Just about any genre of music has its share of producers who are as famous (or almost as famous) as the artists themselves. That is true in rock, country, jazz and R&B, and it is also true in rap. From Sylvia Robinson to Russell Simmons to Sean "Puffy" Combs, rap has had its share of famous producers over the years. This essay takes a look at some of hip-hop's most important studio wizards -- people who have been as important to hip-hop as Bob Ezrin and Jimmy Iovine are to rock, Orrin Keepnews is to jazz and Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff are to Philadelphia soul.
During hip-hop's old school era of 1976-1982 -- old school as in pre-Run-D.M.C. -- the most important producer was Sylvia Robinson of Sugar Hill Records (not to be confused with a folk label that has the same name). Robinson (b. Mar. 6, 1936) was a vocalist herself and had a resume long before her involvement with early hip-hop; in the '50s, she was half of the male/female R&B duo Mickey & Sylvia (best known for their hit "Love Is Strange"). And in the early '70s, Robinson recorded as a solo artist and favored a sensuous, sexy approach to northern soul; her biggest solo hit during that period was "Pillow Talk," although the single "Sweet Stuff" also enjoyed some radio airplay. In those days, Robinson was both a producer/A&R person (she worked with the Moments and other soulsters) and a vocalist. But by the late '70s, Robinson was putting most of the energy into A&R and producing. At Sugar Hill Records, she became one of the first people to document rap. The Sugarhill Gang's 1979 smash "Rappers Delight" put Sugar Hill Records on the map, and the company soon acquired a reputation for being the Motown or Stax of old school hip-hop. In fact, their roster was a who's-who of pre-Run-D.M.C. rappers -- a roster that included Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, the Sequence (rap's first all-female group), Lady B (the first female rapper to record as a solo artist), the Funky Four Plus One, Spoonie Gee, Super Wolf and, of course, the Sugarhill Gang. Robinson worked with every one of those artists, and she would have been quite capable of working with Kurtis Blow if given the chance. But that famous old school rapper never recorded for Sugar Hill; instead, he signed with Polygram in 1979 and became the first rapper to record for a major label.
When Blow recorded his self-titled debut album in 1980, he was being managed by Russell Simmons (the older brother of Run-D.M.C.'s Joseph "Run" Simmons). That year, Russell Simmons had a fledgling company called Rush Productions. But several years later, Rush would be a lot more than just a small business. When hip-hop's old school era ended and the second wave rappers (Run-D.M.C., L.L Cool J, etc.) took over around 1983-1985, Simmons built a hip-hop empire -- not only as a producer and the head of Rush Productions, but also, as the co-founder of Def Jam Records. The list of artists Simmons worked with in the '80s (as a producer, manager or A&R person) included, among many others, Run-D.M.C., LL Cool J, Public Enemy, Davy D and the Beastie Boys.
The person Simmons co-founded Def Jam with in 1984 was Rick Rubin, who is important as both a rap producer and a rock producer. For several years, Simmons and Rubin were quite a team. But in the late '80s, they parted company due to creative differences. Rubin shared Simmons' love of hip-hop; as a producer, he worked with Run-D.M.C., L.L. Cool J, Public Enemy and the Beasties. But he also wanted to produce a lot of rock, whereas Simmons wanted to make hip-hop his main focus. So when Simmons and Rubin parted company and Simmons assumed full control of Def Jam, Rubin founded his own label Def American. At Def American, Rubin continued to produce rappers (including the Geto Boys and Sir Mix-A-Lot), but he also signed everyone from the Black Crowes to Danzig to the infamous death metal/thrash band Slayer.
While Def Jam is Simmons' baby, Cold Chillin' Records was the home of Marlon Williams, aka Marley Marl -- one of the top rap producers of the late '80s and early '90s. At Cold Chillin', the Queens, NY native fashioned a distinctive East Coast sound that combined drum machines with extensive sampling; Marl, in fact, did a lot to popularize the use of James Brown samples. All of the New Yorkers on the Cold Chillin' roster (who included Big Daddy Kane, Kool G. Rap, Roxanne Shanté, Biz Markie and MC Shan) had the Marley Marl sound, which influenced DJ Mark the 45 King, Audio Two, the King of Chill and other East Coast rap producers of that period.
