FEATURE: Head Banger
One look at the current top 20 songs on Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop charts says it all. Of those 20 records, only eight are straightforward rap, but that’s not the eye-opening statistic. The tell-tale number: of those eight, only one features a beat made by not only a top-name producer, but one who comes to mind instantly as soon as the track begins. “Run This Town,” Jay-Z’s chart-climbing single off of The Blueprint 3, is co-produced by guest Kanye West, one of the game’s biggest beat-makers to date. That much is known mere seconds into the song; naming who produced the other seven Billboard toppers (including Young Money’s “Every Girl,” Drake’s “Best I Ever Had” and Twista’s “Wetter”) takes much longer deliberation. Not to mention, consulting with Google and/or XXL’s “Production Credit” column.
XXL signaled the very-possible end of the superproducer era in our latest issue (in a feature called “Beats by the Pound”), yet the death march sounds louder with every new rap track debuting on radio. Extinction doesn’t feel unavoidably imminent, though—the likes of Kanye West, Timbaland and Dr. Dre show no signs of losing relevancy, while overachievers such as Swizz Beatz continually find ways to reinvent themselves. But in a financially-strapped music industry scrounging for penny-saving ways to stay afloat, the days of producers not named West or Dre charging upwards of $100,000 for beats are past the eleventh hour. Phone calls seeking that expensive “first single” instrumental have mostly been disconnected. While this allows for talent to overshadow popularity, and gives newcomers an equal shot at radio domination, it’s also a striking example of hip-hop’s cost-sensitive new climate.
Maintaining superproducer status for longer than 12 months is impressive enough; reigning for years on end is downright astonishing. And, historical. With that in mind, XXL’s staff tucked away into a crowded office for hours to assemble this definitive list of “Hip-Hop’s Ten Greatest Superproducers.” After heated debate, tons of flip-flopping opinions and several hurt feelings, we’ve settled on the following dime-drop. The criteria was simple, and each of these gentleman needed to meet the majority of the proceeding demands—the producer must be a star himself, must have a long string of hit records, must have crossed the boundaries of either region or genre, must have had a substantial and tangible impact and must be consistently sought after. Even if A&Rs must some day resort to acapellas placed over cheap garbage-can-percussion and beat-boxing, the legacies of these ten superproducers will be the urban legends told in record label board meetings. —Compiled by Matt Barone, Carl Chery, Jesse Gissen, Clover Hope, John Kennedy and Rob Markman
10. Scott Storch
In Scott Storch’s prime, rappers paid big bucks to secure a surefire hit from the self-proclaimed, “Tuff Jew.” Working his way up the ranks from keyboard player for The Roots, to Dr. Dre’s secret weapon, Storch soon stood on his own two, making it rain for everyone from pop juggernauts like Beyoncé (“Baby Boy”) and Christina Aguilera (“Fighter”) to rap’s elite, Jadakiss (“U Make Me Wanna”) and Fat Joe (“Lean Back”). Now clean and sober, hopefully he can now lean back into more success.
When the Fugees debuted with Blunted on Reality in 1994 hip-hop fans were mostly indifferent, but Wyclef sure did change things didn’t he? Not only was the group’s 1996 follow-up an undisputed hip-hop classic, but The Score went on to go 18 times platinum worldwide. Then there was his 3 million-plus solo debut, The Carnival, in 1997. Since then, Clef has gone on to bless Destiny’s Child (“No, No, No”), Carlos Santana (“Maria Maria”), Shakira (“Hips Don’t Lie”) and T.I. (“You Know What It Is”) with his Caribbean flavored heat. Sure Canibus was a bust, but no one seems to hold that Firm fiasco against Dre. Right?
8. The RZA
There’s no denying that Robert Diggs’s footprint is firmly planted into the annals of hip-hop. Initially making a mark by crafting a slew of classics for the Wu-Tang Clan as the crew’s mastermind, the Abbott later transitioned into movie scores— working with the likes of Jim Jarmush (Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai) and Quentin Tarantino (Kill Bill). Though he juggles production duties with movie roles alongside Russell Crowe (American Gangster) and Seth Rogen (Funny People) these days, RZA still finds time to bang out gems for his Wu brethren as he continues to push the envelope beyond hip-hop’s myopic scope. Bong bong!
