Yesterday, I realized that everything was out of whack. There were Honorable Mentions that should have replaced people in the Top 50. The order of this list was all wrong. Why is Rashad Smith on it? Should DJ Screw have been eligible even if he never produced anything? How many of those classic Fresh Prince singles did Jazzy Jeff really produce? And who made the beat to the theme song of “Where In the World is Carmen San Diego?”
A list should be in constant flux and totally subjective. The voting sample — the people who contribute to this site — live all over the world. Admittedly, we slant towards East Coast boom-bap made from the blood and carbon of soul, jazz, and funk. Our oldest voter was 35, the youngest 18. We grew up in England, LA, New York, Washington D.C., Canada (it’s just one city, right), New Zealand, and Louisville. I don’t know where some of writers grew up. There are unimaginable biases to account for. No list will be the same, nor should it. But it’s fun sometimes to pick things apart, just to put them back together again. If you don’t argue with some of this, you would be wrong. Then again, I know that some of this is right. Some things just transcend. These are our conclusions, for now. Bang your head. —Jeff Weiss
50. Questlove (Tie)
There’s a bar in Madison called Hawks. Like a lot of bars, it has pictures of celebrities and big cultural moments all over the walls. Musicians, movie scenes, etc. What I like most about this particular collage is that it’s regularly updated so our current icons share the limelight with the older gods. Right next to Eddie Izzard is Dave Chapelle, earphones on, looking cool and nonchalant. Kobe and Jordan dunk side by side. And right underneath Chuck D and Flava Flav are Black Thought and ?uestlove.
?uest deserves his fame. His music’s has been as smooth and outsized as his personality since day one, lending The Roots a consistency throughout two decades plus of musical excellence. Check out the perfect neo-soul on Illadelph Halflife’s “What They Do” where the drums hit hard enough to bolster the slow burn of the other instrumentation. And, on the other side of his career there is the soulful funk of “Long Time,” the only upbeat song on Game Theory, wherein Bunny Sigler plays himself and Peedi Peedi drops an excellent verse. All powered by a modern-day icon whose day job is Jimmy Fallon’s drummer. — Jonah Bromwich
50. (tie) Flying Lotus
You could easily argue that Flying Lotus doesn’t belong. Steve Ellison is only 28, doesn’t make anything remotely resembling traditional hip hop, and has a small handful of tracks with rappers. I would argue otherwise. Hip Hop production was the art of robbing graveyards, dismembering the past and reviving it into something that has its own swing. It’s what Dre did to Parliament-Funkadelic. Or Bambaataa did to Kraftwerk. Or Kraftwerk did to the robot alien overlords that first brought techno to Germany. It’s Lotus does to John and Alice Coltrane, George Duke and Jay Dee — and all those celestial and dusted in between. As though powered by Mr. Fusion, he no longer needs roads.
The July Heat Beat tape reveals the roots: a sweltering San Fernando Valley strain of G-Funk hybridized with J Dilla. The great producers know that when you are boxed in, the only option is to go to outer space. Techno and British IDM and French House, soul and fusion jazz were filtered through Death Row and Stones Throw. Kids started to imitate. Kendrick Lamar name-dropped him as one of his favorite producers. To say nothing of Thom Yorke, who might as well have been called the last album, King of Lotus. Don’t get it confused — this is the wild style, it’s just a little warped. —Weiss
49. DJ Jazzy Jeff
When you carve your fame out alongside someone as famous as the Fresh Prince, being slept on is a guarantee. More shame on the sleepers, because the magnificent master of the scratch has been one of hip-hop’s greatest producers for a very long time. And he’s still working.
However, Jazz’s pioneering work is still his best. It’s hard to compete with the raw drums and scratching prowess that “Brand New Funk” bring to the table. James Brown’s voice gets converted to a staccato component of a beat that goes hard as hell, a beat that perfectly complements Will Smith’s outrageous braggodocio. Elsewhere (on the same record, I’m a sucker for He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper and you should be too), check out “Pump Up the Bass” where Jazz and the Prince enact a old-school talent showcase, the Prince shining light on Jeff’s skills by putting down the mic in the middle of the track and just letting the DJ do his thing like they used to do when they were just hanging out. Rap’s nature makes DJing seem like a
background job (think about the title of the album) but Jazzy proved a long time ago that the man behind the turntables is just as important as the man on the mic. – Jonah Bromwich
Daz is on this list for the same reason that the Lakers got Shaq and will probably get Dwight Howard. Not only do you get the big contracts and recognition in LA or New York, but you also have better odds of being in the right place at the right time. I don’t even think Daz believes that he’d be considered one of the greatest producers of all-time if he hadn’t wound up as an in-house Death Row producer making beats for Suge Knight’s then-girlfriend, Paradise.
The union with Dre was inevitable. Daz was the young blood and had the right instincts. By all accounts, he played a crucial role on The Chronic and Doggystyle, even getting co-production credit on three tracks on the latter (including greatest-song-ever candidate “Ain’t No Fun (If the Homies Can’t Have None).” Dogg Found is a classic too, but All Eyez on Me is his greatest achievement. That was where Daz proved that he didn’t need Dre. If you look at the credits, he only has five beats. But they include three of the hardest beats ever made: “Ambitionz Az a Ridah, “Got My Mind Made Up,”and “2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted,” plus Pac’s best late period tearjerker, “I Ain’t Mad At ‘Cha.” It doesn’t matter if Daz hasn’t made anything truly memorable in the last decade. We only really remember what you do on the winning squad. -Weiss
47. The Beatnuts
Originally loose affiliates of the Native Tongues posse, Psycho Les and Juju honed their craft in the early 90s with production work for numerous artists before taking the plunge into their own releases with rapper Kool Fashion. In doing so they wrote themselves into the cannon in true 40 swigging, blunt smoking, party rocking style, all backed by some of the finest production committed to wax. Taking their name from their obsession with breaks, the flippant nature of their message – fuck, drink beer, and smoke some shit – was always underpinned by samples and breaks drawn from a plethora of sources and re-appropriated with creativity and ingenuity. The message may not have been sophisticated; the production certainly was.
As their career progressed its notable how Les and Juju were able to straddle the thin line between true schoolism and commercial viability. As such, “Off The Books” is perhaps the pinnacle of their achievement. Instantly catchy, the song can still throw a club into a frenzy, but does so without forsaking a healthy dose of street credibility. It’s a trick that few have pulled off successfully and rarely with as much panache as the ‘Nuts. — Dan Love
46. Massive Attack
For a time, it seemed like British hip-hop would both begin and end with Massive Attack’s Blue Lines. The Bristol-based production trio, who had emerged as the leaders of their own Wild Bunch Crew, weren’t the first in the United Kingdom to play a sound system or record a rap to tape, but as the percussive “Daydreaming”, majestic “Unfinished Sympathy”, and coil-sprung “Safe From Harm” slowly took over the British charts in early 1991, you felt like Grant ‘Daddy G’ Marshall,Robert ‘3D’ Del Naja, and Andrew ‘Mushroom’ Vowels had finally conjured a viable, home-grown form of the genre.
Of course, it didn’t quite work out that way. Massive Attack were co-opted against their will into the trip-hop movement that came to dominate the mid to late 90s, and Blue Lines was hailed as the logical starting point for what became a hopelessly watered-down genre. But the years have been gracious to it, and two decades after its release it has largely separated itself from the dross that it was so unfortunately associated with.
Blue Lines is a hip-hop record, plain and simple. Like any quality American rap release, Blue Lines had the feel of a weed-fueled conversation about music, put to music. “Five Man Army” with its combination of Al Green and Lloyd Robinson, or “Unfinished Sympathy”’s references to JJ Johnson and Mahavishnu Orchestra: these are just two examples of an album that was a beatminer’s paradise, the influences gleefully twisted and then compiled into something new. Suddenly the United Kingdom had a team of producers the equal of just about anybody in the United States. And yet Massive Attack were distinctly British, with their benign musical approach, paranoia born out of 11 years of Thatcherism, and direct links to the Jamaican diaspora.
In subsequent years, Massive Attack’s productions slowly became more introverted and suffocating. From Protection’s shuffling, crackling “Karmacoma” and tenement ghost stories of “Eurochild” to Mezzanine’s sonic molasses in “Risingson” and “Man Next Door”, the group drilled down into darker and more stifling territory. It was a move that would shave away Mushroom, the group’s most ardent promoter of hip-hop, and lead to the at times impenetrable 2003 release, 100th Window.
