The Best of the Best: the Greatest Rap Producers Ever (#10-1)by Paul McCann
Nov 2, 2010 (Updated Sep 29, 2011)
Popular Products in MusicThe Bottom Line Rap's elite - "THE GREATEST BEAT MAKERS IN HIP HOP HISTORY" - numbers 10-1
Pirate Radio Motion Picture Soundtrack by Original Soundtrack (CD, Nov-2009, 2 Discs, Universal Republic)
I can honestly say that sorting these very greatest legends into some type of order has been a real challenge. These are the elite, so let's do this. END GAME.
(AUTHOR'S NOTE: Please note, this is quite a lengthy read in places. It is impossible to do justice to these guys otherwise)
10. Large Professor. Mostly associated with: Nas, Main Source
If you are dropping one of the best beats on Nas’ masterpiece album “Illmatic” (1994), you know you got some SKILLS. I’m referring to “It Ain’t Hard To Tell”, a maelstrom of musical mayhem featuring an unconventional sampling of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature, jazzy horns, “da da da da” vocal chants and spiralling out of control violins. The man responsible is Large Professor, an influential veteran producer who is seen as one of the ‘holy trinity’ of Eastcoast production: a trio of outstanding NY-based producers who delivered genre-defining work in rap's "Golden Age" (the remainder of this trio are yet to come on this list). I started with "Illmatic" because Xtra P's work on this album (don't forget he also produced the ridiculously bass heavy "Halftime" as well as “One Time 4 Ya Mind”) demonstrated that he primarily had two distinctive features: 1. a really vivid musical streak that manifests itself through some wickedly manical beats and 2. a level of sophistication in his technique that not many others in the same period could match. His crowning achievement to this day is (as expertly reviewed by Hao) “Breakin’ Atoms” (1991), entirely produced for his group Main Source. He took a group of basically average emcees (Nas’ breakthrough classic verse on the crackling “Live at the BBQ” excepted) and delivered a quite MAGNIFICENTLY melodic, bouncing album which balanced a number of different vibes: elements of De La Soul's good-natured groove, similarly banging drum lines to DJ Premier and a mix of general jazz and funk you don't hear any longer (the glistening strings and horn bursts of "Just Hanging Out" - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z3aRrokORjY- are a must listen). The complex and vivid levels to which Large Professor took his beats has to be heard, for cuts like "Watch Roger Do His Thing" were far out on a level only Prince Paul had gone to previously. My final highlight from this album is the insanely fun "Lookin at the Front Door": a wonderful vocal sample ("boom, boom, BOOM!"), a funkdafied bassline and sparkling keyline creates one of the most uptempo blends you will hear.
What people don't realise is that Large Professor is one of the very most influential producers on this list. His use of the Emu SP-1200 sampling-drum machine was developed by the beatsmith with large influences from his mentor Paul C (the great producer who most notably worked with Eric B & Rakim); significant because P's work with this drum machine and sampler on "Breakin Atoms" would help lay down the pattern for a wealth of rap producers. He was an important figure too in the construction of Kool G Rap & DJ Polo's "Wanted: Dear or Alive" (1990). Paul C and the producer had done the majority of the production work but when Paul was sadly murdered, Large Professor completed the album on his behalf. He is thus officially a primary co-producer on one of the classic albums of the era, driven by songs like “Streets Of New York” and “Money In The Bank" . Large P has worked with many of the Eastcoast’s other great artists – Pete Rock, Big Daddy Kane ("N!ggaz Never Learn"), A Tribe Called Quest (“Keep It Rolling”) Organized Konfusion (the awesome “Stress” remix), Mobb Deep ("Peer Pressue" - co-produced with DJ Premier) - and it is therefore fitting that he is seen as one of the foundation producers of hip hop’s “Golden Age”. He is not even close to a relic either, for he has remained prolific throughout the late 90s and the 00s, dropping hot beats for Nas (“You’re Da Man”, “Rewind”), Cormega (“The Come Up”), Non Phixion (his work on their 2000 album "The Future Is Now" was particularly outsandingly ambitious), U-God, Buta Rhymes "The Heist", Grand Puba, AZ ("The Hardest") and others. Moreover, the final part of the Large Professor jigsaw comes with his solo career, which started with the underwhelming “1st Class” (2002), but rocketed with the excellent “Main Source” (2008) and the finally released “The LP” (2009).
In my review of “1st Class”, I talked about how Large Professor is seen as one of the greatest based on a relatively small discography. I guess this still holds true to this day, but the reason is because he has an exceptionally high level of consistency – each beat is made to the highest standard. His creative use of sampling and his ability to use the Emu SP-1200 sampling drum machine was extremely influential on many producers – and the simple inescapable fact is that he has created some of hip hop’s BEST ever beats (on the absolutely classic "Breakin' Atoms" alone). That sees him kick off our top 10 in strong fashion: he’s an excellent #10.
9. DJ Quik. Mostly associated with: himself, Suga Free
DJ Quik simply does not get anywhere close to the credit and props he deserves. Why? Maybe it’s a perceived Westcoast-bias. Maybe it’s that he’s never really produced for any of rap’s biggest artists in bulk. This matters little, for DJ Quik’s primary strength is that he is an absolute MUSICIAN. His ability to play different musical instruments AND his genuinely remarkable grasp of melody and rhythm sets him apart in an artform and list that is predominantly sample-driven. Don't get it twisted, Quik is audibly inspired by parliament funk (P-Funk) and he loves using the occasional old funk and soul sample. The key difference is that he is not reliant on them whatsoever, preferring to either create original compositions or replay samples. To try and give you an idea of his distinct ambience, I'll describe some of my favourite Quik beats: “Somethin’ 4 Tha Mood” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=980Xk10DBM0) is a quite beautifully constructed midtempo jam built on a concoction of flute samples, hand claps and wah wah guitars, while “Way 2 Fonky” explodes in a pulsating jam of manic synths, an extremely fat bassline, and a nicely placed orchestral “More Bounce to the Ounce” Zapp sample.“Dollaz and Sense” bangs with a hard-edged G-Funk aggression, “Tha Ho In You” is a gloriously syrupy, rich up-tempo jam, and "Tonite” is a creepy yet infectiously zoned out sex-ode. These are just five tracks I have just described but you can still see the different facets of his sound demonstrated in VERSATILE fashion; his textured production capture an extremely melodic summertime vibe that only 2 producers on this list can better. The producer further sought to distinguish himself in an era dominated by G-Funk and its copious imitators through heavy use of the talkbox and through the "Quik Groove" series, which are musical jam 'interludes' often heavily featuring saxophones, placed strategically within the depths of his studio albums.
