Rap Beats - A Basic Tutorial.
Rap Beat Masters
If you want to learn how to make hip hop beats then you must first understand its history
Hip Hop music or Rap music has a deep rooted history spanning decades, and most probably way further back than most people realise with it really coming to light in the late 70s and early 80s. The early rappers and the pioneers would almost certainly resonate with today's hip hop artists, the music itself on the face of it is nothing at all similar. Or is it?
Take one of the first commercial rap artists Kurtis Blow. He had an all-time classic with "The Breaks", and when you listen to it carefully you can certainly hear those tones & tomes in the Hip Hop legends of the modern day.
What this means for us producers creating hip hop beats today is that we have a vast array of inspiration to use giving us every chance to produce an original hip hop track. While this gives us freedom we first have to understand the construction of a hip-hop song, as with all music genres there are certain features that define its style and sound.
This article shows you how to make hip hop beats yourself, the elements of a hip hop beat and how the beats fit with the rest of the rap.
Let's break down what a hip hop track is...
Components of Hip Hop music
Essentially there are just two main components of a hip hop song - the vocals (obviously) and the underlying beat. Both of these elements are recorded on multiple tracks, and that's part of the secret of getting a well-produced sound. For the purpose of this article I'm going to stick with these basic elements since they are by far the most important when it comes to hip hop production.
Traditionally the word beat in musical production terms is meant to mean the drum and percussion parts only. This is still the case but in hip hop circles the beats are mainly used as a reference to the whole beat including any instruments, scratches and loops. Think of the whole track without vocals - the dub version if you like. For this very reason, when I talk about ‘beats' in this article, I'm referring to the whole dub track underneath.
The next most important part of a hip-hop track is the bass line. Think back to the Kurtis Blow track we listened to at the beginning and you'll quickly realise it's the bass that's driving the rest of the song. This is the same in all modern dance or pop music, and it's just as important in hip hop music.
Extra Drum tracks
It's often not enough just to have a drum loop playing from a sample even if some of the best rap artists in history have only used a beat-box or a record being looped, for our top production quality we'll want to be adding extra parts. This also helps us to vary the beat for different sections of the song (more on that later).
Samples & Extra sounds
Those scratches and background sample / voice samples you a good deal of the time in a polished commercial hip hop chart hit - these add the sparkle to the final mix
Pianos, Strings, Stabs, Horns, Synths, Guitars - any other real instrument in fact! Real instruments play a massive part in a quality production. You only have to listen to some of the biggest Grammy winning artists to hear this. This is your place to be really creative too.
Those are the basic elements of what makes a hip hop song without one obvious thing - the vocals!
Vocals in Hip Hop Production
Let's talk about vocals then. A lot of people see rapping as a one-man band, with just one vocal line rapping over the top of a beat. Really that one vocal line is just a part of many some more obvious than others - such as the backing vocals or backing raps that often just accompany one or two words every now and then. I'd like to break down a fairly standard model of how vocals work in Hip Hop music.
There are usually four distinct layers - the main vocal, a second vocal (if the song requires it), backing vocal tracks and then overdubbed vocals by the main artist.
- The main vocal track
Obviously this is the most important part of the whole song, so excellent clear recording is required to start with - it will only be a headache later on in the mix if you don't get this right. Correct choice of mic and placement is essential to this, especially with rap vocals where there are likely to be a lot of plosive sounds and consonants.
- Backing Vocals
As with all commercial and pop music backing vocals are an essential part of a good production. They don't have to be extensive or huge in sound, in fact sometimes less is more when it comes to music production, but there will be some somewhere usually. It's just as important to consider mic placement with backing vocals and choosing whether to have record the vocalists singing in a well-rehearsed group or individual tracks, both methods have their merits and reasons.
When you listen to a hip hop song or commercial chart hit have you ever wondered what makes the chorus stand out and sound big compared to the rest of the song? Well part of that is down to recording vocal overdubs on the chorus parts. Essentially are just a re-recording of the same vocal line (or part of it) overdubbed to add a "chorus" effect. I won't explain the science of it here, but the basis is that it sounds like two or more of the exact same person singing together.
