Celebrating 50 years of hip hop from NYC's Quad Studios

The Hip Hop Museum’s Reggie Peters (director of marketing and visitor services), Eric Orr, (artist in residence and gift shop manager) and Elai Tubo (sound curator and engineer) reflect on 50 years of hip hop from NYC's iconic Quad Studios, explain the concept of The Hip Hop Museum – located at the birthplace of hip hop in the South Bronx – the growing mainstream popularity of the genre, the evolution of studio technology, why hip-hop is a reflection of the human experience, and how Augspurger® Monitors have shaped hip hop as we know it.

To understand hip hop’s rise to becoming one of the most culturally influential music genres on the planet – like most good stories – one must go back to the very beginning.

While it existed for several years prior to mainstream discovery in the early ‘70s, originating from African American culture in the Bronx, New York City, hip hop started life simply with young men and women doing what they love – making music that got people on their feet.

The early pioneers – the likes of DJ Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, and Grandmaster Flash – were not necessarily well versed in sound design, yet their expertise in building DIY sound systems that brought a new vigour to the local party scene and their newly-discovered scratching skills as DJs placed them firmly on the map as the coolest new wave of artists. Techniques perhaps considered mainstream today had never been seen or heard before; suddenly truly visceral art was being created on a shoestring budget out of necessity.

L-R: Reggie Peters, Eric Orr, and Elai Tubo of the Hip Hop Museum

L-R: Reggie Peters, Eric Orr, and Elai Tubo of the Hip Hop Museum

Yet despite its humble beginnings, hip hop’s influence on the rise of recorded music’s technology innovation cannot be understated.

“The economics of it was really important,” Tubo tells Headliner. “Technology always gave us a way to produce records while minimising the costs, because historically, we didn't have a lot of money. We were using the cheapest studios, drum machines because you couldn't afford to have a whole band come in, and then came sampling, and turntables. So there's always been a marriage between making hip hop music and technology. My definition of hip hop is the ability to create something out of what appears to be nothing.”

The Hip Hop Museum, in which Tubo, Peters and Orr have been involved for a number of years as pioneers of the genre themselves, is dedicated to the preservation of hip hop culture. Existing previously as a pop-up installation, the museum proper is set for a grand opening in spring 2025.

“When you're building something that you know is going to outlive you, then you have a certain perspective,” says Tubo. “We want to ensure that visitors get the true hip hop experience right here from its spiritual home. We’re discovering new genres of hip hop and new technologies that didn’t exist years ago, so it’s a very exciting time.”

There's always been a marriage between making hip hop music and technology. Elai Tubo

In the ‘70s and early ‘80s, the funding for arts programmes in New York City schools was cut, resulting in a generation of young creatives who were unable to reap the benefits of music classes. Transferring their craft from the parks, playgrounds and streets to the studio therefore proved difficult; R&B and disco producers such as Patrick Adams served as mentors for the first generation of hip hop engineers who were looking to recreate the energies from the club scene.

“These kids would hear a James Brown track, break it down and take two seconds out of it, and then flip it on its head with a snare and kick drum,” Tubo recalls. “Sampling led to the development of project studios, but then once drum machines came about you could take that away and have that sound quality at your home.”

Before royalties and licences and permissions, the whole idea of sampling in the early days of hip hop was that it was a big secret. DJs would hide the label on their records when playing breakbeats in the club, and each had their own collection that flaunted their individual creativity. When drum machines came into play, hip hop recordings started to become further sophisticated.

“Real musicians started to see that there's a career path here,” explains Peters. “You had people that understood key signatures, melodies, choruses – and then songs started to become more structured.

“Musicians, television, radio, journalists – they were all very anti hip hop in the beginning; in their minds it was cheap music that lacked singing or harmonies,” he continues. “It was people like Don Cornelius, who was the godfather of the television show Soul Train, who really had the only platform for black music to be seen on a national level. He refused to bring hip hop to Soul Train for a very long time; in his mind it wasn’t in keeping with the traditional African American experience. It wasn’t trendy and it wasn’t going to last, so it took a long time for the elders and parents of the first generation of hip hop artists to really get on board with it as creative music, and a real career path.”

As hip hop started to become recognised as an innovative and experimental genre at its very core, a rapid evolution in studio technology also began to take place throughout the ‘80s and early ‘90s. When early music production software like Pro Tools started to emerge, it changed the way in which hip hop was being engineered and produced, some would argue either for better or worse.

“There were certain techniques that you had when dealing with analogue tape,” laments Tubo. “We found that if you made it hit harder, natural compression would occur and the tape could actually take more signal, because what we were dealing with was signal to noise ratio. We were simply using our ears to decide whether it was good or not.

