There are few art forms that let the consumer in on the creative process. When you purchase a novel, the story has already been told. You can see yourself in the story, have your own reactions to it, but the story is finite, and you cannot impact it at all. Essentially, you are being taken for a ride. When you appreciate a painting, too, the story has been told, no matter how abstractly. You can analyze the painting as you wish, but the base of the story is already there.
The same happens in a rap song. You can see yourself in the lyrics, can hear what you wish to hear in the artist’s delivery, can project whatever feelings you may have unto the feelings of the artist, but the lyrics are the lyrics. We can only take rap interpretation so far before we’re reaching to satisfy ourselves. But we are feeling animals, and we crave outlets for our emotions. That’s where beats come in.
Beats are not exactly blank canvases. The soundscapes are pre-existing, and they propagate a mood inherently. We get the paint for the painting pre-selected, but how we create the picture is ultimately up to us. Beats are not as rigid as novels, raps, or paintings. Beats have a unique quality that allows the listener to find themselves in the work and tell their story.
You can listen to a beat tape, and depending on your mood, walk away from it with one interpretation and then cook up another without much effort the next day. Really, a beat is a choose your own adventure story, and the story is entirely in the hands of the listener.
When I listen to any production, I can talk you into believing the beat is about battling depression, because battling depression is always at the forefront of my mind. I am constantly searching for music to bring me that brand of catharsis, and when I listen to something like Mac Miller’s producer alter-ego, all I hear is what I want to hear. In that way, beats are satisfying.
I can just as quickly tell you a set of beats is about sunny days and warm getaways because also at the forefront of my mind is the desire to escape into somewhere warm and worry-free; beats are amazing in this way because they are not limiting. When rappers say the beats are speaking to them, that they need to rap what a beat is telling them, I believe them, because beats are pliable things. Good production comes with a specific tone, but good production just as well offers you the space to arrange the parts into the story you need to hear about yourself.
When I’m strapped for inspiration, I turn to The Orchid Days, by Nashville producer L'Orange. The 2014 project feels like a lit cigarette burning down past the filter in a dimly lit room; like the pinnacle of what makes noir such a sexy genre of film. The classic movie samples used on “Eventually,” paired with the swing of the leading sample, make the track into an exploration of passion. When I am struggling to remember what it is I love about writing, I turn to “Eventually” as an example of how good it feels to just create.
Both delicacy and obsession exist within The Orchid Days that mimics my obsession with the written word. I see myself in the beats L’Orange crafts, and I see myself in the craft of beatmaking itself. Later, on “Spilled Together,” I hear the vintage sample and think of the purity of the writing process. I think of how easy it is to romanticize the work, just as it is so easy to romanticize the era L’Orange is so adept at flipping on wax. As the track seeps into “The Orchard,” a sense of calm overtakes the tape.
I hear myself falling in love with the process and coming to grips with how words rule everything around me. L’Orange takes the clutter of my mind and translates it into a beautiful picture show with The Orchid Days. Eventually, my roaming thoughts feel like a feature of his work or part of the vocal samples he employs. I come away from The Orchid Days feeling rejuvenated and freshly inspired to create. I hear my most creative self burgeoning in the tape. I hear the story of myself that I am thirsting after. You might hear something different. All of this and L’Orange does not utter a word himself.
Beats can be spaces to reflect in ways that other artforms just cannot offer. That’s not to say beats are perfect mirrors, but rather, they are clear pools of water to peer into. The reverberations are there to throw off the image, but if you focus, you can see all that needs to be seen. Or, in this case, hear all that needs to be heard.
The power of production is such that at any point, the story can change for the listener, and at any point, the listener remains entirely correct in their assumptions about the work. There is no reach when breaking down a good beat because the beat is about the listener.
In that way, producing beats is a somewhat selfless act. It is an express mode of giving, wherein the producer is giving a piece of the listener to themselves without them even realizing. A good beat can strike a chord the listener had no idea needed to be stricken, simply because their mind has free rein over the production. Beats are a space to foster whatever story must be told.
This is why people lose themselves for hours in lo-fi loops on YouTube because it is a safe space to explore your mind and escape who you are, or confront who you are if that’s your tip. The light patter of drums and faint melodies take me to deserted streets and bring me a sense of calm, but they can just as easily transport me elsewhere. That is their beauty: they are omnipotent things.
So, take this as an ode to producers making music that allows their fans to tell their stories. So much of art is passive consumption. We forget that we are active agents in the creative process.
We can build a whole world in our heads after hearing just one beat, and while rappers can tell us a story, producers give us the power to cultivate our own. One is not necessarily better than the other. Rather, they work symbiotically to make hip-hop the genre that gives a voice to everyone.