Where Modular Synths and Hip-Hop Meet

Hip-hop music—with its historical emphasis on reshaping and recontextualizing sound through sampling, synthesis, and signal processing—would seem like a natural home for modular experimentation if it weren’t for a wealth of socioeconomic impediments that keep producers from starting down the road to building their own systems.

When Clive “DJ Kool Herc” Campbell began to use two turntables, a mixer and two identical copies of a record to isolate and repeat the drum breaks from funk and rock records in the early 1970s, he helped set a precedent that defines hip-hop to this day. To put it simply, it's a culture that encourages the use of technology in ways that run counter to their original purpose. In the hands of the hip-hop generation, turntables, drum machines and digital samplers are used to create new, complex musical compositions. Now, nearly 50 years removed from Herc’s initial landmark experiment, this practice of repurposing and recontextualizing is still a core characteristic of the music and the culture that produces it.

Back in 2015, I randomly came across the then-infamous, now-mostly forgotten Tumblr page titled “eurorackdudeswithbeards”. Scrolling through the page, I was met with images of serious-looking white male musicians and their expensive modular synth rigs. That Tumblr no longer exists, but the stereotype of modular synthesis as a primarily white male pursuit remains intact.

In addition to this racialized and gendered stereotype, modular synthesis has also been limited to genres like minimal techno and ambient in the popular imagination. There are also financial considerations to be made when one considers entering into the modular world. While there are a wealth of inexpensive modules on the market like Mutable Instruments Plaits and the Make Noise Mimeophon, building a system capable of the complex sound design and performance capabilities can be expensive, a reality that keeps many aspiring musicians from getting into modular synthesis.

While it goes without saying that anyone can use modular synths to compose and perform any style of music that they choose, it would be disingenuous to assert that there are no barriers—or deterrents—that keep non-white musicians from exploring the joys and challenges of modular synthesis.

This 2022 live set from Miss Tahloulah May sees the producer working with modules like the Winter Modular Eloquencer, Intellijel's Metropolis, and Black Corporation's Deckard's Voice.


Like many hip-hop producers, Amsterdam-based beatmaker and synthesist Miss Tahloulah May got her start making beats in a DAW. Frustrated with the limitations of computer-based composition, she dove head first into DAWless production, spending years making beats on hardware samplers and playing multiple instruments.

May made the leap from DAW through hardware samplers and eventually created her own modular system. “I started to come loose from DAWs and started to just do it the old school way with samplers and no computers, one take. So, I gradually started to do the synthesizer stuff and I didn’t like playing keys, but I liked the sound. So then I looked into modular and I actually didn’t want to start because I thought it was too scary and that I’d never get the hang of it."

Much like Tahloulah May, Chicago-born/Los Angeles-based producer, and designer, Corry Banks spent years making beats on hardware samplers like the Akai MPC 2000XL as well as the Korg Triton workstation and the E-mu Systems Mo'Phatt. Eventually, Banks’ curiosity led him into the world of modular synthesis and design. “It was around 2015 when I first got my hands on something modular and my mind’s been blown ever since.” Banks says. “It don’t seem that long ago but things move fast when you’re going down this rabbit hole.”

Like many musicians, Banks found that modular synthesis opened up a new realm of sound-shaping possibilities. Recalling his early experiments with the format, Banks explains how modular allowed him to create new and exciting music that sounded like nothing else while tapping into the unique character of these instruments. “When I got into modular, my brain exploded because now I could go even deeper into creating sounds and allow synthesis to be synthesis. Because early on a lot of people would try to get on a synth and make it sound like some instrument. And that's fine. But for me, I like the way a synth sounds as a synth. Every synth has its own character.”


JWords is a Jersey-based producer who has carved out a unique stylistic space for herself combining hip-hop and dance music rhythms and textures. Like many producers, JWords started working with non-modular instruments. Around 2017, her work with a Teenage Engineering Pocket Operator introduced her to a new way of thinking about gear.

“I was already producing and I had the SP(404?) and a Roland synth and other types of gear.” JWords explains. “I bought a Pocket Operator and discovered a whole new world of music gear that was like a smaller, build it yourself kinda vibe.”

Today, JWords’ setup incorporates both non-modular gear and modular instruments like the Make Noise Morphangene Module, Intellijel Plonk, Mannequins Just Friends, and more. JWords believes that building modular synths offers a unique challenge for musicians seeking to find their own path in sound.

