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The audio clips throughout this piece demonstrate the various elements in producer Jordan Doswell’s beat, “Robin Hood.” Click on each track to hear how they sound on their own and layered with others.

From streets to studios to bedrooms, hip-hop’s sonic traditions allow its producers today to let the beat build

Words by Cole Norum 

Computers and Comforters

The origin story behind every rap song you hear today begins in exactly the same manner you came to be reading this sentence: by logging into a computer and opening an application.

But things change quickly from there. The different recording applications, different ideologies, different approaches, different mindsets and sounds sought. Whether or not to use samples. Whether the drums are loud and looped or off-grid. A rap song is a million choices condensed into three minutes. As Jordan Doswell, a 22-year-old producer based in Minneapolis explains, producing is the solo pursuit of a collective experience.

“When it comes to the music-making process for me, as far as the beat goes—I almost a hundred percent start off with the main melody or the main sound, whatever that is.” From there, he builds the loop. Often, it’s a combination of 808 drums and snares. Then a kick. “And then from there, it’s really just the feeling. I really want it to be one of those things that you just feel. Like it’s—you’re feeling the same feeling I felt when I made it, when you’re listening to it. You know what I mean?”

He speaks in a staccato stream-of-consciousness. Begins on one topic, explores it, then cuts short—not deleting, mind you, but adding a new layer with new ideas. It’s the vernacular of a producer: discursive, exploratory. Initially messy. And yet, the end result is something new, significant.  

Doswell’s newest beat, “Robin Hood,” is three-and-a-half minutes of a woozy ARP synthesizer, bobbing and never sinking. It’s an electric piano but grittier, like the cord is being chewed on. Static cheers from a crowd ring throughout. They bump to the whooomp of his 808 drums. A pair of rattling snares hit right at nose level. Hi-hats chime open and close; congas rumble somewhere in the distance. He pulled each element from his software, recording their progressions on an electronic keyboard connected to his MacBook.  

It’s like having an entire studio on his desk in his upstairs bedroom. It’s also not uncommon in today’s hip-hop production culture: small spaces can make huge sounds, in both volume and relevance. The advent of affordable computers has given rise to recording and editing suites, or Digital Audio Workshops (DAW). Programs like Avid Pro Tools, Ableton Live, Apple Logic Pro X – Music Production and FL Studio 12 offer comprehensive instruments that give producers command over their vision with an immediacy and convenience only dreamt of in the days of boom boxes on summer stoops.

“Just A Snare and a 808”

When Lil’ Wayne dropped his cataclysmic Tha Carter III in 2008, my gum-stick iPod burned with syrupy drawls of the self-anointed “best rapper alive.” The album opened with orchestral strings on “3 Peat.” Those gave way to the nose-punch snares of “A Milli.” Then came the sung-moaned euphemisms of “Lollipop.” Somewhere in all of that, Wayne “Let The Beat Build.” It sounds how it reads: a quirky lyrical interaction with a looping beat.

Wayne dedicated an entire song on his magnum opus album (which sold a million copies in its first week) to a meta reference of the beat over which he raps about the beat under him. Pause. So when I set out to explore the culture of production, of unearthing hip-hop’s sonic skeleton, I figured the song about a beat was the perfect piece to build with.  

But maybe it isn’t. “When I first heard about the song and saw the title, I thought there would be more to it. I just thought it would be layers and layers and layers and layers,” says Andrew Atwood, an Austin-based producer whose website and YouTube series Beat Breakdown offer in-depth production tutorials and critiques to aspiring and established producers alike. “I just had this grandiose idea of what this song would be. And then I finally heard it and, like, I like the beat a lot. But it really is pretty straightforward.”

The Kanye West and Deezle co-production samples the composition and vocal recording of Eddie Kendricks’ 1972 track, “Day by Day.” West duplicated the vocals and offset them, creating an echo that repeats ad infinitum over punchy piano chords. Hi-hats and snares arrive incrementally. Then the drums.

