In the 1990s, rap music as a commercial force was on the ascent. And while a new generation of artists were dominating both the airwaves and the sales charts, behind the scenes, an elaborate network of managers, A&Rs, and label execs was beginning to take shape. Its purpose? Connecting those chart-topping artists with producers and their beats. It functioned as follows: Producers would create beat tapes—demo cassette tapes filled with short snippets of instrumental tracks that were available for artist use. Those beat tapes would then be circulated almost exclusively within the industry. (It was rare that the average rap fan would ever get to hear them.) The beats on those tapes would then often form the foundation of a fully realized hit song.
Producer Prince Paul recalls making beat tapes on his own, and bringing them to his collaborators when he worked with golden era groups like Stetsasonic and De La Soul. “It would start out that someone would have an idea and they would flesh it out on cassette. Let the group hear it and the group at large would yay or nay it and if we liked it, then we would proceed to actually recording it,” he says.
Veteran producer Pete Rock explains that making and shopping beat tapes was a key part of his early music making career. “It was just me in my room just doing what I do. I would just make beats and put them on tape. I was actually shopping demos with CL Smooth, but once I got to be known as a solo producer, that’s when the beat tapes started.”
At the time, beat tapes were a way for young producers to both demonstrate their skills and sell their tracks. After pounding the pavement for years, pitching his music to various labels, Jersey-born producer K-Def went to work with pioneering hip-hop producer Marley Marl. One of K-Def’s beat tapes contained early, rough versions of the three hit singles from Lords Of The Underground’s classic 1993 debut, Here Come The Lords. “Before I got with Marley, I was shopping my beat tapes everywhere. When I hooked up with him, I had a beat tape with ‘Funky Child’ on it, ‘Here Come the Lords’ and ‘Chief Rocka’ already on it,” says K-Def.
As the ‘90s gave way to the ‘00s, this process of making beat tapes (by then they were CD-Rs) for circulation amongst industry insiders more or less remained the same. For many hip-hop fans, their force behind their favorite producer’s beat tapes was like the wizard behind the curtain: shrouded in mystery and never to be (intentionally) revealed.
But then, in 2005, beat tapes had a watershed moment. A trilogy of beat tapes from legendary Detroit producer J Dilla were leaked to pirating sites and message boards like Okayplayer’s The Lesson. Not only did these three tapes contain the original instrumentals for future rap classics like Common’s “Love Is…,” Raekwon’s “House Of Flying Daggers,” Jaylib & Talib Kweli’s “Raw Shit,” they would also prove to be deeply influential to the beat-making community.
Following the leak, as well as the release of Dilla’s final album Donuts, a new generation of producers emerged, blurring the line between beat tapes and instrumental hip-hop albums. Led by a vanguard of creative West Coast beatmakers like Flying Lotus, Ras G., Dibiase, and more, producers from around the world picked up the gauntlet that Dilla had laid down, releasing their own beat tapes designed for consumption by the general public.
In recent years, the popularity of beat tapes and instrumental hip-hop in general has continued to grow, leading many veteran producers to open up and share many of the rough-hewn, unreleased beat tapes that had been collecting dust in their vaults. Here are a few of the best beat tapes from the ‘90s currently available at Bandcamp.
A goldmine of some previously unheard beats from one of the greatest producers of all time. Pete Rock’s Lost Sessions are full of the kind of bouncy, soulful tracks, similar to those found on classics like Soul Survivor and INI’s Center Of Attention. The entire tape is exceptional but tracks like “Vibes,” Flash Back,” and “Blue Monday” stand out for their adept drum programming, elastic bass, and blissful atmosphere.
K-Def is the producer of countless classic ‘90s rap records from Lords Of The Underground, World Renown, and Real Live. K-Def came up under the tutelage of sampling and production pioneer Marley Marl. His Beats From The 90s series gives listeners a snapshot of the head-nodding material that he was creating throughout the decade.
Beat Tape 1992
Quirky and fun, KutMasta Kurt’s Beat Tape 1992 is a delightful slice of early ‘90s, sample-based hip-hop. Full of funky drum breaks and creative sampling, the tape demonstrates Kurt flexing the same type of creativity that he used in his production for lyrical heavyweights like Kool Keith, Planet Asia, Dilated Peoples, and others. Tracks like “Ladd’s Green Caddy” and the organ, brass, and drum-heavy banger “Diggin’ At Logos,” show that long ago KutMasta Kurt had mastered the art of creating beat tapes packed with audio gold.
1997 Beat Tape
Equally gifted as a maker of both hip-hop and house music, DJ Spinna’s production discography spans genres as well as decades. His 1997 Beat Tape showcases his talent for molding jazzy samples into stark drum and bass-heavy underground hip-hop.
Treehouse Beats 95-98
West Coast hip-hop collective Blak Forest were a product of Los Angeles’ fertile ‘90s underground rap scene. In addition to their deft lyricism, the crew’s production from Circle of Power and DJ ICD was catchy and melodic with ample amounts of funk and grit. Endlessly creative and forward-thinking, the best tracks on this tape—“Hoodlum Jazz,” “Paper,” and “Fly Line”—would fit in any playlist of contemporary instrumental hip-hop today.