Interestingly enough, though, it’s easy to imagine Vowels being pleased with Heligoland, Massive Attack’s 2010 comeback, the organic nature of its beats and winning way with collaborators harking back to the group’s early work. Still, for many, Massive Attack will always be the inscrutable trio of their early years, and it’s Blue Lines that remains as the shining light of their discography. An exceptional record from an exceptional bunch of hip-hop producers. —Matt Shea
45. True Master
And you can check his credentials. From the hollow-point ricochet attack of Method Man’s “Killing Fields,” to the steam-pump kick-snare of Ghostface Killah’s “Fish,” the Wu-Elements aesthetic, rightly credited to RZA, was perfected by True Master. His phrases, deceptively disjointed and haphazard, manipulated, reconstructed and re-animated from the ashes of often unidentifiable sample sources; his beats an absorbing refinement of everything RZA’s sound suggested; More than an affiliate, True Master’s contributions to the Wu-Tang catalog – “R.E.C. Room,” “Slang Editorial,” “Dangerous Grounds” – have been every bit as fearlessly imaginative as the Abbot’s. If RZA built a universe, True Master extended it.
Recently, the producer, real name Derrick Harris, made a number of rather foolish, totally awful decisions, beginning with that KRS-One album and ending with an escape from police custody following his arraignment on charges of sexual assault. I would bail True Master out of jail if I could. He knows that. Suffice it to say, it may be a while before Inspectah Deck’s dreams come true. The metaphysics of nobility often present a treacherous path. —Barry Schwartz
44. Rashad Smith
“ Woo-Hah (Got You All in Check)” “Young Gs,” “Rhymes Galore,” Dangerous,” “If I Ruled the World,” “Doin’ It,” “One More Chance (Remix).” Can we get Rashad Smith a Wikipedia entry, please?
From the release of Ready to Die to No Way Out, east coast hip-hop invaded the mainstream and slammed the door behind it permanently, producing some of the most exciting music the genre may ever have to offer in the process. At the forefront was Rashad Smith. Grimy at its most polished, luxurious without sounding expensive, Rashad Smith’s sound could be embraced by radio without forcing artists like Biggie or Busta Rhymes to compromise their personalities. In Busta’s case, Smith is responsible for some of his most enduring hits. For Biggie, his full-bodied, melodic tracks provided the perfect canvas for Big’s fearsome musicality, his baritone at once casual and authoritative.
In those days the stars were the stars. Producers like Rashad Smith, despite their unassailable contributions, could be easily overlooked, dismissed as merely incidental to the bigger personalities of that era. But the track record speaks for itself. If you’re the common denominator to nearly a dozen of the greatest hip-hop tracks of all time, what does that make you? —Barry Schwartz
43. Eric B & Rakim
Former WBLS DJ and Elmhurst native Eric Barrier’s main contribution to hip hop was putting the lyricist first, so it is perhaps counter-intuitive to find him here. The rumors swirl: Rakim did the work himself, Eric just put up the money, Large Pro was lending a hand. The 45 King? Paul C? Or was it Marley Marl and Ced Gee? Eric B claims he brought the samples and concepts, directing his “engineers” Marley Marl and MC Shan as they crossed the t’s and dotted the I’s. Rakim takes credit for pretty much everything.
The truth is probably somewhere in between, with input coming in from all sides and several producers you’ll find high on this list contributing to pieces of this duo’s epic discography. We may never know who pulled the records and dropped the needles for sure, but to go without acknowledge the production work on these albums, a veritable Shakespearean cannon of early staple sample sources and groundbreaking production techniques, would be inconceivable. —Abe Beame
42. Swizz Beatz
I know it hurts but in your heart of hearts you know it to be true: by 1998, NY rap production was getting stale. The Wu’s dusty beats sampled themselves into a corner and the jiggy movement was running out of disco to steal so something needed to be done, someone needed to come along and reinvent the sound of Hip-Hop from the ground up whether you Boom-Bap purists wanted it or not. That someone was Swizz Beats and his production has since generated millions of dollars and almost as many million Internet posts accusing him of ruining Hip-Hop. But fuck the haters: “Ruff Ryders Anthem,” “Money Cash Hoes,” “Banned from TV,” “Jigga My Nigga.” The list goes on.
While 25 year old backpackers were busy fretting over the state of “real Hip-Hop” an impressionable 15 year old Sach was busy wilding out to some of the craziest beats ever to hit the streets: raw, rugged and totally uncompromised. A generation of emcees agreed: in the late 90s anyone who was anyone was hopping on a Swizz track, forced to rap twice as hard so not be swallowed up by the melodic keyboard lines and brittle rhythms. Yes, his subsequent work was sub-par and no, I’m not saying he was better than the producers that preceeded him. But Swizz Beats came along at a moment when hip hop was getting too comfortable for its own good and shook things to the core. For that, you owe him thanks. And incidentally, Hi-Tek aside, who the fuck remembers the guys who produced for Rawkus anyways? –Sach O
41. Juicy J/DJ Paul
In recent years, Juicy J has become the Hunter S Thompson of rap, attempting to live up to a larger-than-life image created during a bygone era. I can recall a time growing up in Kentucky, which neighbors Three 6 Mafia’s native Tennessee, where seemingly everyone had subwoofers in their trunk blasting DJ Paul’s bass-heavy productions. In fact, when Three 6 Mafia started out as Triple Six Mafia, many tracks like “Paul Wit Da 45” focused strictly focused on the production, and only provided a looped vocal sample for effect.
While their reality show for MTV may speak otherwise, you really can’t say these guys ever sold out though, especially when a song titled “Stay High” is their most popular to date. Even after their Oscar win for Hustle and Flow and the hundreds of complaints I can only imagine they’ve received from the A&R department at Warner, DJ Paul and Juicy J have somehow managed to keep their death and drug-inspired style unfettered from outside pressure, and that we can certainly applaud them for. — Aaron Frank
At the risk of excluding forgotten pioneers, you can trace the local roots of LA hip hop production to five names: Dr. Dre, Joe Cooley, Egyptian Lover, Arabian Prince, and DJ Battlecat. The latter broke in as a 16-year old DJ in the early KDAY era and remains one of the most influential architects of West Coast rap. When Snoop went into the studio last month to record tracks for Detox, he brought Quik and Battlecat. Other than the absentee Dr, there is no one else still standing. Battlecat’s first credit came on 1988’s “DJ-N-Effect,” an electro-rap jam that was part JJ Fad, part Egyptian Lover, and part proto West Coast turntablism. From there, he went straight to the throne as the city’s go-to-producer. Dre and Cold 187um of Above the Law can fight about who invented G-Funk, but it was Battlecat who executed the plot to dominate half a continent.
Examine the production resume: Lighter Shade of Brown, Penthouse Players Clique, W.C. and the Maad Circle, Domino, Spice 1, Kam, Dru Down, Rass Kass, Kurupt, Snoop, E-40, Mr. Mike, Lucy Pearl, Xhibit, Dogg Pound. Battlecat did it all. He made hits like “Ghetto Jam,” “We Can Freak It,” and “High Come Down” that will live forever on left coast radio. When the Bloods and Crips came together to record an album, they called Battlecat for the single. He even made a track with Tom Jones, thus trouncing Dre and his Burt Bacharach fixation. If Andre Young was the prophet, Battlecat was the apostle. Listen to the mix below — you have been warned. —Jeff Weiss
39. Larry Smith
The notion of anybody being “slept on” in the age of the internet seems somewhat ridiculous, but if anybody still qualifies it’s Larry Smith. Responsible for the production of the first two Run DMC albums as well as hits with Whodini, Smith’s work changed the course of mainstream rap music and redefined the genre. Who knew? As rap music gradually morphed into something bigger in the early 80s it was his drum machine beats that did away with the excess and made the music raw.
Smith’s particular aesthetic was relatively quickly superseded as sampling technologies allowed the expansion of the musical palette from which producers could source sounds, but the underlying spirit of rap as a stripped down force of rebellious youth had been set in motion through his innovation. That’s quite a legacy to be forgotten and Darryl, for one, is outraged Rightly so. — Dan Love
38. DJ Shadow
It says a lot about DJ Shadow that his name still holds an almost mythical status with many, given the patchy quality of his records over the past five years. The Outsider put a significant dent in Shadow’s fabled profile, and it looks like The Less You Know, The Better might go some way to finishing off the job, but Josh Davis’s reputation as a producer will remain stacked on two exceptional, albeit very different records.
The first is Endtroducing. Slowly pieced together in 1996 using an MPC60, two turntables, and Dan the Automator’s copy of Pro Tools, this record remains Shadow’s murky, masterful calling card. Endtroducing’s party trick is of course the fact that it’s totally built from samples. Shadow essentially stretched the hip-hop production idiom as far as it could possibly go: neglecting any live instrumentation, but in doing so creating a record that was fundamentally different to its own building blocks. It almost single-handedly killed off the ‘sampling is stealing’ argument that had for so long plagued rap music. Unfortunately, the trap with Endtroducing is to get so caught up in the technique of the record that you forget about the emotion: a spooky journey through 20th century pop-culture, funereal pianos and screwed organs wrapped up with ghostly vocals and mysterious film samples. It introduced half a generation of casual listeners to hip-hop and helped legitimize the artistic merits of turntablism.
