The Best of the Best: the Greatest Rap Producers Ever (#20-11)by Paul McCann
Oct 12, 2010 (Updated Nov 23, 2010)
Popular Products in MusicThe Bottom Line Rap's elite - "THE GREATEST BEAT MAKERS IN HIP HOP HISTORY" - numbers 20-11.
Sorry for the delay guys. I’m not going to bang on for too long because this lot speak for themselves with their quality AND you know the drill by now. Let's get in amongst them.
#20. Diamond D. Mostly associated with: D.I.T.C., himself.
Let's start proceedings off with a BANG. Here comes stomping and storming the third D.I.T.C. member on this list (following Lord Finesse & Buckwild) and subsequently the best producer of the crew: Diamond D. The Bronx-born producer/rapper came up in the early 90s and initially he was another in a legion of faithful boom bap producers, deftly recreating the bouncing snare drum and sample-based palette of his contemporaries. You heard that outstandingly demonstrated on his buddy Lord Finesse’s classic debut album, “Funky Technician” (1990), on which Diamond crafted four beats. The exemplary banging drums, jangling guitars and funky horn bursts of its title track remains one of the signature cuts from rap’s “Golden Age” and the relentlessly uptempo funk of “Here I Come” and “Bad Mutha” demonstrated neatly how rap producers during this period leant heavily on James Brown samples. His work was sharp and fresh-sounding signature boom bap, embracing beautifully the cutting-edge b-boy enthusiasm that marked much rap coming out of NY at the time. But as the 90s continued the producer started to diversify and refine his sound, keeping the jazz-funk elements to his boom-bap sound but also experimenting more with some crazy, smoky, hazy effects. This mixture characterised his outstanding, monster solo debut “Stunts, Blunts & Hip Hop” (1992), a litany of blurry pianos, cavernous drums and wild samples, and Diamond’s slightly patchier follow-up “Hatred, Passion & Infidelity” (1997) took this mixture a step further in interestingly containing more R&B influences.
These releases vastly increased his presence and respect amongst rap’s top artists, and through the 90s Diamond accumulated a VAST discography. He’s obviously done a lot of work for D.I.T.C. members and their affiliates, Showbiz & A.G., Fat Joe (several tracks on his debut album), more for Lord Finesse (on 1991’s “Return of the Funky Man”), O.C., a lot of work with Brand Nubian on their debut album and later for Sadat X, and for the D.I.T.C group album (“Day One” ). As for other artists… well Diamond D has produced for a veritable who’s who: KRS-One, Xzibit, The Alkaholiks (“Let It Out” & “The Next Level"), The Fugees (“The Score”), Freddie Foxxx, The Pharcyde (“Groupie Therapy”), Busta Rhymes, Mos Def (the amazing “Hip Hop”), Xzibit, Organized Konfuzion, Pharoahe Monch, (“The Light” and “The Truth”), Queen Latifah, remixes for Raekwon & Ras Kass.... you see what I mean? These days, Diamond D sticks mostly to releasing his own albums which feature contributions from other producers (he only produced 3 tracks from his 2009 LP, “The Huge Hefner LP”), as well as continuing to work with Sadat X and Sean Price, but it doesn’t matter. Because he has secured his place on the list, and he doesn’t need to prove it any longer, but if you want to hear it anyway: go and listen to the extremely dope “When it Pours it Rains” from “Soundbombing II”, which sums up his style to a quintessential tee: a bright, sparkling, uncomplicated keyline runs all over a catchy snare drum while the producer cuts catchy vocal scratches. It is purist, uncomplicated, head-nodding hip hop to the nth degree… and you have to love that.
#19. Questlove. Mostly assoicated with: The Roots
Nearly everyone on this list falls into a ‘conventional’ style of hip hop production. Not Questlove and his group The Roots. It’s actually incredibly difficult to ascertain precisely who does what in terms of bringing their array of musical talent together, for they are a live band. Questlove has always expertly handled drums but more pertinently has frequently been assigned as a producer to the group, either directly in name or as part of a number of production crews: The Soulquarians, the Grand Negaz, and The Grand Wizzards (all of whom have had large hands in Roots releases). Then there’s the fact that Scott Storch is the other notable Roots-affiliated producer (assigned keyboard duties) on great breakthrough albums like “Do You Want More!!??!!” (1996)… all of this muddies the waters as to who we can apportion credit for what. But, this list would be incomplete without The Roots! So let’s say it’s a team effort, of whom Questlove is the lead.