Goddamn. It’s not like he was hot for one album or anything either, having demonstrated a PRODIGIOUS workrate throughout his career. “Quik Is The Name” (1991) is his outstanding debut and biggest selling record (who else best to review it than my man pirate captain) although its sound proved relatively minimalist to the excellent follow ups “Way 2 Fonky” (1993) and “Safe + Sound” (1995). These three solo albums form the central apex of his best work and to me “Safe + Sound” takes the cake, being an absolute certified classic which is just deliciously overrun with warm P-Funk grooves. Quik was also working steadily for other artists, helping define the Westcoast’s overall sound, dropping tracks for 2Pac (“Heartz Of Men”), Kam (“That’s My N!gga”), Snoop Dogg, King Tee, Luniz, AMG, Hi-C, as well as albums for Suga Free and 2nd II none. As the years went by G/P-Funk's popularity slowly diminished and Quik’s sales dropped off, but the producer successfully evolved and changed with the times. You can start to hear that through his later albums: while “Rythymalism” (1998) still had anachronistic tendencies, the excellent “Balance + Options” (2000) and “Under Tha Influence” (2002) were lovingly crafted, updated fusions of funk, R&B and rap. Yet despite this DJ Quik has never again punctuated mainstream hip hop’s radar - he is not seen as being at the ‘cutting edge’ any longer - having long been overtaken by a host of new school producers. He's nonetheless still got an immense catalogue of great tracks: Kurupt (“Can’t Go Wrong”), Xzibit, Ludacris (“Spur of the Moment”), Busta Rhymes, Talib Kweli (“Put It In The Air”) and Roscoe (“Get Flipped”), and his prestigious rep helped "Justify My Thug" (ironically, not even close to his best beat) to be chosen by Jay-Z for “The Black Album” (2003). The Compton-born producer has been reasonably quiet in the last 3-4 years, with his last release being 2005’s “Trauma”… but guess what! Musically it was just as good as “Under Tha Influence” and it rams the final nail into the coffin of ANY argument that forlornly tries to demean the achievements of DJ Quik through the last two decades.
There’s no doubt about it, DJ Quik is the second greatest Westcoast producer in history. He would have definitely stood a chance of making a greater imprint on the rap buying mainstream’s consciousness if he had worked in greater bulk with some of the Westcoast’s most high profile artists in the Left Coast’s prime years. Irregardless, Quik has one of the very most consistently awesome catalogues on this list, and technically he is nothing short of a musical genius, who has the deftness and flexibility to not only make amazing music free of sample usage, but to also incorporate samples into one of the best, most vivid ‘sounds’ on this entire list. It’s impossible to underrate this ability and it sees him stand proudly and deservedly at #9 in this top 10.
8. Erick Sermon. Mostly associated with: EPMD, Redman
From one funk lover to another. The "Funklord" Erick Sermon has dropped an unrelenting barrage of funky tracks since 1988, encompassing his legendary partnership with Parrish Smith (as one of rap’s great duos EPMD), his own flourishing solo career and his endless production work for huge Eastcoast stars Redman, Method Man and Keith Murray (among MANY others). As Dayo so elequently explained, Sermon was one of hip hop's most prominent sampling pioneers. We've all heard James Brown sampled in a rap record a million times (by Eric B. & Marley Marl in particular) but Sermon was one of the first to widen & expand the template, masterfully re-intepretating classics from soul and funk artists like Zapp, Kool and the Gang, Barry White, Funkadelic, Rick James... (it goes on). Sermon combined his far-reaching sampling with bass-heavy, rubbery basslines made for cars with booming speaker systems, as demonstrated by EPMD's amazing debut album “Strictly Business” (1988). The duo turned into stars and before long Sermon was the premier creator of bouncing get-the-party started hip hop on EITHER coast (you can see his influence resonate clearly with producers like E-Swift). “Unfinished Business” followed in 1989, maintaining the status quo while taking it even bolder (“So Whatcha Sayin’” is my all time favourite EPMD cut: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Wwh8WHnBWE). "Business As Usual" (1990) maintained the hot streak and was without a doubt the duo’s premier release musically, a relentlessly fresh and densely packed world of funk ("The Big Payback" is one of their jazziest songs). Sermon’s style at this point was well established – was it a tad well worn though? I ask the question because EPMD’s releases through albums 5 to 8 started to tail off in quality (this is a relative downshift for his beats were still banging, as joints like “Da Joint”, “Head Banger” and “Symphony 2000” illustrate).
Maybe it was just a question of focus, because an undeterred Sermon actually went from strength to strength as the 1990s continued, working with different artists and starting to develop real versatility. This was most illuminatingly demonstrated by his prolific partnership with fledgling New Jersey superstar Redman, which would soon establish itself as one of the greatest producer-emcee combinations ever. The pair jumped off with "Whut? Thee Album" (1992), a maniacal slightly lighter continuation on his EPMD work, although the music was enhanced by the fact we now had a top rate emcee spitting over his concoctions. As the mid 90s approached Sermon moved his Redman-beats into darker, predominantly bass driven paranoia on the excellent "Dare Iz A Darkside" (1994) and "Muddy Waters" (1996); although he still maintained more of the lighter party jam vibe on Def Squad tongue-twister extraordinaire Keith Murray's excellent debut album "The Most Beautifullest Thing in This World" (1994). No doubt aided by his unofficial Redman affiliation, Sermon then made a quite logical jump in my mind, getting heavily involved with the Wu-Tang Clan and in particular Method Man. The Red/Meth collab album "Blackout!" (1999) featured several beats from the veteran beatsmith (“Blackout” is sheer unadulterated FIYAAAAAH!!) and “4:21… The Day After” (2006) had some absolutely vintage new-age Sermon productions. “Problem” and “Dirty Mef” in particular demonstrate perfectly how Sermon is still dropping just as good music as he did in his alleged ‘prime’, although it is difficult to explain what his ‘sound’ is these days. His use of sampling is on the whole diminished, as he prefers to create peerless basslines and then lets all manners of dirty keys and strings run all over them, balancing grimy with an updated studio sound quite nicely (sort of a cross between a latterday Rza and DJ Scratch,) and has got a stellar list of collaborations that fall into the late 90s-early/mid 00s period: Jay-Z ("Reservoir Dogs"), LL Cool J ("4,3,2,1"), Busta Rhymes (“Goldmine”), Xzibit ("Double Time", “Alkaholik”), Scarface, Ludacris ("Hip Hop Quotables"), AZ ("Gimme Yours Remix") and Mr Cheeks, as well as plenty of work with his Def Squad crew (a latterday Hit Squad composed of Sermon, Redman & Keith Murray) on their album “El Nino” (1998). Then there's a load more cuts for Redman’s latterday albums; “Malpractice” (2001) was far more inconsistent than normal, although “Red Gone Wild (2007) was pretty solid. I haven’t even mentioned Sermon’s solo career yet; for in amongst all this success he still found time to drop six solo albums. The best of these w as"No Pressure" (1993), which was basically just an extension of his EPMD sound.
As you can see, Erick Sermon's had a career and a half. He’s got a lot of factors going in his favour: firstly, he’s FUNKY! How can you beef with funk? It’s a contradiction in terms. Secondly, Sermon is one of the most adapatable, flexible and versatile beatsmiths on this entire list, having deftly reworked his blueprint sound two three or three times, and having updated it to the extent that it sounds as fresh and clean sounding as any other contemporary producer. Finally, he’s got a vast, outstanding discography rammed full of great albums and collaborations with different artists. #8 barely does him justice in all honesty… but damn, just how good must the guys in front of him be?
7. Marley Marl. Mostly associated with: Juice Crew, LL Cool J, Big Daddy Kane
So far, we’ve seen a lot of great producers who made their name in the 1980s, but if you had to ask me to name just ONE hip hop producer who in one blow encapsulates all the ideals of the quintessential Eastcoast “Golden Age”, it would be Marley Marl. If you wrote a book about the origins of how New York hip hop became the world’s biggest; Marl would be at the heart of it, for he was the central pivot of the legendary Juice Crew and the founder of Cold Chillin’ Records. The important thing to thus remember about Marley Marl is that he is the single most influential producer on this list. Remember when I talked about the Rick Rubin produced “Radio” being stripped down to the bare bone essentials of the early drum machine based rap music? Marl led the charge into a more booming, robust sonic landscape, pioneering the ability to sample a drum beat and reprogram it (the Rolan TR-808 drum/ SDD-2000 sampling-delay unit combination he used would soon become legendary), giving his beats a resounding kick and fresh sheen that in the mid 1980s was uncontested.