With all this in mind, 2002’s The Private Press was always going to receive short thrift from critics and listeners. But Shadow’s sophomore has grown in stature of the years, and as his more recent releases have faltered, this is the record that you point to in hope of a better future. Sample-based, but with further input from both vocalists and digital sources, The Private Press is Shadow as composer, sewing disparate parts together to create a compelling whole, one that features a succinct and focussed audio narrative. It’s the kind of record you let play out after you leave the house, because cutting its sequence short seems so wrong.
If there was an indicator of the difficulties that would plague Shadow’s later work, it was the 1998 UNKLE release Psyence Fiction. An impressive but often distant listen, it showed up the troubles Davis had with utilizing collaborators for his densely packed beats. It’s a problem that plagued the scattershot The Outsider, with its misfiring hyphy and bizarre descent into alt-rock territory. It means that in 2011, Davis is not so much enigmatic as he is mercurial. He makes this list because he’s a game changer, but the egoism inherent in DJ Shadow’s desire to constantly buck people’s expectations means he’s in danger of losing the magic his name conjures and, in the words of this site’s Barry Schwartz, simply becoming a dude named Josh. —Matt Shea
Showbiz’s catalogue is embedded with a sense of true hip hop legacy. Hailing from the South Bronx both his methods and sound drip with tradition and heritage. A renowned digger, his initial output was hard and unabashedly funky, screeching horns over manic percussion. ‘Still Diggin’’ is a prime example of both the philosophy and the sound, samples dropping in and out of a groove with fierce momentum. It’s the kind of thing that spontaneously makes you say ‘Holy mackerel!’
The work with AG and other artists from around 1995 onwards is slightly different, fewer loops and with less frenetic drums. Goodfellas, Show & AG’s sophomore effort, features some of his darkest work, highly aggressive and deliciously dark, but elsewhere Show maintained a more inclusive sound. ‘A Friend’ is perhaps the best example from this period, warm strings and keys offset with a punchy but not overwhelming drum track, a lesson in NY-centric mid 90s production where the beat drops just where it’s supposed to: there. —Dan Love
36. No ID
No I.D. is the rare producer who evolved past his niche and kept going. He began as a disciple of the jazz-inflected East Coast sound, producing Common’s first three records with a heavy boom bap slant. No I.D. soon branched out with freelance work for G-Unit, Jay-Z and Ghostface and began co-producing pop singles like Alicia Keys’ “My Boo” with Jermaine Dupri. He not only mentored Kanye but began co-produced with him, from 808s and Heartbreaks onward, becoming an integral part of Mr. West’s sound in recent years. He’s equally adept at bangers and ballads, dropping glossy pop tracks like Big Sean’s “My Last” then crafting a Tunnel thumper like “Primetime” for the two biggest rappers in the world without a bit of hesitation. It’s remarkable that a producer rocking jazz samples in ’94 could progress his sound to encompass the stiff snap drums and creepy vocal samples of “Ready Set Go”. No I.D. represents the possibility of longevity in hip-hop. – Aaron Matthews
35. Da Beatminerz
Da Beatminerz work in a secret waterside cavern where Save The Whales pays them top dollar to broadcast their beats through the ocean to get humpback whales to have sex. Above sea level, Beatminerz production serves a rarefied strand of New York rap that draws an unseen murkiness out of lo-fi jazz loops and all-consuming bass lines. Black Moon’s Enta Da Stage was a work of darkness without the superficial mafioso tropes that hadn’t yet hijacked the city. The horn samples on “Niguz Talk Shit” and “I Got Cha Opin” are are some of hip-hop’s best known melodies; the enveloping bass invites Buckshot’s rasp and the chanted choruses to cut through it. Da Beatminerz weren’t masters of bleakness or foreboding, but rather subterranean grooves that vibrate through your feet and up your spine. “Who Got Da Props” and “Buck ‘Em Down” radiate spirited boom bap momentum and Smif-N-Wessun’s “Bucktown” rivals “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.) ” in ruminative nostalgia. The Boot Camp Clik and Da Beatminerz are usually overlooked in favor of their era’s more distinctive and charismatic movements, but they deserve their due respect before they die of dust inhalation. – Evan Nabavian
34. MF Doom
Just as there are a plurality of Doom personas, there are a multitude of Doom production touches, each of which can be a key to identifying a track produced by Dan Dumile. The man’s in a mask for a reason; it makes a shift in identity as easy as drinking a brew (as irate concertgoers have found out many times.) But he leaves his metal fingerprints all over anything he creates, which makes identifying a Doom track as easy as consulting this simple checklist:
1. Cartoon/Video Game Samples. If you hear a woman shrieking while a staid hero reacts in shock to the presence of a villain, if bleeps, bloops, whirrs and hums abound, if the sound sounds like it was made by computers in the nineties, there’s a good chance that Doom produced it.
Examples: ” “The Time We Faced Doom,” “Galangal Root” “It Ain’t Nuttin’
2. Soul over Soft Percussion. A simple loop over skittering drums, often involving horns, short studies in syncopation that sound equally good as two minute instrumentals as they do with vocals over them—that’s Doom.
Examples: “Rhymes Like Dimes,””Zatar,” “Mugwort,” “Orris Root Powder”
3. Weeded as Hell. This one is simple enough. These beats were clearly created by the influence of M-A-R-I-J-U, A-J-U-A-N-A, mari, juana, marijuana.
If those elements are present, it’s a Doom beat.*
*Or a Madlib beat. Sorry. —Jonah Bromwich
33. Afrika Bambaataa
People still argue over who acted as the harbinger of hip-hop in 1970s New York. Perhaps it was Herc with his Herculords, the massive sound system that drove many a bumping Bronx block party. Or maybe it was Gandmaster Flash, a bookish background and Quick Mix Theory making him the card-carrying nerd of early rap music.
The third option is Afrika Bambaataa. And while Herc had his sound and Flash the technique, it was Bam who brought the records. He was notorious for his crate-digging and eclectic taste in music, a passion he inherited from his mother in a family that kept close to its Caribbean heritage. Extensive record collections often prove the common thread between many great hip-hop producers, and it’s the reason Bam makes this list – in particular the way he manipulated those influences on his seminal 1986 LP, Planet Rock: The Album. Of course, Planet Rock isn’t a true album – it’s more a collection of Bambaataa singles from the early 80s – but the fact that it piled together “Planet Rock”, “Looking For The Perfect Beat”, and “Renegades Of Funk” makes it an important document of early rap music.
Of those three cuts, it’s the epic, game-changing title track that confirms Bambaataa’s place in the storied history of hip-hop, and goes straight to the heart of the innovation he displayed early in his career. The krautrock elements are obvious, Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express” being re-recorded in the studio by Bambaataa and fellow producer Arthur Baker, whilst synth-pop sprog Gary Numan and Parliament were also cited as having influenced the record. But out of everything Bam poured into “Planet Rock”, it was his interest in Yellow Magic Orchestra that would eventually prove the most important: the Japanese group were the first to use the TR-808, and by musical osmosis Bam brought the Roland drum machine straight into the hip-hop bloodline — Matt Shea
32. Lord Finesse
The Bronx’s Diggin’ in the Crates crew stood astride the early to mid 90s east coast scene like a hip-hop colossus, and to this day have a strong pull on the New York underground. Buckwild tends to come first when you think of producers and the Crates, particularly since the release of last year’s Nineteen Ninety Now. But it’s Lord Finesse who’s the beating heart of D.I.T.C., and his skill with the microphone often muddies the waters when considering an exceptional career behind the boards.
Indeed, rapping was something Finesse simply fell into, his distinctive, slack-jawed delivery turning heads with 1990’s Funky Technician and earning him the reputation of being a notorious ladies’ man. But after that record’s success, Finesse had a chance to sit down and invest himself in the musical realm of hip-hop, forming Funky Man Productions and cutting tracks with The Notorious B.I.G., Big L, and Fat Joe, as well as R&B luminaries such as SWV, Jeff Redd, and Caron Wheeler. It was 1996’s The Awakening that confirmed him as a producer of note. Finesse’s beats are big and bass-heavy, refined yet lackadaisical, and carry a degree of depth that’s not always apparent upon first listen. The Awakening is the kind of record made to road test stereos, its complexities and depth of bass tone brought out by a superior sound system.
