The 30 Greatest Production Accents in Rap History

Abe Beame constructs a very detailed ranked list of rap music's best grace notes.
By    March 2, 2020

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If you play any of these songs backwards, you will hear Abe Beame‘s thoughts on a different John Cassavetes film.

The history of musical genius is full of romance. When we discuss the inspiration behind classic albums like Pet Sounds and The White Album we discuss their architects, mad scientists like Phil Spector, Brian Wilson and Brian Eno. We talk about LSD, demanding perfectionism, unlikely instruments like orange juice bottles and trash cans employed all in the pursuit of one specific sound. Rarely does this level of hyperbole extend to rap, but it should.

Roddy Ricch’s “The Box” is at this point less a song than a cultural event. And as such, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that at some point last year, 30 Roc was just fucking around on his laptop and decided to build a beat around a voice saying “E-O” that kind of sounds like a wiper oscilatting on a dry windshield. In doing so, he joined a pantheon of brilliant producers who have found music everywhere throughout the last 50 odd years of hip hop. 

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The following is a cataloguing of my favorite strange and beautiful touches on some of the greatest, or at least most original beats in rap history. It can be something as simple as how a sample is manipulated, the strange special effects strategically embedded in a beat to make music or create atmosphere. Things that don’t fall under the classic definition of what would make a beat. Ancillary, often unorthodox additions to the composition that end up defining it. 

The song itself doesn’t exactly matter but it also doesn’t NOT matter.  It’s about ingenuity and/or the element of surprise, somehow still possible in rap after all these decades. How things that seem weird or unpalatable at first, when properly applied, become codified as ear worms we all quickly accept and take for granted. 

The list is full of visionaries, the rarefied few from this genre who have attained a level of reverential institutional respect that approaches the Wilsons and Enos of the world. Guys like Timbaland, Dre. Dre, Pharrell Williams, Pete Rock, Kanye and Rza. But there’s also many that aren’t household names, and in many ways these are my favorites. 

Because there’s something I love about the idea of Nitti sitting in a turning lane one fateful night, listening to the metronomic snap emanating from his steering column and finding inspiration. To me, it suggests the world is full of genius, and the world is full of music, we only need to listen.

30. Pastor Troy – The Chopper from “No Mo Play in GA” (Pastor Troy)

A gun is an instrument. And as such, different guns have different registers. There is a host of rap beats based around the sounds of different caliber weapons cocking and firing, but this Pastor Troy gem features the best: fat staccato peels from an AK-47 that serve as an occasional baseline on the spare, menacing beat. 

29. Lil Kim – Sex from “Custom Made” (Nick Fury)

NSFW. Sexuality always played heavily into the work of Kim Jones. Here it was one moment off her follow up to the classic Hardcore that went right over the top. Kim literally raps over porn, spitting to a cheap synth and what sounds like a woman faking it. 

28. The Beastie Boys – The Sheep from “The Sounds of Science” (The Dust Brothers)

In the preamble I mentioned The White Album as a moment when the realm of production techniques expanded, becoming more playful and experimental. Paul’s Boutique was one of those moments in rap. Three nice Jewish boys from Brooklyn went to LA and had a neon freakout that changed the genre forever. The weird and whiny “Sound of Science” has the flavor of something John Lennon might’ve tried to sneak onto Sgt. Pepper (appropriately, it literally samples two songs off Sgt. Pepper and one off The White Album). It’s a song my daughter might’ve half learned at 3K, grounded by what sounds like a cow in a can she might play with. Allegedly, the sound is actually the vocal snippet of a famous person that’s been heavily fucked with, but it doesn’t change how evocative and effective the sound is.  

27. The Black Eyed Peas – The Frogs from “Fallin’ Up” (Will.i.am)

Before the Black Eyed Peas turned into BarMitzvahWave pioneering Muppets, they were semi-respectable practitioners of one-hitter backpack shit. “Fallin Up” is case and point, a fun and bouncy smooth rap jam off their 1998 debut Behind the Front that is suddenly interrupted on the hook by croaking frogs. It’s one of the weirdest touches on this list but it also works. 

