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Hip Hop 50

Knotty By Nature: The Vibrant Connection Between Rap and Psych-Rock

Some emcees and producers look to psychedelia — and its cousins prog and garage — in search of otherworldly sounds
Ghostface Killah (photo: Gregory Bojorquez/Getty Images) and David Axelrod (photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

“Car Key,” the fourth song on the Difference Machine’s 2022 album, Unmasking the Spirit Fakers, starts with a billowing cloud of reverb. As it dissipates, a Tanpura drone uncurls into the stereo field like a plume of smoke. Gently rolling hand percussion laps at its edges while a guitar softly chimes in the distance. The bassline that bobs at the top of the mix pushes everything forward, each element swirling into a lysergic shimmer. The song sounds like the Rolling Stones warming up during a particularly hotboxed recording session for Their Satanic Majesties Request. Once emcee Day Tripper opens with “Moors don’t eat mortadella,” it’s clear we’re in a different realm.

Nestled amongst Unmasking’s tape echo freakouts and surgical turntable cuts, “Car Key” is a quiet masterpiece of psychedelic rap music. The Atlanta group’s core members, Day Tripper and producer Dr. Conspiracy, have been mining the acid-dipped sounds of the 1960s and ‘70s for over a decade, turning loops of dusty organ and scuzzy guitar into an exceptionally mind-bending flavor of hip-hop. Their music could sound right at home next to LPs like Cold Sun’s Dark Shadows or the Golden Dawn’s Power Plant because their approach isn’t a gimmick or hollow pastiche. It’s a brilliant illustration of how well the two genres complement each other.

Hip-hop partly grew out of 1970s funk, itself an outgrowth of Motown and blues. In the ‘60s, psychedelic music evolved from folk and R&B. Both funk and psych emphasized groove and texture over melody, using rhythm to burrow deep into the listener’s consciousness. Funk’s chief concern was moving bodies, while psych’s ultimate goal was the expansion of minds. When done right, both could lead to catharsis; losing yourself on the dance floor can be just as transcendent an experience as an acid trip.

Distortion and repetition are two of the primary keys to a successfully vibey psych jam — fuzzboxes shred guitar tone (especially during a solo); keyboards blast through overdriven amplifiers; the band’s rhythm section locks into a groove and repeats it ad infinitum. The genre would later stretch into other corners, incorporating vocal harmonies, mushrooming synthesizer tones, and harsh toke transistor organs like the Farfisa and Vox, but those key characteristics can still be found in modern psych music.

Sample-based hip-hop production can mirror psych’s foundational ingredients really well: The surface crackle of a vinyl record acts as the distortion noise; a DJ scratching is akin to a guitar solo; samples are looped musical phrases that often repeat for the duration of a track. The best rap songs can become droney and hypnotic, exercises in a distinctly American form of trance music. There’s an argument that these elements make rap music itself a form of psychedelia, and when a producer samples music specifically made to induce a different state of mind, it greatly amplifies hip-hop’s already mesmeric qualities.

As an example, take Stones Throw artist Oh No’s 2007 instrumental record, Dr. No’s Oxperiment. He gathers an enormous selection of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern psych-rock records and flips them into hazy, crackling rap beats (several of which would be repurposed two years later for Yasiin Bey’s The Ecstatic). Guitar lines scorched by fuzz pedals spiral as if they’ll spin off into the stratosphere. Off-kilter melodies lock into place, and bits of vocal chants or Moog synths dart around the percussion, creating a fully disorienting, blissful listening experience.

Boston’s Edan does something similar with his dazzling 2005 effort, Beauty and the Beat, transforming a mountain of ‘60s garage psych songs into a rollicking rap record. Instead of simply copy-pasting acidic guitar lines and applying drums, Edan tries his best to embody the spirit of the psychedelic era. He sends his voice through broken Echoplex delay and allows reverb and noise to overtake entire sections of songs, ending up with what sounds like a hip-hop take on the Pretty Things’ S.F. Sorrow.

The psychedelic ethos continues into current-day production. The Alchemist buries Quelle Chris under a thick blanket of Seeds-eqsue guitar distortion on “Iron Steel Samurai.” Spekulate the Philosopher, producer for Memphis group Supa Glock Bros, drops a searing garage rock sample in the middle of the group’s self-titled EP closer, “The Finale.” For “Stay True,” the quick, hazy dart in the middle of Ghostface Killah’s classic Supreme Clientele, Inspectah Deck loops up a fluttering David Axelrod passage. Sought-after beatsmiths like Conductor Williams and Sadhugold fully embrace the lo-fi sounds of old psych records, wrapping their beats in warbling cassette hiss, underpinned with distant drums captured by out-of-phase overhead mics. 

