When Hip-Hop Went Hi-Fi

Dr. Dre (2012). Photo by Karl Walter. Q-Tip (2009). Photo by Andrew H. Walker.Getty Images.

Although the sound quality in recorded rap music has often swung like a pendulum between high-end tracks cut in a professional setting and DIY-style bedroom productions, a pivotal moment at the dawn of the '90s saw a wave of producers turn the genre's gritty, hard-hitting sample-based beats into vibrant, well-recorded productions that lost none of their power while setting a new standard for sterling sound quality.

Hip-Hop's Early Productions

Before samplers were widely available and affordable, some of the most successful early rap records were recorded in more traditional studio setups. The Sugar Hill Records' house band Tackhead provided the grooves for "Rapper's Delight," "The Message," and "White Lines," while studio veteran Phil Austin, who worked with the likes of Rod Stewart and Muddy Waters, mastered The Sugar Hill Gang's 1979 smash "Rapper's Delight." Despite being recorded during the genre's infancy, these records sounded like the work of seasoned pros. But listening to the record's low-end today, the live-recorded acoustic drums and bass don't jump out of the speakers quite the same way drum machines and sampled breaks soon would.

When "Rapper's Delight" hit shelves, however, a proliferation of home stereos with cassette decks and an estimated 7.8 million boomboxes sold globally in 1980 led to an explosion in pause tape beats and DJ-style mixes. It was possible, albeit with great limitation, to sample without the astronomical cost of a Fairlight CMI and make a rough beat sans the expense of renting a studio and hiring musicians. As if to usher in the new era of pause button ingneuity, Afrika Islam created the classic bootleg party record "Fusion Beats Vol. 2" on a tape deck in his bedroom that same year.

With the price of actual samplers becoming increasingly affordable in subsequent years and the advent of cheap, limited, yet effective Casio SK-1 keyboard in 1985, sampling at low bit rates became commonplace in rap music during the 1980s.

Shortly after the advent of the SK-1, Public Enemy became an industry standard in gritty, dusted, and visionary sampling techniques—often preferring imperfect sounds over superior sampling technology.

This philosophy was prevalent on some of their biggest records. While remaking the pause tape demo of "Public Enemy No. 1" for their 1987 debut Yo! Bum Rush the Show, both Chuck D and Hank Shocklee were dissatisfied with the studio quality version. "Hank [Shocklee] and I considered it too clean," Chuck told Jeff "Chairman" Mao in a 2008 Red Bull Music Academy interview. "The breaks in the pause tape gave it that funkiness of feel and direction."

Public Enemy - "Rebel Without a Pause"

Shocklee found it similarly irksome to remake "Rebel Without A Pause" from It Takes A Nation To Hold Use Back with a 12-bit Akai S900 after making the original on an 8-bit Ensoniq Mirage keyboard, believing that the upgrade in technology lacked the same punch. The Bomb Squad's preference for grimy sonic elements would remain a constant throughout the making of Public Enemy's most successful albums in the late '80s and early '90s.

Around the time Chuck D used his pause button to loop Fred Wesley and the J.B.'s "Blow Your Head" for the demo of an enduring hip-hop classic, Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest started extending sampled loops with his father's record collection and his parent's cassette deck in the mid-1980s. It wasn't long, however, before these trial and error sessions quickly morphed into something much more rich and complex, and by age 16 he had rough versions of many beats that wound up on Tribe's critically acclaimed 1990 debut, People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm.

When his fellow Native Tongues crew members De La Soul started recording their 1989 debut 3 Feet High and Rising at Calliope Studios, Tip saw the studio sessions as a way to further his recording savvy beyond tape decks and four-tracks. "I'd just show up at Calliope with a bag of tapes, trying to figure out how to make them come alive," he said in Brain Coleman's book Check The Technique.

It was during these sessions that engineer Shane Faber showed Tip how to use the E-Mu SP-1200 and the Akai S950, two samplers that were frequently used in tandem to produce many classic rap records over the years

After drafting much of People's Instinctive Travels using the pause tape method, he recreated many of the beats with an E-Mu SP-12 and SP-1200 sampler—with each legendary machine sampling at a 12-bit rate.

