Unlike its bigger, more well-known siblings in the hip-hop subgenre hierarchy, instrumental hip-hop still hasn’t had its true breakout moment. And truth be told, it probably never will. We as music addicts tend to prefer music with words, be they meaningful and deep, melodic and fluffy, or some combination of other adjectives. Really, we’re at a point where instrumental music doesn’t reside on the same plane as its vocal-laden siblings. And that’s okay! As much as I love jazz, I’ve come to terms with the fact that I could put on Blue Train and most people would either think nothing of it or start wondering if they had been teleported to a cafe.
But that doesn’t take anything away from instrumental hip-hop. Much like the jazz to which it’s forever indebted, people either come around immediately to it or have some kind of experience that keeps them listening.
But without a massive amount of listeners or not, instrumental hip-hop will endure and, more importantly, prosper. That much has been evident following the biggest releases in the subgenre, such as groundbreaking albums from DJ Shadow and J Dilla. On the surface, these two producers and their respective “big” records couldn’t be more different, what with Entroducing’s beautiful and sprawling canvas and Donuts’ choppy, emotional, and immense movements.
At their core they’re really not that different at all. While their intentions may have not necessarily been exactly the same, what you get from listening to these two artists is their desire to manipulate sound without relying on the addition of someone else’s voice. The voice, in this case, is established by the manner in which they chop up, loop, and layer samples. And that right there, for me, is what keeps me coming back to instrumental hip-hop. It’s also why I think that if you’ve felt anything I’ve read here, you owe it to yourself to listen to other albums on this list too.
Let’s just get this one out of the way, shall we? Genres, and by extension subgenres, are shaped by moments. And for instrumental hip-hop, there has arguably been no bigger moment than the release of Donuts. Here is an album brimming with more chopped-up samples than you could probably ever need. An album that the artist, James “J Dilla” Yancey, literally made while on his deathbed (it was released three days before his tragic death on Feb. 10, 2006). An album that paved the way for so many aspiring beatmakers to think, “Hey, I could do more than just pass around beat tapes to rappers and singers. I could make ‘albums’ out of this stuff!” An album that could make you cry without any vocalists on it or cheap melodic tricks. Donuts isn’t just the best instrumental hip-hop album to own on vinyl or some other medium; it’s one of the best albums period.
Ah yes, the other “moment” for instrumental hip-hop—the first moment, really, given its release in 1996. Entroducing is one of those albums you’ll always remember hearing for the first time. While I could blather on about its placement in musical history, how it influenced so many other artists (notably the blokes in a little band known as Radiohead), and shaped what many people consider to be instrumental hip-hop as we know it, I’ll skip that. Because for me—and I’m guessing so many others—DJ Shadow’s full-length debut opens your mind up to so many different sounds that you probably never knew existed. But the thing is, it doesn’t shove its perceived “difficulty” in your face. Sure, stuff gets weird on certain tracks—“Stem/Long Stem"/"Transmission 2” in particular—but the oddities are balanced by the otherworldly beauty of, say, “Changeling (Transmission 1).” Never mind the fact it’s all so expertly crafted and (I’ll be using this word kind of often) layered that you can’t really stop listening once you start. There isn’t that much art I’d qualify as perfect from the past two decades, but Entroducing? Yeah, it’s perfect.
To list everything Madlib has done in his career thus far would be exhausting, so here’s the deal: do your googles if you need some background. And yet, in spite of his wide-reaching accomplishments, many of us still think of him as a producer first. And much like his late friend J Dilla, Madlib dropped his finest instrumental effort in 2006 with Vol.1-2: Movie Scenes. It may not have the same cohesive vibe as Donuts, but the intended concept definitely works. Basically, the 36-track album plays out like a soundtrack to a film playing in Madlib’s head, and it’s one anchored by old-school samples that range from '70s funk and soul to '90s-era rap bangers (the M.O.P.-sampling “Sir Bang (Bounce)”). But what you really get from Movie Scenes—aside from a fortune’s worth of killer beats—is a display of true artistic chops from one of the greatest producers of our time.
Entroducing may have come first (in 1996), but RJD2’s debut album, Deadringer, is an equally astonishing display of what can be accomplished through sampling. And while RJ flirts with going full-on experimental on his 2002 debut, he grounds the album through the inclusion of a few vocal features (frequent collaborators Blueprint, Jakki Da Motamouth, and Copywrite) and incredible sample layering. As a result, these are (mostly) fully realized songs, choruses and all, and not just off-kilter collections of sounds. That’s really a testament to RJ’s inherent talents as a songwriter, as he displays both a gift for the craft and a knack for flipping a variety of sounds. On “Good Times Roll Pt. 2,” he delivers pure and chaotic funk bliss; later on “The Proxy,” he blends dreamlike, stuttering sounds akin to an acid trip; and let’s not overlook the sample-laden hyper-madness of opener “The Horror.” There’s just so much to love and explore on Deadringer, even if you might get stuck playing “The Horror” on repeat.
Amidst a breakout year featuring a placement on Kendrick Lamar’s superb To Pimp a Butterfly and standout EP with Anderson. Paak, L.A.-based producer Knxwledge dropped his debut full-length on the legendary Stones Throw label. And even though he kind of denies the existence of a proper narrative on Hud Dreems, he also admitted that he it was conceptualized similarly to a “hood film.” No matter his angle, there’s definitely something running through the veins of this album’s 26 tracks (and fantastic vinyl-only B-sides, for that matter) thanks to the use of samples from Belly, tracks by the likes of Nas and Erykah Badu, and other strategically placed elements. That being said, you could strip away any notions you have of a narrative on here and still have one hell of a collection of beats. If nothing else, it stands as his most potent statement yet in what’s becoming a seriously massive discography.
