Hip Hop’s Music Production Evolution

How has music production changed since the early days of hip hop? What has stayed the same and what has allowed artists to grow? 

The Bronx, New York, late 1970’s. There’s disco, punk, funk, rock, and…something new is happening. It’s happening on street corners, block parties, nightclubs, with emcees and DJs. The harsh, bleak reality of struggling to survive within low income, crime-ridden urban areas becomes the focal point and driving force behind a new kind of music. Bred from pain and anger, as well as resilience and pride, hip hop’s genesis was phrased lyrics on top of disco rhythms, and it caught on fast. Gangs moved beyond demanding respect with weapons; using your wits and demonstrating your flow was another, less violent way to represent.

Disco may have been the hottest sound on the airwaves in the mid ’70s, but another type of music was making itself known: breakbeat, whose origins included Jamaica as well as Africa. For instance, Manu Dibango’s 1972 hit “Soul Makossa,” was a catchy, danceable mix of soul, Afro funk and makossa (Cameroonian rhythm style) became one of the earliest disco songs. Listeners can recognize its “mamako, mamasa, mamakusa” chant in Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin,” which Rihanna then later used in her 2007 song “Please Don’t Stop the Music.” Like with many musical genres, the beginning happens underground, within the deep roots of a community like in discos and party circuits, and gradually spreads in no time at all. A typical setup to create a hip hop sound required a turntable to play records, a DJ to spin them and introduce the songs, a drum machine and music sequencer. Simple, yet powerful – this was all that was needed to create music. So while disco’s start began in cities like New York, Philadelphia, Miami and Chicago, the earliest incarnation of hip hop started in the Bronx, New York.

One of Chic’s best known disco hits, “Good Times,” begat what is widely considered to be the first real rap song, “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang, as well as the instantly dance floor ready and use of the bass line in Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust.” This explosion of sounds-referencing-sounds happened between 1979 and 1980, and if there is one person responsible that ensured the success of “Rapper’s Delight,” it’s Sylvia Robinson, The Sugarhill Gang’s manager. Her savvy business sense helped mold the song into a radio friendly hit, something totally accessible to all, but still fresh and nothing quite like it before. As hip hop continued to grow, the concept of the ‘rap battle’ was born: first, you needed to obtain the most obscure vinyl records imaginable, to hopefully one up your opponent right off the bat. Then rappers could develop and show off their timing, flow, phrasing and concentration on top of the record. Small crowds would gather in the streets where these battles often took place.

To create the music, it may be done in a studio or as performance art; a turntable and a microphone can work just as well as a full sound desk and digital audio workstation. The sound that is still heard today as it did since its conception is a drum machine. Usually a Roland 808 drum machine provided the beat and is still such an integral part of hip hop. One of hip hop’s founders was Afrika Bambaataa (born Kevin Donovan in The Bronx). As the leader of the Zulu Nation, Bambaataa’s somewhat incongruous musical references included Yellow Magic Orchestra and Kraftwerk, two important electronic bands of the the ’70s. “Planet Rock,” perhaps his best known song and an early hip hop classic, contains samples from 2 different Kraftwerk songs.

Grandmaster Flash, another Bronx native, initially made a name for himself as a pioneering DJ in the late ’70s. With his group The Furious Five, he released 1982’s “The Message.” This wasn’t a run-of-the-mill hype record or party jam. This was grim social commentary without a happy ending fade out. It painted a discomforting picture of the living conditions of ‘the ghetto’ and beyond. This was storytelling on a grand scale, and now young musicians from all over were able to tell theirs – and make a profit. Another added plus? New York DJ’s revolutionary turntable techniques. Back spinning and scratching helped add totally new dimensions to a records playtime during nightclub acts and parties and into music production for records.

Hip hop and rap of the 1980’s can be summed up in two words: expressive style. Lamentations of inequality and need for positive economical change were themes heard throughout the decade, and in the latter part of the ’80s, there was a burgeoning Afrocentrism and slickness of production. During this time, acts like NWA, Public Enemy, Eric B. and Rakim, De La Soul, among others were helping create what is now considered by many ‘The Golden Age of Hip Hop.’ Inner-city black youths suddenly had role models and heroes, people they could put posters of up on their walls. This next metamorphosis of music production included way more usage of samples and experimentation. One group who had been part of the hip hop scene since its early beginnings in New York was the Beastie Boys (3 white middle class guys) who had the first #1 rap album on the Billboard charts in 1986 with License to Ill. Now, hip hop and rap wasn’t just being performed on street corners or clubs anymore. It was a commercially successful musical style and it was just growing and growing.

The 1990’s saw the mainstreaming of hip hop. In a very short time frame the genre had exploded into the stratosphere. While 1990’s radio and MTV had an eclectic output of what was popular among the young demographic, there was grunge and alternative rock for angry young white people and a more aggressive hip hop sound for disenfranchised young urbanites. Heavy hitting songs such as “C.R.E.A.M.” by Wu Tang Clan became huge hits on the radio and Video Music Box, and the theme of telling stories of dealing heavy drugs on the streets and being a slave to money became something other ambitious young artists could relate to.