Agreed? Good. Because The Roots are one of rap’s all time great groups, having released 10 studio albums, all of which range from good to classic. Actually explaining or summarising their sound in reasonably succinct fashion is just about impossible in the space I have here, as it has quite vividly shifted from record to record and era to era. Their early records (dating back to the independantly released "Organix" in 1993) were a quite jazzy expansion on A Tribe Called Quest’s earthy, richly melodic blend of basslines and percussion, whereas releases like “Things Fall Apart” (1999) stepped it up to invoke a neat sparring blend of purist fire - “Without a Doubt”, “Adrenaline!” , “Ain’t Saying Nothin’ New” – with beautifully crafted, melodic blends of traditional hip hop and live instrumentation – “Act Too (The Love of my Life)” and “The Next Movement”. Their albums released in the 2000s are all extremely solid, and some superb, but consistently, Questlove and his team kept switching the sound up: “Phrenology” (2002) was an experimental, rockish type of jam, “The Tipping Point” was more traditional and accessible (fuelling some misguided criticism from certain quarters that The Roots had gone too ‘mainstream), “Game Theory” (2006) and “Rising Down” (2008 - read Paul's excellent review) were darker and ominously string-led, whereas “How I Got Over” (2010) is a contender for album of the year with its sense of moodshifting transgression (check out my review, it embarks on an ascending move from dark urban streets to joyous positivity).
All together now: *exhales*. Questlove and The Roots have delivered unainmously progressive and poised hip hop music that has not only garned a huge following with pure rap fans but with fans of all kinds of musical genres. They are that distinctive. I think any list that does not include them and their main man Questlove, is missing a huge trick.
#18. Timbaland. Mostly associated with: himself, Missy Elliott
Let’s talk about HITS, baby. That’s Timbaland’s game. He’s probably rap’s all time number one “go to” hitmaker, having dropped smashed singles for: Missy Elliot, himself, 50 Cent, LL Cool J, Jay-Z, Ludacris, Lil Kim, Flo Rida, Xzbit, Busta Rhymes, Petey Pablo, Bubba Sparxxx... the list goes on and on. Next to Rick Rubin, he’s also by far and away hip hop’s biggest ever crossover producer, eclipsing P. Diddy comfortably when talking about his work with Justin Timberlake, Nelly Furtado and Britney Spears in particular. But there is absolutely zero room for any kind of snotty-nosed elitism when it comes round to Timbo’s production skills, however. It’s quite a challenge initially to accurately describe his sound, for it has moved all over the place as he has worked with different artists in multiple genres. Generally, most of Timbo's beats feature stuttering, seemingly bottomless bouncing bass, overlaid with synth stabs and quirky keys and sound effects, underpinned by his frequent murmuring and ad-libbing. Contemporary examples are great singles like "The Way You Are" and "Morning After Dark"... but the reality is that as I have explained, Timbaland has an absolutely endless rolecall of hits. What makes him a top 20 producer is that he has the ability to expand his own very distinctive, funky yet warped Southern bounce over the course of a rap album/
You can hear this signature mid-late 90s sound splattered all over Missy Elliott’s first five albums (or alternatively, a good sonic comparison could be Outkast’s “Stankonia”), with whom his first significant rap related partnership came about. As something of a Southern 'dream team, Timbo & Missy made huge inroads into the rap game: "Supa Dupa Fly" (1997) was bouncy stuff, "Da Real World" (1999) started to unleash more of the funkily futuristic vibe the producer would soon become renowned for ("Busa Rhyme" is soooo dope), which basically continued for the rest of their partnership, although "Under Construction" (2004) was RELATIVELY more conventional than you might expect from Timbaland. I have to throw a shoutout to Bubba Sparxxx, who was a particularly interesting, and underrated, redneck rapper who Timbo mentored and helped make a brief star of (the producer's work on 2001's "Dark Days, Bright Nights" is much under-apppreciated). I think this example alone demonstrates Timbo's ability to adapt his musical style to a different partner, but just for good measure I have to also mention his numerous solo albums and collab projects with his rapping partner Magoo, which provided the straight hip hop grind to counter-balance his more high profile, genre-bending work with Missy.