Ohbliv may come across as an outlier on this list, given that the Richmond, Va., producer isn’t as “well-known” as his cohorts. But dude’s right up there with Knxwledge in terms of carrying Dilla’s torch. And like Knx (with whom he’s collaborated in the past), Ohbliv has a pretty huge discography to his name that boasts full-lengths projects, leftovers-filled EPs, and collaborative efforts. Up is one of those full-lengths that exemplifies why he’s such a damn-good producer. He captures the warmth of the vinyl he’s sampling from and lets it breathe into the digital realm (and physical, if you can find Up on vinyl). ‘Bliv also utilizes bass that thumps as much as it lightly hums across the album, allowing you to mentally capture the calming nature of the cover art through his meticulous chopping of funk, R&B and jazz samples. “Cherripop” is a personal favorite, so peep that if you need any more convincing.
Oddisee has been on such a tear since 2013’s The Beauty In All that it’s easy to get swept up in his more recent material (like his fantastic pay-what-you-want AlWasta EP or last year’s The Good Fight). A big reason for that is it feels like he’s really found his voice as an artist, especially where his instrumentals are concerned. His sound has truly expanded as he’s moved from a “beatmaker” to a true producer. His is instrumental music rather than beats—though his beats were fucking good, too!—and that much is evident on The Beauty In All. There’s so much to love here, from the layers of opener “After Thoughts” to the funk of “Fievre” to the swagger of “Caprice Down 301.” And hell, if you want to just hear some beats from Oddisee, look back to projects like Odd Seasons, Rock Creek Park, and Traveling Man. He’s got plenty to go around.
For me, I’m not sure if anyone will ever touch the magic that is “They Reminisce Over You” and its brassy, beautiful beat crafted by NYC rap architect Pete Rock. Of course, Pete himself has accomplished more than just the soaring gorgeousness of “T.R.O.Y.,” but I’ll forever argue that he’s at his best while blending jazz and boom-bap. And on his first instrumental album, 2001’s PeteStrumentals, he delivered a slew of tunes made for snapping necks and soundtracking only the most laid-back afternoons. That’s particularly true during a three-track stretch in the album’s middle. He straight-up glides from the aptly titled “Smooth Sailing” right into the brilliance of “Pete’s Jazz” and its super-layered chorus, all before delivering the mindfuck that is “The Boss.” It’s boom-bap at its core, what with its horn stabs, funk riffs, and slapping drums. However, there’s something about how he twists the sample on “The Boss” into different shapes that’ll leave you questioning why you haven’t been listening to Pete Rock more intently lately.
I’m not sure there’s a more influential artist in the “beat scene” right now (and really in the post-2010 era) than Flying Lotus. I’m also not terribly sure that I feel OK qualifying any of his full-length albums as “hip-hop,” aside from his actual rap record under his Captain Murphy alias. But when I first heard Los Angeles back in the summer of 2008, I couldn’t help describing it as anything but hip-hop. FlyLo’s toyed with nearly every genre in his nearly flawless catalogue, though his roots are undoubtedly in boom-bap—or, at least, its fringes. Tracks like “GNG BNG” (which Blu killed), “Melt!”, and “Breathe Something/Stellar Star” aren’t “hip-hop” in the traditional sense, but they absolutely flirt with the genre’s boundaries. And, really, isn’t that element of FlyLo’s approach—never really sitting within any musical confines—so captivating from the jump? Oh, and let’s not forget the fact he made one of the best rap singles of the past few years with Kendrick Lamar. That said, if you want the producer at his most instrumental hip-hop-tinged, find a copy of Los Angeles.
Thanks to his own villainous ways (or bullshit, depending on your stance) and various album delays (namely the DOOMSTARKS record), MF DOOM’s legacy has taken its fair share of hits. But it’s had an equal number of soaring highs, thanks in part to his outstanding work as a producer. Whether crafting beats for himself or others, the masked villain (who releases his instrumentals under the Metal Fingers moniker) has a style that’s just as recognizable as it is addicting. That’s entirely due to his three trademark beat traits: old-school sci-fi movie samples, dizzying loops, and drums that are super-tough and/or dusty. And I’ve placed this collection at the end for a good reason: it’s an outlier in the sense that there’s no real progression or concept to be found on here. As a result, I almost left it off. But DOOM’s work as a producer is sometimes ignored for his incredible talents as a rapper, so dude deserves this shine.
Further studies: pretty much anything with a hip-hop focus by Nujabes, Oh No, Blockhead, L’Orange, Black Milk, Apollo Brown, Damu The Fudgemunk, 9th Wonder, Nicolay, Blue Sky Black Death, Freddie Joachim, Elaquent, and many others. This list also excludes projects where it’s a collection of tracks that previously had vocals, see the instrumental versions of anything from Dan The Automator, El-P, Clams Casino, Alchemist, DJ Premier, and other fantastic producers whose work deserves mentioning.
Andrew Martin is the head of content for Ayima, who has written about music for Bandcamp, Vinyl Me, Please, Potholes in My Blog and Complex.
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