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Hip-hop is a genre that many fans and haters alike often consider to be well… non-musical. One of the most common misconceptions about hip-hop music is that melody isn’t important, since the vocals tend to be spoken or shouted rather than sung, and because historically beats were produced purely by sampling other artists’ material. But almost every great producer will tell you that crafting a strong, simple melody — whether for the hook or the beat — is key to writing a hit.
In my new online course, The Art of Hip-Hop Production, I discuss the six basic elements that go into crafting a song: tempo, drums, bass, harmony, lyrics, and melody. And today I want to talk about using melody specifically.
These days, melody has become an even more important element than ever, as artists like Post Malone, Travis Scott, and others use pitch-correction software to transform their voices into instruments.
One of the biggest proponents of using vocal melodies in hip-hop tracks is, of course, none other than Kanye West. His latest record, Jesus Is King, relies heavily on the use of his choir. His 2016 record, The Life of Pablo, also prominently features a choir, melodic soul vocal sampling techniques, and Auto-Tune — all tools for extracting melody from as many places as possible. West even worked with T-Pain to craft his Auto-Tune-steeped 2008 pop opus, 808s & Heartbreak. Other artists like Chance the Rapper, Kid Cudi, and Drake have helped West shift the genre’s sound toward more melodic crooning in the last decade.
As hip-hop continues to dominate popular music let’s look at some of the ways in which melody plays a key factor in making a standout hip-hop track. For one, music producers have long understood the idea of “ear candy.”
Ear candy refers to any repetitive part of a song that’s designed to get stuck in a listener’s head; it contributes to making certain songs infectious. There are many ways to create ear candy but the most common way is to create a great instrumental melody. Composers such as Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart all have memorable themes and passages in their music that allow even casual listeners of classical music to engage with their music happily.
In the case of hip-hop, ear candy is heavily tied together with repetition and looping. To keep things interesting, and not annoying, subtle variations need to be made to central melodic concepts. A great example of this exists in “Wanksta” by 50 Cent. It might not seem like much, but when the main melodic theme in the lead synth is emphasized by the bass line, it creates enough variation so our ears aren’t fixated on the repetition. 50 Cent then sings the same melody during the chorus — after three minutes of hearing this melody in various forms it becomes infectious.
A good melody can also help inspire the lyrics and vocal cadences of the rap artist.
A great example of this happens in P. Diddy’s “Bad Boy 4 Life”, where the main guitar theme is used as source melodic material for creating a group chant of one of the most memorable hooks in hip-hop history. West coast legend Nate Dogg, responsible for penning some of the biggest hooks of the late ’90s and early ’00s, had an uncanny ability to find the perfect melody to compliment the beat, both vocally and instrumentally. You can hear this in full force on 50 Cent’s “21 Questions” which features Nate Dogg on guest vocals.
Here again the chorus vocal melody echoes and reinforces the lead guitar melody.
A modern scan of the Billboard Hot 100 will find that hip-hop artists are usually predominantly featured in the top spots on the charts. The rise of vocal melodies in hip-hop has helped to broaden the genre’s audience to the point in which it is now synonymous with pop music.
+ Looking for a deeper exploration of hip-hop production? Click here to request a one-on-one session with expert Soundfly Mentor Ian Barnett, who will personally work with you on making hard-hitting beats and pro-level tracks.
How can you use melody to make your beats catchier?
There are tons of ways to create ear candy, but the most common way is to find a simple, singable line and play it throughout your piece. A good melody can even inspire the lyrics and vocal cadences of the artist. If you’re an aspiring music producer, try these six tips to strengthen and broaden the appeal of your beats.
1. Use arpeggios to create melodic themes.
Many trap beats feature simple arpeggios as the main melodic component. Arpeggios are a universally recognizable sound and can dictate harmony without the use of chords.
2. Use diatonic melodies for your top lines.
Although this isn’t a hard rule, melodies that stay within their key signature, regardless of your chords, are easier to pick up. Everyone likes a nice resolution, so focus on returning back to your home tonic eventually.
3. A great melody can take the place of harmony.
You don’t have to fill your beat with lots of bulky chords to make it interesting. A nice melody with the right sound can be enough of a melodic component to keep listeners interested. You can even do it jazzy, with sparse chords and a lot of space.
4. Arrangement is key.
Hip-hop is a minimalist genre in which less is usually more. If you have a good melodic theme, try experimenting with register, timbre, and placement. The melody doesn’t have to play for the entire track, and it doesn’t need to be the same synth patch every time. Rearranging your theme will allow you to do more with less information.
5. Experiment with melodic hooks.
Melodic hooks don’t necessarily have to be single-note lines in the higher register. A great chordal part or bass line can make for a memorable track. For example, “Still D.R.E.” has one of the most memorable piano parts, and it’s just two notes over a looping bass line throughout the track.
6. Use sound design.
With all of the amazing VSTs, soft synths, and software plugins out there, you can turn any melody into a new world of sound. Try adding different audio effects and textures to your melodies to create sonic atmospheres, with an ear toward simplicity and catchiness.
Lastly, here’s a playlist I put together to inspire your own melodic sensibilities!
Great Melodies in Hip-Hop Playlist
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