It's probably fair to say that hip-hop has been the most gorgeous fashion style of music since some young wag stepped on Elvis's blue suede shoes. Starting out as a voice for African-American and Latin communities in the states, hip-hop soon spread and became the soundtrack to the 80's, 90's and the new millennium. Every year its impact and penetration increase, from commercials to films, and from charts to bars. In this section I will explain the basics of hip-hop production as well as 20 must know tips to make the best hip-hop tracks possible.
BEATS AND LOOPS
With hip-hop its all about the beats – so get inspired!
Beats are the backbone of all hip-hop. Whether you're into the cheeky one-two of Dre's Eminem productions or the juddering steps of Dj Premier, you need to make sure that if nothing else is playing, your beat still stands up to scrutiny. As US comic Chris Rock put it: "If the beat's alright, they'll dance all night."
As we've already seen, hip-hop beats started out as breaks from records, beatboxes and sampling drum machines, so its very easy for hip-hop produced on a computer to sound a little lifeless. Live playing and clever quantization can fix this, though. The main trick is to keep it sparse and once you have a basic groove going, try taking out different percussive hits before adding more. Also, its important to keep it simple. If you listen to professional hip-hop productions, you'll notice that its rare for two different percussive elements to play at the same time – except its a layered clap and snare, and even then they'll alternate over a bar or two between both playing and then only one or the other. You'll also hear many parts were an instrument like a shaker only plays for a small and specific section of a looped bar, almost as if the different percussive elements are taking turns. This is no coincidence, as hip-hop culture is all about this kind of connection. Wether its DJs, MCs or breakdancers, hip-hop is, at its core, about this type of back and forth interaction, and this transfers to every single production element including beats.
STEP BY STEP the drums
1-The first thing I do when working on beats is lay down a hi-hat pattern. Usually, I do an eighth-note pattern and then go back and change it if necessary after I've laid down the other parts.
2-Next up is the kick and snare. I keep them simple at first because I know that I'll be using a drum loop underneath. I start with a drum loop and add extra kicks and snares to reinforce it. The kick and snare are both sounds that I re-use on many tracks.
3-Next I'll add a sampled kick and snare to reinforce the stock kick and snare sounds. This makes the beat sound a bit thicker and grimier. I also leave a bit of 'air' on the tail end – this acts like 'sonic glue', giving the beat a more sampled feel.
4-The basic beat is now complete and ready to send into the arrange screen, later on I'll use this pattern as a template for other sections of the song, were I'll add snare fills and rolls.
STEP BY STEP The loop
1-When using sampled breaks, I always make sure they're either royalty-free, original or so obscure they wont be recognized. That way I dont have to worry about sample clearance. I'm a fan of busy drums so I'll usually choose an action packed two-bar drum break.
2-Now you must match the tempo of the drum break to the tempo of your song. You can do this with any beat-slicing program.
3-Later on, after you've added vocals and such you can use this drum break, were its needed through your song.
MELODIES, STABS, SAMPLES AND SYNTHS Just like every other style of music, hip-hop's gotta have hooks
Melody or bass: it's hard to say which one you should start work on first, because hip-hop is at its best when its simple – great tracks often have a bassline but no melody or vice versa. And sometimes the bassline is the melody.
Most hip-hop is still created using samples as the main musical hooks, but while these samples were, for a long time, almost always sections from classic records, these days they're usually far more obscure, edited and processed. Its no longer enough to sample a section off an 80's rare groove hit and whack it over a beat.
While hip-hop is still very much a sample-based discipline, there are plenty of excellent synth-hop tracks out there. If you've heard Kelis' milkshake, you'll know how funky a good synth line can sound with the right tight beats.
The critical thing to remember is not to over-egg your production pudding. If you take away one thing from these lessons, its that hip-hop is meant to be simple but effective, so always try taking out sections or notes before you start adding more. And remember hip-hop is all about bringing seemly disparate elements together – Run DMC's sampling of Aerosmith on Walk This Way, for example – so dont be afraid to experiment. Even harp solos and steel band recordings make excellent melodies in the right hands.
Finally keep in mind that in hip-hop you can never go to far wrong if your riff plays on the first beat of a bar, is quickly muted, and then picks up again from around the third beat. Seriously, this is a winning formula – try it out!
BASS, BASS, BASS
Busy, bouncing or not at all … its up to you!
While most other kinds of electronic music are all about the highs and lows (well, in frequency terms, anyway), hip-hop definitely works from the waist down, and is all about punchy mids and heavy bass. When you listen to a well produced hip-hip tracks in a club, the bass will shake the room to its core, often even more than much harder dance styles.
There are three main reasons why hip-hop can get away with having such heavy frequencies without it sounding like a muddy mess. First, the tempo is quite slow, giving much more room for individual notes to breath. Second, the make up of hip-hop is much sparser, often with only a simple beat and bassline through. And third, the bass patterns are generally not as busy as other genres and are often played so low that the pitch of individual notes are not easy to recognize.
Naturally, there are a variety of b-line flavors in hip-hop, but these days basslines are often just used to reinvent the beats, layered underneath, or at the end of every couple of bars, creating yet another groove under that of the beats. The golden rule of thumb for hip-hop basslines is to treat them as another percussive element, rather than a melodic one. And as with any drum pattern, what you leave out is usually far more important than what you leave in.
WHAT KIND OF BASS?
