“My definition of hip hop is taking elements from many other spheres of music to make hip hop. Whether it be breakbeat, whether it be the groove and grunt of James Brown or the pickle-pop sounds of Kraftwerk or Yellow Magic Orchestra, hip hop is also part of what they call hip-house now, or trip hop, or even parts of drum n’ bass.”Afrika Bambaataa
Throughout high school, I could often be found in the band classroom with one of my favorite teachers, Mr. Peter Perry. Whether I was helping him test different ideas for his dissertation, organizing sheet music, or playing percussion for one of his many band classes, I was always in that one room at the back of the music hall.
I loved playing band music. Some of my favorite pieces had the most beautiful flute solos or bold trumpet parts. I think personally I enjoyed playing with the symphonic orchestra the most, although I did love a strong fan-fare with heavy brass instruments. Looking back at my band experience, these were just some of the sounds that I loved that I carried into my passion for hip-hop music.
There are definitely hip-hop songs that heavily incorporate classical music such as Nas’s “I Can” which samples Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Für Elise” or Jedi Mind Tricks’ “And So It Burns” which samples Schumann’s Symphony No.4. But you also have songs such as Kendrick’s “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” which features some of the most beautiful strings that give me physical goosebumps. The soft intro is so calming and hypnotic, and the background strings during the chorus eventually fade into a stronger string solo towards the end to create such an incredible tone. I also love how much it contrasts with the aggression of the lyrics because it softens it up so much more to make even the lyrics sound delicate and dainty. Another song that features some stunning strings is Anderson .Paak’s (who is any musician’s dream because of all of the different instruments he uses to layer his sounds, ESPECIALLY percussion) “Make It Better”. It is so beautifully orchestrated and uses some very subtle strings in the chorus to compliment his voice perfectly. Orchestral sounds in hip-hop will forever be one of the most effective pieces to add to any sort of production because they are just so fucking emotional. Two of my producers, Charlie Hype and Jim Beanz, know from experience that 9 times out of 10 when they show me a song I will suggest for them to use string instruments to convey just about any sort of emotion.
Another sound that I mentioned above that I love is a strong brass section. It typically has the opposite effect of a string section for me, which makes me personally feel a bit more melancholy, but rather gets me pretty excited and energized. Kanye is probably one of the first artists to come to mind, with “All of the Lights” being my favorite example. The introduction is EVERYTHING. I still remember that song being used throughout high school for sporting events because of how proud it could make you feel. The song really did feel like a modern fan-fare which is super cool considering as a percussionist in band class I was always put behind the brass section and the emphasis really was on us. The second song of Kanye’s that I think of is “Touch the Sky”, which has a super bluesy-jazzy horns section that makes you just want to dance. It fits the energy in his flow and delivery perfectly as well. And while I obviously can’t mention every song, it would be a travesty if I did not include Outkast’s “SpottieOttieDopaliscious” for those sexy ass horns. One of the grooviest tracks ever, with some of the most sampled horns that you’ve heard in just about a million different songs with a million different variations.
Lastly, I have to talk about the one thing that drew me into music in the first place (although I will definitely have to make a second post diving deeper into this because it is so general), and that’s percussion. Percussion drives many different genres, but its influence on hip-hop, whether in the form of a simple drum machine, intricate mallet solos, or claves on the off-beat, can change the whole song. In high school, my two favorite instruments within the percussion family to play, were the marimba and the timpani. My favorite song to feature the marimba was Jaylib’s “Strip Club”. The marimba is typically often heard within reggae or jazz, but these legends found a way to incorporate all of those styles while definitely keeping it fresh. Another producer who excels at using mallet percussion, in general, is one of my personal favorites (although I am biased because I got to shadow his incredible talent), Rick Friedrich. He uses the marimba beautifully, especially in Rone’s album, “Static”, which overall features incredible percussion. The timpani help creates that heavy fan-fare sounds as well, although they can definitely skew more tribal or jazzy. Mos Def even plays his own timpani in “Quiet Dog” which uses so many different genres from all over the world to create a tone all on its own.
I never truly understood just how much my experience with playing band and symphonic music would impact my love for other genres until I started noticing those styles more and more. I thought my love for the different genres would be mutually exclusive until I was able to pinpoint them and relate them back to other pieces I played as I was growing up and developing my love for music.
Listed below is a playlist with all of the songs mentioned. Definitely check them out and keep an ear out for the different sounds I mentioned and let me know what you think! And make sure to thank your arts teachers because they will never get as much credit as they deserve.