What Instruments Are Used in Hip Hop?

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Once considered a fad like disco or new wave, hip-hop music has endured the test of time and become a staple in mainstream pop radio. For up-and-coming music producers, hip-hop is the easiest to create in terms of instrumentation; the basics are composed of only three or four pieces of equipment.

Hip hop dancer in air
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Understanding hip-hop music instrumentation means that you first must understand its beginnings.

Hip-hop is generally accepted to have originated in the Bronx though DJ Kool Herc (Clive Campbell), the first hip hop DJ was from Jamaica.

Known more as a culture than a form of music, it's often used interchangeably to mean both the culture and its music which is rap. The person unofficially credited with coining the phrase "hip-hop" was Afrika Bambaata, one of its early pioneers also known as the Godfather of Hip-Hop.

From its birth, hip-hop music has always had a rustic, street sound focusing heavily on the beat and groove borrowed from several different genres of music. Though it has evolved over the years into several sub-genres, some things have remained consistent in terms of sound and studio instrumentation.

Map of Jamaica
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At the heart of hip-hop music is the beat. This is not just any beat, but one where the bass drum is tuned low and hits hard. Some of the more popular drum machines used are the classic Roland TR-808, TR-909, and E-MU Mo Phatt. There are also comparable computer counterparts like Native Instruments Battery and FXpansion's BFD. Each one has an assortment of drum and percussion sounds that can be altered to taste.

Knops on drum machine
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No discussion about hip-hop music would be complete without mentioning the sampler. Sampling, or the art (and trust me, it is an art) of recording a "sample" from an old record or live sound for use in a song, has long been the distinctive feature of hip-hop music. Today, beat creators have the option of buying CDs stocked with an array of sounds that can be loaded into samplers and modified in myriad different ways.

The granddaddy of them all is the Akai MPC which is now on version 5000. There's also E-MU's computer based Emulator X.

Man listening to cd in store
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Most of mainstream hip-hop utilizes a synthesizer for bass and lead lines as well as other sounds like horns and sound effects. There is no hard and fast rule here. It's strictly a matter of taste. Salt-N-Pepa used a small Casio CZ-101 for their hit Push It, an over-the-counter consumer model. Whatever works.

Many hip-hop producers use more than one synth, with older models becoming popular again like the MiniMoog, OSCar, and the Roland Juno 106. Some of the popular modern versions are the Roland Fantom, Yamaha Motif, and the Korg Triton.

Synthesizer
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Though not considered an instrument in the traditional sense, choosing the proper microphone is very important to get the right nuances of an emcee's (rapper's) voice.

The popular Neumann U87 is the microphone of choice though it is pricey as well as the AKG C414 or Blue Blueberry. However, there are some capable low-priced mics like the MXL 67i or the Studio Projects C1. It's suggested to have more than one microphone available for different voices if you can afford it.

microphone on stand
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In addition to the main equipment, there are peripherals needed in order to get the setup operational:

  • Digital audio workstation
  • Microphone preamp
  • Cables
Audio workstation
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