What does "beats" mean, in music?
December 3, 2014 2:42 PM   Subscribe

I keep hearing others referring to "sick beats", or something similar, when describing certain music tracks. Every time I ask for an explanation of what "beats" means, I get a lot of hand waving and no satisfactory answer. I always took "beat" to mean a temporal unit that defines a discrete chunk of time. For example a 4/4 will have four beats, and so on. I thought it might have something to do with the rhythm of a track, but apparently it doesn't quite mean this ("beat" might mean this, but "beats" seems to mean something different). I've tried looking on google, but coming up surprisingly thin. Is this a bullshit term, or does it have a useful meaning?
posted by spacediver to Media & Arts (27 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
The tracks on a drum machine or digital sampler are often called "beats," therefore I always took that meaning of beats not to refer specifically to the time signature or to the rhythm, but to a specific loops that are set up in samplers for playback. "Sick beats" would be awesome examples thereof.

Cultural reference: "Dave: Play some hauntingly sick beats"
posted by muddgirl at 2:47 PM on December 3, 2014


In hip-hop parlance, a "beat"—in addition to being a temporal unit—also refers to the backing track behind the rap. Plenty of professionals (usually producers, e.g. Kanye before he became famous, El-P, DJ Mustard in the top 40 these days) spend a lot of time focused solely on making beats, so people become beats connoisseurs.
posted by Maecenas at 2:48 PM on December 3, 2014 [10 favorites]


In this context, "beat" just means the backing (intrumental) track.

For example, this is Jay-Z and Kanye West's song "Otis."

This is the instrumental track a.k.a. beat.

And this is Justin Bieber's Otis Freestyle.
posted by papayaninja at 2:50 PM on December 3, 2014 [2 favorites]


Or yeah, that. Here's a set of blog posts on "How to write a sick beat" that refer to the process of producing a backing track.
posted by muddgirl at 2:50 PM on December 3, 2014


See also, Ice Cube rapping about stealing beats and "[giving] it that gangsta touch." Jackin for Beats.
posted by papayaninja at 2:52 PM on December 3, 2014


So are beats basically everything minus the lyrics of the (main) artist?
posted by spacediver at 2:53 PM on December 3, 2014


So are beats basically everything minus the lyrics of the (main) artist?

No. Bass line, drums, synth. The percussion.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 2:55 PM on December 3, 2014 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I take it to mean creative use of drum/rhythm/synth patterns for backing, whether sampled or programmed. You'll also hear "beats and loops". The hip-hop use reaches back to dancehall and Jamaican sound system music where there was that separation between recorded/mixed backing tracks (as opposed to rhythm sections) and live performers.
posted by holgate at 2:58 PM on December 3, 2014 [1 favorite]


thanks for all the replies, I think I have a better grasp of the idea now - some part of me still wants to resist the term for some reason... maybe i feel it degrades music appreciation somehow... not sure need to think on it more :)
posted by spacediver at 3:06 PM on December 3, 2014


A looping rhythm track devoid of vocals and melody. Usually defined by drums and percussion but can also include bass and samples.
posted by erebora at 3:22 PM on December 3, 2014


To your followup, spacediver, it might be useful to consider that percussion is a form of music in its own right, and integral to the genres where 'sick beats' might be applied.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 3:25 PM on December 3, 2014 [5 favorites]


yep I appreciate percussive music, but I feel that people use the term beats to denote more than simply the percussion. I also feel that the tension in this definition is evident in the replies here.
posted by spacediver at 3:28 PM on December 3, 2014


maybe i feel it degrades music appreciation somehow... not sure need to think on it more :)

It may help to think of it as a term coming from a sub-culture, one that emerged outside of the dominant framework of mainstream music. (Although obviously, now merged with the mainstream!)
posted by DarlingBri at 3:34 PM on December 3, 2014 [5 favorites]


It does refer to more than just percussion, but percussive elements make the backbone of a beat, and the various parts of a beat (backing track) combine to make up a "rhythm section" of sorts, like the drum kit, bass, and guitar of a rock band, for instance.

This usage isn't really new or controversial.
posted by ludwig_van at 3:41 PM on December 3, 2014 [2 favorites]


Ok, can someone post an example of a piece of music that would be considered a beat, and an example of a piece of music that wouldn't be considered a beat?

Or perhaps answer whether this track would be considered a beat (and if not, why not):
posted by spacediver at 4:10 PM on December 3, 2014


"Beats" isn't really describing the content of the music as much as how it's used/produced. If the backing track is produced first (often using samples, loops, drum machines), and then a rapper/singer/performer lays down vocals or other tracks on top of that backing track, then we might say that the song features "beats by DJ Whoever and rhymes by MC Somebody." It's about the practice of taking a rhythm track and using it as backing for a larger work. If you do this, then the rhythm track forms the beats of the completed recording.
posted by mbrubeck at 4:19 PM on December 3, 2014 [10 favorites]


That has virtually no beats and is not sick.

