Justin Bieber recently took some flack for interrupting a DJ’s set at a nightclub and demanding hip-hop music. Needless to say, I agree with Mr. Bieber. Everybody knows that it’s all about the beats, especially Justin, who curated his own line of them in 2010. No genre has capitalized on beats quite like hip-hop, and today I’d like to share a few of the most stand-out beats I’ve ever heard in the genre. Now, on to the usual disclaimer:
There are two schools of thought when it comes to describing what constitutes “the beat” of a song. It is either strictly the percussive elements of the track, or it is the percussive elements combined with whatever repeated sampling or live instrumentation accompanies them. The existence of a schism on the matter betrays the fact that it is overly complicated to make a decision. I believe there are songs that carry themselves on the beat, such as Kanye West‘s Gold Digger. It uses drums pretty much exclusively, with the Ray Charles sample really secondary to the percussive beat. On the other hand, we have the more “musical” hip-hop tracks, like Nas‘ Memory Lane. It’s not the beat that really drives songs like this: it’s the musical component. And so people will sometimes include the music as part of “the beat” when talking about the song.
One can never truly escape from the impact that the musical element has on a track. For the sake of brevity, I will not be focusing on exactly “what” the beat is in any given song. I’m sure you will not have a hard time figuring it out.
N*E*R*D – Time For Some Action. 2013 has been a good year for Pharrell. With Daft Punk’s Get Lucky and Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines, he has hit the top of the Billboard Hot 100 twice. People not particularly enthusiastic about those two tracks might be surprised to know that prior to this, Pharrell was a member of a half-decent alternative/indie hip-hop group named N*E*R*D. For me, Time For Some Action is the only track that has really clicked, but what a track it is. An interesting story: I heard the track for the first time in a preview spot for the US version of England’s Top Gear. I was so impressed that I not only listened to N*E*R*D, but I actually watched the show for a bit. Unfortunately, both fell below my expectations. At least we’ve still got this track.
Dr. Dre – Still D. R. E. There’s no denying that Dr. Dre has been an absolute monster in the music industry for nearly three decades. I don’t consider him to be a particularly strong rapper, but he more than makes up for it in his ability as a producer. From NWA, to his solo career, to discovering Eminem, 50 Cent¹, to Beats by Dre., and even setting up Kendrick Lamar, Dr. Dre has been tremendously successful. In terms of his absolute best works, Still D.R.E. off his album 2001 is definitely on the list. Not only is it one of his most memorable beats, it is possibly one of the most memorable beats of all time. And despite what I said about his rap skills, he actually flows fairly well on the track, to boot.
Shahmen – Dirt. This is probably one of the sickest, filthiest, most grungy hip-hop track ever written. The sad thing is that they put it as the first track of their album, Enter the Circle, and they’ve yet to release another album to try to outdo it. Of the three tracks presented so far, this is actually the first one I feel is an excellent song on all counts, not just the beat. It is much more complex from a lyrical perspective, and their emcee is absolutely ridiculous. His flow is unorthodox: it’s reminiscent of the rapid-fire delivery of speed emcees (few pauses, emphasis on articulation), but it is slowed down. Because of that, you can hear the slight inflections he puts at the end of verses, which is a subtle touch often ignored. The Mediterranean-sounding guitar and deep string section are just icing on the cake.
Pusha T – Numbers on the Board. This is another excellent track. In this case, it’s not the rapping style that is unorthodox so much as the beat itself. I’m not exactly sure what went into it; I hear drums, a steady bass line, and some odd synthetic clicking that could be a sample of some old children’s toy, for all I know. It is disarming at first, but as you listen to the song, it proves to work very well. Pusha T’s delivery in this track is just brutal. His flow is unusual because it has to go with an unusual beat, but his vocal tone is what really makes the song great. As for the lyrics, the song is one of those “self-promotion” tracks, so it doesn’t exactly have some deep hidden meaning, but he does have quite a few references in there. It’s a lot to take in, so overall it’s a song you listen to again and again.
Aether – Makeshift Sanctuary. Aether is probably trip-hop more than anything, but this beat is good enough to make the cut for this article. The song has a ~30 second intro to it, which actually has a pretty decent drum beat (some kind of very low bass sound) of its own. The real beat kicks in afterward, and hearing it for the first time was one of those moments where I had to do a quick “holy crap, what am I listening to?” check on my music player. Those are the best moments: when you’re listening to a bunch of artists and you finally hear something that speaks to you.
I think that’s enough top-tier hip-hop beats to see that Justin Bieber has the right of it in his philosophy about club music: “Never say no to great hip-hop.”²
¹50 Cent also happens to have one the most memorable beats of all time
²Unless it is the hip-hop that Justin Bieber listens to