Instruments & Hip Hop

Kanye West, 2010. Image via Mark Sayles/AP

BY SAM GILLON                                                       

MUSIC EDITOR

I can remember growing up during the 2000’s and discovering Hip-Hop. At the time, an enormous portion of the songs I was listening to did not utilize tangible musical instruments to achieve the instrumental aspects of the songs. Instead, songs I was exposed to relied solely on digital music programs to simulate a full sound. Because of this, some people (myself included) fell into a narrow minded trap that a song isn’t really a song if it was conceived on a laptop.

That way of thinking, however, was wrong. Nowadays, I find myself wondering if I didn’t become the modern equivalent of people who used to call Rock n’ Roll “the devil’s music”. After all, I was resisting musical innovations in an effort to keep my own musical world comfortable and familiar. The electronic creations I had been introduced to as Hip-Hop were missing something. That “something” I believed was necessary to make a track into a bonafide song were instruments. That’s not to say songs that didn’t or don’t include instruments are bad. Daft Punk, Dr. Dre and Kanye are all massively talented musical geniuses, deserving the utmost respect. They also happen to be most proficient with digital music soundboards, and that’s okay!

These days I can find A Tribe Called Quest sandwiched between U2 and The Tragically Hip in the artists section of my iTunes library, but I must confess that it was only recently that I realized how foolish I had been with my approach to music in high school and middle school. The catalyst for my epiphany has been the recent synthesis of musical instruments and electronic beats. Hip-Hop artists belonging to a genre that has traditionally hung its hat on being unafraid to use exclusively electronic sound, have recently shifted their focus, blending instrumentals to mimic or compliment simulated instruments. 

Within Hip-Hop, artists like Kendrick Lamar and Childish Gambino have made a point of performing with a live band instead of following the early Hip-Hop formula for shows, in which the performer is on stage alone while the instrumentals for the songs are played at the push of a button in the sound booth. While there is undeniably a massive amount of high quality Hip-Hop that continues to use entirely electronic beats, more and more modern rappers have been incorporating musical instruments into their songs as a way of innovation.

Image courtesy of YouTube

The use of instruments in Hip-Hop has never been more prevalent or intriguing. Both Tyler the Creator and Odd Future have separately recruited Toronto jazz trio BadBadNotGood to record several songs with each rapper at the start of the decade. Since then, BBNG has taken the stage with their hip hop frontmen at major festivals such as Lollapalooza. 2015’s Surf from Chance The Rapper’s side project, Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment, was a Hip-Hop album with soulful vocal performances layered atop a diverse band providing all the instrumentals. As recently as this month, Kendrick Lamar channeled his inner lounge singer by spitting Black Panther over smooth piano chords. Gone are the days when a rap beat was acceptable as long as it sounded good and artists could rap over it. Nowadays, the genre has confined itself to the limitations of what a musical instrument can do. In doing so, the genre has put to rest the old criticism that the genre lacks the antiquated definition of whatever “real music” is.

But still, when artists feel that they need a sound that cannot be replicated with a tangible instrument, they still have the luxury of returning to digital sound to create. And sometimes digital sounds are the best choice for a given song. Sometimes they are not. Part of what makes the osmosis of live bands into hip hop so great is that the genre has not lost the electronic heart that pulses at its epicentre. 

The fusion of musical instruments and Hip-Hop aren’t really a new combination. Many of the examples of that earlier fusion, however, are samples. And often, samples are not instruments in Hip-Hop, they are digital sounds. That doesn’t make sampling a bad thing, but the reality is that oftentimes a producer is literally augmenting a pre-existing audio file and re-purposing it into a new beat. And that process has yielded some amazing tracks, like Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” or “I’ll Be Missing You” by Puff Daddy. Yes, samples are usually used with permission from the original artist and the new songs that they become stand alone, untethered to the original song being sampled. But the fact remains that in many ways, augmenting a pre-existing song into a rap beat isn’t that different from the art of remixing. Remixing as well has yielded some great beats and interesting takes on classic songs, but lacks some of the originality found in instrumentals on albums like Surf. 

Nevertheless, samples can also yield some incredible innovation when they’re less about remixing and more about creating. Childish Gambino’s Redbone is a great example of this. The track has taken off, partially because of that awesome instrumental beat. That beat sounds like a combination of Bootsy Collins‘s “I’d Rather Be With You”, Seals and Croft’s “Summer Breeze” and Issac Hayes‘s “Look of Love”, sped up and welded together. Whether of not this track can be considered original or a sample is up for debate. Personally, I think Redbone differs enough from the samples it draws from to be considered an original instrumental, although the lines between sampling and influence got a little bit blurred on this track.

But that doesn’t even really matter. 

What does matter is that Redbone was performed on the Tonight Show with a full band behind Gambino. Live Band Hip-Hop is now a mainstream, popular and fantastic musical style. It’s one that is uniquely itself on nearly every song; hanging onto the electronic, DJ-centric roots of the genre while incorporating live musical instruments into songs that makes listeners turn their head and enthusiastically ask “What is this?!”. This is the future of Hip-Hop, and I couldn’t be more excited.