26. Pusha T- “Y’ALL FEEL LIKE THAT?!” from “Numbers on the Boards” (Don Cannon & Kanye West)

Kanye’s flip of an obscure old electronic track is so cold and skeletal it’s nearly industrial. The addition of a dusty, vinyl Bunny Sigler occasionally jumping in to MC the proceedings gives the production a much needed burst of energy and warmth.

25. Ghostface Killah – The Phone Ring from “Last Night (Skit)” (K-Def)

Some days, the soul drenched Pretty Toney Album is my favorite Ghost joint, largely because of songs like this. K-Def’s flip of Esther Williams’ “Last Night Changed It All (I Really Had a Ball)” is fairly straightforward, but he leaves in a piece of the sample others might’ve omitted, a little vocal intro/sketch that sets up the song concept. 

Ghost borrows the theme, laying out the song/skit as a fight between him and a woman’s partner Ghost has cuckolded. The shrill ring of what sounds like an old school rotary phone adds irritable tension to the scenario, and the decision to bring it back on occasion as a component of the beat is of a piece with the madcap experimentation of an album that also features Ghost straight rapping over a Stylistics song that hasn’t been edited in any way.  

24. Cypress Hill – The Bubbler from “Hits From the Bong” (DJ Muggs)

Everything about “Hits From the Bong” is pleasant, sunny nostalgia. Perhaps nothing more so than the gurgling inhale that occurs sporadically throughout the song. If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go scrounge five bucks together and grab a group of friends to go on a blunt ride during lunch.  

23. The Firm – The Ambient Digital Fuzz from “Phone Tap” (Dr. Dre)

“Phone Tap” is a masterpiece of turn of the century techno paranoia. It anticipates The Wire, but is downright Hitchcockian in its telling. The central loop is lovingly and beautifully recreated by Dre in classic form here, but the atmosphere is provided by the unintelligible snippets of snowy conversation.

22. TIE: Serani/Mavado – “Hey!” from “No Games” and “So Special” 

The Summer of 2009 was like one of those years when two Hollywood blockbusters about volcanoes or asteroids drop at the same time. That was the year Hot 97 DJs had five minutes off each hour when they were able to play Mavado’s “So Special” back to back with Serani’s “No Games”. This is because both songs played off the same source material, TJ White’s “Unfinished Business Riddim” and its constant, shamanic chanting of the word “Hey”. It’s an exuberant chant that injects energy into both songs, bringing something akin to a live concert feel to a recorded song. It’s a move that would be “borrowed” by DJ Mustard who would use it over and over again throughout his regrettable, mediocre run of pop dominance. This type of touch is interesting. There’s other versions of it on the list. It isn’t an accent or a focal point, it’s somewhere in between, a steady hum filling and animating the negative space.

21. Makaveli – The Church Bell from “Hail Mary” (Hurt-M-Badd)

This is a great song and much of it is set up by the slow, steady gong of a church bell. You can see how it may have basically written the concept itself. It suggests waning mortality on a song made by a guy who was dead the first time most of us heard it. It’s ranked here because of all the fucking Outlawz and it was produced by a guy who named himself Hurt-M-Badd. Like, I wonder if anyone ever saved Hurt-M-Badd in their phone as that, and now I kind of want to befriend someone and give them this as a nickname so I can occasionally look at my phone and see I got a missed call from Hurt-M-Badd. 

20. Missy Elliot – The Backwards Vocals from “Work It” (Timbaland)

Missy’s “Work It” is a classic, but one day long ago you heard it for the first time. After a verse, what seems like a perfectly fine, slightly grating pop song is interrupted on the hook by the sudden bizarre rewound vocals that sets your brain on fire and makes you want to play it back over and over. It’s just “Put My Thing Down Flip It And Reverse It” backwards, but it raises a host of questions. How is this so fucking good? Did she lay down the hook first and Timbaland just figured it out in the room, or did he come in with the concept? Did she come in with the concept? How high were they? You can spend the rest of your life scouring the internet for answers or revel in the mystery. Even if you get to the bottom of it, you’ll be left with a host of unanswerable questions that Timbaland’s brilliant, insane, inspired catalogue is rife with. 

