They may be known these days for their outstanding live musicianship and Black Thought’s insane lyrical abilities, but sample-based production influenced The Roots’ sound ever since their early years as a group in the late 80s. In fact, they relied on simple pause tape loops to help them sketch out ideas for their very first beats. “Back in the day, we didn’t have two turntables, so we would create ’pause tapes’ in order to make drum loops,” Questlove explained in a 2011 interview with DRUM! Magazine.
Following this revelation, Questlove gives a perfect description of the pause tape process used by The Roots and many other pioneering rap artists during the 1980s and early/mid-90s — a time-consuming and rather tedious labor of love. “When you wanted to create a drum loop, you get a recorder, press record and pause at the same time,” he told DRUM! Magazine. “When the drum break came, you would let the paused tape go right on the 1, and then pause it on the 1 again. After you did this about 20 times, you would have about five minutes of drums.”
Questlove’s reliance on pause tapes went well beyond crafting simple drum tracks for the group’s songs — it also helped him maintain inner peace during a rocky patch of his career. As The Roots worked on a demo tape prior to the release of their Organix debut in 1993, he held down a day job to help fund the project. Though the work was rather soul-crushing and uninspiring, a loop of Earth Wind & Fire’s “Steph” interlude — which comes after their song “All About Love”— helped him keep his sanity. “I’d ‘pause tape’ that minute interlude for 45 mins on cassette,” he wrote in a 2016 Instagram tribute to the late Maurice White. “That alone would put me in a positive trance to face another day selling insurance to pay for The Roots’ demo. Seriously, it was either that tape or drugs to ease my mind — I chose the music.”
“On a song called ‘Step Into The Realm,’ we used that concept, only the break came at the end of the 45, so it fades out each time. That was our little nod to the pause tape.” — Questlove
Utilizing pause tapes in the same fashion as The Roots and Questlove was not uncommon for rap groups up until the early and mid-90s. But as the decade wore on, even the most dedicated pause loop masters moved on to better sampling technology due to ever-increasing accessibility and affordability. Despite this trend, The Roots continued to draw inspiration from pause tapes as late as their Grammy-nominated 1999 effort Things Fall Apart.
Things Fall Apart showcased a new level of musical and lyrical sophistication that helped win over many new fans, catapulted The Roots into a new stratosphere of success, and eventually earned them a platinum plaque. Yet despite the new artistic highs achieved while making the album, the group couldn’t resist paying homage to the beat making aesthetic used at the very beginning of their careers.
Listen carefully and you can hear a pause tape influence on “Step Into The Realm,” one of many standout cuts on the album. The somber, beautiful backing track fades in and out throughout the song, giving Malik B and Black Thought’s impressive lyrics a bit of added punch throughout. According to Questlove, this unconventional beat structure was the group’s intentional and subtle tip of the cap to the art of pause looping. “On a song called ‘Step Into The Realm,’ we used that concept, only the break came at the end of the 45, so it fades out each time,” he told DRUM! Magazine. “That was our little nod to the pause tape.”
“That alone would put me in a positive trance to face another day selling insurance to pay for The Roots’ demo. Seriously, it was either that tape or drugs to ease my mind — I chose the music.” — Questlove
The stories of Questlove’s homemade beat tapes and the making of “Step Into The Realm” make for another important chapter in the fascinating and underreported history of pause tapes. With documented proof that rap music’s most famous band went back to their pause loop origins at least once on an official release, one has to wonder if The Roots were inspired by the technique on earlier work like Organix, Do You Want More?!!!??!, and/or Illadelph Halflife.
Though this writer wasn’t able to find evidence of further pause loop influence, it wouldn’t be surprising if there were some more undocumented examples hidden within the depths of their vast catalog. If that’s the case, hopefully this article can help bring such examples to light.