Who are the best hip hop producers in history?
This question is probably not asked as much as its cousin (about who the greatest rappers of all time are), but it’s definitely just as hard to answer. I’ll do it in no particular order, I’ll just throw some names at you that definitely belong in the discussion. This is a good place to start for greatest hip hop producers: all time.
Madlib is a mad dope producer, even though he considers himself mainly a DJ. He also raps, but usually as Quasimodo. For Quasimodo, he changes his voice’s pitch to sound really high, like Mac Miller now does for Delusional Thomas. Anyway, Madlib is one of the most successful producers of all time, but he’s also one of the most experimental producers of all time, in a few ways.
The sounds he comes up with are just unique, and he rocks the soul, the jazz, rock, older hip hop, anything. No once can make beats quite like Madlib does, and his ear is just crazy good. Then on top of that, he switches beats constantly. Some producers find a sound that works and run with it for like 5 minutes every song, but Madlib lets his shit run like 2 minutes before switching it up to the next track, that’s how much he’s got bouncing around in his head. I think the best proof of this is his fire collab as Madvillain with MF Doom, Madvillainy.
RZA is pretty much Wu-Tang’s frontman, hip hop’s go-to philosopher and its most successful figure in the movies. Some rappers act — RZA wrote, directed, produced, narrarated, scored AND starred in The Man with the Iron Fists, so it’s fair to say he’s the most diverse talent in hip hop, not counting businessmen like 50 cent. RZA is also probably hip hop’s best businessman too though, considering he got all of Wu-Tang signed to a record deal where they all had individual freedom to sign other deals.
But anyways, on to his (hip hop) production. RZA is the king of that dark back alley at 3 AM sound. Odd Future is often said to take after the Wu in a lot of ways, but the biggest factor in that is the beats and the atmosphere, so we can put that on RZA. If you listen to his beats, the individual sounds are never that dark and sometimes even sound like they’re on some playground shit, but they always come together for that real dark and grimy sound. His sense of atmosphere is so on point, it makes sense that he went on to making movies, particularly after the best proof of his talent, GZA’s Liquid Swords (recorded in RZA’s basement.)
If you wanna know why Premier is one of the greatest producers of all time, you just gotta look at who he’s worked with. He produced all of Gang Starr’s shit, and now he’s part of another duo with Royce da 5’9″. He’s also worked with Jay-Z and Kanye and Gamer and Big L and Biggie and Mobb Deep and KRS-One… and of course Nas. All the proof you really need for this is NY State of Mind.
Nas of course kills it, but the beat is absolutely perfect. It’s a pretty simple loop that goes almost uninterrupted (except exactly when it needs to be) and is a template for boom-bap. If you want ’90s sounding hip hop, you’re gonna want it to sound like DJ Premier. It’s not always about maximalism. Premier knew that damn well, and his ear helped him. For proof, just listen to Illmatic even though he didn’t do all of it.
And y’all thought I forgot about Dre. Don’t get me wrong, dude could rap, but he could really make a beat. With NWA, then later by himself/with Snoop Dogg, he defined G-funk and the west coast ruled hip hop in the early ’90s because of it. When you hear a beat by Dre (the good kind), you know exactly who it’s by because the Compton whine is unmistakeable. His career up to 1993 would already be remarkable just by itself. But then Dre just kept going with Eminem, reinventing his own sound in the process.
Matching Eminem’s playful flow with playful beats, Dre was a big part of Em’s monstrous success (you know, besides the whole being white thing, let’s be real.) It’s nuts that Dre was able to get as big as he did with NWA, then to be able to do it again solo, with Snoop AND with Em is just god-given talent. Any list of best producer/rappers need Dre, but so does any list of all time producers. For proof, you could check out The Chronic, but I say you should scope Doggystyle. It’s a more complete album, and Snoop is the shit.
Speaking of folks who should definitely be on lists of the best rapper/producers but also just straight best producer lists, there’s Kanye. Obviously he got big by jumpin on his own tracks, but even just his work with Jay-Z on The Blueprint and The Black Album could get him on here. It’s just an added bonus for him that he got his own career so he could really blow up and win every Grammy and show just how good his production is. Kanye is the king of soul production, but he’s constantly changing his sound.
Whether he’s doing his trademark soul shit (The College Dropout), or going for more R&B to match his autotune crooning (808s and Heartbreak), or going full-out maximalist, encompassing both of those (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy), Kanye is the best hip hop producer when it comes to many kinds of hip hop. And that’s without even mentioning Yeezus or the work he’s done for other artists like Pusha T. Anyways, whether or not you like his rap, you can’t deny his production talent, and neither can the Grammys. You can listen to any of his albums for proof of this, but for a good variety, listen to the (fairly recent but still classic) Graduation.
This concludes my attempt at figuring out the best hip hop producers of all time.
I know y’all can’t all agree with this. I mean shit, I can already count a few I left out, including the late great J Dilla (rest in peace), but I think 5 is a good number to start with. Air out your grievances in the comments.