“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.
Key tracks: Missy Elliott, “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” (1997), Jay Z feat. UGK, “Big Pimpin'” (1999), Missy Elliott, “Work It” (2002), Timbaland & Magoo feat. Missy Elliott, “Cop That Shit” (2003), Jay Z, “Tom Ford” (2013)
Virginia native Timothy Mosley first made a name for himself producing R&B hits for Aaliyah and Ginuwine, and he brought that same slow 'n' sexy vibe to his early rap tracks, especially in his dazzling collaborations with Missy Elliott. Over a series of three albums with his rap partner Magoo, he perfected his signature style: beats that were somehow both staccato and limber, with squiggly synths and exotic-sounding samples from Indian and Middle Eastern music. Over the past decade, most of his collaborations have been in pop realm, with everyone from Justin Timberlake to Madonna to Beyoncé. But just re-proved his hip-hop bona fides by co-producing most of Jay Z's most recent album, Magna Carta Holy Grail.
9. The Neptunes
Key tracks: Noreaga feat. Tammy Lucas, “Superthug” (1998), Mystikal, “Shake Ya Ass” (2000), Nelly, “Hot in Herre” (2002), Snoop Dogg feat. Pharrell, “Drop It Like It's Hot” (2005), Clipse feat. Pharrell, “Mr. Me Too” (2006)
Before he was better-known for collaborating with Daft Punk and his taste in hats, Pharrell Williams was one-half of the hottest hip-hop production duo of the early '00s. Together with his partner and fellow Virginian Chad Hugo, Pharrell cranked out an astonishing string of rap and pop singles that were both futuristic and radio-friendly, with a stripped-down style equally indebted to Prince and other Southern rap producers like Organized Noize. The tracks names themselves are iconic: “I'm a Slave 4 U,” “Hot in Herre,” “Rock Your Body,” “Milkshake,” “Drop It Like It's Hot,” “Hollaback Girl.” For some reason, none of this success ever translated to N.E.R.D., the electro-rock band Williams and Hugo started in 1999 with their friend Shae Haley — or to Clipse, the Virginia rap duo who have long served as an outlet for The Neptunes' more thugged-out beats. As Pharrell's solo career has taken off, he and Hugo have teamed up less frequently — and radio hip-hop has been the poorer for it.
8. The Bomb Squad
Key tracks: Public Enemy, “You're Gonna Get Yours” (1987), Public Enemy, “Fight the Power” (1989), Ice Cube, “AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted” (1990), Public Enemy, “By the Time I Get to Arizona” (1991), Eric B & Rakim, “Juice (Know the Ledge)” (1992)
The production team behind Public Enemy, the aptly named Bomb Squad, turned hip-hop production into something seething and cinematic. On landmark P.E. albums Yo! Bum Rush the Show, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and especially their 1990 masterpiece, Fear of a Black Planet, brothers Hank and Keith Shocklee, Eric “Vietnam” Sadler and group leader Chuck D peppered their tracks with unrecognizable samples, turntable scratches, police sirens and sped-up breakbeats, distilling the tense, nervous energy of inner city African-American life down into four-minute hand grenades of black rage. Their unmistakable sound made them in-demand in late '80s and early '90s hip-hop, and they produced tracks for everyone from Ice Cube to Slick Rick to, oddly, Bell Biv Devoe (yep, “B.B.D. (I Thought It Was Me?)” is a Bomb Squad joint). Sadly, by the late '90s, the Squad members had gone their separate ways, but their legacy still looms large.
Key tracks: A Tribe Called Quest, “Bonita Applebum” (1990), A Tribe Called Quest, “Award Tour” (1993), Nas, “One Love” (1994), Q-Tip, “Breathe and Stop” (1999), Q-Tip, “Johnny's Dead” (2008)
Together with De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest were at the forefront of a new kind of hip-hop that emerged in the late '80s: smoother, jazzier, built around groovy keyboards and basslines, often sampled from old jazz, funk and classic-rock records. (“Award Tour,” for example, copped its irrresistible keyboard hook from a 1975 album by jazz pianist Weldon Irvine.) Though the whole group shared production credits, it's widely acknowledged that the chief architect of the Tribe's laid-back sound was their leader, an ambitious rapper/producer from Queens named Jonathan Davis, aka Q-Tip. After the group split in 1998, Tip — who by then had converted to Islam and changed his name to Kamaal Ibn John Fareed — embarked on a sporadic but critically acclaimed solo career, as well producing classic tracks for Nas, Mobb Deep and Janet Jackson among others.