The result is a progression from harmonious piano and catchy vocals to a speaker-rattling piece that plays host to Wayne playfully engaging the sounds themselves, “And the beat goes: Bom Bi-Bom Bi-Bom / Bom Bi-Boom Bi-Boom … Huh, c’mon, just a snare and a 808 / Weezy Baby on the mic, D.O.A. / Ok, I’d like to thank Kanye.” And it carries on like this for three more minutes. A beat, building. And building.

But after countless replays, the song reveals a rather ho-hum structure with about as many thrills as sounds. “It’s kind of a good example of what you can do with a little,” Atwood says. “But at the same time, it’s not the best example of an intricate beat.”

Perhaps it’s best suited as an introduction. Or maybe a cautionary tale of what happens when a beat doesn’t yet bump and risks causing hypnosis when it carries on for minutes with the same sounds it introduces early on. Either way, to further understand hip-hop’s simultaneous capacities for organic melodies and sample-based productions, we need to look back. And look ahead.

How We Got Here

But first, a few words about the art of sampling and T.S. Eliot. Sampling is the digital recording and manipulation of sound. It originally developed as a means of efficiency for deejays. It became an art form. Joseph G. Schloss writes in his 2004 book “Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip-Hop” that sampling was born in the late 70s or early 80s to deejays who sought increased control over their turntables while reducing their workload. In 1986, an early sampler, called the SP-12, allowed them to record and store their own live drum sounds in order to use them in their performances. This offered a preferable alternative to the pre-recorded, synthesized drums they were used to.  

Soon enough, deejays found they could record the sounds of their favorite drummers. Then they learned they could sample entire melodies of other artists. But the real revolution: digital sampling allowed early producers to utilize drum patterns and other melodies simultaneously. Not just one or the other. Suddenly, they could sequence entire sections of a performance from other artists’ work. What began as a method of developing fuller drum sounds led to a pillar of modern rap: incorporating past artists’ music in current projects for future listens. Basically, it was musical time travel.

If good artists borrow, and great artists steal, then hip-hop producers are somewhere in between. They aggregate. Sort. Rummage through physical and virtual crates of records for a creative spark which, until that moment, had existed unbeknownst to them. “I take a lot of my inspiration from the sample, because there’s so much out there and so much stuff you’ve never heard and so many textures and sounds,” Atwood says. “From a creative energy point of view, when you find the right sample it just gets things happening and all of a sudden, you know exactly where you’re going.”

Writing in his seminal 1921 essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” T.S. Eliot believed an artist’s creativity should not be relegated to his novelty and uniqueness. Rather, he should be considered by how he works to obtain the traditions before him. He can do so in part through what Eliot described as the “historical sense,” an awareness of prior creators; “a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence.” In simpler words, a producer understands not only what his samples existed as in their initial state, but also how their past sounds will work in a future piece.

“You’re just wondering how in the world they hear this stuff in the first place. And it’s funny because a lot of the times, if you go and listen to the initial sample, you’ll be like, ‘This is weird,’” Atwood says of sampling’s transformative nature. “And then all of a sudden, you’ll hear the moment [the producer] heard and be like, ‘Ohhh! But how they got there in the first place, and how they turn it into what they did? Yeah, I’m still in awe.”

Back To The Future

Well-before cementing himself as a multifaceted business man, Andre Romelle Young produced songs on the West Coast. A lot of songs. For a lot of people. You’ve heard them—“Fuck Tha Police,” “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang,” “California Love.” You’ve seen his headphones with the lowercase “b.” So you probably know him by his other name—Dr. Dre.

In 1999, he released 2001. It was his first studio album in seven years, a return to the attention of fans and media that he felt had been doubting his abilities, both as a rapper and producer. Heralded for its production, it’s a work of technical proficiency and studio mastery, which saw Dre eschew a sample-heavy approach and instead seek to capture the artistry of in-studio musicians.

