Are you looking to learn how to make beats or just take your production one step further? Then you’re in the right place!
Hip-hop still stands tall as one of the most exciting genres of music today.
Rappers like Migos, Drake, Kanye West, and Travis Scott are always innovating and pushing this genre to the next level.
However, behind these successful rappers, there’s also a mastermind producing the beats they rhyme to.
We are talking about legends like Metro Boomin, Mike WiLL Made-It, Sonny Digital, and Lex Luger. These are the producers that are pushing the envelope and experimenting with new ways to make modern hip-hop diverse and unique.
And while these beats might sound simple and easy to make, they take years to master.
So to help you understand what it takes to produce a beat like these world-class producers, we put together a list of 11 essential tips to make hip-hop.
Let’s jump into these tips that will get you started on your next hip-hop track!
1. Pick The Right Samples
A bumping hip-hop beat always starts with a strong foundation of samples.
The right samples will give your beat the character and flair people are looking for and will help you sound like a pro.
Luckily for you, it’s now easier than ever to find good quality samples!
In fact, we recently put out our Essentials Hip Hop Samples V.1 soundbank on Academy.fm.
It’s filled to the rim with high-quality samples that help producers make better beats faster than ever before.
And the cool part is, you can get access to this soundbank and others like it for free right now by clicking here.
Or you can search the web for other samples! You just need a high-quality sample pack that includes snappy, punchy drums, heavy 808s, sizzling hi-hat samples, and unique musical samples to lay the foundation of a melody.
And the thing is, you don’t necessarily have to look for hip-hop specific packs. The chances are that if you borrow elements from other genres, you’ll be able to create a more unique and personal sound.
For example, trap drums also work great in hip-hop productions. They share some of the same characteristics when it comes to heavy kicks, punchy snares, and deep 808s.
2. Get Your Kick and Bass Relationship Right
Another vital element in hip-hop is the relationship between the kick and the bass (or 808).
Without the proper treatment, these two elements would bleed into each other and result in a sloppy mix.
So, to properly mix these two fundamental elements, you need to learn how to sidechain them flawlessly, so they each have their own space.
Thankfully, we have asked our experienced producers to reveal their secrets on this matter!
And they’ve made a free tutorial on our YouTube channel that goes through the basics of Sidechain Compression (starting at 40:14).
You can apply this technique to any DAW with most of your stock plug-ins.
In addition to the tutorial, we’ve laid out the necessary steps for you to follow to properly sidechain:
- Apply your stock compressor to the bass track (make sure that whatever compressor you apply has a sidechain feature)
- Select the kick track as your sidechain input. This means that whenever the kick hits, it will trigger the compressor to duck the volume of the bass track, leaving room for the kick to come through
- Make sure you have a very fast attack setting, adjust the release to taste depending on the length of your kick, a 2-4 ratio, and adjust the threshold until you hear the kick blending in nicely with the bass
We recommend picking a short and snappy kick if you have a strong sub bass. If you have a long kick with lots of low frequencies, it will interfere with the ones of your bass track, as well as making it very hard so sidechain.
3. Hi-Hats Are The Secret Sauce
Modern hip-hop relies heavily on hi-hats to create the grove of the track. Just listen to the rhythm of the hats on this beat and the flow it generates.
It makes you want to bob your head to the beat, right? Hi-hats can either make or break the track.
In modern hip-hop, it’s commonplace to find a 16th note pattern for the hi-hats, while the open hats are placed in the offbeat. The groove is achieved by the switch-ups from the basic pattern to 32nd or 8th note sections.
Triplets are also very effective in hip-hop, but we will cover this separately in another section.
Creating the right groove is not easy though. On top of finding an ideal pattern, you need to give them a human feel. This can be tricky when constantly drawing them in your DAW.
Check out these savvy tips to help you humanize your drums!
4. Saturate your 808s
The secret to a fat sounding bass is saturation.
You want your 808 bass to carry a heavy low-end and also be felt through your laptop speakers. You can achieve this by applying different saturation techniques.
But before we get into that, the first step is to make sure you know how to create an 808 from scratch. If you don’t know how you should check out this free “Making 808s 101” tutorial on YouTube.
Since 808s are often generated from a sine wave, which is very low in frequency, you will not be able to hear it on most smaller systems and speakers, like your computer or phone.
This is when saturation comes into play.
Saturation is the process of distorting and adding harmonics, so it becomes audible on most speakers. Without saturation, your sub bass will sound weak and won’t generate enough energy on your track.
There’s a lot of plugins out there that will make your 808s sound fat. Here are some of our favorites:
- Ableton Saturator/Logic Overdrive: your standard DAW saturators. Don’t underestimate their power!
