So why post-Donuts?
Donuts is a somewhat arbitrary point to single out, but it can be used as a convenient marker on the timeline of independent hip-hop. In our list of the 100 best indie hip-hop records, Donuts was set as a cutoff because it felt like the last really significant release of that era. It emerged in the midst of a transitional period in rap where old traditions began to stagnate both above and below ground, and the genre began to evolve in new directions.
New York began its decline, and the South rose to prominence on a national scale. The nascent blog boom allowed access to a wealth of previously obscure material, prompting a reassessment of the historical canon and spurring cross-pollination between previously far-flung styles. Soon enough, the internet, for better or worse, would become a wellspring of new ideas that pointed to unexpected and radically different directions.
Aftershocks were felt in instrumental hip-hop too. In the wake of Donuts the sub-genre grew stale, partly suffocated by a wave of well-meaning but uninspired posthumous tributes to Dilla himself. But as rap evolved, hip-hop instrumentals were quick to follow. A period of nearly unchecked file sharing provided producers with an unprecedented amount of new sample sources from a variety of locales and musical epochs. Sampling and live instrumentation intermingled more and more, closing the gap between hip-hop and the music that inspired it. New approaches to production and new influences bred entirely new sounds to be used for soundtracking rappers and creating standalone compositions.
2006 ushered in a fertile stretch for instrumental hip-hop, heralding a plethora of wildly different beat tapes and full-lengths. The purpose of the list is to explore some of the more interesting and important releases among them, and to highlight a few personal favorites that may have been overlooked. I tried to focus on items that have the most tangible connection to the larger world of rap, purposefully avoiding more abstracted areas which teeter on being sub-genres unto themselves (i.e. the LA beat scene, which deserves a detailed write-up of its own).
Willie Boo Boo: The Fool
(Ghetto Man Beats, 2006)
K-Def’s instrumental debut was obviously not the last album to be constructed from soul loops and blunted drums, but there is a certain nostalgic finality to it. In 2006 K-Def was already a respected veteran with a long and storied career in hip-hop production, and in retrospect the release of The Fool feels like the last truly significant hurrah of the old guard he represented.
Among in-the-know fans weaned on classic 90s rap, K-Def’s album holds almost as much sway as Donuts. It’s a true connoisseur’s love letter to that style, which by ’06 was beginning to fall out of favor. The formula of The Fool is simple, but the execution is powerful – through a collage of breaks and dialogue samples, K-Def took the listener on a guided tour of the music and culture that shaped the foundation of hip-hop as he knew it. As a testament to the creator’s talent, this retrospective sounds more like a celebration of glory days than a eulogy.
I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead Instrumentals
(Def Jux, 2007)
I celebrate El-P’s entire discography, but this album was the exact point where I began to prefer the instrumental versions of his releases to the vocal ones. I wouldn’t claim that he got drastically worse as a rapper, but that aspect of his work just lost its appeal, and his production was always the main draw anyway.
Consider, for example, how the instrumental versions of Fantastic Damage and The Cold Vein have aged better than certain elements of the albums proper. Consider also how the old mantra of “El-P is ahead of his time” began to feel a lot more tangible as grime and dubstep got a foothold in the US while harsher industrialized sounds began to creep up more in the rap world. With that in mind you can understand my interest in hearing his beats laid bare.
This take is especially validating when you notice how much order and melodic detail is hidden in his trademark pummeling chaos. There are intros and fadeouts reminiscent of warped psych-pop jingles, with tight arrangements stacked between them. Unexpected proggy guitar passages and even occasional flutes are slotted in neatly. All this blends surprisingly well with the robotic abrasion which El-P is best known for, and this contradictory-yet-balanced jumble of sound expresses El-P’s intentions and world view just as well and as his lyrics ever did.
Beat Konducta Vol. 3-4: Beat Konducta In India
(Stones Throw, 2007)
Madlib’s inclusion on this list is a foregone conclusion, even though his output would require its own separate list to properly assess as a whole. I singled out this release because the Beat Konducta series feels like the best representation of his aesthetic, as it shows off both his ongoing quest for interesting sounds and his wizardry in manipulating his discoveries.