2001 was one of the first albums I really listened to for production,” Atwood says, who is 24. “It’s one of the more technically precise and complicated albums, with how many people Dre had in the studio and how many musicians he had laying down parts and people singing.”

It was a level of command over an entire album’s development. From abstraction to mastering, Dr. Dre had demonstrated precise, meticulous and complex production was not only possible for hip-hop, but accepted. That studio work was sexy. Moreover, it became the foundation for today’s producers being held in the same artistic regard as rappers. “For 1999, when it came out, [2001] was the crown jewel of being intricate and doing things perfectly,” Atwood says. “And then fast forward ten years, ‘Power’ is up there with that precision.”

Actually, it’s 11 years.

In 2010, Kanye West rocketed from the depths of a self-inflicted exile with “Power,” an acid-rock-charged single from his own magnum opus, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. In tune with the vast majority of each of his eight studio albums, West had a steady and constant presence during the song’s production—he once claimed he spent 5,000 hours composing the song, a testament to his, say, “confidence” and whatever else you want to call it.

“Power” is just that, and far from pure. A driving bass and stampeding drums course around African tribal chants, all of which cease before King Crimson’s sleep-deprived howl, “21st century schizoid man.” The song is objectively exhausting. Exhilarating. It is four manic minutes and 52 seconds of airtime for West’s snarl, a nasally huff that dispenses lamentations and celebrations over the at-times cacophonic beat. It is bold. It is unrelenting. It is a god-damned master class in hip-hop production. Eleven years prior, Dr. Dre redefined his sound away from samples. Kanye reintroduced himself to us by doing the opposite.

Its two most aurally apparent samples are “Afromerica” by Continent Number 6 and the aforementioned 1969 King Crimson single, “21st Century Schizoid Man.” West sampled multiple elements from both songs and utilized the drum pattern from Cold Grits’ 1969 soul-disco instrumental, “It’s Your Thing.” His “Power” is, by about every measure, the antithesis to “Let The Beat Build.” It rarely plays out the same progression over multiple lines. Many parts are barely audible but not wasted, an exercise in precise sensory bombardment, as composed as it is anarchic. A paradox befitting of the Grammy-grabber publicly concerned with music’s integrity.

“Power” is a paragon of production for Atwood, himself a producer who works with samples. He estimates the song contains a bare minimum of 50 or 60 elements. “That’s kind of my go-to when I think about starting with one thing because it starts one way, with just a sample,” he says. “And then throughout the whole track there is stuff you’ve never heard.”

Though a pioneer in sample-based production, West is not the only one. Nor is he infallible. West’s partial use of the 2001 song “Avril 14th” by electronic artist Aphex Twin (the artistic pseudonym of Richard D. James) for his 2010 piece “Blame Game” came under scrutiny four years later, when James told Pitchfork about the issues surrounding West’s sampling efforts. “Is it a sample? I know that he tried to fucking rip me off and claim that he’d written it, and they tried to get away with not paying. They’d sampled it really badly and time-stretched it and there was loads of artifacts. And they totally didn’t even say ‘hello’ or ‘thanks,’ they just replied with, ‘It’s not yours, it’s ours, and we’re not even asking you any more.’”

Legal pitfalls surrounding sampling abound beyond West. From Vanilla Ice’s egregiously un-nuanced use of Queen’s “Under Pressure” for his escalator to relevance “Ice Ice Baby,” to the lyrically-and-sonically controversial “Blurred Lines,” over which the family of Marvin Gaye’s brought a lawsuit against the song’s producers and performers Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke. The family claimed the pair ripped off Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up.” In March of 2015, a jury ruled in favor of the family, awarding them both damages and a portion of the song’s profits for a total of $7.3 million.

