Many a late night spliff has been sparked, and bottle been passed during the age-old debate of ‘Top 5’ all-time rappers. And anyone who’s been deep in one knows that before the beer runs out, tackling the G.O.A.T producers who blessed the boards comes next.
From the first time you spotted them in the liner notes to when you heard their name called out over your favourite joint and cranked the volume - a self-considered hip hop head should possess the type of trained ear that can recognise the scratches, the chopped up samples, and even the most complex drums of their favourite producer.
Rappers become superstars faster than producers, with many titans of production cooking up beats for around a decade before breaking through. Some came up on the underground circuit as club DJs or were mentored by other hit-making predecessors for years before they got a break.
But these sonic architects and fearless experimentalists founded techniques and made music that propels hip hop’s evolution and deserves the spotlight. Some made hit records cutting samples on a goddamn 8-track!
We’ve got a lot of music to be thankful for over hip hop’s 40+ years of existence. In 2019, with the genre feeling stronger than ever, it seemed right to show some respect and break down 25 early gems and rare records from some of the key pioneers who made the biggest moves to get us here. Starting with the ones who first put hip hop on the map to the new-gen beatmakers taking us to unforeseen territory....even if it’s only scratching the surface.
J Dilla J Dilla ‘Fuck the Police’
Despite a much too brief time on this planet, Motor City’s phenomenally gifted J Dilla produced a staggering output of work that’s yet to be rivalled. A magician of the MPC with a tireless work ethic, Dilla crafted beats for the likes of A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Busta Rhymes, Erykah Badu, The Roots, The Pharcyde, Janet Jackson, and Common. All before pouring his last bit of passion into recording and producing his magnum opus ‘Donuts’ from his hospital bed.
A somewhat hoarder of music, Dilla left behind a plethora of unreleased rarities which his estate and close collaborators are continually unearthing on the regular in a seemingly endless stream. His earliest record came with underground Detroit hip-hop outfit Da' Enna C.’s ‘Now’ which he produced at just 20 years old. Dilla’s warped techno track ' The Heist' as part of Jaylib is also a strong contender among the more unusual Dilla stuff.
But if we’re talking a rare and unexpected stylistic direction, then Dilla’s ‘Fuck the Police’ was uncharacteristically bold and still bangs hard. A nod to N.W.A’s single by the same name, ‘Fuck the Police’ was penned as a result of Dilla’s overwhelming frustration being constantly mistreated by Detroit police. Backed by stutter-step drums and a violin sample from 1972 track 'Scrabble', Dilla’s unapologetic venom fuelled bars sound like nothing else he did. All packaged behind Rodney King album artwork and worth the decade long fight to have the record released posthumously, ‘Fuck the Police’ goes down as Dilla’s most well-known solo work as an emcee.
DJ PREMIER Gang Starr ‘Words I Manifest’
DJ Premier can’t be credited as NYC’s first beatsmith, but he’s easily one of the greatest. As one half of Gang Starr, he produced numerous classic albums and singles. He infused hip hop’s James Brown-obsessed pallette with jazz samples and 90’s boom bap that became seminal to the era and sound of the city.
You have Preemo to thank for Nas' 'N.Y. State of Mind,' and 'Nas Is Like', Gang Starr‘s comedic swipe at radio rap 'Mass Appeal', Biggie’s 'Unbelievable' and 'Ten Crack Commandments', KRS-One’s 'MC’s Act Like They Don’t Know', Jay-Z’s 'D’Evils', and Mos Def's 'Mathematics.'...to name a mere few.
Outside those, Preemo’s dedication to his musical blueprint over three decades has kept him in demand, landing production credits for everyone from Anderson.Paak and Christina Aguilera to Joey Bada$$ and Mac Miller.
Have a listen to his earliest work ‘Words I Manifest' off Gang Starr’s debut album 'No More Mr. Nice Guy' and you’ll hear a Charlie Parker and Miles Davis sample only Preemo could dream up. And as for rare, the Premier-produced single 'Livin' Proof' by Group Home is an unmissable cut that didn't receive much attention back in ‘95, but eventually received the hype it deserved.
