The 20 Best Hip-Hop Producers of All Time
Roger Erickson/Stones Throw Records
"The music is the fuel/A perfect place for emcess to duel," LL Cool J declared on "I Need a Beat" way back in 1984, and it's still true today — without a hot beat behind him (or her), even the nimblest rapper's rhymes tend to fall flat. Anyone who's been a hip-hop fan for more than a minute starts studying the liner notes (or, these days, Wikipedia or DatPiff) to see which producers' names keep turning up of their favorite albums and mixtapes. Which become your favorites is ultimately a matter of personal taste — but these 20, we believe, represent the ones who have done the most to push the music forward, both artistically and, in some cases, commercially.
We put most of the key tracks listed below (minus a few that aren't available) on a Spotify playlist, embedded at the end of the list. Because hip-hop is a neverending conversation between different rappers and producers, we arranged them in roughly chronological order, so you can hear how the music has evolved, from Run-D.M.C. and Eazy-E to Joey Bada$$ and Drake. If we omitted your favorite producer, tell us in the comments — obviously this list only scratches (no DJ pun intended) the surface.
Key Tracks: Atmosphere, "GodLovesUgly" (2002); Brother Ali, "Uncle Sam Goddamn" (2007); Atmosphere, "Puppets" (2008)
No city's hip-hop scene is more closely tied to a single producer than Minneapolis', where Anthony "Ant" Davis has been at the forefront of the Twin Cities sound for two decades. Ant's main gig is Atmosphere, his duo with rapper Slug; over the course of eight albums and countless EPs and mixtapes, they have amassed a catalog unrivaled in independent hip-hop. But he's also the go-to producer for one of Minnesota's other leading rappers, Brother Ali, and he's supplied beats to Felt (Slug's collab with Murs), Sage Francis and MF Doom among others. Ant's strength is his versatility; he mines blues, soul and gospel for Brother Ali's earthy sound, brings the funk for light-hearted joints like Felt's A Tribute to Lisa Bonet, and combines simple but catchy melodies with skeletal beats on Atmosphere's most memorable tracks.
19. DJ Muggs
Key tracks: Cypress Hill, "Hand on the Pump" (1991); Cypress Hill, "Insane in the Brain" (1993); DJ Muggs feat. Dr. Dre and B-Real, "Puppet Master" (1997)
As the DJ and producer for South Gate's Cypress Hill, Muggs injected the groove and menace of West Coast hip-hop with the wild energy of an East L.A. backyard party. The bouncing beats and tea-kettle whistles of his biggest hits, House of Pain's "Jump Around" and Cypress Hill's "Insane in the Brain," were inescapable in the early '90s, and spawned a thousand (mostly inferior) imitators. Muggs has also produced seminal tracks for Ice Cube, MC Eiht and Goodie Mob among others, done remixes for U2 and The Beastie Boys, and his trio of Soul Assassins LPs has featured guest spots from the likes of Dr. Dre, RZA, GZA, Kurupt and Bun B. He continues to produce for Cypress and release his own solo work, including a self-described "West Coast dubstep" album in 2012 called Bass in Your Face.
Key tracks: Drake, "Best I Ever Had" (2009); Eminem, "Not Afraid" (2010); Drake, "Energy" (2015)
Drake has arguably been the most influential rapper to emerge in recent years, and his fellow Canadian Boi-1da has been the producer most responsible for shaping his signature, oft-imitated sound: intricate beats filtered through a hazy, hypnotic wash of keyboards and synth strings, laced with the occasional mournful piano. Since coming up with Drake on his Room for Improvement and Comeback Season mixtapes, Boi-1da has diversified both his sound and his client roster, turning out club bangers for the likes of Jeezy and Rick Ross and giving Eminem one of his biggest comeback anthems with "Not Afraid." But his most innovative work continues to be with Drizzy, whose darker, more aggressive style on this year's If You're Reading It's Too Late owes much to Boi-1da's increasingly moody, menacing sound.
Key tracks: El-P, "Deep Space 9mm" (2002); El-P, "The Full Retard" (2012); Run the Jewels feat. Zack de la Rocha, "Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)" (2014)
Jaime "El Producto" Meline was already revered among fans of sharp, cerebral hip-hop for his work with Company Flow on Rawkus Records in the late '90s. Then, after the turn of the millennium, El-P dropped a trio of instant-classic solo LPs that solidified his status as one of underground rap's most formidable double threats, a producer whose tracks were even denser and more creative than his intricate, thought-provoking rhymes. By the time he released 2012's Cancer 4 Cure, an El-P album existed in its own parallel universe, ignoring hip-hop trends in favor of a claustrophobic world of crawling beats and Bomb Squad-like barrages of electronic noise, distorted samples and skull-crushing bass. That same year, after producing Killer Mike's R.A.P. Music album, El-P surprised many fans by putting his solo work on hold to form Run the Jewels with the Atlanta gangsta rapper — a project that has brought him his most mainstream recognition yet, thanks to unstoppable anthems like "Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)" featuring Rage Against the Machine's Zack de la Rocha.
16. Organized Noize
Key tracks: OutKast, "Player's Ball" (1993), Goodie Mob, "Dirty South" (1995), OutKast, "So Fresh, So Clean" (2000)
Throughout the '90s, Organized Noize — the production team of Sleepy Brown, Rico Wade and Ray Murray — defined the sound of Atlanta hip-hop: groove-oriented, laid-back, filled with samples or nods to '70s funk and Southern soul. They produced all of OutKast's groundbreaking 1994 debut, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, as well as Goodie Mob's '95 debut, Soul Food, which introduced CeeLo Green to the world. They also produced one of the best hip-hop-flavored pop hits of the decade in TLC's "Waterfalls." Though OutKast's Big Boi and Andre 3000 would go on to surpass Organized Noize's brilliance with their own mind-blowing productions on Stankonia and Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, tracks like "Ain't No Thang" and "Player's Ball" paved the way — and even on Stankonia, the Noize-produced hit "So Fresh, So Clean" was an undeniable highlight.
