The Importance of Live Instrumentation in Hip-Hop in the Digital Era

For a genre steeped in the digital world, live instrumentation is providing the perfect balance.

Since its inception, hip-hop has always had an interesting relationship with live instrumentation. From the birth of the genre to present day, the sampling of jazz, funk, and soul has been integral to the sound of hip-hop, a blending of analog and digital that spawned an entirely new way of creating music.

Although live instrumentation has always been present, both in studio releases and live performances, it’s been mostly relegated to the underground and superstar-level artists like Jay Z or Kanye West who have complete creative control and a giant budget.

In recent years, however, a shift has brought live instrumentation back into the mainstream. Artists like Kendrick Lamar, Mac Miller, Anderson .Paak, Flying Lotus, and countless others are experimenting with live instrumentation on a larger scale than ever before, with results that are both expanding the boundaries of hip-hop and simultaneously bringing the music back to its jazz and soul-sampling roots.

Producer Dirty Dunnz, who has worked with Ludacris, Twista, Freeway and more, began to notice the shift during regular back-and-forth conversation with artists and managers:

In the past, all I had to do was dig in the crates, find an obscure sample from overseas, chop it up, and put some ill drums with a walking bassline behind it to make a hot beat. However, I noticed the shift when I started getting feedback from artists and managers like, "it's good, but it sounds unfinished."  As a producer, live instrumentation makes you more competitive in a world full of trap producers.

From a release standpoint, the increased inclusion of live instrumentation has allowed artists to diversify their soundscapes and has resulted in landmark projects like Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, an album that could sound just as satisfying performed live as it does in your headphones.

"It's about longevity," says Chicago producer Nascent. "Live instrumentation will never go out of style and it makes for better music."

The real treat of this recent trend manifests in the huge increase in live band-backed performances, which are a breath of fresh air for those that find themselves increasingly underwhelmed by the traditional DJ/emcee performance paradigm. Live instrumentation is not only adding another facet to the performance arena, but it’s offering, at times, inexperienced, up-and-coming emcees the chance to deliver a truly memorable performance.

As “mumble rap” (We’ve got to find a better term.) increases its stranglehold on the hip-hop news cycle and EDM-inspired beats continue to dominate the charts, the balance afforded by live instrumentation is being rightfully cherished by those listeners who like a little warmth to their music.

The use of live instrumentation in hip-hop is far from new, but it’s always refreshing. While both digital and analog have a place within hip-hop, the current balance between the two is looking better than ever.


By Brent Bradley. Follow him on Twitter.

Photo CreditRobinHoodFoundation