RZA GZA feat RZA ‘Pass the Bone’
When Wu-Tang Clan dropped their debut album 'Enter the Wu-Tang' (36 Chambers) back in ‘93 they shocked the nation. Fronted by a nine-strong army of Staten Island warriors rapping about kung-fu flicks, Five Percent philosophy and a spiritual homeland called Shaolin, the album carved out an entirely new lane and aesthetic in hip hop that was so next-level people are still trying to get their head around it.
Wu-Tang arguably became the genre’s greatest-ever groups. But none of that would have been possible without RZA. One part spiritual leader, one part producer, RZA’s next-level artistic vision and skills with an ASR saw him score albums, acting and directing roles, and Tarantino soundtracks for Wu-Tang.
He single-handedly produced solo albums for Method Man, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Raekwon, GZA and Ghostface Killah (all Wu-Tang members and some of the most revered artists in hip hop). Then he somehow also found time to produce four solo albums, and music for Notorious B.I.G and Jay-Z.
RZA’s earliest track 'Pass the Bone' however came in ‘91 with GZA, who was rapping under the alias Genius, and Prince Rakeem.
Q-TIP Nas ‘The World Is Yours’ (Q-Tip remix)
Q-Tip might not have been reaching for the type of sounds as creatively obscure as RZA, but as a student of Dilla, Q undoubtedly possesses an innate skill with beats that surpasses the norm.
While A Tribe Called Quest’s production credits remain shrouded in mystery over who exactly was behind what, Q-Tip’s solo work is impressive enough without the nod.
In the mid 90s Q-Tip did remixes on Cypress Hill, Run D.M.C and Jungle Brothers joints, and racked up production spots on Nas’s ‘Illmatic’. Since then he’s produced for Kweli, Kendrick, Mariah, Whitney, Solange Pusha T, and Quincy Jones, beside multiple self-produced albums and hit singles of his own.
One of Q-Tip's earliest cuts is one he produced and rapped on under the alias Lone Ranger called ‘It’s Your’s’ which samples one of Rick Rubin’s first records. If we’re talking rare remixes, one of Q-Tip’s best is of Nas’ ‘Who’s World is This'. The uncensored version was only made available on wax as a 150 limited run in 2017.
DR DRE Dr Dre feat. Snoop Dogg ‘Rat-tat-tat-tat’
One look at Dre’s jaw-dropping production discography cements his spot on hip hop's Mount Rushmore. Known to be a perfectionist in the studio, Dre made moves unlike other producers, swapping samples for live musicians to duplicate even the rarest records he was digging. All before moving gangsta rap from the cell block to the block party, and introducing the world to the G-Funk era.
Dre’s been responsible for the most impactful singles in the history of the genre. From NWA's ‘Straight outta Compton’. 2pac's ‘California Love’, Snoop’s ‘Gin and Juice’, Eminem’s ‘Real Slim Shady’ (who Dre was also the first to sign), Eve 'Let Me Blow Your Mind’, and 50 Cent’s ‘In Da Club’.
His debut solo masterpiece ‘The Chronic’ is still widely considered to be the benchmark that serious rappers measure their own efforts up against. And his legacy extends well beyond that, including his output as original member and producer of NWA, and the headphones that have rocketed his net worth.
If we’re talking early Dre then you probably know about his role in 'electro-hop' group World Class Wreckin Cru - which means you’ve also seen Dre rocking a satin tuxedo like a boss! As for rare music, occasionally you have songs leak that were meant for his mythical album ‘Detox’. But on a much more dope vibe, a Dre joint you have to hear is the unreleased/original demo of ‘Rat-tat-tat-tat’. He cut it with a skinny as hell Snoop for the ‘The Chronic’ and it sounds nothing like the track that wound up on the album. It was later sampled on Warren G’s debut G-Funk album on the track ‘And Ya Don’t Stop'.