Still, the ultra-smooth, forward-thinking, funk-laden qualities of Lord Finesse’s productions are easily recognisable regardless of your aural circumstances, particularly when enjoyed through a haze of weed smoke. It’s evident in a resurgence of interest in Finesse’s work, particularly in the wake of the Mac Miller’s YouTube phenomenon, “Kool Aid & Frozen Pizza”, which was built upon the beat from “Hip 2 Da Game”. Miller has since approached Finesse personally to provide beats for a mixtape: Finesse politely turned down the Pittsburgh teenager, but the spillover has been obvious. You’re left wondering how long it will be before the Funky Man says yes to such a project. —Matt Shea
31. Erick Sermon
“You Gots to Chill.” There aren’t four better words in the English language that better embody the production ethos of Erick Sermon (though a strong case could be made for “rough, rugged, and raw”). In the late ‘80s, a time when most beatmakers were scrambling to unearth every last break out of James Brown’s discography, Sermon pushed the envelope by pushing the tempo down, eschewing dance-friendly breakbeats for a chunky soup of trunk-rattling bass melted over the digitized grooves of Zapp and Parliament. His chops only became more refined during the ‘90s as Sermon’s mid-tempo basement funk morphed into a kind of menacing nocturnal pulse, relocating from the backs of jeeps to crumbling warehouses and abandoned subway terminals. Beat patterns are minimal, melody takes a back seat to hypnotically thumping bass, and tempos rarely deviate from a cozy 94 beats per minute: this is the framework through which Sermon channeled his muse.
His omnipotence from roughly ’92 through ’95 was virtually unmatched: I can remember exactly where I was when I was first floored by EPMD’s “Crossover” video on BET’s Rap City; my initial adrenaline rush upon hearing Redman’s “Time 4 Sum Aksion” was dizzying in its intensity; hell, I even thought the gritty Sermon-helmed B-side “Rock Bottom” was far and above the rest of the material K-Solo’s Time’s Up. Like many of his peers, Sermon eased into mediocrity when he transitioned from samplers to synthesizers, but I’d wager that if you blessed him with a few basic, garden-variety ingredients – chopped Skull Snaps drums, a filtered Bob James bass line, and ESG’s “UFO” – and an MPC-60 he’d still have your head nodding instinctively in a matter of minutes. —Floodwatch
30. The Alchemist
Overlook the Beverly Hills roots for a second, no producer represents raw underground material better than Alan Maman. Stepping on the scene with Cypress Hill affiliates Soul Assassins, the young Alchemist got his feet wet supplying sample-heavy beats to backpacker stalwarts Dilated Peoples. His love of East Coast classics brought Alchemist to NY, and he soon cultivated a working relationship with Mobb Deep, his sound turning grittier. And like Havoc and Three 6 Mafia, Alchemist excels in darkness. He put his stamp on poppier tracks like Jada’s “We Gon Make It” but Alchemist sounds most comfortable exploring the sinister.
Alchemist’s best beats strip and chop loops from the recesses of forgotten 70s soul, prog rock and obscure horror and blaxploitation soundtracks. He’s more than earned his chemist namesake by transmuting unlikely sources into undeniable headnodders, turning Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me With Science” into the ominous “Got It Twisted” for Mobb Deep, or stretching prog guitars into stuttering, pummelling synths for Cam’ron’s “Wet Wipes”. Even as he’s turned to full-length collaborative projects with Curren$y, Prodigy and Oh No, Alchemist remains the go-to guy for a street-ready banger.–Aaron Matthews
29. Easy Mo Bee
Easy Mo Bee cut his teeth with his own crews Rappin’ Is Fundamental and beat placements on Big Daddy Kane’s sophomore LP, It’s a Big Daddy Thing. In the process, he rubbed shoulders with Marley Marl, Prince Paul, and Teddy Riley. In terms of legacy, it’s also important to note that it was Mo Bee behind the boards for both RZA and GZA’s first outings on wax.
His breakout moment was undoubtedly the moment that he fell in with Bad Boy, producing Biggie and the all time classic posse cut, Craig Mack’s “Flava In Ya Ear (Remix).” The material produced for both Ready To Die and Life After Death is consistently masterful and always bangin’, the ideal backdrop for Christopher Wallace. To a degree, the strength of Biggie’s personality makes it easy to forget how fantastic his production was. Don’t.
Let’s also not forget that in 1995 he worked with Tupac, a bridge between coasts at the height of the beef, proving that the music could rise above it and how much Easy was in demand. I love how 2Pac sounds over Mo Bee’s melodic boom bap, and the narrative weaved of a man split between a desire for companionship and the temptations of the fairer sex sits perfectly over it. Even thugs get lonely. —Dan Love
28. Just Blaze
At least 80% of the people in Hip-Hop use pseudonyms. But Justin Smith is one of the few whose handle makes perfect sense. After all, there’s pretty much only one thing Smith does, one setting that he’s got. His beats just blaze. Banger after banger, fire flame follows scorching heat. Not only do you know what you’re going to get when you see the name Just Blaze on the production credits but you also know exactly how excited you’re going to be to hear that song.
Because almost all of his beats are big, epic celebrations, it seems almost like an act of disrespect to try to seek out more obscure songs; places that you might not expect Just to show his face. If you make big beats, it stands to reason that the biggest ones are the best. And, throughout the last ten years, Blaze has made three beats, each as big as the last and each providing a potent backdrop for a rapper at the height of his powers.
“U Don’t Know” by Jay-Z, “The Champ” by Ghostface Killah and “Exhibit C” by Jay Electronica are all incredible songs. But what’s particularly notable is the way that the overwhelming power of each beat forces the artist to revert to his most prototypical self. Jay-Z raps about where he’s from, how dangerous it was, and how dangerous he is as a result. Ghostface compiles inane references, and one-line stories into a perfect pastiche of gangster life. And Electronica talks about great men, and how he’s liable to be one, on his usual messiah-hop steeze. All great songs. All made great by Just Blaze. —Jonah Bromwich
27. Puff Daddy & The Hitmen
Long before J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League’s bloated production gave Rick Ross an undeserved reputation for master beat picker, Sean Combs and his servants pioneered the larger than life sound that made Bad Boy Records the height of cool in the second half of the 90s. They did it with brazen samples, sultry vocals, sunglasses worn at night, as well as some of the coldest beats of all time.
“Mo Money Mo Problems” and Mariah Carey’s “Honey” borrow melodies from cheesy 80s songs and build them into hit singles that are respectively lavish and sexy. “Money, Power & Respect” and “What’s Beef” remade the perilous streets of New York into the setting of a stylish blockbuster action-thriller. Of course, it’s hard to know where credit is due when discussing The Hitmen. “Flava In Ya Ear” is credited to “Easy Mo Bee for The Hitmen” and Sean C & LV share all of their production credits on American Gangster with Diddy. Closer investigation may reveal the exact involvement of D-Dot, Chucky Thompson, and Stevie J in each Bad Boy classic, but to what end? Bless his heart, Puff had a taste for the New York nightlife that he burdened his rotating in-house producers with replicating. —Evan Nabavian
When I think of Havoc’s music, I think about two things central to the American psyche: crime and New York City. As the primary producer behind the music of the world’s most “infamous” rap group, Mobb Deep, he crafted albums of material that made the legendary Queensbridge Projects seem like the scariest place on earth. Havoc transformed pitched down jazz breaks and obscure soul chops into a devastating brand of dark and gloomy murda muzik. Producers are still trying to discover the secrets behind the mayhem of Capital H’s boards. It took enterprising beat junkies almost 15 years to discover an obscure Herbie Hancock loop that made “Shook Ones Pt. II.” He knew how to turn vodka and milk into poison–Doc Zeus
25. Ski Beatz
Ski is interesting in that the peaks of his career have come with over a decade in between. He’s produced canonical works for multiple generations of hip-hop, a man whose music spans across time. I believe the word for it is timeless. Every new “Dead Presidents” freestyle is proof of this eternal relevance. And a recent report that some of the tracks on the stoner soundtrack of the 21st century, Pilot Talk, were made in the 20th century, including the standout woozy banger “Audio Dope II,” shows that this fact is truer than we even imagined. This is a man who consistently manages to sound so current, and even when it’s discovered that the opposite is true, it doesn’t matter. These are beatz that have universal humanity. Rappers never sound more real, more playful, more raw, more authentic than they do when working with Ski. “Luchini’s” dancing trumpets, “Feelin’ It’s” subtle, confident piano. I listened to both yesterday, and I’ll probably say the same thing 10 years from now. —Tosten Burks
When I listen to El-Producto’s music, all I want to do is watch this cold world burn slow. The relentless paranoid claustrophobia that radiates from his beats evokes a primal aggression that leaves you feeling like the world might be better when the robot uprising destroys polite society. His music sounds like the decay of the human spirit itself yet makes it seem as a life of destructive chaos would be way cooler than one filled with youth soccer matches and The Mentalist.
El-P is one of the few producers who can rightfully claim that he reinvented the wheel when he emerged onto the hip hop scene in the late 90s as the producer/rapper of the cult indie rap group, Company Flow. Equally influenced by the riot starter production of the Bomb Squad, the dystopian futurism of sci-fi author Phillip K. Dick and the synthetic grind of industrial metal bands like Nine Inch Nails and Ministry, El’s production became the standard bearer in post-Bush paranoia. As the founder and central producer behind seminal indie rap label, Def Jux, he masterminded some of indie rap’s finest albums like Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein, Company Flow’s Funcrusher Plus, and his own solo debut, Fantastic Damage. He was the one who figured out that if you stuff nails into bombs, they become that much more deadly. —Doc Zeus
23. Pimp C
Pimp C arguably pioneered modern southern rap production. The young Chad Butler grew up singing spirituals and classical standards with his school band. As he took an interest in hip-hop, he sought to add musicality to the hard drum machines and noisy sample pastiches he was hearing from the East and West Coasts. Blending 808s and substantial low end with twangy guitar and woozy organs, Pimp created the sound many now refer to as “country rap.”
