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Rap Music Technology: Then and Now

    This is going to make me sound like an OG but I can’t help being amazed at how far technology has come since my early days as a young Hip Hop head. As a teenager in the mid to late 80’s, like so many others, I had dreams of becoming a famous rapper, DJ and producer. I looked up to people like Rakim, DJ Cash Money, and Marley Marl. While being a rapper required nothing more than a notepad, a pen, and a great imagination, being a DJ and producer was a no-go without money to buy equipment, something I desperately wanted but was too broke to purchase. Thanks to the homies Nick and David who both managed to get their hands on two Technic 1200’s, a mixer, an SP-12, and a used 4 track recorder, I now had something to practice on and a dream to pursue.

    Of course, I never became famous. Still, I wouldn’t trade those good old days of sleepless nights in the studio, dusty James Brown loops, and poorly recorded demos for anything in this world…except for today’s technology! Just kidding, kinda!

    It’s amazing what Marley Marl and Ced Gee (from Ultra Magnetic MC’s) were able to do with an SP12 and a few seconds of sampling time. Just listen to “The Bridge” and “Critical Beatdown” to get an idea of what these producers pulled off with limited means. Nothing sounds like the classics. But let’s not act like we weren’t all wishing for more sampling time, something that everyone’s migration to the MPC 60 made crystal clear. Still, little did we know that time constraints would eventually become irrelevant with today’s seemingly limitless technology. Nothing may sound quite as warm as the feel of an old MPC but the new Maschine Studio 2.0 is something we couldn’t even have fathomed 25 years ago. This powerhouse device makes everything that’s come before it look and sound like a cheap wind-up toy. Nonetheless, I’ll always have a soft spot for the tools that paved the way. Today’s tech wouldn’t exist without them.

    My DJ’ing days were short lived but long enough to accumulate a small collection of vinyl. I also got to experience the joy of carrying heavy ass crates…to and from the party…in the early morning hours…exhausted!  As charming as this may sound (sarcasm implied) nostalgia won’t stop me from discussing the genius and convenience of Serato. For those who don’t know, Serato is software for digital DJ’ing which makes the DJ’s record collection accessible by laptop.  Some purists still consider the use of Serato blasphemous but even the mighty DJ Jazzy Jeff says that Serato beats transporting crates of records on tour around the world. And it doesn’t take away from the classic pastime of diggin’ in the crates since any record can be directly uploaded and used with Serato.  But what do I know after all? I never made it as a popular DJ and all of my records were eventually stolen!

    One thing I do know is writing. In the early 90’s, I went from writing rhymes to penning articles for a newsletter a friend and I self published. Dissatisfied with the Source Magazine, we set out to document Hip Hop culture and interview artists we felt weren’t getting proper exposure. But back in ’93, there was no internet and we had never used a computer. Most homes didn’t own one. Every story was hand written and submitted to a printer who typed everything and did graphic layout for the entire newsletter. A week later, we’d pick up our copies and start promoting our publication in the streets and by mail…snail mail that is. This was before email. Nonetheless, we received fan letters from all across the world and managed to pull off an internationally acclaimed publication on a shoestring budget. Unfortunately, the poor entrepreneurs we were, we quit in ’95 as a result of mismanaging our tiny budget and being unable to service our growing audience. Little did we know that paper and ink would one day be replaced by blogs: cheaper, global accessible, and generally more effective  And here I am 20 years later, still writing about Hip Hop culture, except now, thanks to the magic of the internet, as soon as I write it, my words are potentially available to billions instantly. My younger self would have a hard time believing it!

    But one of the most unbelievable thing my 41 year old brain is still flabbergasted by is today’s limitless access to music. For you young heads, iTunes, Rhapsody, Pandora, and Spotify are a part of your everyday life, something you’ve known since you were kids. I grew up with records and tapes. If I wanted a song, I had to go to the store and buy it. I could also record it on a blank cassette tape off the radio but I’d have to wait indefinitely until the song came on. There was no YouTube. You wanted to watch music videos, you’d better be satisfied with what was played on BET, MTV, VH-1 and on shows like Ralph McDaniel’s Video Music Box. The only program that took requests was called The Box and gave viewers a list of videos to chose from, costing $1.99 to $3.99 to call in their selection. At the time, this was groundbreaking! I recorded a lot of those videos and took pride in my VHS collection as well as my audio cassettes of the exclusives I recorded off the original KDAY 1580 am (for my old school L.A. folks) the nation’s first all rap radio station. Today, these tapes are just relics collecting dust. Nowadays, I can play 90% of the music in my collection right from my phone at home or in the car. And 99% of the videos I grew up on or didn’t even know existed are available on YouTube. That my friends, is absolutely mind boggling to me!

    Yes, these are the rants of an aging Hip Hop head who is ever so grateful for today’s advancement but who wouldn’t give up his past for all the money in the world. Those memories can never be replaced. Unfortunately, I’m afraid somebody somewhere is working on some new crazy technology to do just that.

    Sebastien Elkouby is a Hip Hop Culture historian, freelance writer, creative consultant, and award-winning educator. Check out his educational program, Global Awareness Through Hip Hop Culture and his blog, For more info about his services, contact him at [email protected] or on Twitter @SebIsHipHop (Although he rarely uses it!)