- Additional Vocal Track
Depending on the song itself, you may have an additional or second guest vocalist on the track. It's certainly not uncommon for hip hop superstars to record songs together, with neither being consigned to backing vocalist - they're both just as important as each other, and for this reason we treat the additional vocalist track in the exact same way we do the main vocal part. It's not difficult as the main vocalist & guest don't normally sing together or even in the same verse. The only time you're likely going to have to mix them together is in the chorus part.
This is the fundamental construction of most hip hop songs broken down into its elements. As you can see it's not really that complex and you can always produce fantastic results if you follow a few basic principles and stick to a handful of loose rules. I'm not going to go into details on exactly how to record vocals as that's a huge topic by itself which we'll cover later, for now we're going to look at how to create hip hop beats. (Remember that's the whole track without the vocals, not just the drum parts!)
Hip Hop Beats - Components of the beats
I've already described the beat as the whole song minus vocal tracks, and how the ‘beats' are divided into elements, so now let's go a bit more in depth for each one of those and describe how they are constructed.
The two main methods of creating hip hop beats are using drum loops or sample loops and MIDI drum patterns. Today the term MIDI is used slightly out of context but the idea is that it's a sequencer / drum machine programed beat written usually in a tracker or a beat maker.
Drum Loops / Sample Loops
By far the quickest and easiest way to get your song off the ground is with a loop, which is why it's considered the main method of working in hip-hop. It's roots are in those guys spinning up a loop on a record (yes vinyl) letting the 4 or 8 bars play then skilfully spinning / slipping it back to the start of the loop again. It's not difficult to understand why most hip hop producers and artists today still start with this method, but now there's a new generation of producers with some amazing software or beat makers that can give them instant and easy access to programing beats the MIDI way.
Slicing the rap beat sample
A great program for slicing up drum loops is Propellerheads Recycle - it will look for slice points on the wav display, allow you to add more and then slice the loop into samples to play back in beat maker software or hardware.
All of the decent hardware beat makers have auto-chop / slice features if you are considering buying one for this purpose - I won't make any recommendations at this point because they all have their positives, the main thing I will say is software is the way to go if you're on a budget.
MIDI drum programming
This may sound daunting, but really it isn't. Again like the hardware option for audio loops many of the same machines will do both the audio loops and the MIDI drum patterns.
For a low cost beat maker I've found BTVSolo excellent particularly for hip hop beat production as it's really easy to be creative and not worry about programming - you just literally tap the beat out and it'll quantize automatically so the beats are always perfectly in time, and then you can add any kind of shuffle or skip to it real easy.
With drum programming like this I tend load up individual samples as drum sounds and assign them to the buttons on the controller or in the software editor, as opposed to using one of many premade kits, just because I want to sure I'm thoroughly original, but most beat makers have excellent libraries included.
To really get your own sound you load up your own - if there's a snare or kick sound you love from one of your favourite songs - you can sample it and edit the sample in your software, add effects until you get the sound you want and voila - you have a new drum sound in your library. A great deal of hip hop music uses samples of drum sounds from old records, so you really can think outside the box here when it comes to choosing your samples.
The all-important Bass line
Let's look at any single chart hit and break down what the main structure of the song is built upon. The very foundation & framework that any hip hop track has is a beat and a bass line. Apart from the vocals you can virtually do away with the rest as long as you have a beat and b-line. (That's not strictly true - we're looking to get into advanced hip hop production remember!) When it comes to hip hop I always place an emphasis on keeping it as simple and low as possible. By keeping it down in the low frequency range, filtering off the high end and boosting the sub-frequencies we can be sure of getting a deep soft & booming sound that will leave plenty of space in the mix for the vocals, drums and other instruments.
Compression is used extensively with the bass in hip hop because we're using such a booming sound - we need to keep it under control on the recording or it will bleed everything else despite its low frequency. A synth bass is the mainstay of this genre, but I often like to use bass samples from my extensive library I've collected over the years. There are some excellent bass libraries out there that I've used a lot in the past and they've always produced excellent results. Shop around and you'll find some outstanding legendary bass players have their own libraries for various systems too.
The main thing to look for in a hip hop bass line is repetition. Hip Hop music in general is a lot of repetitive sounds that vary only in verse-to-chorus-to-bridge, and it's essential for allowing the vocals the reign of the song - after all it is a rap song that we're producing!
