From J. Cole to Kanye West, it's important to appreciate the artists who can fire on all cylinders -- both behind the mic and behind the boards.
It has become easier than ever for a producer to find success in the rap game. That’s not to downplay the craftsmanship and creativity that goes into the art of beat-making, but simply to acknowledge that accessible technology has leveled the playing field. There are still reliable names, often recognized through signature staples and iconic production tags, setting the trends and leading by example. When a rising talent scores a hit, it’s not uncommon to see many imitators follow in their wake, a pattern that occasionally bears the unfortunate side-effect of repetition.
Understandable, given that many emerging producers are simply looking to secure a placement on a major label album. Should trends truly dictate the instrumentals being made, originality and innovation run the risk of fading from the mainstream entirely. While perhaps such an outlook is unnecessarily cynical, it’s hard to deny the value a true originator brings to the table. What makes something truly original? Though the question is in itself unanswerable, there does appear to be one particular formula that yields originality more often than not. That is, of course, when an artist steps behind the boards and produces their own beats.
“When I hear about any emcee producing, I'm not surprised because you know, artists are creative. Why aren't they producing more?"
During a conversation with Havoc, who handled the production for the majority of Mobb Deep’s discography, he wondered why more artists weren’t taking the plunge. “When I hear about any emcee producing, I'm not surprised because you know, artists are creative,” he reflects. “Why aren't they producing more?" True, not every artist possesses the patience nor the time to conquer the learning curve. They may very well have somebody in their inner circle who excels at production and see no need to explore such practices themselves. For Havoc, the process allowed him an additional way to express himself, to translate the abstract darkness of his environment into something tangible. His production and lyrical content were two sides of a coin; parallel avenues intersecting at the same destination.
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That’s not to say that Havoc’s lyricism wouldn’t have had the same impact over the production of say, Pete Rock or The RZA. But with him at the helm of his own voyage, Havoc was able to paint the pictures exactly as he envisioned them -- all while asserting himself as an original visionary. Of course, Havoc is not the only emcee to produce their own music and to spotlight each one would require several pieces of gargantuan length. In light of his first-ever Grammy nomination, it feels appropriate to analyze Royce Da 5’9’s own transition into the world of beat-making. Though his discography consists of eight studio albums, his most recent, The Allegory, was produced in its entirety by the veteran emcee.
Initially intending to develop a new skill set, Royce studied under the tutelage of DJ Premier and Denaun Porter until the results began taking shape. The intensive sessions ultimately manifested into Royce’s most political project to date, as well as his most sonically cohesive. Though he generally opted to stay in his boom-bap bag, drawing on samples and vintage sounds, his own stylistic flourishes quickly became evident. While it’s unclear as to whether or not he’ll be helming any production on his next album, Royce’s work on The Allegory allowed an already immersive emcee to add another dimension to his creativity.
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While Royce is an interesting example, having come to discover the art of production deep into his career, J. Cole is easily one of the most prominent self-sufficient artists in the modern rap game. With a discography that runs five albums deep, Cole has laced the vast majority of the beats himself, having steadily honed his craft over the years. Though it’s not often you’ll see Cole named among the game’s top producers, it’s still impressive to witness the cohesive way his beat-making and lyricism harmonize. It’s not like he can’t body beats from outside sources, being as technically gifted as he is, but he understands the value an instrumental can add to an existing message. It’s part of why Cole is so effortlessly able to paint vivid pictures for his listeners, as all elements are designed to express a different layer of his vision.
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The same can be said of Eminem, who spent the better part of the early millennium honing his craft behind the boards. Though he had talents like Dr. Dre and Denaun Porter in his corner, Em’s foray into production tended to coincide with some of his most personal material, a pattern that began with his first self-made beat “The Way I Am.” From there, he went on to produce the bulk of The Eminem Show, a project that vastly widened the scope of Eminem’s life story. Though his style wasn’t welcomed by everyone, many came to appreciate Em’s unique ear for production, especially when he began lacing beats for his Shady Records signees. Still, it can’t be denied that Eminem’s embrace of production allowed him to express himself like never before, with songs like “Hailie’s Song,” “Soldier,” and “Cleaning Out My Closet” serving as prime examples.
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It wouldn’t be right to talk about self-producing artists without highlighting a few of the greats. Kanye West, following a strict regimen of recreating all the golden era's hip-hop classics, proved the scope of his talents on The College Dropout. Of course, Yeezy’s genius mind for sampling was already long solidified -- especially in the wake of Jay-Z’s Blueprint and Black Album -- but The College Dropout allowed him to express his multilayered personality. All sides of Yeezy were present and accounted for, from the scholar to the backpacker, the hedonist to the believer. It’s hard to imagine a world where Kanye’s albums were produced by an outside source, compelling though his emceeing may be.
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A similar claim could be made about Compton legend DJ Quik, easily one of the most slept-on producer-emcees, period. Having come into the game in tandem with another formidable multi-talent in Dr. Dre, Quik immediately set himself apart through a few distinctive qualities, including a notable appreciation for Roger Troutman. No doubt drawing from his formative years on the DJ circuit, Quik had a first-hand understanding of controlling the pace of a party, which often translated into up-tempo and bass-fueled dancefloor bangers. Though his early material is certainly iconic, some of his most interesting work arises during his later albums, with Under Tha Influence and Trauma pushing him to explore more serious subject matter. Only a truly versatile musical mind can provide such a wide range of convincing backdrops, be it mourning on "50 Ways," creeping on "Sex Crymee," or cruising with the top down on "Black Mercedes."
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Given how much talent exists in hip-hop, it would be difficult to give each self-producing emcee the respect they deserve. Yet we mustn’t forget about the underground scene, with veterans like El-P and Necro deserving of recognition and praise for their respective bodies of work. With both being decidedly distinct in their lyrical preferences, representing the genres of science-fiction and horror respectively, it’s impressive to witness how vividly each rapper brings their world to life. It’s fair to say that both El-P and Necro deserve to be praised as some of the game’s best producers, niche though their solo material may be in nature. Of course, El’s reach expanded drastically upon the forming of Run The Jewels, and he ably rose to the new challenges presented by the unlikely partnership. As for Necro, he continues to keep things moving on the horrorcore front, continuously drawing from classic films and metal influences to highlight the dark depravity of his lyrical content.
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It's no coincidence that many of the artists who produce their own material tend to create some truly original and immersive material. To draw a parallel with the field of cinema, such multitalented artists can be likened to auteurs. Which is to say, creatives who take full artistic control in an effort to realize their vision exactly as they see it in their mind's eye. While these are only a handful of the artists who have taken both challenges upon themselves, each of the aforementioned deserves credit for expressing their creativity -- and ably, at that -- on two equally challenging fronts. Which self-producing artists deserve more credit?