10 sounds that define modern club music – and the stories behind them
What are the most iconic sounds in dance music and where do they come from? This is a guide to the sounds that have defined the club, from the humble dub reggae siren and grime’s ubiquitous “eski click” to the hoover sound that’s dominated breaks-led music for years.
Chances are, you’ve heard many of these sounds countless times. Whether it’s the garbled chatter snipped from Masters at Work’s ‘The Ha Dance’ or the distorted TR-808 kick of Musical Mob’s ‘Pulse X’, these samples and synthesizer bleeps make up the architecture of modern dance music and are littered throughout SoundCloud and YouTube, often well outside of the genres they emerged from.
There have always been examples of samples jumping genre boundaries, but in the last few years many of these sounds have experienced heavy use outside of their original context. Many of the oldest examples featured here were almost exclusively used within their original scene for decades, but the effect of the internet has widened the appeal of genre hallmarks.
Simply exposing more people to different types of music has resulted the diversifying of sound palettes within genres and the creation of new ones. And the influence of Jersey Club, with its emphasis on chops and cuts over traditionally composed musical elements, has encouraged a trend in sparser, sample-heavy tracks in the 2010s.
But no matter how they’re used right now, each of these celebrated samples have contributed to the sound of modern dance music as we know it.
The ‘Ha’ Chant / Crash
This ubiquitous vocal loop is frequently called “the Ha”, a reference to its use in the classic house track ‘The Ha Dance’ by Kenny Gonzales and Louie Vega aka Masters at Work. The chant itself is a sample of Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd (in blackface) shouting faux African words in the 1983 comedy Trading Places, and has long been a mainstay in post-1990s vogue tunes and modern tracks that draw from ballroom’s sonic palette.
But ‘The Ha Dance’ wasn’t the first release to use the Trading Places sample. The iconic chants also open Seduction’s ‘Seduction (Vocal Club Mix)’, featured on the duo’s debut self-titled 12” in 1988, roughly three years prior to the iconic MAW tune; the track even hit a respectable number 19 on the US dance charts.
Seduction was the freestyle pop brainchild of producers Robert Civillés and David Cole, whose first full-length went gold in 1989. Civillés and Cole went on to have prolific careers under both their given names and the shared moniker, C+C Music Factory (who you may know for writing everyone’s favorite jock jam).
Gonzales loosely references ‘Seduction’ during a 2013 lecture at the Red Bull Music Academy, saying he wanted to flip the Trading Places sample into something “a little harder… for the b-boys and stuff.” Little did he know that ‘The Ha Dance’ would be one of the most important contributions to the musical foundation of voguing culture.
While Masters at Work may not be able to take credit for the original use of the sample, they can certainly stake claim to the striking metallic crash that signals for a voguer’s dip or death drop on the runway. Armed with a Korg M1, Akai S950, and the E-mu SP-1200, Gonzalez and Vega likely created the crash by layering multiple sounds and manipulating it on either of their “crunchy” 12-bit samplers.
The Eski Click / Clink / Stomp
The angular, low-bitrate sounds of Wiley’s “eski” (short for eskimo, because the sounds were so cold) beats have enjoyed a resurgence in popularity over the past few years, buoyed by a renewed interest in grime. Fabled to be from an old ice-related Nintendo game, the samples can actually be found stored in the factory preset banks of a popular series of of sound modules by E-mu.
Released in 1997, The Planet Phatt, E-mu’s popular hip-hop themed rack-mount unit, contained all three eski samples: the click, clink and stomp. As the libraries from older machines are generally included in newer releases, the sounds were featured on a variety of studio-standard E-mu products used by everyone from the Pet Shop Boys to the Wu-Tang Clan (including on this RZA-produced Lil Flip eski track from the Blade: Trinity OST). Based on footage from Lord of the Decks 2, it’s likely that Wiley actually used an Xtreme Lead-1, or X-1, for his eski sounds.
A ROMpler, or a sampler without recording capability that plays pre-sampled audio from ROM chips, the X-1 can easily be found for $200-$300 on eBay. For those not looking for hardware: Creative/E-mu has a released a free VST called the Proteus VX, which includes the classic “Composer” bank from the flagship Proteus 2000 (featuring Planet Phatt samples). On both the module and the VX, you’ll find the two higher ‘click’ and ‘clink’ sounds as notes C#1 and D#1 (respectively) under the ‘Stuff 2’ patch. The distinctive kick or ‘stomp’ is note G2, located in the the ‘Kix 1’ patch.