As one half of UGK, he refined his aesthetic from the rough drum machine and dusty sample chops of their 1992 debut to the perfected style of ’96’s Riding Dirty. Pimp‘s blend of live instrumentation and samples owes a debt to Dr. Dre and Too $hort’s earlier work, but always sounded uniquely Southern. Still cratedigging, just a different canon: we’re talking Willie Hutch, the Meters and Bill Withers. Pimp’s legacy comes together when you hear “Front, Back & Side to Side”: the keening synths, the rolling organs, the ticking snares and booming 808s. Always soulful, always fluid, Pimp’s legacy lives on through newer cats like Big KRIT, Freddie Gibbs Burn One, and plenty more. Listen to the pimp and smoke something bitch! — Aaron Mathews
As part of the Diggin’ In The Crates crew, Buckwild has spent his career rubbing shoulders with some of the most signficant beatmakers in the game. However, in some ways he is an anomaly in the crew, having never released a full length solo project during the heady days of the 90s unlike Diamond D, Lord Finesse, and Showbiz, who all released substantial projects with their name on the cover. This is not to ignore his extended collaborations with OC or Organized Konfusion, but rather to suggest that his lack of a solo/group mentality may have played into his ultimate success as a producer: versatiliy.
There is of course the classic Buckwild sound, as exhibited in ‘Masta IC’ with all the hallmarks of boom bap production executed to perfection: filters, the delayed horns, extra crispy drums. Warm yet hard. But then there are joints like ‘I Got A Story To Tell’, ‘Fast Life’ or ‘Woah!’ that are very different stylistically and yet still extremely successful. This ability to switch things up is both rare and a virtue. Few producers have managed to maintain relevancy in the way that Buckwild has done and even less have done so without compromising their musical integrity. I believe we refer to that as keepin’ it real. —Dan Love
21. Diamond D
In the midst of their endless discourses and disputes, beat junkies may have unintentionally demystified beatmaking from art form to science with exhaustive analyses on gear, quantization, gated triggers, and so forth, but a producer’s taste has yet to be quantified successfully. Enter Diamond D, Bronx native and D.I.T.C. stalwart whose name has graced the liners of records from The Fugees and House of Pain to Queen Latifah and Xzibit. No one else had quite the ear like Diamond, who presumably left each of his peers scratching their heads and muttering, “Shit, why didn’t I think of that?” at least once during his career.
With an intuition like his, he could afford to keep it simple: the bulk of his first single “Best Kept Secret” is merely a Three Dog Night drum break with a burst of distorted organ at the end of each bar. His intuitive knack for layering samples was almost supernatural, particularly those with vibraphones – no one could flip vibes quite like Diamond. It was as if he spent 18 hours of his day doing nothing but listening to dusty LPs, scouring for snippets of flutes, a tenor sax riff, a half-second squeal from a guitar. No other producer made it look so deceptively easy. —Floodwatch
20. Mike Dean
Kanye West might not have the best eye for fashion and we know his choice in artists is up for debate, but he’s unimpeachable when it comes to cherry-picking talent to help him behind the boards. See his work with The Rza, No I.D., Jon Brion and maybe his best collaborator, Mike Dean.
In many ways, Dean (along with fellow Rap-A-Lot in-studio wizard, N.O. Joe) invented the sound and feel of the South as seen through his Houston hometown. Yet his impact was felt everywhere below the Mason-Dixon line. Early Geto Boys sounds like an A&R thought it would be cool to relocate N.W.A. to the South. Scarface’s early solo work sounds like a dark, intimate, universe ruled by a bass God with specific and respected rules.
It’s staggering to consider the breadth and scope of artists this scrawny unassuming Southern white boy has worked . Dean started as a session musician and slowly became J. Prince’s entire operation. He befriended Pimp C when Pimp was 14 and went on to mix the final U.G.K. album. He also has a body of work with the Bay that’s equally impressive, having linked with some of the area’s godfathers before it was trendy.
Of course, Dean mixed one of Kanye West’s first shots at the big-time on Scarface’s early 21 Century classic, The Fix. A young West was so impressed with the mix that he enlisted Dean in on every record he’s ever put out. He can’t be all wrong. — Abe Beame
MP3: Scarface ft. Ice Cube & Devin the Dude -“Hand of the Dead Body”
MP3: Odd Squad-“Da Squad”
19. DJ Muggs
Marijuana and Hip-Hop. Whodathunk it? Yet it wasn’t so obvious before DJ Muggs got his hand on a sampler. Built around hype loops and hyperactive emcees, Hip-Hop was hardly music to get blazed to, despite all the ganja smoke floating around rap ciphers. It was the New Yorker turned Angeleno who realized that sampling didn’t just allow rap to move at hyper speed – it could also slow the groove down to a narcotic crawl. Whether looping dusty “Duke of Earl” loops (Cypress Hill) or bringing rap to the alt nation (Black Sunday), crafting pop hits (House of Pain) or underrated rap masterpieces (Temple of Boom) – Muggs brought authenticity, darkness and the stench of good smoke to the table.
Even at his most populist, the anthemic Rock and Rap superstars, Muggs’ production was a middle finger to those who like their records clean, lighthearted, and proper. And then there’s Trip-Hop. As a major crossover act, Cypress Hill’s impact abroad was second only to Public Enemy, and Muggs’ dark beats influenced a generation of bedroom producers to transform their old jazz records into something blunted and sinister – it’s hard to imagine dubstep’s darker moments without Muggs’ impact on an earlier generation of Junglists and producers and – surprise surprise – he’s one of the few OG beatmakers to have adopted the style in his recent production. —Sach O
18. Large Professor
Large Professor is the Forrest Gump of hip-hop (minus the mental retardation). Check the resume. Trained by production innovator Paul C. Ghost produced for Rakim and Kool G Rap at their height. Pioneered chopping samples, using unconventional percussion like sleigh bells and filtering bass lines with the SP-1200 drum machine. He passed his production knowledge onto Q-Tip, DJ Premier, Da Beatminerz and Pete Rock. Gave the latter the Tom Scott sample for “They Reminisce Over You.” Discovered and mentored Nas, produced his debut single “Halftime.” Recorded one of the front-to-back classics of the Golden Age in Main Source’s Breaking Atoms.
Xtra P is less recognizable and prolific than peers like Rock and Premier but his influence can still be heard on producers tracking years after his peak, from Jay Dee to Kanye. Large Pro’s attention to detail is remarkable. Listen to “The LP” closely, hear how the filtered bass line blends with the vibes, the way the hard drums complement the melody. Hear how “It Ain’t Hard To Tell” makes five samples sound of one piece — how the “Human Nature” sample provides the hook without comprising an ounce of the song’s ruggedness. When we talk about the great beatmakers, don’t forget to give some respect to the live guy with glasses. —Aaron Matthews
17. Mannie Fresh
Prior to linking up with Cash Money Records in the early 90’s, Mannie Fresh had already been a regional staple in Louisiana for practically a decade, DJing parties and producing tracks for various New Orleans rappers. Capitalizing on “bounce music,” he was one of the first Southern producers to the utilize the 808 to its fullest possibility, while developing his own style around it complete with slicing hi-hats and incessant vocal adlibs — including the ubiquitous “Haa” that would later appear on nearly every Hot Boys track.
Later, he produced a slew of hits for Cash Money artists Juvenile and B.G. One of the last tracks he produced for the label was Lil Wayne’s “Go DJ” in 2004, and he is now pursuing a solo career with his own label, Chubby Boy Records. To say nothing of The Mind of Mannie Fresh, one of the funniest rap records ever recorded. That’s the thing about Fresh. At a time, when everyone was trying to make rap more gangsta, or more extraterrestrial, or more spartan, he honed in and re-invented it’s one most basic tenet: make it fun –-Aaron Frank
When it comes to producing hit records, Timothy Mosley can do more with the cacophonous sounds of baby giggles and fart noises than most beat smiths can do with a warehouse full of Stax Record albums and access to the London Philharmonic on retainer. Timbaland’s approach of combining spacey, euro pop influenced synthesizers with the found sound, experimental aesthetics of John Cage reinvented urban radio when the dominant idea in hip hop was to carve Dramatic loops into unrecognizable, Frankenstein creations. “Jigga What, Jigga Who” gives Jay-Z an appropriate soundtrack to intergalactic hustling while the synth belches of Ginuwine’s “Pony” sounds like interspecies sex on the moon… Jupiter’s moons. —Doc Zeus
15. The Neptunes
Forget about all of the extracurriculars for a second. Before the now-eternal Top-40 staples, the colorful skate sneakers, and the roster teeming with rappers yet to even release a debut album (Fam-Lay, I see you), The Neptunes were primarily known as the dopest production duo in hip-hop, bar none.
