The code of the beat.

BeatTips MusicStudy: Talking Heads – “Once In A Lifetime;” Rhythms In Motion


Brian Eno’s Rhythmic Genius—by way of Fela Kuti— Produces Talking Heads’ Most Enigmatic Song


When I first heard the Talking Heads classic “Once In A Lifetime,” I immediately knew that it would have a profound effect on me musically (and culturally). Although I’d had some minimal familiarity with African multiple rhythm styles, I hadn’t yet gotten into Fela Kuti, the towering Nigerian figure and creator of afrobeat. So hearing “Once In A Lifetime” was like being smacked with five walls of rhythm, all at once. In fact, it wasn’t until I went back and really studied “Once In A Lifetime,” did I began to figure out how to incorporate the concept (and sensibility) of multiple rhythm structures into my style and sound of beatmaking.

Just the use of the tom tom drum alone was a musical shock to my system. But on “Once In A Lifetime,” it doesn’t stop there. There’s the clapping, hiccuping and skipping snare drum. There’s the cowbell and triangle, both moving independently in their own space, seemingly away from the base drum structure. There’s the simple up/down 3-note, rippling bass line. There’s the shuffling, not quite wah wah rhythm guitar. And then finally of course, there’s Brian Eno’s waterworld ambiance touch, streaming throughout the song like a music sync for flashback scenes in a science fiction movie.

Finally, I should add that as far as “gateway music” goes, “Once In A Lifetime” (as well as other Talking Heads songs) opened up a plethora of musical directions for me to explore. And the fact that Talking Heads leader David Byrne was one of the early supporters of hip hop/rap music truly confirms for me how similar musical influences most often rotate in the same circles.

The music and video below is presented here for the purpose of scholarship.

Talking Heads – “Once In A Lifetime”

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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 always love the MusicStudy’s you put up… alwayss fresh! While traveling through South America I had one book keeping me company, BeatTips Manual, and it has made me a better producer. The main difference was I started thinking differently about hip-hop and its sound from the past, the present, and the future. When I came back to the US and started working again I began to make the best beats of my life! Thank you and keep up the good work!
    One of my tracks:

  • Kwest,
    Thanks for your comment.
    I really appreciate your kind words. To know that you traveled through South America with The BeatTips Manual is among the best feedback I could ever receive. Thank you!!!
    Also, I’m glad that you’re making better beats than ever before. To help people make better beats (music) is very much one of my goals with The BeatTips Manual. But you also zoomed in on another one of my goals: to help people to start thinking differently about hip hop/rap music, to see it with the sophistication that it really deserves.
    P.S., MusicStudy is my favorite article type to right… And you just gave me added motivation to put up even more.
    Thank you,