Rap music has a rich history that stretches back to the late 1970s. While the early work of hip-hop artists such as Kool Herc sounds quite a bit different from the contemporary sounds of Jay-Z, there is a common thread of musicianship that runs throughout. Though the technology may have improved over the years, the musical instruments used in rap remain roughly the same.
The turntable is the guitar of hip-hop and is rap's most recognizable instrument. Few things are more emblematic of rap music than a musician or "turntablist" hunched over two "decks," using his hands to manipulate the records. The turntables provide the opportunity to make very simple and basic samples from previously existing material. They also allow the turntablist to make sounds that no other instrument can make, called "scratching," by moving the record forward and backward.
Samplers perform some of the functions that were once done manually with a turntable. The sampler, which is a kind of synthesizer, takes the loops or samples out of the hands of the DJ and puts them into the hands of the producer. The sampler acts as a digital looping device that allows the producer to do what the DJ formerly did, in a more precise and less intuitive fashion. Whether sampling drum loops or hooks, the sampler has become an indispensable instrument of hip-hop.
The drum machine is an electronic instrument that creates a large number of drum sounds. This frees the hip-hop musician from having to rely upon previously existing samples. Instead, with the advent of the drum machine, DJs and producers can craft custom beats. This represents an advance in the world of hip-hop, and makes the medium less about taking samples from the past and more about creating the music of the future.
Rap producers use both digital synthesizers and analog keyboards when crafting the hip-hop sounds of today. Digital synthesizers allow the producer to imitate just about any kind of sound he likes. Analog keyboards provide a more "old school" flavor with an authentic, rather than emulated sound.
It may sound strange to list a computer as a musical instrument. However, modern rap producers rely upon the computer and computer programs to put their music together. The computer allows the producer to fit her beats, samples, turntabling and vocals into a cohesive whole.
Nicholas Pell began writing professionally in 1995. His features on arts, culture, personal finance and technology have appeared in publications such as "LA Weekly," Salon and Business Insider. Pell holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.