Features I by I 03.09.13

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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Evolution of the art form

Digging around for research I stumbled across an old interview with Questlove, one of hip-hop’s most enthusiastic historians. In between stories about Jay Dee’s beat tapes and how some of the greatest producers from the ’90s got to be the leaders they became, The Roots frontman drops this gem: “But man… in ’94 and ’95? Beat tape sharing was like a code of honour.”

What transpires from Quest’s stories is the seriousness of beatmaking as a practice in the ’90s: not just in terms of who flipped what, where, when and how, but also in terms of how essential it was to the craft and becoming an established producer. You made beats, non-stop. Once you’d reached a certain level of skill and confidence you might then consider making a tape of your best work and pass that to some trusted ears. With some luck, the tape might spread and land you work and props. The story of how Q-Tip discovered a young Jay Dee (as related most recently in his RBMA lecture) involves a beat tape (and an expensive phone bill for Questlove).

Unsurprisingly, considering the era’s unspoken rules and lack of internet, beat tapes from the ’90s are hard to come by. The easiest way to get a beat fix at the time was to buy 12″s for instrumentals or hunt down mixes and radio shows that might feature unreleased versions of beats. Dabrye related to me the story of how the Molemen’s DJ PNS would supply hand-made instrumental mixes in the late ’90s that would do the rounds in Chicago and beyond. These provided an early inspiration to the Ann Arbor producer, who then explained that One/Three, his debut album for Ghostly, could be thought of as a beat tape disguised as an album. He’d hoped that by being properly released it would make its way into the world and result in further work and collaborations – which it did.

As the 1990s drew to a close, it was technology that would ultimately change how beat tapes were exchanged, consumed and thought of. Technology and two of hip-hop’s most prolific beat addicts.



Madlib, Dilla and the Beat Generation

The roots of beat tapes as we understand them today came from demo tapes, DJ tools and the growing instrumental hip-hop subset. By the early 2000s the idea of instrumental hip-hop was becoming more accepted, building off the work of labels like Mo’ Wax in the UK and Wordsound in the US, and key albums like Company Flow’s Little Johnny from the Hospitul and Prince Paul’s Psychoanalysis.

Elsewhere, 45 King continued his work with the Beats of the Month series, and MF Doom began his Special Herbs series. Both of these can be seen as early attempts to turn beat tapes into a standard release format. Equally important to the development of beat tapes in this new decade is BBE’s album series, The Beat Generation, announced in 2000 with a sampler 12″ featuring Kenny Dope, Pete Rock, and Jay Dee. Under the Beat Generation banner BBE spent the decade releasing albums dedicated to celebrating the producer’s role in hip-hop, focusing on artists like Marley Marl, Pete Rock, Jazzy Jeff, DJ Spinna, King Britt, Will I Am, Jay Dee and Madlib.

Whereas an accepted origin story is hard to ascertain, the tipping point when beat tapes move out of the confines of studios, cars and producers’ hands and into more public ears is easier to establish. It happened in the early-to-mid ’00s, and it involves the internet, CD-Rs and two kindred spirits: Madlib and Jay Dee. Willingly or not, these two changed the beat tape game forever.

Stories surrounding the Madlib and Jay Dee beat tapes are almost as numerous as the tapes themselves (well, maybe not quite, considering that tapes from Jay’s past are still being unearthed seven years after his death and that established wisdom places the number of Madlib beat CDs well into the hundreds). Regardless, what’s clear is that in the early part of the 2000s those CDs slowly started to move out of the hands of the lucky few blessed to own copies in L.A and Detroit and onto the internet. From there they begun to travel around the world, feeding beat fiends. In a rare video interview from 2003, Jay explains that Madlib had fact made what amounted to an album by rapping and cutting over Jay’s beats, most likely culled from a beat tape that had travelled from Detroit to L.A. This discovery led Jay to convince Madlib to “do it properly” – and from that was born the classic album Champion Sound.