From soft melodic style tracks to heavy-hitting in-your-face type stuff you'll always find a simple bass line in commercial hip hop music production.
Extra Drum Tracks in Rap Beats
These may seem insignificant at first - as usually you'll only be adding an extra hi-hat or snare at certain intervals, but it's really the extra drum tracks where you define the verses and choruses, as the changes here will be important. You may have a hi-hat that's playing every fourth note in the verse, then change the sound and beat frequency in the chorus to boost it up, make the beat interesting and make it obvious to listeners which part of the song we're at. You might add an extra snare or kick drum to boost it up too but it's best not to overdo it too much - once you start playing with beat makers it's easy to get carried away (they really are amazing fun!).
Nearly always I'll use a beat maker or drum pattern editor for the extra drum & percussion tracks since it's easier and quicker to play one drum sound on beat than it is to try to slice a sample loop down to one beat! Care should also be taken not to have the extra drum tracks too high in the final mix - you'll soon find no room for any other instruments if you do!
Samples and Extra Sounds
Before the days of samplers there was no easy way to have sounds fired off on beat or on top of the music. Earlier adopters of samplers weren't hip hop musicians and producers, but some of the most respected rock producers in the world like Robert Fripp & Peter Gabriel who had access to some of the first samplers - the Fairlight.
Today of course samplers are so commonplace there's one even in your smartphone! The first major industry standard sampler in studios around the world was the Akai S1000. It had very limited memory & sampling time, so the samples were often just sounds, one or two words, or drum samples, and it's this last use which really took off along with looping small sections of beats. The famous ‘Funky Drummer' beat was looped and used so far and wide it became the most sampled & looped beat in the history of er... beats!
When it comes to Hip Hop, samples are usually found in the background playing some small loop from an old song complete with pops & crackles from the original record. This tends to add a certain authenticity to the sound that is otherwise very clean and precise. Part of those "loose rules" of hip-hop production is getting a loose organic sound while at the same time a clean loud recording.
The samples and sounds are the bits that add some dynamics to your otherwise standard song, and are your chance to look around for inspiration. Everything from Martin Luther King speeches to simple famous James Brown horn stabs is included in the extra-sounds section. Like the extra drum tracks these should be used sparingly as it's easy to get carried away (it's the toys I swear!).
Instruments in Rap Beats
Every song needs a chord structure regardless of style. Without it we would just have a series of beats and sounds with a cool bass line. A chord structure doesn't mean chords played on a synth, piano or guitar throughout the entire track like you would find with most other music - it's usually very understated and often will comprise of just a piano hitting a couple of chords every now and then or repeated throughout the chorus. It could be something quick melodic or rhythmical or it may be some added string part to the bridge of the song.
The chords and the instruments are what give the song its full sound and work together with the bass line to form the complete track. If you compare a hip hop track structure to a house, think of the bass as the foundation and internal structure, the chords would be the brick walls and roof with the rest of the tracks the contents.
Now this might seem like you have to know music theory or be able to play an instrument, but if you just want to know how to make hip hop beats you really don't. In fact, some of the best hip hop tracks pull their instrumentation right from samples of old-school RnB songs. A lot of the time an RnB loop with be part of the main loop and have instrumentation included. For added instruments you can use any source you want, even a live band! The really cool thing here is that you get to use your favourite parts of your old school tracks that you love and include them as a new instrument in a new light on your own production, and that really inspires the song writing process enormously!
The thing you want to watch for here is copyright, and I can't give you any definite answers if you played me a bit of music and asked if it would be in breach of copyright -it's a very grey area in law where high paid lawyers take time to decide. General rule of thumb here is if it's the main hook of the song - it's a copyright violation. If it's a distinctive sound or part of the song - it's copyright violation. If it's a certain key vocals phrase or even lyrics - it's a copyright violation.
In reality though you should never let anything prevent your musical freedom, it's just sometimes good to stick to a few loose rules... and I mean loose for how to make hip hop beats is up to you.
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I hope you've learned something about how to create rap beats and is all a lot clearer just how easy it can be. Of course you can go extremely complex with your sounds and production techniques, but the essence of hip hop music is it's simplicity. Over complicate the music too much and it detracts from the main point - the rap itself!
Feel free to leave any comments or questions if you're unclear of anything in this article.