“Step Into The Realm” Is The Roots’ Homage to Pause Tape Beats

An examination of the group’s little-known use of the pause tapes, starting with their early demos and informal Earth Wind & Fire interlude loops.

The Roots may be best-known these days for their outstanding live musicianship and Black Thought’s insane lyrical abilities, but they’ve drawn influence from sample-based production ever since their formation in the late 1980s. In fact, the group relied on simple pause tape loops to sketch out ideas for their very first beats. “Back in the day, we didn’t have two turntables,” Questlove told Timothy Orr in a 2011 DRUM! Magazine interview. “So we would create ‘pause tapes’ in order to make drum loops.”

Following this revelation, Questlove gives a perfect description of the pause tape process used by The Roots and many other pioneering rap artists during the ‘80s and early/mid-‘90s. It was a time-consuming and rather tedious labor of love. “When you wanted to create a drum loop, you get a recorder, press record and pause at the same time,” he told DRUM! Magazine. “When the drum break came, you would let the paused tape go right on the 1, and then pause it on the 1 again. After you did this about 20 times, you would have about five minutes of drums.”

Questlove’s reliance on pause tapes went well beyond crafting simple drum tracks for the group’s songs, as it also helped him maintain inner peace during a rocky patch of his career. As The Roots worked on a demo tape prior to the release of their Organix debut in 1993, he held down a day job to help fund the project. Though the work was rather soul-crushing and uninspiring, a loop of Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Steph” interlude, which plays after their song “All About Love,” helped him stay sane. “I’d ‘pause tape’ that minute interlude for 45 mins on cassette,” he wrote in a 2016 Instagram tribute to late Earth, Wind & Fire founder Maurice White. “That alone would put me in a positive trance to face another day selling insurance to pay for The Roots’ demo. Seriously, it was either that tape or drugs to ease my mind—I chose the music.”

As the decade wore on, even the most dedicated pause loop masters moved on to better sampling technology due to ever-increasing accessibility and affordability. Despite this trend, The Roots continued to draw inspiration from pause tapes as late as their Grammy-nominated 1999 effort Things Fall Apart.

Showcasing a new level of musical and lyrical sophistication, the album catapulted The Roots into a new stratosphere of success and eventually earned them a platinum plaque. Yet despite the new artistic highs achieved while making the record, they couldn’t resist paying homage to the beat making aesthetic used at the very beginning of their careers.

Listen carefully and you can hear a pause tape influence on “Step Into The Realm,” one of many standout cuts on Things Fall Apart. The somber, beautiful backing track fades in and out throughout the song, giving Malik B and Black Thought’s impressive lyrics a bit of added punch throughout. According to Questlove, this unconventional beat structure was the group’s intentional and subtle tip of the cap to the art of pause looping. “On a song called ‘Step Into The Realm,’ we used that concept, only the break came at the end of the 45, so it fades out each time,” he told DRUM! Magazine. “That was our little nod to the pause tape.”

The stories of Questlove’s homemade beat tapes and the making of “Step Into The Realm” make for another important chapter in the fascinating and underreported history of pause tapes. With documented proof that rap music’s most famous band went back to their pause loop origins at least once on an official release, one has to wonder if The Roots were inspired by the technique on earlier work like OrganixDo You Want More?!!!??!and/or Illadelph Halflife.

Though this writer wasn’t able to find evidence of further pause loop influence, it wouldn’t be surprising if there were some undocumented examples hidden within the depths of their vast catalog. If that’s the case, hopefully this article can help bring such examples to light.

Maurice was our cheerleader.....i swear to god I did about 7 drafts and erased it. Look. I just really wanna thank him and thank all the members of #EWF shining that light brighter. You know how hard it is to present Afrocentric Jazz & spiritual positivity in the face of what we had to deal with in the 70s? When times were hard sometimes the only release you had was music. & if it wasn't Stevie, you were reaching for your #EarthWindAndFire albums. I would get so lost in those records man. Just lose myself. Fav logo ever. The interludes (specially the One after "All Bout Love" ("Steph") id "pause tape" that minute interlude for 45 mins on cassette---that alone would put me in a positive trance to face another day selling insurance to pay for the Roots demo.--seriously it was either that tape or drugs to ease my mind---I chose the music)--but if you really look at it ----it's limiting to say #EWF was our black Floyd or the Black Beatles to Pfunk's Stones---look I'm rambling---I just got done work, working on 3 projects and getting ready for #BowlTrain ---but this really hurts man. Maurice really truly made African art so sophisticated & beautiful. ---I feel like erasing this and starting again but you know where my heart is. #MauriceWhite
February 5, 2016

(This article is a modified and updated version of a story that was originally published on Micro-Chop.)

Thanks for reading, see you on Wednesday!