The greatest hip-hop beats (and how to make them)

The greatest hip-hop beats have some things in common. By looking at how they make us shake our tail feathers, we can figure how to make our own great beats.

But how do we know which are the greatest?

Late in 2015, Billboard Magazine worked out their Top 10 of all time. We’re going to use their favorite five as a measuring stick.

“We spent months discussing, researching and reflecting on music from artists old and new, considering everything from sales to impact to innovation to longevity. The results won’t please everyone – and that’s as it should be. Everyone has their own takes on the greatest in music – this is ours.” — Billboard Magazine

Right then. Let’s go.

5. Mobb Deep, “Shook Ones Part II,” produced by Havoc

Billboard says: “Mobb Deep’s Prodigy and Havoc spun a dark world for their classic 1995 debut The Infamous, with an even darker sonic landscape — chalk it up to Havoc’s keen ear for gritty samples that pull together sounds from different records.”

I says: check out how sparse that beat is. It’s lo-fi, minimal, and totally uncomplicated. The hi-hat hits on every beat, the snare hits on every other measure, and the bass drum hits 1-2, 1, 2-3. That’s it. That’s all. No bells, no whistles. They wrote the beat and walked away. It’s still looping after the track is done.

What we learned: the greatest hip-hop beats are the simplest ones.

4. Dr. Dre featuring Snoop Dogg, “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang,” produced by Dr. Dre

Billboard says: “Nothing epitomized the West Coast G-Funk sound more than ‘Nuthin’ but a “G” Thang,’ which established instrumental and percussive conventions that still dominate the area’s sound today. Recalling the funk sound of Parliament Funkadelic and interpreting it in the rising genre of hip-hop at the time, the instrumental served as the undisputable foundation of an entire movement.”

I says: once the track starts, it’s all bass and snare. Bump-bump, snap. Bump-bump, snap. Bump-bump, snap. Bump-bump-bump, snap. That pattern — three repetitions culminating in a change-up on the fourth — is rock-solid. Can’t go wrong.

What we learned: beats are about repetition with a well-timed change.

3. Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth, “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.),” produced by Pete Rock

Billboard says: “Sampled from a Tom Scott cover of Jefferson Airplane‘s ‘Today,’ the instrumentation — a filtered bass line, choir and saxophone — introduced a new moody impressionism to rap beats that would inspire producers like Kanye West and J. Dilla later on. Producer Pete Rock was always known for his horn loops, and here he chose exactly the right one.”

I says: Boom-boom-bap, boom, boom-bap. Boom-boom-bap, boom, boom-bap. Dig that silent beat, which is called a rest, right before the fourth part of the measure. Boom-boom-bap, boom (rest) boom-bap. This is a super jazzy beat, and the secret to that funky groove is in that rest. Dig it.

What we learned: the groove is in the silent beat. Place your silence deliberately.

2. Nas, “NY State of Mind,” produced by DJ Premier

Billboard says: “It’s been called ‘boom bap,’ and the drums that start this classic Nas highlight (arguably the best album opener of all time) could very well be the inspiration for the term.”

I says: That’s what it sounds like to me, yeah, “Boom, bap — badoom-bap.” But I think you’ll agree that the beauty of the beat doesn’t rely 100% on where the beats land. For sure, all that empty space between the beats (see number 3, above) makes a huge difference, but pay attention to how DJ Premier uses that space to let those live, beautiful, natural drum tones ring out. That live sound is what makes this beat a killer.

What we learned: live percussion doesn’t always sound better … but nine out of 10 times, it does.

1. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, “The Message,” prod. by Ed Fletcher, Clifton “Jiggs” Chase and Sylvia Robinson

Billboard says: “Old school hip-hop’s greatest instrumental masterpiece, and the best sample-free rap beat ever … The mix of cascading synthesizers, guitar plucks and timbale fills was the perfect backdrop … Twelve years later, Ice Cube would jack the beat pretty much in entirety for ‘Check Yo Self’ … How’s that for timeless?”