While the first two volumes were generally kaleidoscopic, the Beat Konducta In India volumes set the pace for the rest of the series, zero-ing in on specific individual locales and themes. Installments focusing on Africa and rock music followed, as well as a tribute to Dilla. This pattern of ‘sample tourism’, i.e. using the beat tape format as a way to explore music native to a certain region or linked to a specific style, would go on to become popular among other producers and become something of a sub-genre itself. Onra’s Chinoiseries and Oh No’s Ethiopium, both mentioned on this list, are good examples.
(Favorite Recordings, 2007)
Madlib didn’t exactly invent the ‘sample tourism’ thing I mentioned in his blurb, but his work certainly went a long way toward making it into a trend. Onra’s Chinoiseries, released only a few months after Beat Konducta In India, significantly contributed to the popularity of this approach as well. The album centered around unfamiliar sounds plucked from a stack of beat-up Asian records found during a trip to Vietnam, the producer’s ancestral homeland. While straightforward compilations of world music were nothing new, there was a certain novelty in hearing foreign styles showcased through a lens of modern production and sampling techniques. It also represented a deviation in purpose from the traditional hip-hop beat making formula. Instead of using samples as tools to create a new sound, the inherent exoticism of the samples themselves became the main draw.
Blue Sky Black Death
Lean Night Cinema
Blue Sky Black Death started out on the backpacker-ish side of things, but their interests and inspirations were wider than just one niche. Their body of work is actually rather diverse, expanding beyond rap to both rock and electronic music. Late Night Cinema was their first fully instrumental album, and while it was a solid if somewhat scattered effort, their real creative breakthrough, to me at least, came when they decided to release a slowed version of the record as a tribute to DJ Screw. This version was called Lean Night Cinema, and although it came out without much fanfare, it served as an indicator of where their music would head next.
Conceptually, this release was an unusual and perhaps entirely unprecedented move. Screw and others have certainly chopped up stray instrumentals in their mixes before, but to my knowledge nobody had ever done an entire tape of them prior to Lean Night Cinema. Beyond this novelty, the slowing process served to re-contextualize the more upbeat originals, making them heavier, brooding and meditative. Mood took charge and overruled the structure of composition. Although Lean Night Cinema is not presented as a continuous mix, individual pieces bleed into each other of their own accord – it’s an ongoing trip through a soundscape more than a collection of individual songs.
(Sassbologna Records, 2008)
This obscure release is a minor cult gem – not many know about it but those that do praise it highly. It was originally released on cassette in 2008 and quickly went out of print, was re-released on vinyl in 2010 and again went out of print before it was re-released again digitally in 2012. Thank god for Bandcamp.
S.Maharba’s self-titled tape plays like a fortuitous collision of two distinct elements. The first is a pronounced classic hip-hop influence, most evident in the heavily thumping boom bap-ish drums. Stylistic nods to various producers are scattered throughout: Madlib and Dilla come to mind immediately, the latter particularly in S.Maharba’s use of synths. Elsewhere, the sexy French vocal samples paired with rugged percussion are reminiscent of RZA’s playbook from the Bobby Digital era. The second element is the affected lo-fi aesthetic: every song sounds like it’s playing on a battered Walkman from 1988. All the typical accruements are included – layers of distortion, disembodied samples floating up from somewhere in the Mariana Trench, and naturally that ubiquitous vinyl crackle and fuzz.
This kind of deliberate weathering and distressing of traditional rap production is commonplace these days, but when I first found this tape in 2009 it felt fairly novel. Luckily time and saturation haven’t diminished the way that this mysterious mini-opus manages to stick in your head. It’s unfortunate that S.Maharba hasn’t released more than a few scattered songs since.
Starshipz & Rocketz (Instrumentals)
(Slow Motion Soundz (with G-Side), 2008, OG Mattress Company, 2014)
Block Beattaz rarely get the proper credit they deserve, but if you’re up on Southern rap, you should know that from the mid 00s until the early 10s the Huntsville production crew consistently stayed ahead of the curve when it came to hip-hop trends. They were among the first to find the common ground between Texas, Memphis and Atlanta styles, where much of the late 00s Southern rap would eventually land, and their early work with G-Side would point 26-inch rims toward outer space while also serving as the direct precursor to cloud rap. A little later in G-Side’s career, Block Beattaz would become early adopters of modern electronic music as an inspiration and a sample source, creating songs that (for better or worse) sometimes predicted the kind of corny electronic pop and dubstep that now sells tickets at mainstream festivals throughout the world.