I think it is undeniable that Timbaland is going to go down in hop hop history as one of its greats – but I’m not sure if he will ever crack this top 10. The reason for this? Well, for quite a few years Timbo has focused more on crossover pop/R&B, which for obvious reasons doesn’t qualify for this list, and he also hasn’t crafted some of the all time classics that others on this list specialise in. I feel like I’m repeating myself but the day this changes, and let’s say he delivers a full blown project with someone like Jay-Z or Nas, he gives himself a legitimate crack at the top 10.
#17. Rick Rubin. Mostly associated with: Run DMC, The Beastie Boys, LL Cool J
I can see it. Flak, artillery, coming my way. Rick Rubin!? Not in a Top 10! Let me explain...
When Rick Rubin lends his clout to a hip hop record... you know you must mean something. Rubin is unquestionably one of the top 5 most important and influential figures in hip hop history. He co-founded the legendary Def Jam label back in the mid 80s, and oversaw the rise of The Beastie Boys, Run DMC, and LL Cool. As these artists skyrocketed to prominence as international superstars, they dragged hip hop with it, and Rubin became a genuine MEGASTAR producer. His style is actually quite a jarring contrast to pretty much everyone on this list, because he was ahead of his time, a man with a plan, who had the vision to combine the two seemingly disparate worlds of metal and rap. It started with the uber-classic Beasties Boys 1986 release, “License to Ill”, a patchwork of samples and scratches from Black Sabbath, The Clash, Led Zeppelin, amongst many others. Over this screeching backdrop Rubin laid the wittily scathing pop-culture juvenilia of the Beasties...so forming a quite crazy mix which worked outstandingly well. And it sold, immensely. Inspired, the producer pressed ahead IN THE SAME YEAR with his undoubted biggest success story ever: Run DMC and “Raisin’ Hell”. Run DMC were already an established, hugely successful group, but with the Def Jam man at the helm, they went through the roof, delivering one of rap’s biggest, best selling (relative - at the time) and most popular rap albums ever – most obviously manifested through the cover of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way” (which like me you’ve probably heard about 10 million times) and “It’s Tricky”. Rubin’s work with both groups to this day charts as rap-rock’s two best ever albums (as well as both landing within the 20-25 rap albums ever).
Quite a statement, but don’t get it twisted… Rick Rubin could still drop conventional hip hop. Def Jam’s first ever full studio album was also LL Cool J’s first ever release: “Radio” (1985). Rubin mans the boards for the full duration here, creating the ultimate ‘b-boy’ album. It’s stripped down to the very bare bones, the essence of what rap music is meant to be: beats plus rhymes. So that means an amped beatbox plus scratching plus LL’s ferocious rhymes; go and listen to “Rock The Bells” to witness this in full flow. I can’t praise Rubin enough for the deliberately reductive approach he took to the sound on this album... although, it does OCCASIONALLY sound basic when compared to pretty much any hip hop that followed it. Rubin then dropped one of his last rap beats on LL’s frankly average “Walking with a Panther” (1989); in many ways summing up why he hasn’t gone further on this list (authors note: last couple of sentences have been edited). LL had outgrown Rubin’s stripped down style and would move on to new territory ("Mama Said Knock You Out"... more will come on this album in this list's next installment)... but the tale of the story is that ultimately Rick Rubin’s actual hip hop-centric output is relatively limited compared to pretty much everyone else on this list – a few executive producer credits for Public Enemy, Big Daddy Kane and the like does not change this fact. But he still remains so high when compared to his prestigious peers, and this is testament to his abilities as a producer. If you want any further proof that Rick Rubin still has ‘it’ – listen to his work on Jay-Z’s “99 Problems”. Argument ended.
#16. Hi-Tek. Mostly associated with: Talib Kweli
As relatively new school producers go, Hi-Tek is one of its leading lights. He came up riding the Mos Def and Talib Kweli gravy train, bursting into the limelight with the straight off the bat classic “Blackstar” (1999). In his early days Tek favoured extremely mellow, relaxed beats, and his six beats on “Blackstar” were positively straining at their leash in an unrelenting desire to keep incorporating soulful elements and R&B influenced choruses (the album’s two Hi-Tek produced singles: “Definition” and the even better “Respiration” demonstrate appropriately). It was a genius album that marked the debuts of two elite emcees in Def and Kweli and it afforded Hi-Tek a burgeoning reputation as a considered and ‘neo-soul’ continuation on the A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul aesthetic.
