What’s striking about many Easy Mo Bee instrumentals two-decades-plus on is how contemporary they sound. This is not to say that they would necessarily be the first choice for mainstream MCs around today; more that they don’t sound overly grounded in their era and location (no criticism of instrumentals that do, it’s just a point of difference).
That diffuse, murky production sound and shadowy, sepulchral hiss and grind that defines so much of the music of the 90s New York underground scene - reaching its zenith in Havoc’s production and the artists linked to Wu-Tang and the Gravediggaz is rarely found here. No, in general Easy Mo Bee beats are extremely clean, sharp in the definition of the sounds and almost formalist in the construction, in this way making me think of Large Professor. Both are best-known for their work with the era’s superstars, even while creating a lot of music that is not so well known but remains timeless, largely because of the maker’s creativity.
To get a sense of how Easy Mo Bee’s beats sound “modern” for want of a better word, check out 2Pac’s “If I Die 2Nite” from his 1995 album Me Against the World. All it needs is added swirl and a woozy effect, fading in and out, a slight loosening up of the edges and this music could offer the foundations for any of the instrumentals/remixes you hear from producers in their 20s working today.
The beat samples Betty Wright’ s “Tonight is the night” which is close to unrecognisable in the song.
Here you also find something that impresses me about many of Easy Mo Bee’s instrumentals: the layering/effects of the drums. There’s zero issue for me with a hip-hop beat that has prominent boom bap drums as its principal focus, whether back in the ‘90s/2000s or today. Keeping the drums dominant links hip-hop with other forms of music that come out of electronic/dance-based genres, Drum & Bass, dubstep etc. and has a broader significance. Bringing the drums forward for the entire song is a radical shift. Most of the time popular music keeps the musical frame and structure hidden (the bass/drums nexus); think about the way drums operate in pop songs, or even most rock music in the 60s/70s, only occasionally becoming the main element during solos maybe.
Dub, reggae have a deep skanking rhythm, of course, but more often than not it’s carried by the guitars, or keys; funk too is defined by its bounce, but again, it’s not the drums only keeping time, above all other instruments, it’s a mix. The way early hip-hop made the drums everything, the very essence of it, thus exposing the foundations is full of meaning and resonance that goes past pure music-making into the realm of culture. (I could go on and on about the significance of this: but I hope the point is clear enough and will leave it there).
This layering of the drums on this Easy Mo Bee beat is heard right from the start. Another impressive aspect of his beats is the immediate complexity, there’s no slow build-up of the sonic elements, a careful introduction of each sample: it’s all there, but in small doses so it remains subtle in the first five seconds. Note too the three-note sample that carries the melody, echoing one of the most famous aspects of his beat for Craig Mack, “Flava in ya ear” - the very simple guitar part where two notes are repeated.
There’s something soothing, meditative about the simplicity of these sounds on repeat. Here’s Easy Mo Bee speaking about how he put the Craig Mack beat together, first thing getting up, in about 2o minutes, without even getting fully dressed.
Something else that appeals is the way Easy Mo Bee uses discordant sounds, with a scratchy static to build atmosphere most notably on the hook that really comes through in the version with 2Pac rapping over it, 50 seconds in, where it’s let run before he almost speaks the rhymes. The quality of 2Pac’s delivery is markedly different from many of rappers who chant such key lines for emphasis; it’s as if he’s thinking aloud, it sounds spontaneous.
The second Easy Mo Bee beat on Me Against the World “Temptations” is a 90s-era-masterclass, certainly more typical with those drums, but transformed into work of real brilliance because of the interplay between the harsh sounds and the swooning, sentimental aspects. Beautiful in terms of its definition that keeps shifting, weaving the various sounds/samples with perfect control.
And the Tupac version.
“Runnin’ (from tha Police)”
“Runnin’ (From tha Police)” 2Pac and The Notorious B.I.G, feat. Outlawz and Buju Banton, is probably my favourite Easy Mo Bee beat, it’s a shame I can’t find it online to include here. There is this one on YouTube which appears to be the same track included on the Nas Kingston tape see below - coming in just after 18 minutes, but there’s countless comments below saying it’s not the real one. Get in touch, if you know where the real instrumental is and you can vouch for its authenticity, thanks.
I’ve included the unreleased version of the track here, because of it’s slightly rawer/rougher sound. The instrumental is a perfect example of balance: none of the elements are over-extended, or over-used, they appear for a second or two at most and create a soundscape that is at once elegant and disturbing, for those harsh, screeching sounds that are almost painful to hear. Yet, there is a definite groove sustaining it, building on the on the original classic sample - Bootsy Collins’s “Munchies for your love”. In the same session, Easy Mo Bee created another key song for 2Pac, “Str8 Ballin’” that used another iconic Bootsy Collins’s sample.
Credit is due to Nas Kingston’s selection of beattapes that have been an essential stop for me when thinking about who to write on in this (approximate) series. The two Easy Mo Bee selections, vol. 1 and 2 were key to me deciding to write this piece. When listening to the Easy Mo Bee vol. 2, in particular, the title of just about every track got written down, this one and this and the next. I couldn’t believe the quality, how good it all was.