Make better hip hop beats and rap beats with these tips from legendary hip hop producer Johnny Juice.
On a casual listen, tracks by Jay-Z, Tupac, or KRS-One might seem simple in construction – charismatic rhymes riding a driving, repeating drum groove. But if you’ve ever tried building hip hop beats on your own from the ground up, you probably already know that producing something propulsive, gutsy, fresh, and original is not such a simple science – so where do you begin? We brought in one of the genre’s founding experts to offer some advice.
Multi-platinum producer Johnny “Juice” Rosado is one of hip hop’s pioneers. He’s worked with artists like Run DMC, Public Enemy, The Beastie Boys, Ashanti, and Dan the Automater, and is a highly respected DJ and scratcher as well. Here’s what Juice recommended in order to give your original hip hop beats the funk and power they need.
Find a unique influence
When developing your own unique voice as a beat programmer, Juice recommends latching on to an influence that inspires you – whether it’s within hip hop or not – and digging in deep. “Study what makes that musician, composer, producer, or vocalist sound the way they sound,” he says. “And then apply that to what you’re doing.”
Juice has long taken his own advice in this regard, paying tribute to diverse influences in his production and DJ work. “I don’t scratch like a DJ,” he explains. “I always wanted to scratch the way [renowned Latin percussionist] Ray Baretto played conga. I also scratch to recordings by Bobby Timmons, who’s a great jazz piano player. He plays very intricate solos and I like to scratch along, matching those rhythms.”
Regardless of whether your influences come from grunge or go-go, Juice affirms that listening closely and studying any style that inspires you will help you bring a fresh perspective to whatever beats you end up building.
Learn about drums – and other instruments
Juice recommends becoming as proficient as possible playing at least one instrument – not just programming samples of it – and learning at least the basics of as many others as possible. “I see a lot of producers not understanding how drummers actually play drums,” he says. “They have the hi-hat playing throughout a song, and if you’ve ever watched a drummer play, you know that when he or she does a fill, the hi-hat usually stops until the fill is over. Even if you’re using a drum machine that’s not supposed to sound like a real drummer, you still want to program it as if a real drummer were playing. Also, I always have a crash cymbal hit with the kick drum underneath it to give the hit more power – because that’s the way a lot of real drummers play.
“Knowing even one instrument comes in really handy when it comes time to program,” he continues. “If you’re studying drums and want to build a beat, start with the drum track. If you’re studying bass, then that’s your launching pad.”
Build your sound library
Keyboard synthesizers, software-based virtual instruments, DVDs full of exotic drum hits – the sounds you use to build your beats can come from all over the place, and Juice recommends amassing as deep, diverse, and unique a collection as possible. “Learn what the santour is!” he says. “It’s a really cool sounding Persian instrument – kind of like a guitar, but played with sticks. It sounds great – so try starting with that and constructing a beat around it. Make sure you have all sorts of unusual things like that in your repertoire. A new sound can be a creative spark, and you tend to program differently when you use different sounds.”
Start with a song you love
“If you’re having trouble finding inspiration, I always recommend sampling your favorite record, throwing drums underneath it, adding some keyboard parts on top – and then taking the sample out,” says Juice. “What you’re left with is a mirror image of that song that you love, but it’s your own. It may have the same tempo and chord progressions as the original song, but it’ll be something new that’s unique and really yours.” From there, he says, continue adding other elements to fill the space left by the original sample you were using for inspiration.
This technique can work with a track of nearly any genre – country, reggae, metal, you name it. Just make sure that whatever record you use as source material has a good groove and gets you excited about making music.
Don’t forget to pan
“Panning is a lost art in hip hop,” says Juice. “A lot of hip hop records today just sound like one big mono track. Or everything just gets panned hard right and hard left.”
Regardless of whether your drum sounds come from an acoustic drum kit or a classic Roland TR-808 drum machine – or anywhere in between – pan your drum sounds according to how they’d show up on stage, says Juice. “You have to have a panning arrangement that gives everything its space. I always pan snare drums a little to the right, because if I’m looking at a drummer, the snare is a little to the right. The hi-hat is a little further to the right. Toms go from right to left, from higher pitch to lower pitch.”
Quick tip: If you’re unsure of where to pan any particular drum sound, listen to a few classic jazz albums on a good pair of headphones and pay special attention to what sonic elements are placed where, left to right.
Be aware of mono and stereo
Many of the sounds used in hip hop beats come from popular keyboard synthesizers like the Korg Triton and Yamaha Motif, says Juice – but when outputting sounds from these powerful instruments into an audio interface to record, he warns that you have to be careful.
“When you record from a Triton, you have the left and right outputs going into channels 1 and 2 of the mixer, so it’s easy to record everything that comes out of the keyboard as a stereo track,” he says. “That can lead you to record something in stereo that should just be mono, like a kick drum or snare drum.”
If you’re recording a sample that comes from a single point source – like a kick or snare – just record it from a single output as a mono track, then pan it over a bit, says Juice. “Because many producers record all of their sounds in stereo from the keyboard, they just assume that they’re already panned correctly, and they’re not. If you’re recording a kick sound in stereo, you’re basically just recording two identical mono tracks sandwiched together. You have to do the panning yourself.”
Avoid sloppy tuning
To create a unique sound, hip hop producers often change the tuning of a sample, making it sound higher or lower in pitch than the original. “They’ll detune and slow down a sample to a point where it’s unrecognizable,” says Juice. “That’s fine – but at least learn your notes on the piano so when you detune your sample, it’s tuned to a real note, not some gray area between E and E-flat.”
Why is tuning such an important thing? “When a singer or live musician comes in to record over your beat, it can cause problems,” he continues. “I fix a lot of that in my studio. If the vocalist sounds like shit, the problem usually is that the sample isn’t tuned correctly.” Imprecise de-tuning of a sample can also cause problems if you choose to add sampled bass lines, or other melodic elements to your jam. “Synthesizers and virtual instruments are usually tuned correctly, so they can really grate if you have them playing up against a badly tuned sample.”
“Remember that the vocals are the last instrument in any beat,” says Juice. “The rapper or singer is what’s needed to finish the beat – when you’ve finished programming it, your beat should be at the point where all you need to do is add vocals, mix, and serve. If you get to the point where a vocalist is fighting the beat for space, it’s too full and you need to take something out.” Even if you’re not a professional-level vocalist yourself, an easy way to see if you’re leaving enough space is to hum a made-up melody or spit a nonsense verse over top of your beat. If you feel like you’re fighting with the music, try stripping the beat down a bit to create more space – but if the vocals and beat seem to breathe together, you’re on the right track.
“Music isn’t dog food,” says Juice. “Dog food is manufactured. There’s a formula and a process. Unfortunately, people can fall into the trap of manufacturing music, not creating it, so it’s important to stay in the creative mindset, and not feel like you’re just formulaically going through an assembly line process.”
To avoid creating your own sonic dog food, Juice recommends giving yourself extra time to try new things that could crash and burn, or could lead to something exciting. “Experimenting with all sorts of stuff is the key,” he says. “Every producer programs differently, so don’t always start with the same instrument. Try using an instrument you’ve never used before. Try to mix a harpsichord with some reggae. And give yourself the time to try new things. A lot of people are hell bent on getting things done now, and that can get in the way of real creativity.”
Michael Gallant writes, produces, sings, and plays keyboards for the indie rock band Aurical. He is also the founder of Gallant Music, a custom content and music creation firm based out of New York City. For more, visit auricalmusic.com and gallantmusic.com.
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