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From the days of DJ's looping records using turntables and mixer at house parties, to producers using early samplers like the E-Mu SP-1200 in the 1990's, and all the way to today's modern computer software - hip hop production has always been one of the easiest and most fun styles of music to produce.
Hip hop production welcomes everybody, from those with limited equipment and engineering knowledge all the way up to classically trained multi-instrument playing musicians. If you are looking to begin your journey into learning hip hop production, then join us as we kicks some vital knowledge your way with the complete beginner's guide to hip hop production.
The history of Hip-Hop production
The earliest form of what could be considered to be hip hop production was performed live when DJ’s would loop sections of funk records (usually drum solos) for which an emcee could rap over. With the rise of sampler technology in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, DJ’s and producers were able to suddenly take snippets of these records, manipulate them and mix them with other drums, sounds and synthesizers.
Producers like Marley Marl, Pete Rock Large Professor and DJ Premier began pushing the (by today’s standards very limited) technology beyond its capabilities, creating new techniques and mastering their own unique styles. The cost of the equipment in order to get involved proved quite a barrier to all but the most passionate of people who wanted to create hip hop music.
The rise of the home computer began to break down the barriers, offering far more power than the older sampler technology. With software emulations of synthesizers, samplers, drum machines and effects units widely available, suddenly you could have a whole studio in one box. This opened the door to many more people to be able to get involved – just like you!
What are the characteristics of a hip hop beat?
Hip hop instrumentals, widely known as ‘beats’, are composed of a number of different elements layered together. Typically running from between 80-100 beats per minute (BPM), these beats are usually made up of the following:
- A drum pattern, punctuated with full bodied kick drums and punchy snares, sometimes using sampled drums.
- A melodic track, be it either from real instruments, sampled records or synthesizers (or combinations of these).
- A bass pattern, either from a synthesizer, bass guitar or using large booming kick drums similar to those found on a TR-808 drum machine.
Many producers also add additional sound effects into their work as part of their signature style, be it a short vocal sample, a signature sound (J Dilla’s air siren horn sample comes to mind), or cuts from vinyl (where a DJ will cut up and scratch vocals and other elements over a track in their own unique style).
A producer’s choices of sounds, drums, instrumentation and additional effects help to stamp their signature style and sound, so much so that you will know when you hear a master producers track within a few seconds of hearing it play. Compare the work of producers like Dr Dre, DJ Premier, Timbaland, J Dilla and Scott Storch, - you will see a consistent theme running through their compositions, choices in sounds and structure that uniquely make the style belong to them.
The beauty of hip hop production is that it can be as simple as one of two elements looped, or as complex as an entire orchestra. Unlike other forms of electronic music, there is much less emphasis on the technical aspects, and the music itself becomes the focal point. This is also why it is one of the easiest and most fun types of music to produce.
What equipment do I need to start producing hip hop?
In order to get started on your journey into producing hip hop beats, you will need the following equipment:
Beginner's Equipment Checklist
- A home computer (PC or Mac)
- Good quality speakers (preferably studio monitors)
- An audio interface
- Music production software
- Good quality drum samples
The more powerful your home computer is, the better when using music production software. Most modern computers are more than equipped for the job, and whether you use a Windows computer or an Apple Mac is purely down to personal preference. If you need some ideas, you can check out some of our favorite computers for music production.
The most vital piece of studio equipment to invest in at the beginning is the speakers you will use when producing. Spending more on a high quality pair of studio monitors if you can is highly recommended, as their flat frequency response and intense detail will highlight problems in your mix and give you a clear aural view of how the pieces of your music are fitting together. If the final mix of your song sounds great on a pair of studio monitors, it will likely sound great on other speakers too, no matter the size or quality.
For those who like to remain hands-on with their music production, you can buy a hardware based set-up with a sampler, monitor speakers, drum machine, turntable, midi-keyboards, vinyl to sample, reflection filters, various synthesizer, and multi-track recorders. However, this is likely out of the budget of the newcomer to hip hop production. As with all new ventures, I would advise to start out on a tight budget, pick up some second-hand studio monitors and get a feel for the process before you invest lots of money!
As you do progress you'll want to start considering the room in which you are producing. Having high-end studio monitors may be rendered useless in a poor sounding room. This is where you'll start to get into acoustic treatment with acoustic foam, bass traps, etc. It's best not to think about when you are first starting, just thinking to be aware of.
Which DAW is best for hip hop production?
DAW is short for Digital Audio Workstation, and this software is essentially the canvas that you will arrange your sounds into songs upon. Within this environment you can also choose from thousands of synthesizer plugins, samplers, effects units and much more, all with unique characteristics and workflows. There are free plugins available on the web, as well as some incredibly powerful premium tools – if you know how to navigate the darkest corners of the internet then you can find many of these tools also, but it’s not something we recommend you do.