“When Pro Tools came along, a lot of us still had that same mentality – smack it. What that resulted in was digital distortion, and people started realising that you didn’t necessarily have to go to a mastering lab. Everyone making hip hop started trying to raise the volume of all their records, which is how the loudness war started. Distortion is still a problem, and there is a lack of mastery when it comes to stereo imaging and all the things we learned because there aren’t any big studios left where people can intern, and develop the craft. Our reference was always the club; DJs on the streets like the Disco Twins who started out on early systems knew excellent sound, and when studios like Power Play [an underdog studio in Long Island City that indelibly shaped the sound of hip hop] came about, people started seeing the potential of what hip hop was, and what it was going to become.”

Fundamentally, it was always a give and take between session musicians and the technology. On the party scene there was no need for musicians; the DJ was solely responsible for manipulating the record to make crowds sing and dance to his tune. This sentiment translated into new technology with the invention of crossfaders on mixing consoles – a concept that was first pioneered by Grandmaster Flash.

“In the ‘70s, new copyright infringement law meant that we couldn’t just take a piece of vinyl and run it back through a console,” says Peters. “So that eliminated the whole idea of the DJ as the producer when it came to recording the first records. Instead, they went to the studio with a session band to really create that feeling.

“Nowadays there’s a whole career path to be forged out of studio engineering. Before you even get into the studio though, you’ve got to learn the language, your way around the room, the temperament of artists and producers – all of that is a skill now. The idea of home, digital and mobile studios made hip hop accessible to people who probably would never have the money, or the time to practise an instrument, or the real estate to put all of that gear into.”

It took a long time for people to really get on board with it as creative music, and a real career path. Reggie Peters

Hip Hop since its inception has always been, at its core, a reflection of the human experience. While processes, studio technology and the idea of musical artistry has developed, the messaging has largely remained the same, as Tubo considers: “A lot of people have their own ideas about the definition of expression, but if you want somebody to express something that you're comfortable with, then make sure they have a better human experience. Our youth are giving us the vision of the world as they see it, and turning that into an outlet for everybody.”

“From the beginning, there’s always been a diverse community of artists that have spoken from different perspectives,” adds Peters. “It's just accessible on more platforms now. I was in Japan in the late ‘80s and we were having a discussion about the sonic culture at the time. I was trying to explain that with hip hop, you have to know what you're listening for. Some of that is lost on this generation, which is why tracks often sound compressed or crushed. Because when hip hop first started, it wasn't just about listening to it from a holistic point of view; you were specifically listening to the bass or the drum, and that was the driving momentum for everything else that the music was doing.”

There are a number of technologies that have been particularly influential in the hip hop world over the years, the most prominent of which being Augspurger® Monitors. As hip hop marked its 50th anniversary this year, the company also celebrated a significant milestone in the form of its 25th anniversary. Its owner, Dave Malekpour, has both helped define the sound of hip hop throughout its lifecycle, as well as having a profound impact on the design of modern recording studios. The build of Baseline Studios – longtime home to Jay-Z and Roc-A-Fella Records – back in 1998, with its Augspurger® Monitors and SSL G+ console, would lay the foundations for the sound of a hip hop and R&B movement that was about to dominate the mainstream.

“When we were mixing before we didn’t have subs in the studio,” recalls Tubo. “Augspurger® Monitors have managed to master those low frequencies while retaining an accurate stereo image so they can handle any session. Jay-Z bought them years ago, and Drake bought them recently, and so with more people having access to this kind of quality, it will be interesting to see where the company goes in the next 25 years.

Augspurger® Monitors' Dave Malekpour with Public Enemy founder Hank Shocklee

Augspurger® Monitors' Dave Malekpour with Public Enemy founder Hank Shocklee

“There was a time in the ‘80s when monitors for mixing audio sounded really harsh. We started to become aware of ear fatigue, and so we learned to start mixing quieter. A lot of the young clients however like to hear things loud, so you need a speaker that can actually reproduce that with clarity across the frequency spectrum. This is where Augspurger® Monitors really did a lot for the genre.”

Aside from all the incredible advancements that have been made, hip hop at its bare bones stands for peace, unity, love and having fun. As a genre it has always withheld an inclusive culture around the globe, seamlessly transcending borders, politics and societal frameworks. With the help of the pioneers, what started out as a small vision in the South Bronx grew into a global vision, and the Hip Hop Museum will undoubtedly sit at the apex of that when it officially opens in spring 2025.

“Everybody thought it was going to dissipate, but it was a slow build,” concludes Orr. “It was true grassroots, and here we are today. Hopefully we can give even more back to the hip hop community in the next 50 to 100 years.”