Downtime

Just My Type

Why I enjoy clicking through “type beats,” amateur music mimicking rap backing tracks.

Person creating beats with a computer, screencapture of FL studio in the background.
Animation by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by James Owen/Unsplash.

Rabbit Holes is a recurring series in which writers pay homage to the diversity and ingenuity of the ways we procrastinate now. To pitch your personal rabbit hole, email humaninterest@slate.com.

There’s no denying that our current digital streaming age offers an abundance of nerdy, archival riches for music fans—especially in rap. On any given day, with any given stumble through YouTube, I can find a vintage clip from the BET show Rap City of Ludacris freestyling in a fedora, watch a vintage performance from the late Lovebug Starski, listen to some unexpected chops in DJ Screw’s massive archive, or discover some truly weird shit I would have otherwise overlooked. But amid these riches, there’s one odd corner of the rap internet that, while putting off work or other productive aspects of life, I find myself returning to often: the wide, wild world of “type beats.”

For the unexposed, type beats are facsimiles of instrumentals from popular rappers and producers, crafted by amateur beat-makers and uploaded to various platforms—YouTube, SoundCloud, Audiomack, and many, many more—with titles denoting the artist(s) meant to be evoked. A quick scan for popular type beats will expose you to copies of almost all of today’s most popular rappers, from Migos to Young Thug, as well as other fast up-and-comers from the digital scene. Really, the concept is little more than an SEO ploy, but it is an effective one: Popular type-beat producers can rack up thousands of views in a couple days, and well-timed uploads coordinated with a single or album drop from a hit artist can be quite effective. Many type beat–makers offer their creations for free download, while others charge leases and fees, which can be a lucrative income source. Artists big and small have made hits based on type beats named after themselves or their peers, and producers who make the most of this atypical method can find the name recognition to which they aspire—and then maybe one day become big enough to warrant their own type beats.

I first came across type beats early in high school, when the concept grew out of closed online producer spaces like SoundClick and migrated over to YouTube, where a few beat crafters laid down their own Waka Flocka Flame–style beats, influenced by the boisterous sounds of Lex Luger (not the wrestler), prominent in the early part of the decade. They quickly became a fun distraction for my fellow rap-obsessed friends; if we ever got together to study or do something of actual importance, we’d eventually find ourselves taking our phones out, looking for random instrumentals online, and appreciating the bizarre discoveries, sometimes writing down our own (awful, garbage, just absolute shit) lyrics to accompany them. It was a fun avenue to get lost in, it charged our creative cells, and … what was it we were originally doing again, and why were we doing this?

This fascination has carried on years later. If I’m sitting down for life-sorting errands to be done on my computer, I like some rhythm for accompaniment, but I don’t want to relegate music I enjoy and like to analyze to the background. Type beats work for me in this regard, often suitably tame enough for the environment, but with enough kick that I won’t doze off. But then my curiosity takes over and I feel the pull to discover more—of what, exactly, I never have a clue at first. I just know I need more of these oddities, more hazy synths to ease the mood. No limits, no immediate goal, and a continually eroding sense of urgency and responsibility for the tasks at hand. I get lost along the way, mysteriously entranced by the interplaying flutes, violins, and pitched-down echoes present in an ASAP Rocky reimagining, absorbed inside undulant Smokey Robinson samples, or imagining what would happen if Louisiana legend Webbie searched any of his own type beats. Then I may find myself in the thick of a plethora of beats curiously inspired by Mr. Rogers.

As gimmicky as type beats are, they offer an expansive, fun, zany universe to easily get lost in, especially the comments. These show a mostly positive and encouraging, and always thirsty, community. Many leave compliments replete with pyro emojis, some beg for the beat in question and provide contact info, while others go ahead and leave their conceived lyrics on the video itself. There are occasions where listeners offer detailed feedback: “You were headed in the right directions with the synths and instruments… I would go a different route for the drums, or get […] better sounding kits and have some hard 808s,” reads the top comment below an old Drake type beat. Or there are the more hyperspecific suggestions, like this one from a Neptunes knockoff: “a sample of rick james saying ‘shake ya tailfeatha’ would fit on this.”

Type beats have withstood a fair amount of derision, and not unjustly. For every genuinely fascinating tune I have discovered from these enterprises, like this Carter Da Harder beat that draws from the intoxicating rhythmic interpolations of No Limit producer KLC, a significant portion of the offerings out there go little beyond slight variation. Some elder producers claim that type beats are homogenizing the sonic diversity of modern-day rap, encouraging repetition over innovation, while others are more willing to expound on the benefits of the practice. I don’t have much of a dog in this fight, to be completely honest. If type beats lead to more now-unknown but potentially great producers getting attention, wonderful! Really, I simply need something to get me through my digital errands, inoffensive enough to keep me afloat while I figure out how to put my financial affairs in order, but just fascinating enough to put off these decisions until crunch time. For those purposes, “(FREE) Vince Staples Type Beat - by the Alleyway (Prod. by MiiiKXY)” will do just fine.