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Beatmaking and Beating the Clock: How Long Does It Take?

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How Long It Takes to Develop Strong Beatmaking Skills Depends On a Number of Key Factors

By AMIR SAID (SA’ID)

The know-how, that took about six months. But the knowledge, the understanding, and the ability to apply that knowledge and understanding into my beatworks? Well, that took about six years!

For me, it was when I first understood the drums. That’s when I realized that I actually knew what I was doing. Even from the beginning, my aim was never to be “good” at beatmaking, because I’ve learned that no matter what you do, there will be critics on both sides: those who like your beats and those who do not.

This philosophical approach enabled me to develop a realistic level of self-criticism. Though I concede that it took a total of six years for me to really “get it,” the fact is, five of those years were pretty much a haze of confusion and misfires. By not establishing a commitment to a serious level of self-criticism, right from the start, I lacked direction and focus. I was more concerned with just coppin’ some gear, and making some beats—much like how many of today’s new beatmakers are. Now, that alone isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I mean, it’s normal to want to get into making beats, inhale all the knowledge (as fast as possible), then manifest it in the form of your own unique production. But without any real direction to pursue, my focus was challenged, right from the beginning…and I didn’t even know it.

To achieve a respectable understanding of beatmaking (or any skilled artisan’s trade, for that matter), you have to find a direction to pursue, right from the start. It’s cool to be over zealous about beatmaking, to want to immediately crack the codes or so-called “secrets” of it. But the biggest hazard of this approach is that you run the risk of wanting to simply “beat the clock.” That is, you develop the desire to rapidly gather the know-how and the expertise of making beats, without securing the understanding of it. Now dig it, I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with wanting to beat the clock. In some cases, I encourage that approach; hip hop/rap production is a fast medium, with a lot of new music turning up regularly. However, another reality about beatmaking (hip hop/rap production) is that it carries nuances that are, at certain times, either blunt or subtle. For instance, it’s very well known that hip hop/rap production tends to feature tight drum programming. But it’s lesser known what it takes to make drum programs cook and swing. Does this sort of thing mean that it takes you six years to gain a good understanding of making beats? No, not necessarily. But perhaps a better question to ask is: How soon can a solid understanding of beatmaking be achieved?

Given the right information and knowledge as well as a commitment to a vigorous practice regiment, I believe that a respectable understanding of beatmaking (hip hop/rap production) can be achieved within as little as six months. It took me six years overall, but like I said, it was one year in particular where everything finally “clicked,” and my understanding elevated. Given all my experiences and considering everything that I know now, it would have taken me just about six months to get that respectable level of understanding, had I found the right information and direction early on.

One of the biggest disadvantages for me when I first began making beats was the fact that I failed to realize, or even dareed to consider, how much understanding that making hip hop/rap beats actually required. Moreover, I never consciously set a clock to beat. What I mean is, I never established a set time-frame or a goal for how long I realistically expected it to take me to truly understand the beatmaking process and/or how grand the beatmaking tradition is. I believed, foolishly, that if I somehow simply learned the basics of sampling, chopping, and drum programming, I would eventually figure everything else out and naturally get better. Wrong!

In beatmaking, there is no guaranteed “natural development.” Like most art forms, beatmaking is what I like to call a “parallel medium.” Just as two parallel lines will run their course and ultimately never meet, there are certain beatmaking and hip hop/rap culture nuances that will never be understood simply through some arbitrary measurement of time. It’s not a matter of “time”, it’s about what you do with that time! That is to say, no matter how long you go at it, there are certain things you may never understand about beatmaking and hip hop/rap culture, until or unless you’re pointed in the direction of those details and nuances. (Sometimes we point ourselves to these details and nuances, through trial and error, by seeking out more knowledgeable beatmakers, and/or but reading whatever we can find.)

Beatmaking is not a medium in which your skill and understanding “automatically” elevates after some period of time. Sure, some of the fundamental steps in beatmaking are not too difficult to learn. But gaining a real grasp (or mastery) of these steps isn’t just a simple matter of practice and time. Though I concede that practice is a major factor—indeed it’s one of the most important components of developing a respectable production level—, it does not arbitrarily guarantee that you will ever master any skill. To win the game on Sunday, you still have to play and execute on Sunday, despite the fact that you practiced all-week long. Likewise, for practice to be effective, you have to know what to practice. By knowing what to practice, you learn how to practice, and this, in turn, will ultimately help you increase your understanding of the the beatmaking and hip hop/rap music traditions.

Thus, in order for a beatmaker to manipulate the parallels, so to speak, and to get on, let’s say, the “six-month clock,” they must somehow obtain instructions that will lead them in the right direction. Most beatmakers began with some level of direction. That is, their interest in beatmaking is bolstered by their admiration of another beatmaker’s style of music. But the interesting thing is that for most beatmakers, the directional planning stops there. For instance, many new beatmakers have consciously and subconsciously echoed their interest in learning how to make beats like their favorite beatmakers. But ironically, they set off to learn any and everything that they can from “anyone” willing to impart their knowledge about making beats. Writing The BeatTips Manual, I’ve always pledged to access as much insight about beats as I possibly could, from any and everyone that I could. But that being said, I have always done so within a directional context. What I mean is, my aim has always been to access that kind of insight that is underscored by a true appreciation and understanding of the beatmaking and hip hop/rap music traditions. In that same vein, I’ve always sidestepped accessing the tech-heavy (heartless, feeling-less), less music-centric kind of insight that’s underscored more by a cold, algorithm-style and approach to making beats.

Beatmaking requires that you learn the standard methods and procedures; there’s no getting around that. But learning how to master those standards and procedures, learning how and when to effectively apply (or substitute) them, is the ultimate goal. The bottom line is that you may not be able to know “everything” that there is to know about making beats, but you can indeed learn everything that you need to know within the beatmaking (musical) direction that you decide to choose. Knowing the standard ingredients and accurate portions for the meals that you want to cook is perhaps the best analogy that I can offer here.

So How Long Does It Take? Well, that depends on a number of factors. For instance, determining which direction to follow, or rather which direction is right for you, is perhaps the most important factor. And having a commitment to a realistic practice regiment also plays a major role in determining how long it takes a beatmaker to “get it.” And then there are the “fundamentals” to also consider; for example, what production setup do you have? What production style and sound do you favor? What’s your personal work ethic? And more things like that.

I think the zeal to learn something quickly inspires all beatmakers. However, fully grasping the various methods, principles, concepts, and nuances of beatmaking is all together a more intense issue. So even though I may endorse the “possibility” of someone gaining a solid understanding of some key components of beatmaking within a six-month window (roughly), I also recognize the probability that this will not likely be the case for most. Still, with the right know-how and commitment, anybody has a chance to beat the clock.


The BeatTips Manual by Sa’id.
“The most trusted source for information on beatmaking and hip hop/rap music education.”

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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 the albums 'Soul Review' and 'The Best of Times.' Follow him on Twitter at: @amirsaid and @BeatTipsManual