THE NEPTUNES Noreaga ‘Superthug’
Long before the saccharine hell of worldwide hits like 'Happy', a young and geeky Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo linked up at a summer camp and formed The Neptunes. Their talents were quickly spotted by new jack swing pioneer Teddy Riley who signed the duo pretty much straight out of high school. Pharrell penned his first verse for Wreckx-n-Effects ‘Rump Shaker’ and The Neptunes cut their teeth on a string of r'n'b singles for Riley’s artists like BLACKstreet and SWV. But it was their 1998 single ‘Superthug’ with Noreaga that solidified the beginning of 'The Neptunes Sound'.
Futuristic, bizarre and distinctive AF, The Neptunes brand of off-kilter 808s, stripped-down electronic funk, Middle Eastern and Asian flavours, and cosmic sound effects spun a Korg-driven revolution. It transported hip hop, pop artists and dancefloors across the globe beyond their wildest auditory dreams.
In 2003, The Neptunes were responsible for an astonishing 43 per cent of all songs played on American radio, including Jay-Z's 'I Just Wanna Love U', Ludacris' 'Southern Hospitality', Mystikal's 'Shake Ya Ass', Usher's 'U Don’t Have to Call', Clipse's 'Grindin'', Nelly's 'Hot In Herre', Justin Timberlake's 'Like I Love You', Pharrell's 'Frontin'', Kelis' 'Milkshake', Britney's 'I’m A Slave 4 U' and a shitload more. Oh, and they were also putting out their own stuff as the experimental hip hop group N.E.R.D.
The earliest track The Neptunes ever produced was 1997 cut 'Lookin' At Me' off Ma$e’s debut. While it might not be their most rare, ‘Got Your Money’ was significant as the very first record from Kelis (who’s career The Neptunes helped launch) and the last from iconic rapper Ol' Dirty Bastard. But if you have to pick one,‘Superthug’ undoubtedly sums up everything The Neptunes are sonically.
Kanye West Grav feat. Kayne West ‘Line for Line’
To summarise Kanye’s come up as a rapper took the man himself 12 minutes on 'Last Call', on which he outlines his transition from producer to rap star. To summarise Kanye's work as a producer is no 12 minute task.
Kanye studied under Chicago beatsmith No I.D. and ghost produced for D-Dot, then made beats for Jay-Z and Roc-a-Fella. He injected soul into mainstream hip hop when it needed it most. But that was barely the beginning. Kanye's produced for every top rapper in the game, every rapper who’s gonna be at the top next, and probably rappers existing in cosmic realms we’ve not even discovered yet.
Producing one full-length album might be artistically taxing for the most trained producer, but in 2018 Kanye's talents reached fever pitch when he produced five albums for Pusha T, Teyana Taylor, Kid Cudi, Nas, and himself.
Kanye’s music has been described as either ‘ambitious maximalism or aggressive minimalism'. Constantly reinventing himself within his own music and others, Ye’s thrilling musical trajectory has taken us from the dark and twisted, heavily electronic, synth-laden to anthemic. His albums move through Auto-Tune-soaked hooks to throbbing 808s and are hyped as being the most influential of the last decade.
Outside a sometimes maniacal media persona, he’s also a wickedly good rapper. His first ever track with Chi-town group Grav on single 'Line for Line' finds an 18-year-old Kanye not only on the controls for the first time as a producer, but make history at 1:07 with his first bars on the mic.
RICK RUBIN T La Rock and Jazzy Jay ‘It’s Yours’
Rick Rubin is one of the most respected pioneers in music history. Outside of being a prolific producer, he co-founded Def Jam Records and once got thrown off the stage at NYC spot CBGB in his punk band The Pricks after two songs for fighting the crowd. He took this punk attitude to hip hop in its golden era.
