Words: Dylan Murphy
Artwork: Paul Smith
Beat switches in hip hop and wider popular music are as ubiquitous as the Google searches for the stars that use them. But why are they held so dearly by fans? What is its first iteration and how much does it have in common with the modern manoeuvre? Dylan Murphy goes into an internet rabbit hole to unearth clues and bring just a little bit of clarity to a phenomenon shows no sign of slowing down.
Beat switches aren’t a new technique. Hell, the sharp transition from one beat and tempo to another has even existed for hundreds of years in classical music. However, hip hop is a fairly new genre and in the last decade especially, the musical tool has become a mark of grandeur, the subject of memes and an essential weapon in the arsenal of the planet’s biggest rappers.
Its appeal isn’t hard to understand either. As a slick mood changer and malleable transition, it’s easy to see why it’s utilised by the biggest artists on the planet to accentuate critical moments. For Drake and the now-disgraced Travis Scott, the transition was fundamental in the success of their number one hit ‘Sicko Mode’, whereas Kendrick Lamar has also utilised the same technique for cinematic purposes on ‘DNA.’ and ‘DUCKWORTH.’ Even Frank Ocean disarmed his listeners with a beat switch in ‘Nights’. The GRAMMY-winner embraced it as a conceptual tool to split his seminal album Blonde into two distinct parts at the half way point of the record.
However, what is more difficult is trying to locate the first iteration of the technique in hip hop and to be clear, I’m not going to do that. It would predictably lead to corrections after further research, disagreements on what can be defined as a “beat switch” and would only be conjecture on my part. Instead, I’ll present a highlights reel of important developments as a jumping off point for readers interested in digging deeper.
Context is important when trying to find a footing for the technique in hip hop. It goes without saying, we’re living in a post-genre era where sampling, rapping, singing and other techniques are no longer confined to recognisable sub-genres, but are part of the inseparable soup of contemporary black music. To make sense of it all, we’re going to have to go forward to go back and vice-versa – so bear with me.
Few artists are embodying this category-evasive approach quite like Frank Ocean. He’s become synonymous with beat switches that have been present right from ‘There Will Be Tears’ on Nostalgia Ultra, to ‘Pyramids’ and ‘Nights’ on Channel Orange and Blonde, respectively. It’s not an exaggeration to say that as his stock has soared so has the presence of beat switches in popular music.
A closer examination reveals his love of the technique is closely linked to his appreciation of Stevie Wonder. Frank’s track, ‘Close to You‘ is a cover of Stevie’s Medley performed on the David Frost show in 1972 and he even samples the performance in the song.
When asked about the inspiration for Channel Orange in 2013, he told MTV, “It was a lot of Stevie Wonder, and this time it’s a lot of Beach Boys and Beatles and whatnot…”. Genius notes the beat switch used by Wonder on ‘Ordinary Pain’ shares its DNA with Ocean’s ‘Pyramids‘ and given his love for the legendary performer, it’s not a stretch to say the 70s have had a hand in birthing the beat switch of today.
If we are talking straight hip hop though, DJ culture holds some of the answers to the beat switch’s origins. While in the modern day, moving from one instrumental to another via a beat switch is often a pronounced and cinematic partition, the goal in the genre’s beginnings was to be more pragmatic and seamless.
While DJ Kool Herc experimented by mixing between identical records to extend breaks, Grandmaster Flash went one step further by chopping up pieces of different songs, aligning their tempo and connecting them at just the right moment to create one extended piece of music. With that in mind, if we define a beat switch as an abrupt, but clean transition that melds two distinct sounds together then the Bronx DJ’s beat matching antics are an essential part of the puzzle. His release ‘The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel’ is one of the earliest recorded examples of fast mixing between songs to create a new longer piece of music – a historic blueprint for DJs to move between tracks without compromising continuity and energy. What’s more as one of the pioneers of “scratching” that became common place in mixes, he’s intrinsically linked to the songs that adopted and later imitated the DJing transition.
Given the cyclical nature of art and advances in technology, synthetic recreations of spin backs and scratches are hard to avoid, with the likes of BROCKHAMPTON nodding to the history and reimagining the transition on ‘JOHNNY’.