Marley Marl was known for a very raw, hard-edged, rugged type of sound, while fellow New York producer Hank Shocklee (who was part of the Bomb Squad) is famous for the dissonant, abrasive, noisy sounds that he helped Public Enemy bring to life in the late '80s. But out on the West Coast, Andre Young, aka Dr. Dre (b. February 18, 1965), envisioned something totally different. Dre's style of producing, which came to be called G-funk, was much sleeker and smoother than what one expected from Marley Marl, DJ Mark the 45 King or Shocklee. The Los Angeles-based Dre (not to be confused with New York's Doctor Dre, as in Doctor Dre & Ed Lover) started out as a member of the World Class Wreckin' Cru in the early '80s, but it was during his years with N.W.A (1987-1991) that he came to be recognized as a studio genius. During his N.W.A years, Dre not only produced N.W.A -- he also worked with Dallas rapper the D.O.C., L.A. gangsta rappers Above the Law, female pop-rap group JJ Fad and urban contemporary singer Michel'le. And Dre became even more famous as a producer when, in 1992, he launched his solo career with The Chronic. That album was amazingly influential; thanks to Dre, countless hip-hoppers embraced the G-funk sound (especially on the West Coast) and went for a combination of clean grooves and dirty lyrics. Whether Dre was working with Eminem, Snoop Doggy Dogg or the late Eazy-E, his production style has always been distinctive and recognizable.
One of the many people The Chronic influenced was New Orleans gangsta rapper/producer Master P, a major player in the Dirty South school of rap (which became popular in the '90s and was still going strong in the early 2000s). Not all Dirty South is gangsta rap, but gangsta rap has been the main focus of Master P and his No Limit label. Not only did Dre influence the lyrics of Master P's No Limit artists -- who have included Ghetto Commission, Silkk the Shocker, Fiend, the Gambino Family, Soulja Slim and C-Murder -- he also influenced Master P's production style.
The '90s also saw the rise of two major producers who had one foot in rap and the other in R&B: the New York-based Sean "Puffy" Combs, aka Puff Daddy or P-Diddy, and Timbaland. Puff Daddy (b. Nov. 4, 1970) heads Bad Boy Entertainment, and that company has been both a hip-hop outfit and an urban contemporary outfit. In the '90s, Bad Boy (which is both a label and a production company) was known for the Notorious B.I.G., but it was also known for R&B singer Faith Evans. Puff Daddy's work has often underscored the way R&B and rap became seriously joined at the hip in the '90s; all of the urban singers he has produced (who range from Evans to Mary J. Blige to Total) have been greatly influenced by hip-hop.
Similarly, Virginia native Tim Mosley, aka Timbaland, became known for both hip-hop and hip-hop-drenched R&B in the late '90s. Timbaland (b. March 10, 1971) is famous for his work with Jay-Z, Nas and other major rap stars, but he is just as famous for working with urban singers like Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott, Total, K-Ci & JoJo (of Jodeci fame) and the late Aaliyah. Timbaland (who heads the Beat Club label) has extensive Dirty South credits; Ludacris, Petey Pablo, Bubba Sparxxx, Shade Sheist and Pastor Troy are among the many southern rappers he has produced. But Timbaland is just as likely to work with someone from another part of the U.S., such as L.A.'s Snoop Doggy Dogg, New York's Jay-Z or Chicago's Da Brat.
Of course, Dre was producing hip-hop-drenched R&B before either Puff Daddy or Timbaland. In 1990, Dre's work with Michel'le showed listeners the possibilities of a hip-hop-minded style of neo-soul -- and that album came two years before Mary J. Blige's first album, What's the 411?. But rap has been Dre's primary focus, whereas Timbaland (like Puff Daddy) is as much of an R&B producer as he is a rap producer. And in the late '90s and early 2000s, it was impossible to listen to urban radio without coming across something that Timbaland produced.
There is no telling where hip-hop production styles will go in the future; in hip-hop, trends can come and go quickly. With R&B and rap having formed such a close alliance in the '90s, it's quite possible that there will be a lot more producers like Timbaland and Puff Daddy -- that is, studio wizards who are both rap-friendly and R&B-friendly. Here's what we can say for certain: from the late '70s to early 2000s, hip-hop has been a very lucrative field for a lot of producers.
by Alex Henderson