Back in ‘98, while purists were complaining about Swizz Beatz jacking the “Nature Boy” Ric Flair’s entrance music for Nore’s “Banned from TV,” Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo were swimming laps with him around the English Channel, enjoying the spoils of the undeniable “Superthug“. Turns out the childhood friends from Virginia Beach have had quite the knack for crafting infinitely memorable rap beats over the years, combining Hugo’s melodic instincts and Williams’ sense of rhythm (and peerless hook-making ability) with a shared sense of unconventionality.
What do with a track full of tuba sounds? Make a crossover hit (Slim Thug’s “I Ain’t Heard of That”). Mouth clicks and sizzling grease on a pan? Snoop Dogg’s biggest single since the 90’s (“Drop it Like it’s Hot”). And this is not say anything of the loads of bangers buried on average or lackluster albums (Busta Rhymes’ “Pass the Courvoisier (Part II),” Nore’s “Full Mode,” Birdman’s “What Happened to that Boy?”) or their work with hometown friends in Clipse– who notoriously get first pick of whatever The Neptunes make, loaded with saxophones (“Young Boy”) steel drums (“I’m Not You, “Wamp Wamp (What it Do)”) and gurgling drone pieces (“Mr. Me Too”).
Since before the turn of the century, from “Lookin’ at Me” to “Trouble on My Mind,” The Neptunes have been the model for how to create some of the greatest hip-hop beats of all-time with your art-school-leaning sense of weirdness fully intact. There’s a reason why rappers have been turning freestyles over the trash can drums and minimalist sci-fi melodies of “Grindin’” for almost a full decade. —Douglas Martin
14. Kanye West
Kanye West talks too much. Even those of us who love him would agree with that. Sometimes, he should shut up. And that’s true in his music too. Because Kanye first showed off his superlative talent behind the boards and as far away from the mic as Roc-a-fella could keep him.
Since then the Godfather of chipmunk soul has raised his public profile a thousand fold, so much so that people forget sometimes just how great of a producer Kanye West is.
Like many others on our list, Kanye started out as a bit of a one-trick pony. Although, admittedly, this pony took over the hip-hop races for a good five years. Chipmunk soul, which realized the power of keeping the sped-up singer’s moans around along with the original loop, was popular for a good reason: having a singer in the back of the mix granted the song a musicality and an epic stature that seemed like it moved rap to a higher plane. Take Scarface’s painful story on “This Can’t Be Life” or Cam’ron’s woozy rambling on “Down and Out;” both narratives are aided and abetted by the singing in the background.
As all the great ones do, Kanye moved on. And instead of simulating the grandiosity of musical arrangement by keeping the voice in the mix, Mr. West actually started to arrange his own masterful mini-symphonies, piling samples on top of one another to produce a glorious mix of sound, a full panorama that’s almost always a joy to listen to regardless of who’s rapping over it.
But for me, it’s the older stuff that best bridge the bombast of his latter-day period to the homegrown humanity of his earlier beats. The introduction to Common’s album Be is one of the best intro tracks of all time. And it’s very simple. First, there is bass and then no beat for the first twenty seconds. Then, as if the bass were horse-prodded, it snaps into shape and starts running. Ten seconds later, we get the simple melody structure, another ten seconds and chimes are added, and then, finally, another ten seconds later the full sample (“Mother Nature” by Albert Jones) comes into play. By the time Common finally arrives in the mix, he’s almost beside the point. Your neck has already snapped off of your head anyway.
“We Major,” is much longer and doesn’t lend itself to blow by blow recaps as does Be’s intro. Clearly owing something to John Brion’s production presence during the entirety of the recording of Late Registration, this beat may mark the first time that Kanye managed to achieve something that sounded so damn big, that filled up a room so well that it actually did justice to the track’s boasts. So that when Kanye asks whether he “can talk his shit again” we’re happy to let him, just so he’ll bring the beat (the strings! The keys!) back for a little longer. Maybe if all of his more publicized rants were backed by this kind of music, no one would care what he was saying. They’d beg him to keep speaking just to hear the music. —Jonah Bromwich
13. Rick Rubin
All things considered, Rick Rubin’s vast body of work easily makes him the most important producer of the last 30 years. He has produced for so many great acts in so many differing genres that his accomplishments when piled upon each other simply evoke awe. There are not many people who can credibly work with both the Man in Black and produce the best track on The Black Album but Rick Rubin might be the only sentient being on this lonely galaxy in this corner of the universe that can.
As a hip hop producer, Rubin’s production style relied on only the barest of elements. He stripped down hip hop tracks to the low frequency sounds of the Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer, cranked up the volume and watched as people of all creeds flooded the dance floors to boogie to the scores of classic tracks that he produced. As the legendary dorm room founder and chief producer of Def Jam Records (no explanation necessary), he was the mastermind behind the boards that made LL Cool J “hard as hell,” Run-DMC “the kings of rock,” and gave a trio of Jewish punk rock kids from the Lower East Side a very infamous License to Ill. —Doc Zeus
12. Organized Noize
Has there been a more influential southern production team than Organized Noize? Timbaland may have had the longevity, and The Neptunes the ability to more successfully crossover into the international mainstream, but it was Rico Wade, Sleepy Brown and Ray Murray’s work that blew open the doors on OutKast and The Goodie Mob, and forced the rest of the United States to finally take The Dirty South seriously.
Operating out of the basement of Wade’s Lakewood Heights house, the trio masterminded the production of two of the quintessential southern hip-hop records: Antwan ‘Big Boi’ Patton and Andre ‘3000’ Benjamin’s Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik and The Goodie Mob’s Soul Food. They would turn out to be two of the finest rap records ever released, but what was more impressive was how different they were. Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, with its flush of down-home, funk driven belters. Soul Food, with the much harder sound, the productions keying into Goodie’s determination to talk about southern life as it was, with unemployment and depression the ultimate destiny. In both cases, the music dripped with rumbling bass and precise live instrumentation. Producers aren’t known for making statements of intent, but in retrospect that’s almost what this felt like, so impressive are these two LPs.
Organized Noize had success elsewhere too, penning TLC’s massive single “Waterfalls”, En Vogue’s “Can’t Let Go” and Ludacris’s “Saturday”, but it’s their work with Goodie and OutKast, in particular, for which they’ll be most remembered. Their partnership with Patton and Benjamin would end up diminishing in subsequent years, to the point where they were shut out completely on Benjamin’s The Love Below. But Wade, Brown and Murray have pushed through recent adversity – including Wade’s bankruptcy and run-in with the Internal Revenue Service – to provide four of the more memorable cuts on Big Boi’s belter from last year, Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty. No one before or since has understood how better to turn the ancient Southern spirituals into food for the soul. —Matt Shea
11. The Bomb Squad
There’s an argument to be made that Bomb Squad should be on this list because of their impact on Hip-Hop: RZA, El-P, Flying Lotus, Etc. Then there’s the argument that they should make this list because of their impact OUTSIDE of Hip-Hop: Tricky, Portishead, 2 Bad Mice – basically every English kid who ever picked up a sampler. Then there’s those who want to give them credit for anyone who’s ever looped up a sound and layered it on top of another one – and those are all fair points. But no, that’s not why they should be on this list – they should be here because the RECORDS they produced are so powerful, so incendiary, so brutally chaotic that ANYONE who hears them to this day – not just the figures mentioned above – is confronted with the fact that everything they thought they knew about music is totally and irrevocably wrong.
Hank and Keith Shocklee, Eric “Vietnam” Sadler and Chuck D made records that broke every musical paradigm the 20th century had given us to this point. They made funk that was heavier, noisier, faster and more threatening than punk or metal could ever be, they made black music that refused to be subsumed to a groove and they thought in militaristic terms of musical shrapnel rather than notes or scales or even beats. In an era where righteous Black Nationalism collided with the realities of the crack epidemic, they provided the soundtrack for a generation by sucking up all of the anger, chaos and strife the world had to offer and then spat it back out for Chuck D and Ice Cube to tear apart. When your parents said “rap isn’t music” they were referring to The Bomb Squad. And you know what? They were right: A Nation of Millions to hold Us Back isn’t just music – it’s better than music. —Sach O
10. Prince Paul
Prince Paul didn’t just expand the definition of what hip-hop could and should sound like – he took the Hip-Hop dictionary tore it up and then recorded a skit about it. Whether playing as part of a live band (Stetsasonic), sampling hippie-rock and french-language instructional records (De La Soul), accidentally inventing Horrorcore (The Gravediggaz) or recording a collection of ironic, instrumental, Hip-Hop comedy pieces (Psychoanalysis) Paul was so consistently ahead of his time that the major label rap world never knew what to do with him.