Through all these permutations they’ve always stayed behind the scenes, never officially releasing instrumentals or a producer-driven album. This felt like a missed opportunity, since many of their beats were good enough to hold their own without the rappers’ contributions. Luckily that oversight was finally corrected in 2014, when the crew released the instrumentals to G-Side’s Starshipz & Rocketz album.
This album was a particularly inspired choice for a beat drop, as it captures the founding members of the Block Beattaz entering the peak of their prowess. Songs like ‘Back Of Tha Chevy’ and ‘Swanging’ (here included in a later iteration featuring MMG’s Stalley) use common Southern tropes as stepping stones for further sonic evolution. ‘Everywhere I Go’ and ‘Run Things’ are big enough to fill stadiums, while ‘Speed Of Sound’ and ‘Strictly Business’, two of G-Side’s best, embody exactly what made The Block Beattaz so special during this time – the ability to wed the sound of the Huntsville streets to a futuristic ambiance culled from somewhere beyond the stars.
Electric Acid Kool Aid Tape
Today Ethereal is best known as an integral part of the fast-rising Awful Records collective. However, he actually started rapping and making instrumental tapes a few years prior to Awful’s ascension. The exact details of his early career are hard to pin down, they exist mostly as old blog posts and broken links, but as far as I know Electric Acid Kool Aid Tape is his ‘official’ debut.
Initially I wasn’t entirely sold on Ethereal’s work. I liked a lot about it, but was also turned off by the heavy drum and bass influence prevalent throughout. Yet there was something about his application of that influence that stuck with me and compelled me to return. Eventually the very same elements that turned me off grew on me; essentially, Ethereal’s music taught me to appreciate d’n’b.
If the Electric Acid Kool Aid Tape really was his debut, it’s remarkably assured in style. While many artists take several releases to really find their voice, Ethereal apparently nailed his potent blend of hip-hop, electronics and drifting ambience right from the start.
(All City, 2010)
Knxwledge is an obvious successor to Dilla and Madlib, sharing both their voracious appetite for manipulating dusty loops and their prodigious work ethic. Klouds was his official debut album, but it represents only a small fraction of his output – to date, his Bandcamp lists 66 (!) solo releases, and this number doesn’t actually account for everything he has done. Remarkably, the quality across this massive volume of music is consistent.
While parallels to the aforementioned forbearers are clear, Knxwledge has his own modern aesthetic. His current residency in Los Angeles places him in the midst of the storied LA Beat Scene, which has led to an upcoming collaboration with Stones Throw. These associations feel like a good fit, considering the bent for experimentation and esotericism that runs through his music. Arguably, Knxwledge is at his best when he’s able to evenly incorporate both the old and the new, taking elements from classic hip-hop and using them to build a sound that faces forward. It’s not easy to make boom-bap sound fresh and futuristic, but he has managed it on more than a few occasions.
Skywlkr is an interesting case. He appeared on the scene during the early days of cloud rap, often getting lumped in with the rest of the “based” producers, despite never actually producing for Lil B or even sounding particularly similar. Most of the tracks on Strawberry Cough aren’t actually all that mellow, often prominently featuring the kinds of chopped soul samples and heavy drums that his peers avoided. Skywlkr’s style is more of a topically skewed take on traditional hip-hop tropes than a departure from them; the beats sound good on their own, but you also want to hear a great rapper tear them to shreds, which is not something you can always say about Clams Casino, for example. In that regard it’s fitting that Skywlkr has settled into a role as in-house producer and DJ for Danny Brown, who has most definitely done his instrumentals justice.
(Kindred Spirits, 2010)
Another great example of sample tourism, Fauna is focused on Brazil and is more ambitious than most. Traces of the country’s musical wealth have shown up in Jarel’s work before, but here he commits to the subject fully. Not content to simply curate a showcase of breaks and samples, he instead creates his own hip-hop-inspired take on tropicalia, bossa nova, latin funk and jazz. Going even deeper, the album is also meant as a tribute to Brazil’s vast rainforest and wild life (hence the title); this dedication isn’t just conceptual, the music itself evokes the atmosphere of the jungle. Sometimes the reference is quite literal thanks to Jarel’s clever usage of field recordings, but in the album’s best moments he goes beyond direct references. Jarel manages to use his compositions as metaphors for the kinds of rhythmic cacophony that a near-infinite variety of life might make under a canopy of 1000-year-old trees.
