Hip hop has been with us for over 20 years. It has diversified greatly during this course
of time as artists have explored, inventively, with sounds and rhythm. This article will keep it simple. My goal is to give you what you need to know to make beats that are immediately identifiable as hip hop and show you how to start your own process of sound and beat creation in your own studio. I will walk you through standard hip hop beat construction and give you some sound development and production tips. Once you have the basics down you should take the format into your own hands and make beats conforming to your own artistic vision. At least one of the reasons for hip hop’s popularity is that the rules are flexible, open ended, and allow for great expression.
The basic elements of the beat early in the construction process. The first 8 bars will be the verse and the second will become the chorus. Note how this beat has both MIDI and Audio Loops together. Listen tracks 1 and 2 for bars 5-12 of this 16 bar example
Breakdown of a Hip Hop Song
There are two basic parts to a typical hip hop song: The Beat and the Vocals. Each consists of several tracks. While this article focuses on the construction of beats, lets lead off with a description of all the elements of a hip hop song so you can see how the beat fits in.
What are Beats?
This is the most important term to understand in Hip Hop construction, cause if you don’t know it, you’ll never understand what people are talking about. The Beat is basically, the whole song minus the vocals. It usually includes the following:
1. MIDI Drum patterns or audio drum loops, which comprise the complete drum tracks
2. A Bassline (MIDI sequence typically)
3. Supporting Orchestration (could be synth pads, string sections, horns)
4. Dubs and snips (samples that accent and give character)
The Beat can be long or short. In its shortest form it is 8 bars. If short, it is usually looped over and over again, for as long as the vocalist wants. If long, it may be comprised of different parts for the verse and chorus and may add an introduction, a break, and an ending. Often, the HH song follows classic pop form of Intro (8 bars). Verse (8-16 bars) Chorus (8 bars) Verse (8-16 bars) Chorus (8 bars) Break (2-8 bars) Verse or Chorus (8-16 bars) then ends in a fade out. This structure, called the arrangement, of course, is not written in stone. It can be modified to suit the piece at hand.
What do the vocal tracks consist of in a Hip Hop song?
1. Main vocal: The main vocalist performs the rap
2. Second Vocal: Some songs may have a guest vocal or second vocal that takes a verse
3. Background Vocals: Are often created to give a sense that a whole group is participating
4. Overdubbed vocals: During the chorus and at other parts that the artist wishes to emphasize, the main vocal may be doubled, tripled or even quadrupled
We’ll get to vocals in a later article.
Elements of a Hip Hop Beat
Lets dissect a basic hip hop beat and talk about the 4 basic elements I described above.
1. MIDI Drum patterns or audio drum loops
This is the “core” of the song so you should take great care with what you are laying down here. There are two basic methods here and you may use either or both in the same song.
a) Audio Loops This is the simplest way to proceed. Most sequencers come with a selection of drum loops and these can be used, edited, re-grooved and effected. Audio can be tweaked to give you the sound you want. Loops can be time stretched and compressed. You can add effects with plugins. Perhaps the more creative tweaks one can do is in an audio editor like Recycle or Sound Forge. Here you can destructively (meaning you are actually altering the sound file) modify parts, even single hits, within the audio loop.
b) MIDI drum patterns While this method is slightly more complicated, if usually gives more exacting and easy-to alter results. Here the keyboard, control pad surface or electronic drum kit triggers samples for each drum. The samples may reside in a software sampler, synth, hardware MPC type sampler or even as an instrument in some applications. In all cases the drums are a pattern of MIDI notes that correspond to sampled hits. In your sequencer this may be on a grid, dedicated drum pattern editor or piano roll editor.
You can use loops or MIDI or both. It’s common in Hip Hop, as well as other forms of electronica, to have more than one drum loop playing at once. As long as they work together and enhance the groove, its fine. Hip Hop artists have been very creative with drum tracks and our ears are accustomed to great variance with unusual timing offsets. Drums in hip hop are allowed to go places sonically that other genres will not.
