1990s Boom Bap

Boom bap is like the second amendment of hip-hop, an idea tacked on to an existing form and distorted over time into a fundamental principle that never existed. The boom of the kick and the bap of the snare were there before T La Rock ad libbed “b-boom, b-bap, b-boom bap” at the end of 1984’s “It’s Yours.” In fact, it hardly matters where the drums land for rap to qualify as rap. The only “original rap” definition you could posit and not look like a fool is “dance music with a guy saying rhymes over the top.” Eventually the rhyming guy became more important to the music than dancers, samplers replaced bands, and people started calling it “hip-hop” instead of “rap.” But there is at least one reason that the myth of boom bap as “original rap” persists—the golden era was that good. Whatever conservative retrenchment it engendered, the primary records of the boom bap moment are absolute corkers.

There were glimpses of boom bap from the beginning, eruptions of a style that was less hospitable to dancers and more suitable for rhyming. A live bootleg called “Flash It To The Beat” circulated for years, beginning in 1980. “Fusion Beats,” the more popular B-side, was a live recording of Jazzy Jay and Afrika Bambaataa juggling two frantic records, James Brown’s “Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved” and “Champ,” by The Mohawks. On the flip was “Flash To The Beat,” ten minutes of Grandmaster Flash improvising on a drum machine at a medium pace while the Furious Five rapped a pre-written routine. It is blown out, primitive, not even in strict time. It is literally nothing but boom bap. When the group released a studio version of the tune in 1982, the words were unchanged but the whole thing was performed with a live drummer and bassist. It is fun but confused, one of the band’s least-loved singles.

The next step was Spoonie Gee’s minimal 1980 single, “Love Rap,” nothing but a drummer, a conga player, and Spoonie kicking game about his car with “seats so soft, just like a bed.” Run-DMC’s 1983 single, “Sucker MCs,” was the bigger bang, a drum machine made enormous with digital delay and two naturally enormous MCs. No melodic material, just swagger and stadium vibes like rap had never seen. These are fairly energetic songs, though, and suited for dancing. We had the reduction and focus of boom bap, but not the drag in tempo.

The minimal rap approach winds its way through the decade, as sampling enters in 1986 and hip-hop becomes genuinely popular. Eric B. & Rakim’s 1986 single, “Eric B. Is President,” is a decent place to date the beginning of actual boom bap records. It’s a heavy track with steady snares on the two and four and brief samples of the same records that were cut up for “Fusion Beats” (a significant reference). Rakim demonstrated that boom bap’s unfussy, slow rhythms were making room for a reason: rapping that was two levels up in terms of complexity. Rakim destroyed the barline and brought a metric sophistication to rap that buried the childish meter heard on Sugarhill and Enjoy records. The beat burrowed down to leave the sky open for the MC.

Audio Two’s “Top Billin’” came in 1987, the sort of Dada version of “Sucker MCs,” MC Milk barking while a drum machine stuttered and hovered between a swing and a stomp. A style was developing, slower than what we heard in the first decade of rap. There was enough memory now in some drum machines to store samples and this is central to the wilder sides of the form. Boom bap allows for strange, illogical loops, as long as tempos stay between 90 and 100 BPM. Snares still have to fall hard on the two and four, because this music is for nodding and listening—not dancing! 

In the late Eighties, a group of producers had started getting a sound together after going through a dialectical struggle with what had come before. Raised on James Brown records, and then James Brown samples, these musicians had to formulate what came next. The names to look for are Q-Tip, Pete Rock, DJ Muggs, DJ Premier, Buckwild, J Dilla, The RZA, Da Beatminerz, Diamond D, Lord Finesse, Alchemist, and Large Professor. It’s interesting to consider who did and didn’t make the transition into the Nineties. Marley Marl, who mentored Pete Rock in the Eighties, started with the dirty James Brown template but transitioned into a slower, more sculpted sound and made several key boom bap albums. Public Enemy, on the other hand, a group that managed to be world famous for several years in the Eighties, was almost permanently erased from the playlists of hip-hop radio because they wouldn’t abandon their fast and noisy roots. Rap had to give up James Brown to move forward, and anyone who pledged allegiance was left behind. Acts like Jungle Brothers that flirted with house music and drum & bass also ended up on the sidelines. Boom bap was going to be slow and male and virtuosic in a very specific way. Fellas!

