I can barely remember what I had for dinner yesterday, but I vividly remember the first time I heard E-40. It was an audio epiphany. Growing up on the east coast as a stereotypical rap nerd, if the music didn't have DJ Premier scratches, it wasn't hip-hop. I dismissed much of the music coming out of the west coast as shallow, technically lacking, drowned in bass and percussion. But here, on this Oakland sidewalk, with my new roommate blasting "
" out his car, it all made sense. That slap...of course you needed that slap when most of the music out here. Precision scratching might sound dope when you're pressing your headphones against your ears to keep warm in an east coast summer, but put that same music on the west coast, the land of the cookout, when most people spent more time in their cars than their homes, and all that subtlety would just evaporate into the air.
In retrospect, it felt stupidly obvious. Of course
you heard the music, and the system you heard it on, mattered. It wasn't until I heard
Round of Applause
in an Atlanta club that I realized it was the greatest song ever. All that bass, those high hats, sounded like a muddy mess coming through my computer speakers, but in this club, with the vodka in the bottles
, it was perfect.
The point is, the average fan may spend hours dissecting the music they hear, but they spend relatively little time thinking about
they're hearing it. Maybe that album, that song, that beat, you dismissed as "eh" isn't so "eh" at all. Maybe you're just not listening to it the right way, in the right environment. Maybe you just literally can't hear the layers of complexity in the music, layers producers and mixers spent hours obsessively tweaking, through those iPhone ear buds. It's like ordering foie gras in a four-star restaurant, then covering it in ketchup.
And truth be told, I'm no different. I listen to music all the time, and pronounce judgement on it, through my shitty lap top speakers and ear buds. If you're going to make me put on my headphones, let alone put the song on my monitors, it better be worth it.
Most of the time, it's not worth it, because the artist made their music through those same computer speakers, and when that song gets called up to the big leagues - the headphones or better yet the studio monitors - it sounds flat, lifeless, one-dimensional. Often, the easiest way to tell if an artist is actually serious about their music, serious enough to be taken seriously by other professionals, is to listen to the quality of the mix.
The proliferation of Beats By Dre, and other premium headphones, may seem like a solution, and certainly they're better than ear buds, but sweet baby jesus help the artist who mixes their music in Beats. Catering to average, bass-loving consumer, Beats puts huge boost into their headphones. But mix your music in Beats and then play it on any other speaker or headphone and the bass will be so shattering loud you won't be able to hear a word of the vocals, never mind the more subtle elements of the beat.
I'm well aware that the average fan has the few hundred dollars to plunk down on some truly top line headphones, and I'm not some audio nerd who's going to demand that people start listening to FLACs instead of mp3s. But I do want to preach at least a few pages of the gospel of audio quality because as someone who truly loves music, I know how much it can matter. As a real-time experiment, I'll listen to ScHoolboy Q's "Studio" in my ear buds and then in my nicer headphones.
In my ear buds, that "ah" vocal sample at the 1:10 sounds like it's coming straight at me, flat. But in my headphones, it sounds like it's panning subtly from my right to left ear, making it sound more like I'm being surrounded. (Related note, TDE's Ali consistently delivers some of the best mixes in the game, which is the kind of thing you can start to appreciate when you can actually hear the mix.
I know this is starting to read like a novel, so let me close up. Here's the point:
Music isn't a one way street, from artist to you. Especially in 2014, we can be such passive consumers. But the truth it, you can profoundly affect how you experience music, by being conscious of what environment you're listening in and how you're listening to it. I hear "rappers don't make classic albums" anymore, but would you even notice a classic album if you were listening to it through your laptop speakers while simultaneously updating Facebook and scrolling through Tinder.
If you're an artist, at the very least owning some high quality headphones is an absolute must. You're not going to be successful if you're not mixing your music well, and you just can't mix unless you can actually - actually, actually - hear what you're mixing.
This article's been brewing in my head for a minute, but I didn't want to write it until I could also actually do something about it. That's why we partnered with Razer to give away one pair of their
. These are professional quality headphones for artist, producers and of course DJs who literally depend on audio quality to pay their rent - and of course fans who want to listen like a professional.
You can enter the contest below or
right here. Regardless, happy listening....
UPDATE: We've selected a winner and the contest is now closed. Congrats to Jessica Claudio.
[Nathan S. is the managing editor of The DJBooth, the proprietor of RefinedHype, and a hip-hop writer. He also occasionally talks in podcast form and appears on RevoltTV. His beard is awesome. This is his Twitter.]