A Different Kind of Instrument

Producers’ sounds are stored behind the screens on which their progressions are pitched up or down; pulled left or right; cut, looped, compressed, stretched, distorted and reverberated. It’s a staggered, synthetic symphony. All accomplished with a click of a button. Today’s rap songs are by and large made on computers. From equalizers to reverberators and all the multiband dynamics in between, Digital Audio Workshops allow producers a wealth of precision that borders on omnipotent.

Hit-churning producers, like Atlanta’s Mike Will Made It and MetroBoomin’, are products of self-instruction in this era’s age of access. A keyboard-clad takeover has been underway for some time, fueled by the possibility of a beat born from a bedroom making its way onto a studio album. Younger guys are hearing different sounds more often, and with their easier access to computers and software, are making new songs with greater ease and frequency.  

And yet the hip-hop catalogue grows one song at a time, born of one producer at a time. He proceeds at his own pace, making mistakes on his own accord. It is a sort of luxury, underscored by the very fact that projects can be scrapped and re-started, over and over again without affecting anyone else. “The thing that I think draws a lot of people to producing hip-hop and making beats is that it’s one hundred percent in your control,” Atwood says. “You don’t have to deal with anyone else, wait for anything. You just do it.”

Just Crazy Shit You Have to Sit There and Vibe to
“One effect of [production’s shift from live to studio recording] is hip-hop’s celebration, almost unique in African American music, of the solitary genius. Hip-hop producers hold an image of themselves that recalls nothing so much as European art composers: the isolated artist working to develop his or her music.”

“No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists.”

Forward-thinking, weird, out-there-stuff. It’s just this crazy shit you have to sit there and vibe to.”

-Parting words from Schloss, Eliot and Atwood

Ending here, I’m once more reminded of my middle-school mp3s. It was 2008, the zenith of Lil Wayne’s rat-a-tat braggadocio. Beats that pulsed with 808s. It was two years after James Dewitt Yancey died at 32 from the blood disease thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura.

Before Kanye loved Kanye, before Metro boomed or Mike Will made anything, J. Dilla made Donuts. Recorded in a home studio and in his hospital bed, Dilla’s Donuts was released just three days before his death. The 31-track album only furthered the legacy of the Detroit producer, who has posthumously gained an immense and unwavering following. He worked with The Roots and Common; with Busta Rhymes and De La Soul; with The Pharcyde and A Tribe Called Quest.

Dilla is the dead poet. The man in the studio with those producers who figure themselves to be alone. His final studio album’s 31 tracks are something to behold. They come from many places—90 samples in all. They are brisk—only one song on Donuts cracks two minutes in length. They have innocuous names like “Stop,” “Hi.” and “Bye.” Others with names like “Gobstopper,” “Anti-American Graffiti” and “Time: The Donut of the Heart.” 

They sample The Isley Brothers, The Jackson 5 and Frank Zappa. One track, “The Diff’rence,” samples two songs by Kool & the Gang. Nas, Lupe Fiasco, Joey Bada$$ and Mac Miller have all sampled Dilla’s Donuts.

These songs are glimpses into the mind of a man who himself glimpsed and glimpsed. They breathe with a life that didn’t stop at 32. A life that understood those before it and hoped for those after it. Dilla was a solitary man in a transient studio, the products of which are tracks that transcend time. They are not all immediately accessible. Some sounds are not tremendously catchy. Strings of seconds are off-kilter; skewed, slanted and skittish. But others, man. Others are calm and gentle and doughy-warm.

I still don’t know much about him. More than I used to, not as much as I will. But I know Donuts is 36 seconds shy of 44 minutes. I know it begins with a departure, “Donuts(Outro)” and ends with a greeting, “Donuts(Intro).”

For Donuts finale, Dilla sampled Motherlode’s 1969 “When I Die,” pulling the vocals from the line “When I die I hope to be a better man than you’d thought I’d be.” All that you can really make out, what with the plodding drums and vinyl scratches, is a meandering “Beeeeeeee.” A loop of existence. Of and between different eras.

So, find some headphones and some free time. Trust in its eternity. Let it build, and vibe to that crazy shit.