A Brief History of Hip-Hop Production
The New York City of the late 70’s gave birth to a fresh new art form called Hip-Hop. At the time, Afrika Bambaataa, a pioneer of this new movement, christened MCing, DJing, Breaking (Breakdancing) and Graffiti Writing as the four elements of Hip-Hop.
The first “producers” were actually these early DJs spinning funk, disco and pop breaks on vinyl records for MCs to rap over in parties and park jams. In 1979, the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rappers Delight” became the first Hip-Hop song on vinyl. The beat was essentially a remake of part of Chic’s “Good Times”, a disco hit. The practice of having live musicians play over parts of popular songs by musicians for MCs to lay down vocals over them was popular until the use of new methods of production came into play in the 1980s.
Drum Machines such as the Oberheim DMX and the Roland TR-808 system were in use in the early 1980s. Afrika Bambaataa made heavy use of the 808 on his song “Planet Rock” which went on to inspire the electro and Miami bass genres of music. Two years later in 1982, Run-DMC’s recorded the hits “It’s Like That” and “Sucker MC’s”, two songs that relied solely upon the artificial sounds of the DMX. Some MCs and Producers felt that these tools left the music sounding too synthetic and feeling stiff and mechanical.
Kurtis Blow was the first rap artist to make use of a sampler. Producers of his 1985 hit single “If I Ruled The World” made use of a Fairlight CMI to sample a portion of “Pump It Up” by a Go-Go music group named Trouble Funk. Sampling now allowed producers to record, trigger and loop short sounds and portions of pre-recorded music. This breakthrough by Kurtis Blow marked a return to a less mechanical, more human sound while eliminating the need to hire live musicians.
By the late 1980s, new machines had come on the market that allowed for longer sampling times as well as the ability to trigger (play) samples in an all-in-one unit. It was then that producers started to experiment with sampling drum breaks (parts of songs where only the drums play) from vinyl records to use in their songs. Funk legend James Brown’s material was a very popular source of breaks. At first, these early productions were mostly minimalist and had MCs rhyming over sampled drum patterns with only the pitch or tempo changed, sometimes with a few other sampled or synthetic elements sprinkled throughout the beat. Other times though, things would get much more complex. The Bomb Squad, producers for Public Enemy, took this to the extreme by producing tracks with multiple drum breaks and tens of other samples used in one beat, creating a frenzied, chaotic sound that helped define Public Enemy’s rebellious image.
Producer Marley Marl provided the rap world with a technical boost when he became the first person to take sampling a further by lifting the individual drums from drum breaks and rearranging them to create new patterns. This opened up a whole new realm of hip-hop production, as people really started to explore the sampler to
see what tricks they themselves can come up with.. which sometimes resulted in a classic song being created by accident. “Top Billin” by Audio Two was created when producer Daddy-O had used his sampler to slice up a drum break and hit the wrong buttons while trying to record a new pattern using the sounds. This resulted in an immortal drum track that has since been sampled multiple times by artists that emerged many years later. As the 80’s and early 90’s wore on, hip-hop became a eclectic blend of styles with beat makers expanding to use elements from jazz, soul, reggae and rock music and becoming generally more skilled and creative in the mixing process.
These production styles stayed consistent until the mid-late 90s. Dr. Dre’s 1992 album introduced a new production style which he called G-Funk. This new sound drew heavy influences from Parliament-Funkadelic style music (P-Funk). His 1992 album “The Chronic” shook up the rap world by introducing dense melodic production with rolling, intricate basslines, synth leads, and even the use of backup singers on hooks. This sound would dominate the entire rap landscape for some time, with countless producers using elements of the G-Funk style in their tracks. In 1994, Puff Daddy went to create his own style of hip-
hop production drawing from hits from the past. He chose to heavily sample hit 70’s and 80’s soul and pop records in contrast to Dre’s P-Funk influences. Puff Daddy produced The Notorious B.I.G.’s hit “Juicy”, which marked a departure from the East coast’s signature gritty, snappy uptempo boom bap sound (mastered by the likes of DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Lord Finesse, Buckwild, EZ Elpee and others) and an entrance into the realm of a softer, more melodic, instrument laden style. In 1996, the production duo The Trackmasters hit the scene with an approach to production that focused heavily on instrumentation and clarity. Puff Daddy’s team of beatmakers (The Hit Men) and The Trackmasters sound had come to dominate commercial radio by the end of the 90s, and popular hip-hop music shifted into a louder, more clear sound that would stick with it from then on.
