If you listen to hip hop, electronic, pop, or even rock, you’ve probably heard a beat at some point. Not a beat in the basic nebulous sense of some sort of rhythmic pulse in the music, but rather in the form of programmed instrumentation.
Beatmaking can also be referred to as production, although that term encompasses many other styles of music creation and oversight that won’t be covered here. However, beatmaking is one of the key aspects of hip hop production, the genre that gave birth to the technique.
Beatmaking is an art empowered by technology. The first beatmakers were Djs in the 70s, who used two turntables in conjunction to create rudimentary collages of sound. With one turntable, the DJ would repeatedly play a basic drum loop – known also as a break – while using the other to scratch or layer additional sounds. This technique is demonstrated in the video below (do yourself a favor and skip through the first minute and a half in which the guy shamelessly promotes himself).
Through the 80s and 90s, beatmaking flourished as technology expanded. Samplers such as the MPC and Oberheim DPX 1 allowed for faster, more intuitive work. And the dawn of inexpensive home computing technology in the 90s opened up entirely new avenues for beatmaking, bringing the art to more eager hands than ever before.
Whereas traditional instrumental composition might be compared to sculpting or painting, in that the artist produces an original work out of raw materials – be it marble, or paint, or vibrations from a plucked string – beatmaking in its purest form is perhaps best compared to photography. Beatmakers, like photographers, draw from existing forms to create their art. As the photographer relies on his keen eye to recognize a suitable scene in the world around him, the beatmaker trusts his ear to pick out useable samples on another artist’s record. As Richard Schur said in Hip Hop Aesthetics and Contemporary African American Literature:
“Hip hop does not simply draw inspiration from a range of samples, but it layers these fragments into an artistic object. If sampling is the first level of hip hop aesthetics, how the pieces or elements fit together constitute the second level.”
Throughout the course of this blog series, I will teach you, my dear reader, with key strategies for beatmaking. I will also provide some tips for performing beats live using a controller or sampler. Get our your headphones and a dusty crate of vinyls; it’s time to make a beat.