For those interested in iconic grime synth/pad sounds, you’ll find a majority are barely-modified presets from the Korg M1 and Triton keyboards, or the now-discontinued PlugSounds collections. While there are VSTs for both the M1 and PlugSounds Pro, there isn’t an official Triton virtual instrument (though Korg does offer ‘the best of Triton’ in its iOS module app). If you’re looking to create these sounds, or at least understand how they’re made, the folks at Attack Magazine wrote a tutorial for constructing some famous grime patches from scratch.
The Bed Squeak
Though it can be difficult to pin down the exact origin of everyday sound effects, the “ree-ree” bedsqueak – that sits alongside the drip samples, “dick” chants and vocal cuts of Rye Rye in nearly every SoundCloud Jersey club production – is no such case.
Trillville’s ‘Some Cut’, a true dirty South heater produced by none other than Lil Jon, opens with the familiar baby-making loop.
The ‘Witch Doktor’ Woo / The Yell
This popular shriek, often associated with Armand Van Helden’s ‘Witch Doktor’, is actually the powerful voice of Loleatta Holloway in her Arthur Baker-produced hit ‘Crash Goes Love’. The cry was pulled by Helden (and countless others) from the ‘Yell Apella’ mix of the song. Despite this widespread use of this sample, this is hardly Holloway’s only experience with her voice being “borrowed”. Italian house outfit Black Box’s smash hit ‘Ride on Time’ used the a cappella of Holloway’s ‘Love Sensation’ without crediting her and, to add insult to injury, a French model named Katrin Quinol was hired to lip synch it live. As the track charted internationally, Holloway felt cheated and forgotten.
Holloway described the experience back in 1995: “I almost had a nervous breakdown. I couldn’t talk about it without cryin’. I’d spent so long tryin’ to be an entertainer and then here’s this big record in London of all places, one of the biggest records, and I’m not even getting’ a credit for it? It was like, ‘How dare they?’ Someone’s just taken something from you, right in front of your face… (f)or years it destroyed me.”
Holloway eventually sued and was paid an undisclosed sum for damages, but this is not the only case of Black Box being accused of unattributed sampling. Martha Wash, whose uncredited vocals were used in singles like ‘Everybody Everybody’ and ‘Strike It Up,’ also had her work mouthed by Quinol. Wash took Black Box to court and was also awarded a cash settlement, as well as a recording deal with RCA. She also received payment from Civillés and Cole for her uncredited work with Seduction and C+C Music Factory (including her famous contribution of “everybody dance now!” to the aforementioned timeless jock jam).
The Baltimore Aaaah
Though the Baltimore Aaaah sound is arguably less popular than the bed squeak, anyone familiar with Jersey club or its precursor, Baltimore club, has likely heard the vocal before.
The sound was included in a popular club music sample pack, Midnight Club Beatzz, that has been shared on production forums over the last few years and it’s actually a sample of Baltimore club legend Rod Lee.
DJ Technics confirms that the first release featuring this sample was ‘Poke Ya Ass’, from Technics vs Rod Lee, released on the venerable Knucklehead Records back in 1997.
Tamborzão / Tamborzinho
As baile funk (or funk carioca, or favela funk) enjoys a renewed popularity since its global introduction in the mid-2000s, the infectious beat of the tamborzão finds its way into more sets and productions. DJ Luciano Oliveira is credited with creating the wildly popular beat on a Roland R-8 drum machine in 1998, taking inspiration from the hand-drummed rhythms of Afro-Brazilian dances (like the religious candomblé, and specifically the maculelê), as well as the martial art of capoeria. But the tamborzão’s appeal was more than the dynamics of real percussion, it was the uniquely Brazilian sound it brought to baile funk, which had for over a decade primarily used the sound palettes of American Electro and Miami Bass.
Africa Bambaataa’s seminal ‘Planet Rock’ was a massive hit in Brazil and has often been credited with laying the groundwork for modern baile funk by introducing the powerful 808 kick to the urban slum villages, known as favelas. The 1988 track ‘808 Volt Mix’ (808 Beatapella Mix), or ‘Volt Mix’ for short, provided the basis for early funk carioca, prior to the tamborzão. Described by MPC master DJ Sany Pitbull as “the baile funk teacher”, the ‘Volt mix’, along with Thumbs & The Hoestiles’ Munsters-themed tune ‘Let’s Get Started’ and later, Willesden Dodgers’ ‘122 BPM’, served as the foundation for early-to-mid ’90s baile funk.