There are a few key samples that were used again and again and again. Skull Snaps’ “It’s a New Day” could be the DNA of boom bap. It’s a bowling ball of rhythm, compressed and unstoppable, with precise kick hits and a snare drum that might be full of marbles. Das EFX’s “East Coast” and the Pharcyde’s “Passin’ Me By” were two big early Nineties hits that used the Skull Snaps, and there are dozens of others. First heard by many on the 1986 Ultramagnetic MCs single, “Ego Trippin’,” the beat from Melvin Bliss’ “Synthetic Substitution” became a favorite of the RZA (who used it almost twenty times). There’s both delicacy and menace in the kicks, and in the melting tempo, like it’s a fast song trying to grab the rail and decelerate. Gang Starr’s “DWYCK” and Wu Tang Clan’s “Clan In Da Front” are two well-known early Nineties tracks that use the Bliss beat. (There are Spotify playlists for songs that sample these beats.) Other boom bap staples were Sly & The Family Stone’s “Sing a Simple Song,” and The Five Stairsteps 1968 single, “Don’t Change Your Love,” a Curtis Mayfield production with giant, echoing drums. You can hear the Stairsteps sample on A Tribe Called Quest’s 1991 single “Jazz (We’ve Got),” and after that, everywhere.

The boom bap run in the first half of the Nineties was a hot streak, a third championship ring for New York after the invention of the form itself and the Jordan-level achievements of Rakim. Boom bap would also be the last significant New York contribution for a while, too, possibly until Pop Smoke and the Brooklyn drill of the late teens. A Tribe Called Quest, Gang Starr, Wu Tang Clan, Pete Rock and CL Smooth, EPMD, Mobb Deep, and the early days of Biggie and Jay-Z—these are the heirloom seeds of boom bap. 

This approach made rap into a crate digger’s music, creating parameters that were simultaneously wide open and oddly constrained. The producer could sample almost anything—this is pretty much the working mantra of DJ Premier—but they had to jam all of that sound into a brief loop which could be futzed with, but only to a point. The sample could handle the texture and surprise but the MC would have to take care of rhythmic variation, and maintaining a consistent tone was encouraged. Rap had become hard bop, more or less, a music for formalist improvisers and killer timekeepers. The conversation began in shops like Rock and Soul in Midtown and Fat Beats in Greenwich Village, but the Supreme Court was The Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito show, which broadcast for most of the Nineties on WKCR 89.9 FM. The night in February of 1995 when Big L brought Jay-Z to the studio is sort of the moonshot of boom bap, and that was a Stretch and Bob moment.

Boom bap had bragging rights over the South and West, which was a shame, because that’s exactly where the artform and audience went. New York City’s mulish pride stranded boom bap in the 20th century. Dr. Dre’s West Coast G-funk appealed to the car culture of America more than New York rap, which may have been made for jeeps but didn’t convince a lot of people outside the tri-state area. By the end of the Nineties, the big stars were rooted in styles of the South and West: think Eminem and Outkast. Das EFX faded from the discussion faster than Dukakis and upright bass samples have really never come back. In the late nineties, boom bap was a bit like punk rock, as independent labels turned out slavish traditionalism that redefined monochrome and fell way short of the shiny rap on the radio. (I will never not love Mase.) Boom bap became the anti-fun style of rap. 

Rap in the twenty-first century has largely been about working variations on Southern templates, like trap. Boom bap has become a diasporic form, not really itself, nor should it be. Most of the variants are still on the East Coast, but not all of them. There’s a lot of boom bap in Pharrell Williams productions, most obviously Clipse’s “Grindin’” but not just there. His super-sized cinderblock drums are right out of the Nineties playbook. El-P worked with Company Flow, who plausibly could be called first wave boom bap. He took the EPMD dirt sound and spun it into a painful kind of psychedelia, and with Run The Jewels, he’s come all the way back around. A recent single, “Ooh La La,” not only sounds like pure boom bap, it features DJ Premier and Greg Nice, so it just is boom bap. Like El-P, Alchemist has never stopped working, and is now one of the elders of the form. The field is still susceptible to a retrograde blend of maleness and grouchiness, but there is a whole cohort of people who belong now to the family: everyone on the Griselda label, Roc Marciano, Freddie Gibbs, Trust Gang, and Action Bronson, to name a few. As long as men want to complain and avoid dancing, boom bap will live on. 

I’ve jammed almost all of this into an overly long Spotify playlist. The full garbage bag feel is there to let the music wheel around and mean less, if you catch my drift. How do I know what boom bap is now! I only know what it once was.


TEN BOOM BAP ALBUMS YOU WILL LIKE

I’ve skipped Enter the Wu Tang, Ready To Die, The Infamous, Illmatic, and The Low End Theory, because you should have those already. You don’t know Double XX Posse? The most boom bap act of all time!

