The Evolving Sound of Hip Hip Beats


Jon Sapienza

The sound of hip hop music has been changing across months, years, and decades as producers and artists want to keep the art evolving. There is a definite difference in the way 90s hip hop sounds and the way hip hop sounds today. 

At the start of hip hop’s production, producers used vinyl samples and percussion samples. Most beats started on a turntable with two discs, and a DJ would play four bars of one disc and seamlessly switch over to the second disc for four more bars. This would create the melody for the background of the beat. 

Older hip hop beats would use this type of melody sample and then use a drum machine for percussion. A drum machine looks almost like a pad with multiple buttons to press, and it allows one to record a drum line over the melody that exists from before. Most of this was done through computers, albeit old computers. 

As the years went on, most of these core ideals remained in the structure of beat-making and producing. Samples became a bit more advanced with computers and technology. Producers at this point are able to make their own piano, guitar, brass, and bass riffs electronically. The way that drums are recorded does not change, but the sound of the drums begins to change. Instead of hearing realistic drum sounds, listeners start to hear punchier kicks and tuned-up snares. This innovation would keep advancing as time went on to change the sound completely. 

Dr. Dre is a perfect example of how these older beats were created because he was around when mixing vinyls was the way to do things and also when the sound started to change. Dr. Dre’s hit “Still D.R.E.” from his album 2001 has probably the easiest sounds to point out. The song starts with a gritty piano riff that is actually pretty repetitive but very catchy to the listener. You can hear how the drums he uses in this song are very polished along with a seamless 8-bar piano riff. 

Earlier on in hip hop, songs would not sound as polished as this one. Taking a look at this classic “Straight Outta Compton” by N.W.A., which was also produced by Dr. Dre, one can really hear the difference in drum sound and melody sequence. The drums in Straight Outta Compton sound like a live recording of a real drum set whereas it is easy to tell the drums in “Still D.R.E.” are electronically placed. 

Moving to more current times, listeners will hear a lot more vocal chops and sound effects along with more access to advanced technology. A good example of a mid-2000s producer who helped advance the sound of hip hop would be Kanye West. He was one of the first to change a bass line to an 808 drum, and he really made it popular. For those who don’t know, an 808 drum is that “bass” that will shake the car if the speakers are turned up. In most hip hop beats it hits after the 8th bar of the melody and causes a “drop.”

Beats currently in 2020 sound like a combination of all these advancements but probably most like Kanye West. With artists like Eminem, who was making music in 2000 and still is today, one can hear a lot of the older Dr. Dre-type roots in his music. For artists like Joyner Lucas, Logic, Hopsin, and a lot more lyric-based artists, listeners are able to hear a mix of styles usually containing a modern 808 hit combined with punchy snares and quick hi hat patterns, almost like Kanye and Dr. Dre combined. For artists like Lil Skies, Lil Uzi Vert, or Lil Baby, they use a drowning 808 along with completely polished off drums, so it would be like Kanye but a step further. 

The sound of hip hop has changed a lot over time but maintains its roots of clean melodies and drum sequences that the beat bounces. From Dr. Dre to Kanye West to the top producer of tomorrow, hip hop will continue to evolve and adapt to what fans want to hear.