Boom Bap is currently having a resurgence decades after its initial emergence and popularity. Although Boom Bap was always considered more of an underground subgenre than a viable mainstream sound, some artists have recently pushed this aesthetic to the fore, proving a contemporary appeal.
What is Boom Bap?
The name Boom Bap conveys the central emphasis on the “boom” of the kick drum and the “bap” of the snare. The most identifiable, core element of a Boom Bap track is the sound of the main drum loop – an acoustic bass drum sample on the downbeat and the crack of an acoustic snare sample on the upbeat. The sampled, minimalistic rhythm is exaggerated, distorted, and featured prominently in the mix to create a driving and gritty atmosphere.
The signature aesthetic of Boom Bap extends to the lyrics and subject-matter – storytelling that is raw and unfiltered. The production combined with the lyrics strive for authenticity, to convey something real.
Carefully selected sounds and samples pay homage to the early days of hip-hop when DJs and emcees had limited recording equipment, so scratching and sampling were at the core of production. Legendary producers like J Dilla, DJ Premier, Madlib, and Pete Rock used SP-1200s, MPC-60s, and Akai-900s to sample individual hits off vinyl records to achieve this classic sound.
When and how did Boom Bap start? Unfortunately, it’s impossible to nail down the exact moment it became a thing. However, T La Rock’s 1984 track, “It’s Yours,” was arguably the first time the term “boombap” was used. The track, produced by Rick Rubin, is an early hip-hop classic. As the track fades out, T La Rock can be heard rapping “boombap” to the beat. So, that’s when the term “boombap” entered the scene, but another decade would pass before the term would be used for the subgenre we know as Boom Bap.
Fast forward almost a decade; 1993 was a momentous year for hip-hop. Tupac Shakur became a breakthrough success with his hit track, “I Get Around.” Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle was the first debut album to enter the Billboard 200 album charts at Number 1. Cypress Hill released their second album Black Sunday, earning millions of fans with the emergence of an alternative Latino rap scene developing on the West Coast. West Coast hip-hop was already well established with Ice Cube, Too $hort, Easy E, and Pharcyde. Meanwhile, Atlanta duo Outkast managed to push through the East Coast / West Coast dominance with their groundbreaking debut single “Player’s Ball.” Wu-Tang Clan released their debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), and A Tribe Called Quest released Midnight Marauders on the same day.
Already a fixture in New York as a member of hip-hop group Boogie Down Productions, KRS-One started his solo career off with a bang when he released his now classic album Return Of The Boom Bap in 1993. KRS-One thought hip-hop production in the ’90s was “extremely watered down and less confrontational. […] Return Of The Boom Bap was a call back to the original intent of hip hop’s music production and rebellious music style.”
Against his label’s wishes, KRS-One pushed to work with DJ Premier on the album. Premier had received critical acclaim as half of Gang Starr but lacked mainstream success. It was a clear statement; KRS-One wanted to reconnect with “the streets and all those that clung to the original break-beat sounds of hip hop.” He wasn’t interested in the pursuit of mainstream success for the sake of it.
To this day, DJ Premier takes the legacy and history of hip-hop very seriously:
If you don’t really care about the history of hip-hop culture, don’t mess with it. Buy whatever little albums you buy and play them, they are probably the albums we don’t like anyway, but you should really, really respect the history.
From DJ Premier’s lecture at Red Bull Music Academy
Although the Boom Bap sound has evolved and changed over time, the core drum loop is still an outstretched arm reaching out to the roots of hip-hop. The Boom Bap sound connects artists and fans with hip hop’s origins while the music industry is increasingly overtaken by high-budget, big-label projects that lack any semblance of grit.
The Second Wave: Griselda
In the 2000s, rap groups seemed to be in decline. Meanwhile, Conway the Machine, his half-brother Westside Gunn, and their cousin Benny the Butcher started their rap careers while running the streets in Buffalo, a small steadily decaying city in upstate New York. Each of them was talented in their own right and gaining local popularity.
Conway was shot in 2012 and narrowly survived. This incident spurred Westside Gunn to start the music collective Griselda, named after the Colombian drug lord, Griselda Blanco. After years on the streets they knew that drug dealing required two things; a relentless mentality and product. This was Griselda’s approach to their music careers, and their output has been prolific.