7. Swizz Beatz
Although it’s easy to forget Swizz Beatz’ contributions to hip-hop, major props are due. When his aunt and uncles formed Ruff Ryder in the late ’90s, Swizz hopped on board and became the label’s chief boardsmith, providing hits for DMX (“Ruff Ryders Anthem”) and Eve (“Love is Blind”). Along with a signature high-octane sound, Swizz’s appeal lies in his ability to reinvent through the ages— from Jay-Z (“Money, Cash, Hoes”) to Cassidy (“I’m a Hustla”) to Beyoncé (“Upgrade U”). Not to mention, a solo album, One Man Band Man. These days, Kaseem Dean is still a monster. For proof, see: Jadakiss’ “Who’s Real,” Maino’s “Million Bucks” and, yes, Whitney Houston’s “Million Dollar Bill.” Extra points for trying to put a ring on Alicia hand?
6. Jermaine Dupri
When it comes to boardsmen, JD is reigning king of hip-hop soul. He made the So So Def stamp the most coveted remix aside from Diddy’s, lending R&B troupes like Jagged Edge (“Where the Party At (Remix)”) and Dru Hill (“In My Bed (Remix)”) some hip-hop flavor. And luckily, Dupri doesn’t discriminate—even women (Da Brat) and children (Kris Kross, Bow Wow) can get hits.
5. The Neptunes
Circa early millennium, the jingling of a Neptunes beat was virtually inescapable. While the Virginia duo (Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo) flooded hip-hop with singles like Noreaga’s “Superthug,” Jay-Z’s “I Just Wanna Love You,” Mystikal’s “Danger” and Snoop Dogg’s “Beautiful,” an impeccable résumé earned them three Grammys, overflowing clientele and crossover appeal (Britney Spears, ‘N Sync). Moonlighting as artists, the pair sold respectably as two-thirds of N.E.R.D. Waning dominance aside— and a poor Pharrell solo effort— the Neptunes remain active, recently producing for Common’s Universal Mind Control, Mos Def’s Ecstatic and Jay-Z’s The Blueprint 3. Sky’s no limit.
You know exactly what to expect when you come knocking for a Timbaland track: A head-bopping bounce, bizarre sounds, electric funk and—most importantly—intoxicating music. After 15 years of making club infernos for the likes of Jay-Z (“Big Pimpin'”), Missy Elliott (“Get Ur Freak On”), Madonna (“4 Minutes”), Justin Timberlake (“Sexy Back”), Nelly Furtado (“Promiscuous”), Ludacris (“Roll Out”) and Björk (“Innocence”), Timbo should offer a money-back guarantee that his beats will score top 40 smashes. You don’t think Welcome to Our World really went platinum because of Magoo’s rapping, do you?
3. Kanye West
Heralded as one of the best artists in rap today, Kanye West got his big break by climbing atop the producer food chain. Handling the bulk of Jay-Z’s The Blueprint, with fellow Hip-Hop Since 1978 producer, Just Blaze— ‘Ye helped resurrect soul sampling by churning out hits for the likes of Alicia Keys (“You Don’t Know My Name”) and Ludacris (“Stand Up”). Yeezy has also helped break new aritsts (John Legend) and given CPR to failing careers (Common). Though he now keeps his best beats for himself, the Louis Vuitton Don’s work on Jay-Z’s The Blueprint 3 and upcoming efforts from Young Jeezy, Drake and Kid Cudi, shows he’s still one of the most sought after boardsmen in hip-hop today. Can’t tell him nothing.
2. Sean “Puffy” Combs (Not Diddy)
One of hip-hop’s most prolific producers, there is truly no one like Sean “Puffy” Combs. He cemented his rap legacy when he introduced the world to the late, great Notorious B.I.G. But it didn’t stop with Big Poppa, Puff has helped shaped the sounds of Mary J. Blige, Jodeci, Ma$e and Faith, among many others, and put his midas touch on records for New Edition (“You Don’t Have To Worry” Remix), Lil’ Kim (“No Time”) and Jay-Z (“Roc Boys”). Sure he had talent like Chucky Thompson, Nashiem Myrick, Mario Winans and more recently Sean C. and LV behind him, but when it comes down to smash records, Puff is the head hitman. Take that, take that!
1. Dr. Dre
Unlike most producers on this list, Andre Young has never cornered the market per se. To this day some of the game’s sickest MCs are dying to cross Dre off their wish lists. Rather than spread himself thin, the obsessively meticulous producer works with a chosen few and chases perfection with every project. In addition to his own two classics (The Chronic & The Chronic 2001), Dre has masterminded arguably more masterpieces than anyone in hip-hop history. Sure, he’s topped the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart and contributed tracks to legendary MCs like Busta Rhymes (“Break Ya Neck”), Nas (“Hustlers”) and Jay-Z (“Lost One”), but it’s the good doctor’s ability to break legends (N.W.A., Snoop Dogg and Eminem), soon-to-be-legends (50 Cent) and superstars (The Game) over the last 20 years, that makes him the G.O.A.T. Some producers make hits, but Dre’s undoubtedly a slugger.