Nothing is more synonymous with Hip Hop than the sampler – a cornerstone on which Hip Hop is built. Without Kool Herc’s beat juggling of “breaks” from Soul, Disco, Jazz and Funk records there would be no Hip Hop and none of the countless breakbeat inspired genres that spawned off the back off its legacy.

Drum machines play huge role too. Similarly to the early advents of Chicago House and Detroit Techno, drum machines allowed producers to orchestrate beats themselves, with no need for a drum kit or someone to play it. The likes of the Oberheim DMX, Linn Drum and of course Roland TR-808 are as much of the sound of early Hip Hop records as the plundered breakbeats and samples are.

There already exists a a plethora of homages to the most popular Hip Hop samples or the the most influential drum machines, which I wont add to. Today I want to talk about Hip Hop’s love affair with the synthesiser.has

In the early 70s synthesisers went from being a piece of furniture only afforded to eccentric laboratory dwellers to a portable, sonically innovative and funky hit-maker that changed how we think about sound more than any acoustic instrument has done since.

Moog are widely regarded as one of the Godfathers of modern subtractive synthesis but during the 70s ARP, EMS, Korg and Oberheim contributed fantastically, and their synths are plastered all over every genre of music from Krautrock to Space Disco, P-Funk to Italo, Prog-Rock to New Wave and everything in between.

The genesis of Hip Hop is about sampling, and in this article I want to look at some of the perhaps overlooked contributors to the genre.

We all know about James Brown and The Winstons, we know about the MPCs and drum machines, but what the synths that most shaped Hip Hop?

01. Moog Minimoog

It’s hard to look past the importance of the Minimoog not just on Hip Hop but only contemporary music as a whole. Released in 1970, the Minimoog was one of the first portable synthesisers and has changed music for ever.

A monophonic subtractive synth comprising of three VCOs (voltage controlled oscillators) producing just simple geometric waveforms and it’s famed 4-pole 24dB/oct low pass ladder filer, the Minimoog could be considered an unassuming unit.

It’s partly the American over-engineering that people love about Moog, every dial turn feels like you’re really making a difference. Each click of the oscillator is satisfying.

It is of course the sound of the Moog that has really made ripples in music though, and while there are numerous records we could pick on, a good place to start is Fred Wesley & The JB’s Blow Your Head from 1974, produced by none other than The Godfather of Soul himself, James Brown.

Brown is wrongly credited with playing the Minimoog on this record, it’s actually played by another funk legend and breakbeat maestro Bobby Byrd (of Hotpants fame).

The unmistakeable squelchy resonant filters have been sampled by Digable PlanetsAaliyah, Zinc and of course Public Enemy:

The G-Funk era of Hip Hop in particular owes a lot to the Minimoog and in particular Bernie Worrell of Parliament and Funkadelic fame. Listening through to their greatest hits is like a journey through Hip Hop sampling.

Parliament and Funkadelic are two separate bands that shared many members, while Funkadelic were more synonymous with the early crossover of funk and psychedelic rock, it’s Parliament that coined the term P-Funk.

Both bands shared core members, the aforementioned Bernie Worrell on Moog and Solina duties, Bootsy Collins on bass and band leader and afro-futurist visionary George Clinton.

Parliament have been sampled by Ice Cube, Digital Underground, Snoop DoggMethod Man and Redman, MC Hammer and of course De La Soul to name but a few.

I’m reliable informed that the Minimoog was a staple in the studio of the late J Dilla, and I stumbled across this interesting guide about how he went about programming it.

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Original Minimoogs retail north of $3000 these days, and while Moog have reissued it with the Model D, it’s similarly priced. Luckily the folk at Arturia have released a fantastic software alternative, the Mini-V. More flexible and a little easier on the wallet.

02. ARP Pro-Soloist

Unlike the Minimoog which is plastered over a myriad of records, ARP’s Pro-Soloist sees the majority of it sampling off of just one track, the 1973 Ohio Players hit Funky Work.

Apart from having one of the most sampled breaks in the intro, it contains two prominent instrumental breaks.

The first cut is four bars long and starts at around 0.47. It’s is a squealing portamento line that could easily be confused for an air horn, the second two bars are where most samples are taken from:

It has been sampled by N.W.A (at least twice), Snoop Dogg2Pac and Biggie and has been interpolated by The Game and many more. The line is in fact so pervasive in Hip Hop it’s almost become part of the furniture like Slick Rick’s La Di Da Di, Change the Beat or the Amen break.


Image © Vintage Synths.

The second instrumental break starts around 1.31. It has a softer attack on the filter envelope compared to the first line. Both samples are contextualised by the impossibly groovy back beat provide by the rest of the band.