Instrumentals Vol. 1
This tape hardly needs an introduction; it’s likely the best known and most acclaimed on this list. Clams Casino is to cloud rap as DJ Premier is to boom bap: the man who may not have wholly invented the sound, but ultimately became synonymous with it. Without Clams, Lil B, A$AP Rocky and Main Attrakionz would be lacking some of the most important songs of their careers.
The tape exploded when it dropped; the instrumentals included read as a who’s who of the era’s hype rap. The tracks were mostly culled from collaborations with the aforementioned Lil B, A$AP Rocky and Main Attrakionz, along with G-Side, Soulja Boy and others, and despite lacking the original vocals, after a few spins it became apparent that Clams himself was the star of the show.
The stripping of vocals had a transformative effect on the tracks, which allowed previously overlooked nuances to come to the forefront. The structures of rap remained in skeletal form, but they were now draped with gauzy layers of atmospheric texture and melodramatic emotion, the key sonic attributes of the cloud rap sub-genre. The simple concept of the beat tape was thus transcended, and Instrumentals Vol 1 became a standalone entity that bridged the gap between rap and electronic production.
The influence of Clams’ work here would inspire a legion of worthy disciples and plenty of lesser duplicates (the latter of which unfortunately quickly ran the style into a rut), but he achieved success regardless. Volumes two and three of the Instrumentals series contain more excellent beats, and to this day, fans clamor for full-length album collaborations with Lil B and A$AP Rocky that sadly never materialized.
Based In The Rain
With all due respect to Clams, Keyboard Kid was actually the most important based producer of them all. He was producing for the Based God right from the start, and played a key role in developing the influential rapper’s aesthetic. Keyboard Kid may also simply have the edge in in numbers, as he has likely produced more Lil B songs than anybody else. Based In The Rain is an essential sample of their collaboration, featuring beats from 6 Kiss and more now-classic Based World releases.
Many of these trakcs were made before the cloud rap style fully crystalized, and you can fancifully imagine Keyboard Kid tinkering his way towards it. There are plenty of the floating mood pieces one would expect, but certain details still nod towards older tropes. ‘Chase The Rain’ and ‘Wishes’ feature classic recognizable samples; ‘Transformers’ chops cartoons in a way strongly reminiscent of MF Doom; chipmunked vocals and southern rap drums make occasional appearances. These moments are incredibly important because they illustrate how the based sound didn’t in fact represent the violent about turn away from tradition that many assumed. Both Lil B and Keyboard Kid were fans and students of hip-hop history, and their works were built on its foundation. They just had some very original notions on how to evolve the sound.
Instrumentals Volume 1
Silky Johnson has worked with Lil B, Main Attrakionz, Western Tink and eventually A$AP, but he never really fully embraced the cloud rap sound. Plenty of his tracks were mellow and weird enough to fit the designation, but also more dynamic and less ambient. In an early interview, he refers to Three 6 Mafia as a main source of inspiration, and while Silky’s music is nowhere near as dark it does have a similar momentum.
Instrumentals Volume 1 collects his earlier work, and is his most consistent release. His official debut Hater Of The Year is not far behind in quality, but was marred by the decision to reserve some of the best beats for a future Western Tink album. While Hater Of The Year is psychedelic and intense, Instrumentals has a surprising almost-Balearic streak running through it. It intermittently reminds of yachts, slow disco and cocaine, giving the tape a certain sleaziness. This air of hedonism may be what sets this tape apart from its more based contemporaries, and was no doubt the reason Silky was picked up to produce for The Weeknd.
DJ Burn One
The Ashtray is perhaps my favorite album on the list. Much of Burn One’s career up to this point was an exploration of the relationship between Southern blues and r’n’b and the sub-genre affectionately known as country rap. Assisted by his band Indeed, he made The Ashtray as the culmination of this process.