I says: This beat is essentially the same as Nas’s boom-bap groove, “boom, bap, ba-boom, bap,” but rendered digitally instead of live. Flash could easily have gone the live route, but instead he used a 1982 Oberheim DMX. That piece of hardware sounds even more plastic than the TR-808 which came to be synonymous with the hip-hop sound of the 1980s and early ’90s, and it’s just unstoppable. Try to do better. The Flash dares you.

What we learned: that “one-out-of-ten” time I mentioned above? When digital beats work better than live percussion, they’re a beast. Know when to use them (and when not to).

 

And that’s all for this week’s edition of MondoDIY! Don’t miss last week’s post on how to write a bitchin’ bass line.

 

How to write a great bass line in six easy steps

How to write a great bass line depends on just a few points. These are points we here at MondoFYI haven’t covered yet, so why waste time? Let’s go.

 

 

Mike B. the Flea

     1. Bass lines don’t usually come first

If you only play bass, then you probably spend a lot of time noodling around and discovering neat riffs to show the people you play with.

That’s good! That’s great! You should absolutely do that!

(But it’s not the usual way songs are written).

Usually, singer-songwriters do the songwriting because the vocals and melody instruments need to work tightly together. If the bass comes first, then the rhythm and lead guitars need to write themselves around that bass line, and then the singer needs to write around that, too.

Which leads to …

     2. Find the root note of the song

There’s a central note which is played more often than the other notes in every song.

That’s called the root note.

For instance, if the guitarist plays a scale (do-re-me-fa-s-la-ti-do) then the first note played is the root note. It is also the key of the song. Notice, too, that the first and last notes are the same, except that one is an octave higher than the other. (There are eight notes in do-re-me-fa-so-la-ti-do, so it’s called an octave, just like an octopus has eight arms).

Once you find the key and root note of the song, you know which note you should write your bass line around.

 

 

     3. Keep it simple

Bassists aren’t usually best when they’re super busy. Don’t run up and down the neck of your guitar with 20 notes every five seconds.

Great bassists, like great drummers, are usually the most bored people onstage.

(Never look like it, though. That’s crappy performance, and it matters).

     4. Play to the kick drum

Now that you know what notes to play, when do you play them? What rhythm do you use?

The general rule of thumb is to play a note whenever the drummer kicks his bass drum.

If you do this correctly and consistently, this marries the drums to the bassist. Other bands will wonder, “How do they get that nice, tight sound?”

Nothing muddies music like bass players playing notes whenever they want to. If you play on top of the kick, you’ll blend into the percussion section like a wraith and everything will sound amazing.

 

 

     5. Don’t leave out the chords!

Just because it’s harder doesn’t mean you’re exempt from playing more than one string at a time on your instrument.

Maybe you’re very small. Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers) and Bill Wyman (Rolling Stones) are both notoriously small, yet both play beautiful chords on their basses.

Try that. Do that.

     6. Experiment with different plucking techniques

Every bass player who’s played for more than a week has tried a few different plucking techniques.

Very few continue to change their own technique up for the proper sound for the song.

Slapping, picking, plucking, strumming, thumbing … They all produce different tones and a good bassist should match these to the song at hand.

 

That’s all for this week’s MondoDIY! Don’t miss out on last week’s piece giving pointers to the vocalists out there. Have fun! We love you!

 

 

 

5 Rules Every Vocalist Should Follow

There are five rules every vocalist should follow, especially vocalists who fall under “vocalist” more than they do “singer.” These rules will help keep your vocal chords healthy from the start of your performance to your final bow. Follow them or risk needing to quit your set early (and really piss off the band).

     1. Drink tons of water

Everyone should be drinking tons of water anyhow, but singers shouldn’t mess around. Water nourishes your vocal chords and keeps them flexible, not unlike the oil in an engine. If you’re playing in a dry atmosphere or lost a bunch of fluids through sweat in the van trip to your show, don’t be surprised if you have a hard time hitting certain notes during song three or four. You should be the best-hydrated person in your performance group.

