How Hip-Hop Reached Peak Guitar

The key feature of a popular hip-hop song in 2021—besides a Lil Baby verse—is guitars. What makes the sound so prevalent?
Ashwin Rodrigues
Brooklyn, US
July 13, 2021, 4:18pm
How Hip-Hop Reached Peak Guitar Loop

When Run D.M.C. met Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith on “Walk This Way” in 1989, they broke a literal brick wall in the music video to forewarn of more crossovers to come. These days, though, adding a tasty guitar loop or shimmering chords to a rap track does not require a cost-prohibitive studio session with a rockstar. It doesn’t even require an actual instrument. 

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If there’s one recurring aesthetic principle of mainstream rap in 2021, aside from Lil Baby features, it’s the presence of the guitar. On the Chicago rapper Polo G’s latest album, Hall of Fame, nearly half of the 20 songs include a guitar sound in the beat—from acoustic fingerpicking on “Fame & Riches,” to a distortion-soaked chugging electric on “Broken Guitars,” to the infamous (guitar-adjacent) ukulele of Einer Bankz on the platinum single “RAPSTAR.” On “Find a Way,” a track from her latest album, Back of My Mind, R&B artist H.E.R. uses a crystalline electric guitar as a canvas for her voice. On “Pride is the Devil,” from J. Cole’s latest release The Off-Season, a simple and somber guitar riff carries the beat. Both songs, coincidentally, include a verse from Lil Baby.

The instrument’s proliferation in contemporary hip-hop—in both digital and analog form—marks a departure from previous production trends, which seemed almost monomaniacally concerned with drum programming—the melodies an afterthought after dialing in the 808s, snares, and hi-hats. Today’s reliance on guitars dates at least as far back as 2018, when Rolling Stone called the acoustic guitar a “secret weapon” for rap artists like Young Thug, Gunna, and Travis Scott. The development, the piece explained, marked a departure from the grittier "SoundCloud rap" aesthetics that artists like Playboi Carti and Lil Pump had been popularizing since 2017, which tend to center booming drums and frantic, staccato hi-hats. Since then, both electric and acoustic guitar sounds have spread onto more records, through an assortment of production techniques, including an increased employment of loops and loop makers, who create short melodies for producers to build beats around. 

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Historically, the guitar has been part of some of the biggest hip-hop records. In 1999, Dr. Dre’s “Xxplosive” from 2001 used an infectious pitched-up sample from the Shaft soundtrack. Just one year later, “Xxplosive” was then sampled in Erykah Badu’s “Bag Lady.” Lil Wayne’s widely-panned 2010 rock album Rebirth was also a harbinger for the “guitar beats” now common to the rap charts, featuring guitars played rather haphazardly by the rapper himself, prompting one critic to beg “no more widdly-woo solos.” Though the delivery was much more jagged than the current polished sound, it showed the possibilities the instrument had in hip-hop. 

The current popularity of modified guitar licks has been enabled by sheer accessibility and cost. Producers employ them to mimic the sound of expensive vintage samples, without having to deal with pricy clearances. The practice has been encouraged in part by projects like the Kingsway Music Library, a sample library launched by Grammy-winning producer Frank Dukes, which touts Kanye West and Taylor Swift as satisfied customers. The library aims to make samples easier and cheaper to find and use for producers—including both creations from Dukes as well as original compositions from other budding producers. Co-produced by Boi-1da, 40, Vinylz, Nineteen85, and Dukes himself, Drake’s “0-100” is an example of a song sourced from the library, built around a sparse reverb-y guitar lick from a Kingsway compilation.

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Kingsway is unique in its scope and influence—songs that use samples from the library boast over 10 billion streams—but the influence of guitar-centric beats isn’t limited to this source. Some of the most successful guitar beats feature custom-crafted bits of instrumentation. 

Internet Money, the production crew behind last year’s “Lemonade,” featuring Don Toliver and NAV, has also leaned heavily on guitars and guitar-adjacent instruments in their booming pop sound. On “Lemonade,” guitarist Alec Wigdahl provides the centerpiece of the beat, a lick inspired by Jimi Hendrix and John Frusciante, he told Genius. One Internet Money producer, Nick Mira, released a video demonstrating how a simple guitar and guitalele (a hybrid of the two string instruments) recorded into an iPhone, can be manipulated into expansive, intricate, studio-quality tracks. 

