In this edition of his monthly column for EB, Adam Harper—the Rouge’s Foam blogger and author of Infinite Music: Imagining the Next Millennium of Human Music-Making—delves into the world of underground beatmaking, offering his own mix to illustrate the essay. Illustration by Inka Gerbert.
Cut open modern popular music culture, squeeze it, boil it, turn it upside down and shake it, and you get beats. Hip hop instrumentals, riddims, productions, selected ambient works, call them what you like, beat music can be found everywhere, from the very top of the charts where they’re the humble but essential servants of the rap aristocracy, to the bedrooms of young people, where they form the first flickers of musical creativity—and of course, always providing the soundtrack to the best kinds of domestic, in-transit, social or narcotic idleness, almost anywhere on the planet. Beat tapes kick off lucrative careers and constitute the very stuff of grassroots pop production, transcending class, race and geography. Today, this extraordinarily versatile and accessible genre—no, genre’s too narrow a word: medium—is practically the default setting of pop music’s base. Where in the 20th century, bored or fame-hungry youth would join a jazz or rock band, today they make or use beats.
Colloquially at least, the category ‘beats’ might be a bit larger than that of ‘hip hop instrumentals’, basically describing any repetitiously percussive music that isn’t fast or energetic enough or otherwise suitable for being straight-up dance music. Even though beats are typically structured so as to accommodate rapping over the top of them, that’s not absolutely necessary—they’re not ‘half finished’ without it and would often would be worse off with it. Although it’s often short on intensively absorbing listening experiences (being instead generally light, disposable, best consumed in bulk), beats is one of the larger demographics in online music production and is a fascinating area because it can take on practically any style—all it needs is a groove. So like dance music but more sedentary, beats is a vast melting pot of different styles and aesthetic directions. If the future has a particular sound, we’ll find it in beats early on, and when it truly gets settled in, it’ll have spread to beat-makers across the globe.
What does grassroots beat music sound like in 2013? Collections of contemporary beats are quite common online—the Jealous Gold, Lumenous, and Fogpak compilations are great examples. But what might it sound like in 2018? ‘Future‘ is an increasingly popular term in underground new music, normally describing something a little weird and a little high tech. But search the term ‘future beats’ online and you’ll find that producers of almost every kind invoke the concept, particularly those in the classic ‘progressive’ mold, the one where slickness, well-established ideas of musicianship and craftsmanship, and plenty of attention to history hides behind a quirky, liberal-seeming maximalism. No, finding future beats is trickier than that. There’s something warm but often quite empty about an immaculate beat tape, especially when well-crafted in the classic style, with vinyl crackle and samples of soul, funk or old crooning. To me, the more interesting stuff originates in the ambiguous border zones between stylistic proficiency and the risks taken (perhaps unconsciously) as a beginner, an amateur or a relative outsider, the result of which is uniqueness and character.
A few years back, future beats—or at least, a then-modern style—was tentatively referred to as ‘wonky hip hop’, sometimes ‘glitch-hop’ (note: these terms have been pretty contentious). This was the school of beatmakers who followed the recently deceased J Dilla, refracted through the psychedelic retro/futurist prisms of Flying Lotus, Dr Who Dat and Ras G, and labels like Brainfeeder, Ramp Recordings, Werkdiscs, Musique Large, Friends of Friends and Leaving Records. It has heavy compression, complex textures, loves more organic sounds like vintage equipment, nature and bells, often favors a splattered bap (several unsynchronized clap-like hits together is common) to a dry boom, and most famously has a ‘sloppy’ groove, being somewhere between slightly and very outside the metronome with its rhythms. This style is still pretty common out there, but it’s beginning to shamble out of the spotlight today, perhaps to be overtaken by its polar opposite: something clean-shaven, fresh-faced and electronic, as warm retro lo-fi gives way to gleaming hi-tech futurism across the new music underground.
Meanwhile, however, a newer kid in town arrived with the whole new wave of independent rappers who have tended to like to put something a bit weird underneath their lyrics. Sometimes it’s Southern-style percussion with a snatch of reverby, pitch-shifted or filtered vocals or keys, like something from a gorgeous indie dream pop track, and it comes across highly blissed and emotionally expressive, regularly provoking the adjective ‘ethereal’. It’s not a term you’ll see bandied about too often, but this style is sometimes referred to as ‘cloud rap’. The rappers are A$AP Rocky, Lil B, Main Attraktionz and others surrounding labels like Green Ova Records. The key producer here is Clams Casino, with some support from the likes of Beautiful Lou, and other producers on the Tri Angle label are probably part of the conversation too. Most of the time in actual indie rap, though, cloud is felt as a vaguer presence, in a blissed or hazy mood rather than x, y or z specific techniques.
