Hip-hop’s humble beginnings date back to the late 70s and early 80s, when the only production tools available to a DJ were, as the mantra goes, “two turntables and a microphone.” Since then, technological advancements have drastically changed the sonic blueprint of hip-hop, along with the processes by which the genre is produced. Starting with Afrika Bambaataa in the 80s, each new wave of hip-hop seemed to have an innovative producer leading the way. Q-Tip’s cool jazz-rap, Dr. Dre’s thunderous west coast gangsta rap, Dilla’s smooth, hypnotic rhythms, Andre 3000 and Big Boi’s southern gritty funk, Kanye’s channeling of old school motown and R&B– all contributed to a new subgenre and shaped the ideas of those who followed. But where is today’s innovative producer? Who is the next game changer in the world of hip-hop?
In the era of trap music, the answer is not immediately clear. The top of the charts nowadays seems to be constantly in flux; the #1 spot is a revolving door of songs with hard-hitting trap beats. A young wave of producers is responsible for the sound currently dominating the genre. DJ Mustard, a 25 year old producer from LA who affectionately calls his creations “ratchet music,” has already produced several hit singles, including Tyga’s “Rack City,” 2 Chainz’ “I’m Different” and the popular “Post to Be,” on which he collaborated with Omarion, Chris Brown, and Jhené Aiko. Another young producer, Metro Boomin’, has already made a name for himself at 22. Collaborating with Drake and Future on their mixtape What a Time to be Alive, Metro produced hits such as “Jumpman” and “Big Rings.”
The rise of these young, relatively inexperienced producers reflects recent technological advances that have changed the nature of producing. Producing has never been more democratic; anyone can buy production software like Logic or Fruity Loops (which Metro uses exclusively) and make beats good enough to snatch radio playtime. With the endless loops, drum tracks, and plug-ins offered by these software programs, beatmaking has arguably never been easier. And this in a sense has created incredible freedom and egalitarianism in the world of production; the playing field has effectively been leveled, offering anyone with a laptop and access to software a chance to make it big. More amateurs are producing than ever before, and more kids are realizing their dreams of making music.
However, this ease and accessibility provided by production software also has negative impacts on the evolution of hip-hop. The universality of software like Protools and FL studio has resulted in an aesthetic narrowing in the genre by which countless songs use the same sounds: the same 808 claps, the same bass, the same rapid-fire hi-hat. Moreover, the technological shift has moved focus away from the essence of hip-hop. Original beatmaking involved painstaking processes of looping, cutting, and “scratch practice.” Producers like J Dilla and Pete Rock would have to sift through crates of old funk and soul vinyl, digging for material to loop as a hook. Even later producers like Kanye toiled over equipment like the MPC2000 to layer samples on top of each other, deconstructing songs and rebuilding them into something new. Hip-hop was by its nature a loving, methodical tribute to the decades of black music that preceded it. Now, beats like the one on “Rack City” entail no more than four notes on a computer keyboard, snare, and bass.
There’s nothing wrong with trap being less sophisticated than earlier forms of hip-hop, and producers like DJ Mustard aren’t necessarily less talented than their predecessors. Songs like “Jumpman” and “Post to Be” are undeniably catchy and thoroughly danceable. But there is an inescapable feeling that the young bloods are taking shortcuts. When you think about the process that had always been involved in producing, you have to consider the hours of time dedicated to simply appreciating other people’s music. Hip-hop at its core borrows from earlier forms of music; samples from artists like James Brown and Parliament can be found in a high percentage of hip-hop tracks. Production software allows producers to simply bypass this research step. And if producers don’t have a certain level of awareness and appreciation for older music, then their listeners won’t either.
It should come as no surprise, then, that some of the best original music today is retrospective. Kendrick Lamar’s masterpiece To Pimp A Butterfly is at once an innovation and an ode to bebop and p-funk. Chance the Rapper’s latest project is awash in gospel and soulful brass. Anderson .paak’s sophomore effort, Malibu, sounds at times to be straight out of 1978. These artists succeeded in grasping an essential tenet of music-making: you must look backward even as you look ahead. By getting trapped (ha) in the same sonic cycles as a result of technological advances that permit laziness, much of contemporary hip-hop has begun to stagnate. Luckily, every generation before has given birth to a savior. The genre is cyclical by nature and experiences periodic revolutions; like a disc spinning on a turntable, it is only a matter of time before it comes around again with the next big producer, the next new sound.