Never a fan of the remix, Rubin shredded the rule books and fused his rock 'n' roll roots with rap when no one else would dare. He made hip hop music like no none else out there with artists like Public Enemy, Beastie Boys, and Run DMC and Aerosmith.
His discography and eight Grammys speak volumes to his ridiculous skills, producing for Slayer, Eminem, Johnny Cash, Shakira, Mick Jagger, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Lady Gaga, Kanye, Jay-Z, Adele and an illustrious hoard of others.
One can only imagine what Rubin's studio setup looks like today. Perhaps the incense and vibes might be the same, but his first hip hop records were cut in his dorm room. Rubin’s earliest record was a single called 'It's Yours' for his favourite DJ of the time Jazzy Jay with T La Rock. He made it by using his school's four-track recorder.(the beat and title for which Q-Tip would later sample and remix).
MARLEY MARL Roxanne Shante ‘Roxanne's Revenge’
Growing up in the Queensbridge projects Marley Marl caught his first big break in ‘84 when his neighbour Roxanne Shante rapped over one of his records and 'Roxanne’s Revenge' was born. Not only did that record play a huge part in hip hop’s history but in many ways it opened the doors for female emcees to storm through.
Since Shante, Marley Marl produced LL Cool J’s ‘Mama Said Knock You Out’, Big Daddy Kane’s ‘Ain’t No Half-Steppin', and albums for Masta Ace, Monie Love, Biz Markie and lots more. One of his most underrated is TLC’s 'Das Da Way We Like Em’ off their debut album. It's a gritty, chopped up sample masterpiece with B-Boy worthy breakdowns.
PRINCE PAUL GraveDiggaz ‘Defective Trip’
Crazy brave and endlessly experimental, when hip hop heads were mad about sampling jazz, Prince Paul was chopping up rock, funk, hippie soul and even Hall & Oates. He sampled himself before anyone even considered the possibility. He produced for Stetsasonic, Latifah, De La Soul, Method Man, MF Doom and Run the Jewels. And most likely did it all on a dusty Akai S900, which he still credits as his all-time favourite piece of equipment.
A rad example of Prince Paul's talents can be found alongside RZA and GraveDiggaz on his psychedelic rare cut ‘Defective Trip’ where Paul flipped his old crew De La Soul's ‘Plug Tunin’' and made sounds replicating the atmosphere of being high.
PETE ROCK House of Pain ‘Jump Around’ (Pete Rock remix)
From his early days cutting up samples on his primitive SP-12 to his rise as half of hip hop duo Pete Rock & CL Smooth, Rock’s innovative finesse with sound goes without saying.
His sultry soul laid the foundations for music from the likes of Dilla, 9th Wonder, and Kanye. While his warm production style, mixing drum breaks, jazz grooves and horn samples with an idiosyncratic flair saw him become the king of remixes. Rock reworked and reinvented some of the 90's biggest records like 'Hip Hop Hooray' (Naughty by Nature), 'Shut 'Em Down' (Public Enemy), and 'Rampage' (EPMD).
In fact, Rock enjoyed producing remixes so much that he made a heap of them for his radio show on Hot 97 with Marley Marl that have never been released. Two of the most acclaimed and equally rare are Rock’s rendition of Nas' ‘Street Dreams’ and House of Pain's ‘Jump Around’.
NO I.D. Common ‘Take It EZ’
Despite being considered as the ‘Godfather of Chicago hip hop’, NO I.D is easily one of the most underestimated producers on the scene.
He mentored Kanye and J.Cole and was once president of Kanye's G.O.O.D Music. He produced records for Alicia Keys, Jermaine Dupri, Jay-Z and Usher, and formed a formidable discography beside Chi-town legend and longtime collaborator Common.
For proof of how long he’s been in the game, check out NO I.D.’s early cut ‘Take it EZ’ (produced as 2 pc. DRK alongside Twilite Tone) featuring a very squeaky and young Common, backed by sax and lots of scratching.