6. Kanye West
Key tracks: Jay Z, “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” (2001), Talib Kweli, “Get By” (2002), Kanye West, “Jesus Walks” (2004), Kanye West, “Gold Digger” (2005), Jay Z feat. Kanye West and Rihanna, “Run This Town” (2009), Kanye West feat. Pusha T, “Runaway” (2010)
Plenty of big-name rappers dabble in production, or give themselves a “co-producer” credit because they suggested a sample or turned a few knobs in the control room. But Kanye's production skills are legit. Before he was the Louis Vuitton Don, West was just another studio rat on his grind, cranking out singles and mixtapes for local Chicago rappers in the late '90s. His big break came when he signed a production deal with Roc-A-Fella Records in 2000, which landed him on Jay Z's The Blueprint alongside such big-time beatmakers as Timbaland, the Trackmasters and Just Blaze. West's tracks for Hova, Talib Kweli, Alicia Keys and others earned him acclaim for his smart use of classic soul samples, often sped-up or pitch-shifted, combined with his own ear for melody and infectious, syncopated rhythms. His debut single, “Through the Wire” — rapped while his jaw was wired shut following a near-fatal car accident — was similarly well-received, but the track that really announced West's arrival as a rapper/producer double threat was the dense, melodramatic “Jesus Walks,” a single off his debut album, The College Dropout, that sounded like nothing else on rap radio in 2004. Since then, Yeezy hasn't rested on his laurels, reinventing his sound with each album, even as he continues to produce beats for such big names as Common, Jay Z, T.I. and Drake, as well as artists on his G.O.O.D. Music label like Big Sean and Pusha T.
Key tracks: Wu-Tang Clan, “Protect Ya Neck” (1992), Gravediggaz, “Diary of a Madman” (1994), GZA feat. Method Man, “Shadowboxin'” (1995), Wu-Tang Clan feat. Cappadonna, “Triumph” (1997), Wu-Tang Clan, “Uzi (Pinky Ring)” (2001), Earl Sweatshirt feat. RZA, “Molasses” (2013)
As the de facto leader and main producer for Wu-Tang Clan and its many affiliated rappers and solo projects, RZA's tough yet soulful production style was inescapable throughout the '90s. With Prince Paul in Gravediggaz, he also pioneered horrorcore. Some of his trademark techniques — especially his fondness for sped-up “chipmunk” vocal samples — became so heavily imitated that, by the early 2000s, they bordered on cliché. Ever the innovator, RZA responded with dense, horn-laden tracks like “Gravel Pit” and “Uzi (Pinky Ring).” He continues to produce most of Wu-Tang's output and occasionally lends his production chops to such Wu disciples as Earl Sweatshirt and Kanye West.
