Exploring the Elements: Beatmaking and Production

Hip-hop is undoubtedly a great tool for sharing ideas, but sometimes hip-hop itself can be the idea. One of our guiding principles at Next Level is that that hip-hop is valuable for its own sake – that its strategies and methods and stylistic principles can be sophisticated tools of social change just on their own, and that learning how to use these tools effectively is inherently empowering.

In that spirit, we started this blog series to explore the ways that each of the elements that we teach can contribute to the larger goals of Next Level. From beatmaking and hip-hop production to dance, deejaying and emceeing, each form contains valuable  lessons that can be applied to many aspects of life – not just to music and dance.

In this installment, we discuss the lessons to be learned from beatmaking and hip-hop production with Next Level India beatmaker KØ (formerly known as Kaysoh) and Next Level Bosnia and Herzegovina/Montegro beatmaker DJ Plain View.

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Hip-Hop beatmaking evolved from strategies that deejays developed to rock crowds in the early days of hip-hop. These techniques included a wide range of ways to use turntables and a crossfader to alter the sound of recorded music, but the most important of these was the repetition of the best sections of funk and rock records: the breaks. Over the last forty years, this idea of highlighting the best segments of old records has evolved into an approach to music composition that goes far beyond anything its creators could have envisioned. But it has never lost touch with its foundational principles, or with the strategies and skills that the deejays developed to realize those principles.

The most fundamental technique of hip-hop beatmaking is sampling – taking a sound out of its original musical setting and using it to build something new. Not all hip-hop music uses sampling, but it is the foundation of the style, and it is a conceptual act as much as it is a technical one. If you think of sampling as just “stealing someone else’s music,” you might be surprised at how difficult it is to do well.

“When you listen to a sample you have to contextualize the sound and imagine what it sounds like out of context of the record,” notes KØ. “You have to picture the sound in your mind – what it sounds like transposed up four octaves, what it sounds like with a filter on it, what it sounds like layered with strings and a sample from another record.”

What sound should you choose? How will the sample sound different in its new setting? How will the setting itself change in response to the new sound? How can this relationship be used creatively? Remember, hip-hop producers aren’t just looking for the answer to these questions once; they are developing the ability to answer those questions in a consistently creative way every time they sit down to make music.

And it’s not just a technical skill: the art of hip-hop production lies in connecting that process – metaphorically or otherwise – to other similar processes in life. How do relationships change when they are moved into new environments? How do environments change when new perspectives are introduced? How can these changes be managed in a way that is productive and fulfilling rather than confrontational and destructive? How do you bring diverse elements into a harmonious relationship with each other?

So how do beatmakers approach those questions?

“Listening is arguably the key to everything,” says DJ Plain View. “There is some spillover from developing your ear as a beatmaker, and developing your critical listening skills more generally.” And that means not just listening to sounds, but listening to perspectives, attitudes, ideologies and cultural orientations.

In other words, listening to people.

“In a broader sense,” he continues, “by weaving together music from different traditions and cultures, hip-hop production — especially sample-based hip-hop — can provide compelling sonic examples of multiculturalism and peaceful coexistence through music. In that way, it can help build artistic bridges between cultures.”

The idea that diversity is a valuable resource, rather than something to be simply tolerated, is one that is deeply embedded in hip-hop culture. Dance crews try to have members that are adept at different dance styles, so that they’ll be able to deal with any situation that arises in battle; producers listen to all genres of music to get ideas; graffiti writers study art history; emcees listen and read widely to learn about different forms of poetic expression.

Your personal relationship to diversity, and how you use it, is a defining characteristic of your individual hip-hop style: “Beatmaking…can help you develop a deep affinity for listening and curating from various musical styles,” says DJ Plain View. “Beatmaking also requires rigorous self-editing in order to get a piece from first draft to final draft. That process can take days, weeks, years depending on the track. But that process — of revisiting, critical listening, and revising — is critical to the overall artistic process.”

You are basically curating the world for your own art, and – in doing so – you are curating yourself as well.

And yet collaboration is also an important part of that process. “Beatmaking organically fosters collaboration with others,” Plain View continues. “In many cases, beatmakers need to work with DJs, with emcees, with lyricists, in order to realize the full potential of their artistic expression. That isn’t to say there aren’t standout instrumental hip-hop artists, who put forth a work of art that is total and complete, but I think beatmaking is a doorway to artistic collaborations with other artists. In developing and honing those collaboration skills, beatmakers are able to contribute to the broader fabric of hip-hop culture.”

“The concept of collaboration and social skills goes back to making decisions from a producers standpoint,” agrees KØ. “There are only so many decisions that one viewpoint can come to the conclusion of. At some point it’s best to get the opinion of another listener or producer. In the world of hip-hop production sometimes it’s the decision to simplify a song that makes the song complete. And sometimes it’s the decision to add one small element that the original producer couldn’t have thought of on her or his own.”

The culture of hip-hop production is one of listening with empathy. Learning to make hip-hop is synonymous with learning to listen well. And whether that means listening to records, MP3s, ideas, people or cultures, it will always be valuable.

For more information and social media links on KØ, check out his website here.

To hear DJ Plain View’s music, follow him on soundcloud, here.