“When you buy a synthesizer, everything’s already built in. When you start your own eurorack, it’s basically your own synthesizer but you have to buy each piece, an oscillator, a filter, an envelope, a VCA, you have to buy everything separately and you have to find your own style.”

After consulting with her friend and master synthesist, King Britt, Tahloulah May began to seek out her initial modular pieces like the semi-modular Moog Grandmother as well as the Moog Sound Studio 3 Mother-32. Today, May’s modular system is robust. She uses instruments like Winter Modular’s Eloquencer and Making Sound Machines Stolperbeats for drums, as well as Intellijel’s Metropolix for melodic sounds, bass, and textures.

May has employed these instruments to create quirky, colorful beats on albums like 2021’s Cute But Psycho and the dreamy ambient soundscapes of 2022 her projects Wired, Mind Set, and Equiliibrium. In addition to her recorded output, May also uses a variety of modular instruments to perform live sets. “I use 6U Rackbrute cases by Arturia. I use those because of their ability to travel safely with a patched system. That’s important for performing live.”


After coining the phrase “Modbap” (Modular + Boombap), Corry Banks took his passion for synthesis a step further beyond the music-making process. In 2020 Banks founded Modbap Modular, a eurorack modular synthesis, and electronic musical instrument manufacturer. To date, Modbap Modular has designed and introduced a handful of exciting instruments to the market. Modbap’s first instrument, Per4mer offers 4 performance effects (delay, reverb, glitch, tape stop) and 2 processing effects (a color processor & compressor).

According to Banks, Per4mer was created to give artists a modular option for exploring the kind of effects-heavy live sets commonly executed with samplers like the Roland SP-404. In addition to Per4mer, Modbap Modular has introduced several modular instruments to the market, including the Osiris wavetable oscillator, and Trinity, a powerful 3-channel drum synthesizer.

With the creation of these new instruments and the increased popularity of modular gear and techniques among hip-hop producers, a small but fierce community has developed, pointing toward an exciting future for modular hip-hop music.

DJ, Electronic Artist, and Associate Editor with Reverb, Fess Grandiose is a longtime modular synth builder from Chicago. Using a combination of modules from different brands, including Modbap instruments like the Osiris. A prolific musician on stage and in the studio, Fess explains how modular synthesis allowed him tap into a fluid, improvisational approach to performing live sets.

“As a live performer, an electronic music performer, this is my instrument, you know? A big motivating factor is being able to add a source of expression to my beat sets. I now use my Eurorack rig as a way to recreate basslines on beats that I already did and also just have a source for improvisational leads. Around late 2019 and then all throughout the pandemic, I was doing all these virtual sets. During that time is when I really became comfortable performing with this live setup because I really got to the point where I could sort of dial in a lead arpeggio or a baseline with whatever beat that I'm playing at the time, the same way that I would like mix in the next track (like a DJ transitioning from song to song).”

Reverb's own Fess Grandiose walks us through the Modbap Osiris.

In 2016, Fess Grandiose founded Open Beats, a popular monthly “open mic” on the last Friday of every month where producers can come and sign up to perform live beat sets. Originally hosted at Cafe Mustache in Chicago's Logan Square neighborhood. Today, Open Beats has been going strong for six years, outgrowing Cafe Mustache and moving on to Dorian’s in Wicker Park. He elaborates on the musical innovation and community fostered during these events.

“It’s growing to this brand basically. I didn't really anticipate it lasting for six years and people expecting it to happen every month. I can really only thank the beat community, the electronic music community of Chicago for allowing it to continue on. There are many nights that I go anticipating to play, but so many artists show up that I don't even really get to play that night.”

While this movement of artists using modular synthesis to create hip-hop music is small compared to the scores of beatmakers using DAWs and non-modular drum machines, and samplers, a community has been forged around these quirky, complex instruments.

With these producers and exciting institutions like producer/educator Aaron Guice’s Afrorack organization teaching modular synthesis to children and young adults of color, there are some intriguing possibilities for the future of modular. In 2019, Banks took part in a Synthplex panel discussion on modular hip-hop with Josh Story and fellow modular producers Shiro Fujioka (aka voltagectrlr) and Guice.

Speaking on this emerging wave of modular musicians, Banks poignantly sums up the hip-hop generation’s distinctive approach to technology: “The thing about hip-hop is that we use everything that was not made for us.”

comments powered by Disqus

Reverb Gives

Your purchases help youth music programs get the gear they need to make music.

Carbon-Offset Shipping

Your purchases also help protect forests, including trees traditionally used to make instruments.

Oops, looks like you forgot something. Please check the fields highlighted in red.