The Ingredients of Rap Music – Not Always What You Think

The Ingredients Of Rap Music – Not Always What You Think…

As a young (yes, 28 is young still!) white guy from Milton Keynes, I of course gravitated as a teenager towards the urban music. Rap, Grime, R&B, all of them provided some of the best tunes of the last 15/20 years for me. Of course, my parents hate my music taste, something I’m sure many of us have experienced. I remember numerous times in the car as a teenager, and my Dad puts on Radio 2, or mum puts on Radio 4, and I moan that I can’t listen to the new Wu Tang record! Ah, the memories.

Cradle Orchestra

Cradle Orchestra

I suppose one of the reasons my parents hate rap, and also why they don’t like my sister’s love of house music, is because “it all sounds the same”. God, I hate that phrase. If I had a pound for every time I’ve heard the phrase, “All rap music sounds the same”, I’d be a much richer man than I am now.

Now I will concede something, there are certain types of rap music, and these genres can often have a similar theme running through it. There’s conscious rap that often doesn’t have a hard beat, similar to backpack rap. There’s the wild’n’out club rap that makes you want to bang your head and punch the air. There’s the angry militant rap that gets you angry and wanting to fight the power. And yes, large elements of these genres utilise similar rhyming patterns, or excessive use of swear words or, yes, I’m going to type it, the N word (ok, I bottled typing the whole thing J)

But as someone who feels they’ve experienced all forms of western hip hop (and I’ve dabbled in other stuff, I’ve got a banging German hip hop album!), and know for a fact, that it’s way more varied than my parents and many others would think. Yes, hip hop originated with two turntables and a mixer, sampling records and many distorted sounds that created that Public Enemy sound is at the core of Hip Hop music. But I’m going to share some other examples of great hip hop records that feature other instruments. As a guy who did a GCSE 12 years ago in Music (I got a B!), I’m going to help to point out some key instruments that make up a great orchestra, and how they’ve been utilised in Rap over the last 20 years.


Yes, the piano is in the string section of an orchestra technically! It’s hammers hitting strings. But hammers means percussion? Well, it could be anything. But anyway… The origins of this article came from my beautiful iPod Classic, when it decided while I was driving, to play Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ Same Love, followed by Scarface’s My Block. Both amazing tracks. See the piano has been around for 300 years, and it’s unique sound (can be played both softly and hard) and range, allows it to create a variety of melodies. When used in hip hop, the piano can create amazing melodies, and perfectly compliment the traditional drum beats that dominate rap. Two fantastic examples of this are below. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ Same Love, a recent MTV VMA winner, uses the soft piano with some simple drums to sit under his thought provoking lyrics about gay rights equality. And Scarfaces’ My Block from 2002 uses the piano to create a much funkier beat, which gets your neck and shoulders moving. It’s a song reminiscing all about his neighbourhood. The piano is sampled from Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway’s 1972 track Be Real Black For Me, and creates a fantastic sound. And if you need any other examples of this, just go listen to ANY Alicia Keys track.

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis Ft. Mary Lambert

ScarfaceMy Block


There’s one name you need to know when it comes to the strings section in hip hop. Her name is Miri Ben-Ari. She’s an Israeli-born American violinist, and a huge amount of tracks you know and love feature her violin skills. The “Hip-Hop Violinist” (co-incidentally the name of her 2005 album) has worked with Akon, Kanye, Twista, Alicia Keys, Styles P, Janet Jackson, EVERYONE! The violin she plays brings a huge element of class to a track, and gives some great high tones to any song it’s featured on. Two great examples of this, I’ve gone with a LOX theme for this. First of all is Jadakiss’

We Gonna Make It, featuring Styles P. It’s a fantastic bouncy track, and the strings section provides the fantastically large sound that makes this tune extremely memorable. The second is Miri Ben-Ari at her best, with a track called We Gonna Win, again with Styles P. This is shows the variation, as this track is dark, heavy, and makes you wanna scrunch up your face and get ready to fight. Make sure you watch the video, and you’ll see Miri’s skills.

JadakissWe Gonna Make It (Ft. Styles P)

Miri Ben-AriWe Gonna Win (Ft. Styles P)


Horns and brass are a major part of hip hop. I don’t think this one will be a surprise. But I suppose one thing I wanted to talk about here are just how much a good horn section can make a song. It’s a different sound, very tight sounding, but using a French horn can create a much bassier sound, something the really dominates the track. Two extreme examples are below. Wu-Tang used the trumpets in their great track, “Uzi”, which everyone remembers. Their gritty lyrics are fantastic, and the high pitched trumpet plays against it brilliant. On the other end, former member of GUnit, Young Buck’s Get Buck uses the whole brass section to really hit that bass and get the track moving. He’s also more than happy to fill his video with the musicians, great news. I hope Buck is proud of this track…while he’s currently serving time for gun charges (D’oh!)

Wu-Tang ClanUzi (Pinky Ring)

Young BuckGet Buck

So that’s just a few examples to show the different ingredients that go to making a good Hip Hop track, and how different instruments can make your tracks sound completely different. Got any other good examples of instruments being used on tracks? Let us know by leaving a comment below, or tweeting @MusicEyz, or myself @phatslates.

By Dan Slater


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