The code of the beat.

Beatmaking as Learned Through Soul Music


Referencing Parent Music Tradition for Guidance


Beatmakers draw inspiration from a variety of music forms and sources. And it should probably go without saying that each of those sources has both a direct and indirect influence on the way in which a beatmaker constructs their beats. So here, I want to discuss why and how certain music forms outside of hip hop/rap—in this case soul—can be studied.

Hip hop/rap music shares a rather strong kinship with soul music, in particular, early funk. Of course, with much of the soulful-less hip hop/rap music that permeates (some might say pollutes) the so-called “mainstream” air- and web-waves, it’s hard to see the familial relationship between hip hop/rap and soul music. But the truth is, there is a deep, fundamental and undeniable connection between hip hop/rap and soul music.

For starters, the most basic drum clichés in beatmaking are actually either direct duplicates or simple modifications of drum patterns laid down in soul songs. Furthermore, the repetitive groove structures that characterize all soul songs (ca. 1965-75) are the same structures that underscore the most fundamental arrangements in beatmaking. For these reasons (and many others I will hopefully discuss in the future), I believe that it’s important for beatmakers (especially those who want an extra arrangement edge) to study soul music as much, if not more, as they study hip hop/rap.

When it comes to studying soul music, especially as it relates to beatmaking, the first area I recommending studying is the drum arrangement, or what I often like to refer to in The BeatTips Manual as “drum frameworks.” In nearly every soul song (ca. 1965-75) that I’ve studied, the drum frameworks dictate the manner in which the groove moves. In hip hop/rap music, it is often said that the drums are “out in front.” But what does that really mean? Well, as it turns out, it depends on who you’re talking to. For some, the phrase is used to refer to the level or rather volume of the drums in the mix. Still, for others, the phrase, “out in front,” refers to the dominant role that drums often play in a typical beat. Although both “out in front” references are accurate, they are often rather misleading.

The way I like to look at it is the same way that I look at drum frameworks in soul songs. In soul music, the drums (even in heavily syncopated arrangements) are usually “tucked”—pulled back in the mix—to some degree. So for me, drum frameworks are much less about being merely “out in front,” and more about being right in the pocket. What I mean to say is, drums are still a part—albeit a major part—of the rhythm, and as such, drums set the timing and space for the groove. Drums are not, however, solely responsible for shaping the groove. Instead, the groove is shaped by a combination of elements, including the drums, and more prominently, the bass and rhythm guitars and the piano.

Thus, when studying soul music as it relates to hip hop/rap, the next important thing to examine is the groove—how it’s made, how non-drum musical elements fit together, and how drum frameworks keep those elements together in the pocket.

Below I have included the song “Sexy Mama” by The Moments. Aside from being one of my favorite soul songs of all time (any genre), it also happens to be one of the songs that was most pivotal to my understanding of drum frameworks. Moreover, it’s an excellent soul song example for study.

The music and videos below are presented here for the purpose of scholarship.

“Sexy Mama” by The Moments

Articles, Beatmaking Themes, Theories, and Concepts, BeatTips, Editor's Choice, MusicStudy

About Author

Amir Said (aka Sa’id) is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of BeatTips. A writer, publisher, and beatmaker/rapper from New York, Said is the author of a number of books, including ‘The BeatTips Manual,’ ‘The Art of Sampling,’ ‘Ghetto Brother,’ and ‘The Truth About New York.’ He is also a recording artist with a number of music projects, including his latest album 'The Best of Times.' Follow him on Twitter at: @amirsaid and @BeatTipsManual

  • i the t

    yes Said..
    interesting post…
    when you say “ALL soul ca 1965-75 is characterised by repetitive groove structure”, though, I’m a bit unclear.
    My perception of a track being based on a “repetitive groove structure” implies it is a one or 2 bar vamp being sat on/rotated around for the mainstay of the piece as opposed to a piece with changing chord progression / forward moving harmonic movement based around/returning to the tonic.
    there are however, countless soul songs during the stated period that feature changing chord progressions in trad song form (drifters, spinners, four tops, motown, supremes, stevie, etc) that do not appear to conform to the repetitive groove structure you speak of…
    can you clarify please ?

  • Hey, Ivan, thanks for the question.
    When I write “the repetitive groove structures that characterize all soul songs (ca. 1965-75),” my aim was only to demonstrate the strong use of repetition as well as the importance of finding—and sometimes keeping—a groove in soul music. (I should also mention that the use of repetition is not limited to 1 or 2 bars.) As you know, the use of repetition is a fundamental characteristic of all Black American music. That being said, I certainly did not say or attempt to imply that changing chord progressions were not a feature of soul music (ca. 1965-75). Of course chord changing progressions were in play in lots (most) of the tunes of that era, specifically among the recording artists that you cite. Still, among those same artists that you mention, repetitive grooves (i.e. to say, grooves repeated/returned to at various points in a song) were also very much in play.
    In this piece, I was primarily focused on the repetitive groove component (that routinely shows up in the music of the aforementioned era) as a source for study in beatmaking. A discussion of chord progression (or even melody) is a different matter, one that I purposely did not take up with this piece. If you’re interested in contributing an article on the use of chord progression (or melody) in soul music (ca. 1965-75), that what be very appreciated. I think your perspective here would be valuable. Let me know.
    Thank you,