Griselda has carved out a signature sound that blends the Boom Bap sensibility with the gritty reality of the streets. Their music presents the unfiltered, grim reality of life in Buffalo. They spoke about this in an interview:
Westside Gunn: “Buffalo is very dusty. All the other cities evolved. Buffalo has just been diminishing […] A lot of people from Buffalo haven’t even been outside of Buffalo. Everything about this is kinda too real. […] The music for us was an escape.”
Conway the Machine: “We was actually blessed to even have the homies who had the studios and the labs and all that, to give us something to where we were able to get out of the hood for a second and do something with ourselves.”
Westside Gunn: “I mean, the studio is guns there. There’s drugs there. It’s not like a regular studio. Nah, there’s killers in there. It’s dealers in there.”
Griselda in an interview with NPR
With a relentless and uncompromising approach, they’ve received the backing of Nas, Raekwon, and Busta Rhymes. Their collective output has bridged the gap between ’90s and ’00s hip-hop; filling a void left by commercial music. Although their music is not topping mainstream charts, the industry has taken notice. In the past 5 years, Griselda has signed with Shady Records and signed a management deal with Roc Nation.
After releasing countless singles, mixtapes, individual projects, and collaborations, the crew finally released their debut album W.W.C.D. in 2019 to much acclaim. The album intro is blessed by Raekwon of Wu-Tang. In-house producers, Beat Butcha and Daringer achieved the dusty, beefy heritage sound of early hip-hop samples without using a single sample. The album name stands for What Would Chine Gun Do; an ode to Benny the Butcher’s older brother Machine Gun Black, who was fatally shot in 2006.
Over the past 10 years, Griselda has remained unflinchingly authentic, gained fanatic fans, and earned their rightful place in the legacy of hip-hop. All without getting radio play or placing on mainstream charts;
We’re not getting asked to do Super Bowl halftime shows and […] you don’t have to do that to still live a great life. So it’s like, why change? What are we changing for? Let us keep doing what we’re doing, and hopefully we could be the blueprint for the guys that’s under us to see like, “Yo, we don’t have to do that shit. Let’s just be us.
Westside Gunn in an interview with NPR
This lack of mainstream success has not been a deterrent or an obstacle; if anything, it is confirmation that they are the real deal.
Boom Bap and beyond
Also in 2012, 17 year old Brooklyn native, Joey Bada$$ released his mixtape titled 1999. The mixtape was a sensation; the video for “Survival Tactics” has 24 million views on YouTube.
For years, Joey’s sound has oozed the East-Coast-Boom-Bap aesthetic. He’s racked up the views and listens, been featured on nearly every music blog, and has become an underground darling. His sound has evolved beyond the Boom Bap aesthetic in recent years, but many other artists continue to tap into the gritty sensibility.
ScHoolboy Q, Freddie Gibbs, Tyler, the Creator, J. Cole, Pusha T, Denzel Curry, and Isaiah Rashad may seem like artists with very different sounds and backgrounds, but they all dip in and out of the Boom Bap aesthetic. Perhaps not in a puritanical sense, but once you notice those crunchy, driving, acoustic sampled drums, you just can’t un-hear it. The atmosphere is there; the reference is there. This era can at least be described as Boom-Bap-adjacent. At most, it is the evolution and cross-pollination of Boom Bap.
Recently, Kenny Beats has risen to the top of his game, becoming a favorite producer among an impressively diverse roster of artists. Working with Isaiah Rashad and Denzel Curry, he’s ushered in a new era of what might be dubbed Futuristic Boom Bap. He is among a new wave of producers and artists competing to push the envelope of hip-hop, blur genres, and challenge expectations. So, it’s interesting that he often relies on the crunchy Boom-Bap-esque drum loop to hold down his productions.
But, perhaps Boom Bap is the same as it always was – even the new, more futuristic iteration. That signature crunchy, gritty, acoustic drum loop is still an anchor, an outstretched arm connecting us today to the early days of hip-hop, a through-line that is sonically and historically significant even as hip-hop production pushes into new territory.
That’s our primer on boom bap 🔐
Let us know what genre or subgenre you think will be big this year in the comments 👇
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Setaro, Shawn. “A Guide to Griselda.” Complex, 21 Oct. 2020, https://www.complex.com/music/griselda-records-guide-everything-you-need-to-know.
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