was played from the Stone Age through about 1980. Pros: you get human feel, creativity, improvisation, and distinctive instrumental timbres and techniques. Cons: humans are expensive and impractical to record well.

Your record collection

Using more DJ-oriented tools like Ableton, it’s perfectly effortless to pull sounds out of any existing recording. Pros: bottomless inspiration, and the ability to connect emotionally to your listener through sounds that are familiar and meaningful to them. Cons: if you want to charge money, you will probably need permission from the copyright holders, and that can be difficult and expensive. Even giving tracks away on the internet can be problematic. I’ve been using unauthorized samples for years and have never been in any trouble, but I’ve had a few SoundCloud takedowns.

Sullivan Fellows - beatmaking with Pro Tools

What sounds do you need?

Drums

Most hip-hop beats revolve around the components of the standard drum kit: kicks, snares, hi-hats (open and closed), crash cymbals, ride cymbals, and toms. Handclaps and finger snaps have become part of the standard drum palette as well. There are two kinds of drum sounds, synthetic (“fake”) and acoustic (“real”).

Synthetic drums are the heart and soul of hip-hop (and most other pop and dance music at this point.) There are tons of software and hardware drum machines out there, but there are three in particular you should be aware of.

  • Roland TR-808: If you could only have one drum machine for hip-hop creation, this would be the one. Every DAW contains sampled or simulated 808 sounds, sometimes labeled “old-skool” or something similar. It’s an iconic sound for good reason.
  • Roland TR-808: A cousin of the 808 that’s traditionally used more for techno. Still, you can get great hip-hop sounds out of it too. Your DAW is certain to contain some 909 sounds, often labeled with some kind of dance music terminology.
  • LinnDrum: The sound of the 80s. Think Prince, or Hall And Oates. Not as ubiquitous in DAWs as the 808 and 909, but pretty common.

Acoustic drums are less common in hip-hop, though not unheard of; just ask Questlove.

Some hip-hop producers use live drummers, but it’s much easier to use sampled acoustic drums. Samples are also a good source of Afro-Cuban percussion sounds like bongos, congas, timbales, cowbells, and so on. Also consider using “non-musical” percussion sounds: trash can lids, pots and pans, basketballs bouncing, stomping on the floor, and so on.

And how do you learn where to place these drum sounds? Try the specials on the Groove Pizza. Here’s an additional hip-hop classics to experiment with, the beat from “Nas Is Like” by Nas.

Groove Pizza - Nas Is Like

Bass

Hip-hop uses synth bass the vast majority of the time. Your DAW comes with a variety of synth bass sounds, including the simple sine wave sub, the P-Funk Moog bass, dubstep wobbles, and many others. For more unusual bass sounds, try very low-pitched piano or organ. Bass guitar isn’t extremely common in current hip-hop, but it’s worth a try. If you want a 90s Tribe Called Quest vibe, try upright bass.

In the past decade, some hip-hop producers have followed Kanye West’s example and used tuned 808 kick drums to play their basslines. Kanye has used it on all of his albums since 808s and Heartbreak. It’s an amazing solution; those 808 kicks are huge, and if they’re carrying the bassline too, then your low end can be nice and open. Another interesting alternative is to have no bassline at all. It worked for Prince!

And what notes should your bass be playing? If you have chords, the obvious thing is to have the bass playing the roots. You can also have the bass play complicated countermelodies. We made a free online course called Theory for Producers to help you figure these things out.

Chords

Usually your chords are played on some combination of piano, electric piano, organ, synth, strings, guitar, or horns. Vocal choirs are nice too. Once again, consult Theory for Producers for inspiration. Be sure to try out chords with the aQWERTYon, which was specifically designed for this very purpose.

Leads

The same instruments that you use for chords also work fine for melodies. In fact, you can think of melodies as chords stretched out horizontally, and conversely, you can think of chords as melodies stacked up vertically.

FX

For atmosphere in your track, ambient synth pads are always effective. Also try non-musical sounds like speech, police sirens, cash registers, gun shots, birds chirping, movie dialog, or whatever else your imagination can conjure. Make sure to visit Freesound.org – you have to sign up, but it’s worth it. Above all, listen to other people’s tracks, experiment, and trust your ears.

