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One of the most important aspects in hip-hop and popular music is the drumbeat. What makes it sound so big? The drum patterns appear so simple, so why are they so hard to create? Well, in this tutorial, we’re going to break down the fundamental elements of a hip-hop beat.
Every few weeks, we revisit some of our reader's favorite posts from throughout the history of the site. This tutorial was first published in November 2008.
Note: this tutorial contains embedded audio that will not display in a feed reader. Click back to the site to read the tutorial with audio.
1. Drum Patterns
The drum pattern is the backbone for you song, it gives it structure. In general, there are two kinds of drum patterns:
- Simple Patterns
- Complex Patterns
Simple patterns, or “lunchroom beats” as they’re often known, are patterns that you probably are most familiar with. They’re the ones you tap your foot to (hence “lunchroom beat”, as you can reproduce it by banging your hands on a lunch table). Probably among the most common drum patterns out there, they usually have a set pattern that repeats every 8, 16, 32 or 64 steps.
Complex patterns are, well, complex patterns. They still have a set pattern, but it’s much more difficult to tap along with. They usually have drops/mutes, delays and other complex effects to heighten the anticipation on the track.
Now we know what kind of patterns are available for us, so let’s move on to the actual drums. DJ Khaled’s I’m So Hood is an example of a somewhat complex pattern
2. Drum Samples
One of the things that stands out about hip-hop, that I’ve lightly touched on in previous articles, is the unique drums. Ethnic drums such as bongos, congas, tamboras, and more, all add flavor and originality to your drum patterns.
Beyond that, move away from your workstation’s stock drum sounds: they’re boring. Odds are they’ve been used on a hundred tracks before yours. Dig around the internet, find some royalty free drum samples, or get behind a drum set and start sampling your own.
Experiment with various objects as instruments (coins in a plastic cup, car keys, even your chain). Maybe they sound bad, or maybe you stumble across something that sounds incredible and gives you dynamics you were missing. Just make sure you EQ properly, and aren’t throwing garbage sounds into your track for no reason. Sounding unoriginal yet pleasing is probably better than sounding original but terrible.
Make sure you’re not loading up the basic sounds every time you go to the studio to work on a track.
Try something new, and the results can be spectacular.
The Neptunes are world famous for their unique drums. See an example of this in Ludacris - “Money Maker” (Feat. Pharrell).
Muting your drums patterns, or muting elements of them, adds suspense and excitement to your music. It is by far the most commonly used technique in hip-hop production.
One of the most obvious uses is the muting of drums when switching between verses and the chorus. It is very common to mute hi-hats during verses, and including them in the chorus, as well as muting or changing elements to create a bridge.
They also help create an intro or outro for your song, where you can lead in with simply kicks or claps. Mutes also give the music some excitement and suspense. Dropping an occasional kick can add liveliness to the music. Muting is one of the best techniques out there, so try adding some into your music.
Note the mute after the short intro in Shareefa - “Need A Boss”, to create a unique silence before they return with the main beat.
4. Offsets and Doubles
While we’re on the subject of making your music more lively, let’s talk about offsets and doubles. Offsetting a drum is taking a drum that normally falls on a certain quantized step, and offsetting it to a different step.
For example, if you have a kick on step 1, and a clap on step 5 as a repeating pattern, try moving the clap to step 3. It makes the listener do a quick double take, and adds flavor to a pattern that would be simple otherwise.
Doubling a drum is taking your drum pattern and adding “ghost” drums to it. If you have a kick on step 3 and a clap on step 5, try putting a dynamically softer kick on step 2. It will create a type of drum roll, leading up to the louder kick. You can apply this technique to all sorts of drums.
Note the somewhat offset kick in the second half of the drumbeat in Timbaland - “Apologize” (Feat. One Republic). Since Timbaland usually has irregular rhythms in his music, it’s not exactly an offset, but it illustrates the concept.
As defined in live drumming, a flam is a rudiment consisting of a quiet “grace” note on one hand followed by a louder “primary” stroke on the opposite hand. The two notes are played almost simultaneously, and are intended to sound like a single, ‘broader’ note.
