In Beat Kings: The History of Hip Hop, Wu-Tang Clan's Mathematics has assembled a revealing documentary from the point of view of the genre's architects. The DVD is an entertaining crash course in the nitty-gritty of hip-hop's evolution beyond the platinum records and glitzy videos—from turntables to 808s to ProTools. The interview clips—concisely organized into chapters on history, equipment, influences and the biz, among other topics—are a who's who of hip-hop production legends. Wu-Tang's RZA jokes about making beats on his first drum machine, a Roland 606 stolen by Ol' Dirty Bastard. Marley Marl—perhaps the king of the beat kings—recounts how the sampling limitations of the E-Mu SP-1200 (a workhorse among the first generation of studio beatmakers such as Pete Rock) forced him to chop up beats out of necessity, forging the methodology of his trademark early production style, where discrete drum beats might be nabbed from entirely different records.
Early beat pioneers such as Prince Paul, DJ Premier and Easy MoBee recall the urge to create that drove them to use whatever tools were available: Betamax tapes, reel-to-reel decks, even cassette boomboxes, which were used to manually loop samples recorded off the radio. So it's understandable when some of these old-school sonic alchemists hate on current digital technologies such as ProTools—powerful, inexpensive PC software that changed the music industry, put some studios out of business and turned casual home recordists into overnight producers.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
But in the segment titled "Hip-Hop Today: Under Construction," the titans are philosophical as well, allowing that new technologies (such as the widely available '80s gear by Japanese companies such as Roland and Akai) gave them their entry into the business. For a new generation of beat stylists, it's still about the spirit of invention, the thrill of transcending material limitations: not so much what you're working with, but what you do with it.