I still think, however, that in purely musical terms Hi-Tek managed to top even this album with Reflection Eternal’s “Train of Thought” (2000), a lengthy collaboration opus with the aforementioned Kweli that demonstrates in outstanding fashion the clear chemistry that the gifted young producer has with the silver-tongued rapper. It also established what I would come to see as his signature sound. More than most producers on this list, Hi-Tek’s cleanness of production is absolutely OUTSTANDING; each loop, drum kick and piano key shimmers and shines with the same glimmering zing and sheen that Dr. Dre pioneered with “2001” (1999). Producing “Train of Thought” entirely by himself, Hi-Tek demonstrated this state of the art sonic clarity in various ways: uptempo bangers like “Move Somethin” and “Some Kind of Beautiful”, mellow pianos, reflective strings and general soulful sounds on “Memories Live” and “Love Language”, purist and battle-orientated drums with “Down for the Count”, eclectic melodies on “Africa Dream”. Overall, he can claim to have masterminded one of the noughties’ few certified ‘5 star classic’ albums – an achievement NOT to be sniffed at. Hi-Tek was not interested in letting this momentum grind to a halt, either. His solo career has produced three excellent albums, encompassing the “Hi-Teknology” series, all of which feature some awesome collaborators (Kweli & Mos Def obviously, Nas, Common, Kurupt, Q-Tip, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah amongst many others ) and demonstrate how his skills have continued to expand and vary as the years have gone by. As the decade continued, Hi-Tek moved away from the acclaimed Rawkus label and got himself affiliated with Dre and his Aftermath label… and thus G-Unit regrettably got involved in the mixup. The quality of his production didn’t drop off (listen to 50 Cent’s “Ryder Music” for indisputable proof of this)… but the quality of artist did (from Talib Kweli and Mos Def... to Lloyd Banks and Bizarre. Oh dear). Nonetheless, Tek’s maintained an impressively solid collaboration discography – Busta Rhymes, Blackalicious, Xzibit (“Scent of a Woman”), Common (“1-9-9-9” is one of my favourite Hi-Tek beats ever), The Game (“Runnin”), Slum Village, etc – and the fact remains that he is one of the most talented beatmakers out there in the current mainstream. This is easily proved, as in 2010 came Reflection Eternal’s very good “Revolutions Per Minute”, which struck the right balance between his original slow paced style and the dynamic, harder edged, quicker rhythm of his later material. It also struck the final blow to any suggestions that Hi-Tek should be lower than #16 on this list.
Dre’s long-awaited, much-anticipated, and probably never coming out “Detox” is allegedly ‘around the corner… the good Doctor would not go far wrong by getting this guy HEAVILY involved. He genuinely has the potential to keep on rising higher.
#15. J Dilla (Jay Dee). Mostly associated with: himself, Common, A Tribe Called Quest
If 9th Wonder and Hi-Tek could claim to have been influenced by A Tribe Called Quest, let’s deal with someone who in his own way helped influence the legendary group themselves. Jadakiss once remarked: “you know dead rapper's get better promotion"… if only the same applied to its producers. J Dilla, the man formerly known as JayDee, tragically passed away in Febuary 2006 (due to the blood disease TTP), bringing to a crashing halt the momentum the Detroit-born producer had built up through the mid/late 1990s and early/mid 2000s. This had initially built through his membership of the aforementioned production squad The Ummah (although the Jay Dee/J. Dilla name is technically not credited to this squad). It has thus often been reported that Tribe’s latter album move into a very smooth, darkly melodic R&B influenced consciousness was strongly influenced by Dilla, and I can believe that, for his style was extremely melodic and rhythmic, a type of zone-out chilling session inspired by legends such as Pete Rock (as he himself cited – rumour has it he told Pete, “I wanted to be you”). He took Rock’s basic blueprint and made it his own, and in similar fashion proved he had the commendable ability to make mediocre emcees sound better than they were. Some of his most revered work was how he made the otherwise extremely average Slum Village somehow sound competent on their group albums "Fantastic Vol I" and "Vol 2" (2000).