And then came James Brown sampling. Marley Marl has used in his beats probably hundreds of credited (and even more uncredited) samples of the soul legend. It all started with Eric B & Rakim’s “Paid In Full” (1987), which has gone down in history as the album that started this trend. Marl officially produced “My Melody” and “Eric B is President” (which lifted large sections of Brown’s “Funky President”), but he is along with Rakim often seen as the driving influence behind the remainder of the album’s songs (and NOT the officially credited Eric B, who made #47 on this list). Marley Marl was taking rap into a new era of music… and he has the discography to prove it. He was the “go to” hitmaker, producing top notch singles for most of the era’s great emcees. We’ve discussed Rakim already, but he also produced classic songs for MC Shan (“The Bridge” – his first big sampled drum loop based beat), Big Daddy Kane ("Ain’t No Half Steppin’”), Kool G Rap (“Road to the Riches”), LL Cool J (“Mama Said Knock You Out”, “Around The Way Girl”) and Masta Ace (“Together”, ”Music Man”, “Me and the Biz”). I haven’t even mentioned Marl's beautifully simplistic, catchy piano loop on the Juice Crew's anthem of a posse cut, “The Symphony” either (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sSoXHUlwraU). It wasn’t just singles this guy could drop, though... NO SIR! Marley Marl produced great albums for a load of artists, most notably Biz Markie (1988’s “Goin’ Off”), MC Shan (1987’s “Down By Law” & 1988’s “Born To Be Wild”), Roxanne Shante (1989’s “Bad Sister”), Intelligent Hoodlum – (1990’s “Intelligent Hoodlum”), Masta Ace (1990’s “Take a Look Around”) and Craig G (1991’s “Now, That’s More Like It”). His work with LL Cool J, Big Daddy Kane and Kool G Rap is undoubtedly his best, however. Firstly, LL’s “Mama Said Knock You Out” (1990) is a classic release. The emcee had grown stale under Rick Rubin and Russell Symmonds, and Marl revitalised his sound, giving him his bite back (“To Da Break of Dawn” and the title track) while giving him hit singles (aenduring anthems like the title track & “The Boomin System”) and a general nonstop barrage of hot backing tracks. It was a masterful turnaround but he also crafted “Long Live the Kane” (1988) (read Chaostamer's excellent take on it) for the master of brag rap Big Daddy Kane, which is an outstanding, quintessential continuation on the sound the producer had established with Rakim (some of the 80s signature songs came from this lethal combination: “Ain’t No Half Steppin”, “Raw”, “Set It Off”). And then there was Kool G Rap & DJ Polo’s “Road to the Riches” (1989) where Marl’s production dived into grittier, grimier, cinematic boom-bap. Limited producer in style? This album says otherwise.
Remember I said Marley Marl is the symbol of 1980s hip hop production? It’s also a tragically ironic title, because to me it’s his greatest hindrance. You see, as the 1990s kicked in and a new golden age era entered (1992 to about 1996), hip hop EXPLODED. The music got 10 times more complicated and richly detailed, taking what Marley Marl established and expanding on it in a hundred different ways. Marl wasn’t feeling it... or, was hip hop now not feeling Marl? Whatever the truth of the matter is, the veteran producer’s output slowly started dropping off. 1990’s “Mama Said Knock You Out” is his biggest ever release in terms of sales, a smash hit album, but it was also his last. His sound became relatively outdated and in many ways LL’s (trademark) trend-hopping comeback album “14 Shots to the Dome” (1993) can be viewed as his death knell. I actually like Marl’s production on this album but it was released smack bang in the middle of the Westcoast’s boom period and is thus seen as something of a symbolic failure for all those involved. He never really recovered - and from 1995 onwards, Marley Marl is barely scraping double figures for the songs I can remember (the odd track for Fat Joe, Capone-N-Noreaga, Sauce Money), which lasted all the way to the solid if unspectacular celebration of the old school reunion album with KRS-One: “Hip Hop Lives” (2007). He’s dropped the odd track for UGK, G Rap and LL since then, and there was the short but magnificent “Pyrex Visions” from Raekwon’s “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II” (2010), but the fact remains that Marley Marl has undergone a sizeable demise. Now, he’s the ghost of a past era, who in a past life reigned as THE undisputed king of Eastcoast hip hop. For what he’s achieved and for the influence he has had, he deservedly gets the #7 position.
It’d be a disgrace if anything else was the case.
6. The Bomb Squad. Mostly associated with: Public Enemy, Ice Cube
Imagine the eye of a storm. Noise meets Chaos in a frenzied union of Mother Nature’s greatest forces. Now, imagine this mixed with the radically politicised ideologies and mentality of the black apocalypse. What results can flatten cities.
Alternatively, what I could just describe is The Bomb Squad’s seminal union with Public Enemy. The production crew consisting of Hank Shocklee (the chief arranger/composer), Keith Shocklee, (breakbeat & effects man), Chuck D (source of vocal samples), Eric "Vietnam" Sadler (the group’s musician), and Gary G-Wiz shook the rap game to its very foundations. The crew took the basic sampling foundation laid down by Marley Marl and made it their own, creating a musical landscape that resembled a battlefield; a dense, crashing sonic maelstrom of booming horns, claxons, alarm sirens, battling loops and screeching guitars. They threw multiple samples into each & every track, deliberately mixing upwards of 5-7 old funk and avant-garde rock samples into one insane mix. It was not melodic in the classic or conventional sense (their antithesis is producers like DJ Quik) but neither was it supposed to be. If you add Terminator X or K. Shocklee’s demented scratching, hypeman Flava Flav yelling every 30 seconds, and Chuck D’s eerily prophetic, BOOMING voice, you see how their combined forces captured boiling sheer mayhem, both musically and lyrically. PE has got multiple classic albums (read the reviews of Madtheory and Scott): “A Nation Of Millions Can’t Hold Us Back” (1989), “Fear Of A Black Planet” (1990) and “Apocalypse 91... The Enemy Strikes Black” (1991) were 5 star, top 20 of all time, genre defining LPS that go beyond a level of critical and commercial acclaim to being fundamental cornerstones of the hip hop canon. These are must hear releases if you profess to be a rap or music fan, but I’m not forgetting about their debut either. “Yo! Bum Rush The Show” (1987) was excellent, as well sixth release, “Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age” (1994), an underrated 4.5 star effort which is perhaps even by PE’s chaotic standards their sheer LOUDEST album. As a beat catalogue goes, it’s therefore pretty difficult to pick out highlights, but here goes: “Don’t Believe The Hype” , “Welcome to the Terrordome”, “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos”, “Shut Em Down”, “How To Kill a Radio Consultant”, “Burn Hollywood Burn”... these are just some of their great beats and songs. Yet “Fight the Power” is still to me the quintessential PE anthem: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8PaoLy7PHwk. It’s the infamous John Wayne and Elvis Pressley dissing tirade (“Most of MY heroes don’t appear on no stamps!” as Chuck furiously announces) that Spike Lee made the centrepiece of his 1989 film, “Do The Right Thing" and the production is dominated by immense tribal horns that just rage through the song in powerful and catchy fashion.
