Graphic Design is Hip-Hop

by Lone Archivist

It’s the early 2000’s. Steven Ellison has a solid music career and a burgeoning label but isn’t yet a household name. He hasn’t been nominated for a grammy or scored the original animation Yasuke. He’s worked closely with Stephen Lee Bruner but the 1985 cartoon still comes up first when you Google the latter’s stage name. They haven’t worked with Kendrick Lamar and Bruner hasn’t made a guest appearance in The Book of Boba Fett.

Cut to a crappy dive bar in downtown LA. 

It smells like sweat, smoke, and PBR. I’m sitting on top of a stage monitor. The bass emanating from the speaker stacks is so deep and pervasive it makes my nose itch. An electric buzz spreads through the packed room. Flying Lotus (Ellison) has made a surprise guest appearance. His sets are so rare that no one knows what to expect. D-Styles stirs the already anxious crowd into a frenzy. 

FlyLo breaks out an Akai MPC and starts live-drumming breakbeats onto its pressure-sensitive 4×4 pads. FlyLo chops and screws the Amen Break sample in real-time. Any semblance of self control is gone. The crowd has gone feral. A stranger throws his arms over my shoulders and we fist pump in time to the beat. For the next several, adrenaline-fueled, minutes, the crowd is a pulsing mass of head-bopping and improvised B-Boy choreography.

The LA Beat Scene

Growing up around the LA Beat Scene[^1] was hugely influential to my process and design ethos. In the early 2000’s there was a weekly underground show called Low End Theory – based on the Tribe Called Quest album of the same name – dedicated to experimental Electronica and Hip-Hop. It hosted acts like Flying Lotus, Daedelus, Nosaj Thing, Onra, and house DJs like Daddy Kev.

While the styles and subgenres featured at Low End Theory were many, the unifying theme was Hip-Hop; part of the reason it would later be called the Beat Scene. Producers like Ras G and Teebs were known to show up with nothing more than a Roland 404 loaded with a grip of samples and some boom-bap beats. With those simple tools they could create a sonic experience on par with a master symphony. 

This style of electronic music was, and is, the underlying foundation of SoundCloud portfolios, mixtapes, albums, careers, and legacies. 

Cut to a decade or more later. 

I’ve forgotten as much about musical production as I now know about design. I still think about Low End Theory and, in particular, that night. There was something special about that performance and we knew it as it was happening. I’m trying to design something, anything, to recreate the vibe of that once-in-a-lifetime set. 

As I now stare at a blank 8.5″ x 5.5″ canvas, I see the same tools and principles used in Ellison’s live performance and recorded compositions in the toolbars and shortcuts worn into my mechanical keyboard.

Hip-Hop is Graphic Design

One of my favorite quotes attributed to J Dilla goes: “Quantization[^2] is like putting training wheels on your beats”. I can see David Carson saying something similar had he gone into producing instead of designing.

For those not familiar with beat production, sampling is the act of taking a clip from a piece of music or audio recording and inserting into another piece of music or audio, rearranging or remixing it to create something new[^3]. This may require adjusting rhythms, tempos, keys, and even time signatures for the two disparate pieces to harmonize. Even a non-traditional method of composition still has to conform to the basic rules of music theory.

For a practical example, listen to J Dilla’s groundbreaking 2006 album Donuts. You’ll hear a wide variety of styles, rhythms, melodies, and, most importantly, samples. J Dilla is probably most known for his organic, hand-made beats but the other half of his genius comes from his choices in and use of samples. These samples feature clips pulled from lost and rediscovered Motown, Funk, Soul, and Gospel records; each sprinkling a new flavor onto Donuts.

Another wonderful example of sampling in Hip-Hop is Onra’s 2008 Chinoiseries — as well as its sequels Pt. 2 and Pt. 3. At a glance Chinoiseries has all of the same components as a Dilla album. Sampled audio clips. Beat machine percussion. The occasional live instrumentation for depth (bass, guitar, vocals, &c.). However, one would never mistake Chinoiseries for Donuts because of their drastically different font of samples. 

Instead of Motown, Onra pulls from his familial roots and crate-digging for Chinese and Vietnamese vinyl. This creates a unique blend of two genres and styles from opposite sides of the planet. And it introduced me to a world of music, mid-century Chinese pop and traditional folk, I would likely never have taken an interest in on my own.

What’s important about these two examples is how much the sampled beat and original composition differ despite stemming from the same musical work. Some may argue that, regardless of how the original piece is adjusted, effected, or rearranged, the “new” beat is derivative and holds less value than the original. I would vehemently disagree but understand where that argument comes from. Without the original composition the new piece would sound and feel very different. A novel without words.

This is especially true in the case of Onra’s Chinoiseries where the sampled beats often bear little of the same “audible aesthetic” of the original. There is a unique syncopation that is often inherently created during sampling that traditional instrumentation fails to replicate without post-production manipulation. Because of this difference, each piece still has a place in a musical library and should be able to stand on its own. This difference also impacts our emotional response to each incarnation of the work.

To illustrate this further let’s briefly step away from Hip-Hop to a distant, belligerent cousin: Breakbeat. Canadian producer Venetian Snares makes prolific use of Classical orchestral recordings and melancholic jazz in his 2005 album Rossz Csillag Alatt Született.

Track 8, Szamár Madár, samples heavily from the haunting Quintet in G Minor by Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev. There is no doubt that Prokofiev’s original bears value as a work of art on its own as Classical compositions are often revered and held aloft when described as “fine art”. However, without the chaotic, frenetic energy found in Venetian Snares’ production, Quintet feels empty. It lacks a visceral catharsis that can only be spawned by the addition of Venetian Snares’ technical and aggressive percussion. An emotional resonance unfulfilled.

