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What Instrumental Hip-Hop Looks Like

By Marc Weidenbaum

Some of the best electronic music is hidden underneath rapping. The instrumental versions of rap singles and albums provide a direct means to access the sonic foundation of those songs — sometimes they’re simply interesting; often they make for excellent listening on their own. From the physical cutting, splicing, and looping of tape that went into Public Enemy’s early work, to the advanced digital production that’s central to the contemporary efforts of Timbaland and Kanye West, just to name a few, there’s an enormous catalog of funk-laden, often deeply abstract studio concoctions out there.

Full-length instrumental hip-hop albums remain something of a rarity, though they’re becoming more commonly available (the retailer fatbeats.com specializes in them, and even releases some on its own record label). Much of my instrumental hip-hop collection is comprised of 12″ singles, which generally include the vocal-free version (and the a cappella) along with the actual song. For those just venturing into this field, producers worth seeking out include Alchemist, Just Blaze, DJ Muggs, and the late J Dilla. Dilla died at age 32 in 2006, and has become something of a martyr for old-school hip-hop production, and more broadly helped elevate the status of the instrumental.

As I’ve accumulated full-length albums in instrumental form, I’ve become fascinated by how the instrumental editions distinguish themselves visually from the original versions. Below are six examples of, in essence, what full-length instrumental hip-hop looks like:

The cover on the left is to the original, commercial release of Pete Rock and CL Smooth‘s The Main Ingredient (1994), their final album as a duo. The cover on the right is a collection of the instrumental versions of The Main Ingredient. Like many full-length hip-hop instrumental albums I’ve collected, the latter is not the most professional-looking item. The typography looks like an internal document from an Eastern European bureaucracy, and the jacket is as generic as white could be. At the risk of sounding naive, it’s quite likely a bootleg, though some independent record retailers have told me that rappers and hip-hop producers are often involved in funneling the instrumentals through other channels, with a DJ consumership in mind, when the labels that released the “proper” version decline to bring out a vocal-free version. The majority of full-length hip-hop instrumentals in my collection, heavy on the DJ Premiere (of Gang Starr) and various Wu Tang endeavors, look like The Main Ingredient.

When albums do get a proper label release, the art is often just affixed with an “Instrumentals” banner. For Dr. Dre‘s 2001 (1999), the “Instrumentals” notice replaces the “Parental Advisory” notice, which makes sense, since it’s the words, not the music, that caused the advisory to be there in the first place. What isn’t clear is why that Matrix-green marijuana leaf was removed at the same time.

One of the many benefits of an instrumental album is that the listener can focus on aural details that are masked when the rapping is present. Sometimes it’s the same case with the album covers, as with Pharcyde‘s debut album, Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde (1992). The instrumental version divulges that the amusement-park ride depicted on the original cover is a detail of a larger illustration. When Pharcyde’s second album, Labcabincalifornia (1995), was released as an instrumental set, a similar graffiti-style “instrumentals” was scrawled across the original cover, and the group’s suits went from yellow to blue, likely to make a connection to the hue of the prior instrumentals collection. The instrumentals version of Labcabincalifornia retains the “Parental Advisory” notice, which seems odd.

Rapper Black Milk gets extra points for doing up a separate cover for the vocal-free version of Popular Demand (2007), in which he absents himself, along with his massive tour bus, from the proceedings. The shots were taken at the State Theatre in his native Detroit. What’s interesting is that he doesn’t leave behind his drum machine, which is tucked under his arm on the original full-length, since that no doubt is still heard on the instrumental version. He also dispenses with the telephone pole, which brings up the question as to whether it was really there in the first place, or was just drawn in for effect. (Plenty of images of the theater are available via Google, and while there are some trees and poles nearby, there’s doesn’t seem to be anything with that telephone-pole girth.) Furthermore, since Black Milk did much of the album production himself, it arguably wouldn’t have been misleading for him to have stayed in the picture. That’s in contrast with, say, the instrumental version of Common’s album Be, which minus Common’s rapping is, in essence, a solo album by Kanye West, who produced the majority of it.

At present time, this is my favorite cover to an instrumental hip-hop album. The jacket for Jurassic 5‘s Quality Control (2000) shows the rap group sitting on milk crates around a tree stump near a busy intersection. (Presumably the logo carved into the tree is a Photoshop trick — perhaps the stump itself is a prop.) The way the wide-angle lens frames the shot brings to mind Dr. Seuss’s classic story “The Jax” (from The Sneetches and Other Stories), in which freeways are constructed around two stubborn characters whose paths intersect (“In the prairie of Prax”). Anyhow, for the instrumental version of Quality Control, the band vacated the set, leaving behind the milk crates, which does a better job than the Black Milk album to telegraph that even though their voices aren’t present on the album, they are. It’s all the more funny that they left their headphones hanging on the stump.

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4 Comments

  1. justin kovar
    [ Posted October 1, 2009, at 10:26 am ]

    I appreciate your post, but wanted to let you know that the only official covers in your set are the Black Milk and Jurassic 5. The rest of the covers are from bootlegs, and aren’t necessarily representative of cover art for instrumental hip-hop records.

  2. [ Posted October 1, 2009, at 11:17 am ]

    Thanks for the note — the Pete Rock I thought I acknowledged in the piece as a bootleg (well, “likely” is how I politely put it). About the others, I’m fairly certain they’re official.

    The Dre I bought through Amazon, where it is still listed as an Interscope release, and it’s liste don Dre’s official page at Interscope’s website:

    http://www.interscope.com/drdre/releases

    And both the Pharcyde records are available directly from the Delicious Vinyl label:

    http://is.gd/3QN5N

  3. justin
    [ Posted October 9, 2009, at 12:46 pm ]

    You are correct, sorry about that. I accidentally lumped the Dr. Dre in with bootlegs, but I was sure the Pharcyde records were boots. That is some janky artwork for a label, and it’s kind of silly that they took the time to draw two different versions of the “instrumental” tag.

  4. [ Posted October 9, 2009, at 5:11 pm ]

    No sweat — always good to have a chance to double-check my source material. If there are covers to instrumental albums you think are great, please lemme know.

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