- Fielding DSP – Reviver: For just 29 USD, this plugin is incredibly powerful to generate harmonic distortion and give your bass that extra weight and power to cut through your speakers
- AudioDamage FuzzPlus3: A free plugin to experiment with dirtier types of distortion
- Softube Saturation Knob: A one-knob wonder. It’s simple but effective!
We recommend inserting these on a return channel and send the original signal through it. This way, the original signal and low-end weight remain intact. Then, you can blend in the saturated signal with the original to taste.
Pro Tip: if you’re an Ableton user, a great option for a powerful 808 is the Hip-Hop Sub Bass preset on Operator, paired with the “Kick Tight” preset on Corpus. Give it a shot!
5. Keep It Simple
Hip-hop producers often get criticized for the simplicity of their beats. However, if you overcomplicate them, this makes the genre trickier to produce.
Not to mention, some of these beats need to be stripped down to the bare minimum to leave enough space for the vocal track of the rapper. This is because vocals need to be the center of attention of the song.
So, you should instead focus on making something simple and minimal sound great.
You don’t want many complex changes in melodies, percussions, or other fancy effects, as they would interfere with the rapper’s lyrics.
You want to give the artist freedom to write lyrics and melodies over the beat as soon as they feel the flow and groove of the beat.
It may take years to master this skill, since the secret to a quality hip-hop beat lies in the tiny details and masterful writing.
To start, just try to produce a beat with simple drums, one or two main musical elements, and a solid bassline.
By listening to some of the most famous hip-hop hits, you’ll notice that they usually have a few distinct elements that make up the core of the track.
In Future’s “Mask Off,” Metro Boomin built the beat around a carefully selected sample, which carries the flow of the beat throughout the track. The drum line is very simple but effective. This leaves room for the vocal and the sample melody to shine through.
6. Reference Other Tracks
There’s so much you can learn by just listening to other producers’ tracks.
It’s an efficient way to learn how to pick up which techniques they use, what makes their track unique, and how they use certain elements in their productions.
Learning how to dissect a track is extremely useful when you don’t know how to start a new beat. It also helps you to be sure that the structure of the next track you’re starting follows a certain scheme.
Just take a look at how Connor O’Brien of EDMprod, analyzes and breaks down Mura Masa’s “Lovesick.”
Learning how to arrange and write a track is not easy and dissecting tracks this way is a time-intensive exercise. However, it’s very effective in the long run, as you’ll remember exactly how the songs that you love are structured and arranged.
It’s even more useful to try and recreate from scratch the tracks that you love.
To do so, first import a hip hop project file that you like into your DAW. If you can’t find any project files, here’s a list of the best free 13 hip hop projects.
For higher quality project files, there’s also a hip hop project file called “Woes” on Academy.fm, which you can join for free here.
After you find the project file you’d like, simply, reproduce the different elements of the beat one-by-one. Starting with the kick and snare. Where do they hit? What’s the hi-hat pattern?
Try and use your ears to pick out samples that resemble the ones used on the track.
Even if it’s a time-intensive exercise, the value that you get out of it is unparalleled.
If you do this often, it will shave years off your learning curve and allow you to understand the techniques and arrangements used by professional hip-hop producers.
7. Be Careful With Quantization
We talked about humanizing your drums earlier in the article, especially when it comes to hi-hats.
Humanizing is the process of making digital samples sound like a human is playing them on a drum kit. If this was the case, not all hits would be the same in regards to intensity or volume.
This also means that they wouldn’t be timed perfectly with the metronome. Some hits would be slightly off the grid if we think of it within a DAW.
So how do we achieve that perfect balance of flow, rhythm, and tempo and still humanize your drums?
Well, if you completely turn off quantization, your tracks will feel human. However, in this genre where tempo and rhythm are its core, you risk throwing off your MC.
The flow needs to be constant throughout the track so that the listener and rapper know what the rhythm will be and won’t be thrown off.
To achieve this, we recommend these simple steps:
- Keep the kick, snare, and hi-hats strictly quantized and on the grid at all times.
- To humanize you can play around with the velocity of the hi-hats and repeated kicks. For example, if you have two kicks close to each other, the first one can be a little softer than the second one.
- If you have any percussion or foley elements, you can try to move them around slightly off the grid to create a swing. By not being in the front of the mix like the kick, snare, and hats, the listener won’t be caught off guard if these are not strictly quantized.
- Play your melodies/chords on your midi controller for a more realistic feel, or manually adjust the velocity of each note after you draw them into your DAW.
8. Triplets Are Your Friends
In modern hip-hop, artists such as Migos, 21 Savage, and Desiigner, have brought back the triplet flow.
After Migos’ hit song “Versace” completely took off all over the world in 2013, this type of flow was defined as the “Migos Flow” or “Versace Flow.” Since then, it began to define most of the mainstream rappers.
