Hip Hop: The Instruments

  

Hip hop was unique in that the music was usually produced without a traditional backing band. DJs usually pieced together the music using samples of exsisting songs.
This section deals with the tools and instruments used by hip hop DJs/producers.

One of the fundamental tools used by DJs obviously is the record player. Almost always this means a Technics SL1200 mkII. Two of these joined by a small mixer is the usual rig.
The Technics SL1200 was originally introduced in 1973 for home HiFi use. However, it achieved wider professional use than Technics equivalent professional turntable because it was less cumbersome to transport and use due to it having a 11" platter opposed to the 15" platter of the .......
Early on, DJs started using the SL1200 as an instrument in its own right by using "breaks". The term break derived from "breakdown", the part of disco and funk record where the arangement breaks away leaving only the drums and occasionally, the bass.
If a DJ had two copies of the same record, he or she could use the two to indefinetly loop the breakdown forming a rhythm section on which to base a new song on. One could easily imagine the new parts placed in the "new" songs were usually boastful rappers on a microphone.

  •  sample icon Sugarhill Gang - Rappers Delight

    This 1979 release is often incorrectly claimed as the first hip hop record. That aside, it is a classic example of a rapper blabbing over the breakdown section of a disco record - in this case the disco song was "Good Times" by Chic.

One pioneering hip hop dj to gain widespread fame was Grandmaster Flash who to make it easier to use two turntables at once built his own mixer to mix the signals of both decks. Nothing unusual about that however, his mixer desk was unique at the time in that it not only had fader pots to control the volume of each deck, but it also had one extra fader that could increase the volume of deck A while simultaneously decreasing the volume of deck B. Thus, the "cross-fader" was invented.

Cross-faders nowdays come in many different configurations with the linear and scratch being the most popular.
The linear cross-fader has gradual gradients with both A and B being at full volume in the centre position. This configuration allows for smooth fading between the two tracks.
The Scratch-Fader, as it is often called, looks and feels much the same as the linear however the gradients of it are remarkably different. The scratch-fader feature very steep gradients at each end to the slider with both decks being at full volume right throughout the centre of travel. This configuration allows for easier scratch mixing as it allows one deck to be switched from minimum to maximum volume with a simple flick of the fader rather than complete movement from extreem ends to the centre.

  • sample icon Some bullshit mix by some wanker dj

    I must find a mix that clearly demonstrates crossfading between two tracks.

In 1978 an Australian company introduced the first sampling machine, the Fairlight CMI. This machine was revolutionary with the ability to record a sound (any sound), analyse it and allow the operator to play the sample back at any tone on it's built-in full width keyboard.
Suddenly DJs (who could afford one) had a new device which made the process of sampling records a much less labour intensive task. Many Artists who embraced the Fairlight CMI right from the start include Afrika Bambaataa, Herbie Hancock, .......
With the advent of sampling machines, sampling soon grew from simple looping of breakdowns to taking pieces from many different songs and pasting them together in clever ways to create not just rhythm sections but full melodies as well.

  • sample icon John Farnham - You're the Voice

    Farnham's 1987 album "Whispering Jack" made extensive use of the Fairlight CMI sampling machine. The handclap at the beginning of "You're the Voice" is a classic instrument patch included with the Fairlight.

One more new product that was extensively used by DJ's was Roland's TR808 drum machine. Introduced in 1981 to replace the companies previous drum machine, the CR-78, the TR808 was a fully analogue drum synthesizer with a built in sequencer. The sequencer was the only part of the machine that included digital electronics.


The TR808's electronics were simple oscillators comprising of just transistors, capacitors, ressitors, etc. It contained no specialised components. With the exception of the sequencer circuit, everything inside the TR808 were common passive components that could be bought quite cheaply over the counter at your local Radio Shack any day of the week. Such simplicity has inspired many electronic hobbyst to attempt to clone the curcuitry (including myself). Circuit diagrams are easily found on the internet.

After reading the above review you may be thinking that the TR808 is a useless machine that sounds nothing like what a drum kit should sound like and is only suitable for use as a kids toy. This is entirely true. However, hip hop producers embraced the machine and all involved fell in love with it. Especially for its particularly strong kick drum which could get a subwoofer really pumping.

Strangely enough, no other genre of music used the TR808 very much. Other forms of '80s and '90s dance music usually used the later drum machine from Roland, the TR909. The 909 was quite similar to the 808 but with a punchier kick drum. Also the TR909's hi-hats, ride and crash cybals differed from the TR808 in that these sounds were actually digital samples stored on ROM chips rathar than being synthesized by analogue curcuits like the 808.
Such is the popularity of the machine that a much used 25 year old TR808 can still pull prices over the US$1000 mark. They often show up for sale on ebay with massive amounts of interest shown by potential buyers.