Wonky? Aquacrunk?? Lazer Bass??? London-based music journalist Laurent Fintoni pulls a thread through current instrumental hip hop and electronic hybrids, and finds something familiar at the end – defining a lineage of modern beat construction that sits solidly on the work of 90s boom bap.
“[T]here were a lot of people who thought that I was desecrating hip hop. And that was far from the point; I was trying to celebrate it and bring it to the next level. I was just like, ‘Hey man, we’re kind of in this lockdown.’ It was all out of this stereotypical, what people called backpacker hip hop. Or it was this Dirty South 16th-note, 32nd-note patterns that were all the same. Template music, I call it. My music was exploration. I wanted to progress from record to record. And you had people who were for it or against it.” – Prefuse 73, 2009
In 2007/08 the resurgence of interest around the latest wave of instrumental hip hop made the sort of beats that had been anything but cool for most of the decade the latest hot thing. This was led by various factors: most notably the death of J Dilla; the rise of MySpace; increasing attention around artists like Flying Lotus, Hudson Mohawke and edIT; and rising worldwide party hubs like Low End Theory in LA, Turbocrunk in Montreal and Ballers Social Club in Glasgow. This in turn triggered the usual response from the press with new genre names being coined – from hilarious (Rustie’s ‘aquacrunk’, Lazer Sword’s ‘future blap’), to not so serious (Sasha Frere Jones’s ‘lazer bass’) and unintentionally awkward (Martin Clark’s ‘wonky’) – and old ones creeping back up (‘glitch hop’, I see you).
This all ignored the fact that what we were witnessing was just another phase in hip hop’s evolution, and to be more specific, the evolution of one of its most popular 1990s production aesthetics, ‘boom bap’. What these new producers were doing was part of a lineage going back to what KRS ONE called “the real hard beats” in his 1993 classic The Return Of The Boom Bap. The beats were as snapping as those New York classics by Premier, Pete Rock and The Beatminerz, but the sample sources, musical approaches and technology had changed, evolving the sound over a new decade.
As I started piecing together a map of what I saw as the evolution of the boom bap production aesthetic from 1999 to 2009 and its return with the producer at the forefront, sans MC, I noticed similarities with the evolution of modern dance sounds, especially those coming out of London in the same decade. It was as if part of the hip hop world had had its own ‘wot do u call it?’ moment during the 2000s, and we were witnessing what happens after loose and exciting musical ideas solidify into what Prefuse called, rightfully, ‘template music’. In that regard, 1999 to around 2005/6 could be considered the greatest period of forward movement within instrumental hip hop and this evolution of boom bap. This is a time of experimentation and mutation around the world – pre-internet hyper connectivity – playing with ideas of what hip hop could be.
A lot of these producers were doing their own take on hip hop, advancing its instrumental form, yet they were often too electronic for hip hop fans or too hip hop for electronic fans. As such, a lot of the pioneering productions from that era were released on electronic labels like Warp, Planet Mu, Sonar Kollektiv or Ghostly. As the body of work continued to grow in various places, the small, dedicated scenes around it increasingly became aware of each other as the internet facilitated communication and discovery. The explosion of interest in the late 2000s and the rise of recognisable faces forced everyone to ask, ‘what do you call it?’ Once that was done, a lot of the magic was gone.
This list offers a short – and far from complete – snippet of this idea, looking at ten influential productions that predate the late noughties interest in what I’ll term, for ease of understanding, new school instrumental hip hop or even electronic hip hop – which to me is a direct descendent of the 90s boom bap sound. There are some obvious omissions, most notably Madlib and Dilla – the godfathers of this evolution – but that’s only so I could include some lesser-known gems. Most of these tracks clearly reference the classic 90s sound but evolve it in some shape or form, generally by introducing sonic elements that were previously rarely considered hip hop, especially darker electronic sounds.
DJ Krush ft. CL Smooth “Only The Strong Survive” (Dillinja remix)(1996)
I came across this 12” again a couple years ago, and was taken aback by the fact that it’s (A) not a jungle mix and (B) has more low end on a 90bpm beat than was common at the time. The way Dillinja works the jungle aesthetic into this is quite something, managing to be both restrained and in your face at the same time. 16 years on it feels almost like a prototype for the current wave of bass heavy hip hop production, a blueprint for hip hop beats as worthy sound system weapons. Released in 1996, this remix is also a perfect example of Mo’ Wax’s then-growing influence in shaping a new way of thinking about hip hop that was clearly inspired by the New York aesthetic – yet open to experimentations with the UK’s own evolving electronic scenes. (In that regard, Ninja Tune is another key label.)
Divine Styler “Make It Plain” (1998/9)
Divine Styler’s last album, Wordpower 2: Directrix, was released by Mo’ Wax in 1999 following an original issue in 1998. After ten years in the game, Divine Styler left on something of a high, albeit a weird one for the time. Handling both mic duties and production, he delivered a dark album that fit the turn of the century mood and evaded a lot of the biggest hip hop clichés of the time. “Make It Plain” stands out for its beat: a simple, cleanly chopped break like many you’d hear in the 90s but processed and coloured with an ominously dark bassline and electronic flourishes which were, at the time, far from the norm, and give the whole thing a strange sci-fi, futuristic vibe. The inclusion of the instrumentals on the Mo’ Wax vinyl release (alongside some bonkers pyramid pop-up artwork) make it a must find.
