"Choco, bang that shit." -- The RZA, You'll Never Know

An Introductory Recipe for Concocting Beat Chemistry

Mmm, phat beats.

Their taxonomy includes the old school (808s, and samples of the legendary "Amen, My Brother," "When the Levee Breaks†," and "Funky Drummer" breaks), the vinyl fetishist soul beats of New York (along the lines of Wu-Tang), and most recently "crunk" (which is nasty on the high end and is notorious for its use of eurotrash synth clap sounds and detuned saws resembling the likes of those in hardcore techno). It's a hobby that has really taken off in popularity in the last few years, with more underground Hip Hop artists "cutting" records in their basements than ever before.

So, you're a would be producer. You have your programs (or drum machine, sampler, whatever), your inspiration, and probably a few really good ideas. The presets in your program can barely move your speakers, and your samples are wack. What do you do now? I will illustrate some of the methods I use, with a slant toward the soulful NY style and abstract Hip Hop¹. It's a freeform art, and most producers (including me) use an interpolation of many styles, so don't worry if you're into something different. What I say will more or less translate all the same.

Your no. 1 priority; finding decent sounds to work with.

It's just a like a guitar, and I can't stress this enough; if your tone sounds weak and boring to you, nobody else is going to want to pay attention either. You want to look at your sample and synth patch bank that you're working with as your voice. They need to not only reflect you and what you want to get out there, but you also probably want them to be loud enough to get noticed. Loud isn't all about volume, either. It's about character.

Simply turning it up won't move as much air as working with the right sounds and dialing in the right parameters beforehand. A little forethought and creativity can go a long way. So, what are decent sounds? That's entirely up to you! It's whatever you decide to sample. Be prepared to read a lot of manuals and more importantly do a lot of "crate digging," virtual or otherwise. It comes with the territory.

Sampling, huh? What's that all about?

For the lowdown, check the writeup on sampling.

So now you know what it is. The brilliant thing about Hip Hop, however... is that it can borrow from any other form(s) of music, regardless of the culture or era. It is a postmodern genre. What I mean by this is, no one is stopping you from synchronizing your rhymes to acid zydeco beats synthesized from accordion micronoise if you can figure out a way. Yeah, that is Hip Hop, love it or hate it.

What are some good sound sources?

  • Pawn shops, flea markets, and thrift stores (the latter to a lesser extent, they often have a straight up bunch of shit) are a veritable goldmine for Hip Hop producers, or anybody interested in making any kind of music, for that matter. Look for old 45s. Find vintage samplers and digital synthesizers so that you can add their soundbanks to your archive. A violin that needs restringing or an old guitar can add a wonderful ambiance to your track with a little TLC. Look into buying a good condenser mic to capture the sounds of what you find.
  • A definite place to check is sample repositories on the internet. There are numerous places where you can find archives of breaks, classic drum machine sounds, and all kinds of other types of noises. You will have to be judicious in what you ask Google for, since simply asking for "Hip Hop beats" will lead you to the next suggestion in this list.
  • You can also obtain store bought (online, or from a place like Guitar Center) cds full of samples, but I would advise being careful in this respect. Here's why; a lot of the people who produce these discs are hacks. They churn them out overnight, and the included samples are not only often of very low quality, but the price being asked is outrageous as well. I would be cautious of anything released by Zero-G‡ (zero-g.co.uk). With any published sample pack, you should check into who produced it first (if it seems flaky, stay away).
  • Here's something much more fun; take matters into your own hands and use portions cut from mp3s, or vinyls you find at the record store downtown (among an infinite range of other possible sources). Bjork used "found sound" collages on Vespertine, culled from minidiscs she recorded during her travels around the world. Negativland, conversely, define their work through sampling whatever music, TV, film etc. they can get their hands on. Prefuse 73 is where these two approaches coalesce into Hip Hop, highly recommended.

Now, this is a hotly debated topic among producers, mostly because some believe sampling of the latter kind to be "stealing," while others believe they should be free to do it as much as they want. There are many moral gradations in the continuum of sample usage. I'm going to assume that you're a sample jacking bastard that would take portions of my beats in a second if you had a use for them, my kind of person. You'll have a lot more freedom that way. The line between thievery and ingenuinity is represented by how much you want to dissect material that you get your hands on.

Whatever opinion you end up having on the matter, be prepared to deal with the consequences if you steal a copyrighted sample and achieve enough fame that somebody notices. For example, don't assume that a break is in the public domain just because everybody else uses it. If you're really insistent on using one without checking into legality and all that bullshit, then the key is to splice breaks into individual drum hits and cross-pollinate them from different sources into your own hybrid so they are no longer recognizable enough to hold up in a court case².

The Anatomy of a Hip-Hop Break

Let's introduce the various components of a breakbeat and gather them so that we can create a rhythm.

The first element you will need is a bass drum kick, which (like other drum hits) are known to come in a number of different flavors; your garden variety hip-hop synth kick that manifests itself as a thin vertical pillar in a waveform editor (sharp attack, sounds like a tapping sound in the bass range), sub drops (synth kick with a low register and long decay, also; noise you hear on your street at 3am, followed by a car tearing off into wherever the fuck), and "live" drum kick samples (surgically removed via mixing techniques from the breaks of, for example, vinyl records a la DJ Shadow, et al).

