By Guest Blogger Alex Foster-Roman
5 Quick Tips for Getting the Most out of your Hip Hop Production
Listen as we delve into the wonderful and mysterious world of sampling. Say what you like, but sampling will never go away; it's too unique, inspiring and dope to ever let a couple lawsuits stop the true Hip Hop heads. It's too ingrained in the essence of the genre to let go. Where possible, you should always try to clear your samples or use royalty free ones. But c'mon, if you get busted that means you're making enough noise and you're doing something right. Good on ya. For all of us who haven't been chased down by lawyers because your MPC game is too fire, here are a few quick tips and guidelines to get you there.
1. Keep your samples natural
Often times, rappers want to sample contemporary songs that are dope on their own but just aren't easy to flip into a beat. They are either too loud and hi-fi, or just don't have space for a creative chop. As a guideline, try to stay away from tracks that already have electronic drums and synths. When flipping songs with these sounds, you're more likely to end up sounding tackier than if you flip tracks with live drums or no drums at all. Of course there are exceptions to this, but there is a reason tracks from the '70's are so heavily sampled. They have live drums, interesting and sparse breakdowns and are from a pre-loudness war era. Try to use genres like jazz, soul and classic rock to start. Stay away from acoustic guitars as well; they can be a rhythmic and sonic headache. There are some ways you can sample contemporary songs, but if you are new to the sample game, go easy on yourself and start with the classics.
2. Understand chord progressions
In the sampling world, there is an epidemic of producers who don't understand chord structure when making beats. Novice producers sometimes neglect to realize that certain progressions feel better and are more inspiring to write to as a rapper. If you're cutting up a sample heavily, make sure your new progression has a purpose, a natural flow and makes sense to write to. The key is to make it resolve, or at the very least, feel natural when looped. Especially in soul, the chords in a chorus or bridge will be in a different key than the verses. Pay extra close attention to this, trust your ears and don't use it if it doesn't feel right. Chances are, if you sample quite a bit you may not be musically trained, so take some time to fiddle with progressions and flipping chords around. You'll begin to find common patterns in songs, but just remember that the cliche stands tall and true in productions; less is more.
3. Leave space for the rapper
Young producers, particularly in boom bap, always want to show off their 'dope' MPC game. They make ridiculously complex rhythmic chops, leaving no consideration or possibility for a rapper to operate freely. A rule of thumb is to be simple enough where the rapper has many options for rhythmic cadences yet complex enough to keep it from being boring or cliche. Pay extra close attention when making your drum and bass grooves interesting so when you add a sample, which will likely be in the same frequency spectrum as a vocal, you're not tempted to overdo it. Dr. Dre is a master at finding the sweet spot of leaving space for the rapper and yet complimenting the track with one or two unique elements. You want to be receiving compliments like, "I love your beats because there's so much room for me to rap". Try adding odd sound effects for drums or pads to fill the space. Definitely don't take a vocal sample and machine gun it through the entire production. That's the quickest way to have 56 SoundCloud plays and nobody hit you up to rap on your superstar banger.
4. Use effects and layer
Sometimes, you find a nice sample and chord progression but it just isn't interesting enough. In these cases, all you need to do is use a couple quick stock effects plug-ins. Before you do anything, you should decide whether you want to speed up and raise the pitch of the sample. Take note of the original tempo of the sample and go from there. Different styles of Hip Hop work well with different tempos. Try to really listen to the sample, as it will tell you what you need to do with it. Don't force it; trying to make a beat at a different tempo of the original song can be an uphill battle. You can take two parts of the song and hi-pass filter one and low-pass filter the other. This gives you a pseudo bass and a pseudo rest-of-the-band feel. Throw the bass sample in the verses and layer the rest of the band for chorus parts. If the sample allows, you can even take more than one hi-pass section and keep layering as the verse builds. The hi-pass filtered parts of the sample leave room for more creative effects such as phasers, extreme reverb, delays, filter gates, flangers and so much more. Also, pay attention to different styles of productions. Slow BPM, washed out reverb, wispy vocal cuts, filters and low bass work very well for trap and that new OVO sound. Crunchy drums, at 95 BPM, with clear unfiltered full-band chops work well for that boom bap 9th Wonder east-coast vibe.
5. Pay attention to vocal hooks
If you listen through to the entire sample, often times, there is a secondary hook that works perfect for a chorus. These hooks could be found in the intro verses when drums are sparse or non-existent, or in the bridge of the song. Listen carefully to the lyrics; an ideal scenario would be to cut the lyrics in such a way that they would resonate with audiences. If you are producing for a specific artist, make sure the lyrics you cut are in line with the general themes they have been writing with. Be careful when sampling the main chorus as it can quickly become played out. It will likely sound too much like a remix with not enough originality involved. However, on the flip side, listeners love it if the sampled song is a forgotten classic as there is a magical sweet spot of 'popular but not too popular'. You want to make them say, "Wow, where is that sample from? I remember that joint, so sick!" Pitching up a popular track from 20 to 30 years ago would make for a good nostalgic vibe. Jay Z orchestrated this perfectly with "Hard Knock Life", and Eminem did great with "Sing For The Moment". The further away from Hip Hop the original sample is the better. If you are a bit more advanced at producing, taking a vocal form an entirely different tune, pitching it so it is in key, and throwing it into your beat can make for an incredibly creative and interesting sounding hook.
Alex Foster-Roman is a Rapper/Producer/Engineer/entrepreneur based out of London, Ontario. He is the co-founder of Helium Nine productions, he was mentored by legendary Canadian audio engineer Kevin Doyle and now works at the state of the art facilities at the University of Western Ontario. Contact Alex, and check out his music and production.