The Isolationist “Hydrogen Slush” (1999)
One of DJ Vadim’s more ignored projects, The Isolationist showed him flex some out there productions for the time, combined with lyrics from Anti Pop Consortium’s Beans and cuts by the Scratch Perverts’ Primecuts. It resulted in an album that put many purists off but captured the attention of those looking for something that sounded new and different, yet still clearly hip hop. While many resorted to calling this ‘experimental’ – a term also often directed towards American labels like Def Jux and Anticon, with whom Vadim’s Jazz Fudge shared a certain affinity – producers like Vadim were simply doing hip hop as they saw it, pushing the 90s aesthetics into new directions, and in effect setting a blueprint for the decade to follow. Another good example of this from the same year is Vadim’s “The Terrorist”, with its LFO’d bassline – a track that’s proven resilient to say the least.
Danny Breaks “Organ-Isation” (1999)
I was originally going to pick out Danny’s anthemic “The Jellyfish” for this list, but after talking with him on the subject, he pointed out a series of more obscure productions he did in the late 90s that were a precursor for the Dimension series on his Alphabet Zoo label, on which “The Jellyfish” appeared. Combining hip hop breaks with drum’n’bass electronics, tracks like “Organ-Isation” (and this remix for The Playboy Revolutionary) were early examples of the potential that lay in combining hip hop’s DNA with its sped up UK equivalent. As Danny put it to me, it was a simple combination, but one he wasn’t hearing anyone else doing at the time. And despite telling people to try it, it would be nearly another ten years before the idea became popular.
Cannibal Ox “Iron Galaxy” (2001)
El-P’s production work on Cannibal Ox’s defining opus remains, 11 years on, nothing short of mesmerising and inspiring. On “Iron Galaxy” he crafted a bleak sonic backdrop that manages to stir emotions even without the lyrics, blending New York’s by then templated boom bap sound with samples and processing that felt and sounded like nothing else. In a 2001 interview for a production magazine he explained his approach at the time: “My intent right now is to do something where the music itself is going to have emotion regardless of whether or not the rhymes are even there. The problem is when the music alone doesn’t bring you somewhere and drops you on your ass and picks you up again, like rock and a lot of other music can do. That’s the next step for hip hop production. I’m trying to make records that feel like rock records but are distinctly hip hop.” And he’s still at it.
Brandy “What About Us” (2001)
A genius production move from Rodney ‘Darkchild’ Jerkins with offbeat drums and a sensibility in the synth melodies then rarely heard, and which sounds more or less like the prototype for the sort of beats that would flood the scene in the late 00s. To put it another way, this was proto-wonky and chart-topping proto-wonky at that. Even more interesting is the story behind the track, with Brandy apparently telling Jerkins that “this is exactly what the industry needs. We can maybe change the game with this.” And nearly ten years later, it would pretty much do just that.
Dimlite “Synonym4” (2003)
A reclusive genius, Dimlite was one of the key European producers who helped change people’s way of thinking about instrumental hip hop in the 00s. Perhaps most notable is his impact on the then-burgeoning LA scene – an influence that continues to this day even though he’s apparently never set foot in the city – thanks to people like Take (now Sweatson Klank) and Kutmah, two of the brains behind the Sketchbook parties that were so influential in birthing LA’s beat revival. In the early 00s Take used to be a buyer at Aaron’s Record, a legendary hang-out spot for producers in the city, and after ordering Dimlite’s first releases, the Swiss producer’s work started to become the buzz among many of the city’s producers. As Kutmah recalls, this particular track – taken from his first 12” release – was a personal favourite, and one he would play at +8 to up its ‘WTF’ factor.
DJ Mitsu The Beats “Negative Ion” (Sa-Ra Remix) (2004)
Of all the LA producers in the early 00s, Sa-Ra Creative Partners were perhaps the most ‘out there’. They had a string of releases between ‘02 and ‘04 that helped define a new sensual, funky and synth heavy sensibility for hip hop. This remix for Japan’s Mitsu The Beats is easily one of the best examples, with its slurred rhythm and washes of synth creating an almost drugged out listening experience. A favourite of Kode9, it was – as he recounted – one of the influences on his experimenting with more ‘woozy’ synth sounds leading first to his “Woozy With Cider” remix and then tracks like “Black Sun”. A year before, Sa-Ra also produced “Agent Orange” for Pharaohe Monch, taking the same synth-heavy approach but swapping the sensuality for full on ruggedness. “Agent Orange” would also provide the inspiration for this 2006 gem of hip hop meets dubstep swagger by Various Production, which unfortunately rarely gets mentioned when talking about the whole wonky/purple period of dubstep and hip hop.
Oh No and Vast Aire “No Aire” (2006)
As Madlib’s little brother, Oh No has stood up to his brother’s legacy with his production work often managing to be as arresting and ingenious in its use of samples and rhythms. On his 2006 Exodus Into Unheard Rhythms, the producer used only samples from Galt MacDermot’s catalogue – coming up with this particular gem that, at the time, sounded a lot like the future with its shoulder poppin’ drums, crushing bass and synth lines.
Dabrye “Special” (2006)
Picking out one Dabrye track feels almost like cheating, as his back catalogue could have easily filled half or more of this list, but “Special” – taken from his 2006 Two/Three album – is for me one of the 2000s’ greatest hip hop productions: incredibly fresh (I remember thinking this is what hip hop sounds like in the future when I first heard it) and influential in preparing the ground for what was to follow. The beat was one of the album’s highlights, and six years on, the way its bassline drives the rhythm forward while the hats sit on top and the snare keeps the time still gives me goosebumps. The vocal version isn’t half bad either with Guilty Simpson turning in one of his earliest and strongest appearances. The whole thing was the perfect embodiment of Dabrye’s admitted love of ‘street shit’ – he just happened to have a take on it that was like nothing before.
C-Rayz Walz “The Specialist”
Mr. Complex “I Don’t Know Either”
Ty “We Don’t Care”
Roots Manuva “Juggle Tings Proper”
Busta Rhymes “Rhymes Galore”
Daedelus “Dumbfound” (edIT remix)
Ghislain Poirier “Dontsmileitspostmodern”