From Pause Tapes to The Low End Theory

The pause tape aesthetic would not suffice when Tribe started working on The Low End Theory. Though the group used the 12-bit 1200 and S950 samplers to make the album's beats, pristine sound soon became much more of a focus.

Part of this change was due to Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Q-Tip's admiration for NWA's careful attention to detail and frenetic energy on Straight Outta Compton. As they studied Dr. Dre's groundbreaking production, Tip recalled being especially drawn to the use of hard-hitting low end throughout the album—a sound that was further enhanced by engineer Donovan Smith and mastering engineer "Big Bass Brian" Gardner. "What resonated was just that bottom, that bass and the drive of it," Tip told Jeff Chairman Mao in a 2013 Red Bull Music Academy interview.

Another factor in Tribe's transition from the beloved grit of their early production to a more polished aesthetic was the group's relationship to Bob Power, who served as a mixing engineer for the Tribe's first four albums and several other Native Tongues projects. Power used a Neve 8068 console to mix The Low End Theory and helped them achieve a level of crispness and clarity that was rarely found on rap records in 1991.

He stripped away fragments of sound that weren't central to the main sample during their studio sessions, even going as far as using a Burwyn Noise Eliminator and selected stereo components to take out the static and crackle from recorded vinyl snippets—background noises that were a frequently heard and often-appreciated textural component of sample-based rap production.

Many have praised Power for his outstanding feat of engineering, but he has been equally quick to cite Tribe's musical knowledge and elite sample stacking as critical components to the final version of The Low End Theory. "Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed were at the leading edge of a new wave where people started making elaborate musical constructions out of samples from different places that would not, and in many ways, could not, have been played by regular players," he told Carl Jacobson in a 2011 Electronic Musician interview.

"Jazz (We've Got)" / "Buggin' Out"

When The Low End Theory dropped, listeners took note of the impeccably mixed songs and the effortless balance of crisp textures and heavy bass. A teenaged Havoc from Mobb Deep, who would later produce the majority of the The Infamous album with some mentoring from Q-Tip, remembered being floored by the sound. "Whatever engineer they had, Bob Power, he acoustically murdered that album," he said in a 2011 XXL interview.

Dr. Dre, Colin Wolfe, 808 Thump, and the Making of The Chronic

The industry's elite producers were also wowed by Tribe's trendsetting LP. Just as Dr. Dre had inspired Tip and company to craft the beats on The Low End Theory, Dre later informed Tip that the album inspired him to make The Chronic—a project that would once again elevate what rap connoisseurs expected in terms of hi-fidelity sound.

Though Dre had collaborated with musicians like Colin Wolfe during NWA's Efil4zaggin sessions, he started pushing the fusion of live instrumentation and sampling even more while working with Wolfe on Jimmy Z's Muzical Madness—a forgotten and eclectic 1991 non-rap release from Ruthless that Dre produced in its entirety. By the time The Chronic recording sessions started at the SOLAR Records' studio the following year, Dre had coordinated an incredibly impressive ensemble to help bring his beats to unprecedented levels, including Colin Wolfe on bass and keys, Katisse Buckingham on flute and sax, and notable engineer/producers Greg (Gregski) Royal and Chris "The Glove" Taylor as engineers.

Building off of different people's unique talents, Dre gave extreme thought and care to each track in his quest for a perfect beat. To get all of the elements in each production exactly right, he sat behind a SSL 4052 E mixing desk—the same desk was used on Death Row-era classics like Doggystyle and All Eyez on Me—as well as projects by Pink Floyd, Pearl Jam, and Stone Temple Pilots.

On the classic "Nuthin' but a 'G' Thang," Wolfe credited Warren G for bringing in the Leon Haywood sample that served as the basis for the song. Meanwhile, Wolfe played the bassline and the synth live, while Dre came in with the right percussion to make the production truly sing. "Dre added an 808 to the kick to make it thump harder," Wolfe told Tony Best in a 2014 Wax Poetics interview.