Burn One’s beats for rappers already had a lush, cinematic quality – his songs were rarely short and sported elements more common to live bands than to traditional rap production. The Ashtray, which plays like a series of tightly-arranged jam sessions, was the next logical step. Here, the aura of country rap was retained but the band looked beyond it to the very heart of the music that inspired it. The plaintive wailing guitar that adorned many a trunk-funk banger as a mere stylistic flourish became Burn One and his band’s main attraction. These classic sounds were refracted through a modern prism, emerging with their soul not only intact but also rejuvenated and transformed into something new and different.
Rock Creek Park
(Mello Music Group, 2011)
I tend to think of Oddissee’s album, along with Burn One’s The Ashtray and Frankie P’s A Hazy Night In The Heights, as parts of a trifecta of 2011 releases which managed to bridge (and maybe even close) the gap between rap production and the music that historically inspired it. Of these three, Rock Creek Park blurs the distinction between hip-hop and its source materials the most.
The title alone is already suggestive of this direction – it’s a reference to The Blackbyrds 70s funk classic of the same name. But Rock Creek Park is much more than just an attempt to reproduce a classic era or explore genre boundaries, its goals are very personal. Inspired by a real place which Oddisee clearly cherishes, the album aims to capture and express the feelings that the producer experienced there, and the live instruments transcend their roles as building blocks of music and become a language through which Odissee communicates his nostalgia to the listener. Hip-hop, soul, funk, jazz are all just turns of phrase in his monologue.
3 ‘N Tha Morning
3 ‘N Tha Morning is certainly a novel idea: an instrumental tribute to DJ Screw composed of Screw tape samples. It is also a useful time capsule of the early 2010s, as it was released at a time when the internet’s corrective obsession with Screw’s work and influence was at an all-time high.
Beyond the novelty, the album is a sturdy, well-constructed set of woozy instrumentals that both echoes the source material and ends up being unique in its own right. The narcotic drag of the music is very obviously inspired by Screw’s signature sound, and his vocal adlibs are peppered throughout. But overall, the approach is more blunt and markedly less nuanced than any SUC tape. There is no discernible curatorial aspect, for example: origins of samples are unrecognizable. Instead, the aim is to create texture, and individual tracks are not purposefully blended but melt into each other. From the opening notes of the intro the listener is simply plunged into a murky depth, staying there until the end, entirely swaddled without a chance to come up for air.
In the bigger picture, this album stuck out as an example of instrumental hip-hop branching out into a new locale. Most of the significant entries into the established canon came from the North East or West Coast, and sounded like it. Albums like 3 ‘N Tha Morning and DJ Burn One’s The Ashtray represented The South taking its rightful place alongside them.
A Hazy Night In The Heights
(Uptown Collective, 2011)
The final piece of the trio of albums I previously mentioned in the Odissee blurb, A Hazy Night in the Heights is the noir-ish jazz counterpart to the swamp blues of The Ashtray and the warm, soulful jazz of Rock Creek Park.
‘The Heights’ of the title are a reference to Washington Heights and other similarly-named areas of upper Manhattan, a diverse and lively but sometimes overlooked part of New York City. Frankie’s music paints this sprawling collection of neighborhoods with a romantic and nostalgic glow. As is often the case with romantic visions, the images conjured in the listener’s mind are never clear – they are obscured with the haze of the title as it settles over the streets in the pre-dawn hours; exhaust from cars and steam from grates spilling down the name-checked Dykeman St; the smoke exhaled from the lungs of the denizens of this nocturnal milieu.
The tone is dark throughout but never menacing, just sad and regretful. The songs are meditations on broken dreams still being dreamed and lost loves still being pursued. But Frankie doesn’t mourn for the place or the people who populate it, instead he finds the beauty in the streets.
Stars and Lights
Eric G is best known for being on the in-house production team for 9th Wonder’s Jamla label, but his discography also includes this little-known instrumental gem. Not unlike Blue Sky Black Death’s Lean Night Cinema, Stars And Lights resides somewhere in the ether, but Eric G’s take on this cosmic space is less expansive and tighter parsed than the Seattle duo’s. Percussion is more prominent and the arrangements are more conservative and far more rap-friendly. Welcome dips into old school synth and electro suggest something like Jan Hammer scoring a sci-fi show in the style of Miami Vice. There’s a surprising spiritual element too, suggested by sampled snippets of a sermon and a voicemail from the artist’s grandmother. It’s far-out music but with a personal touch.