Plenty of producers have been following in the Grand Canyon-like wake of Clams Casino. There’s some really decent stuff in the ‘cloud rap’ tags on Soundcloud and Bandcamp, though it doesn’t often stretch too far beyond the style’s original pioneers. One great beat tape working with the sound is Collection 1, by the duo Friendzone, who have sent in gorgeous productions for A$AP Rocky, Main Attraktionz, Squadda B and other Green Ova types. Friendzone have an album on the way, previews of which have recently gone up on Soundcloud. Being a fan of cloudiness itself can be frustrating: a recent album by Ethel Wulf and Bones, ダサい, had fantastically ethereal production that was, most of the time, hampered by the sub-standard rapping.
Other producers lurk on the border between cloud rap and something else. Swimful Buterfly (watch the spelling), an anonymous producer who some say is from China, provided a beat for Lil B, and his album 馬路天使 (Street Angel) is blissed and based almost to a fault. “Sentimentalist” by Feels is in a similar vein but a little more classically ambient, with big washes of dolphin blue. “Deluge” by Pontius starts off similarly, almost new-agey before getting progressively more unusual. Shisa’s well-crafted “A Finer Red” is good for many a muscle-relaxant sample, has plenty of imagination, offers a few takes on ambient footwork, and boasts a pleasing variety overall. A little further into the haze, near to sunset, is Sela, with their sublime two-part album Stress, also taking footwork-like rhythms and writing them neatly in biro underneath some cherished polaroids.
It’s no coincidence that cloud rap and vaporwave have similar names. They’re stylistic cousins: both have a screwed, hazy dreaminess that can be beautifully complimented by clockwork 808 precision and there are an increasing number of examples of how easily the two can merge in contemporary beats. Vaporwave artist Drip-133 restyled himself with as Cloud Thugz to make a sort of vapor-trap, albums like Gamera’s Eternal Life 永遠の生命 and the ragged neo-Tokyo efforts of AWALthe1$t straddle the two genres, and even Ryan Hemsworth has used a vaporwave sample from 情報デスクVIRTUAL to remix Waka Flocka Flame. But some producers previously close to vaporwave have turned to beats in order to dissipate the cloudiness, resonating better with the style’s moments of ringing e-piano crystal clarity like the bottom of an outdoor swimming pool on a sunny day. The prolific Horse Head had usually explored cheesy proto-vaporwave boogie with his beats, but found this paradisiacal sound on Really Really Real, while the spotty Purple Tape has its moments of ’90s-Eno utopianism and sunroof corporate wonder. His most recent release, Purple Tape 2, is by some distance the best, with a richer, more imaginative and more cutting-edge sound. “INTERNET GOLD” by Bad Channels is a mysterious beast, vapy and very slow one minute, some kind of weird ritual the next, in which witch house and seapunk take a bunch of tranquilizers then crawl off and secretly got married in a giant cave by a 10-foot-tall albino alien reverend.
But the clear ruler of post-vape crystal beats (or whatever) is Contact Lens, whose many albums, particularly the most recent Free Throw Banquet have been a hit with the online underground. Contact Lens started off with echo jams before mixing in beats, and the last-but-one album Mediafire Kingdom had a whole bonus section of luscious, bulls-eye vaporwave. But Free Throw Banquet is a different animal, finding a new sound and mining it capably. It might be the wallpaper music album of the year—it’s warm, masterfully crafted, very personable, very now, and has a sense of humor without being annoying or insincere. Sonically, it favors reverby e-piano and chiming synth patches and TR-808, like all the tech-company sound-logos of circa 1993-2003 got together in a hot tub. I say this, but the album isn’t retro or an arty conceptual jolly—it’s beat-making. No giant sea-view mansion should be without it, especially if said mansion is really a drab sofa in the suburbs.
One ubiquitous element of contemporary beats comes from the style of production often called ‘trap’, using the Roland TR-808, whose most identifiable characteristic is the clockwork hi-hats and snares. Trap is another contentious term—firstly because of its drug connotations, secondly because it’s become a short-hand for an often dubious caricature of Southern hip-hop production and culture (for more info, consult Complex‘s article). When it comes to beats, there’s a difference between the full-on style people call ‘trap’, which is prevalent online and often features minimal textures, big kick drums, certain sound effects, screwed vocals and some kind of intimidating hook or sample (often bizarrely so), and the mere presence of what I tend to call ‘trappy hi-hats’ or ‘trappy snares’. The latter have reached pandemic status in beats, and though it’s about now I would normally get sick of something so commonplace, I’m far from there yet.
They have an amazing way of controlling rhythmic intensity within a groove, and remind me of the form of shading in visual art called cross-hatching, where regular lines are spaced at different frequencies and crossed over to create varying intensities of shadow. By altering the regularity of the hits, beatmakers can ‘shade’ different parts of the groove to varying degrees, blurring for the ear the regularity of discrete sonic events with continuous drones, not unlike the way a fence, a fork, a comb and a brush feel different when run across the fingertips. Typically they vary regularly between blocks of sixteenth notes (semiquavers) and thirty-second notes (demisemiquavers), though sometimes they get even faster, or use third-notes, or something less regular. When not having to step into the background to let a rapper do her/his thing, producers have done some interesting things with this technique. One beat tape to have generated a lot of excitement for bringing trap production into a more multifaceted and soulful place is Suicideyear’s Japan, combining it with reverby and painfully detuned synths on “Droppp”, for example.