Graphic Design is Hip-Hop

Not unlike J Dilla, Onra, or Venetian Snares, Graphic Designers can take a work of traditional art — a sculpture, a photograph, a renaissance painting — and craft a new composition with our own unique constraints. Our beats and rhythms are typography and the grid. Our vinyl “bacon-crackle” is a noise filter and paper grain texture. Our midi vs. raw is vector vs. raster. And most importantly for this article, our samples, art and illustration.

Within the last decade or so, massive online libraries of free-use and public domain assets have opened new possibilities for designers. Sites like Unsplash and The Smithsonian’s digital archives provide access to a trove of artistic styles and media that span centuries, cultures, and creeds.

Much like sampling a recording can inspire a specific emotional response from its “audible aesthetic”, pulling from these libraries can inspire compositions that would otherwise be unobtainable; even with newer tools and methodology. And using art and illustrations in design does nothing to lessen the value of the original work. However, the design’s “beats” provides something that the original pieces often cannot. Information.

A way in which Graphic Design differs from Hip-Hop, and in fact most other forms of art, is its underlying need to be functional. This applies to nearly all areas of design but primarily layout and graphic design. Where in music and art an idea or concept can be conveyed in abstraction, the most common intent behind Graphic Design is to provide clear and direct communication.

This information delivery of course is only enhanced by the use of sampled art but without the design — typography, graphical elements, composition — the art serves no purpose. Beautiful. But functionless. A book cover with no title.

Steal Like A Producer

Returning to the use of samples in music production, a few questions arise. Sampling has a complex relationship with licensing and IP/Copyright law. Who owns a thing? And if it is reduced down to its base, unrecognizable parts and then remade into something new, does that still count as the original thing? 

These questions have led to dozens of articles and documentaries that provide a complex look into the process and artistry behind Hip-Hop and other electronic music. Sampling can be a great way for beginners to get into beat production; especially if you don’t have a musical background or deep understanding of music theory. Any instrumental or vocal clip can be chopped up and rearranged, overlaid with some hats and a bass kick resulting in a dope track. When refined, sampling can be elevated to an art form in its own right. But it can also cause direct and tangible damage if done carelessly or malevolently.[^4] 

That isn’t to say sampling is the only tool for creating unique tracks in Hip-Hop. While undoubtedly a large part, traditional composition and arranging is just as integral to the genre. Take a look at FlyLo’s 2010 masterwork ‌Cosmogramma. Several tracks feature the accompaniment  of legendary musicians (as opposed to sampled) such as Thundercat, Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, Ravi Coltrane, and Thom Yorke. Beyond mere guest musicians, many contributed to the arrangement and composition of the tracks on which they appear.

Few would dare to say that ‌Cosmogramma is intrinsically better than a Dilla record simply because it relies less heavily on sampling. Both are celebrated for their innovation and creativity. Both have very different styles but still come from the same lineage, honoring the traditions of Hip-Hop.

Steal Like An Artist or Saying the Quiet Part Out Loud

This piece was inspired by conversations surrounding a recent explosion of AI-generated art in the Tabletop Roleplaying scene. Many extoll its virtues and the wild output that one can get from the input of select key phrases. Others are justifiably concerned with what this means for struggling, working-class artists. And some raise questions as to the ethical implications of how and from where AI-generated art is sourced.

A masterful piece of art will always stand on its own, regardless of the medium in which it is produced and how that is then interpreted or reused. In the TTRPG scene we see this ad nauseam with the use of Public Domain art. I get the same kick out of spotting a familiar woodcut illustration as I do whenever someone drops the Amen Break

“Sampling” may enhance or give rise to new forms, styles, and genres of art but it won’t — or rather shouldn’t — detract from the original work nor contemporary artists. Venetian Snares may sample Billie Holiday in Öngyilkos Vasárnap but the end result is very different. I’ll listen to and enjoy each for their individual artistry and composition.

To suggest that sampling should be removed from a musician’s toolbox for the sake of contemporary recording or session artists fails to understand the larger picture while simultaneously failing producers. This absence would domino to the erasure of other media as well. Without sampling, we no longer have Nujabes. And without the critically acclaimed producer we no longer have Samurai Champloo. Or at least a hollow final result; its melodic, atmospheric beats torn from a masterful animation. 

For starting producers, sampling is an effective way to evoke a specific style that you want for your art. It can be affordable but, hopefully, can be the foundation for working closely with other artists, much as we see with how Flying Lotus has built up and worked with others through his label, Brainfeeder.

AI-generated art, much like public domain and free-use art, can be the same. It is wonderful for new designers (both game and graphic) to aid in conjuring the emotion you want for your work. It can even be useful for artists as an inspirational tool or remedy for artist’s block.

In either form, musical or visual, a work is elevated by the choices that go into its composition but should always honor and credit its inspirations and sources. The ethics of AI-generated art shift to grayscale depending on how it is created and from where it is sourced and should absolutely be factored into determining its use and viability.

Ultimately, these conversations are rarely about the tools but rather how they affect the humans behind them. DAWs didn’t erase session musicians and Illustrator didn’t silence graphic designers. Regardless as to whether you are sampling from dusty vinyls or digital archives, the underlying aim should be to enable artistic expression and, perhaps more importantly, to work with other creatives, building each other up along the way.

Graphic Design is Hip-Hop.


[^1]: Hip-Hop obviously has a history that extends well before this era but I am electing to focus on a period that I am more intimately familiar with.

[^2]: The process of snapping audio clips to a specific beat be it quarter, eighth, sixteenth, or smaller division of time. The production equivalent of snapping to the grid.

[^3]: “Remixes” of popular songs may use some of the same methodology as sampling but for the sake of this article are treated as distinct.

[^4]: This is most often seen when larger recording artists sample from smaller, independent artists without crediting or fairly compensating them for their work.

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