01. Spiritual State
02. Sky is Tumbling
03. Gone Are the Day
05. City Light
06. Color of Autumn
07. Down on the Side
09. Rainy Way Back Home
10. Far Fowls
12. Waiting for the Clouds
Upon listening to my iPod today (what a great leap from the tape deck, isn’t it?), I hit a string of songs in a row that all had a fantastic beat, and I couldn’t help but start nodding my head like I was constantly agreeing with myself. This had a two-pronged effect: I got a few puzzled looks from my coworkers who probably don’t need any help in thinking I’m weird, and it got me thinking about how important the beat is to a song. In a lot of ways, the beat is both overrated and underrated.
Beatmaking: the hidden science. Picture by ryan.valle.
It is overrated because some rappers can have whack songs on a hot beat, and they’ll shoot straight up the charts – people often refer to these rappers as “ringtone rappers.” I can’t think of an honor more dubious than selling ten times more ringtones than albums. Nearly always, the casual listener will listen to and consider the beat first before anything else.
Beats are also underrated because, well, it IS in the background. Great producers are overlooked in favor of the artist rapping over the beats, and little is known about the art of production. Producers are often masters of several traditional instruments and can be considered geniuses who use a huge variety of sources to paint a melody on a musical canvas. It takes an enormous amount of knowledge about music to craft beats well, and only until Kanye West exploded onto the scene did producers start to get noticed.
Good beats beg you to hit the rewind (or replay, in this age) button just one more time. It implores you to reach for the volume knob because your poor ears have gotten used to where you turned it up before. And, it makes you snap your neck in your car, looking like a fool and not caring, because the bass hits so hard.
Here are three of my favorite beats – from the early 1990s.
Listen to this song – the beat hits you as hard as a speeding train. DJ Premier’s fledging career was defined by this song, and his artistic traits were on full display – a haunting piano loop from obscure jazz samples, a pounding bassline, and cutting spoken lyrics from other songs to form a chorus. The overall result? A gritty, dark beat fitting for the Big Apple. Executive producer MC Serch noted “Primo [DJ Premier] and Nas, they could have been separated at birth. It wasn’t a situation where his beats fit their rhymes, they fit each other.”
One of the defining songs of The Pharcyde’s popular run in the early 90s, Runnin’ was one of J. Dilla’s early masterpieces. J. Dilla always had a habit of having his curious style imparted onto every one of his beats, yet every beat he created was somehow drastically unique. Noteworthy aspects of the beat are the disjointed, almost dream-like guitar samples, mastery of turntable scratching, choice saxophone and maraca cuts, and the way J. Dilla artistically wove this haphazard tapestry together. Also, who could forget the ridiculous verse drop at 3:00 when the beat stops, for just a heartbeat?
I love music that stirs the soul, like a movie soundtrack starring Denzel Washington. Those who listen carefully can hear a stirring, tinkling piano loop, a sinister bassline, and a steadily rising and falling cresendo rising throughout the song, culumating in muted trumpet blasts. Ironically, the iconic (and amazingly addictive) vocal sample comes from none other than Dr. Dre, a giant on the rival West Coast.