The worldwide leak of beat tapes from two of hip-hop’s most influential producers would ultimately take the behind-the-doors practice into the genre’s mainstream consciousness. Another important side effect is that those leaks would lead producers, including Jay, to tag their beats with audio idents to stop rappers, and other producers, from stealing them. This echoes a similar practice that arose at the time in the mainstream, attributed primarily to Just Blaze, that saw rappers begin to name drop producers at the start of a track, thus increasing the producer’s cachet within the industry.

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Zip files, MySpace and the beat tape as a release format

Another tipping point in the history of the beat tape was reached in 2006. It’s a combination of two key events: the release of Donuts, under Jay Dee’s Dilla moniker and issued days before his passing in February that year, and MySpace reaching the peak of its power as the music social network. Donuts, heralded by many as Jay’s masterpiece, acts as a sort of beat tape blueprint for a new generation – Detroit producer Houseshoes once referred to it as a map left behind by Jay – while MySpace gave the new hip-hop kids the ultimate communication tool to spread music and ideas.

In the last years of the decade a new generation of producers raised on video games, leaked beat tapes, electronic music and instrumental hip-hop begin to use the website to spread their own beat tapes. Alongside the historical revisionism fuelled by Jay’s passing, MySpace feeds what would become the late ’00s beat revolution that refreshed hip-hop’s production aesthetics. This time around though, physical formats are largely dispensed with – aside from the odd home made CD-R – replaced by the soon to be ubiquitous zipped file. In the following years countless producers, including ones who would go on to achieve worldwide fame, either released mp3 beat tapes or had them leaked, in effect cementing its evolution as a new release format. Some of the most notable releases from that time include Flying Lotus (July Heat), Hudson Mohawke (Hudson’s Heeters), Onra (Chinoiseries), Dorian Concept (A Trebleo Beat Tape), Paul White (Untitled), fLako (First Spaceshit On The Moon) and Samiyam (Rap Beats).

A lot of these new beat tapes were still reverent to the format’s history, most notably in their uses of skits and comedy samples to string beats together – a hat tip to Prince Paul’s pioneering skit work in the ’80s. Madlib’s turn-of-the-century tapes are perhaps the best example of which, with endless obscure comedy samples and subliminal uses of his own ident that called upon listeners to “get high”. The practice of idents doesn’t disappear with the new generation, instead shifting back to a calling card function and thus to beat tapes’ original purpose. The best example of this is Hudson’s Heeters, which featured the young producer’s email address as an ident.



With MySpace’s demise at the end of the ’00s, the beat tape game moved to online lockers and then to Bandcamp. The website’s original offer of unlimited free downloads with a clean player and interface was the perfect window display for what would soon become a vibrant corner of the hip-hop world. Quality-wise the boom in beat tapes quickly led to a saturation in the format, an increasingly common symptom of the ‘anyone can create’ age that we now found ourselves in. Despite this, producers from around the world would sometimes turn out real gems, be they entirely new work – Montreal’s KenLo Craqnuques colour series – or pure showboating and skill exercises – L.A. producer Dert’s Pink Floyd and Bjork tapes.

Today beat tapes are a ubiquitous concept and format, and have come a long way from the code of honour Questlove mentioned. A google search of the term returns only post-2010 releases on the first page. Earlier this year someone released a beat tape via Instagram, while Hud Mo and Lunice’s TNGHT EP – an open pitch for potential collaborators – can be seen as yet another evolution of the practice.

I’d like to finish with The Roots, who took Dilla’s parting shot, Donuts, and used it to fuel their new position as the in-house band for Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. As Primus Luta recounts in his piece, Donuts forms the basis for what Questlove came to call Sandwiches, short segments of music the band performs as acts walk in and off stage. These are born of rehearsals, and a compilation of them was given out for free a few years back. As a result, the beat tape format has made it into the majority of America’s homes.


N.B. This is by no means a definite account of the history of beat tapes. It’s a work in progress that I hope will become more complete and accurate and be included in a book project I’m working on. If anyone has any solid information, stories or the likes about beat tapes please contact me via Twitter. Thanks.