You need a kick with good presence (the requisite phatness) that aesthetically foreshadows what is to follow in terms of its sound character (it shouldn't clash with the rest of your virtual drum kit). I will leave the choice up to you, but know that it will form the basis of your rhythm. This is contrasted with a snare drum, the only other real required component. Snares are short, full spectrum sounds that punctuate the subdivisions of your rhythm. You want them to "knock." Finding one that's bold in character is important, and you can't go wrong with classic analog sounds³.

So you have those. Even though you could call it quits on this now and move on to the next section, your break is going to be a bit dull without hi-hats. In a conventional drum kit, they are cymbals which are operated by a foot pedal. Either way, their proper use is that of a flourish meant to represent a segue between the rhythm of the bass and snare, or to accent them when played simultaneously. They can be played open or closed, depending upon the sound desired, and samples of them will follow the same convention.

Patterns, Intervals; A Few Classic Rhythms

We're almost there, just hang in there for a few more minutes.

Now that you have some drum samples, you're going to want to arrange them into a beat. You will need a drum machine program to follow this section (or hardware if that's your thing, no problem there). It should be capable of handling input velocity data in sound channels represented by the samples we selected earlier (or the ones in your drum machine) in a 16 step sequencer format. It should also give you sounds in return for it when you press "play." If not, there are plenty of other writeups that will help you in that department without any need to be redundant on my behalf.

Continuing on, you should do the following:

  • Load up your program of choice, or turn on your drum machine.
  • Set the time signature of the track to 4/4, which probably means doing nothing (that's almost always the default). The time signature of the rhythms I will describe here is 4/4 (four steps per beat and four beats per bar), but you may feel free to experiment with whatever you wish outside of that.
  • Set the tempo of the track; the average tempo of most Hip-Hop tracks is somewhere around 93 beats per minute, but there are quite a few exceptions to the rule. Let's keep it around there for now (± 5 beats per minute). I personally prefer it a little on the low end of things.
  • Load the individual samples that you selected earlier into their respective channels. If you're using FL, then they will be in rows and come preloaded with a club techno kit that you will want to replace with your sounds. In Reason, it will most likely be channels in the ReDrum. If you're using Cubase, the matter is more complicated and will be left in your hands.

The rhythms that I present will be in a sort of drum tab format, and are presented with a key so that sense can be made out of them.

2-Step 1 2 3 4 BASS X...|...|.X.|... KEY bass = bass drum X = hit (high velocity) SNR ....X...|...X... snr = snare drum x = hit (low velocity) CL-H x.x.x.x.x.x.x.x. cl-h = closed hat . = empty step OP-H ..X.|.X.|.X.|.X. op-h = open hat | = beat division, empty March 2-Step Variant 2-Step Variant 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 BASS X...|...X...|... BASS X...|...|.X.|... BASS X...|...|.X.|... SNR ....X...|...X... SNR ....X..x|x..X... SNR ....X...|...|.X. CL-H x.x.x.x.x.x.x.x. CL-H x.x.x.x.x.x.x.x. CL-H x.x.x.x.x.x.x.x. OP-H ..X.|.X.|.X.|.X. OP-H ..X.|..x|x..|.X. OP-H ..X.|..x|x..X...

The simplest rhythm is the march, which is used once in a while, but what you will most commonly hear is the "two step", in many different variations (usually bass and snare drums are added on odd steps, i.e. 3, 7, 9, etc.). Hi-hat placement is up to the person writing the beat, and the most lazy thing to do (and sometimes the most effective) is to place closed hats on even intervals every 2 steps, and open hats in the middle of every beat. I have illustrated that above in some of the examples, but it is not essential to the definition of the rhythms themselves.

The march is characterized by a bass kick followed by a snare on even intervals, and the two step is more funky; one of the kicks is shifted two steps to the right. The feel it gives is more laid back. However, what I prefer most of all is to go a step further in that direction and shift the second snare ahead a couple steps as well. Keep in mind that this may be more difficult for either you or other people to rhyme over, but you might end up liking it as much as I do. If you're in search of more rhythms, drum tab sites are an excellent place to look.

Where to now? Experiment, be true to yourself, and your style will come to you in time. I will likely return to this subject in subsequent installments in the future. For the moment, peruse other write ups on the subject; breakbeat, creating a breakbeat, and Hip Hop.

¹ Those in search of inspiring sounds are recommended to check out GZA's "Liquid Swords" album, if they haven't. It's highly acclaimed, and a favorite of mine.
² Most well known hip-hop producers live by this method. Some of them elect to pay for their sampled material and others do not (use of discretion with commercial distribution is recommended, as any uncleared sample usage is a violation of the law). For an example, Nelly wanted to sample Chuck Brown for an album, and Chuck agreed to license for about 40% of Nelly's gross. He made $1.5 million off the deal. This information was provided by e2 user littlerubberfeet.
³ Try finding samples of Roland's classic 808 and 909. mkb has /msg'd me and provided a link to some at http://machines.hyperreal.org/manufacturers/Roland/
† Most sampled break ever. I love its sound, and believe it or not almost forgot to add it. Its inclusion comes courtesy of GangstaFeelsGood, who reminded me.
‡ An example would be their "NY cuts" disc, which not only showcases vocoder loops in the example tracks (that's a West Coast thing, trust me), but a beat entitled "Krush beats" which not only sounds nothing like DJ Krush, but is nowhere near on par with anything that he has ever had anything to do with.