Many of the articles and YouTube videos that teach music producers about hip hop drum patterns just aren't our cup of tea and we think you deserve better.
Hate to throw shade like that right away, but it's the honest truth!
A lot of the hip hop tutorials we found were either really basic, appeared to be written by a robot, used corny sounds, or was written in a very generic way that doesn't discuss the "swing" of the groove which is crucial to the entire genre.
Hip hop without talking about swing? It sounds like you clicked around randomly in the piano roll and called it a day. There's no soul in that.
But we're all about inspiring people and offering solutions so we put together something different.
Instead of a generic guide, we're going to be looking at an example in a lot of detail from "Breath and Stop" by Q-Tip because the beat grooves like crazy and has a lot more going on under the hood than it looks like.
This is a drum pattern where you can't help but immediately want to nod your head your head. Always a good thing!
The sample used for the drum kit part originally comes from a Kool & The Gang Track called N.T.
You can hear the original here, and the sample appears at the time 5:37:
If you want the exact sound, of course you can just sample the beat yourself.
But we're going to pick this apart and see if we can recreate something like it that captures the feeling of this hip hop beat without sampling it directly.
We imported the audio into Ableton Live, then used our GRITMATTER drum kit to get the basic pattern into a MIDI clip.
Lets look at where notes actually fall on the 16th note grid before we apply any swing here.
On the surface it's a pretty simple kick, snare, and a 8th based pattern with some ghost notes (more on that in a minute, they aren't pictured here yet) that leans on the 4th 16th note of each beat.
There are lots of anticipations on that 4th 16th note, which help give it a funkier feeling that makes you want to move.
Beats that have too much weight on the "big beats" like the downbeats of 1, 2, 3, & 4 of a 4/4 bar tend to sound kind of square and boring which is the opposite of what you look for when making beats in hip hop.
Generally it means playing a note before the downbeat by one single 16th note, so it has a feeling of "anticipating" the next beat. It makes you want to lean into that next beat.
The opposite isn't always true though! Can you "extend" a beat by playing a 16th note after it? Not really, that just ends up sounding late if it doesn't fit into some kind of bigger pattern.
(Spoiler alert: we can kind of displace notes on a smaller scale after the beat. Keep reading and you'll see what we mean when we work on the hi hats.)
For whatever reason, anticipating the down beats feels more organic and once you know the sound, you'll hear it in hip hop drums all over the place.
Let's go part by part to really see how this mechanism works.
The kick part starts right on 1 and either anticipates another kick hit or a snare hit.
The snare hits on beat 2, but never on beat 4. It always dances around that beat instead. The snare anticipates beat 4 by a 16th note, then hits again on the upbeat of beat 4 (that's two 16ths after beat 4)
The hi hat is an 8th driven pattern with ghosted 16ths between them. It looks deceptively simple in the timeline, but there's a subtle groove to it that we're going to go into a lot more detail about.
Adding ghost notes at about half the velocity on the remaining 16th notes of each bar (the 2nd and 4th 16ths of each beat) gets us closer to the feeling of the original.
Conceptually, this is not too hard to wrap your head around. It's a fairly simple 2 bar drum pattern.
But of course if you play this as is, it sounds really basic and grooveless. There is no swing or funk in this at all yet, because this is just a basic pattern clicked into the grid with a mouse.
A lot of the magic in the feeling of hip hop is in the subtleties of the drum grooves. The solution is we need to slightly shift some notes around.
After all, this groove was sampled from a real drummer, not a machine, so it needs some of the imperfection that makes a beat feel like it's alive and breathing.
If we compare the MIDI clip to the audio waveform we can see that there are a lot of moments where the audio version is slightly off the grid, but the MIDI is exactly on it.
If your programmed drum patterns sound robotic and sterile, take a look at your MIDI clips. There's a good chance you're having the same problem.
In general, most hip hop drum patterns are going to need a little massaging to nudge certain parts on and off the beat very slightly to humanize things.
Yes, you could painstakingly align each MIDI note with the audio to see where that gets us. Sometimes the hard way is the only way.
But before you do that..
It is helpful to try Ableton's Extract Groove feature. We're going to use it to analyze the audio, then apply that feel to our MIDI notes to see if we can get some insight.
Many DAWs like FL Studio unfortunately don't have this feature to our knowledge, but we'll do our best to help you understand what's happening and work around it.
