Beat Kings

In Beat Kings: The History of Hip Hop, Wu-Tang Clan's DJ Mathematics has assembled a revealing documentary from the point of view of the genre's architects. The DVD is an entertaining crash course in the nitty-gritty of hip-hop's evolution from turntables to ProTools. The interview clips -- concisely organized into chapters on history, equipment, influences and the biz, among other topics -- are a who's who of hip-hop production legends. Wu-Tang's RZA jokes about making beats on his first drum machine, a Roland 606 stolen by Ol' Dirty Bastard. Marley Marl -- perhaps the king of the beat kings -- recounts how the sampling limitations of the E-Mu SP-1200 (a workhorse among the first generation of studio beatmakers, like Pete Rock) forced him to chop up beats out of necessity, forging the methodology of his trademark early production style, where discrete drumbeats might be nabbed from entirely different records.

Early beat pioneers like Prince Paul, DJ Premier and Easy MoBee recall the urge to create that drove them to use whatever tools were available: Betamax tapes, reel-to-reel decks, even cassette boom boxes, which were used to manually loop samples recorded off the radio. So it's understandable when some of these old-school sonic alchemists hate on current digital technologies like ProTools -- powerful, inexpensive PC software that changed the music industry, put some studios out of business and turned casual home recordists into overnight producers.

But in the segment titled "Hip Hop Today: Under Construction," the titans are philosophical as well, allowing that new technologies (such as the widely available '80s gear by Japanese companies like Roland and Akai) gave them their entry into the business. For a new generation of beat stylists, it's still about the spirit of invention, the thrill of transcending material limitations: not so much what you're working with, but what you do with it.

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J. Niimi