For a number of years now, the darker side of Southern-style TR-808 production has been the territory of witch house, a ‘microgenre’ which briefly raised a few laughs in the underground music press before exploding like a long-tortured dying star in the under-underground, sending a deep synth bass shockwave pulsating through the universe that recruited potentially hundreds of acts to the sound from all over the world. Many interesting beat-producers have been formerly associated with witch house but are beginning to experiment with slightly different, more intriguing textures and moods. Russia’s Kvltik explores a more ambient take on the genre—In the Dark: Sleep or Dive and Sorrow/Sin, though pretty flabby, have an appealing inventiveness and variety, each one a dim portrait of a downtrodden fantasy creature rendered in music-box tones. LAKE R▲DIO alternates between darkwave instrumentals, humbly grandiose soundscapes and lo-fi songs, especially on the three-and-a-half-hour collection Hypoxia. Pazz Cherofoot is a prolific and appealingly weird beatsmith, like a lighter version of the a i r s p o r t s / END 1 / Karmelloz axis, rarely predictable and more than a little disturbing. Cherofoot’s latest album, Never, might be the best so far—a string of gems, absorbingly unpredictable from start to finish. PARTY TRASH flew the witch house coop recently to make some dance music and lots and lots of beats, usually of decent quality, palpable creativity and touring a captivating range of styles both familiar and unfamiliar.
Future beats, then, might be converging somewhere beyond the established formulations of cloud rap, vaporwave, trap and witch house, as restless producers use their old tools for new purposes. Most of the producers mentioned above show a tendency to avoid heavy sample use and classic organic warmth in favor of unconventional electronic textures with a strikingly emotional and blissful resonance, together with an inclination towards considerable heterogeneity in technique from track to track, each one constituting its own little world. There are other producers doing the same who simply don’t fall into the above categories or any others I can think of, not even in ‘post-‘ sort of way. Air Max ’97 has a lovely little EP with a pseudo-club stance, Choongum’s latest release Pure Sprit is sunny, playful and unclassifiable, BLK SMK manages to be both highly down-to-earth and highly creative, while Knox Fortune ably brings more classic approaches to beatmaking together with synths into an affable, charismatic whole.
The weight of the above argument about these new directions in beat-making can be found in a mix I’m attaching to this article, “The Indigo Mix”—so called because the music often names or visualizes its association with shades of deep blue (but not ‘the blues’), purple and lilac in track names and release covers, and you can almost hear the colors. It’ll allow you to listen to the highlights without the considerable and low-yield trawling that finding them requires, and, ultimately, mixes are an ideal way to consume this sort of stuff. Much of it comes from young producers who are just beginning their careers. Beats might not be the most glamorous or commercially promoted area of pop music, but they’re a staple part of it and one of its purest workshops of creativity, and they’ll be around for a long time to come.~
“The Indigo” Mix tracklisting:
00:00 Contact Lens: “I HAVE SO MANY POINTS” from FREE THROW BANQUET
02:17 Air Max ’97: “Glarefoil” from Internal NRG EP
04:04 Feels: “Plant Life” from Sentimentalist
05:56 cloud thugzღ: “i n t r o d u c t o r y ( r e m i x ) ?” from Soundcloud
07:28 BLK SMK: “You wouldn’t understand, alright?” from DIRECTLY ABOVE
09:21 Choongum: “Blue Caves” from Pure Spirit
11:22 Suicideyear: “Hate in my Hart” from Japan
13:38 Swimful Buterfly: “Ossorus” from 馬路天使 (Street Angel)
15:51 Pontius: “Liquid State-of-Mind” from Deluge
17:51 AWALthe1$T: “Wrath” from Tet$uo
19:50 Horse Head: “Wave” from Purple Tape 2
21:49 Contact Lens: “OVERDRESSED” from FREE THROW BANQUET
24:43 Pazz Cherofoot: “Posh Care” from Circle Pairs #1
26:27 Horse Head: “Sleep” from Purple Tape 2
28:02 Gamera: “Aqua Heaven 水の天 ☥999☥” from Eternal Life 永遠の生命
29:32 Knox Fortune: “Something I Ssaid” from Steam
32:23 Shisa: “Air Lock 2, While Kelsey’s Painting” from A Finer Red
35:51 PARTY TRASH: “Eighteen” from Beat Collection Volume 1
37:12 PARTY TRASH: “Sour Bag” from more tracks
40:08 Bad Channels: “Isle” from INTERNET GOLD
41:50 KVLTIK: “Yes” from SORROW/SIN
43:52 BLK SMK: ‘the return of Russell Nash’ from DIRECTLY ABOVE
46:11 PARTY TRASH: ‘Five’ from Beat Collection Volume 1
48:08 SELA.: ’14’ from STRESS [a side]
To read more editions of Pattern Recognition, click here.