Of course, this is a resume already good enough for the Top 10 on its own, but it seems people forget: The Bomb Squad was not just solely PE-focused. In collaboration with Ice Cube and Sir Jinx they helped produce the Los Angeles emcee’s classic “Amerikkkaz’s Most Wanted”, which is especially remarkable because in 1990 Ice Cube was the hottest MC on planet earth. “AMW” was a slightly more relaxed, funky effort than PE’s work, as the crew melded their style perfectly to Cube’s rhythmic and intoxicating delivery on cuts like “The N!gga Ya Love to Hate” and “Rollin’ wit’ the Lench Mob”, though we did get some trademark manic PE-sounding cuts: “Endangered Species (Tales From The Darkside)” and “Turn off the Radio”. The crew’s other major release was another classic, “The Great Adventures of Slick Rick” (1988), delivered to you by the grand master of storytelling, Slick Rick. This side of their work is often overlooked (the focus is rightly on Rick’s genre-defining narrative-based lyricism), taking a quieter and less brash vibe to fit twisting narratives of the emcee, but it neatly underlines their versatility.
At my count that’s FIVE certified “5 star” classic albums (and 2 that aren’t far off) which beat down everything we’ve seen so far in overall quality and consistency. Each of The Bomb Squad’s PE albums deliver swaggeringly powerful, “statement” hip hop which goes beyond rap critic recognition, having achieved the full focus of the world’s music critics. So you’re probably wondering why aren’t they higher? The Bomb Squad was on fire for about a 7 year span. They dropped some hot tracks outside this period – for LL Cool J, Run DMC, 3rd Bass – but from about 1995 onwards they dropped mostly off the radar. And ultimately, this list is about the greatest producer over the history of the artform. While The Bomb Squad made it to the very highest echelon for a reasonable chunk of this 25/30 year period, it’s not quite enough to put them higher than #6.
Still, I’d take it. Wouldn’t you?
5. Prince Paul. Mostly associated with: De La Soul, Gravediggaz
Compared to some of the huge names found on this mammoth list Prince Paul is a relatively unheralded "name". I’m not sure why, because his breakthrough work with Stetasonic and De La Soul in the late 80s and early 90s carries with it an influential, pioneering punch that literally only 2 or 3 producers on this list can equal. Prince Paul took the basic blueprint laid down by producers like Marley Marl and revolutionised it, throwing a crazy blend of old soul & funk samples into a mish mash with literally any form of live music.
First up for Prince Paul was Stetasonic – who as a “live” band were an early forerunner for The Roots. He produced several tracks on their utterly unique sophomore album "In Full Gear" (1987), a staggeringly crazy melting pot of street bass beats, street poetry, R&B and beatboxing, but he finitely delivered on this promising beginning with revolutionary, zoned out, genre-exploring work with De La Soul. The group established a feel-good, off-the-wall stream of consciousness style with their landmark, classic debut “3 Feet High And Rising” (1989): read Mike's spot on take on it. Paul took lead production duties (ably assisted by DJ Pacemaster Mase), crafting a wonderfully shifting, varied musical landscape that is basically impossible to sum up in one sentence. Check out some of my favourite beats: "Change In Speak" combined fabulously jazzy horns with a living, breathing bassline, "Ghetto Thang" has a relatively conventional bassline that just BANGS, "Plug Tunin" pitches an INCREDIBLE sparring blend of harpsichord-sounding key strong with an infectiously blaring trombone, whereas the funtime guitars, R&B chorus, infectious horn section and whistling of "Eye Know" makes you want to jump up and down. I love the way “3 Feet High And Rising” still sounds as fresh as it doubtless sounded in 1989… but the group would actually IMPROVE on this album 2 years later with "De La Soul Is Dead" (1991). I believe this is Prince’s Paul peak, an incredibly sophisticated, richly detailed, fabulously eccentric and ambitious tour-de-force that is easily one of the 10 best produced rap albums ever. "Bitties in the BK Lounge" pilots a really crazy electro-funk bassline with this infectiously distorted stringline, arguably the single most funky song on this entire list is "A Roller Skating Jam Named Saturdays", which goes ballistic with this delicious 70s Saturday Night Fever party vibe, "Ring Ring Ring (Ha Ha Hey)" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PeAXCNzLPpU) bounces with thumping drums and a sunny 80s Miami sounding blend of uplifting vocal chants and synth blasts (for some reason this song really reminds me of DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince's "Summertime") and "Mille Pulled a Pistol on Santa" is a more traditional cut with a pounding, jazzy blend of pianos and a dominant drum line. Stunning… and De La Soul’s third album, “Buhloone Mindstate” (1993), was another roaring success. While not quite as revolutionary or outstanding, the album continued the group's hot streak (I love "Patti Duke") and remarkably didn't really feature any 'conventional' choruses.
With Prince Paul's layered musical backing in full force, De La Soul’s first three albums ushered in a new wave of positive sounding hip hop and opened up a world of possibilities to producers going forward, but going forward he would no longer work with the group. No matter, let's talk VERSATILITY. The producer could do more conventional bassline-driven stuff excellently, dropping tracks for Boogie Down Productions on "Sex and Violence" (1989), Big Daddy Kane (1989's "It's a Big Daddy Thing" & 1990's "Taste Of Chocolate") as well as cuts for Queen Latifah, 3rd Bass, and MC Lyte. Then there was his move into ‘horrorcore’, as part of supergroup Gravediggaz, delivering the excellent "6 Feet Deep" (1994). The producer’s sound here was similar to Havoc/Beatminers/Muggs, grimy, pounding projects-rap full of minor chords and panicked string samples, and it was the absolute ANTHESIS to De La's sound and mentality. Yeah, Prince Paul is so fly he just dropped one of the most masterful FLIP-REVERSES ever! Around this time the legendary producer also started to deliver legions of hot tracks in hip hop's underground, taking his far out sampling style even more eclectic and wild with his frequent collaborations with Dan The Automater. He dropped tracks on Del tha Funkee Homosapien and Automater's amazing vision of the future, "Deltron 3030", as well as working heavily with MC Paul Barman, producing his debut EP "It's Very Stimulating, White People", which is his most far out release since Stetasonic. Paul also put his love and craft into a series of excellent solo conceptual albums: "Psychoanalysis: What Is It?" (1996), "A Prince Among Thieves" (1999) and "Politics of the Business" (2003). The latter two in particular are CRIMINALLY underrated 'story' concept albums, which find Paul melding his typical skit-musical interlude montage with cinematic, vividly realised beats... check out the latter as reviewed by EPS legend madtheory.
I thought I wouldn't top Erick Sermon and The Bomb Squad, but I guess I just did. Forget about mastering a single sound: Prince Paul has mastered several. He has an extensive discography and is the prime driving force behind two masterpiece rap albums that both equally deserve to be placed within the Top 10-15 Rap Albums ever. The fact there isn't more of those albums (just a load of other very good to excellent releases instead) is in this top 10 of most-pedantic-of fine-margins probably the only thing preventing him from obtaining a higher placing. Nonetheless, Prince Paul satisfies all the criteria required to be a Top 10 producer on influence alone, to the extent that he saunters into the prestigious #5 spot.
This dude ain't a Prince... he's a King.
#4. Pete Rock. Mostly associated with: himself, CL Smooth
Placing Pete Rock ‘only’ at number four is genuinely one of the hardest decisions I have ever made in 10 years of writing hip hop reviews and editorials... let me explain why. He made his name in the early 90s with partner CL Smooth, delivering a trio of releases that made him a key member of the Golden Age's holy trinity of hip hop production (you’ve read about one already, Large Professor, and the third member is coming on this list soon). To me, he's the greatest crate-diggin' sampler on this list, as he has made an art of borrowing from the whole spectrum of obscure funk, soul and jazz artists. His actual production technique appeared well recognised, using a chopping-layering-filtering technique to utilise multiple samples in one beat. Where Pete sought to distinguish himself was by letting his samples hazily drone on in recurring fashion, creating a beautifully poised resonating palette of richly detailed, lushly melodic, influential and layered hip hop.