1998 saw the arrival of rap sensation DMX powered by instrumentals from newcomer Swizz Beats. Swizz Beats mostly eschewed sampling and let loose hit songs consisting of melodies played on the Korg Trinity and Triton synth keyboards. With the popularity of CDs peaking in the late 90s, producers and engineers adjusted their mixing styles to make use of the new sonic bandwidth that this medium allowed for and this resulted in what a lot of hardcore hip-hop fans saw as a “thin” sound with emphasis placed on the high frequencies on a song. Many people felt that much of the “grit” or “meat” was lost from the music, sacrificed for a clearer, but weaker aesthetic.
With the exception of Memphis, rap music in the south sounded similar to what was going on on the East and West coasts. Memphis’ Three-Six Mafia were rhyming over double time beats with dark
minor key synth melodies laid on top. This would lay the foundation of what people would much later call the “Southern sound”. Southern Hip-Hop came to prominence on the national scene in the late 1990’s with Master P’s No Limit Records and the mid tempo, synth-laden hit “Bout It, Bout It”. Also out of New Orleans, The Cash Money Boys blew the doors of southern rap wide open with hits filled with uptempo, danceable, and highly melodic double time tunes produced by Mannie Fresh. This combination of energetic and catchy melodies caught on with the masses like wild fire and had MCs from all over the country freestyling over their instrumentals and recording their own versions of the more popular singles. The ensuing popularity of Cash Money’s brand of hip-hop caused record labels to eventually shift their focus from the East and West scenes to the South to discover new artists, and by the early to mid 2000s, music from all over the south began to get shine. The primary trend in production at this time was an expansion of earlier southern styles, marked by a slightly slower tempo, the use of tighter, darker melodies over mostly Roland TR 808 synthetic drum samples, and the emphasis on 808 bass kick samples.
The early mid-2000’s also saw the rise of Kanye West, who would go on to have a profound impact on production. Mastering a “chipmunk” style of production where soul, and sometimes rock samples were sped up with heavy drums over them, Kanye became perhaps the most in-demand and heavily imitated producer of that period. Using an Ensoniq ASR-10 and AKAI MPC 2000, Kanye created some of the most popular tracks of the times, most notably for Jay-Z and his Rocafella camp and the Cam’ron fronted Diplomats. West’s rise would spark a resurgence of both sample-based production and crate digging for soul records for sampling. His rise coincided with the dramatic improvement of Just Blaze as a producer. Just Blaze’s work in the ’90s as a mediocre producer with a handful of semi-hits took a backseat when he re-emerged as a sample heavy producer with precise rhythm and a superb ear for unique sounds. Using the Akai MPC 3000, he picked apart bits and pieces of Supertramp’s “Crime of the Century”, added a heavy drum pattern and a shouting female to the mix to produce the 2005 banger “Breathe” for Brooklyn’s Fabolous. It was a huge hit and one of the most admired and freestyled-over beats of the decade. Kanye and Just Blaze dominated the east coast production scene during this period.
The mid-late 2000s saw Trap music completely taking over the mainstream hip hop scene. Marked by hard hitting 808’s, crisp synthetic snare drums, frantic synthesizers, rhythmic orchestration of synthesized brass, stringed, woodwind, and keyboard instruments, it had its roots in earlier southern music, like that of Three-Six Mafia, UGK and Master P. Producer Lex Luger emerged to enjoy massive popularity creating, revitalizing, and modernizing trap music, reportedly producing over 200 songs between 2010 and 2011. Some popular singles that ruled the charts were Kanye West and Jay-Z’s “H.A.M”, Rick Ross’ “B.M.F.”, and “Hard In Da Paint” by Waka Flocka Flame. Lex Luger is famous for eschewing hardware and producing using the relatively cheap software FL Studio (also known as Fruity Loops) along with a midi keyboard controller. Producing rap music by using only software programs was a subject of contention up until this point. In 2012, an offshoot of Trap music, called Drill burst on the scene on the back of Chief Keef’s “I Don’t Like”. Drill music is differentiated by somewhat darker content both musically and lyrically, and by being native to Chicago based artists. Young Chop is a popular producer of this style.
In conclusion, all the styles and methods mentioned in this article are still in use by producers known and unknown to this day. Trap and Drill music may be the most popular styles of 2014, but hip-hop is an always evolving genre and all styles of the music find a fan base that maintains an affinity for its specific sound. For instance, West coast G-Funk and East coast Boom Bap have fans from all over the world that seek out tunes old and new from those specific genres. The most important thing to remember as a beatmaker is that there is always a hunger for the next NEW thing!