You may have heard of the most popular DAW’s on the market, including Cubase, Logic Pro, Reason, Ableton and Fruityloops. There are many different options out there for you to try, but my advice is simple – choose one and stick with it, taking the time to learn it inside and out. Mastering your tools is a vital component of mastering your craft, so read manuals, follow tutorials and absorb yourself in your DAW of choice.
What are some good VST plugins for producing hip hop?
Some essential plugins that are great for hip hop production and used by many of your favourite producers can be found below.
- Synthesizers & sound modules
- Effects & tools
- Native Instrument's Kontakt
- Logic EXS24 (native to Logic Pro X)
- Steinberg Halion
- Native Instrument's Massive
- Spectrasonics Omnisphere
- reFX Nexus
- Waves Complete Bundle
- FabFilter Pro Bundle
- Izotope Ozone
Which drums should I use to produce hip hop?
Hip hop drums typically have a lot of weight to them, and traditionally have a live but fat feel to them. Many producers will create unquantized drum patterns, meaning that they intentionally leave the hits out of time to give them a more human feel and an interesting swing and groove. J Dilla was one of the people who really highlighted how loose drums can sound incredible.
You can buy drum sample packs in lots of different places online, as well as scouring the internet for free packs and receiving donations from friends. You can take these individual hits to create your own loop, or you can try out my favourite technique – sampling breakbeats.
A breakbeat is a section of a record where most of (if not all) the instruments stop playing and there is a drum solo. These drum solos can be recorded into a sampler, cut up into their individual hits and be replayed in new arrangements. James Brown’s music was notorious for having high quality and interesting drum solos (or ‘breaks’) in his music, and he remains one of the all-time most sampled musicians. Why not try finding your own drum solos from any kind of music and experimenting? The more unique and original your findings, the more unique and original your music will sound.
A technique that many producers use when working with breaks, is the concept of layering. A lot of the music you might sample from the 1970’s and 1980’s have incredible drums to chop up, but the power and weight of them were lacking by todays ultra-crisp engineering standards. What producers started to learn was that you can layer in additional drum hits (usually the kicks and snares to beef up the break), or begin layering up different breaks to create all new sounds. The possibilities are endless!
What is sampling in hip hop?
Sampling is one of the best parts of hip hop production culture, and it comprises of taking elements directly from other songs and using them to create something new. It can be as simple as looping a four bar loop from a song, to making collages of sound from music of the past.
When applied correctly, sampling also breathes new life into old, and more often than not rare and obscure music. Put some of your favourite hip hop songs into the website WhoSampled and check out the origins of the music. You will be very surprised at your findings for sure!
Do I need to clear samples in my hip hop beats?
While hip hoppers love sampling without a care in the world, unfortunately the law doesn’t look at it as favourably. Copyright law is rightly there to protect intellectual property, however don’t let that stop you from getting creative with sampling. Only when you begin making money from your music do you have to make decisions on clearing samples or seeing if they will fly under the radar.
Once you have basic looping and chopping techniques in your arsenal, you can begin to get really creative. Why not try pitching the sample up and down, reversing it in parts, using a filter effects and distortion, or finding samples in the same key from other songs that compliment it to make a real patchwork style arrangement? There are infinite possibilities!
Where can I find records to sample for hip hop beats?
The best places to find samples for hip hop production are traditional record shops and fairs, friends collections, yard sales, online blogs… if you can get it into your sampler, then you can sample it! The more experience of crate digging you gain, the more knowledgeable about other types of music you become and the more you will start to develop your own tastes and sounds from that. Not only is sample hunting productive, it is a hugely rewarding hobby in its own right.
Do I need to know music theory to produce hip hop?
Learning music theory isn’t always necessary when starting out producing hip hop, in fact several famous producers have no classical training at all! It is definitely worth making the effort to try and learn some of the basics, and there is a wealth of information out there including hundreds of tutorials for free on YouTube.
Learning an instrument is also an advantage, as you can layer additional music on top of your samples or create your own compositions from scratch with a higher level of technical ability and musicianship. If you want to learn something easy, I recommend trying the keyboard or bass guitar – these instruments will help you understand music theory better, and also will make your understanding of chords, patterns and basslines far more advanced (which inevitably shows in your hip hop beats!).
Hopefully that has covered the basics of hip hop production and will give you an insight into the culture’s history, how it is made and how you can be a part of it. If you enjoyed this article, please don’t hesitate to give us a share and a comment at the bottom. Peace!