Essential Features of Hip-Hop Production: Tempo, Instrumentation, Rhythmic Feel and Sonic Density
Hip-hop is the musical genre that has most successfully merged humanity with the emerging technologies of our digital society. My book Hip-Hop Production: Inside the Beats focuses on the production techniques of recorded hip-hop music, exploring a timeline that includes commercially successful hip-hop beginning with 1979’s “Rapper’s Delight.”
Beyond beats and vocals, producing a hip-hop song is also about having a vision. It’s not only how banging the beat is, or what the rappers and singers are saying, but also the choice of sounds and samples, the flow of the rappers and singers, how it’s recorded, and how it’s mixed/mastered.
Let’s consider a few of the important pieces of hip-hop beatmaking:
Different hip-hop subgenres feature distinct tempo ranges. Old-school, East Coast hip-hop tempos were in the 100–120 BPM range. Early West Coast hip-hop initially slowed it down to 90–100 BPM, then expanded the range to 90–120. Southern hip-hop often uses a polyrhythmic/double-timing effect that is interpretable, for example, as either 80 or 160 BPM.
The genesis of revenue-generating hip-hop record production began with live bands being recorded to emulate the DJing techniques coming out of urban projects. As digital technology took hold, beatmaking preferences began to lean toward instruments like the Roland TR-808 and the Oberheim DMX, with bass line support performed on a wide array of synthesizers and micro samplers. Historically, the melodic and harmonic content of hip-hop beats evolved away from guitars and keyboards. Individual musicianship was replaced by an almost-limitless musical creativity afforded by macro samplers that led us to the modern creative-flexibility digital audio workstations (DAWs) and the awesome plug-in architectures available for everyone who wants to make beats.
Many early hip-hop compositions were designed to give people a sense of a community-party vibe. Kick-drum patterns were chosen to move playfully but usually committed to a solid hit on the first beat of a one- or two-bar phrase. Hi-hat performances would follow an eighth- or sixteenth-note pattern (with a slightly lazy swing), establishing much of the song’s movement. Snares, rim shots, and claps shared the backbeat on beats two and four, with periodic punctuation borrowed from the soul, funk, and disco roots of the art form.
Turntables, drum kits, drum machines, and samplers have all had their turn driving the narrative of hip-hop beatmaking, to the point where most hip-hop subgenres are characterized by the distinct time feel and its variations that they’ve chosen as the foundation of their beat.
Sonic density indicates how clearly individual instruments can be heard in a record relative to other instruments (this includes the vocals). In early hip-hop, each of the conventional instruments (drums, bass, guitar, piano) is clearly discernible. The drum machine/sequencer era features a much sparser production that has a few drum elements, a few synthesizer elements, and prominent vocals. The sampling era brought forward more dense and complex arrangements.
Tempo, instrumentation, feel, and density are the primary production dimensions that help define hip-hop and its subgenre evolutions. By understanding these techniques, aesthetic choices, and tools, you can speak more clearly about beatmaking and challenge yourself to create your own unique style within the ever-evolving art form called hip-hop.
Prince Charles Alexander's book Hip-Hop Production: Inside the Beats was published by Berklee Press in March.
This article appeared in the spring/summer 2022 issue of Berklee Today.