However, even if you’re not working with live drums, you can still flam your drums. Most drum machines have a flamming option, so try using it. You can play with the offset feature to lengthen the time between the flam and the actual drum hit.
This is a very popular technique when it comes to snare and hi-hat rolls, and it’s a very common technique that can be applied in the “Humanizing” section, so keep reading.
Take a look at this quick lesson on flamming live drums.
Polyrhythms are just what they sound like: multiple rhythms played on top of each other. An example of a polyrhythm is 4 evenly spaced beats against 3, with the 4 beat pattern being faster than the 3 beat pattern.
They are very prominent in African music, and since much of hip-hop is influenced by African music, polyrhythms appear often in hip-hop. It gives a very unique sound when there are several patterns being played on top of each other.
The simplest form of this technique is having kick and snare as one rhythm, and hi-hats as another. A step up from that, is having drums like bongos or congas giving another rhythm on top of the kicks. In its purest form, polyrhythms in hip-hop have two or more kick patterns playing at the same time. Regardless of which way you use them, they add complexity to an otherwise simple pattern.
In Pharrell - “That Girl”, the congas add a different rhythm on top of the kick/clap beat.
7. The Human Factor
One of the things that never ceases to amaze me is the laziness of modern producers. So many producers have a nice drum pattern going, chose some great samples and then just stop. There’s so much more you can do with drums, so get used to putting extra effort in; it’s worth it.
Reason has an interesting new feature in version 4.0, called ReGroove. I personally haven’t toyed with it enough to be able to praise or disown it, but the concept behind it is important. Applying a “groove” to your pattern takes the pattern, and gives it a human feel.
It’s important for various patterns, as it will take the various drums and slightly offset them by milliseconds. Think about it in realistic terms. When your drummer sits down behind the drums and starts playing, does he hit each drum in perfect timing?
Of course not. This liveliness is what gives the drums their flavor. Too many young producers just let the sequencer put each drum sound in perfect timing, when actually it sounds better to give it some realistic life and variance. You don’t need Reason or its ReGroove to accomplish this.
When you’re recording your track, consider playing your hi-hats or snares directly from your MIDI keyboard without quantizing them. You want to be very careful doing this, as you still need to be close to the correct rhythm, but sometimes having some variation gives your drums life.
Rihanna - “Umbrella” is a track with a live drum feel.
8. The Importance of EQ
I can’t stress the importance of EQing and mixing your drums properly. AUDIOTUTS already has some tutorials on the subject, so I’m not going to give it an entire lesson. However, it is very important to have proper EQing on your drums to give them the fullest sound.
Additionally, mixing the drums is highly important. The drums need to really bang, so the volume needs to be somewhat loud. However, high volume tends to distort the drums. Volume isn’t the only factor that makes drums loud and full, so play with reverb and other settings as well.
Mixing is also essential in order to maintain proper levels between the drum elements and other song elements (most notably basslines, which often lie in similar frequencies to kicks). Sit down and really put some effort into making your sound as clean and “big” as possible; you won’t regret it.
The Clipse - “Fast Life” is an example of a song with poor mixing. The album version doesn’t have this issue, but for some reason the version that Koch Records uploaded does.
There you have some of the key ingredients in creating hip-hop drums. Start with a good pattern, choose some high quality, unique samples, then change up your pattern with mutes. Try offsetting and flamming, and add a groove to the track. However, there is such a thing as trying to do too much with drums.
It’s easy to apply all the techniques I’ve outlined here, but just because you can, doesn’t always mean you should. Sit down and listen to your drums, and make sure they’re unique and lively, but not overdone.
Berklee Music have posted some good drum video tutorials on YouTube.
- Create the Hottest Beats with Reason
- Programming Hot Beats in Ableton Live
- Adding Drum and Percussion to Hip Hop Beat Using Reason
Also, here are some video blogs from premier producer, Ryan Leslie. He illustrates many of the techniques that I’ve outlined.