Fire in the booth
As a genre, hip hop has become something altogether more sprawling and diverse than it was 20 years ago. Where the early pioneers favoured a simple setup involving little more than sampled sounds, turntables and microphones, nowadays producers have a wealth of instruments and technology with which they can create their beats.
If you listen to UK grime stuff, like Akala, or glitchy instrumental stuff from people like Flying Lotus, you’ll hear how hip hop has gone beyond the old cliche of ‘two turntables and a microphone’. Crucially, it’s not a hard genre to create yourself. You don’t need years of classical musical training, or a stack of high end equipment. Anyone with a laptop or a drum machine can quickly and easily lay down some bars. Let’s take a look at how to make hip hop beats.
As with any composition or production work, it pays to have an idea of what you’re trying to make before you sit down and piece it together. That doesn’t mean you need elaborate musical notation or to have every bar accounted for, but a bit of planning can help in the long run. In the same way a film maker will produce a storyboard before they record anything, a basic outline plan can keep you focused and help build the bigger picture.
Try and decide some of the basics first; in what region do you want the beats-per-minute (BPM) to be? Are you keen on including any other specific sounds, i.e. synths or bass, in the arrangement? If so, where? Will the track be a base for a vocalist?
It helps to listen to some songs to gain inspiration. It may be a particular drum beat has stuck with you, and you can see a way it can be changed to meet your needs. Or you might look at the overall palette of sounds a particular branch of hip hop uses and want to get your track in the same area. Spend some time auditioning different instruments and drum racks before you begin your overall composition as it’s easy to lose focus later on in the process listening to 54,391 different kick drums in the hope of finding the right one. Trust me.
While there have always been hip hop groups and artists that use live instruments to create their sound – think The Roots or the Beastie Boys – the vast majority use some form of music tech.
Often, nowadays, that amounts to using a DAW programme like Ableton or Bitwig. These software packages offer a highly intuitive way to programme beats, add sounds and produce entire tracks quickly and easily. Put simply, if you can click a mouse you can use a DAW to make music.
The hub around these apps is usually some form of grid matrix. Vertically, along the left, you’ll have your chosen sounds – this is sometimes called the piano roll. From there you simply click along the horizontal time line to create MIDI information which the DAW plays as it scrolls along. You also have access to different effects which enable you to mangle the sounds to your heart’s content. This could mean adding reverb to a synth line to extend its length, or adding EQ and compression to an individual kick drum to make it stand out in the mix.
If a full-on DAW is too much for your needs, you may consider something like Native Instruments’ Maschine series. The Maschine units take away some of the features from a DAW and focus much more on beat creation. The external hardware offers pads on which you can physically play your drum sounds – or any other sound, for that matter – which the composition and arrangement is also much simpler to get your head around.
It terms of sound libraries – the vast bank of sounds you can choose from to make your music – most DAWs or specialist beat makers come bundled with gigabyte upon gigabyte of pretty much any sound you can think of. Easily enough to get you up and running. Sometimes, however, you may already have a sound in mind. Enter sampling…
As a subject, sampling is far too big to go into detail in this post. The basic principles are fairly straightforward though. In music production, sampling means taking a small sample of an already-recorded sound and using it in your own compositions. Hip hop has perhaps the biggest history when it comes to using sampled music. There’s a solid DIY ethos to it – you find a sound you like, sample it, then use it to create something different.
Of course, there are copyright issues when it comes to ‘borrowing’ sounds someone else has already created, so you’ll need to understand the law before nicking entire passages of music from a signed artist (or any artist, for that matter.) But, assuming you’re all clear on that front, sampling opens up a plethora of options to you.
Maybe there’s a specific hook – i.e. a vocal line or melody – in a track and you want to ‘re-purpose’ it. Using a sampler like the Akai MPC Touch (Akai’s MPC series is hip hop royalty) or Maschine you can capture that individual snapshot of music then lay your own beats over the top. As an example – and there are thousands – listen to how MF Doom uses a slice of a Sade track as the melody/chorus in the video above, then adds his own beats and vocals over the top.
There’s a reason why hip hop artists are notorious vinyl collectors. DJ Shadow’s Entroducing masterpiece, for example, doesn’t contain a single sound which wasn’t sampled from somewhere. Everything from obscure German electronica to bass lines from Metallica are used on an album which is undeniably a hip hop record. Opening your mind to sampling can open a real Pandora’s box of creative expression if you let it.
Hip hop is certainly – or at least it can be – one of the simpler forms of music to create. Armed with a DAW, a selection of sounds and a basic plan you could be producing great sounding tracks in no time. The real trick is to look at ways in which you can go above and beyond simplicity. Anyone can add some dots to a grid matrix and create a basic beat. The real trick lies in the arrangements you produce, and the sounds which give the track life. For this, you should really consider sampling as a way to develop as a producer.
Journalist, PR and multimedia specialist. Write professionally on subjects ranging from musical instruments to industrial technology.