15. DJ Quik
Key tracks: DJ Quik, "Born and Raised in Compton" (1991), 2Pac, "Heartz of Men" (1996), DJ Quik, "Pitch In on a Party" (1999)
Though often overshadowed by his contemporary, Dr. Dre, rapper/producer David "DJ Quik" Blake was just as influential in shaping the sound of early West Coast hip-hop. Heavily indebted to funk producers like George Clinton and Zapp's Roger Troutman, Quik's productions to this day are typically filled with rubbery basslines and complex, syncopated percussion. Though more a solo artist than a producer of other people's records, he's served up beats for the likes of 2Pac, Kurupt and Snoop Dogg, as well as his favorite collaborators, the Compton rap duo Second II None. His most recent solo album, last year's The Midnight Life, proved he still hasn't lost his fire.
14. Beastie Boys
Key tracks: "Shake Your Rump" (1989), "Sabotage" (1994), "Too Many Rappers" (2011) (all by Beastie Boys)
Because they often worked with co-producers — Rick Rubin on their 1986 debut, Licensed to Ill; The Dust Brothers on their '89 masterpiece, Paul's Boutique — Mike D, Ad-Rock and MCA don't always get enough credit for their group's endlessly innovative sound. But the Boys produced or co-produced all eight of their studio albums, and throughout their career, they continuously reshaped hip-hop, exploding the possibilities of sampling on the kaleidoscopic Paul's Boutique, injecting rap with the frenetic energy of punk-rock on the irresistible "Sabotage," and still tweaking their music in new ways on their final album, 2011's Hot Sauce Committee Part Two — a record whose grimy sound and bratty, defiant energy is all the more remarkable given that Adam "MCA" Yauch was battling what would prove to be terminal cancer as it was being recorded.
13. DJ Mustard
Key tracks: YG feat. Tyga, Snoop Dogg and Nipsey Hussle, "Bitches Ain't Shit" (2011), Tyga, "Rack City" (2011), Jeezy feat. 2 Chainz, "R.I.P." (2012), Big Sean feat. E-40, "I Don't Fuck With You" (2014)
Is it too soon to put the West Coast's hottest producer this high on the list? Maybe. But in a remarkably short period of time, Dijon McFarlane has shifted the gravitational center of club hip-hop from Atlanta back to Los Angeles. His ratchet sound — sparse and menacing, but insidiously funky and fun as hell to dance to — first emerged in 2011, and by the summer of 2012 it was seemingly everywhere, thanks the rise of Mustard-affiliated rappers YG, Kid Ink and Tyga, especially the latter's Mustard-produced hit, "Rack City." By late 2012, the South Central-raised beatmaker was producing tracks for ATL rappers Jeezy and 2 Chainz, further confirming ratchet's status as the new go-to sound for the club. More recently, he co-produced Big Sean's "I Don't Fuck With You" with none other than Kanye West.
12. No I.D.
Key tracks: Common, "I Used to Love H.E.R." (1994), Jay Z, "All Around the World" (2002), Kanye West, "Heartless" (2008), Common feat. Vince Staples, "Kingdom" (2014)
Dion Wilson earned his nickname "Godfather of Chicago Hip-Hop" in the '90s, when he was known as Immenslope and he was the go-to beatmaker for a politically minded rapper then known as Common Sense. Later, Common Sense became Common and Immenslope became No I.D., adding voices like Beanie Sigel, Jay-Z and G-Unit to his résumé. No I.D.'s strength is his soft touch; even his toughest tracks retain a soulful quality that packs an emotional punch. His profile got a huge boost in 2004 when Kanye West shouted him out as a mentor on The College Dropout, and an even bigger boost a year later when he and Jermaine Dupri co-helmed Bow Wow's No. 1 hit, "Let Me Hold You." He's been on a tear ever since, dropping one hot track after another for the likes of West, Drake, Big Sean and his old Chi-town cohort, Common — which is all the more impressive considering that his day job is executive vice-president of A&R for Def Jam Records.
11. Rick Rubin
Key tracks: LL Cool J, "I Can't Live Without My Radio" (1985), Run-D.M.C. feat. Aerosmith, "Walk This Way" (1986), Jay Z, "99 Problems" (2003), Eminem, "Berserk" (2013)
Rubin is best-known these days as the bearded guru behind hit albums by everyone from the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Johnny Cash, but he was also an instrumental figure in helping early hip-hop cross over to a wider audience. A punk-rock kid who learned hip-hop production from Afrika Bambaataa protégé Jazzy Jay, Rubin introduced rock guitar samples to hip-hop — most famously on Run-D.M.C.'s cover of Aerosmith's "Walk This Way" and the Beastie Boys' "(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party!)" — but he also turned the stripped-down sounds of street hip-hop into radio-friendly singles like LL Cool J's "I Can't Live Without My Radio." Rubin's credit on LL's debut album, Radio — "Reduced by Rick Rubin" — aptly describes his talent for stripping rap music down to its barest essentials. When Kanye West needed someone to toughen up the sound on Yeezus, Rubin was the one who got the call.
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