LCC journalism student, James Childs is researching the impact of digital technology on Hip Hop through multiple lenses. In this second article, James meets 25 year-old South London rapper and producer Richi Fingaz who has published several music videos on YouTube. This article will explore how digital technology has impacted upon the experience of the Hip Hop producer and the production process. Through analysing the technological change in Hip Hop production, this article seeks to understand the creative process of constructing a Hip Hop beat – where questions of authorship and editing become of importance.
Hip Hop has always been an art form constructed by technology. ‘Emerging’ in New York during the 70s using analogue turntables and microphones, Hip Hop has harnessed each new technological development over the years. UAL’s Mike Kelly explains, “historically a large chunk of hip hop production is built on digital collage, stealing/borrowing breakbeats and hooks from ‘old ‘records – originally with Akai MPCs” and today, as Fingaz will discuss shortly, mostly with software such as Fruity Loops. Kelly continues, “It is a quintessential postmodern art form, creating dialogues with the musical movements of the past, which raises interesting issues about authorship. The whole cut and paste aesthetic is made much easier with digital media. Therefore, is this editing rather that authoring?” Furthermore, has the easy access to production software and resulting rapid proliferation of producers in the contemporary global Hip Hop scene fragmented the artistry of producers, or polarised the artistic community, making some ‘editors’ and others ‘authors’? Moreover, by digital technologies enabling many people to produce music, has the essence or the original core values of Hip Hop been ripped apart, or at least diluted?
Speaking on his production process, Richie explains “I use the music production software; Logic Pro and Pro Tools, but I started using Fruity Loops.” Describing their differences and his preference “I used Logic Pro a lot because the sounds on Logic feels more professional, but sometimes I like the sounds to have character and not sound like it has been played from live instruments.”
The diversity and abnormality of sounds within Hip Hop production is common, with abstract sounds generally favoured by the Hip Hop community – largely this is due to the process of sampling. Through the act of finding older music and re-doing it in a different way, producers have sought to create a new sound by manipulating the tempo of a song. This is valued within Hip Hop music because it is a musical genre which takes from the past, relying heavily on earlier compositions.
Fingaz favours sounds generated from software that does not attempt to emulate the sound of physical instruments, because he considers them ‘edgier’ and ‘unique’, “The sounds on FL Studio are less organic or natural sounding which I like. It provides more character and is more experimental.” Software such as Fruity Loops has emerged as a popular choice for Hip Hop producers as it offers a distinct way to modernise popular and highly valued sounds within the genre, meaning that sonically the software produces sounds that are similar to samples.
Stealing or borrowing?
Sampling predates Hip Hop but it has massively increased with the rise of Hip Hop. Throughout history sampling has caused much controversy and raised questions of stealing or creatively reproducing. In 1992, Hip Hop duo Pete Rock & CL Smooth produced a song called ‘They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)’ an ode to a friend who had recently died, the song samples a saxophone from Tom Scott’s ‘Today’. In 2012, for his song ‘Around My Way (Freedom Ain’t Free)’, Lupe Fiasco and a team of studio musicians re-created the song entirely, without using the original samples. The original producer, Pete Rock, voiced his displeasure with the record, arguing that due to the content of the original song it should have not been reproduced, and called it ‘unoriginal’. Some would argue this a clear contradiction because Pete Rock used a sample to produce a beat, but Lupe enlisted a group of musicians to reproduce a beat. In both cases the original songwriter Tom Scott made no disapproval of either song. In this case Rock saw himself as the author and Lupe Fiasco as the editor not respecting the original sentiments associated with the production.
When opening Fruity Loops the user chooses from a range of sounds provided by the programs instruments, where one can play notes by using the keyboard on the PC or a Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) in the form of a keyboard or drum machine.
Speaking about the process of making music Richie says “I never had a MIDI keyboard to produce, so I used to make my beats using the computer keyboard, but then I had to advance and brought myself a MIDI keyboard.” Learning an instrument is not mandatory but for a Hip Hop producer it increases their musicality and allows them to produce at a higher quality. For example producer Dr. Dre who is seen by many in the Hip Hop community as a legend, is known for his haunting sounding piano keys. Traditionally Hip Hop has been created predominately by people from lower socio-economic backgrounds, and due to income and cultural values the access to a piano or piano lesson is uncommon, therefore creativity is valued within the Hip Hop culture rather than being musically trained.
Creativity is valued within the Hip Hop culture rather than being musically trained.