With that in mind, it goes without saying that the popular songs that were early adopters of these transitions became reference points for artists looking to innovate. According to a conservative estimate on WhoSampled.Com, the Beastie Boys’ ‘The New Style’ has been sampled 313 times. What’s more is, these aren’t some b-side records from your wannabe-rapper university roommate or obscure cuts that only the headsiest head is privy to. We’re talking iconic tracks like ‘Drop’ by The Pharcyde, songs from legendary records like J Dilla’s Donuts, ‘Snappin & Trappin‘ from Outkast’s Stankonia and ‘Cool Breeze On The Rocks‘ on De La Soul’s 3 Feet and Rising. Its reach isn’t contained to the nineties either; you’re as likely to hear internet-era crews like Odd Future lifting parts of the song as you are Three Six Mafia, Lil Wayne or even Travis Scott. As one of the earliest examples of a song containing beat switch in hip hop and by the virtue of how many ears this song has propelled itself into, it’s hard to underestimate the impact of ‘The New Style‘.
Likewise, Eazy E’s title track from his one and only solo record Eazy-Duz-It maintains the same turntablism-indebted transition between instrumentals and even contains a sample from The Beastie Boys. Despite its acclaim, it’s actually a notorious track from another NWA member that has become a point of reference for hip hop until this day.
A masterpiece in not only the art of sampling, but creative transitions, Ice Cube’s ‘Jackin’ For Beats‘ “jacks” beats from some of Hip Hop’s titans in an ode to stealing instrumentals. Ice Cube heard the beats and thought if he had them he’d do better – so he did just that and took them. According to whosampled.com it contains samples of 26 songs, including the works of Public Enemy and other rappers Cube was feeling at the time. While it shares sonic DNA with previous examples, ‘Jackin For Beats’ marked a subtle change in the use of the transition. The NWA rapper sampled so many tracks on ‘Jackin For Beats’, he couldn’t even place it on an album due to publishing splits. The song wasn’t about money, it was about making a statement.
This became a theme in the nineties for the artists experimenting with the beat switch. In 1997, Jay-Z took a leaf from Ice Cube’s book and welded two songs together in his commentary on ‘A Million and One Questions/ Rhyme No More‘ with DJ Premier flipping the beat right on the line “Motherfuckers can’t rhyme no more.” Meanwhile, artists like The Roots’ Malik B embraced the move on 1999’s ‘Table of Contents (pt 1 & 2)’. and even Notorious B.I.G. and A Tribe Called Quest got in on the act. However, it was Pete Rock increasingly moved from one beat to another to make a statement of different sorts.
Prior to the internet era, as a producer, showcasing your sample library was a big flex. When Youtube converters and peer2peer sharing were unimaginable, the only way you could have access to rare samples was actually getting your hands on them. Pete Rock would give listeners just a crumb of what he had in his expansive library, showcasing obscure samples like he was momentarily lifting the lid off the cookie jar. While it has more of a fade rather than a rapid and clean “switch”, ‘The Basement’ is a prime example of showcasing different sounds on one track, because he can, not because he needs to.
Somewhere between Jay-Z’s showmanship and Pete Rock’s subtle flex we find the attitude that informs today’s beat switch. While neither have the ‘cinematic’ or ‘otherworldly’ feel that’s often credited to Frank or Drake; Timbaland played a part in bridging that gap. Blurring the lines between hip hop and pop, the iconic producer helped popularise a more “futuristic” transition sound. Characterised by a sharp, clean and often unexpected departure from a swell of noise into something smoother, Timbaland’s switches often sound like quickly and noisily sucking a sample through a straw before coming up for air. Think tracks like ‘Chop Me Up’ or ‘What Goes Around’ from FutureSex/LoveSounds.
Making this distinction about the modern sound may appear superfluous, but the unexpected element of the transition that Timbaland became synonymous with is now the defining quality in today’s examples. It’s the reason Youtube commenters talk about getting ‘Goosebumps’ from Frank Ocean’s ‘Nights’ and memes have people floating into space on the switch up. In technical terms, the phenomenon is known as ‘musical frisson‘ which can be boiled to sudden musical changes that trigger an emotive response because they catch us off guard or exceed our expectations in a positive way.
For Drake and Travis Scott it had the same effect, but also ensured in an era of fleeting attention spans that they could command the attention of listeners for over five minutes.
Evoking an emotional response is often the goal if not a welcomed bonus when creating music and there’s little more memorable than an actual physical reaction to a sound. If you can do that and keep listeners hooked, then it’s a win-win, right?
There’s little to suggest there’s any fatigue around Beat switches yet. In fact, if anything there’s a desire for more and with TikTok dictating how popular music is structured, who knows what the future of the transitions will look like. What we do know is, as music has become easier than ever to make and the market is increasingly saturated, artists will use whatever means necessary to create moments that cut through the noise.