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By Amir Said (Sa'id)
For beatmakers in particular, there’s really no way around technology. It demands our attention, because it is the mechanical conduit through which we make our music; and it is the vessel that we use to explore and export the junction of our creativity and imagination as well as our music interests and cultural sensitivities. Moreover, technology dictates the means through which we are able to share our music with others. But considering what the beatmaking and hip hop/rap music traditions are, have been, and may one day be, are there any clear “good” and “bad” uses of technology in beatmaking? More importantly, what are some of the drawbacks of an over reliance on, and over use of, technology in beatmaking?
I’m not sure if there are any obvious “good” and “bad” uses of technology in beatmaking, but I do have my ideas about when technology in beatmaking is at it’s best and when it is at its worst. I believe technology is at it’s best in beatmaking when beatmakers use it thoughtfully, as a practical tool and as an enabler of creativity, imagination, and originality. However, I believe technology is at it’s worst in beatmaking when beatmakers use it as a crutch—with little thought for practicality, creativity, or originality—, or as an excuse to abandon some of the fundamental aesthetics of the beatmaking and hip hop/rap music traditions.
Thing is, I overwhelmingly embrace technology in beatmaking. I think it’s good, because it levels the playing field in beatmaking. On one hand, it erases the myths about some beatmaking methods and techniques, and it demystifies the “genius” of some often lauded beatmakers. On the other hand, it illuminates the actual skill and musical sense required to make certain beatmaking methods and techniques soar. This is why I believe that technology should be embraced whenever and wherever beatmakers feel that that they need it, and whenever and wherever they believe that it can be most helpful to their style, sound, and workflow.
That being said, I believe it's important to stress that the notion of “keeping up with technology” should never trump the creative goals of a musician; nor should the use of technology take precedent over a beatmaker’s imagination and skill. Indeed, technology should be at the disposal of the beatmaker; the beatmaker should not be at the disposal of the technology! In other words, beatmakers shouldn’t use technology to the detriment of their style and sound. Instead, we should use it in the service of our styles and sounds as well as our primary modes for creating beats.
Furthermore, I’m convinced that the emerging technologies in beatmaking is prompting some beatmakers to expand and explore their creativity and imagination as well as repurpose and refresh some of the fundamentals of the beatmaking tradition. Well-known beatmakers (producers) like DJ Premier, DJ Toomp, Marco Polo, and !llmind (all of whom I’ve discussed beatmaking with in meticuloous detail, in their production environments) have embraced technology—due both to necessity and preference—to degrees that have allowed each of them to expand the scopes of their styles and sounds, while retaining the ability to capture the core sensibilities of their music. But while some beatmakers are using technology to climb towards new creative plateaus, there are some who are outsourcing their imagination and creative energy to technology’s automation, all in the name of convenience.
Specifically, my concern is that an over reliance on, and over use of, technology in beatmaking may be creating a disconnect between many beatmakers and the art of beatmaking itself. Indeed, as many of us migrate further “into the box” for making beats—some doing so out of necessity, others genuinely for convenience, and yet others solely for the purpose of technology for technology’s sake—I wonder what sort of effects this is having on our approach to even the most fundamental processes of beatmaking, like chopping, sequencing, and looping. Are we losing sight of where our tradition comes from—DJ’ing and the use of pre-recorded music and/or other pre-recorded sounds? And if so, is this leading many of us to ignore hip hop’s/rap’s canon of music—music largely influenced by soul, funk, jazz, blues, reggae, and any other music DJs could get their hands on? Moreover, is this prompting many of us to rethink our views about music elements like riffs, groove, rhythm, and melody, and their role in beatmaking?
And let’s not forget that as one becomes more accustomed to relying on technology, the work of remembering how to actually create music gradually falls into disuse. And as beatmaking (and all music-making, really) becomes more mechanical and formulaic (than it already is) and less organic, more out-of-the-moment and devoid of feeling, quality standards plunge, rendering the notion of a dope beat obsolete or an afterthought, at best.
Furthermore, I wonder how many beatmakers are short-changing their creativity because of their use of technology. More importantly, just as technology is allowing for some old traditions to be discovered, and on some levels experienced, through new contexts (e.g. “e-diggin” online for source material and music history), I also believe that an over reliance on, and over use of, technology may be causing some beatmakers to abandon key stylistic (and sound) aesthetics of hip hop/rap music in favor of those from other music traditions.
And consider the other drawbacks to an over reliance on, and overuse of, technology in beatmaking. The most obvious drawback being that it is transforming what should largely be a musical process—one steep with reflection and a sense of tradition—into a manufacturing process that avoids tradition in favor of technological brevity. Because of this, some beatmakers are in danger of becoming effectively much more technician than musician. Because of this, there are some beatmakers who think more about technology than they do about music (remember, having a sustained focus on music—its forms, its histories, its common characteristics—is key). And also because of this, there are some beatmakers who are more enthusiastic about acquiring and mastering new technology than they are about making new beats.
Thus, when you consider all of the drawbacks of an over reliance on, and overuse of, technology in beatmaking, it makes you wonder about the future of the beatmaking tradition. Indeed, if this trend persists, doesn’t the beatmaking tradition stand the risk of becoming a devalued art form? After all, beatmaking is a sub-tradition of a music tradition that has long been plagued by accusations of illegitimacy or faux originality.
The BeatTips Manual by Sa'id.
"The most trusted source for information on beatmaking and hip hop/rap music education."