19. The Beatnuts – “YOU Better Watch Your Step!” from “Off the Books” (The Beatnuts)

Many of the producers on this list could’ve spawned their own collection of ranked brilliant grace notes and the Beatnuts are certainly among them. Juju and Psycho Les are the Coen Brothers of late 90s hip hop, purveyors of genius, quirky, catchy New York rap classics. “Off the Books” is their Raising Arizona, a no bullshit, candy colored electric mission statement animated by caffeine and humor, mainly provided by a brief snatch of dialogue at the tail end of a chatty Melvin Van Peebles sketch from 1972. It’s the type of stoned, obsessive, random shit 99.9% of the population would never hear let alone build a career making beat around, but the Beatnuts are not like you nor I.

18. Run DMC- The Sonar from “Beats to the Rhyme” (Run, DMC, Jam Master Jay, Davy D)

“Funky Drummer” is probably the most important sample in the history of rap, the first primate on the evolutionary scale. “Nautilus might be the second. Bob James’ instrumental hellfire sermon has many movements, all filled with treasure, but the production team behind “Beats to the Rhyme” found a diamond in the rough. It’s a raw stretch of beat, it could be the soundtrack for a great chase sequence, and is built around what sounds like sonar tracking, appropriate for a song named after the sounds made by a submarine breaking surface. 

17. J-Kwon – The Bark from “Hood Hop” (Trackboyz)

If you watch the video for J-Kwon’s “Hood Hop,, it’s intercut with the occasional on the nose imagery of two pitbulls fighting. On the hook, you hear what is probably some guy mimicking an attack dog’s growl. It’s a fantastic punctuation to a beat that features militaristic parade stomp. Also, unfortunately, it features Jerrell Jones’ own pubescent bark, referring to people as “Dirty” over and over again.

16. Deltron 3030 – Wind Chimes from “Virus” (Dan the Automater) 

Dan the Automater’s windswept dystopian masterpiece sounds like a desolate stretch of highway, abandoned by human life after the fall. He achieves this with fluttering chimes that remain present as the instrumentation gets intricate, dark and strange.

15. Jay-Z – Jim Morrison from “The Takeover” (Kanye West)

Nas won the greatest battle in the history of hip hop [ed. note: no] but in terms of replay value, on merit alone, few would rather listen to “Ether” over this. That’s because Jay-Z’s settling of scores is Kanye’s classic rock masterpiece, a conversation between Jigga and The Doors’ poet laureate/drunken buffoon that is just filthy over Kanye’s war stomp.

14. Tweet – The Vocal Honk from “Oops (Oh My)” (Timbaland)

Timbaland went through a period where he was producer du jour for strange, gorgeous R&B pop smashes which were the best and craziest songs on the radio for any given season. This is the best one. A wildly unorthodox masturbation anthem. The video features Tweet hanging around the fortress of solitude, which might be a play on the song’s theme but I like to imagine is also a nod to its sonic palette. It’s so alien it might’ve been beamed here from Krypton, and so coldly electronic Timbo might have gotten it off a Phillip Glass’ Casio thumb drive.

13. LL Cool J- Go Brooklyn! from “Doin’ It” (Rashad Smith)

What stands out when you listen to “Doin’ It” with fresh ears  are the porn synths and the echoing clap provided by 2 Much, but the soul of the beat is much like the aforementioned “Hey!” filler, in this case the chant is “Go Brooklyn!” provided by an old Stetsasonic song. LL even cleverly works it into the beat, incorporating the dichometric, “Men are from Mars……” theme by locating himself as a Queens boy, while his girl Leshaun was raised out in Brooklyn.

12. House of Pain – The Siren Stab from “Jump Around” (DJ Muggs)

You could say that generations have pondered the question, “What the fuck is THAT?” But they probably haven’t. For one, if you’re listening to this appropriated frat boy jock jam at this point you’re probably fucked up. And two, “Jump Around” is right up there with “Auld Lang Syne” and “Happy Birthday” as American theme songs. It must be public domain by now and most probably no longer think of it as a piece of music to be studied and considered. But seriously, what the fuck is that? The short answer is an alien howl that almost forces you to put on a Celtics jersey, Ray Bans and a beaded necklace and act like an idiot.