“I love what [Internet Money’s] Taz Taylor is doing,” said RushDee Williams, a multi-platinum producer and songwriter who’s worked with artists including Lil Wayne, Nipsey Hussle, and Jeezy. He’s added guitar loops to his repertoire of sounds as well, recently using them in sessions working on singles for multiple artists. 

Songs like Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” which sampled a banjo from Nine Inch Nails and sat at Billboard’s No. 1 for a record 17 weeks, were influential in cementing a guitar (or guitar-adjacent) loop as an ingredient for a hit, according to Williams. 

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“[‘Old Town Road’] just busted a door wide open,” said David Mescon, a Nashville-based studio guitarist and producer who’s contributed to records like Polo G’s “Party Lyfe,” NBA Youngboy’s “38 Heights,” Rick Ross’s “When Babies Cry” and “Paradise Lost.” 

Sonically, the guitar is also a natural complement to the new crop of “melodic rappers,”' like Roddy Ricch and Morray, who deliver their bars with vocal runs that further blur the line between rapping and singing. The high end of the instrument lends a contrast to the vocals, and doesn’t threaten to muddle the artist’s voice. Morray’s hit single, “Quicksand,” for example, is built around a clean electric guitar riff, and Williams said its success “ultimately led to him being on Jay Cole's The Off-Season.”

Some producers are experiencing a bit of fatigue from what they call “guitar beats.” BNYX™ (pronounced Benny X), a Los Angeles-based producer who has made beats for Lil Uzi Vert and BFB Da Packman, said they’ve become something of a meme in the online producer community. And though Benny said he prefers to use EDM and hyper-pop type sounds, he hasn’t eschewed guitars entirely—Toronto rapper Jazz Cartier’s “Disclosure” co-produced by BNYX™, prominently features the sound of guitar strings over off-kilter drums. 

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According to Benny, the guitar’s apparent ubiquity in contemporary hip-hop is a matter of supply and demand: Major label A&Rs keep requesting these records from producers, because they’ve already proven to be popular. 

“That’s what the label pays the TikTok people to dance to,” he said. 

Ironically, one of the most popular entries to the “guitar beat” genre is a song centered around a ukulele. It happened as the result of a chance encounter on social audio platform Clubhouse, when Bay Area producer Synco met the ukulele phenom and producer Einer Bankz in a room called “Where’s the Cookup.” They started chatting about their shared Bay Area roots, and Bankz sent Synco a ukulele riff to build a beat around. Synco’s collaboration with Bankz would turn into Polo G’s “RAPSTAR,” a song that would make Synco a platinum record producer. 

Although Bankz’s ukulele could belong to a subgenre of its own, Synco attributed the increasing ubiquity of the guitar sounds to both sonic and cultural factors. For one thing, the emotional range of the instrument lends itself perfectly to the “pain music” that has dominating hip-hop charts lately, pointing to Polo G, Rod Wave, and Roddy Ricch. 

On the technical side, Synco said, as long as the programming is done correctly (e.g. the producer doesn’t translate a piano key roll to a guitar sound) the digital sound is nearly indistinguishable from the actual instrument. Some plugins sample analog guitars, too, making the organic and expensive-sounding instrument accessible to any producer with a computer. 

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A trained musician can probably tell when a virtual instrument is used, he said. But an average listener won’t know the difference.

The guitar’s influence goes beyond its musical qualities. Synco also said it is a product of hip-hop’s increasing embrace of rock culture and notions of rock stardom as an aesthetic and thematic reference point. (see again: Lil Wayne’s Rebirth.) Synco points to Playboi Carti’s punk-influenced 2020 release Whole Lotta Red as an example of this genre bleedover, even though guitar sounds are not a core component of the record.

“Even if there's no actual guitars in there, it's influenced by that.” 

Mescon said that advancements in production software and plugins in the last five to ten years allow producers broader access to organic-sounding strings, without requiring a studio musician. “Music's changed in the sense where a kid in his basement with a laptop can make something that can be on the radio,” he said. “You don't necessarily have to know what you're doing so well, musically. But you can get that sound.” 

When Mescon lends his guitar to a record, people will sometimes remark on the priciness that such sounds can add. While in a recording session in Los Angeles, Mescon actually heard someone say “That sounds expensive!” after laying down a guitar track. 

While guitar as a production ingredient isn’t necessarily expensive, it can be extremely profitable for musicians and producers. “Shit, I bought a house off of a guitar loop,” Mescon said.