Blessed are the beatmakers.
In hip-hop, it's important to make sure the pioneers and innovators are respected for their cultural contributions. The premise of this piece is simple enough -- to give credit to the beatmakers that tend to fly under the radar in the wider conversation. Here are ten such producers, whose talent, musical catalog, and prolific work ethic are worthy of further recognition.
Now in true crate-digging fashion, dive in.
Upon penning a piece about rappers who self-produce, a lapse in judgment led to Big K.R.I.T. going unmentioned. It didn’t take long for many commenters to mobilize in favor of the Mississippi visionary, and a lesson was learned. Namely, Big K.R.I.T should not go unappreciated. In an effort to prevent any fellow hip-hop fan from making the same mistake I did, consider this a reminder of exactly what Krizzle has achieved behind the boards.
A tally from hip-hop statistics account “Hip-Hop By The Numbers” states that K.R.I.T has produced 71.1% of his then-318-song catalog, a total that amounts to two-hundred-and-twenty-six songs. And what’s most impressive about his production discography is the sheer versatility he exhibits throughout. He’s as nice with the samples as he is with the synthesizers, though never straying far from that classic country soul; instinctually, he can likely stand alongside any of the game’s heaviest hitters. Look no further than his impressive turn on Mass Appeal’s Rhythm Roulette, which reveals his beat-making mind at work.
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All hail the underground. Though not every hip-hop fan is attuned to the going-ons of the backpacker realm, there are many who at least appreciate the vast and expansive subculture. Those in the know are certainly aware of Cunninlynguists, a legendary group consisting of Deacon The Villain, Natti, and Kno -- who happens to lace the bulk of their production. While his original work encapsulated the group’s zanieir spirit, as seen on projects like Will Rap For Food and Southernunderground he eventually adopted a more reflective and cinematic sound.
Releases like A Piece Of Strange and his solo album Death Is Silent reveal a producer with a deep understanding of sample manipulation. Not to mention an acute awareness of concepts like beauty and serenity, unafraid to embrace minimalism and use it to paint a picture -- though never does he stray too far from hip-hop traditionalism as to appear unrecognizable. It’s easy to lose yourself in Kno’s production, even without the immersive lyricism of himself and his fellow Linguists.
Despite being widely recognized as a legendary crew, Cypress Hill probably deserves more love than they receive. Being that he’s the primary producer behind seven of the group’s albums, DJ Muggs has amassed an incredible discography of classic records to his name. Not only has he laid the foundation for the Cypress sound as we know it, but he also held it down for no shortage of emcees, including Ice Cube, Xzibit, KRS-One, Mobb Deep, the GZA, Kurupt, Snoop Dogg, Ill Bill, Yelawolf, Mach Hommy, Flee Lord, and many more.
Most recently, Muggs has also been expanding his solo discography, having recently delivered a stunning and downright chilling album in Dies Occidendum. One need only give that project a spin to realize the depth of Muggs’ imagination, as it’s easily among the most life-like and vivid instrumental releases we’ve seen from a hip-hop producer in recent memory. Shortly thereafter, he linked with Yelawolf to lace the entirety of Mile Zero, a grimy and raw dose of back-to-basics hip-hop, a project that’s destined to fly under one too many radars this year. A true legend and among the best samplers in the game.
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It goes without saying that the inventor of Death Rap is not for everybody. But those who have embraced the maniacal genius that is Necro can certainly attest to his acumen behind the boards. A clear scholar of hip-hop and horror alike, the New York underground legend has somehow managed to entangle both worlds in a twisted embrace. For the most part, his entire solo catalog consists of his own production, with early albums like I Need Drugs and Gory Days displaying his minimalist brutality in full X-rated glory.
Where he really proceeded to come into his own behind the boards, however, was when he began producing albums for his Psycho-Logical labelmates Ill Bill, Mr. Hyde, and Goretex - who together formed the group Circle Of Tyrants, who released their Necro-produced eponymous album in 2005. In addition to his own expansive catalog, Necro also produced acclaimed records like Non Phixion’s “Black Helicopters,” Cage’s haunting “Agent Orange,” and Raekwon and Ghostface Killah’s “Gihad.” A self-professed crate digger, Necro’s sampling prowess could stand against many of the recognized greats, though his flair for the disturbing may very well have kept him from universal acceptance from the hip-hop community.
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There’s no denying that DJ Battlecat has played a pivotal role in pioneering the signature sound of the west coast as we know it. There’s a reason he was enlisted to produce and engineer the upcoming album from Mount Westmore, a supergroup consisting of Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube, Too $hort, and E-40. The man behind the curtain for many a west coast classic, you’d be hard-pressed to find a producer further entrenched in the sonic DNA of an entire region.
What makes Battlecat such a force behind the boards is not only his instinct but his understanding of the tools at his disposal. A student of analog technology, Battlecat actively took the time to develop and hone an understanding of sound. As such, he began to build up his own bank of custom sounds, synthesizers shaped and oscillated from sine wave infancy. By putting in the time to learn the fundamentals -- with a few mixing tips gleaned from a pre-NWA Dr. Dre -- Battlecat would go on to earn the trust of damn near every rapper repping his coast. Snoop Dogg, Kurupt, Xzibit, Bad Azz, MC Eiht, E-40, The Eastsidaz -- few producers can so effectively embody an entire region as Battlecat does the west.
