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The Use of Live Instrumentation in Hip-Hop Production

Hip Hop is unique in the sense that it is one of the most popular music genres and blends with a variety of other genres, such as R&B, rap, among many others. If you asked some of Hip Hop’s founding fathers if live instrumentation would ever become a part of Hip Hop, they might laugh at first. 

But it also doesn’t come as much of a surprise given how experimental the Golden Era was and just how different Hip Hop looked coast to coast and even city to city. Knowing the history is key to understanding just how big of a deal live music in tracks today is. 

Understanding the Difference Between Live Instrumentation and Digitally Produced Music

What is live instrumentation? It sounds exactly like the title. Live instrumentation is the use of live instruments such as the piano, drums, guitar, and so on in recording music. Digital music was produced with technology. After the ability to produce digital music, no one would have ever guessed that some of today’s biggest hip-hop stars would ever look to use live instruments. 

Hip-Hop Has a History With Sampling

Sampling music is the process of reusing a portion of a song or beat to make your own song. This was the primary foundation of Hip Hop when it got its start back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Beats from soul and funk records made perfect backdrops for rappers to rhyme over lyrically.

 Does “Rappers Delight” ring any bells? Though there were many examples before this Top 100 Billboard song. 

Hip Hop and Live Instrumentation 

Hip Hop and live instrumentation started to become more of a thing when rapping and singing make a song. Many look to Drake’s release of So Far Gone to be the paved path for artists to use live instrumentation 

This was released in early February 2009. Later that year, we would get Jay Z and Alicia Key’s releasing Empire State of Mind, which kicked off with the drum intro that is so notable.

Great Artist Examples

But these two aren’t the only examples that are worth noting. There is a lot of culture and thought that goes into both Kendrick Lamar’s and Kanye West’s music. At times both rappers sing and rap, but it is the use of their live instrumentation that often creates such a great song. 


Kanye West is interesting to start with because not everyone knows that he can play a number of musical instruments himself. He often talks about being brought back to his roots with his Sunday Service. Being able to add in drums, piano, and guitar has contributed to being able to make unique sounds and, therefore, creative, unique songs. 


Kendrick Lamar has been referred to as a jazz musician at times. And if you have only heard Backseat Freestyle, you may not understand why. But Kendrick Lamar is a critical example of Hip Hop and the use of live instrumentation. His DAMN album was reminiscent of 60s and 70s jazz. Kendrick has notable use of the drums regardless of what experimental genres he is working with. 

J Cole

J Cole is another rap and hip-hop artist that has always had an incredibly hands-on approach. While J. Cole has been spotted playing piano and guitar himself in several of his recording sessions, he has also brought in a trumpeter, organist, and violinist at different points in time. 

This is why at his shows, you will always see him performing with a live band. It’s a different and more intimate approach than some of his other work where he samples. 

Why New Hip-Hop Artists Can Benefit from Greats Like Lamar

Going to a club and listening to a DJ is great. But there’s nothing like going to a live show with a live band. That’s why rappers and Hip Hop masters on tour travel with live instrumentation rather than just a DJ behind them. It’s much more exciting to hear and see the entire production live. 

While new artists may feel like the move is to work with digitally produced tracks, taking up online drum lessons in NY or another instrument to set themselves apart is key. One of the best examples of this is “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X. Hip Hop, and rap can make incredibly interesting combinations of music over any live instrumentation. 

Has a New Era Come, or Is It In Full Swing?

Many music critics are still predicting that a new era of Hip Hop and live instrumentation is coming, but in reality, we have been working with this for the last two decades. This does not necessarily mean that digital music is on its way out, but there is a creative aspect of Hip Hop that has always allowed the genre to evolve and change. 

While this may not be technically sampling other beats that are digitally produced, this type of music definitely samples other genres. Hip Hop has the ability to combine with so many music niches, which sets it apart from the rest. It’s not common to see other genres blend. 



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About Joseph Timmons (9928 Articles)
I am the Father of 5 and a "Would Be Philosopher of Idiocy" - Author and Writer for several Blogs and Online Magazine. Review Journalist, Musician and Audio Buff. Follow Me and I'm Sure to Entertain.

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