Space Oddity: from song to track

If you’ve ever wondered what it is that a music producer does exactly, David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” is a crystal clear example. To put it in a nutshell, a producer turns this:

Into this:

It’s also interesting to listen to the first version of the commercial recording, which is better than the demo, but still nowhere near as majestic as the final version. The Austin Powers flute solo is especially silly.

Should we even consider these three recordings to be the same piece of music? On the one hand, they’re all the same melody and chords and lyrics. On the other hand, if the song only existed in its demo form, or in the awkward Austin Powers version, it would never have made the impact that it did. Some of the impact of the final version lies in better recording techniques and equipment, but it’s more than that. The music takes on a different meaning in the final version. It’s bigger, trippier, punchier, tighter, more cinematic, more transporting, and in general about a thousand times more effective.

The producer’s job is to marshall the efforts of songwriters, arrangers, performers and engineers to create a good-sounding recording. (The producer might also be a songwriter, arranger, performer, and/or engineer.) Producers are to songs what directors are to movies, or showrunners are to television.

When you’re thinking about a piece of recorded music, you’re really talking about three different things:

  1. The underlying composition, the part that can be represented on paper. Albin Zak calls this “the song.”
  2. The performance of the song.
  3. The finished recording, after overdubbing, mixing, editing, effects, and all the rest. Albin Zak calls this “the track.”

I had always assumed that Tony Visconti produced “Space Oddity,” since he produced a ton of other Bowie classics. As it turns out, though, Visconti was underwhelmed by the song, so he delegated it to his assistant, Gus Dudgeon. So what is it that Gus Dudgeon did precisely? First let’s separate out what he didn’t do.

You can hear from the demo that the chords, melody and lyrics were all in place before Bowie walked into the studio. They’re the parts reproduced by the subway busker I heard singing “Space Oddity” this morning. The demo includes a vocal arrangement that’s similar to the final one, aside from some minor phrasing changes. The acoustic guitar and Stylophone are in place as well. (I had always thought it was an oboe, but no, that droning sound is a low-tech synth.)

Gus Dudgeon took a song and a partial arrangement, and turned it into a track. He oversaw the addition of electric guitar, bass, drums, strings, woodwinds, and keyboards. He coached Bowie and the various studio musicians through their performances, selected the takes, and decided on effects like echoes and reverb. He supervised the mixing, which not only sets the relative loudness of the various sounds, but also affects their perceived location and significance. In short, he designed the actual sounds that you hear.

If you want to dive deep into the track, you’re in luck, because Bowie officially released the multitrack stems. Some particular points of interest:

  • The bassist, Herbie Flowers, was a rookie. The “Space Oddity” session was his first. He later went on to create the staggeringly great dual bass part in Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side.”
  • The strings were arranged and conducted by the multifaceted Paul Buckmaster, who a few years later would work with Miles Davis on the conception of On The Corner. Buckmaster’s cello harmonics contribute significantly to the psychedelic atmosphere–listen to the end of the stem labeled “Extras 1.”
  • The live strings are supplemented by Mellotron, played by future Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman, he of the flamboyant gold cape.
  • Tony Visconti plays some flute and unspecified woodwinds, including the distinctive saxophone run that leads into the instrumental sections.

You can read a detailed analysis of the recording on the excellent Bowiesongs blog.

The big difference between the sixties and the present is that the track has assumed ever-greater importance relative to the song and the performance. In the age of MIDI and digital audio editing, live performance has become a totally optional component of music. The song is increasingly inseparable from the sounds used to realize it, especially in synth-heavy music like hip-hop and EDM. This shift gives the producer ever-greater importance in the creative process. There is really no such thing as a “demo” anymore, since anyone with a computer can produce finished-sounding tracks in their bedroom. If David Bowie were a kid now, he’d put together “Space Oddity” in GarageBand or FL Studio, with a lavish soundscape part of the conception from the beginning.

I want my students to understand that the words “producer” and “musician” are becoming synonymous. I want them to know that they can no longer focus solely on composition or performance and wait for someone else to craft a track around them. The techniques used to make “Space Oddity” were esoteric and expensive to realize at the time. Now, they’re easily within reach. But while the technology is more accessible, you still have to have the ideas. This is why it’s so valuable to study great producers like Tony Visconti and Gus Dudgeon: they’re a goldmine of sonic inspiration.

See also: a broader appreciation of Bowie.