Ten Awesome Hip Hop Instrumentals
In the realm of looped samples, long-winded lyricists, and DJ shout outs blaring over the beat, the instrumental is the redheaded stepchild of the hip hop family. Sure, electronic, downtempo, and even some rock thrives without interrupting lyrics, but hip hop beats are – and always have been – meant as a landscape for a lyricists to release his thoughts. In 99% of hip hop music you hear today, the instrumental is only truly put showcased at the intro and outro of most tracks, preparing the listener for whats to come. Because of this, the subgenre of instrumental hip hop has occupied in the game a space so tiny and irrelevant that its own definition is usually misunderstood.
Consider this, if you Google “hip hop instrumentals”, you’re sure to be met with a slew of forums and comment threads teeming with wannabe rappers posting freestyles over looped tracks Lil Wayne wouldn’t even choose, and – even worse – videos of the same suburbanites drunk freestyling over classic songs that were never meant to be copied. The fact is that these looped samples and heavy-handed lyrics found on YouTube and lesser sites are slowly destroying the credibility of the song’s original artists and are a slap in the face to hip hop in general.
The real instrumental hip hop subgenre is much more complex, composing of a few extremely talented, deeply-minded artists who utilize each track like a canvas to splatter motifs, ideas, and worldviews in the form of sounds and samples in an effort to fill up the typically repetitive hip hop beat as dopely as possible. Without too many prospects of a big contract, huge following, or a household name, these artists are fighting a glorious uphill battle, with respect as an artist being their sole characteristic for victory. This purity of effort has output some absolutely great instrumental hip hop songs over the years, yet unfortunately these tracks are rarely heard outside homemade parkour videos, Soccer commercials, and video game lobby music.
As an avid listener – but admittedly not an expert – here are ten dope hip hop instrumentals you need to peep ASAP:
Building Steam With A Grain - DJ Shadow
Universally considered the Godfather of instrumental hip hop, San Francisco-based producer DJ Shadow blasted onto the scene in 1996 with the release of the genre-bending classic album, Endtroducing…. in 1996. The concept album built around using only samples – hmm, I wonder if that caught on? – has not aged a bit, mainly due to profoundly inventive and expansive tracks like ‘Building Steam With a Grain’. Piano notes rain over a marching baseline that leads you through an array of angelical singing and prophetical quotes. Though in a genre all his own, DJ Shadow is approachable by any hip hop listener who claims Wu Tang Clan, Outkast, Jedi Mind Tricks – or, hell, anybody – as a favorite.
Remember Me (Abstract/Reality) – Cunninlynguists
I’ve said enough about Kno – the producer and lead-mind of Kentucky hip hop trio Cunninlynguists – to write a short novel, but his frequent appearances on WB4HH are, more than anything, a testament to how talented he is. ‘Remember Me (Abstract/Reality)’ showcases Kno’s ability to master a track even without lyrical help from fellow members Natti and Deacon the Villain, and features a beautiful blend of acoustic guitar, xylophone, and flutes that flow together with a dream-like feel. Hearing this track, I wonder how much better hip hop would be as a whole if more groups delegated some space on each project for the producer to boast his unique skills on the turntables.
Forest Crunk – Aesop Rock
I don’t get the name either, but nevertheless, ’Forest Crunk’ by nerd-rap superstar Aesop Rock is easily one of my most played tracks on iTunes. Crafted by Manhattan-based producer Blockhead, this track has a persona all its own; muddled electronic wailing accompanies a mysterious but awesome synthed instrument – is it guitar, flutes? Anyone know? – that feels hurried yet balanced. If it sounds weird to you, welcome to “trip hop“. Add in some old school cartoon sound effects, and you have a wholly unique, and strangely addictive beat that fits Aesop Rock’s introspective, edgy, and quirky approach to hip hop perfectly.
Ghostwriter – RJD2
RJD2 is probably the most recognized name in instrumental hip hop, and also possibly the best. Tracks like ‘Ghostwriter’ and ‘The Horror’ are featured in more commercials than Flo from Progressive (right), yet – luckily for us all – don’t make you want to rip your hair out. ‘Ghostwriter’ looks to prove that anticipation can often make a track better, as RJ builds up a melodic yet homely beat for the first 1:30 of the track before exploding a nearly overwhelming collage of horns and electric guitar. The out-of-nowhere “chorus” is so ridiculously catchy that it more than pardons the monotonous build up, it actually compliments it in a way that makes the whole song better. In all honesty you probably already recognize this track, but if you don’t know more tracks from the Ohio-based superproducer – who is also half of the hip hop group Soul Position and has produced tracks for Cunninlynguists, MF Doom, and Aceyalone (recognize the Mad Men theme?) – you need to start downloading ASAP.