The question of whether or not to keep your bassline simple or funky is a tricky one, and depends largely on what style of hip-hop you're making fast and funky Pharcyde-style tunes than you can get away with much more bouncy basslines. Similarly, if you're sampling a huge of a famous record, then you can take your lead from that. But for most other kinds of contemporary hip-hop, the bassline is a much more simple affair. If theres some kind of sampled or played melody, then the bassline will often play in accompaniment bursts. Another widely used trick is to have simple sub-bass stabs every couple of bars, and then a full on bassline in the chorus. In fact, sometimes there is not even any bassline in a track at all.
Finally, for all you smokers out there, Cypress Hill and other similar artists were pioneers of the deep, slow and easy rolling bassline. Definitely one to consider. In short, the key with hip-hop bass is almost always to keep it very sub-bass oriented and simple.
Once the groove is done, its time to start rapping
If the key to good hip-hop is getting a good groove, the second most important consideration is matching your grooves to the right vocalist. There are countless styles of rapping, ranging from the intricate and melodic rhymes of Common and lyrics born to the aggressive growth of Lil 'Jon. And different styles suit different vocalists. That's not to say that if your lead is a picked harp loop you should not have an aggressive street vocal on top, sometimes that kind of contrast works incredibly well and can be used to great effect, but if your beats are really tough and the samples dark, a mellow rap over top will tend not to work so well, so choose your contrasts carefully! The MC's timing too, can have a massive impact on your track. If possible, try to get your vocalist to write or improve their rhymes over the beats you have. Add a few percussion drops and edits in the beats you give them, and try dropping elements and then putting them back in as the MC rhymes to encourage their performance. Good MC's will use these edits to add emphasis on clever lyrical flourishes, and by the same token, really skilled MC's will use will often use long periods of beats to fire out relentless and pounding deliveries. The important thing to remember is that hip-hop is all about performance, as much as any live rock show, from the evolving beats and edits to the constantly changing styles. Your beats and grooves are the stage and set, so it follows that if you edit the set, the performance will adapt and follow it.
Bring the art of turntablism to your tracks
Scratching is actually not scratching at all. It is, in fact, the first type of hands-on sample manipulation the world ever saw. When DJs scratch, they're simply playing specific sounds backwards and forwards at different speeds, and controlling the output with either a volume slider, crossfader or switch, thereby creating those unique effects. Over the years, these techniques have become more and more intricate, and today the worlds top sratch DJs are capable of feats that can only be described as mind blowing – even if not your not interested in scratching. They can create sounds, patterns and tunes that make it hard to believe there's nothing more involved than the interaction of a needle on a record in one hand and an on-off switch for the audio in the other.
Since the earliest days of hip-hop, DJs have been adding scratches to records, and nothings changed. Whether it's inserted loud scratches to obscure cursing in a radio mix, short kick drum scratches on a beat as an intro or percussive variation, or scratching a snippet of an acappella to create or enhance a chorus, scratching is an invaluable tool. So give it a try, even if you do not have decks, you can use software. Just be sure to get sample clarification for any vocals you use!
STEPS FOR PLACING THE SCRATCHES
1-If your going to include scratching, I'll look for an area in your song that needs some kind of hyping. This would usually take place after the second verse or during the chorus, I use scratches as a type of rythym instrument, kind of like a rythym guitar track.
2-When you use more than one scratch track in your song, arrangement becomes very important. It's all too easy to keep piling on scratch tracks until the whole song gets bogged down and cluttered. Sometimes less is more. Remember that!
3. When arranging scratch tracks, panning is an effective tool for separating the action and providing the illusion of movement. This ensures that each scratch does not get lost in the mix and provides a level of hectic anxiety.
A simple, tight arrangement is essential in hip-hop
As a rule of thumb, hip-hop arrangements are simple! Intro, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, chorus, outro, and maybe a break or middle eight, depending on the song. Occidentally, you'll hear tracks that kick straight in, but usually there will be a brief intro, with vocalists introducing themselves or telling you why this track is the $ hit or anything else to hype the track up, and it works well. Always remember the word 'MC' is an acronym for Master of the Ceremonies, its there job to get the crowd excited and keep them interested. Remember this when you make your own songs.
Other variations include intro and outro skits, a lot of songs just fade out at the end, use your creativity to invent unique ends to your songs.
One of the most effective tricks in hip-hop arrangements is dropping elements in and out for the last bar or beat of a section. This gives emphasis to the vocals, and can often be used to highlight a funny or particularly good lyric.
The history of this type of choppy editing can be traced back to the time when hip-hop was made live on two turntables and a mixer. As with all hip-hop production techniques, these arrangement tricks are used to highlight the groove and overall vibe of the track.
The elements dropped can be anything from the bass to the samples, the beats, or even everything except one of those. The goal is to build excitement and keep people interested. This trick works particularly well on the dancefloor, getting the crowd dancing to the drops and singing along with the corresponding vocals.
If you want bangin tracks, you better get that mix right
Common sense suggests that more complicated tracks with lots of elements require greater mixing skill, but thats not necessarily true. Minimal mixes run the risk of sounding empty or thin. With hip-hop the problem is compounded by the fact that excessive delay or reverb often swamps mixes and interferees with your carefully crafted grooves, so its usually best avoided. Make sure you layer up your kick drums so that they have both weight and punch. If your bassline is rockin but you can not hear the kicks, try turning up the punchy kick first before before reducing the bass or swamping the mix with a heavier kick.
Next, try nudging out a few decibels from the frequencies occupied by your vocals, typically in the 300Hz-3kHz range. You'll find that by cutting some frequencies slowly in this range on your lead sounds, you'll actually make them sound louder and more distinct.
And finally, the most obvious of all – if you can not get a sound to sit right in the mix, replace it!