This would probably count as having sick beats.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 4:23 PM on December 3, 2014 [4 favorites]


Or anything by e.g. Chemical Brothers, The Crystal Method.. Underworld to a point.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 4:23 PM on December 3, 2014


What mbrubeck said. The term "beat" is used in this way to refer to the instrumental track in a piece of hip-hop/pop music that's made of said backing track plus vocals. That Ulrich Schnauss track is an ambient piece with no vocal, so discussing it in those terms wouldn't make sense. papayaninja already posted an example of a song and its beat earlier in the thread.
posted by ludwig_van at 4:32 PM on December 3, 2014 [1 favorite]


Or to put it another way: In certain types of music like rap, songs are often assembled from certain components. One of those components is a pre-recorded track referred to as the beat or beats. It's usually a loop that provides a rhythm for the other track(s) or performer(s) follow.

So if a song is produced in this way, then it has "beats." If a track is produced for use as a rhythmic backing track, that track may be called a "beat."

The Wikipedia article on hip hop has more details, such as:
Rapping, also referred to as MCing or emceeing, is a vocal style in which the artist speaks lyrically, in rhyme and verse, generally to an instrumental or synthesized beat. Beats, almost always in 4/4 time signature, can be created by sampling and/or sequencing portions of other songs by a producer. They also incorporate synthesizers, drum machines, and live bands. Rappers may write, memorize, or improvise their lyrics and perform their works a cappella or to a beat.
posted by mbrubeck at 4:37 PM on December 3, 2014 [4 favorites]


Ok, what about this one. It has vocals, and recorded track. The "track" part is original, and entirely produced by the artist, who composed the melodies and did the sound engineering. It has repeating motifs, and provides a strong element of rhythmic backbone. Does the "track" part have to be a composite of samples derived from other artists in order to qualify as a beat? Or could it simply be an original creation?
posted by spacediver at 5:06 PM on December 3, 2014


I think you're overthinking this a bit, it's just a generic phrase to say "I like this tune". The people you ask sound waffly because it's not a precise term. They're just saying the track is cool.
posted by tinkletown at 5:11 PM on December 3, 2014 [2 favorites]


spacediver: "can someone post an example of a piece of music that would be considered a beat"

I think you can basically search YouTube for almost any rap/hip-hop song plus "instrumental" and get an idea. Here are some examples:

Public Enemy - Fight the Power
Dr. Dre & Snoop Dogg - Ain't Nuthin' But A G Thang
Jay Z - Big Pimpin'
Kanye West - N***** in Paris
posted by mhum at 5:19 PM on December 3, 2014 [1 favorite]


A related term is stem, a little chunk of music you can use for mixing up a track. I think of a beat as a collection of stems but not a complete song, but I'm not an expert. Put cynically, beats are what the anonymous producer contributes to the music that the front-man gets known for. Only now the culture has understood how big a role producers and beats have so they get more credit.

Girl by Das Racist has an amazing beat from Blood Diamonds isolated from 0:17 to 0:44, before the Das Racist guys start vocalizing. (Or at least the first part of the beat, it develops through the song.)
posted by Nelson at 5:22 PM on December 3, 2014


Ok the last two posts I think have helped nail it. When I listened to those tracks mhum posted, I was immediately struck by the looping nature of the "stems".

Kinda cool, I guess you could even start to analyze music genetically now, with the stems being the genes or something.
posted by spacediver at 5:25 PM on December 3, 2014


then we might say that the song features "beats by DJ Whoever and rhymes by MC Somebody." It's about the practice of taking a rhythm track and using it as backing for a larger work.

Yep, exactly, and that's how it draws into the Jamaican tradition where you'd have the riddim -- originally on vinyl, spun up by the selector -- forming the platform for the deejay / toaster to build on. (Good demo here, starting with the Rockfort Rock riddim then showing multiple examples of how it was used.) In the 80s, riddims went digital, and at the same time, the pioneers of hip-hop started doing their own thing with cheap Casios and drum machines and samplers. That's the point at which it starts evolving into 'beats'.

(Before he was Fatboy Slim, Norman Cook was in charge of 'Beats International'. The name fits.)
posted by holgate at 8:09 PM on December 3, 2014 [3 favorites]


Something that may help is a little etymology. In the earliest days of hip-hop, DJs would find pieces of funk and rock records called "breakbeats," or fun little parts of syncopation, or drum fills, basically any part of the drumming that was slightly irregular, and spin just the breakbeat over and over again to create a hot danceable song. One of the most famous was the Amen Break from "Amen Brother." One of the first notable uses of this is the Mantronix "King of the Beats." This then, and, now, would be considered a "sick beat," because of the creativity involved in spinning the breakbeat over and over.
posted by General Malaise at 11:44 AM on December 4, 2014 [2 favorites]


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