To hear Pete Rock’s signature sound in immortal fashion check out “The Main Ingredient” (1994), the PINNACLE of rap music production. It's a gorgeous and soothing album full of ethereal hooks (“In Da House”), echoed bass-drum kicks, lifting string samples, melodic pianos (“Take You There”) and lush horns (“I Got A Love”); the edges to the music are completely removed and it has a dreamy, filtered-through-water kind of hazy ambience (“Carmel City”). You HAVE to hear "All The Places", with its crisp drums, gorgeous guitars and soaring strings, and “I Get Physical", which has a beautifully looped guitar, banging drums, awesome scratching, and a awesomely punchy hook ("I, I, I, I, I, get, PHYSICAL!!"). Each cut profiled so far features genuinely world class hooks – a trademark feature of Rock's production – typically consisting of a soulful vocal sample, sharp scratching, and Pete's ad-libbing (the latter is in many ways a precursor for people like Timbaland). But the duo had actually already debuted with the awesome "All Souled Out” (1990) EP, which found the producer expertly showing how he could take his typically midtempo compositions up a notch, on the bouncing, trumpet-infused party mania of hit single "The Creator". Pete Rock & CL Smooth's indisputably classic debut studio album, "Mecca & The Soul Brother" (1992), swiftly followed this release, a relatively morose, darkly jazzy adventure (on tracks like "Return of the Mecca" and "Anger in the Nation"), although there was still scope for classic Rock funkiness on the extremely smooth R&B ("Lot's of Lovin'"), banging drums and manic horns ("Straighten It Out"), and chugging guitars and flute whistles ("Act Like You Know"). The album's best song is "T.R.O.Y. (They Reminisce Over You)", finding Pete deftly flipping a sample of Tom Scott's cover of "Today" by Jefferson Airplane, laying the track's echoing jazzy horns down beautifully over one of the straight illest kick bass/snare combinations ever, with mournful background humming giving the song a poignant edge. It's deservedly considered and recognised as not only the duo's best ever track, but one of hip hop's all time great songs... and thus totally worthy of your attention (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FiOcVWQY2bc)
Having split from CL Smooth in 95, one would think Pete Rock would slow down. WRONG. He went for the jugular with star-studded solo albums: "Soul Survivor" (1998) and "Soul Survivor II" (2004), which featured solid, contemporary, updated Pete Rock sheen, demonstrating how he has adapted and matured over the years magnificently well. In particular, check out how he neatly balances the versatile facets to his sound: harder edged purist beats (the dark drums of "Verbal Murder 2" & “One Mic One DJ”), lushly seething horn-based funk (“Fly Till I Die”, “Rock Steady Part II”, “It’s A Love Thing”) and beautifully poised R&B adaptations (“Mindblowin’”, “Soul Survivor”). These songs were an extension of his extensive collaborations with all manner of rap's best ever artists over the years: 1995’s "Center of Attention" with INI (later released along in 2003 as part of "Lost & Found: Hip Hop Underground Soul Classics") was rammed full of more trademark beautiful Soul Brotha productions ("Square One"). One of the greatest beats on “Illmatic” was a Pete Rock beat (the melodic pianos of "The World is Yours") and AZ then got the stunning "Gimme Yours" and "Rather Unique" on his 1995 classic "Doe or Die". More scorching tracks followed for a multitude of rhymers: Redman, Run DMC, Diamond D, DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince ("Code Red"), Rakim ("When I'm Flowing"), Heavy D, Grap Lova, Rob--O, Talib Kweli, Sadat X… it’s an extensive list. Pete has also done a truckload of legendary remixes for artists such as: Public Enemy ("Shut Em Down" was twisted to a new dope level), EPMD ("Rampage" remix is awesome), Gang Starr, ATCQ, Onyx. And in more recent times, the late 00s have found another solo album, “NY’s Finest” (2008) and some more excellent collaborations, most notably with with Non Phixion, Edo G, Kurupt ("Yessir" is one of the best beats I have heard from ANY producer in years) and Ghostface Killah.
All together now... WHOA. One way of quantifying Pete Rock's influence throughout the 90s and 2000s is to consider that if you ever hear any R&b/funk/soul fusion rap (with horns prominent in it), it’s likely that one or more elements of the sound you hear has been pioneered by the Mt. Carmel beatsmith. 9th Wonder, Kanye West and Jay Dilla have talked at length in interviews about how much influence he has had on their careers, and you can hear significant traces of his ambience in Hi-Tek’s sound. BOOM: that’s four of rap’s top 50 best producers ever who owe a large chunk of their sonic landscape to “The Number One Soul Brotha”. So why is he not higher on this list? What Pete Rock does lack ever so slightly is the QUANTITY (categorically NOT quality) of classic rap albums that we are about to see taken to another level with this list’s top 3. However, I am not going to end on this note: Pete Rock has created my favourite sound on this entire list and is one of my all time favourite producers. He is an absolute production legend and 100% deserves his spot as the #4 rap producer in history.
3. The Rza. Mostly associated with: The Wu-Tang Clan
In 1993, an earthquake of unprecedented FORCE rocked the rap industry. The Wu-Tang Clan burst out of the shadows of Staten Island with “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers”), their masterpiece debut album that would go on to be universally hailed as a top 10 rap album ever as well as one of the fundamental cornerstones of the hip hop ‘canon’. The Wu would dominate hip hop in so many ways for the next decade (plus change), creating a legacy no other rap crew in history has ever come close to matching. There was a genius at the eye of this thunderous storm: The Rza. A one man production show, Rza crafted 36 Chambers’ skeletal, rumbling mix of dirty drums (“Wu-Tang Ain’t Nothing to Fu*k With” - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sx5LpPH5fas&feature=related), jilted pianos (“Clan in Da Front”, “M.E.T.H.O.D. Man”), occasional soulful wails (“Can It All Be So Simple”), off-kilter horn blasts (“Shame on a N!gga”) and crazy bassline-dominated tracks interspersed with frequent Kung-Fu vocal chants ("Protect Ya Neck" and "Da Mystery of Chessboxin'"). It was a deliberately sparse, ‘basement’ sounding style that aimed for no more than 20-30% usage of sample, which in one foul swoop defined a movement that would go onto inspire a legion of underground artists, as well as musically representing the direct antithesis to the mainstream dominance of the Westcoast sound (G-Funk) and the Eastcoast’s reliance on James Brown samples. Rza broke that mould, proving you can SELL records with GREAT hardcore rap music that ISN’T reliant on samples.
