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The Return of the Boom Bap
New Manoeuvres in Hip Hop

Since the start of the noughties, productions from both sides of the Atlantic have signalled a return to the boom bap beats of hip hop's golden era, says Laurent Fintoni

By Laurent Fintoni

 
 Photo shows L-R Samiyam, Flying Lotus, GonjaSufi and The Gaslamp Killer (photo: Theo Jemison)

Introduction:

I came up with the idea for writing this article during the summer of 2007 while living in Japan. Being in Tokyo I was separated geographically from a lot of music and artists, and so I found myself listening to and hunting for new music much more than I ever did. I'd been listening to many of the producers mentioned in this article before moving to Tokyo in January '07 — some for a few years — and I also discovered a lot of them while living in Japan. Then, around the summer, something hit me — I’d been looking for something in hip hop for a long time, and I realised that I’d found it again; I realised that much of this new music, a lot of the beats, reminded me of classic era hip hop, the stuff I listened to when growing up. And it reminded me of the boom bap in the beats of all the classic productions from that era.
Boom bap refers to a certain sound in hip hop productions from the mid 80s to early 90s; the way the drums crack and hit you when you listen to certain beats from that era, say a Marley Marl, Premier or even a Bomb Squad production, forcing you to bop your head or to move your body. During that period many producers spent their time perfecting the art of sampling — not just melodies but drums especially, sampling them and making them sound huge. The beats were raw and gritty, and hit hard. When KRS ONE released Return of the Boom Bap, he said that the album was intended as ‘a return to the real hard beats’.
Anyway, over the next eight months or so, as I discovered more music by producers from all around the world, I became increasingly convinced that this was a special time. Since around 2000 we’d reached a point where this new take on hip hop, this new boom bap sound, was becoming more widespread, and while it was still being tagged and talked about as something other than hip hop by many people, to me it was obvious that it was just hip hop — evolved, but still just hip hop.

So I started writing this article to explain my take on it all. Coincidentally, at about the the same time as I was writing this, a couple of articles popped up online — one by Martin Clark and the other by Sasha Frere-Jones, each referring to some of the producers mentioned here, and coming up with yet more tags for the music (though, to be fair, in both cases it was done quite knowingly rather than as a result of lazy journalism). To me, the beats we are hearing today are the result of a new evolution in hip hop — a new era of boom bap, a return to what made hip hop exciting. And looking around it’s not hard to believe that a lot of people feel the same.

Because the feature was commissioned for Serie B magazine it was limited by space, and therefore some artists aren’t mentioned who probably should be (including people who’ve been around for a while, part of the first wave of new, forward-thinking hip hop producers), artists such as El-P, Daddy Kev, Gaslamp Killer, The Tape, Megasoid, Ghislain Poirier, Nosaj Thing, Cerebral Vortex and Buddy Leezle, Machinedrum and Elliot Lipp, to name a few. But rather than rewrite the feature for Spannered to be as thorough as possible in my exploration of this new boom bap, I’ve decided to leave the text more or less as first published. I can only recommend you go and hunt down music from all these people and connect the dots by yourself.

There is also a mix to accompany this feature, put together at the beginning of summer 2007. You can find it Wonk Funk here.

The Return of the Boom Bap

In 1993 KRS announced the return of the boom bap. It has returned 15 years later, but not quite as the Blastmaster would have expected it. As hip hop changed so did the boom bap, and today it’s found in the beats of a new generation of producers who’ve taken hip hop firmly into the 21st century, without forgetting where it all came from.

Boom bap never died

Trace the roots of this new generation and two people always show up: Jay Dee (aka J Dilla) and Madlib. These two producers, knowingly or not, laid foundations for a whole new era of hip hop. Not only did their approach to production help usher in a return of the boom bap, that unexplainable feeling that makes you want to bop your head to the beat, it also pointed towards new, untapped possibilities for how hip hop could be.

The new boom bap took hip hop as its foundation and built on it, the manifestation of an often forgotten element that was part of hip hop from day one: progress — taking hip hop and making it your own. At the turn of the century a new generation came through and did just that. Among the first to emerge in this new era were producers such as Prefuse 73 and Dabrye. Coming from different musical backgrounds, both artists took in a range of influences and blended them into a new whole, riding a fine line between hip hop and electronica. Their vision of what hip hop could be clashed with what most people were used to or comfortable with at the time. As a result the music was tagged under a variety of names and ended up finding rightful homes with pioneering electronic labels Warp and Ghostly.

Much like golden era producers dug in their crates to create the original boom bap, Dabrye, Prefuse and their peers embraced their own electronic influences to bring through their vision of hip hop, and that in turn echoed with a new generation of listeners.

There is no glitch hop

While the Detroit area became a place to look to for new and inspiring productions from artists such as Dabrye, Dilla and Waajeed, LA gave rise to its own crop of future boom bap purveyors.

