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