The Wu-Tang invasion launched in earnest only a year after “36 Chambers”, as the biggest stars from the Wu dropped solo albums entirely produced by Rza. Method Man was first out the blocks in 1994 with “Tical”, a slightly more melodic continuation on 36 Chambers (“Bring The Pain” & “Stimulation” are my favourites). Then came 1995: the single greatest year for any rap producer ever in the history of the artform. O.D.B. dropped at year-break with the classic “Return to the 36 Chambers”, one of the rawest, most stripped down albums I’ve ever heard ("Shimmy Shimmy Ya"!!!). As 1995 continued, Rza somehow IMPROVED. First up was Gza’s classic “Liquid Swords”, which took on an eerie, mythical ‘Samurai’ ethos; balancing the sheer griminess of the producer’s staple sound (“Duel of the Iron Mic”) with an even higher usage of old Kung Fu film excerpts and distinctively experimental sound effects (“4th Chamber”, "Gold"). Crazily, however, Rza had actually ALREADY BETTERED this release earlier in the year with “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx”, which in my opinion is THE single greatest produced rap album EVER. The ultimate cinematic rap album experience; "OB4CL" is a fluctuating rollercoaster of emotional production that dramatically simmers or stomps and slows down or speeds up according to the song’s theme. Rza intended for OB4CL to play like a movie, with each song lyrically, thematically and musically representing a different ‘scene’. “Criminology” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lk1POuNuCnI) is an exuberant, arrogant action scene blend of brazen horns and "Scarface" vocal samples, the hanting vocal wailing and extremely dramatic strings on “Rainy Dayz” opts for a more poignant feel, and the absolutely moving, haunted, beautiful strings of album closer “North Star (Jewelz)” are reflective and morose. Ambitious, stunning, classic. "OB4CL" and "Liquid Swords" marked Rza's peak as a composer, beatmaker and producer, taking on more complex and dense sonic arrangements, yet keeping his music grounded in the Wu-Tang tradition. As 1996 broke, Rza wasn’t stopping for anyone, delivering more fire with yet another twist on the staple Wu sound: Ghostface Killah’s funky “Ironman” (1996). This was an influential, slightly more sample-dominated release which found the producer switching from cinematic cuts like “Daytona 500” and “Iron Maiden”, to traditional Wu bangas like “260” and “Winter Warz” to a new type of style... sophisticated sped up soul samples (hi Kanye!) on “Motherless Child” and “All I Got Is You”.
I talked about The Beatminerz having a hot opening run, but Rza just blew them out of the stratosphere. By 1997 The Wu had achieved their goal and were at their zenith; it was thus time for the epic double disc album "Wu-Tang Forever" to imprint that on the world's consciousness. “Forever” was an excellent album and superbly produced but it still didn't quite crackle with as many classic Rza beats as it should have (cuts like "Reunited" with its demented violins and "For Heaven's Sake" disagree, of course, and that's before I even mention "Triumph"). Nonetheless, this bloated release still signals the start of Rza's slightly less genius period, which to me has lasted pretty much till the present day. Rza's still a gifted producer and has released dope beats in this time, particularly on Wu albums "The Wu" (2000), "Iron Flag" (2001) and "8 Diagrams" (2007)as well as part of the Gravediggaz supergroup; BUT his main focus through the late 90s and early 2000s was in expanding his "Bobby Digital" persona, with three albums released featuring a new experimental keyboard-driven concept sound. I wasn't feeling it then - and I'm still not now. That's my main gripe with Rza, and his work between 1998 and the mid 2000s gives me a feeling of relative inconsistency. In the last few years, however, the Wu-Tang's de facto leader has come back strongly, with his work on Method Man's "4:21... The Day After" (2006), Gza's "Pro Tools" (2008), a posthumous album for O.D.B. and Raekwon's "Only Built 4 Cuban Linx" (2009). Sadly though, his output is still greatly reduced, as he concentrates more on film scores and the like (notably on Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill").
The Rza has got a gargantuan discography. He's got the hottest run (1993-1997) of entirely self-produced hip hop albums ever, which includes three of rap's all time 20 top albums (36 Chambers, OB4CL & Liquid Swords) AS WELL as the greatest produced rap album ever (OB4CL). He is one of the 3 most flamboyantly gifted sound-creators on this list, and has created extremely influential vibes for both the underground and the mainstream. Hell, he's even got the 'coolest' sound here, through his ingenious linking of the oriental mystique of Kung fu and Shaolin monks to the Wu's sonic and lyrical aesthetic. All this, and he didn't make the top 2! Ultimately, it is my perceived notion of his latter work being RELATIVELY inconsistent that has just hampered him in the final analysis... but this is not an ultimate verdict. For I still hope f0r the day when Rza wakes up in the morning and thinks: "Damn, I'm hungry again", which inspires him to light up the bat sign, reunite the Wu-Tang Clan in full force once more, and lock themselves in a studio, emerging with am entirely Rza-produced “new-era” classic. If they could do that, Rza could push himself even higher up this list… I hope this resonates with you as much as it does with me. As it is, he has no competition for the #3 spot.
A few lucky producers are legends – Rza is a GENIUS.
2. DJ Premier. Mostly associated with: Gang Starr, Jeru The Damaja
Word on the street. All rappers, DJs, producers, labels try to create it, seemingly throwing endless budgets at street teams, PR campaigns, marketing strategies. DJ Premier creates his own word on the street. If fans hear he is dropping a beat on any random album, the automatic, unwavering assumption is that it will be the best beat. "Sh!t the new Nas joint has a DJ Premier beat, gotta cop that!" It's because for 22 years plus change the legendary DJ Premier has set the highest standards for outstandingly consistent, top class production, dropping cutting edge albums, hits and album cuts for EVERY SINGLE rap artist who is a considered top tier, as well as just about everyone in the tier below it. He was initially another in the long line of Marley Marl-inspired "boom bap" Eastcoast producers debuting as the 80s faded to the 90s, coming up with his soul mate and rapping partner, my man Guru (R.I.P.), forming seminal partnership Gang Starr. While Marl is rightfully considered the iconic 1980s New York rap producer, DJ Premier is his equivalent for the 1990s and 2000s, joining Large Professor and Pete Rock as the final member of the Eastcoast’s perceived 'holy trinity' of hip hop production.
Gang Starr debuted inauspiciously with "No More Mr. Nice Guy" (1989), but DJ Premier quickly distinguished himself as several cuts above the average with "Jazz Thing" from the Mo Betta Blues soundtrack (1990) as well as his five excellent beats on Lord Finesse's "Funky Technician" (1990); defining his sound as a polished yet sparse take on the classic boom bap sound. The great Gang Starr albums "Step in the Arena" (1991) and the 5 star classic "Daily Operation" (1992) were perfect demonstrations, prominently featuring thick undulating drums with looped pianos or jazzy trumpets layered over them, as well his most significant stylistic feature: the ‘scratched hook'. This found him digging deep into his encyclopaedic knowledge of rap lyrics, cutting and scratching multiple vocal samples (often plucked from a veritable litany of artists) into one hook. 1994 found the now renowned DJ Premier in UNSTOPPABLE form, delivering the second greatest year for any rap producer ever in the history of the artform. We kick off with Gang Starr's "Hard To Earn", an excellent 4.5 star release powered by the goliath "Mass Appeal" (a top 10 Primo beat), with its hypnotically bright key sample running riot over relentlessly uptempo drums, and the menacing "Code of the Streets", with its dramatically descending melody of synthesized strings. He then raised his game even further with Jeru the Damaja's classic debut album, "The Sun Rises In The East”, a show-stopping, brilliantly fluctuating cinematic depiction of the coldest NY streets on cuts like "Ain't The Devil Happy", a brilliantly tense mix of cavernous drums and shrill string plucks, the atonal whirring key lines of “My Mind Spray" and "Jungle Music", and "Da Bichez" with its ridiculously catchy, insanely funky jazz trumpet. “Sun Rises” also featured Primo’s ability to concoct awesome music out of extremely strange melodies: "Statik" moves with a raw hip hop vibe crafted out of… well… actual static, and "Come Clean" is one of the 90s’ hardcore underground anthems based on the simplicity of its crazy ‘echoed tap dripping’ melody placed over a grimy bassline. Three all-star hookups then sealed the deal on Premier’s outstanding 1994: Big Daddy Kane received the classic grind & bounce of "Show & Prove", The Notorious B.I.G. got the appropriately titled "Unbelievable" for his classic debut "Ready To Die", and the track slinger then dropped some of his most famous beats on Nas' "Illmatic": "N.Y. State of Mind", "Represent" and "Memory Lane (Sittin in Da Park"). The latter is another Top 10 Primo beat – and is such a classic song that it deserves its own youtube link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TfoOGYra47A.