11. Drake – “Are You Drunk Right Now?” from “Marvin’s Room” (40)

“Marvin’s Room” is many things. It’s confessional, a plea for help, a gorgeous self loathing ballad, but above all things it’s a phone call. Drake’s drunk dial is a mini stage play, something it’s easy to lose in his narrative, but we can’t ever really forget because at the hook we are gently redirected by a voice on the other end of the phone checking in. The question she persistently asks is full of concern, a reminder that this Drake at his worst and most vulnerable. It’s one of the smaller production touches on this list but contributes more to the overall effect of the song than most others.

10. Mobb Deep – The Needle Drop from “Survival of the Fittest” (Havoc)

I live in Brooklyn and a lot of people here collect vinyl. When you ask them why, their answer is that vinyl is lived in, there’s a warmth to the quality of the sound, the pop and hiss, the room tone, it all matters. This is normally when I roll my eyes, slip in my ears buds and keep it moving, but when I listen to Havoc I kind of understand where they’re coming from. There are legendary stories of Dre constructing his lush samples from scratch with live instrumentation. And those beats are clean and gorgeous, but Hav likes his samples dirty. In his compositions it’s always a raw winter in Queensbridge, and the subtle grit is there in the margins. You feel he’s sampling a record he stole from a store under his North Face and is playing on his parent’s fucked up turntable. This quality is supplied by the room tone, the pop and hiss.

9. Rob Base & DJ EZ Rock – Lynn Collins from “It Takes Two”

I’d like to open by quoting the great Creamy Steve, who has the distinction of authoring the first comment you read when you click on the Youtube link above: 

It wouldn’t matter if you played this joint at a house party in Detroit, a quinceañera in San Antonio, a bar in Dallas, a corn field in Nebraska, central park at 2PM on a Thursday, a boat in the Florida Keys, a ranch in Wyoming, the side of a mountain in Colorado, Bourbon Street on a Sunday morning or a party in the Hollywood Hills, people would stop what they were doing and move to it.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself, Creamy Steve. How did this happen? What’s the second best Rob Base song? What is the lightning in a bottle that made this specific late 80s hit an all time anthem? For me, the energy comes from Lynn Collins and James Brown’s ad libs. Not the hook, but the ever present “Woo!……Yeah”. There were a lot of sampled ad libs inserted into beats from over the years I considered for the list, but this is one of the earliest, and still the best.

8. Three 6 Mafia- “He was Once a Thug/He Was, He He” from “Ridin Spinners” (Juicy J & DJ Paul)

“Eazy Duz It” is the unlikely source for this tripped out dark rap masterpiece from the godfathers of the dark rap masterpiece. The sample sounds like it was played out on a Speak & Spell at a speed that renders it hypnotic (no pun) and barely English. But most importantly, it fucking slaps. 

7. T.I. – The Chorus of Children from “Rubber Band Man” (David Banner)

“Rubber Band Man” is an overwhelming aural experience. The church organ, the skittering drums, the vocal bass stomps, and of course, the children almost taunting along with T.I.’s high precision bars. This is Banner’s absolute apex and truly, this was the day Tip became King of the South.

6. Trillville – The Creaky Bed Spring from “Some Cut” (Lil Jon) 

One of the beats that inspired this entire list. The sampled bed spring is cartoonish and wildly suggestive, but also works as an instrument and opens up any number of possibilities for what kind of instruments you can use, and what qualifies as an instrument, not just as an effect but as a function. I’m not really in strip clubs like that but I’d imagine at this point if a DJ throws on “Some Cut” it’s getting shut down.

5. Snoop Dogg – The Glottal Stops from “Drop It Like It’s Hot” (The Neptunes)

The Neptunes at their best are maximalist minimalism, steroidal simplicity, urgent reminders that the greatest beat you ever heard in your life was expertly pounded into a formica communal table in a middle school cafeteria. There’s other shit going on that buttresses the simplicity of this beat and allows it to remain so powerfully elemental but the soul of the production is a sound you or I could make with our mouths fairly easily. If you were going out in the mid aughts, chances are you did, at least once a night.  