This has been sampled by Xzibit, Redman, DMX and perhaps most famously DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince:

The Pro-Soloist is probably considered quite rudimentary by today’s standards, and it certainly didn’t have anywhere near the flexibility of later ARP productions. The sound generation was characterised by preset buttons (found on early Korg and Roland synths too) controlling a single VCO. GForce have this to say about the Pro-Soloist:

In terms of features, the Pro-Soloist was a monophonic, single oscillator synth that generated Pulse and Sawtooth waveforms. Well… when I say Sawtooth, the truth is that in order to keep costs down the Sawtooth waveform is derived from 5 pulse waveforms summed to create a 64 step waveform that’s very, very close in shape to a Sawtooth. Clever eh?

There are also three resonator banks that tailor the filtering, together with a low pass filter and envelope generator, all of which converge to create your ready made presets. This is all behind the scenes though and what the player ends up with is minimal set of controls so they focus on what matters most to a real player… the performance.

The performance was further enhanced by what we regard as the killer feature, namely an expression section that gave the player control over things like vibrato, pitch bend, brilliance, growl, wow & volume via a pressure sensitive keyboard. Yep, despite there being no velocity sensitivity, with the original Soloist, ARP had created the first mainstream synths with aftertouch.

Getting your hands on an original Pro-Soloist would be a tough ask, but scouring eBay or Craigslist would be a good start. There aren’t any well known software alternatives I’m aware.

I’ll leave you with Billy Beck from the Ohio Players jamming through this, though using Yamaha and Casio synths.

03. The Vocoder

Since Science Fiction had been prevalent in film, television and literature, we had lofty visions of the future. During the 1970s, avant-garde space jazzer Sun Ra, an alien from Saturn, led his Arkestra around the country preaching a message of peace, black nationalism, ancient Egyptian mysticism and numerology.

We’ve already name checked George Clinton’s Parliament as a pioneers of an African vision of space too – a more psychedelic, perhaps light-hearted immersive experience that certainly gained more commercial success.

However by the time the 80s came by, music and cinema has a more dystopian outlook of the future. Culture seemed less optimistic and more paranoid about the cyberpunk world communicated in films such as Total Recall, Blade Runner, Akira and The Terminator, and the Vocoder was the synth that narrated our journey into this we were told of.

The vocoder (a portmanteau for voice encoder) seemingly combined two signals together. They worked by analysing frequency bands of a modulator signal (commonly a voice) and using a series of envelope followers and VCAs (voltage controlled amplifiers) mapping them to corresponding bands on a carrier signal, for example a synth.

This gave the impression of a talking synth or robotic voice, depending on your point of view.

There are too many Vocoders used in this period to detail each, so I’m grouped them all together but famous units from this era include the Roland SVC-350Korg VC-10 (above), EMS Vocoder 2000 and Moog’s own Vocoder.

Afrika Bambaataa’s Planet Rock is perhaps one of the most striking examples of the vocoder being used in early Hip Hop history.

This samples two separate Kraftwerk tracks as well as containing some Synclavier (more on this later). It’s also been sampled by Kendrick LamarErykah Badu, Public Enemy and Nick Javas & DJ Premier.

Giorgio Moroder, perhaps more known for his recent collaborations with Daft Punk and perhaps historically for his work with Donna Summer has been sampled by a plethora of Hip Hop artists too. He’s been sampled by OutKastKanyeKRS-OneMobb Deep, DJ Shadow and El-P, but it J Dilla’s 2006 E=MC² that contains some tasty vocoder action:

It wouldn’t be much of a vocoder chat if I didn’t mention Kanye West’s 2007 Stronger. The song makes heavy use of Daft Punk’s Harder Better Fasterwhich actually in turn samples a Edwin Birdsong song.

Lastly, I couldn’t mention vocoders without bringing up Herbie Hancock’s 1977 album Sunlight. The album features plenty of vocoder, in particular the tracks Thought it was You (samples by Slum Village and more pertinently 9th Wonder) and Come Running to Me, again sampled by Slum Village and also Thundercat.

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There are plenty of software vocoders including native ones bundled with Logic and Ableton. Above is the free TAL-Vocoder from Togu Audio Line. Read more about the vocoder (and talkbox) here.

04. Korg Triton

Once a mainstay in every studio, Korg’s flagship workstation keyboard is responsible for some of the biggest hits of Pharrell’s career, particularly during his Neptunes work, which is what I want to focus this on.

The late 90s and early 00s were truly an era dominated by the workstation keyboards. At the time, computers were had become the dominant platform to produce electronic music, but soft synths and such weren’t not as commonplace as they are today.

Workstations offered a huge plethora of professional sounds from your bread and butter strings, orchestral hits, guitars and pianos to drums, basses and more synthetic leads and pads. The were quite simply an entire band-in-a-box.

Below is a list of some of the presets from the Triton Pharrell used on some of the tracks he produced. It’s by no means complete and probably doesn’t scratch the surface of how extensively it’s been used, but it’s a start:

This extensive list was researched and compiled by the excellent Mathew Garland.

The Triton was part ROMpler, part synth, part arranger and saw many incarnations, with the first coming to market in 1999. It was multi-timbral, had 62 voice polyphony and (up to) 88 semi-weighted keys.


Image © Tim Cant.

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