Dilla then delivered a major of statement with some of his most critically acclaimed collaborative work; in tandem with Chicago’s finest, Common, on his opus “Like Water for Chocolate” (2000). Only one track wasn’t handled by Dilla (that honour fell to DJ Premier) and he revelling in taking the mantle, crafting a neo-soul influenced, alternative, eclectic band of beats (“Funky for You” is arguably my favourite ever Dilla production!) that was a perfect fit for Common’s sound as well as existing as a neat ‘signature’ release for The Soulquarians (a loose collective of ‘conscious’ artists who could be classified as a modern day Native Tongues posse). Dilla’s fame started to increase and momentum started to build following this work, aided by his move to a producer/emcee status in the years before his untimely fate, and a load of his solo/collaboration albums were either completed or shelved (most of which have either been or are soon to be released posthumously - "Donuts" was released just days before his death). The best of these to me was his amazing collab album with Madlib – the immense “ChampionSound” (2003), which melded the loudly ambitious and wild sampling of Madlib with his own very understated, rich aesthetic. All this merely hints at the extent of Dilla’s absolutely PRODIGIOUS workrate (comparable to 9th Wonder), but what rams it home is that it’s still unknown just how vast the vault holding Dilla’s unreleased recorded material is. Because, what has been released must be close to hundreds of remixes and slamming tracks for a whole range of artists. Some of the stuff that has dropped posthumously is poignantly outstanding: "Love Is" and “It’s Your World” were MAGNIFICENT on Common's "Be", "Move" was one of the best cuts from Q-Tip's "The Renaissance", and he arguably had some of the VERY best beats on Raekwon's "OB4CL2": "House of Flying Daggers" and "Ason Jones". In his early career, he also crafted so many tracks and remixes for some of rap’s most respected and critically acclaimed artists: The Pharcyde (he had a large influence on their excellent second album, “Labcabincalifornia” (1995), with "Running" and "Bullsh!t" particularly standing out) , Busta Rhymes ("Keep It Movin", "Still Shinin"), The Roots ("Dynamite!"), Q-Tip, Guru, De La Soul (“Verbal Clap”, “Much More”, “Shoomp”)... and the list goes on.
Jay Dee aka J Dilla had a complete production game, had his own unique influential sound, didn’t have any boundaries as to who he collaborated with, had a near-unparalleled workrate (and a fabulous discography to go with it), and has dropped some wonderful albums over his 10 year-ish career. On this, he deserves this spot 100%. Furthermore, it is an absolute crying shame that hip hop and music has been robbed of this guy, for it ultimately demonstrates how cruel life and death can be.
#14. Ali Shaheed Mohammed and Q-Tip. Mostly associated with: A Tribe Called Quest
Naming two producers may technically look like cheating but there’s a reason behind this... legendary rap group A Tribe Called Quest produced their two landmark, top 20 rap albums (1991’s “Low End Theory” and 1993’s “Midnight Marauders”) nearly entirely IN HOUSE. That meant the musical direction for two of rap’s greatest ever albums fell to two of the group’s members: chief producer Ali Shaheed Mohammed and his more than capable aide Q-Tip. The pair’s sound was to prove revolutionary, taking on the mentality and ethos of De La Soul and The Jungle Brothers while establishing a unique vibe all of their own. As a group, Tribe were often initially miscast as pioneers of “jazz rap”, but it’s actually not strictly true when talking about the their earliest releases, as debut album “People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm” (1990) was a stripped down, unhurried blend of melodic, bass-heavy grooves. But “Low End Theory” then took this sound to another level of quality, continuing to help define the ‘conscious’ vibe that later producers like Hi-Tek would go on to embrace. “Jazz (We Got It)” was one of the few songs here that hinted a more jazzy vibe… which was expanded on in Tribe’s best album, “Midnight Marauders”. This was a more up-tempo release (“How We Get Down”), with more energetic basslines and a more abstract, funkier vibe (“Oh My God”, “Award Tour”), although still retaining the core laid back values that made the group so great in the first place (“Electric Relaxation”). It remains a sub-genre defining masterpiece and a release you could definitely pigeonhole as ‘jazz rap’. Tribe had just delivered two back to back landmark classic albums – and Mohammed and Q-Tip then teamed up with up with Jay Dee (Dilla) to form the all-star production crew called The Ummah, delivering more very good Tribe followup albums “Beats, Rhymes and Life” (1996) and “The Love Movement” (1998).