     2. Exercise your voice

Ever hear someone sing that goofy, “Me, me, me ME me, me, meeeee” scale? That’s someone who knows exactly what they’re doing.

You don’t necessarily need to do classical scales like an opera singer, but you should at least be singing in your usual range all over the scales at a healthy volume.

Sing from your diaphragm (from your upper gut just below the lungs) and sing loudly without causing yourself the least pain. Do it standing with ridiculously straight posture. It should feel like squeezing your abs upward, like squeezing a tube of toothpaste in your fist so it comes out the top. That’s basically what you’re doing, but with air.

The more you sing, the better a singer you will be. Check your pitch and tone against singers you want to emulate in one way or another. Mimic them as perfectly as you can, then throw your own style on top of that when performing your own music.

     3. Don’t strain your chords!

If a guitarist plays too hard on her strings, they break.

If a singer plays too hard on his chords, they crack and eventually go out.

If you do this enough, you can scar your chords permanently, changing your voice forever. It’s not usually a good change.

And anyhow, if you practice this way so that your voice is going out on the regular, you can expect it to go out during a performance sooner or later, and that’s just unprofessional. Stop that.

     4. Don’t use throat sprays

They don’t work. You shouldn’t need them, anyhow.

     5. Learn to skip the foods which hurt your singing

Everything which dehydrates you is bad for singing. Acidic drinks and foods are also bad for singing. Basically, anything you shouldn’t eat or drink with a sore throat is to be avoided before a practice, performance, or recording date.

Dairy is the devil. If you drink a glass of milk and then walk onstage, you’ll be shocked at how affected your voice becomes. Ditto cheese. Pizza may be the traditional garage-band practice food, but it’s hell on your singer.

Cold drinks cause your vocal chords to become brittle and constrained, too. Don’t drink them onstage, no matter how hot the spotlights are.

 

 

And that’s it! Don’t miss last week’s news on what AI can’t do in music in 2018. We’re always digging up something interesting for musicians here at MondoDIY.

Thanks for reading! Now knock ’em dead.

-S

AI makes music now, but what can’t it do?

AI makes music now — but what can’t it do? Two weeks ago we talked about how indie artists can use AI (Artifical Intelligence) to help them make original music. It seems certain that some music composers will have a harder time finding work once AI takes some of the paying jobs. Therefore, it makes plenty of sense to take a look at what AI still can’t do on its own. Here’s some of what we know.

 

1) AI still can’t arrange its songs

After Sony proudly declared their “system that learns music styles from a huge database of songs” had created two original tracks, they were quick to point out that “French composer Benoît Carré arranged the songs.”

Anyone who’s composed their own music knows that the arrangement is crucial to a song. It is the musical equivalent of an author revising the first draft of a novel.

Wiki gives the definition of musical arrangement as, “a musical reconceptualization of a previously composed work. It may differ from the original work by means of reharmonization, melodic paraphrasing, orchestration, or development of the formal structure.”

This means there’s no telling how little Sony’s AI might have had to do with the end result. It also leads us to Number 2:

 

2) AI seems to make repetitious music

This isn’t surprising, given that many other music brains have already blown the cover off of how technology continues to make music bland, but when the definition of ‘musical arrangement’ also includes the important note, “Arranging is the art of giving an existing melody musical variety,” it’s hard not to infer that Monsieur Carré was employed because Sony’s AI originals were boring.

3) AI can’t write lyrics

Guess what else Benoît Carré wrote, in addition to all of the songs’ arrangment? Yup.

 

4) AI doesn’t make popular music

For whatever reason, be it prejudice against machines, a matter of taste, or maybe a failure on the part of Flow Records to hype their singles, people don’t give a darn about the world’s first AI music.

The very first track, “Daddy’s Car,” has 2.1m views on YouTube where Sony published it and just 15k ‘likes.’ At the company’s official SoundCloud page, listed above, the combined listens of both new songs still barely gets over 100,000.

Considering the historic importance of these pieces of music, that’s pathetic.

