Definition/Development/Other: writing on, listening to hip-hop instrumentals

Of interest is that moment where the person seeking out new music stops, that moment when a song quells the impatience, or desire to discover one more track, one more hit. The music that interrupts the “digging,” if you prefer, across genres, eras, associated with labels, musicians, whatever the self-imposed limits might be. The music that stops the person zoning out and gives them pause, as it’s here in that moment that we can see the grain of personality.

As someone afflicted by music-compulsion-fixation, or to put it more positively, someone who listens to an enormous amount of music daily because of my restless essence and “for work,” a typical day – no correct that, a typical morning/early afternoon - might move from gospel to dub, House, disco, 80s Australian indie (if feeling homesick/sentimental) to end on classical music or jazz albums (to instil order, help me focus when I sit down to write, or provide the soundtrack for cooking dinner, folding clothes, throwing out papers, whatever the activity might be).

Always in the midst of this there will be a mix of some hip-hop instrumentals.

Some of them will be YouTube recommendations, but mostly they’ll be my choices, music to echo energy, or connect with something that interests me and I want to understand better. Often my search will be for something “simple” - music clear in its intention that doesn’t require too much thought – but equally it could be music that derives from obligation, the perceived need to listen to this artist, that release because it’s new or said to be important.

Hip-hop instrumentals then. It surprises me that their appeal has been so constant, since picking up the genre again; why aren’t I more taken by MC-led tracks, especially since I’m so “wordy” walking around the streets, doing my stuff, with all those sentences taking shape in my head? Of course I have written on a fair number of MCs, still. A large part of it is curiosity about sample-based production and admiration for its essential conceit. There is still something magical about this process of reconstruction for me, where music is created from the scraps from another’s imagination/creativity. Political too, when it’s remembered who is making this music – for the most part – and the circumstances in which it’s done.

Each story of a twelve year-old boy (and it is still a boy, unfortunately) starting out – despite all and everything - and then their total dedication to learning their craft impresses me. Geto Boys’ DJ Ready Red who recently passed away, for example, shares memories of his grandmother coming in to find his teenage self asleep with “headphones wrapped all around (him)” because he’d be “sleeping with the drum machine, or be asleep at the turntables” in Lance Scott Walker’s Houston Rap Tapes, published this year.

Stay here for a minute, though, with this process of finding samples, of making something from unconnected sonic elements, from divergent time periods and recording methods. The challenge is combining not only the sounds of the music, but the sound of the studio it was recorded in. This process mimics memory and human experience, where the present is built on half-remembered instances and memory traces of our parents and other members of our family, or community.

Much of my current listening is underpinned by a small fight against an inclination to return to music I know, to get that reassurance, or discover a “rare/unreleased” version of a song etc. This reflex is inevitable when your playlist of favourites stretches back seven-plus decades, no exaggeration, and such perspective gives you the ability to see how great so much of it still is. Hip-hop, outside the better-known acts still offers up a lot of unexplored territory, which appeals for obvious reasons.

O my America! my new-found-land, 
My kingdom, safeliest when with one man mann’d, 
My Mine of precious stones, My Empirie, 
How blest am I in this discovering thee! 
To enter in these bonds, is to be free; 
Then where my hand is set, my seal shall be. 
— John Donne, "Elegy XIX: To His Mistris Going To Bed" (1633/1654)

Instrumentals even more so. It also feels natural, this music. When I was younger and had a reasonable stereo set up and space (space, space) I was a collector of sorts (though nothing like the men who display their tens of thousands of records, something I find a little strange/obscene at times). I was someone who sought order in her knowledge and was serious in the quest. Then I sold my records one of the times I left Melbourne (I’ll never forget the record store guy checking not once, but twice if I was sure about whether or not I wanted to do this). Listening to instrumentals, trying to decipher them, uncovering the origins of the music, counting it down, skipping ahead to get a sense of the music’s internal logic is an extension of this earlier (earnest) self. Much the same could be done with an MC’s rhymes it’s true, but my desire is less, so I spend time with the music.

Because I like intellectual grids – infected after all these years living in France perhaps - when thinking about music and art, even if full of holes, here are three qualities that encourage me to listen to an instrumental the way through, or return to them: definition, development and the most appealing, of course, the catch-all “other,” which relates to the qualities of sounds and the sound in general. (This “other” is my get out of jail free card, as it will remain porous and open to multiple possibilities, it’s okay this is my story after all).


Definition reflects the way various elements are kept distinct in the music. I’m aware that this bias reflects my musical “education”, as the French would put it, in Australia where my teen years were immersed in nasty guitar-based music: 70s punk in all its facets, but mainly the music of my peers, my long-hair/shaven-scalp mostly male contemporaries, the antipodean/U.S. descendants of Detroit’s pre-punk exponents, The Stooges and Sonic’s Rendezvous Band and their Australian counterparts, Radio Birdman or The Saints. Such music is all about definition as impact, with the guitar/drums nexus seeking to impress and destroy, stun and overwhelm.

