To this day, I ask myself that question. With this post I’d like to dig in a little deeper, provide some background, and reveal my own decision making process and how it results in an end piece.
First let me explain what I do know about my musical preferences, especially that of my own music. I like simplicity. There’s a quote by Claude Debussy (classical composer) that resonates with me, “Music is the space between the notes.” I’ve found throughout the years that the type of music that moves me isn’t heavily orchestrated, it’s mostly works that are less busy, more airy & open.
I place importance on the groove/feeling of a beat rather than the amount of audible layers it has. If I can physically “feel” a beat, then it has moved beyond ear candy to something more personal. I equate “feeling” to the bodily chills that some beats give me or the “fuuuck! this beat is the shiiiiit!” moments I have when hearing certain tracks. If a beat can do that, it has penetrated my being. I’m not impressed by overly complex compositions or the amount of layers/samples that folks cram into their works. If it doesn’t have a consistent groove that keeps me nodding my head nor an ounce of soul, then it has failed to capture me. Some of the greatest beats I’ve heard in my life have been simple 2 bar melodic loops with drums on top (see some of RZA’s early works). That’s the type of dude I am, and those songs are ones I probably still listen to today.
Back to the question. To be honest, there is no specific criteria I subscribe to when proclaiming a beat to be done. However, there are a few elements that I look to include when making the final call. First and foremost is having a bridge or a hook in all my beats. I love creating transitions because they kill some of the predictability of a track and add movement or dynamics. There are some cases where I’ll stick to a simple loop because it has enough feeling to keep the track moving, but for the most part I like to have at least have two levels of variety in a beat.
When it comes to the “feeling” part, I’ve gotta be able to freestyle to it. I’m old school in that I create beats that emcees can rhyme to. It stems from me starting off as an emcee hungry for beats that can keep a cypher moving. It’s important to me that a beat can go on repeat and keep an emcee flowing. Maybe one day I’ll take a more compositional/soundtrack approach to making music, but I’m a beatmaker at heart and the beats I make are always with raps in mind.
Last but not least, I consider a beat done when I just can’t do anything more to it. There have been numerous times when I’d search and search and search for something to add to a beat and have come up short. That’s when I really have to pause and listen… If the groove is there and I can bust a free on it for a long period of time, it’s good in my book. My old self would have likely called it unfinished and left it sitting there without having a single ear listen to it. These days I’m all about getting my work out there and sharing it despite what it could or could not have been.
Calling something done is purely mental and a battle we all have to face sooner or later. We have our reasons and processes in place to label something as finished. But how important is it to be perfect or have something be ideal? In the scheme of things I’d prefer folks get their work out there rather than keeping it to themselves never to be heard by a soul outside of their lab. Let the artform strive no matter how simplistic, complex, or unfinished you may think a beat is. Everyone needs to hear what you have to say through your music. A beat is done when you free it from your grimy beatmaking hands.