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New American Songbook

New American Songbook: Hip Hop Without Words


When you take away the words from a hip hop song, strange things can happen.

The use of instrumentals in hip hop, or the just the beats, was a natural development in hip hop culture, and technically, the beats came first in the form of ‘the breaks’, the part of a pop song where the vocals drop out and the drum break comes in.

DJs would spin this part on repeat so that people would dance longer. Eventually, emcees began rapping over these breaks.

But because rapping and the accompanying music developed somewhat separately, there’s always been a space for hip hop music without an emcee. Hip hop artists often release instrumental versions of their albums—presumably for aspiring musicians to use in their own practice.

There are also those who create instrumental hip hop albums without an emcee in the first place. The album ‘Sound Puzzle’ by the duo 40winks, is a great example of what can be done with the form. It’s drifting and evocative, with enough cues from recorded bits of sci-fi and pop culture to suggest some kind of strange adventure. The music becomes the soundtrack to your own imagination—where we’re going, we don’t need words.