Dr. Dre - "Nuthin' But a G Thang" (feat. Snoop Dogg)

Though fair credits and the exact attribution of who produced what on The Chronic have been a long-disputed issues, Dre's tireless efforts to achieve the perfect final mix cannot be denied. In the years since the release of the album, Chris "The Glove" Taylor has credited Dre for his studio proficiency. "The credits say, 'mixed by Chris Taylor,' but I admit that he mixed more of that album than I did," Taylor said in a 2012 AllHipHop.com interview. "He sat in front of those boards."

The importance of Dre's willingness to spend countless hours in front of those boards cannot be overstated, as the album now remains an industry standard of perfectly produced, mixed, and mastered rap production—even though it came out nearly three decades ago. "The Chronic is still the hip-hop equivalent to Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life," Kanye West wrote in a 2005 article for Rolling Stone. "It's the benchmark you measure your album against if you're serious."

A $30,000 Budget and the Mixing of Quik Is The Name

Dre's west coast peer DJ Quik also deserves credit for bringing increased focus to hi-fidelity sound during the early '90s. On his 1991 debut Quik Is The Name, the multi-talented MC and producer employed a variety of elements to get optimal clarity in his beats.

In its first iteration, however, the album had more in common with Tribe's early pause tape demos than The Chronic. "I recorded it on a Tascam four-track," Quik told Keith Murphy in a 2011 Vibe interview. "I did all the over-dubs, all the blending, and mixed it down on one of those Maxwell metal tapes they used to sell."

When Profile records caught wind of the album, however, a bidding war ensued that ended with them signing Quik and giving him $30,000 to mix the album in a professional setting. As the album was mixed again, Quik played beats out of the SP-1200 and redid cuts on the turntables live in the studio. He also employed the legendary behind the scenes talents of Stan "The Guitar Man" Jones on bass and guitar to add some extra low end to his beats.

DJ Quik - "Born and Raised In Compton"

Quik's The Name received an additional sonic shot in the arm from the mastering services of Howie Weinberg, whose credits include Thin Lizzy, Rush, Rod Stewart, and countless others. This careful attention to all facets of album creation has been a constant throughout Quik's career, as he also brought Straight Outta Compton mastering engineer "Big Bass Brian" Gardner into the fold for his 2011 critical success The Book of David.

Though Quik recorded the first version of his platinum debut on a four-track, he later emphasized the importance of working in professional studios, even pointing out the benefits of studio power sources vs. consumer sources. "In real recording studios, they condition their power so the power is clean," he said in a 2005 Scratch interview. "You don't get spikes or fluctuations that cause anomalies in your equipment, which end up affecting your sound."

Quik also cited the "boxy" sound one achieves in home recording that led to his preference for an actual studio. "There are no parallel walls in a studio," he told Scratch. "The shape of the room has to do with everything that you hear."

The Lasting Influence of Hi-Fi Masterpieces

Though skilled live musicians, accomplished recording, mixing, and mastering engineers, and professional studios were not new to rap music in the early 90s, these elements certainly played a pivotal role in the creation of engineering and production masterpieces like The Low End Theory, The Chronic, and Quik's The Name. These albums ushered in a new decade for the genre while setting a high bar of sound quality that influenced the next generation of producers like Havoc and Kanye West.

It's easy to simplify what goes into mixing, mastering, and producing a rap record, but the process is much more complex than most people realize. Q-Tip and A Tribe Called Quest, Dr. Dre, and DJ Quik, were able to incorporate the raw sonics of low bit sampling into their definitive masterworks while polishing each production to give them a timeless quality—one that continues to influence and inspire today.


About the author: Gino Sorcinelli is the writer, creator, and editor of Micro-Chop, a Medium publication and Substack newsletter that dissects beatmaking, DJing, music production, rapping, and sampling. He is also responsible for The Micro-Chop Daily X, a 10-beat playlist posted daily on the Micro-Chop Twitter feed. His articles have appeared on Ableton, HipHopDX, Okayplayer, Passion of the Weiss, and Red Bull Music Academy.

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