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Madlib’s friends and collaborators on the man’s work in an Elemental magazine piece from 2003:

“An underground Madlib beat CD, that’s what I like, shit you ain’t heard yet, those are my favorite tracks. Stuff ain’t nobody heard, that’s my favorite shit.” – Kankick

“My favorite shit from Madlib is the beat tapes, ‘cause that’s the raw shit right there. He put his beat tapes together sick, too. Every time he puts a beat tape together it’s just like an instrumental album and shit. He’ll put remixes on there too, or he’ll put one of the homies’ acapellas over a new beat. Every time I get my hands on a beat tape I can’t wait to hear that shit.” – Medaphor

9th Wonder speaking with XXL mag about his 2012 beat tape project:

“Before Dilla put out Donuts and stuff like that, Pete Rock put out Petestrumentals. That was one of the first beat tapes of its kind. He had a few songs on there, but it was mostly instrumentals. It’s only a few of us I think that can pull it off. But there’s definitely an undercurrent of people who love beats who can’t rhyme, or who rhyme in the shower or rhyme in the car. And that’s for those people. And then you have those people that think they can rap. You know what I mean? They put out mixtapes and this, that and the third and you go around and find plenty like, “I rapped over this Dilla beat, or I rapped over this 9th Wonder beat or this Madlib beat.” It’s only a select few of us that can actually do that, or that has the catalog of music to do that.

“I just want people to enjoy the music. There are a lot of people who bought the tape who just don’t rap who just like to ride around and listen. I get that a lot from people. I get, “I could ride around and listen to your beats all day.” I make a lot of beats, and I have some people like, “Man, don’t let anybody rap over this I just need it as a beat.” I get that a lot. So that’s for those people, too. I think sometimes underground hip-hop, which I’m put in that box a lot, I think that audience is polarized to the point where you’re not supposed to enjoy it unless you’re in the underground. And a lot of people may not like “underground” or “backpack,” or whatever-the-hell-that’s-supposed-to-be music, but they do like beats. So that’s what’s most important. People from all walks of life can listen to beats, I had a couple of people hit me and say, “My mom was in here listening to your beats ‘cause they got soul in ‘em.”

Black Milk on listening to tapes in Detroit (from an unreleased interview):

“I don’t listen to a lot of hip-hop music in general, stuff with raps, but if I listen to something hip-hop related it’s generally instrumentals. I been listening to beat tapes and beat CDs only since I first got into making beats. I listen to beat projects like they’re albums. In Detroit that was kind of a normal thing, producers from around Detroit would have beat tapes and beat CDs floating around the city and cats would ride around to producers’ beats. There was Dilla and one other cat whose name I can’t remember, whenever one of them had a beat tape out it was like cats were on it. That was the thing about Dilla, anytime he had a new beat CD, every few months, it was like Christmas for a lot of us. Myself and Yung RJ would be on it. You just couldn’t wait to hear the fuckin CD cos you knew there would be something on there that’s gonna crack your head. Dilla changed his sound every few months, so each CD sounded different. He was always switching it up. Beat CDs, we didn’t really look at them as projects or official albums back then but that’s kinda been a part of my musical upbringing.”

Babu speaking to Nodfactor in 2010 about the relevance of beat tapes:

“It’s always something I do to feel normal and have fun but over the years my passion is what I used to support my family. I’ve invested in doing things a certain way over the years and being happy. I’m just putting this out and hoping for the best. It’s a super beneficial thing for me to do. I want people to take these beats and make songs and put them on mixtapes. I’m on a free music mission. A lot of times I lean on the sure shot things like going out as Babu the DJ but I’ve been working towards leaning on my production more. I’d love to even that out a bit more. For producers all around that’s a burning question. Unless you’re part of a group or have a smash rapper it’s hard to get out. Bless things like iStandard, Beat Society and Red bull Big Tune, but you’ve got a billion kids putting stuff up on MySpace and Sound Click trying to get heard. Everyone can make hot beats but you’ve got to create a brand for yourself now.”

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