Kings And Them
The notion that Evian Christ barely heard of cloud rap or footwork before making Kings And Them always seemed dubious to me – the evidence in my headphones points too strongly to the opposite. But credit where it’s due: that combination is a pretty great idea. Mellow melodies juxtaposed with fast drums will always sound cool, and that’s exactly we’re treated do on this mixtape’s best moments.
The very existence of this tape is already unusual and unique in the context of this list, simply because trap (rap!) producers rarely release their instrumentals for public consumption. Beyond that novelty, it’s also an interesting and mildly prescient slice of trap history. And it’s great riding music too.
By 2012 trap was a prominent force in the rap world and was steadily moving outward into new territory. 808 Mafia bosses Lex Luger and Southside had already made their name with the aggressive sound that scored Waka Flocka Flame’s ascension. This tape was their introduction of the next wave of beat makers, who would continue to push this sound forward. Neither Luger nor Southside contributed any music themselves, they instead pointed the spotlight on their teammates and protégés – Trackman (TM88), Tarentino, Purrps and others.
The 23 tracks presented a snapshot of these young talents as they were in the process of refining their styles. Trackman’s turns are especially interesting – not only did they forecast his later work, but ‘Lurkin’ went on to be a successful Waka song. Tarentino and the rest were not quite as fully formed here, but they were growing quickly and would soon land high profile placements of their own.
808s And Dark Grapes 2 and Chandelier are usually considered to be the two best Main Attrakionz albums to date. Of the two, I prefer Chandelier. It was produced entirely by the duo of LWH and Julian Wass under the name Executive Series, and it’s their involvement that puts the album ahead in my eyes.
Rap albums generally tend to benefit from being produced by one person or group: it goes a long way to ensuring cohesion throughout, and that is exactly what happens here. The sound of the album is elevated by a certain eccentricity which Executive Series brought to the table, a willingness to go past the typical based sound created by other frequent MAz collaborators. Both members of the team have made music in multiple genres, including film scores, and their combined experiences resulted in a sequence of synth-driven widescreen soundscapes, with harder edges and a tension that was uncommon in cloud rap’s airy repertoire. The “harder edges” thing is literal – the percussion here at times sounds suspiciously like clanging anvils.
Mysterious Phonk Instrumentals
Purrp has always been a much better producer than a rapper. Nobody ever particularly cared about what he was saying on his tracks, and half the time the vocals were unintelligible behind layers of distortion and poor mastering anyway. But that same distortion often obscured the finer points of his production, and that is exactly what makes 4AD’s release of the Mysterious Phonk instrumentals so clutch.
4AD was criticized for urging Purrp to master his music properly, thereby scrubbing off the sonic grime which was one of its unique selling points. But this actually allowed the listener to really appreciate what was hidden beneath the murk. The cleaned up tracks still retain their original menace, but now filled the headphones with a much lusher, more nuanced texture. Small flourishes of synths, reverb, bells and other random effects, previously unnoticed, now came to the forefront to add another compelling dimension to the listening experience. Behind the curtain of fuzz and rambling about Osiris and sucking dick was an artist who really knew how to make a big impression out of small details.
No other releases materialized on 4AD, so we can assume that things didn’t work out, but Purrp did release another fine collection of instrumentals in 2013. And then of course there is ‘London Blues’: a beautiful dusty gem of a beat made for A$AP Rocky’s debut mixtape, which was never officially released but can still be found on Youtube.
Friendzone ultimately turned out to be the quintessential Main Attrakionz collaborators. Clams was the cloud rap guy, of course, but he was a separately established entity whose impact was much wider than one group. Friendzone, on the other hand, came to prominence specifically because their collaborations with Green Ova were so striking and fit so well with the collective’s aesthetic. Their contributions to 808s And Dark Grapes 2 remain the album’s standouts, and the long promised third volume in the series is handled entirely by them.
Collection I sums up the duo’s most notable rap productions to the point of its release, and adds a few loosies from the archives. Presented together, the collection reveals how, in the fairly brief span of their career, Friendzone managed to create cloud rap’s most personal and most ambient manifestations. Their melodies were warm and emotional; tracks like ‘Chuuch’ and ‘Perfect Skies’ enveloped the listener like safety blankets, suggesting a vague bittersweet nostalgia. Even the occasional electronic touches, which in other hands might’ve played as cold and distant, here gained a human dimension. Although none of the tracks originated as Lil B songs, the music projected an aura of serene positivity directly in line with the Based God’s general philosophy.
