music history

Watch: The mystery of why air horns are used in hip hop is finally solved (or not)

It was one DJ who revolutionised it into a 'global phenomenon' but its roots go deeper.

You’ve probably heard it and whether you like it or not, air horns are here to stay. The proof lies in hip hop, pop and even electronic dance music (EDM).

Who would have imagined that the (annoying) high pitched sound would have been a hit? Luis Diaz aka DJ Cipha Sounds, certainly didn’t think so.

He’s the man behind the famous “Bw-bw-bw-bwaaaaaaahhhhhp” air horn sound that took over the music forms. He explains the origins in the video below.

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Cipha Sounds may have introduced his style of the air horn sound, but he didn’t begin the movement. This may be an awkward John Snow moment, but to tell the truth, no one will ever know who started it.

What we can trace, though, is its fascinating origin from West Indies. According to an article published by the Red Bull Music Academy, this portable pneumatic instrument was first sampled in songs played in Jamaican dancehalls in the 1970s, and, later, in reggae music.

But again, no one knows why it became a novelty. Redditors have examined the endless possibilities and their reasoning makes the air horn sound like it has had a bigger role to play, not just in music but also to Caribbean lifestyles.

One Reddit user believed that the sound came from the horns of cruise ships, something which Caribbean people hear more often than others. Another Redditor joined the dots using maths.

“And if you take the air-horn sound, and play it back at 0.45 speed it sounds just like a cruiser horn. Why 0.45? Because playing back the sound of a cruise ship horn recorded on a 33rpm vinyl record played back at 74rpm (the fastest record players would do) sounds just like the reggae air-horn. 74 / 33 = 0.45 :) ”

If that technical aspect just zoomed past you, here’s another way of looking at it – a formal recording of the air horn sound may have mushroomed, and since the sound goes really well with Jamaican music, that was it.

The internet, however, gave the air horn sound a new lease of life through its air horn remixes and parody videos on YouTube and SoundCloud.

The best known parody is by the Norwegian duo Ylvis, who featured covers of popular songs with air horn blasts added (below).

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If you still don’t believe that only air horn sounds can be produced into music, here’s a recreation of Let it Go from the 2013 movie Frozen.

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