The birth of a musical genre that took poetry and spoke it to a beat and a specific cadence seemed like a fad at the time; an underground sensation. No one – including lawyers or major labels – thought much of the musical style at the time that only seemed to flourish in New York’s boroughs.
But all that changed when the genre began to emerge from the underground and into the mainstream. Controversy emerged on the ethics and legality of sampling music and the topic of money and creative rights became a hotly debated topic – and still is today.
The core of hip hop that has carried on since its early roots was the funky drum groove. James Brown’s music and drum breaks belonging to drummer Clyde Stubbelfield, arguably the world’s most sampled musician, provided the foundation on top of which producers and beat makers laid harmonies and melodies.
While the drums’ cornerstone role has not budged since the late 1980s, an equally dominant center piece to hip hop is the bass.
Whether we’re discussing the bass quality of the song or the actual playing, sampling or producing a bass line for a song, bass is critical to hip hop and as time progresses, bass becomes an even more pivotal component to the genre.
In this post, we’re going to explore 7 hip hop bass lines that all bass players should take some time out to explore.
1. ‘Bust a Move’ by Young MC
‘Bust a Move’ is everything 90s hip hop in one song: sing-songy flows, boom-bap drum sets and subject matter that would be considered harmless by today’s standard.
‘Bust a Move’ was one of hip hop’s early hits that helped to establish the genre as a mainstream phenomenon. But what makes this song particularly noteworthy and what got it onto this list is the bass line to this song.
Keep scrolling for a tab of the bass line below.
Even more – the person playing the bass line. Right around the 2 minute mark, Flea comes into frame:
The one and only Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers is the player behind the famous bass line of ‘Bust a Move’.
In an interview with Bass Player Magazine during the One Hot Minute era, Flea commented that he felt ripped off from the experience having only made $200 from the recording when Young MC’s album went on to sell millions:
FLEA: I also played on “Bust a Move” by Young M.C. [Stone Cold Rhymin’], which was a #1 hit. I have a bitter taste in my mouth about that, though, because I feel as though I got ripped off. The bass line I wrote ended up being a major melody of the tune, and I felt I deserved songwriting credit and money because it was a #1 hit. They sold millions of records, and I got $200! Afterwards, my lawyer told them, “You should throw down Flea some cash,” but the record company said, “We told him exactly what to play.” No one was even in the room at the time but me and the engineer! It was ridiculous, but I learned from it. Wefw
The bass line to this hip hop classic embodies many of the patterns you might find in a hip hop bass line; it is structurally simple, very funky, reminiscent of many of the old RnB and funk bass lines of the 60s and 70s and absolutely locked into the pocket.
Though this one was played by a physical bass player, there are other bass lines that were made with a machine but no less fitting.
2. ‘Put it On’ by Big L
With the rise of hip hop throughout the 1990s, acts like Notorious B.I.G., Tupac, Jay Z and Nas were some of the names that came to mind most readily.
While these acts’ talents and contributions to the genre of hip hop can’t be disputed, lesser known names or those that might be only known to hip hop heads contributed to the genre in their own right.
Big L is one of those contributors.
Big L was known for introducing horrorcore elements to hip hop with graphic depictions of street life and growing up in New York. L was lauded by critics for his immaculate use of the English language in his rapping and introducing new styles of rapping including compounding and rhyme bending. L only released one album, Lifestylez Ov Da Poor & Dangerous, before his death in a drive-by shooting in 1999 which to this day remains unsolved.
‘Put it On’ was produced by Brox hip hop producer, Anthony Best, better known as Buckwild. The track another great example of 90s hip hop with its straightforward, boom bap drums and a simple, leading bass line.
Thought it is a simple bass line, it shares many similarities with the bass lines that we’re going to examine in this list. Many tend to be musically simple, but very, very fitting to the overall picture of the track.
3. ‘This Joint’ by Slightly Stoopid
We’re about to deviate from the classic 90s boom bap hip hop sound and more into a reggae/hip hop fusion called Slightly Stoopid.
