A Good Ass Question: How Important is a Good Ear for Beats?

March 20, 2012 14 comments

Hip-hop is an artform as indebted to its conceptual atmosphere as it is to its performers. To save a rambling, antiquated historical recap, recall the early days of the MC/DJ dynamic; The Eric B & Rakim dynamic, if you will. The bond between the rapper and the individual behind the turntables isn’t exactly necessary in the same context nowadays, but through the various annals of hip-hop eras, the producer has remained the one constant for the modern MC.

There was a time when the “in-house” beatmaker was the guy who laid the foundation for your sound. Collaborative endeavors, for recording purposes, gave way to DJ’s stepping into the producing field, like Scott La Rock in BDP, or Ali with A Tribe Called Quest. But, in today’s “beats-for-hire” culture, the emphasis on production has shifted to, seemingly, whoever’s got the hot hand. Take Nas, for example. His production braintrust of DJ Premier, Pete Rock and Large Professor still stands as half of the allure for his debut, Illmatic, yet Nas himself continues to be shaded by the shadow cast from that 18 year old LP. We all know Nas is, at worst, Top Five, Dead or Alive, and he’s certainly still got “it” (exhibit A, exhibit B), but it almost goes without saying that, historically, the guy has an absolutely anemic taste in instrumentals. It’s indicative of how divisive the latter chapters of his catalog can be for longtime fans. That realization brought up an interesting question, though: Could Nas’ illustrious resume be elevated even higher if his ear for beats was, well… Better?

That thought, conversely, led to an even more perplexing question: Can an MC’s ear for beats really determine how you perceive them as a whole?

To reach a conclusion, at least on my part, I had to break the thesis down into three distinct categories. Each representing varying styles of MC’s that benefit most from his or her relationship with a producer.

Theory 1: The Chameleon MC

Names such as Jay-Z, Andre 3000 and Mos Def come to mind immediately when I consider an MC who can blend into, virtually, any beat put before them. Lyricists with a vocabulary and cadence so maleable that it can seem as though they made the beat themselves. Aside from the previous staples, though, we don’t see many definitive artists who can shape-shift into what a beat requires, today. I look at Rick Ross as that type of MC, for instance. A rapper who can veil glaring lyrical shortcomings by entrusting his sound, and image, with a revolving door of critically impressive producers. And, as much as I’d like to nitpick his entire career, Ross has done a great job, recently, with fitting his voice into brash, cacophonous Lex Luger beats, while still being capable of conveying his gangsta-lothario persona on a luscious J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League instrumental. To an extent, Lil Wayne has made a career of that by exploiting the “jackin-for-beats” trend of the mixtape era. But, it’s not just being able to rhyme over a beat that defines a “Chameleon MC”, it’s being able to get inside of the beat, making yourself inseparable from that instrumental; A practice lost upon most mainstream artists who, too often, let the production do the talking.

On the other hand, in hip-hop’s ever more influential indie arena, the field is littered with artists who take advantage of a varying collection of production styles. MC’s like Danny Brown and Kendrick Lamar have shown an adept ability in outshining any beat they come across. The latter of whom can shift from inflections of jazz, to languid soul, to damn near gospel with seamless aplomb — Brown’s no slouch either, the guy can make Paul White sound downright natural. And, that’s simply for example’s sake. The list is fairly deep when considering underground MC’s who fit this description.

Theory 2: The Character Rapper

Sometimes, an MC is just as tethered to a production style as they are their stage name. Yet, most of the time, these artists are exposed on features, or drastic departures from their comfort zone. Case in point: Wiz Khalifa. Anyone who proclaims to be a “fan” of Wiz knows of his tendency to slip into bubblegum, pop-radio fodder (evidenced by his first, relative, hit). But, they’d also tell you that his best material usually comes via slow-cooked, spacey instrumentals, vocalized with his, often, benign observations and intrinsic flow. A lack of this, conversely, is what made his major label debut, Rolling Papers, such a disappointment (and also what makes his most recent tape, Taylor Allderdice, somewhat refreshing). There’s an entire crop of weed-rappers today who suffer from the same, confining affliction (Smoke DZA, A$AP Rocky, etc.). On another side of the spectrum, there are rapper’s whose sheer disposition can completely determine how producers present their instrumentals. Drake’s in house beat-smith, Noah “40” Shebib, is like the musical equivalent to the concubines who laid paths of flower pedals for Prince Akeem in Coming to America; he’s not always necessary, and sometimes a bit excessive, but Drake knows how to make that sound work for him. And, in turn, Shebib does the same. That rapper/producer dynamic is one that, while chiefly MC determined, can prove beneficial in forming a cohesive album.

So, being a character rapper, much like being a character actor, isn’t a slight to one’s talent. I mean, how many times have we seen Daniel Day-Lewis pop up after some five year hiatus and steal an Oscar nod real quick? Knowing what makes your sound significant is as big a sign of musical competence as performance is. Curren$y bucks the weed-rap trend by being steadily impressive in his wide array of production choices, while still being able to hone in on what his listeners will respond to. You can even look back to the days of the DMX/Swizz Beats era. It’s almost impossible to tell who’s matching whose energy on tracks like “Keep Your Shit The Hardest”, but that’s the goal: The melding of rapper and producer through kindred energy. Who was Guru without Primo? What were the Clipse without The Neptunes? Character rappers have the freedom to influence producers but, often, their longevity is contingent upon how successful they can be without the safety blanket of familiarity.

Theory 3: The Producer/MC

Of course, there’s no one more familiar with their own sound than the MC who makes his or her own beats. The door that Kanye West kicked open nearly a decade ago with The College Dropout has given entrance to several of today’s more interesting musicians. Direct ascendency of this can be found in an MC like Tyler, the Creator, who composes the majority of his own tracks. The advantage of this is tenfold, and Tyler is an example of an artist who can display his influences proudly, yet avoid smothering his uniqueness. While this may not be a display of an ability to choose a beat, his conceptual “ear” is still a major part of his beat-making process; thus noteworthy. Big K.R.I.T. also handles a lot of his music behind the boards as well, and has shown a stride developing in his sound (especially in his most recent release, 4EvaNaDay). Even my personal favorite producer/MC, MF DOOM, has a way of conveying his taste in beats, all while creating something totally original in the process; and, of course, absolutely killing those instrumentals.

That’s usually the case for most producers who rap. But, then there are also rappers who happen to produce. Take the tragic trajectory of Charles Hamilton’s career. The danger of being a rapper who produces mostly for yourself is that, when it comes to forming a complete body of work, you’ve got to be able to get out of your own way, conceptually. Hamilton seemed to have a trustworthy ear (the guy can chop the hell out of a sample), but his lack of variation stifled his originality. J. Cole might be headed down the same road, in some ways. There’re only so many times you can use those “Welcome” drums before they get stale, Jermaine! It’s not just the young guys who commit these offenses either, Eminem has more duds from outside of the booth than hits. “Renegade” was lightning in a bottle but, let’s be honest, Em and Hov dragged that beat to safety. Still, each of these MC’s has shown a great palate for production. Even if they sometimes can’t meld it into their own sound.


Okay, I got long-winded with the analysis, but you see where I’m coming from here. There’s a lot that goes into simply determining what type of beat enthusiast an MC is, and the choices an artist makes, production-wise, is a glimpse into their mindset. So, considering that notion: does a good ear for beats affect the way that I perceive a rapper? Absolutely.

But, what about you? How much stock do you put in a good ear for beats? Does it depend on what type of MC they are? And, in a medium built on lyricism, is a good ear even that important? Now, that’s a good ass question.