How Loops Are Revolutionizing Music Making

06/30/2020
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With rappers recording at a nonstop clip, and sampling more difficult than ever,  hip-hop producers are increasingly outsourcing their melodies to a global network of loopmakers.

High school sophomore Vikas Prasad has one main goal: score a production placement with a major rap artist before the end of the school year. When he’s not in class, the 16-year-old spends most of his time making music in his bedroom in the suburbs of San Jose, California. Online, he’s part of a producer community that congregates around livestreams and beat marketplaces, hoping to learn the production trick or make the connection that will land them their big break.

Prasad first started messing around with production software about 18 months ago. Initially he attempted to replicate what he saw in beatmaking tutorials from producers like Nick Mira (“Lucid Dreams”) and KBeaZy (Kehlani’s “Toxic”). “I would practice every day trying to make beats,” he says. “Then I heard about loops, and I just started doing that.”

These loops are snippets of original music that Prasad composes at his computer, melodic ideas that might serve as the instrumental hook of a song—but without the rest of the song attached. They range in length and complexity: some incorporate one or two different sounds, while others are multi-layered miniature compositions. Every two weeks, he packages around 40 of his best loops to send to established producers he connected with on Instagram. If everything goes perfectly, a producer will use one of his loops in a beat—they might change the tempo, adjust the pitch, chop it up and rearrange it, or just drop it in as-is—and an artist will record a song over it.

In recent years, these melody loops, and the musicians who create them, have become a fundamental part of the way rap music is made. For up-and-comers like Prasad, supplying well-connected producers with packs of pre-made melodies has become the most effective method to get a foot in the industry’s door. And for producers working with prolific rappers, outsourcing the time-consuming work of writing a melody to a pool of dedicated loopmakers is the most efficient way to keep making hits.

“If you go down the [Billboard] Top 40 or Rap Caviar, a good majority of the records on these charts have loopmakers on them,” says Adrian Nunez, the vice president of A&R for Sony/ATV Publishing, who works with producers like Boi-1da, the Working On Dying crew, and more. He points to Working On Dying’s credits all over Lil Uzi Vert’s Eternal Atake, many of which include co-production nods for Dutch loopmakers Star Boy, Outtatown, and Loesoe. “These producers are side by side with artists that record a ton of music every night,” he says. “To have a pack of loops to dig into from other producers you respect makes turning out a beat that much quicker.”

South Carolina producer Jetsonmade, who has been the main production force behind DaBaby’s rise, says he’s been working with loopmakers since 2018. Over the past year, he’s produced DaBaby’s “Vibez” and Roddy Ricch’s “Start Wit Me” using melody loops from L.A. producer Jasper Harris. Because of Jetsonmade’s proximity to artists and his success on the charts, he regularly receives folders full of loop packs from hopeful producers. When he made an email address specifically to field loops, it crashed in 10 minutes.

“People been collaborating on beats, and that’s all I really see a loop as: a more efficient way to collaborate,” Jetsonmade says. For him, melody loops are a natural next step in the lineage of rap production: “Instead of sampling from somebody else’s song, we use loops.”

Roddy Ricch - Start Wit Me (feat. Gunna) [Official Music Video]

The popularity of loops, on some level, is a reaction to the increasingly complex legal and financial barriers placed on sampling pre-existing recordings in new songs, a cornerstone of early hip-hop production. In the past three decades, from pivotal court cases around samples in De La Soul and Biz Markie records in the early ’90s to more recent copyright battles over “Uptown Funk” and “Lucid Dreams,” incorporating references to other songs in your music has become a risky and expensive proposition.

Producers and artists seeking to clear their samples in advance also run the risk of being denied outright, rendering them unable to release their songs at all. “Pissy Pamper,” a song by Young Nudy, Playboi Carti, and Pi’erre Bourne that became a viral hit based on an unofficial leak, was never released officially because of sample clearance issues. “With sampling, there could be a myriad of issues that come up,” Nunez says. “With loops, it’s really just negotiating with the co-producer and the co-producer’s team. Usually, it gets worked out because everyone wants the song to come out.” Those negotiations usually involve a share of the producer’s publishing rights and master royalties going to the loopmaker, who essentially becomes a co-producer on the song.

In 2015, Nunez started to notice the name Cubeatz showing up again and again in production credits for rappers like Meek Mill and Drake. Comprised of twin brothers from a small town in southern Germany, Cubeatz had connected with producers like Boi-1da, Metro Boomin, and Murda Beatz online, supplying them with catchy orchestral melodies. Along with others including Frank Dukes, Jake One, and G Koop, they were among the pioneers of the modern loop scene. Crucially, Cubeatz made access to their loops as seamless as possible, reaching producers in their inboxes. And they were landing placements because of it—lots of them.