What’s more, since 2016 the Sony Labs team has published their entire album of AI-created music, appropriately titled, “Hello World.” The whole thing is freely available for listening here. While approximately 13,000 people have visited that YT page, the total number of listens of just the very first track on the album, “Valise,” amount today to only 360 plays.

No matter your stance on the AI situation, that’s a little sad.

 

So don’t hang up your musician’s hat yet, indie composers! Your real competition isn’t coming from a motherboard anytime soon. (In fact, you can probably use it for yourself until it does).

-S. McCauley

 

Best three DAWs for mobile

The best three DAWs for mobile are powerful, simple to use, and inexpensive. In case you’re new to the term, DAW means Digital Audio Workstation. If you thought you needed a soundboard and heavy technology to be an amateur music composer, we’re here to happily say it isn’t true! Scroll down for our favorite picks, and keep in mind, they’re not even the only options — just our opinion of the best right now.

Available for iOS and Android is Image-Line FL Studio Mobile HD

Suitable for novice and intermediate composers alike, the ILFL Studio is super easy and super fun to play with, not to mention absolutely capable of outputting professional-grade music. It’s less expensive than some other options, yet still comes bundled with a ton of features. These include (but are not limited to) 133 virtual instruments, a mini synthesizer with scores of presets, 10 effects, pitch blending, sampling, a step sequencer capable of 99 tracks, and, perhaps most importantly, a wave editor.

By the time you outgrow Image-Line’s offering, you’ll be among some of the most capable digital composers in the business.

Then there’s Steinberg Cubasis

Cubasis is more-or-less the industry standard for using your phone as a DAW, but at approximately 30 USD, you’re paying top-dollar. It’s also mainly for iOS, though Android users can hook it up with enough patience and tech savvy by following these instructions from the developers.

Steinberg’s own description describes it like so: Cubasis makes recording, editing and mixing a breeze. Record tracks in high-resolution audio quality, and edit your music with the Key and Sample Editors, while the included mixer and audio effects polish your song to perfection. Cubasis comes loaded with three virtual instruments which can be played in real time using the virtual keyboard and drum pads. Cubasis’ projects can be even opened in Cubase under Windows and OS X! Cubasis places touch-intuitive production tools in your hands, opening up a new world of possibilities for your creativity.

Key features • Unlimited audio and MIDI tracks (depending on the device used)? • 24 assignable physical inputs and outputs • 32-Bit floating point audio engine • Audio I/O resolution of up to 24-bit/96 kHz • iOS 32- and 64-bit support (depending on the device used) • Micrologue virtual analog synthesizer with 50 ready-to-go presets • MicroSonic with over 100 virtual instrument sounds based on HALionSonic and 16 Allen Morgan drum kits • MiniSampler with more than 20 instrument sounds to create your own instruments • Mixer with 15 revamped effect processors (insert and send effects) • Over 550 MIDI and audio loops • Virtual keyboard and virtual drum pads • Sample Editor and Key Editor • Automation • MIDI CC, program change, aftertouch support • AirPlay, Buetooth and HDMI audio out support • Export to Cubase, iCloud Drive, external hard drives, wireless flash drives, Dropbox, SoundCloud, AudioCopy & email? • MIDI clock and thru support? • MIDI over Bluetooth LE • Core Audio and Core MIDI compatible hardware supported? • Full Audio Unit, Inter-App Audio and Audiobus support • Import audio from your iTunes music library or iCloud Drive or iTunes filesharing, use AudioPaste or set up a Wi-Fi server in Cubasis

Keep in mind, folks, that you don’t really need all the above to cut beautiful tracks on your phone.

And of course, there’s Apple GarageBand

GarageBand has been around a very long time, and the devs have spent most of that time dialing everything down to a gorgeous UI that your kid brother would have no problem using.

Two major issues with GB, though: it’s iOS only (of course) and it’s strictly beginner-level. Anyone who uses GB with the intent to create bigger and better music is going to feel its limitations before too long.

That’s not to say you can’t make pro-grade music with it, though. A great song shouldn’t be unnecessarily complex, and a fine songwriter won’t need too many bells and whistles, anyhow.

