Deconstructing The Modern Hip-Hop Song
dogtrax, Kevin's Meandering Mind, Dec 05, 2018
I’m not really all that sure where this post is going to so … hang on a sec as I meander through it … My 14-year-old son has been deep into making beats and music with Logic software (the next level up, way up, from Garageband) and in recent weeks, he’s been exporting his work […]

Travis Scott Concert Collage

I’m not really all that sure where this post is going to so … hang on a sec as I meander through it …

My 14-year-old son has been deep into making beats and music with Logic software (the next level up, way up, from Garageband) and in recent weeks, he’s been exporting his work into his Soundtrap account, inviting me to collaborate with him there.

Of course, I have accepted, and I’ve been making some cool jams with him. Here’s one sample of what we are working on …

He’s also a fan of modern hip-hop, listening for hours (maybe too many hours) to artists, humming to himself as he wanders the house, walks the dog, does chores, etc. He’s a close listener, from what I can tell, and I am starting to hear that filter in through the music he is making.

Which leads us to the recent Travis Scott concert. I agreed to take him to Boston Garden the other night (and took him to Kendrick Lamar last year and to Future, the year before that). It’s an interesting experience to be an aging rock and roller/songwriter in an arena of hip hop.

Here is my simplistic deconstruction of a typical hip-hop song, with Travis Scott’s vocoder-ized auto-tuned voice still in my head. I’d take Kendrick over Scott any day (but maybe that’s because Lamar had a kicking live band backing him and a better feel for politically-charged lyrics that connect more with me and my sensibilities.)

Creating a Hip Hop Track: Notes from a Rock And Roll Observer

  1. Start with a simple beat. Maybe kick drum on the beat or on the off beat. Keep it pounding until your feel it in your skull.
  2. Add piano or organ over it. Do this for about four measures. Just enough to establish the melody.
  3. Drop the drum and transform the opening melody part to synth after the first few measures. Come in strong with a big kick drum sound (think: John Bonham from Led Zep. That’s the sound you want. Bigger than your head.).
  4. Make sure the bass is deep enough, rich enough, to reach into your esophagus. Deep in sound, but not too complicated in parts. The bass will become the thread that holds this whole thing together. Modern bass is the river on which the melody floats.
  5. Shout out “yeah” on the offbeat until you create synergy off the beat. Wave your hands in the air if you care. Get hangers-on in the studio to the mic, and have them join in.
  6. Name-check yourself. Maybe a few times. Don’t let the listener forget who you are.
  7. If your lyrics are a mostly meaningless flow about nothing much to talk about, pump up the effects to bury the meaning beneath your voice. Also, do this, too, if you can’t really sing. If your lyrics have meaning, push the voice up over the beat during verses. Make it known.
  8. If your partner(s) are the DJ at the mix machine, have them interject a few odds and ends now and then. Maybe during live performances tell the crowd to make some noise, but with a slew of profanity. Say it at least a dozen times. Keep their microphone volume lower than yours, though.
  9. Have a famous friend? Invite them into the track for some verses or a line of words or two. Guest overdubs are the rage right now. If you are a male rapper, having a female singer take over the chorus seems like a good bet to get heard.
  10. Bury the words of the chorus with layered overdubs of voice and effects. Ideally, you do this in stages, so that by the end of the track, the chorus is bigger than a building. Unless you can’t sing. Then, bring in a guest (see #8) or add more effects (see #6)
  11. End by either reversing the flow — ending back on simple opening beat and keyboards — or by taking the track in another direction, and the come to a full stop. A big boom blast — cannon shots are popular — with tons of reverb will end the track with a slow-fading tail. Add lights and fire during live shows.
  12. Start over again until you find your groove and your audience.

I admire those artists and producers who play with this genre (as seen from my middle-age white man’s world), and the lyricists who understand how internal rhymes and rhythmic play with words and syllables can take songs to a new level. Like any musical genre, there are those who are artists, pushing the limits to make something interesting, and those who leverage the formula to make money.

Take a guess who gets the more plays and more profit?

I’d be remiss not to say that every genre seems to fall into its own patterns. Rock and pop music is all about verse/chorus/break and Jazz is mostly about head/solo/head (unless you’re Ornette Coleman, and then all bets are off) and so on.

Deconstructing what we love is a form of play, and a way to think about where the limits are and how we might push those limits to transform what we love. Go on and do it.

Peace (old man blues),
Kevin