+ Learn the nuances of producing beats, arranging, and sampling, drawing on the rich history and influence of hip-hop in Soundfly’s The Art of Hip-Hop Production.
Over the past few years, instrumental hip-hop has become a more prominent sound in mainstream TV and films, as well as a common sound you might hear in restaurants or bars with a modern, sophisticated vibe. Whether it’s present as epic underscore in a car commercial, the background music in a video game, or something you put on to help you study, instrumental hip-hop has really become omnipresent in culture these days.
Hip-hop music usually consists of two parts; an emcee telling a story with rhythmic lyricism and creating a unique vibe with their timbre, and an instrumental track to provide a rhythmic and harmonic bed and support the lyrics. Instrumental hip-hop, however, focuses solely on the musical elements of the classic hip-hop equation — and without vocals to account for, producers in this genre have more room to explore and expand their ideas.
For us to better understand and truly respect hip hop music and culture, I feel that it is important for me to share the music of the producers that laid the foundation for instrumental hip-hop music as we know it today.
It’s also important to note that in addition to making instrumental hip-hop records, the majority of the producers on this list have also collaborated with major artists — J Dilla (D’Angelo, Busta Rhymes, Erykah Badu), 9th Wonder (Beyoncé, Drake, J. Cole), and Flying Lotus (Thundercat, Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar). In this way, putting out beat tapes and honing your chops in this style can absolutely lead to bigger and brighter opportunities for producers.
And that’s precisely why Soundfly is launching an exciting new course with none other than influential turntablist and producer, RJD2, in which he explores his creative process in detail, breaks down some of his most famous beats, and flips samples in real time. Go ahead and sign up for our newsletter to be the first to know when this course drops, exclusively on Soundfly.
Now here are 10 essential instrumental hip-hop tracks that will help you start exploring this subgenre.
1. RJD2 – “One Day”
Since we’re already talking about RJD2 and his forthcoming course on Soundfly, let’s start with him. “One Day” has a mellow vibe to it that feels summery as soon as the beat drops. The subtle changes in instrumentation from different keyboards and guitar sounds throughout the arrangement allow this song to slowly develop and captivates the listener the entire song. This track is a great example of RJD2’s well-constructed and dynamic boom-bap production style. If you’ve seen the TV show Mad Men, RJD2’s work appears in the show’s instaclassic theme song “A Beautiful Mine.”
2. J Dilla – “Get Dis Money”
J Dilla is one of my favorite producers of all time because of his inventiveness when it comes to flipping samples, his intricate rhythmic placements, and his innate orchestration abilities with instruments, both sampled and performed live. “Get Dis Money” features a sample from Herbie Hancock’s disco hit, “Come Running to Me” and features J Dilla’s signature swagger and hard-hitting drums.
Also, we can’t stop talking about Dilla on our podcast, Themes and Variation. See what we mean here.
3. DJ Shadow – “Changeling (Transmission 1)”
“Changeling” is from DJ Shadow’s critically acclaimed debut album Entroducing. DJ Shadow is well known for his skill with sampling records and combining them to make unique soundscapes for his tracks. What makes this track unique is the “live feel” that he’s able to create through his sampling choices and arranging prowess. Several moments in this track feel like you’re listening to a live band that is reacting to each other.
4. 9th Wonder – “Slow Down”
As soon as the beat drops on “Slow Down,” you’re plopped into an atmosphere full of pure swagger and soul. The combination of thick drum sounds, lush keys, and super catchy bass lines are some of the characteristics of 9th Wonder’s signature sound that can be heard on records by Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Rapsody, and Kendrick Lamar. The sample on this track is The Whispers’ song, “On Impact.”
5. Pete Rock – “Smooth Sailing”
Pete Rock is one of the pioneers of hip-hop music and came to fame with his group, Pete Rock and CL Smooth. This track features Rock’s signature mellow and warm soundscapes, in this case, horns and keys, contrasted by punchy drums. Pete Rock is known for sampling obscure jazz, funk, and R&B records, so the sampling of Thad Jones and Mel Lewis’ song, “Quiet Lady” is not a surprising choice at all.
6. DJ Premier – “I’m Legend”
“I’m Legend” by DJ Premier is a great example of his signature style, one which generally includes in-your-face drum programming, soulful horn samples, and vocal chop samples to create a subtle melodies. Much like a lot of New York-based producers, Premier’s work includes samples of older jazz, funk, and R & B records. But Premier has also been known to take sampling a step further by sampling current hip-hop artists and flipping them to create new tracks as well.
7. Flying Lotus – “Camel”
“Camel” is a track off Flying Lotus’s essential album, Los Angeles. Flying Lotus is known for his ethereal soundscapes that take the listener on a journey every time with instrumentation including harp, strings, saxophone, drums, percussion, and synths. This particular beat blurs the line between live instrumentation and sampling pretty effectively, with its angular percussion sampling from the Aynsley Dunbar’s Retaliation song “Watch’n Chain.” Deep cuts right there.
8. Madlib – “The Payback”
“The Payback” is a quick glimpse into the wide world of Madlib. The epic keyboards and powerful drums create a spacey yet grounded atmosphere that shows how exploratory he can be with his sound design. Madlib’s collaborations with MF Doom (Madvillain), Freddie Gibbs (Madgibbs), and J Dilla (Jaylib) explore different shades of his creativity. This track includes samples from James Brown’s “The Payback,” Thunder and Lightning’s “Bumpin’ Bus Stop,” and even Madvillain’s own “Bistro.”
9. Georgia Anne Muldrow – “Wrong Way”
“Wrong Way,” by multi-instrumentalist, producer, and songwriter Georgia Anne Muldrow, is a short instrumental track that gives us a small taste of the harmonically rich synth elements and intentionally jagged drums which are staples her productions. Her beats and songs never cease to transport me into a unique world filled with cool spacey sounds, infectious grooves, and stories that just feel resonant from start to finish.
10. Nujabes – “Aruarian Dance”
This track by Nujabes is a very chill hip hop that uses a sample of Brazilian guitarist Laurindo Almeida’s version of “The Lamp Is Low.” Nujabes style has been credited as the driving force of hip-hop subgenre called “chill hop,” and features a blend of jazz and Brazilian samba to create a spacious and relaxing sound. His productions use pianos, strings, flutes, and guitars to create a relaxing feel.
Lastly, here’s a list of modern instrumental hip-hop producers to check out that we couldn’t quite fit onto this list:
What are some of your favorite instrumental hip-hop tracks? Let us know in the comments below!
Continue learning about beat making, mixing, vocal recording, and DIY audio production, with Soundfly’s in-depth online courses, including Faders Up: Modern Mix Techniques, Pop Vocal Production, and The Art of Hip-Hop Production. Subscribe for unlimited access here.