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.


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