Our Favourite Off-grid Beats

From J Dilla to Beastie Boys: Novation staff share their faves.

Don’t get us wrong, grids are great. Some incredible music has been made using mechanical rhythms that stick rigidly to a square framework over a 4/4 beat. But something magical happens when things start to drift off the structure of a grid. An element of humanness creeps in — imperfections that sound less computerised — and a groove is established.

Off-grid beats are more than just swung rhythms. They’re calculated deviations from the normal meter that place beats on and around the grid in a recognisable way. And they’re by no means new or unique to machine-based music making music. In funk, the concept of ‘the pocket’ is crucial for defining the way the groove is carried — how you move and respond to the music. As an extension to this, ‘the one’ (the first beat in the bar) can move from the true start of a cycle to somewhere far from it! (Check out our piece on The Pocket.)

You may be wondering why we’re getting so excited about off-grid beats. Well, we’ve been working on some updates to Launchpad Pro MK3 which make it easier than ever to break free from the confines off strictly grid-based music making. With the Launchpad Pro [MK3] v1.2 firmware update, you can record without quantisation, making those expressive beats much easier to program. (Click here to check out the new features.)

So, now you’ve got the gist of what we mean when we talk about off-grid beats. Here are some of our favourite, compiled from Novation staffers around the world.

Chairlift / Ch-Ching

I am totally obsessed with the groove of ‘Ch-Ching’ by Chairlift at the moment. It’s so infectious and the production is really unique. The intro starts with the hard panned sax harmonies playing an almost triplet tremolo. Then the verse starts with a slow 88 BPM accent that always gives my neck muscles a good workout encouraged along by the 32nd-triplet shuffle. Caroline Polachek’s vocal phrasing is perfection, can’t stop listening to it.
Justin Foster

Phonon / Polyriddim

So yeah the tune a dubstep song mostly in 7/4 time and when it hits ~1min in it just goes into WTF territory. I think it’s using some crazy nested tuplet rhythms, where there’s like a quintuplet nested in a triplet and other absurd rhythms like 11-tuplets nested in 9-tuplets, it’s just bonkers.

Here’s a video of someone who learned to play it on actual drums, with the sheet music below: https://youtu.be/xv05y31U1p4?t=789

Technically it’s all still very ‘on grid’ but I think the madness of what’s going on rhythmically gives it the off grid vibe.
Adam Able

Tom Misch & Yussef Dayes / The Real

This track is gorgeous, featuring a sample of Aretha Franklin's 'The Real', Yussef Dayes' vibe on the drums and Tom Misch's creamy vocals and guitar. Yussef is playing a really chill jazzy beat that is addictive. The production from Tom Misch, who's influenced heavily by J Dilla, is on point. From the filter sweep of the drums at the start to the blend of the wavy guitar with the metronomic drums. It's damn tasty for the ears!
Stephen Button

Frits Wentink / Writs Fentink

Producer Steve Mensink operates from Holland under the name Frits Wentink. Releasing on Wolf Music, Heist and his own label Bobby Donny, Frits is the don of wonky house music. He was releasing Lo Fi house before it was ever a thing.

Taken from the album Rarely Pure, Never Simple this short track is a pure masterclass in wonk. Heavily saturated drums and bass with a blatant disregard for any meter to concern the snares and hi-hat, the beat oscillates between being pulled and pushed as if time itself has had an off kilter LFO applied to it. Coupled with free-flowing jazz piano and saxophone samples the woozy effect is amplified to drunken perfection.
Chris Calcutt

Samiyam / Rollerskates

This is my favourite off-grid beat as it shouldn't work! The timing is really held together by the chords with the drums and bass falling around them. It is so wonky but still has that head nod groove. I first heard this track on the Five Years Of Hyperdub record, when playing it out in a music shop I was working it at a time, a customer described it as “sounds like a sequencer falling down some stairs" which sums up that drum groove perfectly!
Danny Nugent

Ting Dun / Ocean Wisdom ft. Method Man

Ting Dun comes from Ocean Wisdom’s Wizville album with a combination of big, boom bap drums and rapid flow and delivery — a Wizzy classic which he excels at. Pair that with a feature from Hip Hop royalty in the form of Method Man and you have a song which showcases Wizzy’s technical ability and swagger on the mic, whilst tipping the hat to 90s Hip Hop with a beat which you can’t help but nod your head to.
Harvey Lo

J Dilla, Common & D’Angelo / So Far To Go

It’s an obvious choice, I know, but it’s hard to top this trio. Phenomenal talents in their own right, they join for a powerful yet delicate and emotional track that epitomises the off-grid style. I chose this because the beat is about as simple as you can get — a kick on the one and three, snare on the two and four — but with so much vibe that you can’t help but flex your neck. Apart from the simplicity of the beat, I love the choppy piano riffs, which are so deeply off-grid but simultaneously in exactly the right place. Rest in peace J Dilla.
Chris Mayes-Wright

Burial / Untrue

This whole album is so damn off grid that it was made in a video editing software that doesn’t even have a grid! I think lots of the hi-hat and percussion samples are ripped from video games (like bullets dropping and other sfx), and the vocals are all rips of people singing covers on youtube, which back in 2007 was pretty novel.
Adam Able

Meshell Ndegeocello / Come Smoke My Herb

For me it’s less about the beat in a lot of these cases, often the beat is regular, if pretty relaxed. It’s more about how the bass interacts with it, playing WAY behind said beat. D’Angelo’s Voodoo album is another prime example of this, with ?uestlove regular but relaxed, and Pino Palladino playing way way behind him. Meshell does the same on this tune, beat fairly regular, but bass really pulling it back. I suppose this is not strictly off the grid from a beat point of view, but if we consider the rhythm section holistically, it very much is off the grid.
Simon Poulton

Armand Hammer / No Days Off

While the sample in this is a continuous loop consistent throughout, the vocal flows over the top drag it in different directions. Choruses drop when you’re not expecting, the loop is pretty hypnotising. The whole tune is fantastic and has a sense urgency, even with the backdrop of that lazy, slightly behind the beat loop.
Sam Hayward

Muete / You & Me

Muete are a German Techno marching band who play dance & trance covers. This one is particularly tasty, as it is reinterpretation of a Flume track, completely different mood. Very textural and dynamic, all sans electricity. Beautiful lazy percussion section, laying right behind the beat.
Charles Tetaz

Beastie Boys / Finger Lickin’ Good

As far as the beats go it’s just the feel of everything, the way the scratching and the shouts combine with the live drummer and the fact that it all sounds like it was done in the basement on the inside sleeve of the album. I can’t believe you could ever achieve that kind of energy with a sequencer.
Phil Chamberlain

Listen to the playlist