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Common Chord Progressions Found in Rap Music: Part 2

March 29, 2018 - By  
Categories: Music Theory, Producer Tips, The Lounge

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.

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