Downbeat: Beat Making
Published: Wednesday, February 27, 2013
Updated: Thursday, February 28, 2013 00:02
Hip-hop producers are true musicians. Many music purists disregard hip-hop production as computerized, thoughtless noise. Fans of other genres often sneer that anyone with a little luck and an 808 machine, keyboard or MacBook can make a hip-hop beat. They might then explain that it takes real talent or musical knowledge to play a guitar, piano or musical instrument.
In 2013, a computer is now, by any practical definition, a musical instrument. A hip-hop beat is without a doubt real music. If it were somehow miraculously easier to do than playing the guitar, anyone with a moderate amount of musical skill would spend every waking hour in front of a computer motivated by the financial compensation that successful hip-hop production can bring.
But they don’t. Hip-hop production is extremely complicated and requires not only a high level of skill with programs and instruments, but also an ear for a sound that is unique yet accessible to rappers and singers alike.
Modern producers rely on many techniques to compose their music. Some chose to compose and record beats entirely from live instrumentals. Oddisee, a D.C. producer famous for his instrumental albums and mixtapes, largely relies on live instruments. While he can only play a select few himself, Oddisee acts as a composer. He writes or orally shares ideas for a piece, has artists perform and record each piece, instrument by instrument, then arranges the entire composition.
On the other end of the spectrum, some beats are made entirely on an Apple or Dell computer through programs like Avid’s ProTools, Apple’s Logic and Propellerhead’s Reason. Devon Gallaspy, the producer behind Trinidad James’ hit single, “All Gold Everything,” made the beat using Image-Line’s FL Studio (formerly known as FruityLoops), a $99 Windows music production program. Gallaspy and many other noted producers play and record on keyboards (computer or piano-based) using prerecorded sounds. Programs also allow for notes to be drawn, stretched and otherwise altered to fit the user’s needs.
Still others combine both live instrumentals and computer programs to merge classic sounds with traditionally hip-hop drum lines. Big K.R.I.T provides drums, bass and pianos through computer software on all of his albums, but collaborated with guitarist Mike Hartnett on his 2012 mixtape “4EvaN A Day.” Similarly, Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange track, “White,” employs both production and guitar by John Mayer.
Additionally, many producers use sampling techniques to create beats. Sampling involves using a fragment of an existing song in the creation of a new instrumental track. Kanye West is perhaps the most skilled, famous and prolific producer to utilize sampling as a primary production technique.
His beats for “Gold Digger,” “Through The Wire” and “Otis” heavily rely on the use of sampling. “Otis,” for example, samples Otis Redding’s “Try A Little Tenderness,” borrowing the song’s intro from Redding in its entirety and both chopping and looping the sample to create an original beat.
The next time you throw on a hip-hop or R&B records, listen to the music and listen carefully. Count the layers, notice the precise timing of the notes and sounds and appreciate the art of production.