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Beginning a career in music production requires ample research in music genres: song forms and structure, instrumentation and other relevant information. There are various sources for such information online but the best way is to analyze songs yourself and discover elements peculiar to the genre. I’m writing this guide to provide insight into mainstream music genres. In this issue we will study the structure of a basic hip hop song. As you know there are various sub-genres and styles within hip hop music however this is a generic hip hop template you could incorporate into whatever style you work in. This article is intended for music producers and rappers but if you are a music lover I think it don’t hurt to learn a thing or two reading this.
Texture-wise, a basic hip hop song contains:
• The vocals (rap or singing).
• The beat.
But I guess you knew that already so I would break it down further.
The vocals in hip hop music is usually a rap (syncopated words that tell a story, show off, and teach). The rap flow and content and a few other elements is what distinguishes one rapper from the other. The rapper may decide to present their message by singing, which could still qualify as rap by our definition. The rapper may decide to rap behind the beat, stay on the beat or be slightly ahead of time depending on what they want to achieve. For detailed information on how to rap, you can read The Rapper’s Handbook by Flocabulary. Now we can move on to the beat.
The Beat in a hip hop song is the rhythmic foundation on which the song thrives. The beat can be broken down into:
- Drum line (main rhythmic foundation made up of kick drum, snare drum, hats and in some cases claps).
- Bass line (supports the drums and keeps the song moving. Consists of bass instruments such as bass guitar, 808 drums and in some cases double bass).
- Lead (usually the main melodies that make the song unique. Pianos, guitars and synths can be used for lead melodies).
- Supporting orchestration (synth pads, string sections and horns to provide additional texture).
- Add-on’s (these are samples that are added to give character to the beat. Examples include scratches, hits and vocal effects).
These elements either occupy the foreground or background in the song. Foreground elements are those that engage the listener’s attention the most whereas background elements stay in the background and support the song. So in a hip hop song containing the above mentioned template we could deduce the foreground and background elements as:
Foreground: The vocals, drum line, bass line, lead.
Background: Supporting orchestration, Add-on's.
Hip hop is a genre with a fairly easy form or structure, partly because the rap is the center of attention, and much of the rap’s content tells a story which tends to invoke a sense of continuity. In other to emphasize the message, hip hop employs a straight forward structure as a result.
Some common structures and forms in hip hop songs are:
1. Intro / Verse / Hook / Verse / Hook / Verse / Hook x2/ Outro.
2. Intro / Hook / Verse / Hook / Verse / Hook / Bridge /Hook x2/ Outro.
3. Intro / Verse / Outro.
The verse sections usually consist of the rap. The hook is a recurring part that summarizes the main song idea and it could be sung, spoken or combination of both. As shown in the third example some songs don’t have hooks, just a continuous three or four minutes of rap. Some songs also contain a bridge section which may range from spoken word or instrumental solo to something totally unmusical in order to throw in a brief variation. It is worth noting that there are no rules regarding intros and outro’s and some songs do not have them. Others may have an intro section and no outro or the other way round. Nevertheless, some hip hop musicians such as Kanye West have been known to shake things up a bit. Others like rap duo Macklemore and Ryan Lewis have tried unconventional structures as a result of their fusion of funk and pop music with hip hop.
Music form or structure is organized into bars. Here is a general hip hop structure template:
- Intro (commonly used 4 – 8 bars, rare/uncommonly used 2, 12 – 16 bars)
- Verse (common 8 – 16/12 bars, uncommon 10, 15 bars or odd numbered bars)
- Hook (common 4 – 8/12/16 bars, uncommon 10, 15 bars or odd numbered bars)
- Bridge (common 4 – 8 bars, uncommon 12 bars and above)
- Outro (4 - 8/16 bars, uncommon more than 16 bars)
Additional mathematics include tempo and time signature or BPM (beats per minute). Hip hop songs range from 70 BPM (very slow) to 140 BPM (faster). The tempo is dependent on the sub-genre or style one wants to work in, but instance a typical rap song should be in the 85 – 110 BPM region whereas a trap song could go as high as 140 BPM.
Time signatures can be experimented with but most hip hop songs are made in 4/4, 4/8 and 6/8 time. In a basic hip hop song in 4/4 time the kick drum is usually on beat 1 and in most cases beat 3, snare drum takes beat 2 and 4 whereas the hats occupy the off beats in between the main beats. Rhythmicity is an important element in hip hop music so it is important to develop very rhythmic drum lines (grooves).
This is how hip hop songs are arranged generally, but you should listen and figure out more structures of the various sub genres in hip hop and incorporate them into your works.