How The Moog Synthesizers Helped Revolutionize the Sound of Hip Hop

by William Vance

When Robert Moog sold his first vacuum-tube theremin kit back in the early 1950s, one would scarcely imagine he envisioned the world-changing impacts of his inventions upon the music industry. We have come to love these sounds over the past half-century and can quickly pinpoint the rich and warm analog timbres of a Moog synthesizer from Eddie Van Halen to Michael Jackson records and more.

While the blasting polyphonic chord patterns of Kraftwerk and Fatboy Slim got the dance-floors moving with their electronic rhythms throughout the 70s and 80s, an underground movement was utilizing the same musical hardware to accomplish an end that was as soulful as it was unprecedented.

This urban movement started in the Bronx in the mid-seventies; where emcees would perform spoken poetry over house and block party beats. There have been many iterations, generations, and manifestations of rap music through the years, all of which are defined by the signature sounds of their era. The 70s records were marked with heavy use of sample-based recordings with the spoken performance over the top. These mixes were termed “flipping,” and helped boost the genre into the mainstream by the end of the decade when Kurtis Blow’s single “The Breaks” became the first certified gold rap song.

The genre evolved through the 80s with the invention of the 808 drum machine which popular publications characterized as the Fender Stratocaster of the hip hop genre. I could write an entire dissertation on the influence of the drum machine, sampling, and its effects on music, but let’s get back to what we are here to talk about: The Moog Synth.

Life’s three constants are death, taxes, and musical experimentation. The drum machine was monumental, but by the early 90s, a small group of West Coast artists was bringing it all together with a touch of added soul. Funk breaks of the 70s were arranged over chopped-up jazz and blues progressions, with the squelching bass line sounds of the Moog synthesizer acting as the backbone of what soon earned the genre title of G-Funk.

Dr. Dre was the young producer who spearheaded this West Coast clique. His signature sound leaned heavily on the influence of Parliament Funkadelic’s keyboardist to achieve its signature groove and time signatures. The use of the thick and deep bass lines provided by the Minimoog became the staple of the entire West Coast vibe. These melodic, trippy, and heavily compressed bass lines can be seen all over his timeless album: “The Chronic.”

There were many phenomenal albums released around this same time. Biggie, Nas, Tribe Called Quest, and Public Enemy all dropped hit records around 1992, but Dr. Dre’s album stands out from the crowd.

The carnivorous nature of rap music means that it salvages old ideas and forms and molds them in a new way. But “The Chronic” was so much more than this; it was the culmination of thirty years of music. Moreover, it turned this amalgamation of inspiration into a Pandora’s box just waiting for future generations to crack. All the while, the majority of its floor-shaking bass lines were provided courtesy of Mr. Robert Moog.

Hip-hop continued to evolve throughout the 90s, and soon a new name rose up from a small neighborhood in Detroit. James Yancey, aka J Dilla, grew up in a household where his mom was a singer and his dad was a multi-instrumentalist. It didn’t take long for this young producer’s vast library of warm drum hits, muddles instrumentations, and grizzled Minimoog-fueled grooves to get production credits on many acclaimed records.

J Dilla passed away three days after his album “Donuts” was released in 2006. He was 32. He was a living legend during his time and lives on as a pioneer and visionary to bedroom producers and classical trained musicians alike. His use of poly-rhythmic drum patterns with a signature swing timing underneath interweaving melodies make his sound easily recognizable and damn near impossible to imitate.

The tools of Dilla’s genius were his Akai MPC and his iconic Minimoog Voyager (which now finds its home within the Smithsonian.) When synthesizers initially came to market, most were built to be large, expensive, and complex modular synthesizers. This made them inaccessible to the majority of musicians that sought to use them. The Minimoog was the direct answer to this issue, allowing an “affordable” alternative that offered all of the synths most powerful features all included within the unit. The Minimoog stopped production in the early 80s but began again with the Voyager in 2002 after Bob Moog repurchased the company.

Much has changed within this genre since the formative years of hip-hop in the early to mid-nineties. Some argue that the crystal clear mix-downs seen in contemporary, digitally-produced records are the fine-tuned destination of where hip-hop deserves to be in 2019. Far more debate that hip-hop today lacks a particular soul, grit, texture, swing, and subtle imperfections that analog equipment similar to the Minimoog brings to the table. This hardware was an extension of Dre and Dilla’s hand and brought those sought after sounds to all of their signature productions of yesteryear.

William Vance is a music producer and DJ who looks to bring the sounds of the Pacific Northwest to life through much of his creative work. Not one to take life too seriously, he is quick to admire a witty turn of phrase or an off-kilter time signature when it catches him by surprise. Will spends most of his time indoors writing blurbs, articles, posts, songs, and music. But on the rare occasion that you do see him out in the daylight, feel free to say hello to him and his best friends: Stephanie and his Corgi named Bruno.

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