2. A Bassline
You can find basslines in audio form already made out for you, but it is often better to use MIDI, given you have some decent bass samples, a good soft synth for bass or a hardware synth with decent analog emulations. Why use MIDI? Bass audio loops do not transpose easily and may leave warbly audio artifacts when you do. An analog or digital synthesizer, however, can create a fresh low waveform in real time. Good bass sounds for hip hop come from a variety of synthesizers. Old analog Mono synths and their software and hardware emulations are the first place to go. Basslines are rarely complex in typical hip hop, but are thick and low and usually have a sub-bass element, brought out by filtering and overcompression. Many, though not all, classic HH basses rely on a low pass filter with resonance, which is the most standard filter found in analog synthesis. This kind of filter removes the high frequencies and fattens the low end. That gives you a muffy, puffed up bottom yet allows the vocals to pass right over in the mix, keeping them clear and distinct. Some HH basses emphasize the high frequencies rather than the low, leaving the kick drum to carry the low end entirely. And of course a real bass can be used as well. Keep it simple, repeatable.
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3. Supporting Orchestration
While the term “orchestration” may sound complex, it is really a simple concept. To orchestrate is to select instruments that “go together”. Hip Hop and rap began with orchestration that was sparse and often minimalist. Instruments are chosen often more for their impact on the groove than for their melodic capabilities. How do you know what instruments to select? You do it by trial and error basically. But I find it helpful to use a “metaphor” of other ensembles when coming up with my own orchestrations. For instance, using an RnB metaphor, you might add a smooth electric piano, funked up jazz guitar strums, some nasty horn hits, congas, maybe a vibraphone. You visualize the old RnB band in your mind and use that vision as the metaphor for deciding your orchestration. A “symphonic” metaphor may have you bring in heavy string sections, gongs, timpani, orchestral percussion, glockenspiels. A “downtown session” metaphor might include studio brass, clean guitars, standup bass. A “club” metaphor might have a drunken crowd and musicians that play sloppily. Ask yourself: Who is in this band? What are they thinking? Where are they playing? In a club, on the street, India, or in your homies basement?
4. Dubs and snips
Hip hop and rap arose when sampling took off around 1986. With sampling, there was finally an easy way rip audio material off of vinyl (and CDs), which is exactly what the early artists did. Drum beats, record scratches and surface noise, string, brass and full orchestra hits, sax riffs, guitar chords, electric piano chords were sampled as “one shots”, a term popularized by Akai, were laid out on the keyboard and put right in the midi pattern with the kick, snare, hats and other drum hits. Today you can buy royalty free sample sets that give you all the dubs and snips you want, though people are still going to capture snips from the records of the past to get that subliminal recognition. Today’s audio editing and multi channel samplers allow separate channels and separate effects for dubs and snips. Since audio was added to our sequencers we can now drag samples straight to an audio track and give each its own custom treatment with plugins. This has made the often hard work of editing samples to a rather easy process. Dubs and snips of audio dramatically add character, time and space to the composition, just like flipping through a collection of old photographs. Its a quick abstract reference to another time and place, that ideally fits with your metaphor.
Tools of the Trade: Samplers, Synths and Software instruments
Hardware samplers have been making Hip Hop beats since the beginning. Those outfitted with “pads”, like the MPC and MV8000, are convenient to use. However, software samplers, like Kontakt 2, Battery, Halion, Gigastudio are just as good and can offer more flexibility if your computer is strong enough to run one inside a sequencer. You can use a control pad surface like the Akai MPD16 to give you some hardware control over your software.
Hardware or software synthesizers can be used for constructing basslines and other elements of orchestration. Having a variety of sound sources is ideal. Vintage synths, in real or emulated form, are great resources. In addition to the obviously needed analog synths, old FM synths like the DX7 and its offspring, cheap Casios, and other digital synths can work well for hip hop elements. Some artists like to use dinky sounding cheap synths for short little blippy sounds. However, not everything can be lo-fi. It pays to have a modern beautiful sounding sample library for strings, brass and other instruments that you want to put out there front and center. A workstation quality synth like a Fantom or Motif can do many of these quality sampled sounds. Perhaps an underestimated synth for hip hop is the Alesis Fusion.
Tweak: The MPC series samplers have been used in Hip Hop production since the very beginning. The later MPCs such as the 4000 (above) the 2500 and 1000 offer the convenience of importing samples over a USB connection to your computer. A powerful alternative to the MPC 4000 is the Roland MV8000, shown above with an optional video display.
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Native Instruments Battery Sampling Software (Macintosh and Windows)
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Assembling and Arranging the Beat
Assembling the beat refers to the process creating tracks and filling in the orchestration, while Arranging the beat refers to how these tracks change over time from verse to chorus from the start to the end of the song.