METRO BOOMIN Metro Thuggin ‘Blanguage’
Leland Tyler Wayne aka Metro Boomin is achieving greatness. Since landing on the hip hop circuit he’s produced for most of Atlanta’s heavyweights like Gucci Mane, 21 Savage, Future and Migos. And from further afield, the list of stars he's collaborated with stretches across Nicki Minaj, Drake, Ludacris, Wiz Khalifa, Chief Keef, Travis Scott, Gunna, ScHoolboy Q, DJ Khaled and Lana Del Rey.
At 25, Metro Boomin’s output might seem like it’s come from some sort of meteoric come up, but Metro was busy making beats all the way back in seventh grade. At age 13 his mother bought him a laptop and a copy of Fruity Loops. By high school, she was driving him to Atlanta to collaborate with artists while he was turning out five beats a day.
He’s credited OJ da Juiceman and Gucci Mane as being the first rappers to jump on his beats, and since produced a slew of mixtapes. Any further backing you might need that Metro Boomin is next-level can be found in Kanye's Father Stretch My Hands Pt.1’ where his extraordinarily beautiful arrangement and Kid Cudi’s voice overshine even Ye. But as for a rare cut, his scrapped collaborative album with Young Thug under the moniker Metro Thuggin featured a gem called ‘Blanguage’.
WondaGurl Drake ft. Travis Scott ‘Company’
It might seem like the world of hip hop producers is a male-dominated one, and while the ratio may still not be equal, female producers have been making big waves. From mainstay Missy Elliott (the first ever female hip hop artist to be inducted into Songwriters Hall of Fame), to front runners now like Trakgirl, LA’s Tokimonsta, and Canada’s WondaGurl, who’s a formidable talent to say the least.
WondaGurl started producing on her keyboard and drum pads at age nine, before entering Toronto’s ‘Battle of the Beats’ at age 15 where she won and bagged herself a Roland GAIA. From there, she was good to go.
She became protégé of fellow in-demand Canadian beatmaker Boi-1da and often works with Travis Scott. Her biggest break so far came when she sent her beats via Instagram to Drake and landed two tracks on his critically hyped mixtape ‘If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late’. She later had similar success when one of her beats landed in Jay-Z’s possession and he used it on ‘Crown’.
MADLIB Lootpack ‘Hityawitdat’
Madlib might not come with a history of hit-making like other hip hop producers but he holds the skills and musical dexterity to easily be considered one of the greats.
A master of aliases, Madlib’s operated under the guise of high-pitched rapper Quasimoto, The Loop Digga, Yesterdays New Quintet and The Real Conducta. He's also involved in a handful of collaborative monikers like Jaylib with J Dilla and Madvillain with MF Doom. All for which Madlib produced a slew of jazz-infused, beautifully lush and complex music.
As a multi-instrumentalist, Madlib was invited to dig, re-imagine and remix Blue Note Records' archive for a solo album. His talents saw him ink a deal with Stones Throw and produce outstanding music and rare cuts for the likes of A Tribe Called Quest, Erykah Badu and Talib Kweli.
But his very very first came as part of a group he was in called Lootpack with a track called ‘Hityawitdat’, laced with a blistering Busta Rhymes sample.
HAVOC Mobb Deep ‘Hold Down the Fort’
Working for over two decades, through the advent of Auto-Tune, backpack and mumble rap, Havoc has stayed true to his East Coast signature. His furiously hard-hitting and stripped down beats made him one of the most in-demand producers during the rise of hip hop - and still today.
Like DJ Muggs for Cypress Hill, as producer and one half of Mobb Deep, Havoc curated and determined the destiny of the group's entire sound. Where Havoc beats propelled the genre to new heights, Prodigy’s verses raised the bar for other emcees. Together they made for an incomparable force.
A rare Havoc production is his initial work for Notorious B.I.G’s ‘Last Day’. After the original beat was said to have been lost, Havoc had to make an entirely new one. But the earliest Havoc track is 'Hold Down the Fort' on Mobb Deep’s debut album 'Juvenile Hell'.