In just five short years, DJ Premier's prodigious consistency and ravenous workrate had established him as the joint top rap producer in the game; but incredibly his ‘peak’ (roughly between 1994 and 2003) was just starting. Some of my favourite Premier beats fall in this period, such as the gloriously glitzy and lush strings of Royce Da 5’9’s "Boom" and J-Live's "The Best Part", plus the warm chords and sunny disposition of Common's "The 6th Sense". But Gang Starr's "Moment of Truth" (1998) took the mighty producer's tried and trusted style to its zenith, an 18 track opus that scaled and descended every emotional peak: from razor sharp old school anthems "You Know My Steez" and “Work” to the mystical strings of "Above the Clouds", taking in the gorgeously jazzy "JFK2LAX" and "This Time", ending up with the immensely poignant "In Memory Of". The album's title track (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lH3hrtp1T84), incidentally, is quite possibly THE greatest symphonic arrangement I have ever heard on a rap song. I could literally fill another three paragraphs describing the amazing DJ Premier collaborations that cemented his legacy… but we’d be here all day so I’ll stick to some of his more impressive efforts. Group Home recieved some of his most melodic work on "Livin' Proof" (1995) - to the extent he actually made straight wack emcees like Melaachi the Nutcracker sound tolerable - and Jeru The Damaja's “Wrath of the Math” (1996) was another excellent release. He continued to work with rap's biggest stars, Nas ("I Gave You Power" & "Nas Is Like", "NY State of Mind Part II" & "2nd Childhood"), Nas' great rival Jay-Z ("D'Evils", "Friend or Foe" and "Bring It On" from 1996's "Reasonable Doubt", "Friend or Foe 98", "So Ghetto" & "Intro/A Million and One Questions") as well as more with Biggie ("Kick In The Door" and "Ten Crack Commandments"). He delivered certified heat for rap’s hall of famers: anthems for Rakim ("It's Been A Long Time" and "When I B On the Mic") and more followup material from his six six slammin beats on KRS-One's "Return of the Boom Bap" (1993) with further tracks on the legend’s eponymous 1995 album ("MC's Act Like They Don't Know" & "Rapphaz R.N. Dainja""). Jump a few years to 2003 and DJ Premier was still demolishing all competition and coming up trumps once more with another excellent Gang Starr release, "The Ownerz" (I love "PLAYTAWIN" in particular). I've tried to not make this a "discography listing" style list either, but with DJ Premier, I simply have to. He's crafted a ton of amazing beats for: M.O.P. (“Breakin’ The Rules”, “Face Off 2K”, “Follow Instructions”), Brand Nubian, O.C. (“My World”, “Win The G”, “M.U.G.”), Afu-Ra ("Defeat" and "Mic Stance"), Big L, Dilated Peoples, Snoop Dogg, The LOX ("Recognise"), Xzibit, Pitch Black ("It's All Real"), Das EFX, D.I.T.C. ("Thick"), Non Phixion, Mos Def ("Mathematics"), Freddie Foxxx, Capone-N-Noreaga ("Invincible"), Lady of Rage, Ol' Dirty Bastard. And, as if to deliberately rub his greatness in, in recent times the guy is still dropping his trademark compositions: "MVP" for Ludacris (check out Kyle's superb review), "That White" for Fat Joe, "On The Rise Again" for Kool G Rap, and some hot beats for Termanology ("Watch How It Go Down") as well as for the artists of the Gang Starr Foundation
The sheer vastness and quality of DJ Premier's outstanding catalogue down the years is UNPARALLELED, even on this list. It’s no surprise that Premier’s relatively mediocre beats are better than the prime of most newjack beatmakers, although he is no longer a hitmaker for anyone but the more underground artists. His sway on latter-day producers such as Ski and The Alchemist is palpable too; and the far-reaching influence his groundbreaking hooks had is incredibly tough to even start to quantify. As for his actual sound… it's astonishing. No-one has better drums and basslines than this guy, and there is categorically NO-ONE who can combine sampled string and piano loops in more proficient fashion. Add his outstanding hooks and the 'DJ Premier sound' is clean, thick, rugged ‘real’ hip hop that nonetheless swells with an inherent sense of remarkable catchiness. To this extent, I wouldn't even call Preem a jazz-rap producer any longer either, he's more like a sound unto himself... and you know a Primo beat the minute you hear it. All this makes him a certified top 5 producer but his ability to craft albums such as, "Step In The Arena", "Daily Operation", "Moment of Truth" and "The Sun Rises In The East" combines with his relentless consistency to make him the #2 producer in rap history.
Know just ONE thing: there’s no more appropriately named producer than DJ Premier...
1. Dr. Dre. Mostly associated with: Snoop Dogg, Eminem
Dr. Dre is one of the great figures of rap history, an artist who has experienced gigantic success as a rapper and producer alike, with different sounds and in different eras: debuting in the late 80s with pioneering ‘gangsta’ rap group N.W.A., and then with an uber-successful solo career throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Dre is exclusively the single greatest driver of the Westcoast gangsta rap scene’s multi-era sound and it’s thus virtually impossible to see him as anything other than the second most influential producer ever. The subsequent size of Dre’s stardom means he can often provoke an auto-reaction among people that tends to fall into the ‘overrated’ bandwagon; but as he's number one on my list you'll be right in thinking I don't subscribe to that train of thought.
When people think of Dr. Dre they think of G-Funk, created by the Compton-born producer with his seminal debut solo album "The Chronic" (1992). Taking its inspiration primarily from 1970s Parliment-Funkadelic, the vibrant G-Funk groove of “The Chronic” interpolated elements of Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield and George Clinton samples, melding them into a melodic and funky blend of fat, rolling basslines ("Fu*k with Dre Day"), lazily high pitched synth melodies ("Deez Nuts, High Powered”) and/or flutes ("Lil Ghetto Boy”), as symbolised by its colossus of a lead single, "Nuthin' But A G-Thang". Dre DID use drum machine/sampling equipment like the Akai MPC3000 but prefered in the main to 'compose', similar to DJ Quik in how he brought musicians together to replay samples using live instrumentation. This was demonstrated best on stunning singles like the gorgeous "Let Me Ride" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XfkDnsxc-zE), which found Parliament, James Brown and Bill Withers samples meeting a fabulously uptempo flute-tinged bassline with a medley of serene synth whistles and strings layered on top. “The Chronic" quickly went multi-platinum, sending the Dre/Snoop Dogg partnership SOARING to superstar status, a rise echoed by G-Funk's influence running RAMPANT in early-mid-late 90s hip hop (even staple Eastcoast rappers like Biggie took G-Funk elements, listen to "Big Poppa"). How do you follow a paradigm shifting, landmark rap classic? If you are Dr. Dre, you arguably TOP IT. Snoop Dogg's "Doggystyle" (1993) was the most anticipated debut album in history but Dre once again exceeded the hype, deepening the grooves and crafting a tighter LP that surges with a collective synergy and fresh funkiness (epitomised by cuts like "Gin & Juice", "Who Am I (What's My Name?)", "Ain't No Fun (If The Homies Can't Have None)" & "G-Funk Intro"") and joins "The Chronic" in being recognised in pretty much every single top 10 rap album list you ever see. Legacy secure, by 1994 Dre was established as the top rap producer in the game, swelled even further with great contributions on the "Murder Was The Case" and "Above The Rim" soundtracks ("Natural Born Killaz" with Ice Cube, "Afro Puffs" with Lady of Rage, and "U Betta Recognise" with Sam Sneed), as well as singles like 1995's "Keep Their Heads Ringing" and ALL STAR collaborations with the biggest rapper on either coast 2Pac, gargantuan smash hit "California Love" and "Can't C Me".
