Beatmaking Tradition Prioritizes Creativity Through Challenge, Not Ease; “In-the-Box” Music Process Often Disconnects
|By Amir Said (Sa’id)|
Earlier this year, when Digidesign (Avid) announced the release of their newly updated Pro Tools Expansion Pack, the “in-the-box” music-creation process seemingly got a booster shot in the arm. To Digidesign’s credit, the Pro Tools DAW stands today as the industry standard in the realm of recording music. However, Pro Tools has not been the go-to program for music creation, especially in the case of beatmaking. On the contrary, when it comes to beatmaking, the DAWs that enjoy a premium of support over Pro Tools include Ableton Live, Cubase, and Logic. Thus, it wasn’t long before Digidesign (Avid) recognized (rightfully so) that they could further expand and solidify their brand dominance in the DAW spectrum by getting into the virtual instruments game.
Through their partnership with the Advanced Instrument Research group (A.I.R.), Digidesign (Avid) has developed an impressive suite of virtual instruments and tools. In fact, Digidesign says that “having a team within Digidesign dedicated to developing best-of-breed virtual instruments could offer tremendous help and insight in guiding” their effort. In other words, Digidesign combined their in-house efforts with the expertise of an outside party—in this case, A.I.R.—to help them come up with a virtual instrument package that was second to none. But for me the issue isn’t about Digidesign’s (Avid’s) success or failure in the virtual instruments field, or its subsequent impact on the “in-the-box” music process. Instead, my concern is with the effects that making music “in-the-box” has had and could potentially have on the musical process and notions of music creativity, particularly as it relates to the beatmaking tradition of hip hop/rap music.
When beatmaking (hip hop production) first emerged in the early 1970s, it was not seen by many outside of the hip hop/rap tradition as a legitimate musical process.
And unfortunately, even today—in some circles—beatmaking’s (hip hop production’s) legitimacy as a means for composing music is questioned. But given the scope and impact of hip hop/rap music in the past 36 years, there can be no doubt as to whether or not beatmaking (hip hop production) is indeed a legitimate and complex musical process in its own right. That being said, recent developments in virtual instrument technology have been less about enhancing the musical process and more about merely making music composition easier.
The notion of reducing the musical process down to something that is just “easy” to do is a philosophy that I take—and have always taken—exception with. Contrary to what some gear and music software manufacturers may seem to want consumers to believe, beatmaking is and has been—in its fundamental form—about creativity through challenge, not creativity through ease. That is to so say, the beatmaking tradition of hip hop/rap music was built by beatmakers who valued the pains and joys of creativity, irrespective of how easy their gear allowed them to fully realize this creativity.
Until hip hop/rap music emerged—ushering in a new kind of musician: the “beatmaker”—turntables, DJ mixers, echo boxes, drum machines, and digital samplers were not considered to be “music instruments” at all. And with the advent of beat machine stalwarts like the Akai MPC, the E-Mu SP 1200, and the Ensoniq EPS-16 and ASR-10, beatmakers were able to produce traditional (and non-traditional) musical sounds by using non-traditional music instruments. But by the late 1990s, virtual instrument software programs began to emerge as a viable alternative to the often pricey hardware manifestations that had helped co-wrote hip hop/rap’s story for more than two decades.
As the 1990s folded into the 2000s, virtual instrument programs took substantial market share away from their hardware counterparts. But while the hardware stalwarts of the past two decades have seemed to be—in some significant degree—in tune with some important elements of the beatmaking tradition as well as focused on the way in which beatmakers actually make music, the virtual instrument programs have widely proven to be more about making the musical process simply easier, and less about truly establishing and preserving a link to the beatmaking tradition. And therein lies my concerns.
Is the creation of art—in this case, beatmaking and hip hop/rap music—suppose to be primarily a matter of ease? Shouldn’t the creation of hip hop/rap music be a matter of one’s own reflection, exploration, and attempted execution of both the musical ideas and elements firmly within the beatmaking and hip hop/rap traditions? Moreover, should the means to the realization of one’s musical creativity within the hip hop/rap music tradition be so “easy” that there is then a disconnect between the beatmaker and the hip hop/rap music tradition? That is to say, should the means of music creation outweigh the principles of music creativity? Principles of music creativity, I should add, that are well-established by a given music tradition? I certainly do not think so. But I fear that this sort of “microwave,” easy-made approach to and notion of music creation disconnects would-be makers of hip hop/rap music from the hip hop/rap music tradition itself.
And to be clear, my objection is not at all to virtual instrument programs, software music production tools, and/or to the process of making music “in-the-box.” For even if you use an Akai MPC (or any hardware instrument) you are using that machine’s software; therefore, to some degree, you are indeed technically making music “in-the-box.” My objection is to the emphasis on the “ease” at which the musical process can be achieved in any music form or tradition. The musical process for beatmaking, or any other music tradition, should never be pitched to the public as something that is “easy” to do, or as something that is merely “a download away.” The music compositional process of beatmaking is much more complex, varied, and just plain difficult to learn than virtual instrument programmers have—up until this point—cared to acknowledge or imply.
Finally, it should be noted that virtual instrument programmers have clearly, to some large degree, followed beatmaking’s lead. To Albeton’s credit, they at least acknowledge this link in their website’s information and marketing efforts. There, they go as far as having a section on the site entitled, “For Beat Creators;” indeed showing their respect for the beatmaking (hip hop production) tradition. Yet in their website’s info and marketing page for their new Pro Tools Expansion Pack, Digidesign (Avid) advises that: “Whether you like to rock, groove, swing, score, funk out, or jazz it up, the Pro Tools Instrument Expansion Pack gives you a massive sonic palette to get the sounds you’re after…” Noticeably missing from this page are the words “hip hop.”
So it would appear that through their use of the code words “groove” and “loops,” Digidesign (Avid) is barely even concerned with merely suggesting that their product has any connection with beatmaking or hip hop/rap music, or even that it’s suitable for beatmakers to use. For Digidesign to present their Expansion Pack as a tool that is for “rockers,” “swingers,” “funkers,” and “jazz makers,” while not at the same time openly and directly linking it—in even some small way—to beatmaking is a farce. But then again, what should you expect from Digidesign (Avid) when they say on their website’s Pro Tools Expansion Pack info/release page, “Supersize Your Sound with the New Pro Tools Instrument Expansion Pack.”
“Supersize your sound?” Wow…does Digidesign (Avid) think so highly of music creation and the musical process that they deem it necessary to borrow a slogan from fast food giant, McDonald’s? I seriously doubt that Digidesign believes that making music is as easy as making a Big Mac. But what troubles me is that there are people (far too many I care to admit) who approach beatmaking as if it is just that easy… I can assure you, it’s not.Articles, Beatmaking Themes, Theories, and Concepts, Editor's Choice, Editorials