In a way, the music on Collection I is opposite to the traditional notions of what rap is supposed to sound like. Rap often implies ‘hardness’, whether direct or symbolic, and Friendzone’s work is anything but that. As such it feels fitting that parts of this album remind of neoclassical new age, a genre as conceptually far from rap as one could think. Suggesting that the album bridges that gap would be a stretch, but by placing the two sounds alongside each other, it shows just how delicate rap production can actually be.
By 2013 cloud rap was officially over as a trend, but its influence still loomed. Now trap was transitioning from a rap sub-genre to some vague form of EDM, and Japan landed somewhere in the middle of all this, straddling the divide between the two very different styles. The samples were low-key but not quite ethereal, and the melodies were moody but not quite ambient. Meanwhile the percussion leaned heavily toward Atlanta, but lacked the city’s signature snarl and aggression. Thanks to these traits, the album sounds both like a product of five years of cloud rap and trap, and something altogether new.
25 is a very limited number of spots considering the vast amount of music that has been released during the time period which this list covered. So here are some more interesting artists and titles that fit the concept but for whatever reason didn’t make the list proper.
Dr. No’s Oxperiment & Dr. No’s Etheopium
(Stones Throw, 2007, Disruption, 2009)
Two worthy counterparts to Madlib’s Beat Konducta globetrotting, focused respectively on Middle Eastern psychedelic music and Ethiopian music of the 60s and 70s.
(Modern Love, 2012)
A very cool EP that couldn’t be included for administrative reasons [full disclosure: John Twells is FACT’s Features Editor], but I wanted to at least shout out. The two members of this group, Walker Chambliss especially, played a key part in releasing and promoting some of the best music included on this list. Their own musical endeavour being so good only proves their mettle further.
A little something from the other guy who was in The Pack, who also has maintained a great reputation on the fringes of the rap world. Convulsion is not exactly representative of the ‘alien slap’ style seen in his other solo work, instead it skews more towards downtempo. It’s nothing mindblowing, but remains an interesting and entertaining experiment from a talented producer.
Sela. made some good cloud rap-ish material, but never really broke through outside of a loyal tumblr following. The two Stress tapes where the point where his work really hit its stride. He has since veered off into more abstract territory, and still releases music fairly regularly via Bandcamp.
(Ninja Tune, 2014)
Bannon definitely has the credentials to be on this list, and was actually included in the first draft. Ultimately, however, we decided to leave him off because his most interesting instrumental works seems pointedly focused on moving away from hip-hop toward other genres. See, for example, his intriguing Ninja Tune debut Alternate/Endings, which owes far more to jungle than it does rap.
Ben Niespodziany does great work in curating and collecting instrumental hip-hop for Mishka Bloglin. This double-length compilation is his most epic achievement: a sprawling collection of instrumentals spotlighting notable and up-and-coming producers across the US. Some of the artists it features are already on this list, while many others are likely to make their mark soon enough.
Steel Tipped Dove
A Cabin Record
In the producer’s own words: “I made these tracks in two days while in this weird cabin in way upstate New York and also mushrooms. It was fun and weird and relaxing.” Weird and relaxing is an apt description for the music itself, too.
Tree has been one of the most original producers to surface in the last five years. This collection of instrumentals explores his patented soul trap style.
Lilacs & Champagne
Midnight Features Vol 2: Made Flesh
(Temporary Residence Limited, 2015)
Sleazy rare groove and psychedelia refracted through a hip-hop lens. These guys have released several pretty good albums prior to this one, but they’ve also been steadily improving – Midnight Features Vol 2: Made Flesh is their best work to date.
I don’t even know where to start with writing up this guy, but felt like I had to mention him somehow. In a nutshell: his druggy instrumental sets are heavily inspired by Memphis rap and likely SpaceGhostPurrp, he is insanely prolific, and a budding legend in the deep reaches of the internet underground but barely ever mentioned outside of it. Just go to his Bandcamp, SoundCloud or YouTube and click on anything, it’s all pretty consistent.