As charismatic or skillful as a rapper may be, they’re really only half the package. The other half comes from behind the decks. Producers play a crucial role in the creation of hip hop songs, providing the beats and instrumentals that rap music subsists on. But rarely are they recognized for their contributions.
That’s beginning to change. A young, vital hip hop underground is slowly rising to the surface of culture, pushed by a new generation of driven, forward-thinking beatsmiths who refuse to toil in anonymity. As rappers brandish the power of the internet to bypass the hip hop star system, beats get woozier and free online mixtapes generate millions of dollars worth of buzz, producers are suddenly being mentioned in the same breath as their mouthpieces. And, in a few cases, without them.
The proliferation and multiplication of mixtapes has created ample opportunity for producers to practice their craft, and the lack of physical liner notes have pushed their credits onto mp3s themselves. Suddenly, anyone listening to the latest A$AP Rocky mixtape knows who provided the beats by the iTunes “feat.” or “prod” label. And the attention has created a springboard for producers to define their own unique voices throughout various projects.
How else to explain the return to prominence of instrumental hip hop? Though it threatened to become a full-scale movement in the wake of DJ Shadow’s 1996 landmark Endtroducing…, but neither he nor his disciples have managed to follow up on its promise. RJD2 has mistakenly swapped his samplers for acoustic guitars, MF Doom has stalled in limbo and the late J Dilla continues to spread his posthumous influence through his many champions, but remains a niche, cult figure.
That’s the kind of thing that might stall innovation, but recent instrumental releases from young producers like DropXLife, DJ Burn One, Clams Casino and AraabMuzik have proven that the genre is ripe for re-invigoration.
Clams Casino (a.k.a. 23 year old Mike Volpe) built his reputation on a string of buzzy underground beats for youthful, eccentric rappers like Lil B, Soulja Boy, The Weeknd and A$AP Rocky, but it wasn’t until he released his 2011 Instrumental Mixtape and its follow-up, the concept EP Rainforest, that his potential truly revealed itself. Taken as pure beats, each of his songs demonstrates his signature style: a dreamy, ambient and dynamic aesthetic that sounds something like Enya collaborating with Mogwai. (Not bad considering it’s made from free sounds he finds online.)
Heads recognize Clams Casino as a new-school auteur, but he’s maintained a demure persona, ensuring the world that hip hop is just a hobby he does in his spare time (he’s also a physical therapy student). AraabMuzik on the other hand, is happy to soak in all the praise he’s offered.
The 22-year-old Providence, Rhode Island native rose to prominence as a go-to producer for Dipset, but he too is making a name for himself with solo releases like Electronic Dream and the just-released Instrumental University. On his own, the producer dabbles in showy, trancelike compositions that act as perfect springboards for his virtuosic live show, in which he makes like the Steve Vai of MPC drum machines.
Without the accompanying emcees, these producers’ songs stretch the definition of hip hop beyond its usual parameters, but remains available to rappers both young and old. Though they’re not producers, or barely even classifiable as hip hop, there’s another act pushing the genre: BADBADNOTGOOD.
A trio of Torontonians/recent graduates of the illustrious Humber College music program, the group has managed to get young people interested in jazz by adopting the a modern canon of hip hop classics as springboard for live “real” instrumental chops (a usually disastrous merger). With a well-defined visual aesthetic and a penchant for free distribution, the group aesthetically leans towards the hip hop side, while stretching both genres simultaneously.
All of this still qualifies mostly as “underground,” but there are signs that it could well become commercially viable. BBNG has scored a pair of jam sessions with their hero Tyler, The Creator, while AraabMuzik has found his way onto the lineup for one of North America’s biggest festivals: Coachella. And with the rise of dubstep into one of the most popular genres in the world, suddenly there’s a thirst for new kinds of electronic music that may have once seemed too weird for the mainstream.
As dubstep poster boy Skrillex says himself, “If I can win grammys then that means all you yet to be seen bedroom geniuses will one day TAKEOVER THE WORLD”