I was driving in the car with my girlfriend a few days ago. After getting kicked off of her phone for making too many Spotify jokes, I switch to our local hip-hop station. A song plays for a second or two. I don't remember which song it was, the importance of which will become apparent shortly.
“Ugh! I can't stand all the Mike WiLL songs out right now,” she exclaims and switches to a different station.
“Why?” I ask. “Did #Bangerz ruin him for you?”
“No,” she explains. “I just can't stand how he's always saying his name in that weird little voice.”
I'm deeply confused. “His producer tag where he says 'Mike Will Made It?'”
She shakes her head, and then proceeds to do an eerily recognizable impression of this sound:
“It's saying 'Mike,' right?”
I, naturally, crack up and launch in to one of the lengthy explanations about rap production that have made me so popular, respected, and well-liked amongst my large and impressive group of totally real friends.
That little voice isn't saying “Mike,” it's saying “hype.” It's not a production tag, it's actually a sample from a Lil Jon & the East Side Boys track:
I'll ask you to ignore the sudden realization dawning on most of you that Dorrough's "Ice Cream Paintjob" is basically just a wholesale ripoff of this track, and you'll notice the “hype” sample right at the beginning. It has nothing to do with Mike WiLL, the sample's been used in a million songs (most conspicuously made after 2010…), from big budget singles like Drake's “Started From the Bottom” and 2 Chainz's “I'm Different,” to tracks by regional rappers like Young L's “Loud Pockets” and Paul Wall's “Bizzy Body”. However, the real culprit responsible for the widespread popularization of the “hype” sample is Rick Ross' “BMF,” produced by Lex Luger:
Lex Luger's producer tag is his infamous synth riser sample which he uses on almost every beat that he creates, and the “hype” sample is just something he chose to use for a single track. However, the breakout success of “BMF” and his other 2010 production for Waka Flocka, “Hard in the Paint,” arguably still Luger's two biggest tracks, compounded to make the producer a household name in the space of just one year. Then, something interesting started to happen – the “hype” sample begin to appear in commercial rap sound packs.
To the few of my readers who choose to engage with rap criticism without actually having tried production for yourself, a “sound pack” is a downloadable selection of popular samples that aspiring producers can buy (or more commonly, steal) on the internet to assist with their own productions. Many of these packs occupy a sort of legal and artistic gray area, since they are often named after a particular producer with the expressed goal of emulating that musician's sound. So, a Drumma Boy soundkit would include a selection of samples from Drumma Boy-produced tracks, a Mike WiLL soundkit would help the user emulate the sound of Mike Will, and so on. After the so-called “BMF sound” became the biggest thing in rap music, Lex Luger sound packs started appearing everywhere on the internet. And, because “BMF” was, and still is, Luger's most recognizable hit, many of the samples in the pack were culled from “BMF.” Consequently, the “hype” sample, while originally not associated specifically with Luger, still became substantially more accessible to aspiring producers looking to imitate Luger's success. During the four years which have passed since the release of “BMF” in 2010, the “hype” sample has showed up in plenty of hits despite not really having been present to a noticeable degree before Luger's initial track was released.
With this in mind, any confusion about the origin of the “hype” sample might be reflective of the modern rap production environment's tendency to value imitation over innovation. Sampling is one of the cornerstones of hip-hop, and the artistic practice of making new out of old is unquestionably one of the reasons contributing to rap's status as the most progressive and varied mode of musical expression of all time. Even Luger himself has used plenty of sounds from Zaytoven and Drumma Boy sound packs in the past – in fact, it's kind of his thing. However, though he appropriated the sounds of other, better-established producers, he still re-contextualized them in an innovative way, virtually creating the rapidfire hi-hat and orchestral section sound pairing which defines contemporary trap production. The perpetual and mindless re-use of the “hype” sample, however, strikes me as nothing more than a series of cargo cult ploys for success.
I mean, listen back to “BMF” – the sample's there, but so what. It doesn't actually serve a unique purpose within the production of the track. It's an extremely low-volume hit on the second note of each bar, virtually indistinguishable from the hi-hats. There's no real mechanical or artistic reason for the sample to have proliferated to such a wide degree. Sure, we hear the “Amen break” constantly, but there are mechanical reasons for that – it was one of the first samples with wide availability, it was a percussive sample with zero instrumentation, it could be sliced a number of ways, there has historically been no prosecution against individuals sampling that particular musical phrase. By contrast, the “hype” sample just kind of shows up everywhere, and if there's no artistic or mechanical reason for it's presence, it seems evident that it appears in songs just because it's in the sound packs, just because it was something that was in a successful song and therefore must be included if a producer wants to make their song successful too. It's no coincidence that every major song “hype” has shown up in was released after “BMF.” Imitation is clearly at play here.
That's not to say that the blame for imitation rests solely on the part of the rap producers. It's often the rappers, in charge of selecting their own beats, that are at fault. In an interview with Complex, Luger mentions that, while he's a diverse producer, he often get's pigeonholed as repetitive simply because rappers only use the beats he provides which sound like previous hits.
" I try to tell them that it’s a lot more than that [‘B.M.F.’ sound]. When I’m sending out 40 beats a day to one artist, out of those 40 he might pick two just because they sound like ‘B.M.F.’ or ‘Hard In The Paint,’ and he feels like that’s his hit. I think that’s a big problem in music right now."
So even if producers do create an innovative variety of beats, the breadth of their production may still seem repetitive because the only beats that actually make it to consumers are those that are selected by rappers for their hit potential (read as “similarity to previous hits”). Charted rappers often aren't looking for innovation, they just aren't really looking to take any chances. Not that this isn't entirely understandable – rappers first and foremost have to prioritize their vocal performances and lyrics as that's what they have the most direct control over. Consequently, it might be tempting to “play it safe” with a sound-alike beat. But how many of these sound-alikes end up with lasting success? Imitation without understanding is neither artistically valuable nor a surefire recipe for commercial success. “BMF” was so successful because, at the time, Lex Luger's style of production was totally unique. The same could be said for ASAP Rocky's debut mixtape Live. Love. ASAP, in which the rapper capitalized on the sound of rising producer Clams Casino to great effect. The list goes on and on. Rappers, please don't be afraid to take some production risks. Don't be afraid to work with producers who have a unique sound or composition style. It's the most common advice on the planet, but it's only so common because it is also the most ignored – don't worry about the trends. Of course, this applies to producers too – we should be able to tell who you are from the sounds you choose and your composition style alone. If the presence of your track tag is the best, or worse, only way to tell that you were the one who made a track, you've got to get out of the cargo cult and find your own voice. Sound packs won't help you be successful, they'll only help make you feel like someone who is.