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Modern hip-hop takes influence from the musical vocabulary and instrumentation from a variety of genres, including EDM, jazz, funk, soul, and Latin music. In most cases, the element that most identifiably portrays these various influences is the bass. Its role is usually to lay down a rhythmic and melodic foundation, while the drums these days are typically tasked with providing the energy and spark.
As a result of the varied influences modern hip-hop producers have, a bass line can range from simple and repetitive, to a very complex unpredictable line, which in turn dictates the overall feel of the song. Also, because of looped phrasing in hip-hop, the bass tends to provide strong melodic content to support the hook, and in some cases, the bass line just is the hook.
Here’s a list of our favorite modern hip-hop bass lines. You can listen to all of these songs in the Spotify playlist below while you read, or click the links to the YouTube versions à la carte.
Kendrick Lamar’s “Complexion” features Steve “Thundercat” Bruner on electric bass. On this track, there are two bass parts; one is arpeggiating chords and the second part is laying down a pulsing bass line. This is a favorite of ours because of its use of the bass as a colorful harmonic element as well as the foundation of the song at simultaneously.
“Pay Up” is similar to “Complexion” in that it features a combination of bass instruments. However, in “Pay Up,” a Fender Rhodes Bass is used as well as a synth bass to play the bass line in specific sections to create momentum. The funky vibe of this song is cemented by the interplay of the bass instruments, with the rest of the instrumentation and Rapsody’s rhythmic flow.
“Tints” is a great of example of hip-hop blended with retro soul — the Moog synth bass, in particular, reminds me of Stevie Wonder’s music. The funky bass line in conjunction with the simple drum groove really drives the track forward. In the choruses, the bass sounds wider as a result of a bit of chorus effect, which makes the bass line sound larger than life. “Tints” is a favorite because it sounds like an old soul record with the polished sonics of modern production.
This track is a great example of how 808 basses can be used in a setting that has elements of trap drums combined with punchy and washy EDM synths. In this track, the tone of the bass is in your face and plays a simple part that’s catchy and anchors that groove, so that the constantly moving high synths line have a foundation to play off of. The interplay between the heavy bass, punchy drums, and floaty synths in this track creates an infectious groove makes your head bob immediately.
“Suede” uses a chopped up and filtered electric bass track to create a rolling feel that complements the laid back drums and keys groove. The crunchy tone of the choppy bass on this track creates an interesting vibe that is in between live band performance and a lo-fi hip-hop sample. The swagger and unpredictability of the drums and bass on this track are so infectious.
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The 808 bass line on “The Motto” is a favorite simply because the bass line is so catchy. This track also uses a combination of bass instruments with sawtooth bass synth coming into the track at the end of each chorus to add some grit and weight to bass. There aren’t any chords in the song, so the bass line is carrying the whole song melodically and rhythmically.
“Be” is a great song for bass because it’s one of the rare songs that use acoustic bass on it. The acoustic bass has such a warm tone that complements the heavy soul of the strings and acoustic drums. This track is very unique as its sound evokes different genres; jazz with the acoustic bass, soul with the strings and acoustic piano, hip-hop with the Moog synth and hip hop drums.
The synth bass on “Right on Time” is a favorite because it has so much swagger to it and causes the listener to move from the first bar. The bass line on this track along with the keyboards and drums bridge a gap between funk and neo-soul tones and orchestration especially with Phonte’s chorus hook, and hip-hop with Phonte and Pooh’s rap verses.
Kanye’s “Hell of a Life” uses bass to combine growly EDM influenced bass with hip-hop. The in-your-face bass on this track sets the tone for the lyrical content for this song where he reflects on his life. The bass is unrelenting throughout the song which showcases how a driving bass can affect the vibe of a song.
The synth bass on “Diddy Bop” comes in later in the arrangement, but when it does the track lifts. The busy bass line drives the track, by creating more energy to support the lyrical content. This one is a favorite because the arrangement choice to have the bass drop in and out only when necessary works well with keeping the song interesting and leaving space for the lyrics.
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