Fittingly, with Dilla on board, the group’s style had returned to its more slow paced origins... but following their fifth album one of the most legendary groups in rap history called it a day. They had accumulated an outstanding set of albums and a level of critical acclaim that very few artists ever experience, their sound was unique, and it probably leaves only one burning question: who was the better producer out of the two? Like any question about things one is not privy to (i.e. internal workings of a music production duo), it is a difficult one, but over the years the group has attributed the majority of Tribe’s musical success to Ali Shaheed Mohammed. That to me is absolutely right – he was the chief producer. This is not to write Q-Tip off, however. He’s an excellent producer in his own right… and he has proven it with his excellent solo career. Q-Tip’s most renowned cut is his enchanting backing track on “One Love” from Nas’ Illmatic, but he also excelled on Mobb Deep’s classic “The Infamous”, with 3 outstanding beats (and in particular “Temperature’s Rising” – one of the album’s best songs). Once the group disbanded, Q-Tip rapidly moved through the gears, pretty much self-producing his entire solo career: “Amplified” (1999) was dope, “Kaamal the Abstract” (2002) was a far out experimental concept album that found Q-Tip orchestrating live music as well as taking lead singer roles, “Open” (2005) was a return back to relatively more conventional routes, but he saved the best for his most recent release, 2008’s outstanding “The Renaissance”, which is a close contender for 2008’s best album. During this period, Ali Shaheed Mohammed fell off the rap radar, concentrating more on taking his smooth style into commercial R&B with Raphael Saadiq and En Vogue member Dawn Robinson (forming the supergroup Lucy Pearl).
OUCH. As you can see, Ali Shaheed Mohammed and Q-Tip, both together and individually, have quite a resume. A Tribe Called Quest reunited in 2006, but as yet they haven’t released a comeback album. If and when they do, fully expect this pair of accomplished beatsmiths to rise even further into the halls of hip hop legend.
13. Havoc. Mostly associated with: Mobb Deep
Grimy sh!t from the very depths of the Eastcoast’s projects. That is Havoc’s sound and NO-ONE has ever managed to consistently nail down this sound as perfectly as the Mobb Deep producer. Moreover, with the utterly classic “The Infamous” (1995) and “Hell On Earth” (1996) Havoc took the very essence of grimy street rap to its most desolate cinematic extent. “The Infamous” is quite often cited by fans and critics alike as the single greatest “street” album ever, a grimy and coldhearted tour of poverty and crime stricken urban streets. The music followed precisely suit, featuring snipped pianos and/or gloomy string sections over desolate basslines; a vibe designed to make the listener feel as if they have literally been sucked into the icy cold midwinter hell of New York’s projects (“The Start of Your Ending” is a quietly poignant and ominous track, whereas “Eye for an Eye” and “Right Where You Stand” crash with booming basslines).