The musical principle behind this is the triplet, which means dividing one beat into three notes, instead of the typical two or four.
You can hear a specific example of how rappers use this technique when they rhyme in this video starting at 2:15.
It works the same in the beat when using hi-hats or snares. Try experimenting with different triplet patterns and see how they affect the flow of the beat.
Quick tip: try using triplets as transitions, even if you’re following a straight rhythm throughout the track!
9. Work With Loops
Once you find the right melody or sample loop for your beat, you need to create a few variations of it for the different sections of the track.
You don’t want to have the same exact loop repeating throughout, as this will get boring to the listener immediately.
But this doesn’t mean completely changing the melody or finding new loops. It can be as simple as switching around a few notes or pitching up or down your samples.
In Post Malone’s “Rockstar” for example, the beat circles back to a basic synth melody, which you can hear in the intro. Throughout the beat, you can listen to numerous variations of it, while in the chorus, the producer adds a new synth. This raises the energy and emotiveness of the track.
As for your drums, this translates to taking out some elements during the breaks, and introducing new ones as the track progresses.
A good rule of thumb to follow is to make something happen every four bars.
10. Find Unique Samples
Ever heard of the term “crate digging?”
This is the term used to describe old-school producers when they went to the record store. They would dig through crates of vinyls to find their next golden sample.
They would sample a part of an old record, chop it up, and process it to use on their next beat. This is still a widely exploited technique nowadays, as many producers hunt for that old-school vibe or lo-fi sound that is characteristic of old vinyls.
However, there are a few things you need to be careful about when sampling vinyls.
If you use an uncleared sample, (meaning that you don’t have the authorization from the original artist or record label), you could run into legal troubles if your track gets some traction.
At the beginning of your career, we recommend using royalty-free ones.
If you don’t know where to start, you can check out our Free Download Vault!
On top of this, be creative! Why not sample your own sounds and record weird noises?
This is exactly what DJ Premier did. He sampled some birds chirping in Nas’ “Nas Is Like,” and created a beat out of it! Pretty unique, right?
So, the next time you hear a unique sound or something that catches your attention, record it with your phones and drop it into your DAW!
You may also want to try borrowing from other genres if you’re aiming to stand out from the crowd.
Sampling from other genres, not necessarily related to hip-hop, can give your beat an uncommon twist and a competitive edge.
The more you listen to other genres, the more you will be influenced by those different musical styles. And then, to find your “own sound,” you can even combine your favorite elements from about 3-5 of your favorite tracks from these different genres.
If you’re not sure which genres to pick, a cool technique that you can adopt is to identify in which BPM your next track will be in. And then discover which other genres are typically produced within the same BPM range.
Here are some guidelines that you can keep in mind:
- Hip-Hop: 60-100
- House: 115-130
- Dubstep/Trap: 135-160
- Drum & Bass: 160-180
- Pop: 60-90
- Trip Hop / Downtempo: 90-120
Be aware that these are just guidelines. There are no strict rules to follow when selecting the BPM of your next track. Nevertheless, if you’re looking for a drum loop or chord progression in a specific tempo, these will give you an excellent place to start.
Don’t just abide by these rules though. You can achieve incredible results when manipulating and stretching samples to different tempos. For example, a melody in 100bpm could sound unique when stretched to 80 or reversed! The best and most unique results often happen unexpectedly.
11. Keep It Dry
Because of the minimalistic nature of hip-hop, you’ll be tempted to add lots of effects to fill in the gaps to make your track feel “fuller.”
So when you face a dilemma, like whether to add reverb or not, stop and ask yourself if it’s indispensable.
This is because you’ll want to keep your drums relatively dry and in the front of the mix. You can add a sizzle of reverb to the snare if it’s very short and snappy, but make sure it stays punchy and not drenched in unnecessary reverb.
The elements that will require reverb will be the melodies and background samples. Adding reverb, delays, and other effects will furthermore help to place them in the back of the mix.
You’ll want to keep a lot of space in the mix for the vocals to cut through and the bass to hit hard.
Recap: How To Make Beats
Now that you know the foundations of successful hip-hop records, it’s time for you to open up your DAW and incorporate these 11 essential that we will recap for you below:
- Start with the right samples
- Balance your kick and bass
- Focus on the detail of your hi-hats
- Make your sure your 808s cut through (saturation)
- Keep it simple
- Reference tracks
- Don’t overdo your quantization
- Experiment with triplets
- Work with loops
- Be a “digger”
- Keep it dry
Once you have put these techniques to work, you can also check out Academy.fm for even more tutorials, tips, samples, and project files to help you progress as a music producer!
Do you have any any other incredible tips on how to make beats?
Please let us know in the comment section below!