I recently wrote a two-part feature for FACT magazine on beat tapes which was published this past week.
The idea for this feature originated with Primus Luta, following a piece he wrote on Dilla and beat tapes in February last year. The practice of beat tapes within the tradition of hip hop production is something I’ve discussed to varying degrees in many interviews – not least because of the Dilla and Madlib tapes which everyone references sooner or later in discussions. However it was Primus’ piece which first made me think about looking at them in more detail and then potentially integrating that into the narrative of the book.
As a result, during the most recent round of interviews I’ve started discussing in more details the idea that beat tapes have evolved from a behind the scenes pratice into a valid release format. In turn these discussions fed the core idea for the feature, and a short extract from my most recent interview with Black Milk was included in the footnotes of the article. The idea for the feature was to trace a history of beat tapes within hip hop, something I quickly realised is a lot more difficult than I thought as the origins of the practice are seemingly shrouded in mystery (so to speak). Still I’ve attempted to pull together what I think is a fairly logical and solid first draft of a history of beat tapes. In fact, I think it’s solid enough that I’ve decided to use the feature as the skeleton for the beat tape narrative within the book. Now I have to continue to flesh out this history of beat tapes and also decide how best to fit this narrative within the book’s wider narrative – either as a stand alone chapter, or woven throughout the book when logical (I’m thinking it’s most likely going to be the latter as it wouldn’t make a lot of sense to have a chapter that goes through 40 odd years of hip hop amid a book that’s going to unfold chronologically from the 90s to the 2010s).
A few things were cut/edited out of the final version that FACT published. There’s one particular paragraph (towards the end, before the conclusion) which I’d like to include here as I feel it’s worth mentioning and adds more context to the second part of the feature (see below) which is a list of my favourite beat tape/beat tape-like releases.
While the online boom in beat tapes begins to take shape, parts of the underground continue to turn out physical releases clearly inspired by the practice. Most notable among those are Waajeed in Detroit, with the BPM Instrumentals 12″s in 2003, the highly slept-on Kan Kick, AmmonContact’s Beats from Bina’s House LP, released on Prefuse’s Eastern Development label in 2003, and Madlib’s brother Oh No, with Dr. No’s Oxperiment in 2007 kickstarting a series of beat tapes as instrumental albums. Egon’s Now Again label would in fact take the concept one step further with its Vs Now Again series by opening its archive to producers like Oh No and using the results as modern library music for synch.
This list fleshes some of the ideas in the main feature further and also includes some additional names which were edited/cut out.
In addition to all this a few people on Twitter got in touch to point out some releases that might be relevant to the story as well as ommissions – if anyone else has anything solid that could contribute to filling the gaps in the story of beat tapes please get in touch (contact page in the top menu).
Wrongtom mentions the 1987 release of BDP’s Criminal Minded (Hot Club Versions) as another early instance of a fully instrumental album. According to Tom, Chill Bill grew frustrated with having to press dubplates for the live shows and so instead cut the whole album as instrumentals to use live. Considering the popularity of the release it was then a small leap of logic to just release it and cash in. As such Hot Club Versions is a slightly different type of instrumental release, but it definitely fits in somewhere in the history of beat tapes. [If anyone has any exact details/sources for the Chill Bill story let me know]
Dart Adams for his part pointed out that the Zulu Beats show which started on WHBI in 1983 is an important ommission in the early parts of the story. I actually remember reading about the show elsewhere but finding solid historical information is going to require a bit more research than a quick google search. More on that later than, an in the meantime same again: if you know of anything relevant please let me know. Dart then also pointed out a bunch of other releases from the 80s worthy of inclusion such as Tuff City Breaks, 45 King’s Color Series (which was actually in the first draft of the article, but I opted to focus on the 1988 album), Simon Harris’ Drum Crazy and Royal House’s Can You Party? album from 1988.
All of which definitely adds to my idea that the late 80s is when the first releases that bear any resemblance to what we could come to think of as instrumental hip hop start to appear. There’s more to it than that of course. For one I’m pretty sure that instrumental electro releases predate some of these mainly NYC/East Coast releases by a few years. Still it’s something worth underlining and I’ll return to this in the future as I do more research and flesh out the history of the beat tape and instrumental hip hop releases.
Update: there’s definitely something in the air at the moment. Hours after posting this and wrapping up my work on beat tapes for now I came across this: for Cassette Store day Stones Throw put the remaining copies of the Madvillain demo tapes on sale.