Seven songs ahead of their time from music production pioneers
23.07.2021

Seven songs ahead of their time from music production pioneers

Words by Sam McNiece

From Three 6 Mafia to The Beatles and Brian Eno.

With the world continuously evolving, musicians are constantly creating new and imaginative sounds. With the constant supply of new synths, new DAWs, new ways to create our music is evolving faster than ever, but did you know the heritage of Trap rappers started in the mid ’90s in Memphis?

On the other hand, are you aware of where the term ambient music comes from and what record coined it? Today, we’re having a look at seven songs that were, and some still are, ahead of their time.

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Kanye West – ‘Heartless’ (2008)

Producer turned superstar musician, fashion designer and artist Kanye West was going through a tumultuous time around the time 808s and Heartbreak was released. After his breakup with Amber Rose and passing of his mother, Kanye unleashed this robotic, emotional record where his auto-tune laden vocals were front and centre.

Looking back at this record, it doesn’t seem out of place, but at the time it was released, Auto-Tuned vocals for rappers was basically unheard of (bar maybe T-Pain but he is a singer not a rapper). Pair this with the big 808 bass that is also very prevalent in modern Hip-Hop productions and you’ve got a formula for the modern era.

Aside from the production side, this record was emotionally open and created space for topics other than the braggadocios style that was also dominant of the era. Without this record, it’s unlikely that we’d have the modern Trap Rap records that have been dominating the charts for years, and have Kanye to thank for that.

The Beatles – ”Tomorrow Never Knows’ (1966)

The Beatles are one of the most loved bands on earth. Working on the record Revolver with George Martin they experimented with sounds that eventually shaped the future of a few genres.

‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ comes out as a masterpiece of recording engineering, creating techniques we take for granted now. First you can look at the drums, which have been smashed with compression, providing that big rock sounding kit.

Next McCartney utilised Tape loops as a method of adding, in his words, a “solo” to the track.  Changing the speeds and running them through the mixing console, pulling the different channels ones in and out, creating texture and interest.

For the second half of the track, they ran John Lennons vocals through a Leslie speaker, most commonly used with Organs, which created a whirly kind of effect on his vocals.

Silver Apples – ‘Lovefingers’ (1968)

A relatively unknown act from the ’60s are Silver Apples who embraced electronic music in its early stages. Starting out playing in a blues-rock band, the duo broke apart from the band, going out on their own with Simeon Cox playing proto synthesisers and Danny Taylor on the drums.

Their music is very hypnotic, with Taylor playing very repetitive, almost looped drum patterns while Cox played his synths. Simeon built his own synthesisers using discarded WW2 oscillators, filters and guitar effects pedals, not unlike basic synths now.

The studio engineer for this album couldn’t stand the sound of Simeon’s makeshift synthesiser so Cox and Taylor engineered the record themselves. This resulted in a kind of lofi sound that wasn’t very common at the time, with the vocals notably under processed.

The kooky sound of ‘Lovefingers’ off their first record is one of Silver Apples’ best tracks which prefaced a lot of artists, influencing Stereolab, Portishead and notably inspired Suicide who in turn influenced the New York punk scene.

The band actually played at the Moon Landing watch party in New York as the Mayor of NY was quite fond of the band!

Three 6 Mafia – ‘Break da Law 95’ (1995)

One of the early examples of Trap music, Three 6 Mafia’s ‘Break da Law 95’ off their debut Mystic Stylez record has left a huge mark on modern hip hop. There were a few artists breaking through at the same time in the Memphis Rap scene but Three 6 Mafia took it mainstream.

Before Trap music was a genre, it was a lifestyle. Three 6 Mafia led the way for modern artists with their hard raps about drug dealing and, well, breaking the law. The 16th note staccato hi hats are bumpin’ on this track, which are a staple in the modern hip hop genre. Hell, even pop country has been utilising this rhythm.

With their debut record, Three 6 Mafia laid the groundwork for artists of the modern era to use and establish Trap as the dominant hip hop sub-genre.

Kraftwerk – ‘Trans-Europe Express’ (1977)

This iconic track led the way for Afrika Bambaata and the whole electro genre. The absolute visionaries created their own gear and were some of the pioneers of electronic dance music.

After Autobahn, Kraftwerk went further into their electronic instruments, which encompassed almost all of their sound. This record established what electro would be as a genre and people are still imitating them as you read this.

This song was the basis for ‘Planet Rock’, the song that kickstarted the electro genre into the mainstream of American culture and in turn, the world. With their custom synths and drum machines, Kraftwerk created this record. hear the futuristic chord progressions, metallic beat and plucky bass line. All staples in the genre today.

They had a huge influence on US based Drexciya, which almost everyone looks to as electro legends and are the most prolific sound of the electro underground. They wouldn’t be close to where they are without Kraftwerk.

Donna Summer – ‘I Feel Love’ (1977)

This wouldn’t be a list about music innovators without the legendary producer Giorgio Moroder now would it? ‘I Feel Love’ is one of the most ahead of its time tracks to ever be released. Featuring a pulsing bass line made with a Moog modular rig and long dance floor oriented length, this one was another trendsetter for years to come.

You can hear the arpeggiated bass in a score of tracks even in the current day, with the repetitive loop based arrangement becoming a standard for years to come. Off Summer’s I Remember Yesterday LP, ‘I Feel Love’ set the precedent for electronic music in the pop sphere as well as boogie, house and techno for the years to come.

Brian Eno – ‘1/1’ (1978)

Inventor of the term Ambient Music, Brian Eno is a studio wizard, who helped shape the music we listen to today. He worked with the likes of David Bowie, Talking Heads and U2 but perhaps his most ahead of time feat was Ambient 1: Music for Airports.

‘1/1’ is the first track from this release that created the term ambient music and was created to be played in airports to make the environment feel calm and relaxing. Ambient music puts the composition into the background, instead of the in your face music that rules popular culture.

Fast forward to today and you’ll see the effect this record had on music at large, enabling others to see music from a different perspective. Without Eno, would we have Aphex Twin or the ambient techno genre at large? Maybe not.

For more, watch Giorgio Moroder break down his career in music.