There would be no Paul’s Boutique without 3 Feet High and Rising, let alone Endtroducing, Madvillain and all the other oddball Hip-Hop records you know and love. What confused rock journalists refer to as “alternative rap” are just hip-hop records with a little extra Prince Paul in them. But Paul never tried to be “different,” he was just a consummate rule breaker who saw no need to ever hold back. You can only sample “black” music? Says who!? Paul could make the Turtles sound funky! Everybody’s sampling Jazz? Paul got Maceo Parker in the studio to blow his horn across an extended instrumental? Everybody’s selling out and getting jiggy with it? Prince Paul recorded Chris Rock’s Grammy award winning Bigger and Blacker instead. So whenever a new Hip-Hop maverick comes out of nowhere and shakes up a rap landscape gone stale, don’t thank God – thank Prince Paul because he did it first and with a sense of humor so wicked the jokes are still side-splitting going on 20 years.
Oh, and he invented the motherfucking rap skit. Jus’ sayin. —Sach O
Some people turn up their noses at simplicity. Q-Tip produced three albums for A Tribe Called Quest, largely looping 3-bars into lush beats that blended jazz and hip-hop. Q-Tip is more a refiner than an inventor, whether perfecting bass and jazz-rap fusion on The Low End Theory or distilling East Coast rap production into album form for Midnight Marauders. He mastered the bass drum, specializing in the dry snap and knocking boom that you can hear from ATCQ’s sophomore record onward.
Backed by Tip’s melodic, nuanced and fluid take on jazz-rap, A Tribe Called Quest converted generations of rock-geared college kids to hip hop heads. He has a unique gift for flipping unused snippets of played oldies into unusual new compositions, whether turning Minnie Ripperton’s whistle register on “Inside My Love” into strings on “Lyrics To Go”, or pillaging “Walk On The Wild Side”’s loping bass line for “Can I Kick It?”. He created the neo-soul sound with Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jay Dee as the Ummah. Where his peers stayed stagnant, Tip kept his production more upbeat and accessible, finessing live sound into more straightforward rap tracks. And he’s still doing it, crafting breaks for ‘Ye and Jay, still marauding over 20 years since he started. —Aaron Matthews
8. DJ Quik
Prepare for blasphemy. DJ Quik is the greatest West Coast hip-hop producer of all-time. Still breathing? Cool. Let me explain. When I interviewed David Blake earlier this year, I asked about his legacy. It’s a sensitive subject considering that east of the Mississippi, Quik is an underground man of the old definition. In terms of Eastern radio play, he may as well have been Tweedy Bird Loc. At home, he’s a hood hero: a subversive, obstinate and independent-as-fuck genius of freeway funk. The chosen one so gifted he could get away with simultaneously being in the inner sanctum of Eazy E and Suge Knight. His homemade cassette tapes sold from the CPT to Crescenta Valley well before Priority scooped him up. The new KDAY still plays him so much you’d think that there was evidence of payola.
It was the legacy question that led us to confront the juiced and head phoned elephant in the room. Dre. The two grew up blocks apart in Compton and by the time Quik came of age, N.W.A. was already the most dangerous rap group in the world that lived in Calabasas. Even before that, Dre had been committing experimental surgery with the World Class Wrecking Cru for years.
“Until recently, I hadn’t been all that happy about my legacy.”
“I spoke with Dre a few months ago and he told me some things about my music that I had never known. He let me know how big of a factor I’d been and how many people I’d influenced.”
“What did he say exactly?”
“I don’t really want to get into that.”
My theory: Dre told him that he’d been ripping off Quik for years. In the way that great artists don’t borrow, they steal. It’s not unreasonable. Pop stars riffing on the underground is an age-old tradition. Even now, Drake spends half of the time imitating Kendrick Lamar on his new record (the other half, he imitates Eeyore). Plus, Dre even copped to using Quik’s snares for “In Da Club.”
Go back and listen to Quik is the Name, the platinum-selling triangulation of Digital Underground, EPMD, and Roger Troutman. It’s a document of the Los Angeles of 1991, when the Gap Band and Zapp were on Power 106 every 15 minutes. Funk was on fumes but it still heavily influenced rap. That April, Dre released the proto G-Funk gem, “Alwayz Into Somethin,” an athletic response to the Stonehenge hurdle that Quik had thrown down. Quik was Dre’s nemesis. The only dude on the West that he felt competition with—someone to keep him honest.
Dre went the Orson Welles route, Quik stayed true to his game. He rarely made a false start nor bit his tongue. You still received the raw complete artist. Dre became a power broker aligned with Jimmy Iovine. He picked the pop star, Eminem. Quik plucked the pimp star Suga Free. What’s the difference.
Within Quik’s production, you can feel the sober gravity of someone who knows where the bones are buried and the Sunday BBQ backyard culture of Southern California. There are eight solo albums—all good to great. The entirety of Suga Free’s Street Gospel, the space funk cruise that was BlaKQout, and Raphael Saadiq’s best song (maybe). He briefly turned AMG, 2nd II None, and Hi-C into stars. He sold Shaq a hit in 1998 (“Strait Playin’) and “Buck Bounce” should have sparked an entire sub-genre.
Until announcing his hiatus from a hiatus, Dre has been spinning in circles for most of the last decade. His best recent single was “Kush” and “I Need a Doctor” makes the Black Eyed Peas look like Black Mafia Life. David Blake is savage, stoned, and sentimental, with both soulful Heavy D tributes and critically acclaimed concept records about hating his sisters. He is weird and restless, inventive, balanced.
What he may lack in national influence, Quik has compensated for with consistency and longevity. LA rap is forged out of the funk. Dre slowed it down and went kaleidoscopic. He was political. Quik was all internal combustion and ferocious neuroses. There were gorgeous instrumental grooves and drums that have been engineered to make sounds that no one thought could be made. Take the doctor. Mad scientists are more interesting and more experimental. They have no fear and usually better hair.--Jeff Weiss
You ever listen to a beat so musty and off-kilter and inscrutably-sourced that your first course of action is to ask yourself “how the fuck did this happen?” It’s a gimme if you’ve had even casual acquaintance with Madlib’s stuff — we’ll assume that the most common point of entry here’s Madvillainy, though dialing it back a couple years to The Unseen pulls up plenty of baffled first encounters in your typical hip hop peer group. Now, here’s the thing: if one of Madlib’s beats knocks your head out of joint, it’s by design in a way that seems like an empathetic transmission from the source itself. You go “what the fuck?” because something else – something most people didn’t even know existed — made him go “what the fuck?”
Madlib’s beats are caught in this odd space between discovery and filtering, where he calls just enough attention to the fact that he unearthed something amazing before getting to the business of realigning its spine. For most producers who’ve worked in sampling, the curator/namedropper impulse of the diehard music geek typically leads to the reinterpretive phase of processing all that obscurity into My Own Thing. For Madlib, the two processes are practically indistinguishable and honestly transparent. (His Medicine Show series alternated between his own productions and mixes consisting of pre-existing source material, but there’s little actual aesthetic separation between the two.) It’s beat creation as a messy yet craftsmanlike workshop labor, something that feels like it should leave behind powder burns and metal shavings and glue stains with each new beat built.–Nate Patrin
6. Marley Marl
In the mid ’80s, New York Hip-Hop could comfortably be slotted amongst the various styles of localized, drum-machine based styles of urban music popping up across America. The biggest? Sure. But musically, New York hip-hop shared the same basic ingredients as LA electro-rap or even Chicago Acid House and Detroit Techno: drum machines, synths and not much else.
Enter Marley Marl. Marley wasn’t the first producer to connect the dots between the breaks that old-school pioneers manually looped and the digital sampler, but he was the first to truly understand the potential that these two ideas could unleash. Suddenly, contemporary production didn’t have to sound like the sterile world of 1987: it could sound like the rawest, funkiest parts of 1967 colliding with the 70s, on its way to the future. Suddenly, a project kid didn’t need to have James Brown’s studio, drummer and microphone to sound like James Brown: all he needed was his parents’ record collection, an SP12 and the ingenuity to pull it all together. For this alone, Marley Marl is Top 5 (fine, 6) dead or alive: he invented the sound that would define East Coast Hip-Hop.
But Marley was more than just the man who looped up the Funky Dummer, he was also Hip-Hop’s first super producer, adapting his sound for one of the most awe-inspiring crews in Hip-Hop history. MC Shan – Queensbridge B-Boy, Big Daddy Kane – half lyrical monster, half smooth-operator, Biz Markie – BK class clown, Tragedy – the poetic gangsta, Kool G Rap – polysyllabic chronicler of the streets, Roxanne Shante, Masta Ace, the list goes on. Marley Marl not only showed Hip-Hop what it could SOUND like but how to transform the concept of the street corner crew into a musical empire. Every label from Def Jux to Young Money owes him a debt for that.
