The Key’s Year-End Mania: John Morrison’s top Philly beat tapes of 2019
Year-End Mania is the Key’s annual survey of the things below the surface that made 2019 incredible. In this edition, Key writer and host of XPN’s Culture Cypher Radio John Morrison shares his favorite beta tape releases of the year.
Instrumental hip-hop albums (sample-based beats made in a hip-hop style but not necessarily intended to be rapped over) have existed at least since Mark The 45 King’s releases on the Tuff City label in the late 1980s. The instrumental demos known as beat tapes (subtly different from instrumental hip-hop albums but with some overlap depending on who you ask) began circulating in industry-only circles around the same time, but have since evolved into commercial products intended for mass consumption.
Today, instrumental hip-hop has established itself as its own unique subgenre and producers around the world release beat tapes designed to highlight their skill at crafting banging compositions. Philadelphia has always been the home of many gifted beatmakers and in 2019, a handful blessed our speakers with a batch of new beat tapes. Here are five of the year’s best Philly beat tapes / instrumental Hip Hop releases.
Small Professor – 86 Witness Instrumentals
On the morning of August 8th, 2015, South Philly-based Producer Small Professor got word that his friend and collaborator, Brooklyn Rap legend Sean Price, had passed away overnight. At the time, Price and Small Pro had been working on an album together. The album 86 Witness would eventually be released to near-universal acclaim early 2019. Four months later, Small Pro released the album’s instrumental version. Full of hard-edged inventive beats, the 86 Witness instrumentals are a fine display of Small Professor’s production skill and a fitting soundbed for a fallen legend.
Lil’ Dave – After Thoughts
Lush, crisp and hard-hitting, After Thoughts is the latest beat tape from West Philly’s own DJ Lil Dave. Taking cues from hip-hop, broken beat and modern trap, cuts like “Muse ’66” and the gorgeous standout “Our Hearts Keep Down” balance ethereal textures with impossibly deep and funky synth bass. Dave’s reputation as a sonic auteur whose dreamy yet heavy beats feel as if they’ve been broadcast from the farthest edges of the cosmos.
Rolled Gold – A Different Cloth Series
On January 1st of 2019, Philly producer/multi-instrumentalist Rolled Gold dropped the first installment of his A Different Cloth series. Now up to 3 volumes, the series highlights Rolled Gold’s unique and soulful production style. Sourced from his own self-made samples, Rolled Gold’s beats pull from trap, boom-bap, Memphis and Philly soul, and more to create detailed concoctions where vibraphones, brass, and strings meet booming 808s.
Eardrum (QThree) – Deaf Strike
Created on two classic hip-hop samplers, the Boss SP-404 and the Akai MPC 2500, QThree’s Deaf Strike beat tape is a refreshing display of grimy Hip Hop production steez. “SP(03)”’ takes a mournful, love-lorn soul sample, looping the source’s vocal and guitar to hypnotic effect. “MPC(01” samples a rant from the film Paid In Full for the intro before launching into a nimble, head-nodding soul beat. With an adept ear for chopping and rearranging samples, QThree shines on Eardrum, establishing himself as one of the most impressive post-Donuts sample scientists.
Shane Great – Greatstrumentals Vol. 1
Philly producer Shane Great has an impeccable ear for hip-hop production. From his work with P-Rawb as one-half of Jerzadelphians to his amazing Remixes series, Shane Great beats up the speakers with his unique brand of soulful, jazz-informed boom-bap. His 2019 instrumental project Greatstrumentals Vol. 1 in an impressive endeavor, highlighting his production style. From the opener “Old Flame” (a deft rearrangement of Pleasure’s Jazz-Funk classic “Thoughts Of Old Flames”) to “Winter Sunshine”’s dreamy synths and pounding drums, Greatstrumentals Vol. 1 goes a long way in making the case that Shane Great is one of the city’s elite beatsmiths.