This year marks the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, a landmark achievement for Black artists and creatives that have helped develop the most popular genre in the contemporary U.S. While the artists that dominate Spotify charts and headline shows often act as the current faces of the genre, it feels necessary to highlight some of hip hop’s greatest producers throughout each era in order to celebrate it to the fullest.
Hip-hop music began as an innovative mix of soul, funk, and disco music when South Bronx DJs like DJ Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash would use turntables to mix songs into a new party sound. Kool Herc would use a technique he called “The Merry Go Round,” which could strip down tracks to their breakbeat and string the beats together to create non-stop dancing at his local parties. As breakdancing on cardboard boxes turned into playing sets at the Latin Quarter, the genre rose across boroughs, the East Coast, and later, the world.
Here is a list of some of hip-hop’s greatest minds and how their producing techniques have pushed hip-hop forward in the years since Kool Herc’s Bronx Debut.
Old School (1979 - 1984)
Old school hip hop was made for dancing. With a simple beat, a funky bass line, and a sample, the sounds of old school made way for b-boying culture, where b-boys and b-girls would develop new dance moves to extended breaks in the music. The era paved the way for many of the techniques and technologies that would establish the genre in the future.
Marlon Williams, also known as Marley Marl, is an American DJ considered to be one of hip-hop’s first superproducers. He is best known for mastering the art of sampling, or transferring snippets of songs from vinyl records into drum machines. As the man who created the magic behind favorite hits from Eric B. & Rakim, the late Biz Markie, Big Daddy Kane, and LL Cool J, Marl helped truly shape the genre as it’s known today.
Although he’s the only white producer on the list, Rick Rubin undeniably helped make hip-hop what it is today. He’s soft-spoken, meditative, and often barefoot, but grew up listening to punk and rock music and became a hip-hop fan in his college years at NYU. Alongside now media mogul Russell Simmons, he co-founded Def Jam Records in 1984, the label which went on to sign LL Cool J, Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, and Run-D.M.C.
Golden Age (1984 - 1997)
The Golden Age elevated the unique sound of rap music and scratching techniques. Hip-hop became a canvas for young producers and helped develop legendary creative relationships within the rap industry. The genre began to expand outside of its East Coast roots and brought young nationwide talent to the forefront of the scene.
Everyone knows his name. Dr. Dre founded N.W.A. along with Eazy-E and Ice Cube in 1986, laying a foundation for the gangsta rap movement. Not only does Dre have an unbeatable ear for talent — producing music for a star-studded list including Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent, Kendrick Lamar, and 2Pac — he also had an incredible influence on hip-hop culture. Beats by Dre headphones impacted both the audio and fashion industries, creating a legacy that will stand the test of time.
The Houston-born DJ Premier did not grow up hearing hip hop music, but rather soul music later informed his dynamic sampling techniques. Premier has been a part of some of the most impactful albums in rap’s history including Nas’s “Illmatic” (1994), The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Ready to Die” (1994), and was half of the rap group Gang Starr alongside the late Guru. The two were a key part of the influx of street and socially conscious rappers of the ’90s.
Bling Era (1997 - 2006)
The bling era introduced hip hop to the mainstream, with popular new sounds like neo-soul and R&B. Rap lyrics were braggadocious and money-oriented, as rappers found themselves in an era of extreme chart-topping success. The era might be defined as one of constant flexing and one-upping, where the ultimate goal was to have the nicest car or the biggest chain.
At 15, taking inspiration from his father, DJ Sabu, Mannie Fresh became the DJ for New Orleans hip hop crew New York Incorporated. Fresh began producing his own tracks with the inclusion of live drum machines into his sets. He is credited as the master behind the sound of Cash Money Records, which he left in 2005 due to financial and legal issues. Still, hits like Juvenile’s “Back That Azz Up” (1999) and Lil Wayne’s “Go DJ” (2004) showcase his legendary skill.
While his career began in the late ’80s as “DJ Timmy Tim,” producing is where Timbaland found his footing. Bringing Southern sounds into hip hop, he was a frequent collaborator of Missy Elliot, helping to write and produce five of her albums. Outside of their partnership, Timbaland produced hits like “Big Pimpin” (feat. UGK) by Jay Z, “Pony” by Ginuwine, and “Cry Me a River” by Justin Timberlake. Without him, the pop and hip-hop worlds could never have fused together so seamlessly.
Streaming Era (2006 - Present)
In a post-Y2K world, music-sharing websites like Napster (featured in David Fincher’s “The Social Network”) introduced more techniques for streaming new music. As streaming rose in popularity, young artists across the world were able to share their music with free and user-friendly apps like SoundCloud. The digital world has allowed young, passionate producers to make their mark in a more accessible way than rap’s former giants.
You can’t listen to trap music without being in constant awe of the artistry of Atlanta-based Leland Tyler Wayne, professionally known as Metro Boomin. As a seven-year-old in love with rap music, he decided to become a producer with the hopes of having his mother take him seriously. Today, both he, and his well-known producer tag — “If Young Metro don’t trust you, I’m gon’ shoot you” — are well known and collaborations with big names like Post Malone, Future, 21 Savage, and Travis Scott prove that he’s the guy everybody wants on their team.
Jamaican-Canadian producer Boi 1da, names Dr Dre, Pharrell, and Timbaland as his top three inspirations. Although he left Jamaica for Toronto at the age of three, the influence of the island lives on through his work. His synth pad-based beats have brought millions of feet to the dancefloor with hits like Rihanna’s “Work” (2016) and “God’s Plan” (2018) by Drake. With four nominations at this year’s Grammy Awards, 1da uses the creative and unorthodox to keep hip-hop fresh.
Although varying in region and sound, each of these producers has demonstrated a craftsmanship for creating music and a passion to push the boundaries. They reference anything from James Brown to Japanese Instrumentals and use their creative rolodex to engage listeners in story.
While many know Pharrell for his pop hits like “Happy” or “Frontin’,” his roots in hip-hop run deep. When the two were in high school, Pharrel befriended fellow musician Chad Hugo and they were later scouted at their high school talent show. The two were a writing and production duo, producing hits like “Hot In Herre” by Nelly and Snoop Dogg’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” which Pharell himself is featured on. Many classic 2000s hits were either created by the Neptunes or a direct result of their influence.
The late Detroit native is responsible for some of the most creative sampling used in hip-hop. Instead of just using beats and melodies from the disco and funk tracks he was obsessed with as a child, Dilla would keep the vocals from the tracks he sampled and create an entirely new sound. His techniques revolutionized the MPC3000, a beat sampler, and sequencer, and his limited edition version is currently held in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture’s collection.
Hip-hop would not be where it is today without the creative genius and wise ears of the producers behind the music. As the industry reflects on 50 years of the genre, it is important to thank those who poured their talent into the breaks, beats, and scratches that define the music industry.