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In my last article, I discussed chord progressions in hip-hop music. That article went into depth on the fact that hip-hop isn’t based on chords, since it focuses more on beats and lyrics, occasionally sampling other songs, using loops, or not using a melody at all, just a beat. Regardless, the article listed a few common chord progressions found in rap music. Ever since I wrote it, I found some more common progressions to add to the list. I will go over them with this article to assist amateur producers in approaching their beat making.
i > VII > VI > V
Let’s start off with a i > VII > VI > V repetition in rap songs. The songs listed below using this progression are all from the ’90s West Coast era. (Yeah!!!)
“Who Am I? (What’s My Name?)” – Snoop Dogg (1993)
This is a G-Funk classic. On a deeper level, it’s a fine way for producer Dr. Dre to use the i > VII > VI > V progression to introduce his protégé Snoop to the world. (He also uses a similar bass line with that progression on Snoop’s “Doggy Dogg World,” only with a different melody, because he’s the man.)
“Can’t See Me” – 2Pac (1996)
Dre also produced this ‘Pac track, but the melody is not the same as “Who Am I?” However, this song does feature George Clinton, who’s track “Atomic Dog” was sampled and interpolated on “Who Am I?” Now you see deeper similarities between the two songs. Interestink.
“Shorty Wanna Be A Thug” – 2Pac (1996)
This song uses a sample from Hank Crawford’s “Wildflower,” which is where the progression comes from. Only here, the sample is underneath occasional West Coast synth leads.
i > VI > III > VII
Ever complain about pop songs sounding the same? They don’t. Many of them just use the i > VI > III > VII chord progression with different melodies. Also, ever complain how rap music went pop in recent years? That might be because you’ve heard rap songs with that pop progression. What songs use it? A few. The ones below are what I found.
“Not Afraid” – Eminem (2010)
Off his album Recovery, Em uses this synth-layered progression behind occasional high pianos to rap (and sing) to—as he says on the album’s liner notes—“anyone who’s in a dark place tryin’ to 2 get out. Keep your head up… It does get better!”
“Love The Way You Lie” – Eminem (2010)
Also on Recovery, this classic duet with Rihanna is unforgettable. This is possibly thanks to producer Alex Da Kid’s acoustic guitar loop using the most basic pop progression in the song. Or ’cause Eminem was on it, and he’s the man.
i > IV > iii > ii (> V)
My favorite progression is i > IV > iii > ii (> V). It’s not often used in hip-hop, but no other songs I’ve heard used it besides rap songs. It’s really a flowing, catchy melody, and when handed to the right people, it can be produced right.
“What’s The Difference” – Dr. Dre (1999)
The greatest rap producer of all time slows down a sample of “Parce Que Te Crois” by Charles Aznavour (correction, other genres use that progression) and adds “crispy” drums and that trademark Dre-synth to make this track a gem off his epic album 2001.
“The Real Slim Shady” – Eminem (2000)
A favorite song among the boy bands and pop stars of the early 2000s (sark mark), Eminem raps over a Dre-produced monophonic loop creating a similar melody as “What’s The Difference.” You know those pop stars? They’ve definitely used a few clichéd progressions, eh?
“Off With His Head” – Big Pun (2000)
A fluid, intense melody to play behind the lyrics of a rapper gone too soon, producer Just Blaze uses two different loops containing the progression I’m talking about.
Once again, hip-hop isn’t based on chord progression, but if you listen carefully, you can find some patterns.
Chord progressions can be found in any genre of music with a melody. Even if the melody is looped or monophonic, or both, you can build a chord, or many chords, around it.
With that being said, hip-hop isn’t known for its chord progressions, unlike rock and roll, or other music with guitar or melody-making instruments. However, you can hear looped melodies repeated in rap songs, from samples or original production.
WHAT ARE COMMON CHORD PROGRESSIONS IN HIP-HOP?
Hip-hop usually loops its melodies over drums, as it originated from sampling other music (break beats). With these types of melodies, common progressions are not often found. There are few exceptions, though.
i > V Chord Progression
There are a few mutual progressions between songs. Let’s start with the i (minor first) and V (minor fifth). Those two chords loop throughout these whole songs below.
“If I Had” – Eminem (1999)
This song uses a repeated C# minor and G# minor chord repetition for two bars, one bar for each chord. Varied with backing vocals to keep the melody interesting, this is a fine example of this progression.
“Like Father, Like Son” – The Game (2005)
Like the above song, “Like Father Like Son” uses a C# minor / G# minor progression, but for a one bar loop. That progression is formed from a sped-up sample of Family Circle’s “Mariya.”
“Bad Meets Evil” – Eminem (1999)
Like “If I Had,” this is also on Eminem’s Slim Shady LP. It uses a similar progression, just a different melody and loop length (four bars for the whole loop). The chords are a G minor / D major.
SINGLE CHORD SONGS
Occasionally, rap songs can have a single chord throughout. This comes from a looped melody throughout the whole song. Examples?
“HUMBLE.” – Kendrick Lamar (2017)
In this, one of 2017’s biggest hits, you can hear a deep piano loop. Additional instruments are added throughout to keep the melody interesting, but the chord throughout the song is Eb minor.
“The Next Episode” – Dr. Dre (1999)
This song is remembered for its looped muted guitar. (And it’s surprise ending, too, but that’s another story.) There is barely a melody within the guitar and drums, but the chord is Eb minor. (Excluding the lyric-less breaks.)
“The Message” – Grandmaster Flash (1982)
Even with a flowing synthesized melody, this classic ghetto rap song still stays within its G minor chord.
i > VI Chord Progressions
A favorite chord progression of mine is the i > VI switch. Where can you find this in hip-hop? Hey, remember those tracks I had you break down in previous article? Two songs use it.
“Ice Cube” – Gangsta Rap Made Me Do It (2008)
This song uses an eight-bar loop, a D-minor chord for four bars and Bb major seventh for another four bars. You can find our Beat Breakdown (Part 1 and Part 2) of this song if you’re interested in really understanding the chords, melody, and drums behind this song.
“Rap Superstar” – Cypress Hill
This song has a D-minor chord for two bars while using a Bb major chord for the other two bars in its four-bar loop. It’s not the same melody as the first song. The mallet and strings here just form the same chords.
“Friends” – Whodini (1984)
To me, this is a well-known song using that i > VI progression, for two bars in each chord. To other artists, it’s well knows as well. Nas sampled it if “If I Ruled The World,” and Tupac with “Troublesome ’96.” You’ll find this sampled in many other songs, too.
I know it’s difficult to hear music and tell what chords are playing. Not everybody is gifted like that, but you have talent a different way. When you produce a song, think of a melody that’s dope in your head. Having chords isn’t already a fire beat. Chords just lay the foundation of songs. As I’ve said in my “top 10 rap songs of 2017” article, you don’t need to follow industry standards. Make a hot sound that you think will resonate with people. These chord progressions are just a step in the right direction, but you don’t need to take it.
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