After the groove was analyzed and applied to our MIDI the general insight from this step that you can see on the timeline is certain elements like the kicks are often very slightly ahead of the beat.
This isn't a full 16th note anticipation, its a more under the radar feeling. You won't notice this as much and you still hear the drum hitting on the downbeat.
But if we straighten this out and put everything back on the grid, it looses all the feel.
There is no rule that says you have to mix your drum patterns at the end. Get things as close as you can on the go without losing the creative spark!
We did some basic EQ and a light reverb on the snare at this stage, switched the kick from the "dark" sample in the kit to the the light variation to closer match the punchier kick on the track, and added a drum bus plugin to start dialing in some compression and saturation.
At this point, the groove is coming along, but it still sounds very "on top" of the beat, like it wants to push ahead. The sample on the original Q-Tip track does the opposite—it lays back—which gives the beat a certain swagger that we aren't achieving yet.
Before we start dragging individual notes around or swapping out samples, we're going to try a trick that can help get us closer and you can use on nearly all your drum patterns.
Go into your MIDI clips, highlight the hi hats, turn snapping off, and drag all the MIDI notes slightly behind the beat. Like very slightly, maybe a few milliseconds.
In this situation we actually can get away with "extending" the beat. This is sometimes called Displacement.
It's subtle. We're moving the hi hats over by a few milliseconds, not by a full 16th note, or even a 32nd note.
There's no rule here either for what works and what doesn't. Just do it by ear. Move the hats over until they start to sound late and off beat, then go back a little bit and you should be in a good place.
Now we need to do a bit of sound design on our drum sounds or start swapping out drum samples. The hi hat sound is a little too pointed and still doesn't quite lay back enough despite doing some displacement and nudging them behind the beat.
The recorded hi hat doesn't have a lot of emphasis on the front of the note and has a smoother, mellower attack at the front of the note, almost like a shaker.
The snare is also drier, higher in pitch, and has less of a fundamental tone ringing out.
We can see on the analyzer that Q-Tip's snare has a fundamental around a C3 or 255Hz and we can hear a little pitch motion in the sample.
If you're using our pack GRITMATTER, tune the snare in the drum kit up +4 half steps, pitch envelope set to -3, attack of 0ms, decay of 20ms, and sustain of -3%. Repeat this for each of the 4 snare samples on that pad.
To get the fundamental tone to sit back, you will need to notch out that frequency with an EQ like this:
Or like this if you prefer a little more low end in the snare drum sample. Just open up the low end filter a bit.
Make sure the notch isn't too wide and that it's directly over the frequency that is sticking out too much.
This is the frequency that has a pitch you can hum to yourself. Having less of this will emphasize the crack and bite of the snare higher up in the frequency spectrum.
To dial in the Hi Hats and shave some attack off them, just move the sample start a little past the initial attack to mellow out the pointed click sound of the drum stick hitting the hat.
The GRITMATTER samples deliberately have a lot of stick click and attack sound in case you want that, if not you just shave it out like this.
You will have to do this for each sample in the hi hat pads. If you're using GRITMATTER, there are a bunch. It's a little repetitive, but the end result is worth it.
This mellows things out significantly.
You many want to also try nudging the ghost notes of the hi hat after this part. Same process. Do it by ear and nudge them a little beyond what they should be, then move back to find the sweet spot.
If you drag the ghost notes to sit more between the initial 8th notes we created, it will be closer to being on the grid and sound "straighter". If you do the reverse, it has a heavier swing.
We decided to layer in an actual shaker loop over the beat to help it swing like the original.
We found a loop we liked, warped it to tempo using the Beats warping mode, then applied the same groove that we extracted from the original audio of the beat.
Then we applied some basic EQ and compression to the shaker loop and adjusted the volume until we could hear it blend with the beat so the hihat and shaker were balanced with each other.
The final result of this is a drum pattern that blends very cleanly with the original and has many of the same qualities as the original, despite us using completely different drum samples.
Hopefully if you followed along with our samples or your own, you were able to learn a little more about hip hop production and improve your overall music production skills.
If you are interested in grabbing the samples we used for this deep dive, you can download the GRITMATTER sample pack here.
It includes the raw 24bit wav files that can be used in any DAW as well as pre-programmed drum racks for Ableton Live so you can recreate this exactly as we have outlined here.