Some producers reach even further into psychedelia in search of otherworldly sounds. Progressive rock, or prog rock, began to sprout from psych in the late ’60s, eventually splintering into its own full-blown genre. It retained the emphasis on texture, but rather than solely using tape delay and stompboxes to distort conventional rock instrumentation, prog bands got weirder by incorporating elements of jazz and classical music. Their songs took wild twists and turns, using head-spinning arrangements and unusual chord structures to conjure altered states.

Where psych’s repetition lends itself well to looping, prog’s knotty nature makes it a little harder to source the perfect four-bar sample. For the most part, prog samples appear as snippets, briefly taking hip-hop songs in a new direction — in a sense, this keeps prog’s meandering essence alive, albeit in a more bite-size form. DJ Shadow deploys a pensive Tangerine Dream guitar lick in the last quarter of “Changeling,” moving the song from blissfully vibey to tense and yearning. The most recognizable prog sample in a hip-hop song came courtesy of Kanye West, who plucked a snippet from King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man” for 2010’s “Power.” There are other potent examples of this sonic connection, of course: The Alchemist turns a noodling, proggy synth phrase into Danny Brown’s ominous cocaine headache jam “White Lines.” Returning to the prog well for Pusha T’s “What Would Meek Do?,” Kanye pinpoints a tiny moment of church organ in a sprawling Yes composition and turns it into the track’s sinister undulating drone. 

Gentle Giant, the U.K. band best known for their ‘70s run of experimental prog, posted a Facebook message of gratitude the day Travis Scott released UTOPIA. They celebrated the rapper for sampling one of their funkiest tracks on “HYANEA,” the record’s raucous opener: “We are honored by the inclusion of our 1974 song ‘Proclamation’ in the intro track [“Hyaena”] to Travis Scott’s new album,” the post read. “We are always amazed how Gentle Giant’s music continues to inspire and evolve across diverse genres and generations, particularly within the Hip-Hop community.”

Still, the connection between psychedelia and hip-hop is often overlooked. Though there were some excellent psych-sampling tracks in the 1990s — like the fuzzy garage rock stomp of D-Nice’s mission statement “Call Me D-Nice” or the Beastie Boys’ Jimi Hendrix tribute “Jimmy James” — many of the most revered rap records in hip-hop’s Golden Era were built from samples of soul and jazz songs. Producers like Pete Rock and Q-Tip layered honeyed basslines and richly toned horns over shuffling drum breaks as an homage to the groundbreaking Black musicians that came before them, continuing and building upon a legacy. 

You can hear that legacy in contemporary rap from artists like Memphis emcee Lukah, whose 2021 release When The Black Hand Touches You is a beautiful patchwork of warped lowrider soul and warbly girl group cooing. Lukah addresses his newborn son throughout the album, breathlessly reporting on the immense challenges and joys of 21st century life in the Bluff City. Along with his close collaborators and fellow Memphians Cities Aviv and Hollow Sol, he wanted to create a sound that honors the influential hometown labels like Stax, Hi, and Goldwax Records. The approach to sampling on Black Hand, though it doesn’t source material from psych bands, is itself pretty trippy, presenting loops that sound like they’re disintegrating the more they repeat. Lukah and company collaged visions of the past and present into a glowing, kaleidoscopic whole.

Day Tripper’s verse on “Car Key” is magnificent, full of vivid imagery about an imaginary bank robbery, the mating ritual dance people do to find love in the club, and the existential epiphanies that can only come to you in the shower. He hits a turntable solo, cutting up a Ghostface line from “Mighty Healthy” and a Notorious B.I.G. line from “Machine Gun Funk.” For a couple of bars, the sample starts playing backwards, as if to reveal a hidden message. Once it rights itself, Denmark Vessey comes in with the lines “You know the eyes is a window / A dollar sign iris form a gateway / They double in size off a benzo.” 

After three multicolored minutes, the song fades out. It’s a psychedelic symphony in miniature, bridging eras and genres, looking to the future with a footprint in the past.