Migos, Nicki Minaj, Cardi B - MotorSport (Official Video)

Judging by their long list of production credits—including on major hits like Travis Scott’s “Sicko Mode” and “Goosebumps” and Migos’ “Motorsport”—and the sheer amount of YouTube tutorials dedicated to recreating their sound, Cubeatz are among the top tier of loopmakers. Though the brothers seem to enjoy remaining behind the scenes (the only interview they’ve ever done, it seems, was with a German hip-hop YouTube channel in 2015), they also seem to have inspired a wave of international talent in the loop scene.

“A lot of the loopmakers I’ve noticed are coming from overseas: Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, it runs the gamut,” Nunez says. “There seems to be a cross-cultural production thing going on, which is adding a really interesting element. Ears that are used to one thing are now opening up to other things because of the sorts of loops that are getting sent.”

Within this collaborative spirit, there’s also an inherent power imbalance. When unknown loopmakers—often geographically removed from rap’s centers of industry in Atlanta, New York, and L.A.—send material to big-name producers with connections to artists and labels, the latter have far more leverage than the former for negotiation, a dynamic that can leave loopmakers vulnerable to exploitation.

Seph Got the Waves, a producer, guitarist, and loopmaker based in New Zealand, mainly corresponds with other producers online. Early on, he relied on informal arrangements about payment and credit, but now he employs a manager and an attorney to represent him. “I’ve had a lot of experiences where people say one thing and do another,” he says. “Or they’ve used my loops and not credited me.”

Seph is from Woodville, a town of about 1,500 people on New Zealand’s North Island. He learned music production while in college, and eventually incorporated his own guitar playing into his beats. From halfway across the world, he began sending Facebook friend requests to various producers. Beezo, an Atlanta producer who has worked with Migos, Lil Baby, and others, happened to accept. Seph sent him a cold email with his beats, and Beezo quickly wrote back, asking who was playing guitar.

Rod Wave - Paint The Sky Red (Official Music Video)

Seph says he’s worked with about a hundred different producers in the two years since, shifting his focus away from making his own beats and toward recording guitar loops for others. His rise has coincided with the embrace of live instrumentation in rap production by Atlanta artists like Gunna and Lil Baby, and, more recently, emotive crooners like NoCap and Rod Wave, both of whom Seph has worked with over the past year. In his case, producers are looking to him for a level of musicianship they might not be able to recreate on a MIDI keyboard. “I find that loops are like being in a band,” he says. “When I work with a producer, they’re the drummer, and I’m the guitarist. Everyone is amazing at what they do and that’s what creates a great band.”

This group approach to making rap hits comes as part of a wider shift, as every chart and streaming measurement points to rap as the most popular genre of music in the world. Just as the biggest pop songs often come out of songwriting camps and studio sessions with multiple producers and writers, rap songs—largely the work of one producer and one vocalist in the past—are now outsourced and created by committee.

It’s no surprise, then, that pop artists and producers are also beginning to use loops. When Justin Bieber released his album Changes in February, fans noticed that a synth melody on the track “Running Over” sounded the same as the melody in a song by a lesser-known artist named Asher Monroe, who accused Bieber of ripping him off on social media. It only took a few hours for the truth to come to light: Both songs were made with a royalty-free loop that U.K. producer Laxcity uploaded to Splice, an online marketplace where producers sell loops and sample packs.

Though loops have already become a music industry standard, there’s still a stigma attached to them, according to Jetsonmade. “People have a lack of respect for the loopmakers,” he says. “Some producers don’t want people to know they’re using loops.” For more traditional producers, there’s a prevailing sense that using loops is a sort of cheat code. The separation between clicking through a folder of loops and making a beat from scratch can seem like the difference between ordering from Seamless and cooking a meal. It also suggests a depressing reality for many of the most in-demand rap producers, who may simply lack the time or bandwidth to work from a blank slate on all of their beats.

Still, it’s easy to see the ways that the loop scene has opened doors for young producers like Prasad. He says his loops have found their way to some successful artists already, but he doesn’t want to talk about songs he’s not sure will ever be released. As a loopmaker, he’s in the dark about what happens to his music once he sends it out. “The thing about getting placements as a loopmaker: most of the time you never know what the song sounds like, or if it’s gonna drop,” Prasad says. He’s heard songs by Lil Tecca and Quando Rondo, both previewed in snippets on Instagram, that he co-produced. He’s hopeful that something will stick, and that, eventually, he’ll be in sessions with these artists, making beats of his own.

Loopmakers are still something like an open secret of the industry, but as they become more prevalent, the line between loopmaker and full-fledged producer may start to blur. “Loopmakers are gonna be running the industry,” Jetsonmade predicts. “There’s gonna be one loopmaker who got the sauce on the melodies and the drums too. It’s just gonna take that one to do it.” He pauses for a moment to reflect on his hypothetical production star: “See, I can never say that though, ’cause when that [producer] comes, they gon’ have a wave—but you can never do everything by yourself.”