At this point, Havoc’s sound very much mirrored people like Da Beatminerz, but Mobb’s follow-up “Hell On Earth” then elevated him to a whole new plateau, expanding Havoc’s skeletal framework to a full blown horror movie on wax, a musical narration of a truly tortured world that sucks the listener in and doesn’t let them escape, and in my opinion it crashes into the Top 10 Best Produced Rap Albums Ever. Just listen to the layered string arrangements on “More Trite Life Pt II”, "Nighttime Vultures” and "Drop A Gem On ‘Em”, as the rhymers elucidate tales of murder deep in the bowels of the city, the ticking Havoc backing tracks move with a 3am graveyard-shift ambience that invokes feelings of sheer unadulterated tension. What we have here is a specific merging of two outstanding ambiences, and to me “Hell On Earth” does this to the extent that it delivers cinematic musical flare that betters even the class of “Ready To Die” and moves onto the level of “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx” (1995). How? With the musical flare required to create nightmarish, Tony Montana-esque gangsta epics such as "G.O.D. Pt III" and “Animal Instinct”, with their dramatic symphonic arrangements and furiously chanted choruses. This high level ability made Havoc in-demand guy – he dropped gems for Eminem, Biggie, LL Cool J (“Queens Is”, one of my all-time favourite Havoc beats), Big Pun, The Game, Onyx, Jadakiss ("Why?"), P. Diddy, amongst others – but I haven’t even mentioned yet further demonstrations of Hav’s considerable abilities with Mobb Deep’s fourth and fifth albums. 1999’s "Murda Muzik” (“Quiet Storm” and “Steets Raised Me”) was an excellent release and while 2001’s “Infamy” was the group’s weakest release, musically it still continued to hit the right notes (“Crawlin’” still sends a tingle down my spine). While Havoc and Mobb Deep have usually been happy to reside staunchly in the bowels of the Eastcoast underground, it’s a fact that Eminem made Mobb Deep’s most famous song even BIGGER, by featuring it at the start of his move 8 Mile. Yeah, that eerie piano and grinding bassline you hear as Em amps himself up for the battle of his life, is “Shook Ones Pt. II” , a Havoc production in its prime. And unquestionably Mobb’s best ever song. What more do I need to say?
I will say something, though. Havoc's place on this list was sealed when I had an epiphany. There's hardly any other producer on this list who has managed to capture one particular 'sound' and 'vibe' over the course of not one but two rap albums as masterfully as Havoc. Now, you don't really need to say anything more.
#12. Kanye West. Mostly associated with: himself, Jay-Z
Here’s the problem: what more can I or anyone say about Kanye West that he hasn't already said about himself? Undoubtedly, Kanye has the biggest ego on this list; he's the KRS-One of hip hip production. But just like ‘Tha Blastmasta’ the self-hype is as a whole, justified. I find people play a game of strawman extremes with West. He's either the "very greatest producer ever" (typical MTV type mentality) or "ridiculously overrated to the point of wack" (the inevitable backlash to the first view often peddled by mainstream hating 'fans'). The truth inevitably lies in the middle, for just like his mate Just Blaze, Kanye West is an insanely talented and consistent beatmaker. He won’t win points for originality, because his staple sound - sped up soul sample based production – was not invented by him (the honour is taken by Rza). Kanye’s genius, however, lays in how he pretty much perfected and popularised this sound, and has then gone on to reinvent himself.
The proof I hear you ask? Bear with me. 2003's excellent if overrated "College Dropout" was textbook sped up chipmunk-on-helium vocal sample heaven (hello "Through The Wire"), although songs like “Spaceship” demonstrated how West could drop genuinely beautiful musical compositions. Follow up album "Late Registration" in 2005 built on this song and expanded it over the course of a whole LP, and I think it is a MAGNIFICENT, ambitious and boldly produced opus (just listen to West’s Madlib-esque ability to completely flip a famous, oft. used sample on "Diamonds Are Forever"). Then there's his breakthrough work on the aforementioned "The Blueprint" (2000) – the stirring "Never Change" and anthemic "Ain't No Love (In The Heart Of The City)" are to this day two of Kanye's (and Jay's!) best ever successes. His follow up solo album "Graduation" (2007) was solid auto-pilot (and thus easily better than 85% of his peers’ best work), but he then departed off on a mad tangent with the autotune-crammed "808s and Heartbreak" (2008). The latter album was a bold shift in sound that could have quite easily backfired… but when does Kanye West fail? He doesn't. And sure enough, as Mike explains in his excellent review, the album succeeded, as immense, atmospheric mood-shifting music that demonstrated his ever-growing versatility. In between all of this, Kanye has shown a prodigious workrate in putting out a ton of great tracks for many of hip hop's biggest stars - Jay-Z, The Game ("Dreams" in particular standing out), T.I., Lupe Fiasco, Scarface (“Guess Who’s Back”), Lil Wayne (“Let the Beat Build”, “Comfortable”), Dilated Peoples ("My Way"), Rick Ross, Twista, and Common, who benefited from nine Kanye West bangers on his classic 2005 album “Be”. Phew. Amazingly, Kanye has also found time to mentor new stars such as Lupe Fiasco, Kid Cudi and Mr Hudson, while always demonstrating his ability to create cutting edge, brassy, punchy music, with multi-audience appeal, which maintains an intrinsic hip hop soul. Pretty remarkable, and all of this will surely be demonstrated on his forthcoming 2010 album, "Dark Twisted Fantasy".
