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In hip-hop, beats do the talking

Essential to a rap hit? It's not the words. The competition, power and money are all pumping in the background.

November 20, 2005|Chris Lee | Special to The Times

MUSIC producers Marcello "Cool" Valenzano and Andre "Dre" Lyon never intended to set off a tug of war among East Coast hard-core rappers. But that's precisely what happened.

Known professionally as Cool & Dre, the pair created a 60-second hip-hop beat they felt perfectly distilled their signature sound: aggressive synthesizers, moodily propulsive drums and an instantly memorable chorus. Then they went looking for a rapper who'd add words, and with luck take their work to the charts.

The trouble began when each, unknown to the other, pitched a different rapper the same "beat" -- as the sequenced combos of drum tracks, synths and recorded samples are known. Lyon sent the track to Fat Joe at the same time Valenzano presented it to Jadakiss.

"Both fell in love with it," Lyon remembers. "Next thing you know, we got a situation."

The producers persuaded Jadakiss to give up the beat. But after two months, Fat Joe decided not to use it. So Lyon and Valenzano shopped the beat to a third rapper, Ja Rule. His manager, Irv Gotti, bought it; then, in a stranger-than-fiction twist, Gotti called Jadakiss and Fat Joe to rap on the song.

The resulting single, Ja Rule's "New York" (featuring Fat Joe and Jadakiss) became a radio hit and club smash in late 2004. And the song's ubiquity into this year was largely credited to its anthemic sound -- its beat -- bringing the beat's exalted status in hip-hop into sharp perspective.

According to a number of top-selling producers and industry observers, the beat has largely superseded the rapper performing over it as the driving force of the industry. And the music's true core today is the instrumental track -- that is, everything but the words.

"The most important elements of a hit in hip-hop are the beat and the chorus," says the Bronx's Fat Joe, who is known for his gritty street-smart rhyme style. "The role of a rapper is getting less and less."

"Sometimes, if you have great lyrics and not a great beat, the people won't pay attention," says Neysa Camacho, manager for beat maker Justin "Just Blaze" Smith, and project manager on hip-hop kingpin Sean "Diddy" Combs' upcoming album. "On the other hand, if you have a great beat and bad lyrics, you can have a hit."

While much of the media have kept their eyes on the faces in the spotlight and rappers' gangsta dramas, the industry and artistry have moved on. If Camacho is right, producers like Cool & Dre are hip-hop's new kingmakers -- and kings.

A burgeoning class of superproducers typified by Kanye West is crossing from behind the mixing board to become top-selling artists in their own right, largely for their ability to build beats with mass appeal.

One of the most highly anticipated albums of the winter is from Pharrell Williams of the dynamic producing duo the Neptunes. And Cool & Dre, who have already been touted as the "next Neptunes" by hip-hop pundits, are following a similar trajectory. Lyon will release his solo album on Violator/Zomba Label Group next year.

"It's gotten to the point where producers are responsible for about 90% of what goes into a record," Smith says. "So a lot of times, the producer is already like an artist themselves."

The image of Eminem verbally battling to the top of the rap heap in "8 Mile" may be lodged firmly in the public imagination, but the real hip-hop action takes place in a much less cinematic setting: an underground market for backing tracks that's governed by strange rules and personal connections. In this seldom-mentioned beat bazaar, 60-second to four-minute beats are bought and sold like so many baseball cards, shopped to different artists and changing hands in the hopes they'll propel a hit.

"You used to write the song and then hire the producer to make the song around it," says Dallas Austin, a platinum-selling producer who has worked with Gwen Stefani, TLC and Michael Jackson. "Now it's flipped on the record industry: beat first, song second."

But that intense focus on hip-hop's most elemental unit, he cautions, may not be a good thing. "The bad part is when you start looking at records as a product like soap or cereal, as mass-produced sounds," Austin says. "You start putting it on the shelf, then at a certain point, it's got nothing further that people feel is special."

Back in the day

ONCE upon a time in hip-hop, the beat was an uncomplicated thing. Before there was a "Hot Rap Tracks" chart and before Run DMC became a household name, DJs mixed together instrumental break-beats from their favorite funk and soul records -- think Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's 1981 hit, "The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel" -- and boomed the do-it-yourself music from outsize speakers.

Listeners responded by dancing -- or didn't. Making real money wasn't even an option.

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