Last but not least, I’d like to submit one more reason Marley Marl stands as one of the all time greats: that horn stab. You know it, the one from “The Bridge” and “LA LA” among other classic productions. If there’s a sound in the world that’s more Hip-Hop than that…I don’t know what it is. —Aaron Matthews
5. J Dilla
On February 10, 2006, three days after his 32nd birthday and the release of his masterpiece, Donuts, J Dilla passed away at his home in Los Angeles.
Those who appreciated him in life honored his memory with T-shirts, freestyles, tribute concerts and beat compilations. Others felt compelled to interpret his music with a 40-piece orchestra, or offer his ghost an executive producer credit following a séance. People grieve in different ways.
Still for many, the story of J Dilla and their relationship with his music began the day he died. Though respected and admired in life, in the years since his death, accounts from those who knew him best describe a gracious and thoughtful friend who conducted himself with dignity and grace: a curious artist driven by fearless imagination, operating at the highest level of integrity where creative expression was its own end and needed no further validation.
But hyperbole is unseemly and mythologizing undignified. And unnecessary. We do a disservice to deify the dead, to confuse and conflate the message with the messenger and allow their death to influence our experience of their music. Even in death, all that really matters is the music. The music is more than enough.
And the music. Whether it was his early work with Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul and The Pharcyde, his organic neo-soul or his frenzied 21st century sample-collages, each of his instrumentals revealed a preternatural sense of groove that pushed the boundaries of what hip-hop could be. Rare was the rapper who could enhance a Dilla beat. What if you didn’t even need one? Anything could be sampled into anything else. Stereolab could be Busta Rhymes. A snare could be sped up into a high-hat. The possibilities were endless and even in death they still are. His music was alive.
At its best, Dilla’s music can confirm everything you believe about the goodness of hip-hop, but he’s one of the greatest producers of all time because of the music he made, not because he was the one who made it. He wasn’t a God. He was one of us. That makes it all the more meaningful. —Barry Schwartz
4. Pete Rock
It’s 1991 and the sun is setting on the first golden era of rap. James Brown loops and horn stabs are making way for more sophisticated production techniques and significantly dustier fingers. In the midst of west coast gangsterism, east coast afrocentricity and free love, polka dots, and some Hammer pants, a fresh-faced Peter Philips grabs the torch from mentor Marley Marl and runs with it. The game changes.
Crediting any single producer with the shift in aesthetic that occurred as the 80s became the 90s would be hyperbole, it’s just that Pete Rock can lay claim to realizing that aesthetic better than anybody else. Listening to the All Souled Out EP two decades after its release, it’s striking to note how well conceived Rock’s sound was even at this early stage in his career: the hallmarks of what defined him were already in place and delivered with sharp focus. Although ‘The Creator’ was the modest breakout hit from the EP, ‘Mecca And The Soul Brother’ is perhaps a more fitting demonstration of the early Pete Rock blueprint, triumphant horns soaring over a dense, multi-layered slab of funk that threatens to put a crick in your neck within seconds rather than bars. The debut album, ‘T.R.O.Y.’, and the string of uber classic remixes follow and history is made.
The change up in style between the first full length and the The Main Ingredient may have received some criticism at the time – what, no horns?! – but the Pete Rock we find on the duo’s sophomore outing is in many ways more representative of his career in its entirety than anything that preceded it. The tempo is slower, the samples more steadfastly soulful, the drums crisper and cleaner… the #1 Soul Brother in full effect. It’s this aesthetic that permeates his larger body of work, from the groundbreaking vision and consistency of the first Soul Survivor LP, to the late night burners that simmer and stew on Petestrumentals, all the way up to last year’s sumptuous GOOD Friday release and Watch The Throne bonus cut, ‘The Joy’. And just in case you’re starting to think that Pete may be a one trick pony, he’s still capable of descending into a dark, hazy basement to craft unbridled street bangers, as evidenced by his recent collaboration with Smif N Wessun.
3. Dr. Dre
Number 3?! Dr. Dre is number 3?!?!?! I say this with the utmost respect to the two producers (who I genuinely love) that my esteemed colleagues and friends slotted ahead of him on this venerated listicle but Andre Rommelle Young, Steroidal God King Of The Californian Realm, is the greatest hip hop producer of all fucking time (forever and always) and it’s not even that close. Don’t make me call, Kanye!
Consider this: No man, woman or child has done more for popular American music since the 1980s than Dr. Dre. There are few artists who have as deep as discography as Dre and a few who can claim they innovated a new style or technique but Dr. Dre on no less than three occasions radically changed the course of hip hop forever. It is an accomplishment unmatched by any one on this list.
We know the stories. We know he’s the chief sonic architect behind the rage of N.W.A, hip hop’s most important group. We know a few years later, he transformed hip hop into a dominant, commercial juggernaut with the release of The Chronic and the formation of Death Row Records, music’s most successful independent rap label of all-time. We know that he formed Aftermath Records a few years after that and the momentum of his second release, 2001, shifted the sound and technique that is still being followed on commercial radio to this day.
But what ultimately makes Dre the greatest is the legion of his musical children that he unleashed on the world. Dre gave birth to Ice Cube, Eazy E, The D.O.C., Above The Law, Snoop Doggy Dogg, The Dogg Pound, Warren G, Nate Dogg, Lady Of Rage, RBX, Eminem, 50 Cent and The Game. When you factor in his musical grandchildren, everybody from Bone Thugs-N-Harmony to Tony Yayo, you are left with a staggering career that dwarfs everybody. It’s a towering empire built on George Clinton samples and bomb ass weed.
It’s Dre. Come on. — Doc Zeus
2. DJ Premier
Driving up the Jersey Turnpike at 3am, Group Home’s “Living Proof” instrumental queues up on your iPod, blaring through your Camry’s factory speakers. Suddenly, your shoulders square. And with every crack of the snare your spine thrusts violently. This is happening.
You’re going to try to freestyle.
You take a deep breath, offer the requisite “Yo! Yo! Yo” … and out of your mouth spills the most nonsensical gibberish ever uttered by a human being.
The fundamental job of a producer is to create music that inspires someone to rap. How many rappers were born because they heard a DJ Premier beat and were compelled to try? You can learn how to rap over Primo beats. You can rap as well as anyone is capable of rapping over Primo beats.
From Gang Starr and M.O.P. to Biggie, Jay-Z and Nas, DJ Premier crafted a sound synonymous with hip-hop itself. He gave it its definitive swing, fluid and propulsive, the way the drums communicate with the bass, horn stabs firing at you from all directions. DJ Premier’s beats are similar, but they’re never redundant. The only thing that sounds like a DJ Premier beat is a DJ Premier beat. Everything else is an approximation.
According to the completely accurate and definitive list you’re currently reading, DJ Premier is the second greatest hip-hop producer of all time. A perfection of means and confusion of aims seems to be our main problem. What do we really value: excellence in execution or the courage of imagination?
If building the perfect beat is the calling, perfection can be uninspiring upon reflection. Lists such as these require reflection. But music isn’t made to be written about; it’s to be experienced, in the moment. DJ Premier’s music can capture a listener’s attention in a way that’s so specific it’s reflexive.
Right now, somewhere, a DJ Premier instrumental has queued up on an iPod, and someone who has never rapped before in their life is about to give it a try. This is happening. —Barry Schwartz
There are producers with more hits than the RZA. There are those with more longevity and superior versatility. Still others have had a more direct and enduring influence. But none was greater. The Abbot is the only man in history to transmute hip hop into a different substance. Wu Tang. A worldview and sound with its own phonetics, semiotics, slang. It was a DaVinci code for the dusted. Rappers had written crime narratives, but Robert Diggs turned them into obscene cinema. Art films for the bloody and blunted.
Suddenly, rap was interwoven with myth—samples sounded beautiful but scarred. Al Green, William Bell, the Stax and Motown catalogues. The RZA built his style amidst the slums of Shaolin, stuffing 20-something years of static into an SP-1200, amidst a constantly flooding basement studio. Hence, the sound of shaky foundations and un-insulated winters. Movie clips hissing about decapitating shoguns. John Woo and Cash Rules. RZA, the street scholar, mixing the medicine off the shelf, distilling both past and future. Wu Tang. The spawn of the stresses of 90s New York, extreme hunger, dust and trees.
There is no one “best” producer. Anyone in the itop 20 could be justifiably argued for #1. But site’s logo looks the way it does for a reason. We received beats and mathematics, a sense of the furthest possibilities for hip hop. Rza was the grandmaster with the third eye vision, surrounded by ivory pillars. He supplied the vernacular and the soundtrack. Pick an Under-40 producer on this list: Kanye West, Madlib, Just Blaze, Alchemist. All pay homage. He arranged voices like instruments in an orchestra, often slathered in static and husk. He evolved from menacing minimalism to epic grandeur. As big as Wu-Tang got, they somehow stayed underground. That might never happen again. RZA invented his own system. We learned it. That’s why we didn’t need to go to summer school.–Jeff Weiss