4. Young Joc- The Turn Signal from “It’s Goin Down” (Nitti Beatz)

We’ve seen the last of some all time great artists on this list, and yet here we are awarding the #4 slot to Young Joc and Nitti Beatz. Why? Well, Nitti’s turn signal is quite simply, the greatest found object ever employed on a track. The rhythm of the blinker was always a great fit for a beat, but it took us 40 years to figure that out, or to at least utilize it on an all time smash. It was even incorporated into a brilliant dance that was ripped from the video whole cloth and employed by Brads and Chads in popped Burberry collars in college bars around the country every weekend night for two years, I can only imagine specifically for my benefit as a snarky laugh and to make me genuinely like the song more. This is an awesomely sinister beat, but with the blinker it’s also vibrant, fun and visionary.

3. Aaliyah – The Cooing Baby from “Are You That Somebody?” (Timbaland)

It’s possible you could listen to “Are You That Somebody” dozens of times without picking out the sound of a baby passing gas, or maybe finding entertainment in a bath toy being waived in front of its face, or, well let me stop speculating, he or she is amused. One of Timbaland’s all time great pop symphonies has so much going on it would be very, very easy to miss the accent the infant brings on occasion as the hook moves into high gear. This isn’t some avant garde performance art piece, not filler buried deep in a Madlib stoner showcase, this was the comeback single for a teen pop star headlining a soundtrack for a film that grossed nearly 300 million dollars in 1998. Timbaland was just making a name for himself then, and as a lesson to all young aspiring producers out there, if you wanna throw your dick on the table and become a legend, follow your strangest impulses regardless of circumstance or stage.

2. Pete Rock & CL Smooth- The Shimmering Ghostly Spectre Of Tom Scott and The California Dreamers That Evokes The Great Beyond, Your Lost Childhood and Something Intangible Yet Visceral That is Impossible to Articulate but I’ll clumsily Settle on Equal Parts Ancient, Eternal and Elegiac from “T.R.O.Y.” (Pete Rock)

I can’t say if it is my favorite, but if you were to ask me, “Objectively, what is the greatest rap song ever made?” Across the generations, I’d probably have to respond “They Reminisce Over You”. Like the infinite number of movies about movies, it’s a rap song about rap. Through his anecdotal experiences, CL is describing the power of memory, the legacies we pass onto the next generation like record collections, being young then suddenly getting old, the joy and pain of growing up and saying goodbye, struggling and thriving as a young person of color in America. 

There is that heart wrenching, monolithic sax riff in the middle of it all, but in the space between there are echoed, fading wails from the horn, the sounds of Scott and his band singing from the bottom of a well. It all serves to underscore the loss at the song’s core, the passage of time and our fleeting mortality, voices beckoning to us from the past, where we will soon join them.

The effect works like snippets of a transmission from the afterlife beamed in and barely picked up on an old antenna out of a night sky filled with stars.

1. Wu-Tang Clan – Literally Fucking Everything from “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nothing to Fuck With” (RZA)

When did postmodernism in hip hop begin? Was it when KRS-One played griot and gave a brief history of the medium on an actual rap song with “Outta Here”? Was it when Eric B. scratched Rakim’s own voice onto his song? Was it when Kool Herc hacked a light post and looped the first breakbeat? Or was it when the Abbot of Shaolin’s Wu-Tang Clan blew the doors off the genre, introducing a sonic patois built on Kung Fu, Blaxploitation flicks, obscure soul, and an entire broken language with a fully formed Tolkienesque mythology?

My money is on the latter. Two swords clashing in combat is percussion, a shout from a kung fu master following a punch or kick is an ad lib. It’s all related in its grainy, Shaw Brothers soundstage glory sampled off a distressed VHS. It was Rza who decided this was fair game. 

You can list any track off this bible or its subsequent chapters, and there are many that are more profound as pure songs, but I lost my innocence to this outrageous beat. It’s a song that even today, generations later, still seems impossible to me. A three minute and 36 second Infinite Jest, overstuffed with reference and ideas that doesn’t suffer one iota for its ADD. Consider all the layers, the earthworm bass that seems to emit from inside of you, the haunting harmony that is casually lifted from a Saturday morning cartoon, the cymbal drags, the canned applause, the percussive crack that sounds like an apprentice being disciplined by their sensei with strike across the knuckles from a reed. 

It’s an atom bomb. It should’ve debuted at CBGB in between Ramones and Misfits sets. It literally changed the definition of what we could credibly call “MUSIC” forever. The answer was, everything. Everything.

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