Some of my best friends are beat tapes: Essential instrumental hip-hop from the last 15 years
Yesterday, we published Laurent Fintoni’s comprehensive guide to the history of the hip-hop beat tape.
Plotting a path from Fab Five Freddy through to Flying Lotus, the piece explored how the medium has developed, mutated and flourished over the last three decades. By way of accompaniment, Laurent has also compiled a list of 13 essential modern beat tapes, collected here with download/streaming links.
With contributions from masters of the form (J Dilla, Alchemist, Dibiase), lesser known practitioners (Dert, Ta’Raach) and a couple of plucky Brits to boot (Hudson Mohawke, Bullion), it’s a wide-reaching selection. Whether consumed as a companion to the original article or a go-to primer in its own right, the following rundown is stuffed with must-hear examples of tapes no self-respecting hip-hop can conscionably go without hearing.
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THE PATTY HEARST BEAT TAPE
Having spent years honing his craft in Detroit, studying under Jay Dee among others, Waajeed is today rightfully lauded as one of the Motor City’s finest producers. In 2003, he released BPM Instrumentals on two 12″s, a personal favourite and another example of a (refined) beat tape released professionally. In 2006, he dropped The Patty Hearst Beat Tape, this time sticking closer to the format’s roots. He recently re-uploaded it and gave this explanation: “I put it out in January 2006 on Bling47 as a concept beat tape with 30 tracks in total. The story of Patty Hearst was perfect to compliment the tracks and came together like a film score. Some tracks ended up on The War LP.”
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This is the tape that would land the young Scottish producer on Warp – two of the tracks would later appear on his debut EP for the label. Hudson’s Heeters is one of those rare beat tapes that has stood the test of time. A direct result of Hud Mo’s admiration of the likes of Madlib and Just Blaze, his past as a scratch DJ and his musical upbringing, Hudson’s Heeters sounded like very little else at the time. And eight years on it still sounds nasty as anything.
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TALK STRANGE: A BEAT TAPE INSPIRED BY BJORK
Dert is an L.A producer who stood head and shoulders above the late 00s beat tape game and then kinda disappeared. Houseshoes celebrated his work in a recent retrospective collection, and he’s apparently still around. Dert put out a lot of tapes from 2007 to 2010, though two stand out: Dert Floyd, on which he flips the whole of Dark Side of the Moon, and Talk Strange, where he twists Bjork’s neck in wonderful ways. As he makes Bjork say in the intro: “it’s just gonna be beats.” A great example of the beat tape as a practice tool.
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THE CHEMISTRY FILES: AN INSTRUMENTAL SERIES
(ALC MUSIC RECORDED LIBRARY, 2000-2001)
Sample here (or buy here)
Alchemist should require little introduction. In the early 2000s, he released two 12″s full of instrumentals under the ALC Music Recorded Library label, which come to think of it kinda predates Egon’s idea of turning beat tapes into modern library music for synch (see the Vs Now Again series). The Chemistry Files feature a bag of instrumentals that would end up on various projects, including Dilated Peoples’ Lyricist Lounge 2 appearance. The artwork was also a flip of classic library record covers, a move that others have used to great effect – see the whole Alphabet Zoo catalogue.
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(STONES THROW, 2006)
Choosing a Jay Dee beat tape seems almost like a pointless endeavour. As Questlove explains in the piece I linked to, Jay Dee’s beat tape game was among the best and while a lot of them made it into the world, I’ve little doubt that the best was kept secret, so to speak. Still, he did leave us with what is arguably the definitive “beat tape as a valid stand alone artistic statement”: Donuts. Not only is the music good, in terms of the technical skills deployed it is still years ahead.
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GHOST DOG OST
(VICTOR, 2001, JAPAN ONLY)
While not technically a beat tape per se, RZA’s soundtrack to the Ghost Dog movie still gets mad props and a pass into this list considering there aren’t many Wu Tang beat tapes I know of. The OST was available in Japan only, with the West getting a rap album instead. The raps are cool, but you want the OST for full snap, crackle and neck pops like only RZA can do.
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BABU & KAN KICK
I got reminded of this by Kutmah, who pointed out it features Kan Kick on the B-side. I was familiar with the tape back in the days as the A-side is a bit of a tablist gem, featuring as it does the ‘Turntablism’ track with D-Styles and Melo-D. The whole tape is a straight classic, though, and is a perfect missing link between beat tapes, demo tapes (there’s a bag of raps on there) and mixtapes. Thanks to the kind souls who uploaded a good rip of it for everyone to enjoy.