You’re probably thinking, most top producer lists you see have Kanye West in the top 10, so why is Kanye West not in this top 10? Well first of all, in a similar vein to Just Blaze, this is not top 10 producers ‘right now’. This is of all time. And Kanye’s main body of his work is still relatively small in terms of SHEER all out classic material when compared to the producers who are about to follow. That is the elite level we are discussing here and the margins are fine, so much so that his catalogue will have to overcome the fact that essentially, when you break it down to the crudest analogy, Kanye is basically a high class version of 9th Wonder (his initial style is hijacked from someone else). But nonetheless, before you lot swoop in... I'm not hating. He’s still at number 12, which is an AMAZING spot. And that’s because as his career has progressed, Kanye has artfully refined and transcended his sound to new levels. He is pushing himself further and delivering staggering levels of consistency in quality and quantity. All of this is pushing him further toward his own destiny... even closer to the top of this list.
And boy, Kanye West knows it.
#11. DJ Muggs. Mostly associated with: Cypress Hill, Gza
In every single “Top Producer” list I see, DJ Muggs is not given enough credit. I am not sure why people underrate him, because he has proved over the last 20 years that he is one of the Westcoast’s best producers. He is the one man musical maestro behind Cypress Hill and their seven studio albums, during the course of which he proved that pretty much without exception he is THE most versatile producer in rap ever, being able to flip between eerie, psychedelic, stoned G-Funk, dark grimy street sh!t and rap-rock, seemingly at will and with a deftness of touch. With Cypress Hill’s classic self-titled debut album (1992) and equally classic follow-up “Black Sunday” (1993), Muggs delivered a quite frighteningly vivid, eerie soundscape of dark synths, psychedelic effects and bottomless bass; an extremely dark, stoned G-Funk vision of Los Angeles. The music was layered and funky, but exceedingly dark and extremely influential (listen to any of darkest underground Westcoast G-Funk, especially people like Spice-1 and Brotha Lynch Hung, to see this), and it brought Cypress Hill huge critical acclaim AND record sales. I always see Mugg’s beginnings here as the natural conclusion to the Dr. Dre produced “Efil4zaggin”, in that it’s richly produced straight up menace, and it’s probably my all-time favourite musical hip hop style.
Given all of this, one wouldn’t blame Muggs for simply recreating his trademark vibe for the rest of his career… but that is categorically NOT how he rolls. No, he branched out, expanding and maturing his sound by pushing a highly successful move to rap-rock with Cypress Hill (omnipresent throughout all of their albums from “Temples Of Boom” onwards) that would heavily influence bands like Linkin Park and by working the trip-hop angle with “Dust”, a collaboration project with Greg Dulli and Everlast. Muggs also started to reach out to other artists, creating amazing tracks for Ice Cube (“Now I Gotta Wet’cha”) as well as hit singles for Cube (“Check Yo Self”) and House Of Pain (“Jump Around”). In 1997 he created his own loosely organised crew The Soul Asssassins, which spawned two EXCELLENT albums - Soul Assassins “Vol. 1”, followed in 2000 by “Vol. 2” – that featured eerily gloomy, grimy street beats reminiscent of our number 13 on this list. The Los Angeles producer then expanded on this sonic template with “Grandmasters” (2005), a collaborative project with the legendary Wu-Tang emcee Gza, adding a mythical edge to his hard edged street style, forming a sound that I’ve always seen as a kind of continuation on Rza’s “Bobby Digital” era production.
Damn, I’ve just read what I’ve written back to myself, and it still boggles my mind how much DJ Muggs has achieved in his career. Hit records (just look at how played Cypress Hill’s “Insane in the Membrane” still is), a ton of classic albums, great collaborations (Xzibit’s “The Foundation” is one of the finest)... but most of all, he has his own, distinct sound that he mastered and that influenced a whole load of other artists. But it’s not even one sound, its multiple sounds! If Muggs keeps this kind of workrate up (look out for Soul Assassins III, coming soon)... well, it’ll prove to me he can still genuinely challenge the upper echelons of this list. Don’t sleep any longer.
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