Oh, and it’s super affordable.

 

That’s all for this week’s MondoDIY! Be sure not to miss last week’s related post on how you can make artificial intelligence work for you in the music studio.

How to use AI in music

How to use AI in music

It’s still new technology, but you can already start using AI in music right now. Artificial intelligence is expected to take up more and more space in the music industry as it grows, so why not get involved? It’s only scary if you haven’t learned about it, yet. Let’s go.

If you happen to be using an iOS device these days, then you’re especially in luck. Having become publicly available as of 18 August 2018, Amadeus Code downloadable from the Apple App Store for free with in-app purchases now.

Amadeus Code has been developed with music artists in mind, so don’t get the idea that it’s going to put every creative mind out of business. Its main function is to aid the human composer. Or, as the Amadeus people put it, “Say goodbye to writer’s block.”

The Amadeus Team describes their program as: “a powerful yet simple melody composing app that lets you make songs in minutes, whether you’re a beginner or a professional musician. Melodies are composed by a first of its kind proprietary artificial intelligence engine and can be exported as audio and MIDI files to a DAW of your choice for further creative production.”

Sounds great to us.

If you do not, however, belong to the iNation, then today your best bet is Adobe’s Amper, shown above.

As you can see from the image, Amper is streamlined, user-friendly, and accessible to anyone who’d like to install the software and put it to work. It’s still in beta, which is a good thing for indie artists because as of now it is still free. Creative musicians wanting to see what it’s like to collaborate with an algorithm can start here.

A cloud-based platform, Amper calls itself: “an artificial intelligence composer, performer, and producer that empowers you to instantly create and customize original music for your content.”

This means that Amper really is likely to put a few songwriters and composers out of work if it makes songs for film, TV and video games just as well as people can. However, since the rights to its outputted songs belong to the user, you can use its music in your own compositions and even get paid for them when you’re done, too.

Other options for very interested and somewhat more technologically advanced artists include Google’s Magenta program and Jukedeck.

So get out there and ‘borg it up, artists!

Also don’t forget to check out last week’s MondoDIY entry:

Four ways to be a pro music manager

 

Four ways to be a pro music manager

To be a pro music manager, you’ve got to follow a few key tips. Just as last week we offered ten ways to be a great band member, this week we’re doing the same thing with management. Whether you’re managing yourself, your own band, or someone who has hired you for the job, these four tips will help you know what you’re doing. Let’s get to it.

Keep your artists visible

Even if the band are handling their own social media accounts, you should have a separate one you’re operating at all the major sites. You should be updating these daily with news, photos, and comments about your artists.

You should consider flyers around their hometown, professional press releases, and interviews on blogs and college radio stations. Anything and everything to make a buzz around their name and their music.

This is connected to merch.

Handle their merch

Merch isn’t hard to create, but it is time-consuming. Your artists need that time for writing, practicing and performing.

Get some art together and show it to your artists. They select their favorites, you take these to the merch people and order however many shirts, stickers and such it makes sense to order.

Don’t waste your artists’ money. Buy what you know you can sell, then put those profits back into more merch.

Every sticker and shirt is free advertisement. That’s what merch is for.

Book the right shows

One of the primary jobs of the music manager is to call venues and book live shows for your artists. This can be accomplished online, but often means phone calls and actually visiting the venues in person.

You want your band to feel comfortable there, if possible, but most importantly, the people likely to show up should be the kinds of music fans who are likely to enjoy your artists.

Remember when the Blues Brothers played that country-western bar? Avoid that.

Keep your artist’s calendar full

Keep a calendar online accessible to your artists. Let them circle the dates they’re available to play.

Push them to perform at least one night a week, preferably on weekends when music fans come out, but it’s most important to have them onstage weekly.

Fill all those dates. This is probably the most important job a manager has.

If your artists play onstage every week, they’re going to get great at their music very quickly. After that, it’s a matter of time and persistence.

 

With these basic tenets, you’re good to go! Thanks very much for reading.