Storm Returns - Prefuse 73
Prefuse 73 is about as eccentric as hip hop artists get, but his obvious hip hop influence and work on tracks like ‘Blacklist‘ with Aesop Rock and MF Doom qualify him for the title. Prefuse 73 is actually just one of Scott Herren’s aliases, – easily his most recognizable, though – fitting for an artist who has lived and worked in Atlanta, Barcelona, and New York and who’s genre Wikipedia refers to as “Electroacoustic”. Isn’t that an oxymor… It is true that Prefuse’s production resembles nothing or no one else, and ‘Storm Returns’ represents his unique taste in the form of a sensual, harmonious track interrupted by welcome glitches and effects. If you ask five Prefuse 73 listeners what his best track is and you will probably get five different answers, proving nothing more than his innate talent and eclectic approach.
Noctuary - Bonobo
London-based Simon Green, also known as Bonobo, is unique as a producer with his complex down tempo baselines and warm, romantic sound, respected as a pioneer with his complete self-instrumentation – aka he plays every instrument you hear in every one of his tracks – and simply one of my favorite artists, regardless of genre. The majority of Bonobo’s music, which he was already gaining acclaim for when he was still a teenager, falls more into the genre of down tempo and chillout – think casual restaurant music, except 1000x better – than hip hop, yet a few tracks like ‘Noctuary’ earn the classification by featuring stronger bass and a faster step. It’s refreshing to hear the perfecting effort in ‘Noctuary’, which outputs an organic, unforced sound that is still catchy enough to imagine a rapper spitting 16 bars to it. Oooh, it would be sweet!
You’ll Find A Way - Dead Prez
Let’s Get Free, the debut album by Dead Prez, was a truly landmark moment in hip hop; it rekindled political rap with force unseen since the days of Public Enemy and N.W.A., featured the ubiquitous hit ‘Hip Hop‘, and boasting some of the most impressive lyrics of its time. Among all of M1 and Stic Man’s achievements on their rookie effort, the instrumental track ‘You’ll Find A Way’ is often passed over. Its a shame too, since the raining piano and wailing horns fuse seamlessly into this chill out track which is made only more impressive by its juxtaposition to the heated content and heavy basslines that define the album as a whole. ‘You’ll Find A Way’ – produced by M1 and Stic Man themselves – is a great listen on its own, but can only be appreciated at its fullest as a remedy when you are stressing out about ‘They Schools’, all that ‘Propaganda’, or that damn ‘Police State’. Like what I did there??
Lapland - Ratatat
Mixing electronic, rock, dance, and hip hop, Brooklyn-based duo Ratatat own a truly specialized slice of the music pie. Like Bonobo, Prefuse 73, etc., the majority of Ratatat’s tracks would incorrectly be defined as hip hop, but ‘Lapland’ is the exception. The funky, almost awkward break beat complements the duo’s trademark drawn out guitar riffs to create an all-over-the-place yet entertaining listen. Luckyiam of the West Coast collaborative group Living Legends was so keen on the unique sound, he used the original instrumental for his song ‘Rap, Rap, Rap’ - pretty good track, by the way – spurring at least my idea of this song as a viable hip hop instrumental. ‘Lapland’ is a great example of how, in modern hip hop, artists are intelligently using a wider periphery of music for their sound.
Organ Donor – DJ Shadow
There’s no way I could have finished this list without another track by DJ Shadow, especially one as inventive and trend-setting as ‘Organ Donor’. Also found on the landmark album Endtroducing…., ‘Organ Donor’ is the Frankenstein of DJ Shadows’ tracks; a creation almost sadistic in its perfection and experimentation that its feels alive. Centered around a cutting guitar riff, Shadow plays with a set of organ samples ranging from Giorgio Moroder and Samson and Delilah – I don’t know them either, but there’s a cool site on samples you can check out if you click on their names – in front of an incredibly powerful baseline. If you need a track to get you pumped for another set at the gym, this is it. On top of his more-than-impressive instrumental career, DJ Shadow has worked with a range of hip hop artists including Mos Def, Blackalicious, and Keak da Sneak.
Smoke & Mirrors – RJD2
Last, but DEFINITELY not last, ‘Smoke & Mirrors’ is easily my favorite hip hop instrumental track of all time. I’ve already mentioned RJD2′s keen ability to elicit emotion by building up a beat to a point where it becomes tangible, and on no song does the producer do that more effectively than ‘Smoke & Mirrors’. The song begins with a deep, beautiful beat that swells into a perfectly fit chorus stating:
“Who knows what tomorrow may bring, maybe sunshine, maybe rain. But, as for me, I’ll wait and see, and maybe it’ll bring my love to me.”
Once the song has seemingly climaxed, RJ slows the track back into a elegy-esque epilogue reflecting:
“Just to let you know, everything is gonna be alright”
I realize that this post is supposed to be about instrumental tracks, but RJ utilizes the sound and content of these original lyrics so seamlessly, they feel like another instrument at his fingertips. Altogether, ‘Smoke & Mirrors’ is a rare track in hip hop that matches its sound to its meaning perfectly. If I were to film a movie – a longshot dream for me – you can bet that this song will be the feature track. Just wait….
Consider Yourself Peeped!
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