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Make a Hip-Hop Song by Derek Smalls

You should have a pen, paper, and a music player - ideally one that can loop a section of a song.

1. Pick a song - I recommend that you go easy on yourself and pick a song that you are very familiar with and comfortable listening to over and over again. But keep in mind that because you will be listening to this over and over again, you might never listen to it the same way again. Trust me, veteran hip-hop producers do not listen to songs the same way everyone else does. Their minds have become very attuned to the building blocks that go into creating a song.

2. Break it down - the first part of understanding a hip-hop song is understanding its parts. Most songs (hip-hop, R&B, pop) follow a basic INTRO-VERSE-CHORUS-VERSE-CHORUS-C SECTION-VERSE/CHORUS-OUTRO pattern. There are lots of songs that do not follow this pattern or switch it up a little, but at the very least you need to understand this basic structure of songs. Chop your song up on paper and separate each section.

3. Dissect - having listened to the song, you can tell when each of those sections occurs - You know the INTRO is 4 measures long, the VERSE is 32, the CHORUS is 16. You should have now have a list with each of these sections and the number of measures and even the time each takes. You can also make notes about what instruments you hear.

4. Start with one section - At this point it is easiest to start with the shortest section, which is often the INTRO/OUTRO (sometimes they will be exactly the same, or close enough). One thing to note is if this song's CHORUS or VERSE happens to be simpler than its INTRO, it might be best to start there. Play this section on loop over and over again. A good tip is to learn to ignore the vocals - our way of listening to most music is to focus on the singing and lyrics. This is not high on our priority list - yet. You should be writing down what instruments are in this section and what their relationship is to one another and the overall structure of the section: e.g., guitar comes in on beat 2 of 2nd measure.

5. Start with that section's beat - with the 4-measure INTRO on loop, by this point you can tell if the beat (meaning the drums) are the same throughout, or whether they change throughout the INTRO (they usually do not). One thing that focusing on the beat will help you with is identifying the tempo - you should be able to tap your foot to the song and from that determine how many Beats Per Minute (BPM) the tempo is - a metronome or software is really helpful here. Listen to the section over and over until you know exactly when the bass drum hits, the hi-hats, cymbals, etc. If you don't know what instrument/drum is being played, do not worry - but put a placeholder sound in its place to cover every single sound.

6. Fill out the section - this section is probably going to have more than just drums in it. Maybe the INTRO will be just drums, but the other sections will have instruments - bass, guitar, keyboard, even bells or strings. You should either have a keyboard or software that will let you play some notes. Now the song is likely to have complicated sounds, big chords and crazy melodies - for now just listen for the lowest or highest note and just try to match it with your keyboard sound. It does not have to be the same sounds or instrument, and it does not have to have all the notes of the melody. You are just laying down a skeleton of the song - perfection is not the goal here.

By the way, if you have a keyboard or software you should be spending some time every day fiddling with sounds and making a list of the ones you like or that sound familiar. You should also look into studying some basic music theory, this is something even beat producers need to understand.

7. Repeat - go through the above steps with the other sections of the song, remembering to ignore the vocals and tackle one instrument at a time, starting with the drums.

8. Caution - there might be rhythm and/or tempo changes in the song, so do not assume that they will be the same for each section. The most common time for a rhythm or tempo change to occur is during the transition between two sections (VERSE-CHORUS for example). There are also likely to be instruments and drums that are in one section but not another, so again, do not assume everything stays the same. Always keep in mind that you are making a simple skeleton, not an exact replica of the song. If you are having trouble, stick to just mastering the beat for the whole song.

This will be boring, frustrating, and very time-consuming. This is beat-making.

My blog is a great free resource for learning more about producing your own beats and music.

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