Diss tracks (or the way of recording witty references and insults aimed at one or more people) technically first started with Joe Tex in 1962 after his wife left him for James Brown. Fast forward 30 something years later, and things are heating up on both coasts of the country. While diss tracks are very much still a thing, (including the ongoing beef between Nas and Jay Z), those who grew up during the Golden Age of Hip Hop remember those initial radio plays and overall impression that this went beyond making music. This was almost a mob type mentality and retaliation.

For a lot of people, when you think of West Coast vs. East Coast in the 1990’s you think Tupac vs. Biggie and gangsta rap. Both men were blessed with talent, had very difficult upbringings, found success very early on and were then taken down suddenly, way too soon, within months of each other. While there was plenty of material for both artists to use as a way of self expression based on their tough living environments, drugs, hustling and much more they managed to be prolific during their short lives and help provide somewhat of a positive voice in some songs. Tupac and Biggie shed a light on topics that had been addressed previously, but added a new dimension to them. Both Tupac and Biggie were advocating positive cultural changes among the African American community. The message this time was that you did not have to perpetuate negative stereotypes. Instead, learn from them and better yourself.

Female rappers broke new ground and created music just as bold and aggressive as what some of the men were doing. MC Lyte, Salt n Pepa, Queen Latifah, Da Brat, Lady of Rage and Lil Kim (just to name a few) were strong, independent, confident, and spoke with no holds barred. These were modern women who were in a male dominated industry, but were no shrinking violets. It would be an understatement to say that they merely opened doors for future rappers like Nicki Minaj, Iggy Azalea and Cardi B; these ladies provided courage and the toughness needed in the music business. Some of them continue to create music and collaborate with other artists, which just goes to show hard work, and professionalism go hand in hand with longevity as a musician.

Music production in the rap world of the late 1990’s entered a new metamorphosis. It wasn’t just songs about juxtaposing economic strife and struggle with getting girls and money as a rap star – now there were offshoots and hybrids of sounds, like acid rap, pop punk rap, rock rap, which was mainstream. Of course, it’s hard to think of rap in the late 90’s and not think of one specific collaboration, and one that helped skyrocket half of said collaboration into superstardom: Dr. Dre and Eminem. Dr. Dre had success with West Coast group NWA and his signature G-funk sound (synthesizers with slow, heavy beats) carried with him into his productions with up and coming artist Eminem. From the first song that gave the then unknown Eminem public attention, “My Name Is,” it was a song quite unlike anything before. With its goofy lighthearted tone and darkly humorous lyrics, Eminem quickly obtained respect in the hip hop world as “not just another white rapper,” but a highly acute sensibility with both songwriting and rapping skills. It also helps with an equally funny video that plays incessantly on MTV. Eminem easily set himself apart as a unique player in the industry, growing as a writer and producer, working with the likes of D12, Snoop Dogg, Obie Trice, Royce da 5’9″, among others. The change in music production during the late 90’s to early 2000’s is easy to hear, thanks to digital recordings, (which became more mainstream at that time as well). Often somewhat minimal in sound, audio track-wise, the music paired perfectly with the lyrics, just allowing the lyrics to stand out a little more. One of Eminem’s key traits is his ridiculous pairing of words, play on words and rhyming syllables.

Contemporaries like Nas, Snoop Dogg, Jay Z and 50 Cent found continued success during the 2000’s, and new musicians starting to emerge like Kanye West, Flo Rida, Lil Wayne, T-Pain, Usher and Ja Rule. Music videos continued the trend that had gained popularity in the 90’s of showing glamorous living and endless examples of monetary excess. Music production had a few big popular offshoots of hip hop, from slow R&B, to club bangers (having a heavy beat that was still danceable), to a poppier sound that was utilized among female artists, like Jennifer Lopez, Christina Milian and Ashanti (and liked among female demographic). During the mid to late 2000’s, Southern rap became the preferable genre of choice, with songs by Ying Yang Twins and Soulja Boy, Nelly and Plies. Music production by rappers of this specific branch of rap kept it simple, but heavily repetitive; horror movie rap officially began; the subgenre lasted several years, and then experienced a decline in popularity.

More recent hip hop remains to be relatively diverse. In the 2010’s, everything from trap and cloud rap to drill music to emo hip hop, there’s something for everyone. Thanks to a vast internet and number of music resources to find new artists and music (Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Youtube), there’s lo-fi chillhop beats, and hip hop which still remains loyal to relying on samples from obscure records. Current producers like Frank Dukes continue to source old vinyl records to use for samples in new productions. From artists like Tyler, the Creator to Azealia Banks, the digital age opens up avenues to anyone even the slightest bit intrigued as to what is possible out there. Music production for rap and hip hop has changed over time, so what will change and be the next wave of sounds? It’s anyone’s guess.

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