WATCH: Battlecat Making A Beat
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He’ll probably be the first to tell you about the scope of his influence, but that doesn’t mean Juicy J isn’t absolutely correct. A key innovator in several musical movements -- from Southern bounce to the dark stylings of horrorcore -- J’s work behind the boards alongside fellow Three 6 Mafia member DJ Paul continues to be felt in the production of today. Never one for subtlety, J’s instrumentals tend to hit with ferocity, though even his more aggressive cuts are still somehow appropriate for the strip club.
A longtime veteran of the game, J’s longevity is seldom appreciated with the reverence it deserves. We’re talking about an artist who has been continuously setting the bar, creatively evolving, and adapting to whatever musical climate seems to be taking shape. He continues to produce at an elevated level, lining his own recent solo album The Hustle Continues with banger after banger. In fact, there’s a case to be made that Juicy J is arguably the most consistent producer in hip-hop, having originally gotten his start in the early nineties and remaining active to this day.
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Though Denaun Porter has largely slowed his output, the Detroit producer was once a key figure in the early millennium hip-hop landscape. Though he never quite reached the status of a household name, the D12 vet actually played a role in conjuring some undeniable bangers. G-Unit’s “Stunt 101.” Xzibit’s “Multiply.” Busta Rhymes’ “Riot.” 50 Cent’s “P.I.M.P.” Eminem’s “On Fire.” But a few of his finest selections, each one highlighting his unique mind for production.
A student of the classic Detroit sound, the marriage of clean bass and filthy percussion as pioneered by the late Dilla, Mr. Porter honed his craft producing the bulk of Eminem’s Infinite project. Once D12’s Devil’s Night entered the production stages, he found himself under the wing of Dr. Dre, gaining another musical mentor and widening the scope of his versatility. Most recently, he held it down with contributions to DMX's Exodus project, working on "Take Control" and "Walking In The Rain." Boasting a sharp ear for melody, Porter’s instrumentals are among the sharpest in the game, lush blends of acoustic instruments, synthesizers, and bouncy arrangements.
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Hip-hop heads obviously know all about E Double, but in conversations about the game’s legendary producers, his name is forgotten all too often. A startling omission, given the depth of the EPMD lyricist’s catalog. With eight studio albums to his name -- including 2000’s Erick Onasis, which marked the recorded debut of a young Rick “Teflon” Ross -- Sermon was largely the architect of his own sound. In addition to his own catalog, Sermon also laid backdrops for his Def Squad contemporaries, serving as a notable contributor to many of Redman’s classic albums.
Like others on this list, The Green-Eyed Bandit transitioned gracefully between eras, his music adapting to the changing times. As the new millennium arose, Sermon’s old-school, sample-driven sound underwent a crisp and bouncy new transformation, culminating in standout cuts on Redman’s slept-on cult classic Malpractice and more. Even to this day, Sermon continues to keep the production sharp, having contributed to Conway The Machine’s emotionally devastating “Forever Droppin Tears” and the KXNG Crooked / Joell Ortiz’s duet “Get Ya Money.”
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Another legendary beatmaker who seldom receives the appreciation he deserves, it’s time to start recognizing the greatness of Hi-Tek on a wider level. Having amassed a catalog truly lined with classics, including his own Hi-Teknology album (peep “The Sun God” for a reminder) and his many contributions to Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star, Hi-Tek’s style is what really elevates his game.
Like many hip-hop production legends who emerged in the 1990s, Hi-Tek is naturally nice with the samples. There’s a reason why his Blackstar cut “Respiration” became such a widely-jacked beat on the freestyle circuit. He also contributed bangers to G-Unit and 50 Cent on Beg For Mercy and The Massacre, lacing “G-Unit,” “Eye For An Eye,” and “Get In My Car.” He wasn't relegated to the east coast either, as he connected with several prominent west coast legends -- Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre -- becoming trusted collaborators in the process. You might be surprised at how deep Tek’s catalog truly runs, and chances are if you do a little digging, you’ll find he’s laced a beat for your favorite rapper at one stage or another.
WATCH: Rhythm Roulette: Hi-Tek
Though it’s likely that many fans have heard at least one of Rockwilder’s many bangers, it still feels like the Queens-born producer remains under-appreciated in the grand scheme of things. In reality, his talent and distinctive sound are worthy of recognition -- look no further than the clip in which he concocts a beat on the fly, using elements that might have baffled a less creative producer. Having scored credits for Big Pun, JAY-Z, Eminem, Method Man, Redman, Busta Rhymes, Mos Def, LL Cool J, Xzibit, 50 Cent, Nate Dogg, and many more, Rockwilder’s production repertoire is lined with storied collaborations.
What really makes him stand out -- aside from the fact he has a classic duet named in his honor -- is how unique his production truly is. Generally tending to favor crisp and clean synthesizers, Rockwilder also shines as a monster on the MPC, a skill set that allows him to realize his instincts in real-time, much to the delight of whoever’s lucky enough to bear witness. If you see Rockwilder’s name on the production credits, expect the unexpected. It might be a bass-fueled bounce. It might be an eccentric and playful synth blend. It might be a sampled nostalgic joint. A jack of all trades and a consistent master across the board.