When Steel Talks

Everything Related to the Steelpan Instrument and Music

By Joseph Coffey-Slattery

A look at the steel drum's infiltration into hip-hop production.

By now, you’ve probably heard “ZEZE,” the tropical banger that marks Kodak Black’s second track since his release from prison. It’s production, by way of D.A. Doman, has a distinct island feel with the steel drum playing heavily into the song’s composition. The cover art depicts as much, with the ski-mask-wearing Kodak perched atop a secluded miniature island, backed by palm trees. The steel pan, or drum, as it is more commonly known, has a storied history, but it isn’t discussed in casual rap conversations nearly as much as instruments like 808s and hi-hats. It’s unique sound makes it instantly recognizable in songs such at 50 Cent’s 2003 hit “P.I.M.P,” and Travis Scott and Young Thug’s 2016 collaboration “Pick Up the Phone.” It's an instrument that can be used as an alternative to piano melodies, and one which we’ve seen on an upwards trend in hip-hop. But where did the steel drum come from?

The island vibes you associate with the instrument’s ethereal, hollow tones aren’t by mistake. Its roots can be traced back to late 1700s Trinidad. The slaves in the area developed a response to the carnival culture that came along with the French colonists, the slaves' celebrations often propelled by “drum music.” When the slaves were freed in 1834, the celebrations became rowdier, but British rule would soon crack down on these traditions, for no reason other than to quell spirits. A ban on tamboo-bamboo (bamboo sticks that were used to pound together and create sound by beating against the ground) in 1934, saw the steel pan emerge as the island’s de-facto instrument. The pans were constructed from scrap metal that was lying around, primarily old steel drums that formerly held oil. Grooves were carefully hammered into the drums to give each indent a particular pitch. While the traditional iteration of these instruments is used today, the sounds we hear in hip-hop tracks are primarily synthesized versions.

The instrument’s trek to hip-hop took several decades. The emergence of reggae in Jamaica during the sixties and the work of Bob Marley certainly helped the sound further establish its island reputation across continents. By the 1970s, Reggae had become so popular that it was only a matter of time before the steel drum would be adopted by Western artists. The late Prince would be one of the first to experiment with the sound, albeit crudely, in his 1986 track “New Position.” The production of the song indicated that it could be used to make a more innovative sound.

The rap game would take notice about a decade later, when Big L and Tupac recorded “Deadly Combination” in 1994. In this case, the steel drum melody, a high-pitched descension through out the track, creates a 90s West Coast feel and bounce. “Deadly Combination” clearly shows one of the most popular uses of the instrument, and how it would be utilized in the future, too-- that “West Coast bounce” is, by nature, summer-y. It’s reminiscent of warm weather, and it creates that distinct feeling of vacation.


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Well WHEN STEEL TALKS sure knows how to SPOIL MY DAY making me read this article!!!

Ah think ah done say all I have to say on this topic!!!

But ah still have to ask: WHERE IS THE MUSIC?

When are the INVENTORS of the instrument and the THOUSANDS of EXPATS (PAN PLAYERS) who live in NORTH AMERICA (and HAVE ACCESS) and other parts of the world -- going to step up and show that WE could make hits with we OWN TING.

Ashton Craig: What about you? Can you save the day?

No pan was harmed (or played) during the making of those songs.

We have been making music using the pan for decades, the fact that we have no world wide hits with pan incorporated is because we have no worldwide hits.

It has nothing to do with pan. In fact if the sound of the pan were removed from the two samples above, the outcome would have been the same. No one liked the music because of the part the pan played in it.

In fact the time for pan has passed, at least in modern music, since the sound of pan has long been synthesized and keyboard players, hell even guitar players, can make the sound of pan if they want.

Pan is used in music now to localize the production, to have an island feel. The death knell was sounded as soon as we ventured into making the electronic pan. Once the pan was sampled it was the end of the traditional instrument.

The only part the original instrument is playing now is one of nostalgia. Those who want to hear the sound of rubber on iron and still get goosebumps from the ring of steel will be out there in the panyards and at panorama, or even in some concerts for the curious.

As a mainstream musical instrument it's day is done. There is no future for it.

The pan is dead, long live the pan

"Pan", the instrument(s) and its's sound will survive and grow, globally.

"Pan", the music of the steel orchestra. Now, that is the challenge. Making steel band music (in all it's unique and exotic beauty), attractive to global music lovers.

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