Choirs have played a huge role in rock, pop, and hip hop music over the years with many singers in this style having retreated to the role of background singers. The documentary 20 Feet From Stardom depicts some of the early history surrounding black choirs in popular music, showing the work of background soul singers from the late 1960s up to today.
In a contemporary framework though, hip hop choirs are in vogue right now, appearing on several particularly moving tracks from the past decade. Here’s a small collection of examples of hip hop choirs as they’ve been employed in the last few years.
Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam” (2016)
Kanye West has been using hip hop choirs and vocal harmonies to varying degrees since early on in his career. The use of choirs across The Life of Pablo collection comes out arguably best in Ultralight Beam, where a choir is featured sparingly. Ultralight Beam is a great example of knowing when to use an element of production and how to minimalize an element of production’s use to get the most out of it.
Chance the Rapper’s “Blessings Reprise” (2016)
Bringing in the choir to build up the track towards its climax, Chance the Rapper has been popularizing the use of gospel influences more than anyone these past couple years. The investment pays off well here. Chance the Rapper builds his choir on Blessings (Reprise) in gospel traditions but uses contemporary hip hop stylings and voices to really make it into something unique. This goes to show that a hip hop choir does not necessarily need to be recorded in a temple or a church to be able to work on record.
Drake’s “Furthest Thing” (2013)
Drake is really not the first guy anyone thinks of when they think of choirs because he really doesn’t use them. That said, hip hop choirs have also been used, manipulated, and beaten into shape through the use of electronic samples as evidenced in this track off of Drake’s Nothing was the Same (2013). Though the choir on this track drops in and out rather quick, it does mark another way in which a choir can be used. As an artist, if you are unsure about how to use a choir but want a choir on a given track, this can be a fair way to do it. A choir does not necessarily need to dominate.
Common and Vince Staples’ “Kingdom” (2014)
Haunting the background with taunts and wahs, there are a few different choirs on this track embedded into the production. Co-produced by Kanye West, Kingdom is a strong example of how to mix different choir sounds in a track that still gels. Listening to Common’s collaboration with John Legend off of the Selma soundtrack, Glory (2014), also captures choirs in a unique way, positioning the choir as the focal point of the foreground of the track.
There is a long history of choirs, gospel, urban culture, and hip hop mixing it up in various ways. If you’re a producer or an artist who has an interest in using choirs on their material, these tracks are a great place to dip your toe in.