Where Have All The A Cappellas Gone?

Hip-hop has always been guided by voices, but this ’90s staple has all but disappeared. Zilla Rocca asks: is it time for a comeback?

© Jip Broeks / Red Bull Content Pool

Remember hip-hop a cappellas? You’d be forgiven if you don’t. Even though “vinyl is back!”, rappers haven’t gotten the memo and started issuing 12"s again. With SoundCloud just a click away, you can’t blame them. It’s a shame, though, because rap was the only genre where labels used to provide a full track of isolated vocals on a regular basis. What started primarily as a tool for blend tape DJs became a requisite for any producer looking to add punch to a track: Back in the day, you probably weren’t able to afford Nas, but you could quickly and easily swipe a bar from the street’s disciple for a chorus or an intro.

One of the first hip-hop producers to manipulate a cappellas was Marley Marl, who sampled vocals of his own productions on MC Shan’s “The Bridge” and Eric B & Rakim’s “Eric B for President.” Biz Markie took it even further on “Nobody Beats the Biz,” a track that inspired DJ Premier to build choruses strictly off vocal samples.

Gradually, isolated vocals became a staple in rap production. There are plenty of classic examples: Madlib and J Dilla played double dutch with the rowdy and rugged vocals of Billy Danze and Lil Fame’s classic jewelry jacking anthem “Ante Up.” Lyrics from Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones Pt. II” spun-off dozens of choruses and songs titled after the grim, nihilistic Queensbridge rules of engagement like Godfather Don “Stuck off the Realness,” DJ Hype “Closer to God” and Brother Ali “Think It Through.” Nas’ vocals from “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” have been sampled 95 times alone according to WhoSampled.com.

“Labels would offer up dirty and clean versions, the instrumental, and the a cappella,” DJ House Shoes told me. “The instrumentals were originally to be used for music beds to talk over on radio, and the a cappellas for remixers and, later, for DJs to create their own versions over different instrumentals on radio mix shows.” Another creative spin on a cappellas were blends and mash-ups. “In the mid-’90s, I was a DJ before I was an MC,” says Blueprint, who has put out records for close to 20 years. “We would use those a cappellas to do live remixes, which would later be called ‘mash-ups.’ The mash-up DJs that took off in the 2000’s were the natural progression of that.”

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