Slightly Stoopid is a Long Beach, California reggae act that has gained considerable fellowship over the last 8 years. Building on the sound established by fellow Long Beach acts Sublime and Long Beach Dub Allstars in the 1990s, Slightly Stoopid has taken those sounds and added their own hip hop infused spin into the reggae/ska/punk sound already established, creating their own sound.
While Slightly Stoopid has many songs with notable bass lines, This Joint is a standout case. A single bass groove on loop for just over 4 minutes riding coolly underneath Dub-bed out vocals, drums and vocals.
It’s pretty hard not to have heard of Kanye West in the last year or so. From outbursts on radio and during interviews to the release of his polarizing album, Yeezus and marriage to Kim Kardashian, Kanye is in everyone’s peripherals.
Before he was a focus of the media, Kanye began work in hip hop as a producer – and a damn good one at that. His early albums, College Dropout, Late Registration and Graduation have been hailed by critics as modern day masterpieces and seminal works in hip hop history.
His latest albums have received more mixed reviews. Some claim they are additional masterpieces to stack on top of Kanye’s growing body of achievements and others say they’re cop outs and cries for attention that are here for the sole purpose of being something to challenge not exactly entertain.
West’s 2010 release, My Beautiful, Dark Twisted Fantasy seemed to be a return to young Kanye: edgy production, catchy hooks and just the right amount of tenderness and chest thumping.
While I could go on and on about the album, for sake of this article, I’m only going to focus on track 10, ‘Hell of a Life’.
‘Hell of a Life’ opens up with a heady, fuzzed out bass line that loops throughout the song and changes up only for the hook of the song. While the bass line stays consistent, a booming 808 kick and filtered-out snare pile in on top of the bass line, creating the foundation from which Kanye will recount how he thinks he fell in love with a stripper.
The beat and the bass line are just as listenable standalone as the entire track is as a whole and though the bass line is produced not by a bassist but by a machine, it’s still a catchy, fitting bass line worthy of recognition on this list.
6. ‘Catacomb Kids’ by Aesop Rock
Aesop Rock is one of those rappers that even after a hundred listens, you still won’t fully capture or understand what he’s getting at.
To give you a better representation of Aesop Rock as a musician, an infographic was produced recently and circulated around the internet sorting rappers by their lyrical complexity and vocabulary. Rapper DMX was at the low end with just over 3,000 original words used throughout his entire discography while Aesop Rock was on the farthest end at just over 7,000 original words. As a frame of reference, Shakespeare was around 5,000 and all of Moby Dick was midway 6,000.
Let that sink in.
Now that we’ve established the man behind the mic, let’s talk about his contribution to this list, ‘Catacomb Kids’ off his 2007 album, None Shall Pass.
The melody and driving element of this song is entirely the bass line: a deep, overdriven grinding mash of head-bobbing goodness complimented by a laid back kick-clap combo. The bass line was provided by session bassist, Carson Binks.
First, the bass line itself is a bit of a mystery. To my knowledge, there aren’t any sources out there that can verify if this is a sampled loop from another act or an original bass line played live for this track. Authorities on matching sampled music with their sampled source including WhoSampled doesn’t have a tab on this track – but it does on just about every other sample used on the album.
Second, this was one of two songs rearranged by jazz pianist and frequent hip hop contributor and reinventor, Robert Glasper and his backing band for a rare (VERY RARE) collaboration with DOOM at the iTunes Festival in Europe a few years ago.
Here’s the footage from the show. The first song is Figaro and the second is the last track off the Madvillainy album, Rhinestone Cowboy:
Third, there are currently no tabs or transcriptions available for the song or covers on YouTube. Zero. Perhaps it’s an undertaking out there for a fan of the album to do and provide to the bass playing community that also happens to be a fan of underground hip hop albums.
Now, onto the bass line. The line itself is a psychedelic little number that’s played in the upper register of the bass. The line winds and weaves quietly in the back corner of the track while still serving as the prime driver of the song behind nothing more than a kick and a soft clap on the back beat.
The entire Madvillainy album is full of bass riffs, many of which are known to be sampled tracks but Figaro stands out as a piece that mirror the whole album itself: mysterious but relieving in a way many have never experienced before.