ORGANIzED NOIzE OutKast ‘Players Ball’
Over nearly four decades, Organized Noise created arrangements and beats for one of the most skilled and creatively outstanding rap groups of all time. They produced each of Outkast’s albums in their entirety, Big Boi’s solo record, and a bunch of wider projects like TLC’s ‘Waterfalls’ and En Vogue’s ‘Don’t Let Go’.
One of their earliest works together is the lead single ‘Players Ball’ from Outkast’s debut album 'Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik'. In 1995 the LP went platinum and landed Outkast the award for Best Newcomer at the Source Awards. But at the ceremony the group were heavily booed. They stood strong, and Andre 3000 prophetically let it be known what was to come from Atlanta hip hop when he stepped up to the mic and famously shouted back: “The South Got Something To Say!”.
MIKE WILL MADE-IT Mike WiLL Made-It feat Kendrick Lamar, Future & Lil Wayne 'Buy The World'
Mike WiLL Made-It could easily be classed as a trap producer over hip hop if we wanted to get down to specifics. But rather than backing him into a musical box, what’s better is to highlight that the music he’s brought us so far has altered the sonic landscape of rap in a major way.
Backed by only a short time in the game, Mike WiLL Made-It has so far produced for Future, Lil Wayne, made Beyonce's ‘Formation’, Kendrick’s ‘Humble’ and ‘DNA’ , Rae Sremmurd and Gucci Mane’s ‘Black Beatles’. Miley's ‘We Can’t Stop', and more.
But his first big break came when he handed Gucci Mane a CD of beats and Gucci got down to rapping verses over them there and then. He offered Mike WiLL Made-It $1,000 a beat and the rest is pretty much history.
Mike’s debut track was ‘Tupac Back’ with Meek Mill and Rick Ross and, honestly, it's not great. But one of the early cuts that showcases his production flair is ‘Buy the World’ featuring Kendrick, Future and Lil Wayne.
TIMBALAND Sista feat. Craig Mack ‘It's Alright’
Everyone who’s ever been in a club, watched MTV, or just turned on the radio knows who Timbaland is.
Timbaland's no doubt a gigantic player in hip hop production game having produced Ginuwine's ‘Pony,’ Aaliyah's ‘One in a Million', Bubba Sparxxx's 'Ugly', Missy Elliott's 'Get Ur Freak On', Justin Timberlake's 'Cry Me A River', Jay-Z's 'Dirt Off Your Shoulder'. Beyoncé's 'Partition,' and literally hundreds more.
What people might not know is that early on Timbaland once lived in a two-story house in New York with Missy Elliot, Jodeci, Ginuwine and all 20 members of their crew Swing Mob. As roomies, they often jumped over and worked on each other's stuff. One of the earliest and rare cuts from the house was a track called ‘It's Alright' by a group Missy Elliot started called Sista. They’d had a debut single that didn’t catch much attention, but ‘It's Alright’ produced by Timbaland and with a feature from Craig Mack found its way onto ‘The Dangerous Minds’ soundtrack - a hip hop album that’s packed with B-side bangers.
ERICK SERMON EPMD ‘You Gots to Chill’
As one half of EPMD, Erick Sermon produced some of the finest hip hop music through the late 80s and 90s. He put Def Squad on the map and introduced the world to rappers Redman and Keith Murray with records like 'So Wat Cha Sayin'' and ‘Da Joint’.
But the single 'You Gots To Chill', off EPMD’s debut album ‘Strictly Business', is the one. Funky as fuck, Sermon blended 'Jungle Boogie' by Kool and the Gang and 'More Bounce to the Ounce' by Zapp Brother into a raw classic. It arrived so early in Sermon and EPMD’s career that the recording session took place in a home studio with milk and egg cartons tacked to the walls for soundproofing, and the duo owning only one microphone between them so they had to pass it back and forth to lay down the lyrics on the track.
Tracy Kawalik is a freelance music and culture writer, follow her on Twitter