-S. McCauley

 

 

10 Ways to Be a Good Band Member

Last week we talked about how many tracks to record for a single song in the studio. This week we’re discussing how to be a good band member.

Everyone would rather have a popular, successful music project than just a hobby, but you’ve got to work together. Here are some plain-spoken tips to keep you from getting the evil eye (or worse, kicked out).

These words to the wise work equally well as guidance for hiring new members. If you can’t see the new guitarist following all or most of the below, maybe you should keep auditioning new guitarists.

     1. Know your music

Don’t bring fresh material to band practice only to make the others wait for you to figure it out. Do everything you can ahead of time.

     2. Come prepared

If you show up to practice — or, please god no, a performance — without your strings, sticks, power cable, whatever, and everyone has to wait for you to go home to get your stuff, you’re being unprofessional. You were taught to bring your pencil and paper to school for many years. Coming prepared is a skill you should have.

     3. Lose the rock-star attitude

You may be the best player in the county, but if you act like you know it, you’re the worst guy in the band.

     4. Help out

Help carry the drums in and out. Help the guitarist find the chord. Help the band with gas money. Don’t let people walk all over you, but definitely help out.

     5. Contribute to the sound, don’t dictate the sound

Even if you did write the song, you’re not the boss. Offer your creative input and welcome that of the others. You can’t have chemistry if you don’t mix anything.

     6. People first, then music

Music-first band members tend to be the most-driven and often most-successful artists. But they’re also often the most despised. That’s a hard way of life for you and for the poor people putting up with you. It’s far more fun and healthy to remember your band mates’ feelings before prioritizing what you think is best for the song. Besides, what’s best for the music is sometimes not what’s best for the band, and vice-versa.

     7. Eat ahead of time

Seems silly, but it’s really annoying to the people who are already plugged in and tuned when you walk in munching a hoagie.

     8. Work out what sounds best, not what’s the “right way”

Sooner or later every musician gets into it with the guy who’s determined to teach everyone the “right way” to do X. But there are many, many, many examples of world-class players with awful technique to prove that the only right way is the way that sounds best. Jimi played upside-down, Ringo plays backwards, and Dick Dale plays on one string. Just go with what sounds good.

     9. Be democratic

Groups of musicians in odd numbers have it easy: there’re no tie votes. Vote when the band takes one, and accept the results of the votes. You’ll have enough indecision in the band without arguing against the majority.

     10. Be friendly, be family, and have fun

You may be deathly serious about succeeding as a professional musician, but if you don’t follow #10, you and everyone working with you will be miserable. Even pencil-pushers in stuffy offices can follow #10. You should be able to do it playing music, for crying out loud.

How many tracks does a song need?

So you’ve got a new single you want to record, but you’re not exactly sure how many tracks to lay down.

We can help you decide. Read on.

For most indie musicians, the digital audio workstation software looks something like this.

Do you need all those differently colored tracks? Answer these two questions to get a definitive answer.

     1. Does adding a track make the song better, or just fuller?

You don’t want more than the song needs.

Excess tracks make the music harder to mix and master, and muddy the tone of the whole thing. It’s actually harder for listeners to listen to the same way that more pages are harder to read than fewer pages, even if the reader is an expert one.

Swedish music mastermind Max Martin has described his studio recording style as “direct, effective, we don’t show off … A song that sounds simple is not simple to make. It’s all about the taste and making sure you don’t add more than what the song needs.”

Words to live by.

     2. Can you make listeners feel the same way with one instrument as you can with two?

Lets say you record your bass line and it sounds good. Then you record someone on synthesizer keys and that sounds good, too.

Take a second to see if the players seem to be playing similar notes at similar times. Try muting the bass line you recorded earlier.

Does the song sound much worse? What if it were taken out of some or most of the song, but not all?

Same for the keyboard. Can you do something similar using just the guitars you have rather than including the keyboard?

Same for vocals. Same for drums. Same for every track you record.

If you don’t really need it, ditch it.

 

And that’s exactly how many tracks you need.