How Do I Produce Hip Hop?

Recording Connection graduate, hip hop producer Marcus Charles

From its start on the streets of New York, the cross-country jump to the West Coast, and its meteoric rise to the top of the charts, hip hop is a musical phenomenon that defied expectations. Although the popularity of the music grew quickly, the backlash hit just as fast.

A flash in the pan. Too violent. Too misogynistic. No musical worth. The first hip-hop Grammy award wasn’t even deemed worthy enough to be televised. But hip hop has stood the test of time, pumping out chart-toppers and bringing global fame to the likes of Dr. Dre, Kanye West, and the Wu-Tang Clan.

The best hip hop producers understand how to loop kick and snare drum beats, weave in samples, and layer in MC lyrics to create high-quality music that audiences remember. Found at the top of Spotify charts and in movies, television, and advertising, today hip hop production can be found almost anywhere.

But how does a beginner go about picking up the knowledge they need to become fluent in the language of chord progressions, drum machines, and music production? There’s no avoiding it – lots of work and lots of practice.

Develop Your Ears

While the likes of Grandmaster Flash and DJ Kool Herc didn’t have artists to look to when they began creating hip hop in the early ’70s, acts today have been able to draw on more than four decades of hip hop.

That means you have a wide range of genres, varieties, and styles of hip to hop to draw from. Look at The Beastie Boys: They started with sophomoric antics on Licensed to Ill and quickly matured to the sample-heavy Paul’s Boutique.

Both albums featured legendary producers – Rick Rubin and The Dust Brothers respectively. But the artists wanted to take a more serious approach to their second album. Where the first album created a breakthrough for frat boy fans, Paul’s Boutique was the album that truly put them on the hip hop map.

Teach Yourself The Tools

At the start, two turntables, a microphone, and a milk crate full of albums were all you needed to make a name for yourself. Well, that and a whole lot of talent and perseverance. And a studio. With the proliferation of home computers in the 1980s and the advent of smart technology in the last decade, virtual studios can be held in the palm of a hand.

Chances are, you aren’t going to produce the next Rapper’s Delight, Fight The Power, or C.R.E.A.M. on a smartphone. But you can give yourself a nice foundation with a few free sound production apps and a sample pack or two.

Digital audio workstations (DAW) are industry stalwarts when it comes to creating hip hop tracks as well as all other forms of electronic dance music. The most advanced versions of Ableton Live, Logic Pro, and Pro Tools are found in most hip hop studios. But for those starting out, there are plenty of free versions available online.

A DAW essentially gives you all the tools old school studios started with. Drum kits, midi controllers, soundboards, and so on. Instead of taking up a bunch of room, all you need is a DAW and a computer with enough power, memory, and speed to run it.

Remember when we talked about hard work and practice? This is where it happens. Just learning how to set your track stage, choose instruments, and install samples can take a lot of time. That’s why we recommend getting one of those free DAWs from the start.

If it turns out that your interest in producing hip hop begins to wane, at least you won’t have spent a bunch of money. However, if your interest grows with every passing day, you have given yourself a solid understanding of how to create hip hop beats.

Now is the time to do your own thing.

Strike Out on Your Own

With such a canon to work from, it’s easy to get caught up on sounds, styles, or samples that have been used multiple times before. When first learning to produce hip hop, it makes sense to follow in the footsteps of those that went before. It’s how you can perfect your techniques or learn new methods.

If you want to set yourself apart, you may need to try something completely different no matter how crazy it sounds. The Simpson’s once lampooned a fusion of orchestral music and Cypress Hill in 1996. In the years since, Kendrick Lamar, Jay-Z, and Kanye have all performed with orchestras at least once.

It worked for Little Nas X and Old Country Road, a marriage of country and hip hop. Modern hip hop has the ability to transform itself while still managing to hold tight to producing beats that led them out of the underground at the start.

It’s not necessary to stress about coming up with a whole new genre of hip hop, but you should try to bring your own sound to the scene. Build up a solid base by trying to replicate the hits, then see what you can do on your own.

Listen to as many different genres as you can, see what works, and what doesn’t. It sounds like homework, but at least you’ll get to listen to a bunch of great music.

Interested in learning a Better Way?

Learning on your own can be a rewarding, or soul-crushing, endeavor. You may feel you aren’t learning fast enough or as much as you should. Or, that you’re simply not learning the right way of doing things. Also, there’s the maxim: you don’t know what you don’t know. It’s totally spot-on when it comes to hip hop production. Recording Connection can help you annihilate those doubts with our Hip Hop and Beat making Program.

In addition to learning the tools, music fundamentals, and session management, you’ll be learning in what we consider the best classroom available – the real world. Your “classroom” is a professional studio, your mentor an experienced industry insider. Working side by side with a mentor, our externs are placed in prime position to learn what it takes to make a career in hip hop production.

Of course, we can’t offer anyone a guarantee that they’ll make it in the hip hop marketplace. That’s up to you, your work ethic, your talent, and your determination. If this sounds like the challenge you’ve been dreaming of, apply today and start making it your reality.

Get your music production certification and build your music production and audio engineering skills by learning with an industry professional near you.