On one side of LA’s hip hop revival stands edIT, a man who burst out of LA in 2004 with a debut album, Crying Over Pros for No Reason, on another influential electronic label, Planet Mu. Crying found success because it sounded like nothing else out at the time: an instrumental hip hop album well and truly put through the electronic grinder. The obvious electronic influences in his music led to the album being tagged as glitch-hop, though it’s quite clear that the album was nothing more than his own different vision of hip hop. Nearly five years on, edIT continues to hone and refine this vision, moving towards futuristic beats aimed squarely at the dancefloor, both as a solo artist and as part of the Glitch Mob, a collective of producers and DJs from LA and San Francisco who blend hip hop and electronic influences in a distinct fashion, breaking elements of various genres to their core components to build heavy duty dancefloor beats.

LA got the craziest beats right now

On the other side of LA’s revival stands Flying Lotus, a member of the Coltrane family and probably the best known of LA’s new beat adventurers. While his early work owed much to Dilla and Madlib’s productions, his sound took on a whole new dimension on signing to Warp in 2007 showing yet another possibility for a future boom bap — one grounded in a heavy dose of bass. But Fly Lo is just the tip of the LA beat iceberg.

There is Take, another producer who makes forward-thinking instrumental hip hop. At times laid-back and melancholic, you can hear the ghosts of Dilla in the drums and the influence of electronic pioneers in the arrangements. The boom bap is there, evolved, lying somewhere in between the loose drums and warm basslines.

Then there is Ras G. His beats may seem a lot more ‘classic’ at first, but they are brimming with new ideas. In a smoky haze between the drums, samples and bass, the boom bap lies in wait, making your head bop to the riddim.

Samiyam, meanwhile, is a producer who relocated to LA from the same Detroit area as Dabrye. His beats are loose and move at a seemingly slower pace, blending electro and video game influences with unquantized drums — a technique that Dilla made his own but which in Samiyam’s beats still sounds fresh. He also collaborates with Fly Lo as FLYamSAM, and recently signed an EP to Kode 9’s Hyperdub label.

UK, UK!!

Europe also plays a part in this boom bap revival, especially in the UK where the whole idea of a new hip hop, a new boom bap, is deeply intertwined with electronic music and dub; it's no coincidence, considering the lasting influence of rave and sound system culture, and the presence of labels such as Warp and Mu, which have long understood the possibilities for the evolution of hip hop and electronic music.

In the south, Danny Breaks got things started in the early 00s on his Alphabet Zoo label. Danny made a name for himself on the jungle and drum 'n' bass scene in the 90s, and at the turn of the century he started releasing a string of EPs that blended his love of drums, hip hop and electronic music. In the process, he found yet another groove for a new boom bap, with his loud and crunchy drums referencing hip hop’s golden age while the bass and melodies were straight out of a rave.

Danny’s label was also home to Harmonic 33, a side project of electronic pioneer Mark Pritchard who dusted off the moniker in '08 for Harmonic 313, which he signed to Warp. In Pritchard’s words, Harmonic 313 focuses on Detroit hip hop, blending it with Detroit techno, a dose of bass science, a love of video games, and science fiction, among other things. The first Harmonic 313 EP is a prime offering of new era hip hop, with a sound grounded in the warmth of the past and the possibilities of the future.

Bass science is also a specialty of Loefah, one third of the DMZ collective that has been at the forefront of the dubstep explosion. While he operates in a different ‘scene’ and at a different bpm, his beats owe much to classic boom bap era hip hop. It’s impossible not to hear those ghosts in his drums, refined to perfection, and the weight with which they hit you. Rightfully, his music, and that of DMZ, has been praised by the Bomb Squad, influencing their return to the stage this year, this time with a dub-centric take on their sound.

And then there's Kode 9, whose Hyperdub label has in the last 12 months released a string of EPs that continue to blur the lines between genres. Most interesting though is Kode’s growing link with Flying Lotus and the LA beat scene, with both sides taking influence from each other and feeding their own respective evolution and output.

Heralding Change

Up north, under the grey skies of Scotland, is where the LuckyMe family operates. A collective of producers with a hip hop vision all of their own, they made a lot of noise in '07 thanks to a string of releases across labels from three of their members: Rustie, Mike Slott and Hudson Mohawke.

The releases redefined how many thought about hip hop and electronic music, fusing elements of both into a singular, original sound. The result is undeniably banging music and with an irresistible boom bap to it, hidden in layers of unquantized drums, synths and heavy bass. Warp signed Hud Mo for a release in '08.

Picking up where hip hop stops

Names have —and continue to be — use to separate what these new producers do from what is established and accepted as hip hop. Ultimately though, hip hop music and artform has always been about progress, and today what we’re hearing from this new generation is nothing more than a logical sonic evolution of the music.

Boom bap made hip hop exciting for me back in the day. It was, and still is, that thing you couldn’t put your finger on in the beats that made you go ‘damn!’ I waited a while before I found it again, but it’s here, as fresh and exciting as it was the first time around. And it’s time we all welcomed it back.
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