4. Pete Rock
Key tracks: Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth, “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)” (1992), Nas, “The World Is Yours” (1994), AZ feat. Nas, “Gimme Yours” (1995), Rakim, “The Saga Begins” (1997), Raekwon, “Sneakers” (1999), Pete Rock, “A Little Soul” (2001)
NYC native Peter Phillips, better-known as Pete Rock, is one hip-hop's great masters of the well-placed sample. On his now-classic albums with rapper C.L. Smooth, Rock's layering of obscure jazz, soul and funk records — often with the hiss and crackle of well-worn vinyl left intact in final mix — laid the groundwork for much of alternative hip-hop for the next 20 years. He would go on to produce key tracks on many of the decade's most iconic albums, including Nas' Illmatic, AZ's Doe or Die and Rakim's The 18th Letter, as well as numerous beats for various members of the Wu-Tang Clan and his own solo albums. These days, he continues to release beat collections like this year's PeteStrumentals 2, as well as provide production work (sometimes uncredited) on major releases like Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
3. J Dilla
Key tracks: The Pharcyde, “Drop” (1995), Slum Village, “Keep It On (This Beat)” (1997), Common, “The Light” (2000), J Dilla, “Think Twice” (2001), Busta Rhymes feat. Meka, “It Ain't Safe No More” (2002), Q-Tip, “Move” (2008)
James “Jay Dee” Yancey, aka J Dilla, came out of Detroit in the mid-'90s with a hypnotically smooth sound that landed him gigs with groups like A Tribe Called Quest (as part of The Ummah, with Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad), The Pharcyde and De La Soul. Some of his most acclaimed early productions, however, were for his own group, Slum Village, whose early demo Fan-Tas-Tic (Vol. 1) was one of the most heavily bootlegged rap records of the late '90s, landing Dilla further work with The Roots, Common, Erykah Badu and many others. The prolific Dilla continued to experiment with his sound, particularly on his solo albums and countless beat tapes, adding more jazz elements and live instrumentation. His career was tragically cut short in 2006, when complications from a rare blood disease took his life at 32. But he left behind a wealth of unreleased material, some of which is still surfacing — including a new Slum Village album, Yes!, earlier this year.
2. DJ Premier
Key tracks: Gang Starr, “Words I Manifest (Remix)” (1989), Gang Starr, “Ex Girl to the Next Girl” (1992), Nas, “N.Y. State of Mind” (1994), Guru feat. Chaka Khan, “Watch What You Say” (1995), Notorious B.I.G., “Ten Crack Commandments” (1997), Mos Def, “Mathematics” (1999), PRhyme feat. Ab-Soul and Mac Miller, “Dat Sound Good” (2014), Joey Bada$$, “Paper Trail$” (2015)
Few moments in hip-hop history are as seminal as the time in 1989 when a rapper from Boston called Guru joined forces with a Houston-born DJ then known as Waxmaster C. As Gang Starr, Guru and DJ Premier rewrote the rules of hip-hop, injecting the music with a jazzy sensibility that would influence everyone from A Tribe Called Quest to J Dilla to The Roots and beyond. Gang Starr would remain active until the early '00s, but after their '92 classic, Daily Operation, most of Premier's greatest work would be for other artists, many of whom were part of the Gang Starr Foundation, a loose affiliation of East Coast producers, DJs and emcees: Nas, Notorious B.I.G., Mos Def, M.O..P. and others too numerous to mention. He would also continue to collaborate with his old partner Guru until the latter's death in 2010, most notably on the Jazzmatazz series.
1. Dr. Dre
Key tracks: Eazy-E, “Boyz-n-the-Hood” (1987), N.W.A., “Straight Outta Compton” (1988), N.W.A, “Fuck tha Police” (1988), Dr. Dre feat. Snoop Dogg, “Nuthin' But a 'G' Thang” (1992), Snoop Doggy Dogg, “Gin and Juice” (1993), 2Pac feat. Dr. Dre and Roger Troutman, “California Love” (1995), Eminem, “My Name Is” (1999), 50 Cent, “In Da Club” (2003), Dr. Dre feat. Eminem and Skylar Grey, “I Need a Doctor” (2011), Dr. Dre, “Talking to My Diary” (2015)
The above list of tracks tells you why Dre is (or should be) the No. 1 choice for any list of hip-hop's greatest producers. Decade after decade, no producer has cranked out more stone-cold classics or changed the game more times, both through his own sonic innovations and his nurturing of new talent. Andre Young put Southern California on the hip-hop map, invented (or at least co-invented) G-funk, helped launch the careers of Ice Cube, Snoop, Eminem and Kendrick, and rattled more trunks with his sub-shattering bass than any beatmaker before or since. If his latest album, Compton, really is his swan song, hip-hop's first billionaire is going out the way he came in — at the top of his game.
Want to hear more? Listen to 99 tracks from these 20 producers in the playlist below.