Questioning the importance of a keyboard, Richie replied “A lot of people now do not use a keyboard such as the popular Hip Hop producer Lex Luger, he arranges his music through the mouse on his laptop”. It could be argued that digital technology has widened the area for non-specialist and professionals to make music in the style of Hip Hop. Prior to the ready access of digital technologies, producers would be skilled at mixing vinyl records and the art of DJing; the production process to a certain extent has become simpler, as nowadays a piece of music can be created through the assembling of notes in a music program.
This is especially seen with free open source software which allows users to edit and create musical notes and compositions. For example, the drum machine is an important part of Hip Hop production; most producers start with the percussion because it is the foundation of a beat. The Hydrogen developed for the MAC OS X allows users to create a variety of drum patterns, which can be imported in to songs. Where the average drum machine used in Hip Hop production ranges from around £100 and higher, anyone with a computer can download the Hydrogen and improve their drum layering skills for free. This is a clear example of digital technology opening-up Hip Hop, and enabling all sorts of people to use the tools to make music. One can see how this easy access to technology mirrors the experience of the graphic design community: from the ‘80s the rapid advancement of digital publishing software has expanded the amount of people creating and producing print and digital communications. However, are they all graphic designers? Are those trained and skilled in graphic design part of the same community as those who are uneducated in graphic design? Is there a single community of graphic design? I would suggest not. Maybe today there is more than one Hip Hop community, and if so, which ones are authentic and credible?
Stable and fluid beats
Whilst there has always been a traditional set frame of bars within a musical piece, the influence of digital technology has increasingly structured and standardised Hip Hop, with the beat of the song being set to a digitised sound. Ironically, this is in opposition to Hip Hop’s core values which are centred on creative freedom and natural rhythm. To some artists whose production relies heavily on standardisation, it acts a means to access a wider/dance orientated audience. This blurs the lines of the musical sound of Hip Hop, its aesthetics relies heavily on rebuilding other musical compositions but has the actual music changed so much that it is no longer considered Hip Hop?
Core values are centred on creative freedom and natural rhythm, and the idea of staying true to oneself and not selling out.
Rapper Flo Rida is an example of this, where Hip Hop has crossed genres. Some criticise Flo Rida arguing his music is not Hip Hop but rather dance music with rapping, with a clear focus on the financial benefits associated with reaching a dance audience. Hip Hop values creative freedom and diversity but does not support making music solely for money, (which many Flo Rida doing) at the heart of Hip Hops core value is the idea of staying true to oneself and not selling out. On the other hand Kanye West 2007 hit song ‘Stronger’ is considered a fusion of Hip Hop and electronic music, with many praising West as a musician, this could be for a number of reasons such as content, the songs individuality, innovativeness and overall West status as a musician.
Richie observes “The sound has changed and become more quantised. Some people still make music without it being quantised”. Quantising music is the process of transforming musical notes with some imprecision and setting the notes and beats on exact fractions of beats in a musical grid on a PC, so that the music has a set beat. Some argue it lacks a natural feel. This is particularly important when layering the drums in production because many Hip Hop producers aim for a natural rhythm, liking their drums to sound like live drumming. Richie says “it sounds more organic and you feel different. Personally I dislike the digital correctness which is prominent in music.”
The product rather than the process is still the most important thing in the Hip Hop community
Richie concludes “There is a balance no matter how far in the future we go, there will always be good and bad music. Some people dislike that Hip Hop has become democratised, allowing different types of artists to have a platform, but if you can find a fan-base for your music that means you deserve to be where you are.” The tools for producing music have changed, but the product rather than the process is still the most important thing in the Hip Hop community. Digital technology has impacted Hip Hop for the good and bad, but overall “it’s something artists must embrace in order to have a career” as Richie states. Hip Hop has grown and expanded, fragmenting itself across the musical spectrum; digital technology has changed a musical genre which had its beginning in turn tables and hooking ones DJ-set to the electricity of the street lights, to a musical genre where everything can be done using a PC.
To return to original question – has the essence or the original core values of Hip Hop been ripped apart, or at least diluted? By analysing Richie’s response and the different case studies it seems that despite the expansion of the genre and the multiple contradictions within the artistic community, the core values or the heart and soul of Hip Hop are alive, and they include:
- the product rather than the process is the most important thing
- staying true to oneself and not selling out
- centred on creative freedom and natural rhythm
- creativity is valued rather than being musically trained.
At this point it might be useful to ask what the core values are in other artistic communities and subject areas, and how digital technologies have impacted upon them.