Regardless of whether it’s new school, boom bap or trap – strip any hip-hop track of the vocal and you’ll notice that what often plays a central role is a keyboard part. Sampled or not, a basic chord structure with a repetitive and melodic hook is undeniably one of the most significant traits of a hip-hop beat.
The Hip-Hop EZkeys MIDI pack chronicles three milestone eras of the genre: the ‘90s, the 2000s and the present. Combined, this gives you three decades worth of hip-hop hooks to hone, mold and shape into your own music.
From slick, jazzy and low-key variations to edgy, aggressive and menacing – this collection is a virtual encyclopedia of ideas. Just add some drums and you’ve got beat.
When and how did you realize you had a passion for music?
– If you bought a pair of jeans at a local store here in town back in the early 2000s, you got this cheap music production software as a bonus with the purchase… I actually installed it, got into it and found it captivating. Earlier in my childhood, I had been playing some piano and drums but I never really got it until i realized that I could use this software to create my own music, without a band, sheets of paper or other boring stuff. I think that it easily could have been anything else within the aesthetic world (that store could have put a graphic design program in that bag instead) that captured me, and that the reason I ”chose” music was mostly or purely through chance, mixed with some of my, you know, inherited genetic makeup or something. I guess that some humans have this urge for the expressing of the abstract; that part of the human experience that cannot be uttered through thought. Speech, and music, dancing, painting or other forms of creativity helps us with that. You can interpret the abstract only through the language of the abstract… If that makes any sense. Tapping into that world can literally make you a god, and even though it only happens like one session out of twenty, it’s still worth it.
Starting out, what style did you aspire to play and who were some of your early influences?
– ‘90s boom bap was still the blueprint of how hip-hop should sound back then, and I remember I copied the likes of Pete Rock and DJ Premier a lot. A few years later when I happened to stumble across the rhythms of J Dee/J Dilla, I found my first major influence and since then, I have never quantized the drums of a single beat. Those rhythms really made my head nod and they still do. I’ve always loved melody (who doesn’t?), and the earliest beats I ever made sampled strong melodies off old Philly Soul records. Gamble and Huff and those guys influenced me a lot. Bo Hansson is another guy that I feel like wrote really haunting melodies and had amazing arrangements! I’ve (from watching his documentary) recently learned that he basically couldn’t play and just wrote and played on the black keys, which makes him even more of a god in my eyes. The power of pure inspiration or the power of the pentatonic, call it what you want, the “lord of the rings” is an amazing album. And oh, Supersci from Sundsvall have dropped some amazing records that sound both like the streets of New York and the streets of northern Sweden at the same time. I think that they really paved the way for me and other young hip-hop musicians from these parts. They had this beautiful mix of melancholy and grit to everything they did.
How come you ended up producing/writing hip-hop and electronic music? Was it something you were always into or something you discovered along the way?
– Hip-hop was big if you were a kid in middle school back then, and so was skate punk and nu metal, but the latter demanded some knowledge of playing actual instruments. In the strange and fascinating world of primitive beat-making, you’re always just a few mouse clicks (and yeah maybe som sample theft) away from creation. As the years passed, I learned to play most instruments (rather poorly but good enough for looping up stuff) and I got into songwriting. Then knowledge of music theory and song arranging followed as a natural byproduct of that. So I guess it was a very organic and natural process. Everything I learned I learned through the love or need of it, not because anyone told me to.
You are involved in several projects – as a solo artist, a writer, collaborator and a producer. What role do you prefer?
– I love writing and composing and that’s what I spend most time practicing and doing. Production is step three or four in the process, and made up mostly of fun and games in my opinion (mixing though, is a completely different story). Composing consists of really complex brainwork, and melody-writing is just this strange magic, so that’s what I focus most of my time trying to master. Being good at something is boring, and I rather stick to what I don’t know. I would go crazy if someone told me I’d have to make Dilla grooves for the rest of my life, even though I love doing that.
You produced this collection of MIDI together with another keyboard player. How did you go about brainstorming for ideas for it and how did it all come together?
– As a producer and writer, I’ve spent a lot of time studying the tonal foundations of hip-hop and sort of subconsciously jotting down which modes, scales and melodies that work well within the genre. Before the 2010s and the big boom of “colder” electronic hip-hop music, its origins could almost entirely be traced down to soul and jazz tradition. This is where we focused our efforts. For example, in soul you hear a lot of the fourth degree eleventh chord (bass on the second note of the chord) as a substitute for the, within pop music, usual dominant fifth chord, so this is what occurs in hip-hop as well. When I was a kid I asked myself: Why did my favorite hip-hop composers sample the certain tracks from the ‘70s that they did? Why do I like this? Why is ”this” captivating when ”that” isn’t? What was it that distinguished these certain tunes for the ears of DJ Premier or Buckwild as subjects of sampling compared to the tracks they didn’t sample (but still perhaps enjoyed)? Melody and arrangement of course! A beautifully written string piece or a haunting melody played on a Moog synthesizer. Dark modal drones from obscure jazz records that completely unintentionally reflected the mindsets and lives of kids in the Bronx in the ‘90s. So mine and Thomas’ approach to this was first through listening and theory – and then improvisation within the genres. As soon as we found a nice progression or melody, we pressed record and tried not to overthink it.
Even though it’s sometimes not super obvious at a glance, keyboards are a common instrument and an essential part of a lot of hip-hop beats. What’s your relationship to keyboards and piano for writing and producing beats?
– For writing, it’s perfect. When I sit down with the keyboard I can analyze, build, destroy, and get a good overview of what happens within the arrangement. Tonally, the Fender Rhodes and the upright piano do magic for hip-hop. I never make a beat where i don’t use any of those.
Historically, hip-hop is a genre that has relied heavily on samples and machines. Lately, it seems like a lot of beats are made from scratch, by live musicians and less sample based. Is hip-hop more “organic” today than what it used to be?
– Even though some the most mainstream hip-hop music is not very organic, though probably most of it when produced played on a keyboard, it seems there are more organic hip-hop music coming out now then ever. Since hip-hop production is becoming more and more established as a ”real” musical and musically challenging thing, more and more skilled instrumentalists are drawn to it. Everything that happens usually trigger a counter reaction, and I think that organic hip-hop is even more on the rise from where it’s at now.
What Toontrack products and sound libraries do you generally use on a regular basis?
– I use EZdrummer 2 and all of the EZX libraries as well as all of the EZkeys sounds, especially in pre-production, but also in final cuts. The Hip-Hop! EZX and the Indie Folk EZX are probably my two favorites, but I use most of them regularly. The Latin Percussion EZX that Mikael Emsing did is also a classic, and it’s got that ”moose call” conga sound that everyone who’s into soul ballads from the seventies love. I’ve just moved into a smaller studio and I just don’t have any room left over for a drum kit, so I figure I will use EZdrummer 2 all the way.
What do you hope users will take away from the Hip-Hop EZkeys MIDI pack?
– I hope that whenever the users reach that part (which I personally always get to at some point) when everything they play come out all wrong, they load up this and get tons of inspiration.
Your number one go-to production tool you couldn’t do without (and you can’t say the computer)?
– This might sound a bit weird, but I always have a screen set with one of the monitors playing a movie, so that my brain gets a bit distracted. I think of the music i’m making more as a listener than as a producer, which saves me from overdoing and overthinking. A distraction from the production is my best production tool!
Name: Alexander ”Academics” Juneblad
Location: Umeå, Sweden
A mix of classic and genre-defining artists to the forerunners of today’s fusion scene. Start writing!
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