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DR NO’S ETHIOPIUM
Since the first Dr. No release in 2007, Oh No’s churned a string of quality beat tapes as albums, including the excellent but hard to find Oh No Vs The Oneness of Juju for Now Again. Ethiopium is one of my favourites. Madlib’s younger brother gets busy on a bunch of Ethiopian samples, emerging with a bag of roasted beats strong enough to keep you awake for ten hours straight.
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(EARTH ANGEL RECORDS, 2006/7)
Detroit’s Ta’Raach is another insanely slept-on producer and MC who’s worked with Jay Dee, Waajeed and many more. Ta’Raach is a producer’s producer kinda guy, as exemplified by the work on Elovee. The funk to be found in the grooves of those beats remains a powerful thing. There’s a CD-R version of the release with raps, while the 2007 version released on Earth Angel Records is essentially a beat tape. ‘Hey’, which is found on the CDR version and was issued on 12″ in 2005, was most recently seen on Twitter, where Flying Lotus explained his sadness at not being to get the track onto his GTA V radio station.
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BEAT KONDUCTA VOL. 5 AND 6
(STONES THROW, 2008)
Truth be told, if you’re a Madlib fan any beat tape you can get your hands on is worth a spin or two, much like the work of his brother in arms Jay Dee. The famous numbered tapes (which I believe went by the Raw Cakes name for a while) have some gems on there, as well as plenty of beats which later saw light of day. The recent Medicine Show series Stones Throw put out included an excellent collection of Madlib’s 90s beats (I think it was no. 5) and one of the later ones included a ton of remixes that have appeared on the beat tapes over the years. For my money, though, Vol. 5 and 6 of the Beat Konducta series – itself another loose adaption of the bad kid’s rawer beat tapes and rare mixes – are some of the finest Madlib beat tapes around. They were released in 2008 and dedicated to the memory of Jay Dee, and you can hear his influence and spirit throughout both. Put together with J Rocc (if memory and Stones Throw’s credits serve me right), those two volumes are a perfect point of entry for those seeking to understand Madlib and Dilla’s position as creative powerhouses in the hip hop beat and production game.
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UP THE JOYSTICK
L.A producer and Sketchbook resident Take (aka Sweatson Klank) once described Dibiase to me as L.A’s answer to Jay Dee. The similarities aren’t just sonic, Dibiase is one of the hardest working and most humble producers you’re likely to encounter, having made his way up the L.A underground scene over the past twenty years. Thanks to MySpace his beats started to travel around the world, and one of his most popular projects was Up The Joystick, originally sold as CDR via his page. On it, Dibiase turns what is for me the best set of video game sample flips in the history of hip hop with Mario, Tetris, Double Dragon, Contra and more all getting twist up.
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PET SOUNDS IN THE KEY OF DEE
For a short while between 2006 and 2008, the then burgeoning One Handed Music label unwillingly held it down for the beat scene in London, alongside the likes of Mr Beatnick and crew. The reason for this was simple: they’d signed two of the capital’s best and most innovative producers, Bullion and Paul White. While Paul has since continued to cement his name as London’s answer to Madlib (a comparison I hope he and the label will pardon me for), Bullion soon enough moved onto other things, refusing to be shackled to what would become the so-called beat scene. 2007’s Pet Sounds In The Key of Dee is another “beat tape but not quite” whereby Bullion brought together two music greats: The Beach Boys and Jay Dee. As for Paul White, his Sounds From The Skylight and The Strange Dreams of… are both worth your time.
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I wanted to end this list like I did the main piece, with The Roots and Questlove. In 2010 they released a collection of Dilla covers, announced via Questo’s Twitter . A beautiful dedication to the man’s work and the art of the beat tape. By the way I can’t find a working link but a little Google should see you good.
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Because I can never simply choose a final list, here’s a list of additional tapes, some of which are technically albums, worth hunting down.
Flying Lotus – July Heat (2005)
Ras G and The Afrikan Space Programme – I Of the Cosmos (2008)
Onra – Chinoiseries (2007)
Guillermo Scott Herren – Sleeping On Saturday and Sunday Afternoons (2003)
Koushik – Beep Tape (2009)
Exile – Radio (2009)
Blu Jemz – Beat Machine (2008)
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