Subtlety, to a degree, might be found in the guitarist’s solo, or when the drummer unfurls tricky moves briefly, but this was not the principal aim. Loud, intense, sharply defined, with a melody (in parts) was preferred. Guitar and other solos were mocked, if they burst forth they needed to be clipped (releasing Angus/Ron’s spirit for it to be just as quickly rebottled). Then, my attention shifted to dub, which is sustained by definition and the search for pure sound, the best recording, just as you’d expect from a genre built by DJs, producers and engineers. Jazz is more nuanced in terms of these comments, some of it is angular and defined, but a lot of it the very opposite, focussed on creating atmospheres and seamless transitions between instrumental parts; on transmitting the spiritual nature of music in performance.

The relevance of this is that my preference is for hip-hop beats where there is space/distance between the elements, and it’s not too mushy-mellifluous. Not too much though, if a beat is only edges and exaggerated drums, it quickly palls, which leads to the other criteria: the need for development, alongside this mysterious other, the marker of the music’s voice. Note that I’m making a distinction between sounds of instruments and samples of vocalists that are allowed to run long here, I like it when the individual sounds of instruments are distinct. One of my real aversions – this certainly reflects punk origins – are instrumentals with highlighted R&B vocal cuts, all those smooth-lady type samples. If there’s that crinkly static effect, tinkly piano, a ‘60s soul voice and prominent drums, cliché-city, off it goes.

Development in hip-hop is more complex, contested. The usual purpose of an instrumental is to provide the background, the foundations for the rapper’s voice; this, you’d think then would go against the idea of the provider offering anything too complex, in that it carries the risk of obscuring the rhymes, making it messy. But from the earliest days, with all those “basic” hip-hop beats the best producers always allowed for development, or moments of brief, subtle change in the music. This then became more dramatic, with the beat switches where the instrumental would be cut in half, or into parts as the music went in a completely different direction.

Non-development, the repetition of a sample on loop whether part of a beat or the entire thing is also interesting: especially in the way it corresponds with theoretical ideas about the African origins of Black American music (something I’m still learning about, but the argument seems to be that this music follows circular, rather than linear notions of “development” and that this comes from musical traditions from West Africa). Recently I’ve also noticed producers making beats where there is no obvious development, or song structure as might have been the case in the 90s Golden Era, where the beat battles against the voice, as a wall of noise. I like this too, even if it runs counter to my argument.

Development refers to an internal logic, the way the beat is constructed. Often it's to the point that you can count it by 30 second intervals, as if it were a classic pop or Soul/R&B song. At those moments something shifts in the music, a sonic element is added, there is some kind of internal echo. Development might also mean that the music has a thematic aspect, maybe via the return to a skit at the start via a sample. Whatever it is, the music is not the same thing on repeat unless this is an intentional part of its design, as mentioned above: the music moves, transforms, keeps its energy.

As for the final “other” - as mentioned this is the most elastic of the three, on purpose. It could cover the sound quality in general, does the recording sound rich/full or tinny/hollow? Equally it might relate to the sounds themselves. Without any scientific evidence to support this in any way shape or form, I have a theory that we have our own internally coded preferences for certain sounds, as if enmeshed in our DNA. Sure, this reflects our formative listening – as I explored above – and especially that period when we’re aged 10-12 or so when it gets instilled in our system for the rest of our lives. This means that when we hear this music, or music that resembles it in some way it’s easier for us to both get it and like it.

But I think it goes deeper than this in some ways: there are certain sound qualities that we connect with, as if it makes manifest something of who we are as people. This is one of the reasons why I find all those discussions about the “best” MC/producer etc in hip-hop culture so banal; I might like this piece of music, but who says that this extremely personal preference has any relevance to another person’s listening tastes? By all means talk about relative quality, just don't make claims that it is the greatest of all time because you like it.

Speaking personally then, the instrumentals that make me stop are the ones that have a mysterious or risk-taking quality to them – not necessarily the “quiet” I’ve written about before in terms of 90s NY beats – but something exciting about the choice of the samples (odd, unexpected, beautiful), or the way they are put together. I know that sounds woolly, but it’s intended to be. You can’t break down the effect of music as if it were a mathematical problem to be solved, even though I remember seeing a writer once attempt to do just that.

Recently I was speaking with a (Gestalt-grounded) analyst who was saying how there is a new strain of sociology or anthropology which had as its starting point: the psychological space of the researcher, asking questions about how that person was feeling at that very moment they conducted that research into the experience of others. As any honest writer knows this is applicable to how we work as well; music criticism is no different.

There is some music that I’ve listened to over and over and over again during periods of my life that I later returned to and wondered how and why it spoke to me so much before. Nothing about the music had changed, including its quality: rather something inside me had, most probably a need had been met in a way I was not able to articulate. None of this means that the music has lost its value, in some respects this music remains even more precious because it is associated with that time of need.

The reason why I’m mentioning this is to again make a claim for partial, humble criticism especially relating to music, in this case hip-hop. This writing is also an extended intro for pieces I’m going to write on the work on producers/instrumentals on an intermittent basis on this site and I hope elsewhere depending on interest; the last thing I’d like is for it to be seen as a list of my all-time best (that’d make me retch). That I listen to one artist more than another says nothing about achievement, more a desire to keep some structure in a mind that goes in all directions. And as I’ve said countless times, I’m a recent arrival to this musical/cultural space, it’s not my country. I’m a student here, as the notes jotted in small note-books/diaries with names of artists/tracks written on multi-coloured Post-its all around my living-room attest.