Introducing Sci-Man, here is his first of hopefully many great articles.
UK Hip-Hop Heritage: The Beat, The Beat, The Beat
I’m an old head. Fifty years young now, and I have seen UK Hip-Hop grow from a fringe scene in a few clubs and a few acts on a few labels into a global phenomenon and a cornerstone of the UK music scene. In the very early days of the 1980s and early 1990s UKHH was just establishing its identity, struggling to adapt the Americanisms into something authentically British. It’s done that now in spades, with strong communities in every part of the country, and MCs who represent for their own cultures in their own language, their own accents and on their own terms. Long may that reign.
But it wasn’t an easy path to get here, many different elements brought us to where we are today, and the history is always a fascinating thing to look at. I did a masters degree recently looking at how UKHH established itself during the 1990s, and one of the really interesting things to me about it was nothing to do +with lyrics, rhymes or language. It was about Beats. See, if there’s one thing that the UK has always had, it’s beats. Since the introduction of affordable home computers and sampling technology the UK has thrown up beat production that is harder, deeper and more complex than anything else in its league. DJs and Producers across the spectrum of breakbeat genres like Hip-Hop, DnB, Garage etc. have always managed to make drum programming one of the core elements of their production. The rise of the British MC owes as much (if not more) to the early Jungle and DnB scenes as to Hip-Hop – in the 90s you were much more likely to hear an MC in a Jungle club than in a Hip-Hop club. It's right there in the name … DRUM and BASS. That’s what we love, right? The hardest kick drums, the complex snare rhythms, the constant changes and fills, the filters and compressors. Using the Amen break was born in the UK, and has been copied ever since because it’s so damn funky.
When you go right back to the beginning, it’s the beats that made the UK sound. Drum sampling, programming and arranging have been the backbone of that UK identity, the thing that really made us really stand out from the rest. Even this can be traced back to the really early hardcore Acid House scene when acts like The Prodigy and Shut Up And Dance sampled the kind of old school drum breaks used in Hip-Hop, and then sped them up, added programming from drum machines to fatten up the kicks, make the beats harder, more aggressive and make you want to dance your socks off. The infamous A.W.O.L years saw DJs like Mickey Finn and DJ Hype start to form the UK Jungle sound with hardcore breakbeats at high tempos with complex programming and arranging of the drum parts becoming one of the main focuses in the music. Hip-Hop as a global genre is built on the foundations of break beats. That’s what really kicked it all off, when DJ Kool Herc first started to isolate and repeat the breakdown from Apache by The Incredible Bongo Band and history now documents that as the birth of Hip-Hop (although there are other tales of the true origins and who first did what). It was the break beat that made the crowds really go wild and from then on DJs and Producers have been looking for their own beats to make their own peoples go crazy on the dance floor.
When the first British DJs got their hands on a pair of 1210s and a sampler, they did it too. But there was always a difference.
I interviewed several producers from the 1990s who made instrumental Hip-Hop – Coldcut, DJ Food, Herbaliser, Rae & Christian. They all said the same thing about making Hip-Hop, everything starts with the break beat. Samples from old vinyl were the go-to sound of the 90s, the true Boom Bap days. But by themselves in a mix they often lack enough power to really cut through on a club sound system, so these UK producers developed their own ways of boosting samples by slicing them up into their individual parts of kick, snare, hi-hats and running each sample through its own EQ to really bring out the sound. Most often at least one extra drum sound would be added to each part from a drum machine or drum sampler, doubling or tripling the drums to make them boom from the speakers. Back in the day this was a painstaking process on the older technology, separating all the drum sounds from a sample, then re-sampling them with EQs, adding extra hits and then mastering the new loops. I often think you can hear the work that went in, the pure love of beats that it took to create these sounds that now we all take for granted and can download in packs relatively cheaply, drop straight into a sampler and be done with it.
It was not by any stretch only UK producers that used these techniques. Many will reference American producers like Terminator X and DJ Premier as masters of the craft. But it is arguable that the UK took these ideas and really ran with them, developed it into a style instantly recognisable as UK in origin. In the early days of mainly instrumental Hip-Hop the beats were such a main focus because there was no MC to carry the track along. Drum programming became one of the ways producers maintained musical interest, with the kind of fat grooves that demand you nod your head, interspersed with cleverly programmed fills and chops, switching between samples to create dynamic drops, boosting loops with extra hits to create lifts that make the people move their asses. The power that rhythm has to make us all move is undeniably fundamental to all music, but it is never truer than in UKHH.
If you’re a Hip-Hop head and you haven’t heard some of the instrumentals from the 1990s by labels like Ninja Tune, Wall of Sound, Grand Central, Mo Wax then I would encourage you to go have a listen. They have all the authenticity of genuine Hip-Hop production, the fattest beats, the gritty samples, the DJ scratches and even without lyrics and MCs bringing a vocal message, you get that the message is to light one up and nod your head. It’s one of the many ways that the UK developed Hip-Hop culture into something of our own. Now that we have an established Hip-Hop voice, and talented MCs from every corner of the nation, it’s easy to forget how important the producer always was. It is fair to say that MCs can be heard spitting over a wide range of musical styles these days, but without the break beats it’s never really going to feel like true Hip-Hop. We should always celebrate the massive contribution to the movement that the UK producers make and have made. Without the beats we would be nowhere.
©Sci-Man 2021 Like what you read here, or think I’m full of it and want to tell me to shut up???
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