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On The Beat (Part 14)


Article from Music Technology, September 1990

Once an underrated underground movement, hip hop has turned out to be one of the most influential musical developments of the last decade. Nigel Lord takes the rap in MT's regular drum programming series.


WHILST THOSE WHOSE business it is to predict the arrival of pop's next big thing have been slowly waking up to the fact that (in mass market terms), it simply isn't going to happen, an entire subculture has entered through the back door and slowly but surely revolutionised the music we hear on the radio and the dancefloor. Though still of minority interest in its purest form, hip hop (along with its progeny, techno and house) has been responsible for most of the new thinking which has kept pop music afloat in the becalmed waters of the '80s.

Production values which for years have dictated the way we listen to music have been gradually redefined to take on board the change in emphasis from the melodic to the rhythmic which hip hop represents. (I wonder how many of those who complain about "black men with record players" adorning the cover of MT then turn to their drum machines and select a range of hip hop-inspired samples from which to write a rhythm track?)

On television too, hip hop has been assimilated by those whose job it is to write the music for commercials and title sequences - its rhythmic emphasis being ideally suited to the fast cuts between visual images which are constantly beamed at us from our screens. And of course, in its original street form, hip hop continues to thrive and provide a seemingly endless stream of new music and new talent, and through this has kept faith with those who recognised its potential when it first surfaced towards the end of the 70s.

Like most modern idioms, its origins are far from precise, but there can be little doubt that it has a heritage which includes such diverse elements as a capella and doo-wop music, street funk, the narrative styles of Louis Jordan and Cab Calloway, 70s disco, radio jocks, the heavy rock of bands like the Stones and Led Zep, West Indian toasting, the robotic styles of German bands (particularly Kraftwerk), the political awareness of Malcolm X and Mohammed Ali - and a host of other influences too numerous to mention. Out of this heady brew has emerged an instantly recognisable style heavily reliant on sampling, rapped vocals, turntable scratch and cutting techniques - and of course, the beatbox.

With such a heritage, it becomes difficult to pinpoint the precise moment at which hip hop came into being - particularly as the music is so entwined with the hip hop culture of the Bronx in New York (which has to be regarded as its spiritual home). However, two records, both released in 1979, could be said to have brought hip hop to the attention of the wider listening public - King Tim III by the Fatback Band and Rapper's Delight by the Sugarhill Gang. Of the two, Rapper's Delight was probably the more important (and certainly the better known), and in many ways became the prototype hip hop track, incorporating, as it did, an MC vocal rap and an instrumental track based almost entirely on a cut up and remixed version of Chic's 'Good Times'.

Since then, the procession of hip hop bands and artistes has continued unabated, and though in recent years, many have begun to enjoy a degree of mainstream success, there are still many more whose music seldom reaches beyond the streets from which it was born. In the last few years, of course, hip hop has spawned a number of bands who seem to make it their business to keep the polemic (rhyming or otherwise) as controversial as possible. And whilst it can be argued that hip hop has always maintained a high degree of political awareness, it has to be said that some of the material put out by bands such as Public Enemy and NWA is about as far away from a song like Grandmaster Flash's 'The Message' as it's possible to get.

Musically, I've always found the concept behind hip hop to be compelling. The idea of producing your own music on anything that comes to hand - whether it's a pair of turntables, a beatbox or a voice box - is as fascinating as it is timeless. Rhythmically, hip hop owes perhaps its greatest debt to the black DJs of the 70s and early '80s who decided that the expression playing records could be taken much more literally than anyone had thought possible in the past.

Beginning with the idea that tracks could be played back to back and blended into one another in order to keep up the pace on the dancefloor, they had soon started to experiment with those sections of the music which featured drum breaks. Winding back a record by hand, it was possible to repeat a few bars of the drum track, and by using two records simultaneously they could actually cut between them and build a complete rhythm track within a piece of music.

The strict timing requirements of dance music made the use of the beatbox an obvious next step, and their adoption by many black musicians during the early '80s coincided with the appearance of machines of such relative sophistication as the TR808. Though it was to be many years before manufacturers would wise up and start to incorporate tailor-made hip hop samples such as scratches and popping, the voices these early machines did offer were the perfect complement to the turntable-generated rhythm of the DJs.

From our point of view, hip hop rhythms provide a natural stopping off point in our exploration of the drum machine. I'd have to accept the argument that we are somewhat overdue in our examination of hip hop as a distinct genre. To make up for this, I have included no less than ten individual patterns for your consideration, and together they provide a pretty fair cross-section of the kind of programming techniques commonly associated with hip hop.

As you might imagine, instrumentation doesn't provide much of a problem: hi-hats, snare and bass drums make up the bulk of the voice requirements together with handclaps on a few of the patterns and also a 'percussion' line which may be given over to any short duration voice that takes your fancy. The relative simplicity of the examples also removes the necessity for a blow-by-blow account of programming requirements, and setting them as I have on grids with each beat divided into four should also improve clarity where clusters of notes occur.

I should mention that examples 3 and 4, being broadly similar in feel, could be combined and used together in the same track, and that pattern 8a and 8b is really two separate rhythms which again, are similar enough to be used together. Two things which aren't similar - or shouldn't be - are the twin snare drums which crop up in patterns 2 and 6. In fact, two totally different voices need to be used if the right effect is to be achieved. Finally, it's worth pointing out that extensive use of triplet-based patterns is common within hip hop and that it would be worthwhile digging out the relevant articles in this series if you're looking for something with a little more swing to it.

I'd be less than honest if I didn't admit that in programming terms, this month's article represents something of a step backward on our quest for rhythmic adventure. Certainly, no-one who has mastered the intricacies of Latin rhythm and odd-metre time signatures is going to find anything here to worry about. However, despite their simplicity, there are some very effective grooves amongst this month's examples, which would be at home within a variety of hip hop and other dance styles.

Hopefully, the trickier bits included in this month's patterns will get your fingers itching. If you should come up with something really exciting and are prepared to allow it to become public, why not stick it onto a cassette and send it to us for inclusion in an article I'm hoping to put together comprising the best rhythm tracks that you, the great MT readership, can come up with. It'll be my chance to see just how good your programming is.

Series - "On The Beat"

Read the next part in this series:

All parts in this series:

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12 | Part 13 | Part 14 (Viewing) | Part 15 | Part 16 | Part 17 | Part 18 | Part 19 | Part 20 | Part 21 | Part 22 | Part 23 | Part 24 | Part 25 | Part 26 | Part 26 | Part 27 | Part 28 | Part 29 | Part 30 | Part 31 | Part 32 | Part 33 | Part 34 | Part 35

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Korg Wavestation

Publisher: Music Technology - Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.

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Music Technology - Sep 1990

Feature by Nigel Lord

Previous article in this issue:

> Passport Mastertracks Pro

Next article in this issue:

> Korg Wavestation

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