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