How Did Bedroom Beats Go Global?

When people think of hip-hop and electronic music, there's a tendency—among producers, DJs, record labels, critics, fans, and pretty much everyone else—to try to place it in a particular box. Is it electro, techno, left-field experimentalism? Jungle, drum and bass, IDM? Boom bap, trap, drill?

But while the subgenre names may change through time, a new book argues that it's all really the same thing. And maybe what's most shocking about the claim is that the more you dig into it, the more you believe it.

Bedroom Beats & B-Sides
Bedroom Beats & B-Sides

Laurent Fintoni has been writing about the artists that create this music for the better part of two decades, in publications like FACT, The FADER, Bandcamp, and the Red Bull Music Academy. In Bedroom Beats & B-Sides: Instrumental Hip-Hop and Electronic Music at the Turn of the Century, he tracks the rise of the bedroom producer.

In doing so, he not only shows the shared equipment, techniques, and inspirations across genre lines—coalescing into a modern global beat scene—but how bedroom production has remade the recording industry in its image.

The story begins in the wayward labs and studios of rebels and experimentalists, back when the gear was quite a bit larger, and harder to come by: places like the BBC's Radiophonic Workshop, San Francisco's Tape Music Center, and King Tubby's dub studio in Kingston. Where Fintoni's focus primarily resides, however, is in the following generations, those producers who took this early work as inspiration and created their own music—with whatever samplers, synths, and sequencers they could cobble together.

Hopping in and out of scenes in London, Detroit, New York, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, he follows the developments in sound and style, the cross-pollination between Autechre, Aphex Twin, Madlib, Jay Dee, Prefuse 73, El-P, Sa-Ra, Kanye West, and hundreds more. (A running playlist—Fintoni's soundtracks each chapter—provide aural clues to help readers further connect the dots.)

A partnership between Cornwall-based ambient artist Luke Vibert and Jeremy Simmonds (aka Voafose) is representative of the bedroom rigs of the early '90s. Vibert tells Fintoni, "He had a four-track, I had a keyboard, he had a drum machine, I got a sampler, and we would sort of pool our bits together." Others made tapes with buzzing mixers, borrowed MPCs, or—especially in the case of Madlib—whatever was on hand.

Despite the potential of being a lonely pursuit, bedroom production was (and is) often a collaborative affair. Asked if there was more social back in the pre-DAW days than now, Fintoni tells Reverb, "It's always required a social component, whether that be pooling resources with others, sharing tips and tricks, performing together, gathering in spaces like record shops, or as we moved into the 2000s gathering online on social networks."

The equipment available in the '80s, '90s, and early 2000s was of course more limited than today's. Samplers, whether keyboards like the Casio RZ-1, Akai's S-series, or the high-end E-Mu SP-1200, often just a few seconds of sample time.

What's interesting is how much these limitations have shaped today's technology. In the book, when Fintoni writes about the beat scene circa 2008, he says, "Their beats were stylistically loose and slippery, the natural result of more than two decades of evolution that had seen the quirks and limitations of home recording morph into industry standards."

How clean is that line of development though?

"To me, that line of development is quite clear," Fintoni says. "Yes, sampling has become much less limited in its technical aspect (more time, better quality, more ability to manipulate it) but ultimately has remained pretty similar in its aesthetic aspects—it's about repurposing something that exists into something new, and whether you're using an SP-1200 or an NI Maschine it can have the same emotional impact."

"As Georgia Anne Muldrow says in the book, there's a clear argument for a brand like Native Instruments being able to exist today because of what hip-hop brought to music making in terms of techniques," he says. "Those techniques were developed by subverting equipment to do things it wasn't supposed to. And those subversions were turned into standards that most come to expect from their hardware or software, be it EQ'ing, fading, echo, reverb, etc…"

By the 2000s, the underground-mainstream divide in the beatmaking world was dissolving, with once-avant garde producers admiring the strange sounds Timbaland was bringing to the top of the charts. By the 2010s, when the dividing line is grayer than ever, you have nominally underground producers like Madlib exerting a huge influence over everyone, whether they're performing on a 404 at a beat night or producing for pop superstars.

Ras G, the late beatmaker known for dubby, grimy, neck-breaking beats (courtesy of a 404), is a figure that still looms large in today's beat scene and in the pages of Fintoni's book. It's not only dedicated to him ("For Gregory 'Ras G' Porter, Airhorn!!") but ends with a personal coda to him, where Fintoni remembers the various bass-heavy sets of Ras' he heard, the times they met and talked about beats, and the special wisdom Ras imparted.

But while Ras had a singular spirit, he wasn't alone in his practice. I asked Fintoni about this disappearing line between underground and mainstream beatmaking, and how nominally underground artists like Ras G and chart-toppers like Kenny Beats fall into it now.

"To use your examples, someone like Ras G on one side and Kenny Beats on the other, who are essentially two manifestations of the same base idea—one practices in what could be considered a more traditionally 'underground'/independent way and the other in a more industry way, but really they're just different sides of the same coin, the tools are similar, the approaches are similar, and the influences/inspirations are likely similar. Or to use the example of Dilla and Madlib, they continue to exert an audible influence on what we might consider the mainstream today."

It all points back to the central thesis of Fintoni's book, that all the various strands of beat-driven music—whether dance, pop, or hip-hop-oriented—are part of one global beat culture.

"Beats generate their own cultural velocity and their pace always outruns the capabilities of language, leaving us with a string of words that tend to confine what is possible," he writes near the end of the book. "Beats don't discriminate, they don't need a category."

Instead, he sees them as rhizomes, sampling the term from French philosophers Deleuze and Guattari, as "reducible neither to the One nor the multiple." It's a way of listening that holds noise and electro, Hudson Mohawke and The Roots, and even the rhythm-forward jazz of Kamasi Washington and Makaya McCraven as all part of the same continually renewing genre. And by the end of the book, you might just hear it that way too.

Bedroom Beats & B-Sides is out on Velocity Press now.

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