This story is part of our new Hip-Hop: ’73 Till Infinity series, a celebration of the genre’s 50th anniversary.
“There could not be hip-hop without technology,” Bobcat Goldwav told Gizmodo via phone last week. Goldwav is a Baltimore-based hip-hop producer with 15 years of experience working in the genre who has also found success posting his beats, samples, and mashups on TikTok and SoundCloud. As we look back on this revolutionary genre during its 50th birthday this month, it’s crucial to consider the ways technology has played a central role in hip-hop’s history: its relationship with the recording industry, its production through the 80's and 90's, the way it’s consumed today, and what comes next.
Hip-hop is widely recognized as beginning in 1973 in The Bronx, New York. One party played an enormous role in its origin sotry: DJ Kool Herc, the stage name for 18-year-old Clive Campbell, spun records at his sister’s back-to-school party in their apartment’s rec room. Herc played records on his dual turntables, but the moment that birthed a genre began when he looped an instrumental snippet of James Brown’s “Give It Up or Turnit a Loose” and rapped over it. Over the next five decades, hip-hop evolved and iterated upon itself countless times, but technology—or lack thereof—became a crucial piece of the puzzle before DJ Kool Herc was even born.
While phonography, the art of recording sound onto a physical form like a disc or cylinder, was developed in the 1870s, it wasn’t until circa 1939 that the music industry saw widespread recording of Black voices.
“It’s called a race record, and the race records were literally just to say that this is a record that features the voice of a Black person, and that becomes a bankable commodity,” A.D. Carson told Gizmodo. Carson is a hip-hop artist and an Assistant Professor of Hip-Hop and the Global South at the University of Virginia. “[T]his happens because of racism, because the people who were recording or who were using the phonographic technology to make records literally believed that Black people’s voices were meant to be heard live but were not suitable for recording technology at the time.”
Six years after Herc spun, and decades after Black voices were first recorded, singer and record producer Sylvia Robinson married the two into a single piece of technology—the rap record. Carson credits Robinson with being the first to invent the commercial rap record, after she gathered a band and a group of kids to perform a song in a studio in 1979. That song was “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang, and it was the track that forced hip-hop to become a, as Carson described, a “bankable commodity,” and shifted the genre from a live one to a recorded one.
“The shift from hip-hop on the stage or hip-hop at a house party to hip-hop as something that you could sell as an eight track or whatever it might be, that’s a technological intervention,” Carson said. “She invented the rap record.”
Hip-hop quickly became music’s biggest fad. While most trends in the music industry come and go, the genre remained strong through the 80's and 90's. During that time, hip-hop production took on a new form. Drum machines like the famous Roland TR-808, released in 1980, allowed producers to experiment with new sounds and textures. Meanwhile, rappers also began experimenting with tape loops, where a section of magnetic tape from a cassette would be spliced end-to-end to create a nonstop section of repeating music, much the same way Herc did with his turntables in 1973. Producers also got creative with technology they already had on hand. Carson said, for example, that producers eventually figured out that they could slow down a track to half speed on a tape player or record player, which effectively allowed them to double the amount of music they could sample when they sped it back up.
At the turn of the century, rappers continued to push the boundaries of the technology they had at their disposal. Autotune, for example, is a pitch correction software that was released in the late 90's, but rapper T-Pain saw it as an opportunity to add a distinct digital and robotic texture to his voice during his early career in the mid to late-2000's. His 2009 track “Buy U A Drank” propelled him, and the effect, into the mainstream.
Meanwhile, digital audio workspaces, or DAWs, became ubiquitous in studios everywhere, centralizing all of the analog tools producers used previously into one piece of software. These DAWs made computers the instrument and ushered in completely new production workflows and subgenres of hip-hop like “chipmunk soul,” in which producers like Kanye West and Just Blaze chopped up vocal samples from soul records and pitched them up, all while laying rap on top. West used the technique on his 2004 song “Through the Wire” in which he sampled Chaka Khan’s “Through the Fire,” released in 1984. DAWs are still an integral part of music production today, and Goldwav points to his weapon of choice, Ableton as a DAW that lets him do everything. The software is also used by hip-hop hitmakers like Kenny Beats, who has produced for Gucci Mane and Roddy Rich, and LondonOnDaTrack, who worked on Drake’s “Sneakin’.”
“I love Ableton because you can do anything in it. However you choose to create you can create fully in Ableton,” Goldwav said. “If I want to just track audio, or if I want play guitars, and drums, and record instruments, I can do that. If I want to just chop up samples and rearrange things and play MIDI, I can do that if I want to. If I want to take all my recordings and everything and play it live and improvise live, I can do that.”
While the music industry has a whole has made a shift away from analog machines for producing, there will always be a place for hardware in hip-hop production. Goldwav said that devices like the Maschine offer an opportunity to get away from the computer screen and use tactile pads to create music. The Maschine a piece of music-making technology developed by Native Instruments that producers can connect to their DAW to make entire beats using the tech’s drum pads, knobs, and switches.
“You are taking source material, or a piece of it, and repurposing it, recontextualizing it, and making it something completely its own,” Goldwav said. “I love the beauty of sampling. I love hearing someone else tell me their musical history through what they sample. It’s so powerful because it allows for everyone to give their own individual voice to what they choose to bring to the equation.”
Today, technology is not only developing and influencing the creation of hip-hop, but it’s also changing the way the genre is consumed. Hip-hop is no longer gatekept by radio DJs and the likes of MTV, and anyone with a few dollars to spare every month could access nearly the entirety of the genre whenever they wanted with streaming services. Throughout the 2010s, platforms like Spotify and Apple Music democratized the way music was consumed, and hip-hop skyrocketed in popularity, becoming the most streamed genre on those services. Carson said that this phenomenon is a powerful representation of facing American culture’s tendency to tell a pristine version of its own problematic history—a version that frequently undermines the Black experience.
“[That trend] demonstrates that the there’s a kind of narrative power that is coming not from the powerful institutions that have previously given us music and given us the mythological stories about the country,” Carson said. “I think that streaming services, or the consumption of hip-hop, is a direct line to what lies beneath the veneer of America.”
Like industries across the world, hip-hop producers are struggling to decide what to do with artificial intelligence. Earlier this year, an AI-generated song called “Heart on My Sleeve” that uncannily mimicked the voices of Drake and The Weeknd was pulled from streaming services after it started going viral. Major music labels have also sounded the alarm over copyright issues in this uncharted territory—Universal Music Group asked streaming services to forbid AI engines from scraping their content. Carson, in an article he penned for The Washington Post, cautioned that the role of AI in severing Black voices from their bodies is indicative of the way early rap pioneers were exploited and appropriated. Goldwav said that he doesn’t want to stop the freight train of AI’s recent surge in popularity, but he wants to find productive ways to add it to his workflow.
“AI is the big wave that’s coming for everything at the same time, and it causes a lot of fear and paranoia, but at the same time, it’s also a powerful tool,” said Goldwav said. “I try to not focus so much on the fear of the inevitable because I’m just a producer. I cannot stop the wave of AI, but I can try to implement it into my set up to allow me to do what I better.”
From the beginnings on DJ Kool Herc’s turntable in The Bronx to the controversy surrounding an AI-generated rapper on TikTok rapper, hip-hop has grown and changed as technology has done the same, but where the genre will take AI is anyone’s guess. As hip-hop artists have broken the boundaries of the genre over and over—and broken the rules of technology over and over—one thing is clear: It’ll happen again.