The Changing Role of the Hip Hop Producer

WE TAKE A CLOSER LOOK AT THE CHANGING ROLE OF THE HIP HOP PRODUCER OVER THE PAST FEW DECADES SPANNING FROM THE EMERGENCE OF PRODUCERS LIKE DR DRE IN THE EARLY 90S TO MODERN-DAY SUPER PRODUCERS LIKE DJ MUSTARD.

In the earlier days of the genre, artists had their inner circles that they worked with with, allowing each to develop unique styles and leading to much variety within hip-hop. Highly regarded albums with in-house producers included debuts from Wu-Tang (RZA), Snoop Dogg (Dr. Dre, Daz Dillinger) and Outkast (Organized Noise). HoweverIn 1994, Nas’s Illmatic was a game changer in that multiple producers were enlisted to help craft the project (DJ Premier, Large Professor, Pete Rock, L.E.S., Q-Tip), each bringing their own sound to the table. This quickly became the norm for high profile albums, and also was a great marketing tactic when a record featured a number of the hottest producers of the time.Fast-forward a few years and the era of the super-producer was born. The Trackmasters (Poke & Tone), Timbaland, and The Neptunes were some of the big names that were especially sought after by major labels for hit radio singles for everyone from Will Smith and Jay-Z, to Mariah Carey and Justin Timberlake. Producers no longer had to solely focus on one project at a time, but could also make beats to shop around and multiply their successes. If one track didn’t crack the charts, they had 5 others with different artists to fall back on. Though albums do not always feel like complete, focused bodies of work due to this method of working, commercially it plays out well for the top-tier beatmakers. Timbo claims to have sold tracks for up to $100k in his prime, whilst The Neptunes production record includes 24 Billboard #1’s during the late 90’s/early 2000’s.

Dr. Dre popularised the in-studio ‘executive producer’ role, whereby his beats were not completely handled by him alone. He has been known to collaborate with Sam Sneed, Scott Storch, Mel-Man, Mike Elizondo, Neff-U, and DJ Khalil on some of his biggest tracks. Apparently DJ Quik even did the drums on “In Da Club”. Many producers adopted this method of collaboration to diversify and innovate their styles, plus to churn out hits at a faster pace. Danja was a notable co-producer with Timbaland, and Kanye West even started out as a ghost producer for D-Dot.

In the internet era where the hit-maker of the moment has their sound imitated by everyone else, Kanye took collaborations to another level alongside co-workers No ID, Jeff Bhasker and Mike Dean, creating fresh, progressive styles. Since My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, it is not uncommon to see over 6 producers credited on a single Yeezy track (“Power”, “Mercy”, “Blood on The Leaves”), whilst 14 vocalists were said to have contributed to “All of the Lights”. Some will criticise this,  but it can be seen the same way as how Stephen Spielberg used Januz Kamiński as cinematographer for all of his major films. Just because he wasn’t behind the camera himself during every scene doesn’t mean that was wasn’t the architect directing the whole project.

This collaboration technique still continues heavily today, but not all producers have been so generous in sharing credit, publishing and royalties. Mike Free recently sued his mentor DJ Mustard due to a lack of credit for his work on hits like “Rack City”, “I’m Different” and “IDFWU”. He says he also worked on the majority of the 10 Summers album whilst Mustard was away on tour, but still was not compensated. There was also the issue of Major Seven and K.E. on the Track both claiming to have made Rick Ross’s “Devil Is A Lie”. Eventually it was proven that Major Seven was the rightful creator, despite K.E.’s online video of him pretending to make the instrumental.

Whilst the super-producer no longer exists in the way it did 10 years ago, some recent beatmakers to have their moment in the spotlight have included Young Chop, T-Minus, DJ Mustard, Hit Boy and Metro Boomin, all of which have been sought after for major releases from artists such as Kanye, Nicki Minaj, and Drake. Meanwhile, in other areas of the genre, single-producer albums seem to be making a comeback without trying to get involved with the sound of the moment. Freddie Gibbs and Madlib’s Pinata, plus Prodigy and Alchemist’s Albert Einstein were both met with critical acclaim. DJ Premier has even said that once Nas leaves his Def Jam contract, the two will begin work on a joint project together.