BUT I’ve only covered only part of the Dr. Dre story. For 1988 found the tribal, polarising rage of gangsta rap group N.W.A. punching through the rap scene like an enraged bull in a china shop, causing a tidal wave of controversy with seminal, landmark classic album "Straight Outta Compton" (1988), and demonstrating an entirely different string to a young Dre's bow. Focusing on street-smart, reductive production (taking some elements of The Bomb Squad's style), "Straight Outta Compton" swelled with a tremendous fury and catchy head-nod factor on songs like the animalistic, horn-driven Title Track, the pounding bassline of "If It Ain't Ruff", the jazzy horn/bass combo of "Something Like That", and the cheeky piano melody and trumpet pull of "I Ain't Tha 1". The beatsmith then started to refine his sound further with Eazy-E's excellent solo debut, "Eazy-Duz-It" (1988), developing more dense layers of sonic punc on tracks like "Radio" & "Eazy-er Said Than Done", taking his evolved groove to another level with The D.O.C.'s "No One Can Do It Better" (1989). This was a note-perfect blend of funky samples and booming basslines ("Let The Bass Go"), listen to the dynamically booming "Lend Me An Ear" and the crunchy pianos, high tension strings and trumpet blasts of "The Grand Finale". The onset of the 1990s found Dre accelerating into overdrive with the insane title track from N.W.A.’s "100 Miles and Runnin" EP, an incredible, INSANE explosion of sirens, ticking clocks, horn blasts, jangling guitars and a whirring string line jumping over all a manic bassline. The sophomore release from "The World's Most Dangerous Group", "Efil4zaggin" (1991) followed, and it's arguably his best ever produced release; a clean, richly layered, and flawlessly menacing blend of pounding keyboards ("The Prelude", "Appetite for Destruction") dark keylines and jazzy horn blasts over uptempo drums ("Real N!ggaz Don't Die", "Approach to Danger", "Real N!ggaz"), terrifyingly menacing syth blasts ("One Less B!tch") or vintage G-Funk productions ("Always Into Something"). "Efil4zaggin" realises a cinematic, funky nightmare, brimming with extreme tension and deep layers, demonstratinghow people to this day FORGET THINGS! For the producer had delivered three genuinely classic releases musically in the space of three years, switching up and evolving his style magnificently… yet in baffling fashion this section of his career is still relatively underrated.
Versatility, maturity, sonic depth… Dr. Dre had demonstrated it all. He suffered a 3 year period of relative quiet between 1996 and 1999 - punctuated occasionally by underrated beats ("East Coast, West Coast Killaz", "Been There, Done That") and work for Nas' super-group The Firm ("Phone Tap") – but you can’t keep a good doctor down. Dre had a COMEBACK in the offing, starting through his discovery of a certain rapper you may know... Eminem. Big D excellently covered the debut of the "Great White Hope" - "The Slim Shady LP" (1999) - which featured classic Dre beats on "Guilty Conscience", "Role Model", and the gigantic "My Name Is". The main act was served with Dre's barnstorming sophomore solo album "2001" (1999), a flawlessly produced, ahead-of-its-time LP which set new standards for sonic punch and clarity. Every single note (“Light Speed"), key (“Xxxplosive”), piano (“Big Ego’s”) and drum kick (“What’s The Difference”) clangs with the sharpest, most precise zing I have ever heard, and I haven't even got to the singles yet. ANTHEM lead single "Still D.R.E." stomps with thumping bass, triumphant strings and a pounding key sequence, "Forgot About Dre" seethes with plucked guitar licks and stabbed string bursts and “The Next Episode" rides a club-friendly blend of synthesized orchestral swoops and catchy keys. Dr. Dre had reinvented himself once more, laying down a FRESH and INNOVATIVE sound which dominated the next decade, which he spent producing hits for a whole plethora of artists. Eminem's even more successful follow-up "The Marshall Mathers LP" (2000) found 7 Dre beats, and he laid down a trail of quality for himself and Snoop ("The Wash"), Xzibit ("Best of Things", "X", "U Know"), Snoop ("Lay Low", "Hennesey N Buddah"), Busta Rhymes ("Holla", "Break Ya Neck"), Knoc-Turnal ("Str8 Westcoast"), DJ Quik ("Put It On Me"), Eve ("Let Me Blow Ya Mind") Mary J Blige ("Family Affair") and Jay-Z ("The Watcher 2"). The veteran producer's work on D-12's "Devil's Night" (2001) was some of his very best and most underrated (the abrasive "Fight Music" and the loud, powerful "Revelation" especially), some of his work for 50 Cent in particular was impressive (“In Da Club”, “Heat” & “Gunz Come Out”) as well as for Busta (on 2006's "The Bang Theory") and The Game "How We Do", "Westside Story"). In the last few years Dre's workrate has dropped to 3-5 tracks a year (plus the obligatory work with Eminem) which has maybed fuelled a misguided perception he's fallen off. Some average work for G-Unit and Em (2005's “Encore") aside I don’t agree, just listen to his two beats on Raekwon's prestigious 2010 release "Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II" ("Catalina" was absolute fire) for proof that he's still got it.
Of course, there's another nonsensical suggestion perpetuated which in some lists 'taints' Dr. Dre's legacy; this is that he relies too much on ghost-producers. He's a composer; he himself admits he works with a variety of musicians on a track. Co-producers get their props - hence the wide range of co-production credits for people like Daz, Scott Storch, DJ Yella, Chris "The Glove" Taylor, Mark Batson, Mel-Man etc – and the FACTS are that most of these guys have on their own (apart from Daz & maybe Scott Storch) never had HALF of his success. To me this pretty much discredits these "ghost producers" arguments. So Dr. Dre gets the nod over DJ Premier for a couple of significant reasons: his catalogue of outstandingly produced rap albums is matched by NO-ONE else and he's genuinely switched his style and sound up multiple times through different eras, balancing outstanding artistic quality with an inherent mainstream appeal. His music is consistently rich, textured and technically outstanding, created using the sharpest tools, he's produced for a wide variety of different emcees in style and qualities, as well as having obvious longevity and MASSIVE influence (he practically sculpted the sound of West coast hip hop not ONCE but TWICE). Picking his 'peak' is incredibly difficult, as there are three 'era's that you could easily make an argument for! How many other producers on this list can you say that about? Imagine if/when he ever drops the fabled "Detox"... it could be a legacy-defining release. Here's hoping.
Let's leave the last word to my man Ice Cube. Cube left N.W.A. in a storm of jibes, directed at him by MC Ren, Dre and Eazy-Z on various tracks from 'Efil4zaggin'. This prompted the legendary rapper to retaliate with the scything diss track "No Vaseline", which as Nick rightly pointed out, can be considered the greatest rap diss track ever. But Ice Cube's primary Dr. Dre insult on this record, is actually a double-edged sword, for it is a veiled compliment towards the production skills of the D-R-E:
“Aiyo Dre, stick to producin".
Luckily for the rap game and its fans, Dr. Dre did. He's ultimately my undisputed #1.
We're finished guys. I WANT to hear your opinion, so please head on over to the comment section and let me know. I'm gonna wrap up the honourable mentions and a few bits and pieces in a bonus wrap up editorial in a few days or so. Until then, thank you for reading.