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From Cassettes to Donuts: the history of the hip-hop beat tape

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Cassettes, CD-Rs, <i>Donuts</i> and zip files: a history of the hip-hop beat tape

Got beats? If you’re a hip-hop fan – or a fan of music in general – then you’ve probably heard at least one instrumental rap album, whether it’s an established classic like Dilla’s Donuts or a more obscure mp3 release from an artist like Skywlkr or Friendzone. But how did hip-hop’s beat tape culture start, and how did it spread from a behind-the-scenes practice to an established release format? FACT’s Laurent Fintoni investigates.

In recent years one of hip-hop’s key, yet least documented, practices has become one of its most celebrated. Beat tapes, a collection of sometimes unfinished instrumental productions designed to showcase a producer’s skills, have today become an accepted release format as popular as their close relative, the mixtape. It wasn’t always like this however, so how did a practice that was once the preserve of the nerdiest hip-hop kids – right up there with scratch practice – become an established release format?

Let’s take it back to the old school

Attempting to trace a history of the beat tape in hip-hop is tricky. All the producers I’ve spoken to in the past agree on various elements of its evolution as a practice, yet there seems to be little to no information on where, when, how and with whom it might have originated. One thing is sure: the concept of beat tapes is likely to have arisen at some point in the ’80s when hip-hop music and culture took flight from its New York birthplace.

Speaking to Primus Luta (whose recent piece on Dilla and beat tapes inspired my own), I’ve strung together a possible origin story. It perhaps starts with Fab Five Freddy and the Wild Style sessions. Primus argues that the Wild Style instrumental white label 12″ that Freddy had pressed to give DJs in New York at the time could be thought of as a proto-beat tape. From there I’d argue demo tapes could be seen as a real precursor to what would come to be known as beat tapes: rough versions of beats that could be passed around for MCs to write/practice to or to showcase a producer’s beats and lead to a potential release. See this 2009 interview with Large Professor for his dislike of old demos getting released on vinyl. Like beat tapes, these were never meant to be publicly heard.

 

“The producer’s instrument was his sampler and making beats was the best way to learn, get better and most importantly develop your own, unique voice”

 

The next piece of the origin puzzle relates to the beat tape’s close relative, the mixtape, and the earliest examples of fully instrumental albums and 12″s that often doubled as DJ tools. Mixtapes would often feature a producer/DJ’s own work – see Kid Capri, Lord Finesse, DJ Premier – while Mark the 45 King’s 1988 debut album, Master of the Game, is one of the earliest examples of a fully instrumental hip-hop record, emulating the format of a beat tape minus the rough/unfinished aspect. In the ’90s, Kenny Dope of Masters At Work would also prove influential with his Dope Beats 12″ series and the Unreleased Project. Speaking to Danny Breaks about 45 King, he passed on this story: “the first time I heard someone play a beats set was at a 45 King show in Rayleigh in ’88 or ’89. He came on stage with a little briefcase of test presses or dubplates and said ‘I’m just going to play some beats for you’. He was just playing the kind of instrumentals that were on his early albums.”

While the beat tape’s definitive origin may potentially be lost, one thing is clear: beat tapes evolved out of producers cementing their place within hip-hop’s musical equation in the ’80s. While that decade marked the start of a golden era in hip-hop, a lot of producers were still reliant on engineers, people even further in the shadows than them, to help finish tracks in the studio – Paul C is a well-known example of this. As the 1990s rolled out, the producer became more prominent in hip-hop culture and the tools needed to make beats became more accessible.

 

 

Originally beat tapes served two primary purposes. First they were a producer’s calling card, a demo for their skills which would later be honed in a proper studio with the right equipment and an engineer. They were sketches and ideas that could be turned into finished musical products. Second, as Primus explains in his piece, they were: “a measure of skill and technique. […] a format for rehearsal and practice.” If the DJ’s instrument was his turntable then the producer’s instrument was his sampler, and making beats was the best way to learn, get better and most importantly develop your own, unique voice.

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