The Greatest Producers of All-Time: Honorable Mention
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. —Sach O
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