Here Come the Lords cover

Produced by Marley Marl and K-Def, this is absolute center of the sun boom bap. Three guys yelling and jumping up and down over huge drums and upright bass samples. Dumb as hell and magical.

Put Ya Boots On cover

Lots of jazz samples, lots of meathead yelling, this is pure Timberland and Olde English dumbness. They’re sort of like a bootleg Canal Street imitation of every other group making rap records in 1992, and it’s a blast.

Mecca and the Soul Brother cover

Pete Rock was one of the great producers of this or any other era. His way of combining bass lines—from where? Did he play them?—and samples simply sounded like a band. His productions are unmatched today–they just sound like new songs, not like loops on a drum machine. CL Smooth is a kind MC, uninterested in the bragging that was the basic fare. “They Reminisce Over You” is still one of the most intense story raps every put down, and the rest of the album keeps up. CL Smooth deserves the same due Pete Rock has gotten. (If you don’t know his productions, also check the Pete Rock remix of Public Enemy’s “Shut ‘Em Down” and Run-DMC’s “Down With The King".)

Runaway Slave cover

These two fellas are part of the Diggin’ In The Crates crew, along with Black Sheep, Lord Finesse, Diamond D., Fat Joe, Big L and a few others. These guys pretty much lived at the Rock & Soul Convention at the Roosevelt Hotel, and are responsible for some of the hardest loops of the Nineties. They’re also all clever MCs and this album should be much better known. “Soul Clap” alone is worth the price and—that’s right—it samples the original “Flash To The Beat” bootleg from 1980. History! Also boom bap jesters Nice & Smooth are in the video.

A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing cover

Dres was an MC of the first order, as clever as anyone in Quest but nimbler, and Mista Lawnge might be the most underrated producer of this era. Why were there only two Black Sheep albums in the Nineties? You know “The Choice Is Yours,” but there are a half dozen tracks that good. (Try to find the “No We Didn’t” remix of “Strobelite Honey,” still a peak of horn sampling and production.)

Black Sunday cover

DJ Muggs and B-Real are as important as it gets for the Nineties of rap. This album is so good precisely because it is as dumb as boom bap wants to be, often. They get high! They shoot people! And they file perhaps the second-heaviest upright bass sample of the age, “I Ain’t Goin’ Out Like That.” The stones-in-the-river, elephant nuts track is “Scooby Doo,” a Cypress Hill b-side from this album that is just upright bass and finger snaps. It’s the toughest tough guy song in rap history lol maybe maybe not.

Boxcar Sessions cover

Oakland’s entry into pure boom bap, Boxcar Sessions should be as big as Illmatic. The album starts off with the Skull Snaps getting chopped and goes from there—it’s part of the cohort for sure. Confusingly, Saafir’s producer is named Jay-Z, but it’s a different Jay-Z. Saafir has a deep, precise voice and a toolbox of flows and upright bass samples, too. A genuinely great album.

Business Never Personal cover

A foggy and soggy clump of noise and rhymes. Erick Sermon rhymes and produces hot lava, the innovator of slowness from 1988 onwards, as responsible for boom bap as anyone. EPMD are crucial in hip-hop’s evolution into totally unfriendly and antagonistic music that shakes your block like the sweepy tank.

Stunts, Blunts & Hip-Hop cover

The whole Diggin’ In The Crates project might have no purer output than this album. Diamond (who sometimes has no D suffixed) talks shit all carefree and produces the hell out of this with his friends. He’s almost too goofy to be boom bap, but the form also has The Pharcyde and MF DOOM, so it works.

Hard to Earn cover

How do you choose a DJ Premier production? There are literally a hundred worthy songs, so we’ll go with this, the fourth Gang Starr album. Hard To Earn is less celebrated than Daily Operation but, for me, it is the apex of Guru’s laidback gentleman vibe and Primo’s bananas approach to tonality and rhythm. What are the samples in “Brainstorm”? Alvin Lucier? A dying smoke alarm? A Balkan ambulance? Premier runs a quiet metallic howl through the whole album. It’s swollen, anxious music.

Enta da Stage cover

MC Buckshot with producers Evil Dee and Mr. Walt, the latter two also known as Beatminerz. This album feels like it was made in the garment district, in the back room of Rock & Soul‚—it is that New York. Slick rhymes, scratchy low voice, hard but lacquered beats. A real no skip masterpiece of thumps.

Shfl