“Ayo, Bring That Beat Back!”: The Evolution of the Instrumental Album

2 Feb

This editorial is being reposted on SpeechIsMyHammer, since its original publishing on NobodySmiling.com in February 2006 is no longer available online.

            In the new issue of XXL, journalist Chairman Mao says, “Most of the time, you’d have to pay me to listen to these ‘instrumental albums.'”
            I agree. For the most part, instrumental albums aren’t worth checking out. They’re primarily full of beats that weren’t previously released either because they were didn’t make the final cut of the artist’s album or, as is the case a lot of the time, were just throwaway beats in the first place that were just sitting in their PCs. With the tracks that compile these instrumental albums having such a “leftover” aura, the albums lack track-to-track cohesiveness (despite the album being put together by only one producer) and overall quality; they’re usually limited to a week of listens by hardcore fans who will support any of the producer’s releases based on name recognition and allegiance, or from starving MCs who see the albums as an alternative to buying original beats.
            But recently, I’ve seen glimmers of hope.
            The most apparent example is Donuts, the new effort from recently-deceased J Dilla. While the tracks seem different from a lot of the production that he’s done in the past, Donuts is chockfull of the novelty that the Detroit native has earned his whole career. J Dilla took the opportunity to try out some new techniques, sporadically chopping and reconstructing samples and incorporating a lot of electric music into the project—probably residue from his recent affiliation with Madlib’s Stones Throw Records. But it’s still great – not only because he’s offering something fresh for listeners, but because it’s high quality music in the first place. Fans who want to hear more of the soulful boom bap he’s earned his reputation off of can continue to eat off of his production on Common’s BE, Dwele’s Some Kinda…, and the countless other artists who he has blessed with beats.  J Dilla is one of the most innovative, consistent producers in hip-hop, and his heart—most of Donuts was created in his hospital bed—will be missed.
            There have been other dope instrumental LPs in recent memory too. Last year, Halftooth Records producer Oddisee released Instrumental Mixtape Vol. 1, which was a great combination of some of the best beats that he had given to other artists, beats from his own songs, and tracks that were previously unreleased. Underground legend Ayatollah has released two stellar instrumental albums in the past, So Many Reasons (which I haven’t personally listened to, but I’ve heard good things) in 2001 and Now Playing this year, which has gotten consistent bump ever since I copped it a few days ago; like Donuts, Ayatollah took these opportunities to get experimental, doing work his clients wouldn’t employ him for. Prince Paul did similarly with his Itstrumentals LP last year, while Pete Rock stuck to the script and employed his old school sensibilities with 2001’s Petestrumentals.  Madlib has a new instrumental album coming out, Beat Konducta Vol. 1-2, that also combines some of the best previously-released work with new beats.
            I think that more of the industry’s A-List producers should release instrumental albums. They wouldn’t go platinum, but there’s definitely an audience that would appreciate them. They would also serve as a great promotional tools and transitional projects to hold fans over between major releases – if you don’t hear a Timbaland beat on the radio or on an album for six months, and he has a really active first quarter coming up, an instrumental album released in the fourth quarter would prime listeners – especially hardcore fans – for the heat he’s bringing to other artists’ songs. Also, since instrumental albums are so rare in the first place, it’ll give the impression that the producer is going back to grassroots hip-hop – and once A-List producers gain major commercial success, keeping underground/indie heads interested can prove difficult. Seeing instrumental projects from Kanye West, Just Blaze, and The Neptunes would be great for hip-hop.

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