As a fan of both electronic music and hip-hop, I would be the first to tell you that the two genres do not always mix well. Many a clumsy collaboration has occurred between a dubstep artist and his ill-equipped rap feature or between a talented rapper looking to add variety to his album and a producer who creates an under-cooked house song that actually makes a good verse sound whack.
But when they get it right, it feels like they were meant to go together. The creativity in rhythm and sound design found in good electronic artists can bring out the best in a rapper. Here are some great examples.
1. Vava Voom – Bassnectar feat. Lupe Fiasco
This song is easily the most aggressive one on the list. Bassnectar is in full form with his heavy-handed, bass-centric raging production. If you don’t have some quality speakers or headphones, this song will not be done justice. The bass moves something deep in your chest and makes the listening process more experiential than anything else. When combined with his little synth scales that loop back onto themselves, you get an almost overwhelming wave of sound.
Then comes in Lupe who brings a surprisingly relaxed performance. Don’t get me wrong, he is rapping reasonably quick and technical, with charisma and presence to spare, but if Bassnectar is raging in the beat, Lupe is vining on the beat. Then at the two-thirds mark, everything cuts out and Nectar is able to deliver an absolutely brutal drop to take the rest of the song home. This one is a banger and almost certainly the song on this list your grandparents will hate the most.
2. Never Catch Me – Flying Lotus feat. Kendrick Lamar
Flying Lotus is an extremely talented producer, and the funky, frequently strange and rhythmically complex beat created for this song required a real talent to do it justice. Luckily, Kendrick was more than up for the task. The song kicks off with a nicely syncopated paint riff and wonky synth sound in the back. Then the hero of the show comes in: the bassist.
The basis is “Thundercat” the mad genius responsible for most of the bass tracks on “To Pimp a Butterfly.” On this track he is supplying a sound reminiscent of “Wesley’s Theory.” Except on this track, he is offered the chance to solo and he absolutely shreds. I really can’t overstate how ridiculously sick the bass solo is on this song. Even if you don’t like rap, give it a listen.
Kendrick brings his A-game to this track. In fact, he liked the song so much that, according to Flying Lotus in an interview with Hip-HopDX, he wanted it for his own album. Needless to say he pops off on the song as well, delivering a verse that simultaneously grooves and builds to an angry climax. Between his quick, technical spazzes of poetically dense lyricism and the ease with which he seems to ride the beat, you might almost think it was easy.
Before the song is over, everything changes for a minute or two. The rapping disappears, the bass is less prominent and the empty space is filled with these thick synth chords that morph the soundscape into something much dreamier. Altogether, a fascinating song for fans of either genre.
Also check out Flying Lotus’ collaborations with other rappers like Snoop Dogg on the song Dead Man’s Tetris.
3. For the Love – GRiZ feat. Talib Kweli
Out of all songs on this list, this is the closest to typical hip-hop. GRiZ has experience in many different facets of electronic music, ranging from the chill to the savage. But here his knack for funk, sampling and complex layering is wrangled into something pleasant and soothing. The bass has a twinge of that electronic grime, but the songs overall arc involves more real instrumentation that crazy sounds. The percussion is clearly being performed by an actual drummer with samples of flutes and guitar chords, all tied together by a swelling horn section and catchy vocal sample.
Talib Kweli only has one real verse on this song but he shines on it. His flow is ear candy not just in the tasteful rhythm and flow but in the way he melodically moves around the chords of the beat. The result is a verse that may not blow you away at first but will grow on you. It is sweet and fun. After the verse, GRiZ takes the remainder of the track to mess around with the samples he has, layering them with his usual mastery and carrying a beat that gets progressively more electronic as it goes.
4. Kompany – Monte Booker, Smino, Phoelix
Monte Booker is a bit of a weirdo when it comes to sound design. His beats are frequently scattershot, a tad dissonant and fractured by glitchy samples and mind-warping bass. He collaborates with a handful of rappers and singers brave enough to tame one of his beats with their performance. And boy oh boy does Smino tame this beat.
Smino’s ability to sing in addition to his rapping comes in handy here. The song opens with a kaleidoscope of vocal tracks from Smino, singing over top of each other. Then the actual beat kicks in and your heads starts to bounce. It is heavy but bouncy at the same time. Soon, sweet little guitar creep up on the song and the whole thing turns extremely melodic.
Smino dances in the nooks and crannies of the production, combining typical “trap” flows with his R&B affect to create something that is so smooth to the ears. It feels like it shouldn’t be; the beat is chaotic, a bubbly sound effect butts its head at the start of the second verse, and yet the weirder the beat gets, the more talented Smino seems to become. This is my favorite song on the list. It is also worth noting that Smino and Monte Booker work with each other all the time.