Assembling the Basic Beat, step by step
1. You can assemble the elements in any order you want, but I tend to work the kick drum track first, then the claps, hats, and snares into a good solid 8 bar pattern.
2. Then I will put on the bass. Just pick one that has some girth. Later on you will have to find one that fits perfectly with the song.
3. Before going any further, it makes sense to try different grooves and find one you can commit to for the entire beat. Listen for a “lock”. That’s when you hear something that is so cool you know it can drive the song. There are lots of tricks here. Get to know how your sequencer can use a quantized swing template. Check out my notes on Groove considerations near the end.
4. Then you can add supporting orchestration. Remember, think of a metaphor for your ensemble.
5. Next, copy the 8 bar grooved pattern with its bassline and other elements to make it a 16 bar pattern. You might drop out one of the orchestrated elements for the first 8 bars so it only plays during the second 8 bars.
6. Then, copy the first 8 bar drum pattern to the third 8 bars an start developing a chorus. You might replace drums with others. Replace or alter the bass. Keep the kick but change the snare and claps, adding perhaps a different effect. Now add new supporting orchestration to the chorus.
Arranging the Beat
The “arrangement” of a song is the fitting together of verses, choruses, breaks, intros and endings. The HH beat is no different. While it can be as simple as a single 4 bar drum pattern repeated forever, we are going to assume, for this article, that you want to go all the way.
Take a look at the picture below. You can see where I copied and pasted sequences, and at which point of the beat I added and subtracted parts. Again, this is just a guide, not all songs work this way. You make these decisions based on what you feel the song needs as it plays. As you refine the beat in subsequent passes, you ask yourself: Is that part too long? to short? does it need something else? what would make it really cool?
The full beat is arranged into form, with a 4 bar intro and fade at the end. All I have to do is mix and add vocals for a full hip hop production.
1. We will start the arrangement with a 16 bar verse and an 8 bar chorus.
2. Highlight all 24 bars, copy, and paste to the next 24 bars. So now you have Verse/Chorus/Verse/Chorus.
3. You can stop there and repeat it again, or you can develop a break for the next 8-16 bars. A break is an “alternate chorus”. As before, you can keep the kick line and change everything else if you want, add or remove elements, possibly even remove all the elements except for the kick and give space for a massive vocal rendering.
4. After the break, its logical to either go to another verse or to the third chorus which may continue till you fade it out. Your song will tell you which way to go.
5. Adding on an introduction. You can choose 2, 4 or 8 bars here. It can be a short as a drum flam, or a 4-8 bar acapella vocal, just the instruments with no drums; just the drums with no instruments. But it should borrow sounds and phrases from the body of the beat. I like to choose the most interesting part of what i have constructed, insert it in front of verse one, then modify it by dropping elements or adding them. This is the hook and it makes your listener want to keep listening.
6. The structure of the beat is done. Play it through and smooth out the elements that need smoothing. After all, at this point it’s still kind of crude. You may need to add some fills to the drums and do some general processing to make the beat sound true but don’t get bogged in processing yet.
7. If you like it, it’s time to put on the vocal tracks. You may have to tweak the arrangement with the vocalist. This may require shortening or extending a verse or chorus. Not a big deal as you have all your building blocks in place.
8. If the vocals succeed with the beat, then the arrangement is done. You then you move to editing and processing, where you put each track under a microscope and fix bad loop points, change a few things in midi loops so they don’t sound exactly the same (unless that is what you want). Try out compressors on the elements that need to be on top of the mix. Tweak and tune the kick drum. Start looking for a better bass or tweak the one you have and as the image starts to gel in a pleasing way, start the mixing process
There is some freedom when arranging hip hop, but its not a wide open universe. You can shrink parts to 4, even 2 bars for effect, but the main body of the vocal should be in an 8-16 bar verse, otherwise the listener can get lost. You can also make the first verse 8 bars and the second 16. Sometimes a shorter 8 bar verse can keep things moving where 16 would make eyes roll with ensuing boredom. Heh, if you are bored listening to it you can bet your last dollar your audience will not be listening at all. As in rock, pop, jazz and other forms, as you transition from verse to chorus there should be some fill action on the drums, perhaps a dub or snip added, as the listener needs these signposts to follow the song.