In 2008, exactly a decade after Oliveira’s beat stormed on to the baile scene, the original tamborzão was rapidly replaced with the beat-boxed tamborzinho. Using vocal snippets from a live freestyle by emcee Mr. Catra,, DJ Sandrinho’s aggressive rework of the classic rhythm became a standard that still holds strong today.
‘Pulse X’ Bass
Famously used in Musical Mob’s foundational 8-bar grime tune ‘Pulse X’ – which was produced by the crew’s Youngstar – this distorted bass hit has remained a staple in grime music since 2002. In a video that is unfortunately no longer available, Youngstar recreates the famous track with the early soft synth, ReBirth RB-338.
Made by Propellerhead in the 1990s, ReBirth was a virtual emulation suite of the “holy trinity” of Roland machines: the TB-303, TR-909, and TR-808. Beginning with the ever-popular 808 kick, the pulse is achieved by adding overdrive and compression, and resampling until the desired grit is achieved.
Most readers are likely familiar with this throaty patois via popular club-trap tracks by DJ Sliink and R.L. Grime, though chops of the original vocals can be found in nearly every genre. Most reliable sources attribute these lyrics to the Masters at Work tune ‘Work’, which features vocals from soca performer Denise ‘Saucy Wow’ Belfon with an additional production credit to an artist named Puppah Nas-T. While Belfon is a legend and still active on Trinidad and Tobago’s soca scene, the latter’s Discogs page only has production credits relating to ‘Work’.
In preparation for this article, I sent an email to Puppah (or Pupa) Nas-T, given name Anastas Hackett, to provide some insight about the creation of this track. He agreed, eventually sending an 8-page account of the origins of ‘Work.’
In short, Hackett asserts he originally wrote the song for Carnival during his residency in Trinidad and Tobago, scouted Belfon for vocals, and released it in 1999. The popularity of the track in the diverse club and pirate radio scene in New York City led to it being played by DJs to American and European markets.
The Masters at Work remix, which is nearly identical to the original, was later widely released simply as ‘Work’ on Masters at Work’s 2001 release Our Time is Coming. Hackett, who says the MAW release “put me in the background and the Masters up front,” has since been involved in a 2016 remix project of ‘Work’ with Global Deejays & Danny Marquez.
The Dub Siren
From the lazy alarm squeals of roots dubstep to the tight phone-style rings of old skool jungle, the dub siren (or ‘rasta box’) evokes a distinctive classic ragga sound when used. The siren is a simple one oscillator synth that made its debut in the performances of dub soundsystem pioneers like Jah Shaka in the 1970s. By manipulating parameters like pitch or filter, the performer could produce a wide variety of zaps, cries, and klaxons. Though most producers today can take advantage of widely available samples (or even an app), you can find pre-made hardware sirens or even build one.
Although most bleeps and chirps were created by a siren or various sound effects modules, there is a distinctive ping found in dub that has an entirely different origin. Popularly associated with mid-70s King Tubby productions, the sound is a 1K sine wave test tone used to calibrate mixing desks (and possibly an homage to Tubby’s work as an electrical engineer). Scientist, who frequently recorded at Tubby’s studio, helped popularize the beep as musical element in the genre.
A hallmark of nearly all breaks genres in the 1990s, this sample draws its name from the classic ‘Mentasm’ by Second Phase, a collaboration between producers Mundo Musique and Joey Beltram. The basis of the sound is a preset on the Roland Alpha Juno 1 called ‘What The…’, or ‘The Hoover’. Created by sound designer Eric Persing for the Alpha Juno project, the patch takes advantage of the synth’s trademark pulse width modulation, which is why some purists say the ‘true sound’ is exclusive to the product line. Joey Beltram made a surprising appearance on a Discogs thread discussing the origins and ownership of the ‘Mentasm’ and described the sound’s creation:
“We edited the shit out of it, sampled it in another keyboard I own and proceeded to edit it some more (that gave it the extra punch that the Alpha didn’t have). That’s why nobody had ever been able to duplicate that sound quite like ‘Mentasm’ and that’s why it has that deep sub in the middle and acid filter parts toward the end, we were no longer working with the Alpha… I ain’t saying the other keyboard we used.”
Well, his collaborator Mundo Muzique did. In his RBMA interview on the construction of ‘Mentasm’, the producer cited the process of resampling the Juno onto the Casio FZ-1 sampler/synthesizer crucial to the construction of the sound. The slight grit provided by the lower bitrate downsampling, in addition to some signal processing with the famous filters on the FZ-1, transformed this standard preset patch into a old skool staple.
Zak DesFleurs is on Twitter