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Breath Control: 9 Smashes That Were Recorded In One Take

By Alec Banks

What do Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean," James Brown's "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," and Eminem's "Lose Yourself" have in common — besides being absolute classics? Each song was recorded in one take. While we currently exist in a world of music where every line seems to be meticulously manicured, the byproduct then becomes that all of the emotion and energy surrounding the song completely evaporates. Luckily, Hip-Hop has several one-take classics.

"Rapper's Delight" by The Sugarhill Gang

The story goes that Big Bank Hank, Wonder Mike and Master Gee met Sylvia Robinson on a Friday and recorded "Rapper's Delight" the following Monday in just one take. The "Rapper's Delight" 12-inch was released in September 1979. It was 15 minutes long, and yet black radio started playing it — so much so that Sugarhill Gang recorded a seven-minute version for pop stations and introduced the black neighborhood sound of the 1970s to white listeners.

"Lose Yourself" by Eminem

The signature guitar loop heard on Eminem's "Lose Yourself" was made two years earlier by Jeff Bass. He recorded a demo at the time, but put in on the shelf. It wasn't until 8 Mile director, Curtis Hanson, wanted him to make music for the movie from the perspective his character, that he thought about the demo. As only Eminem can do, he conjured magic out of thin air.

We were on lunch break, and I needed to finish the track," he said. "I don’t think it was one take all the way down, but it was one take each verse. ‘Got the first verse, okay, punch me in at the second. OK, the whole third verse.’ For some reason, I just captured something there that I didn’t want to change. I remember trying to change it and go back and re-do the vocals, and I was like ‘Yo, let me listen to the old ones? Just keep the old ones, fuck it.’

In 2014, fans got to hear the original demo version of “Lose Yourself” when Em released it as a bonus track on his label’s 15th anniversary Shady XV compilation.

“I’m Only Out for One Thang” by Ice Cube feat. Flavor Flav

In a 2010 article commemorating the 20th anniversary of AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, Cube stated, “We put the track up, and he was running late, so we knew we’d only have one take. When we messed up at the end, we just kept movin’.”

"Crazy" by Gnarls Barkley

In an interview with The New York Times, Danger Mouse talked about the story of the song, he said: “I brought in a song that I felt was a complete Ennio Morricone ripoff, but Cee-Lo and I started talking, and I somehow got off on this tangent about how people won’t take an artist seriously unless they’re insane. We were saying that if we really wanted this album to work, the best move would be to just kill ourselves. That’s how audiences think; it’s retarded. So we started jokingly discussing ways in which we could make people think we were crazy. We talked about this for hours, and then I went home. But while I was away, Cee-Lo took that conversation and made it into ‘Crazy’ which we recorded in one take. That’s the whole story. The lyrics are his interpretation of that conversation.”

"Roxanne's Revenge" by Roxanne Shante

"Roxanne's Revenge" was a freestyle turned radio hit thanks to the perfect pairing of Roxanne Shanté and Marley Marl which wouldn't have occurred if Roxanne didn't visit the laundry mat that day. Marley asked Shantè to come up to his apartment to spit a freestyle over U.T.F.O’s “Roxanne, Roxanne” track. The result was a one-take classic.

“Hard Knock Life [Ghetto Anthem]” by JAY-Z

At the time of its release in 1998, 'Hard Knock Life" was the most commercially successful JAY-Z single.

 JAY-Z first heard the 45 King-produced beat from Kid Capri. When he approached the 45 King, the producer was holding it for his Kid Capri's compilation project. After some subtle coaxing he finally let it go.

According to the 45 King, the song was recorded in one take and took less than five minutes.

“I was lucky enough to see Jay lay down the vocals, he didn’t have any papers, he did it in one take and.. that's JAY-Z”

“South Bronx” by Boogie Down Productions

In a 2003 documentary, KRS-One said, “It was 25 dollars an hour for an 8-track studio. We did two hours – 50 dollars, a lot of money. What you hear on the 'South Bronx' is one take. Scott was complaining that I took too long. The guy didn’t even mix record, no mix. We kept one and we gave one to Red Alert.” And the rest is history."

“The Dream Shatterer [Original Version]” by Big Pun

D.I.T.C. member and producer Buckwild discussed in 2011 how he witnessed Pun record the original version of “The Dream Shatterer.” According to him, “I remember we went to Mystic Studio in Staten Island. He went inside the booth and sat on a stool, and just breathed fire through the whole song. I’ve never seen him finish a song without doing punches. Me, Cuban Link, and Triple Seis were there. And it was incredible.”