XXL celebrates 50 years of hip-hop with this feature.
The list of formidable producers who’ve contributed to hip-hop culture is stacked. Beginning with Sugar Hill Records cofounder Sylvia Robinson, who produced Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five’s “The Message” and The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” in the 1980s, there are dozens of legendary beat magicians who’ve kept the party rocking and MCs rhyming. Through different eras, Marley Marl, Rick Rubin, Prince Paul, DJ Premier, Pete Rock and RZA are just a handful of producers who’ve made an indelible mark on the culture.
The tools have only become sharper, too. Before Serato, Abelton Live and other recording software, Easy Mo Bee manually chopped up samples and Marley Marl resorted to sampling kicks and snares from completely different records while other aspiring producers would use cassette boomboxes and their local radio stations to make loops. The advent of the internet changed the game entirely and it’s now easier than ever to find a sample that’s legally cleared to use. With that in mind, it’s a miracle that Prince Paul was even able to make De La Soul’s 1989 debut, 3 Feet High & Rising, due to the sheer amount of flips on the groundbreaking project. Same with Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique, which was released that same year with insanely layered beats from The Dust Brothers and Delicious Vinyl cofounder Matt Dike.
Needless to say, production in 2023 isn’t the same as it was in 1973. However, there are still reputable talents such as Metro Boomin and Hit-Boy who have also found success in the new era. As the 50th anniversary of rap inches closer, XXL is celebrating 25 producers who’ve propelled the culture forward and simultaneously kept everyone’s trunks rattling over the years. Looking into the imprint of other musicians such as Dr. Dre, Kanye West and Timbaland, among others, check out the full list below.—Kyle Eustice
RZA of the almighty Wu-Tang Clan has emerged as not only a vicious MC, but also a beat-making king. With plenty of credits under his belt, RZA has produced most of Wu-Tang’s albums, including the Staten Island group’s 1993 debut Wu-Tang: Enter The 36 Chambers and 1997’s Wu-Tang Forever. Splicing audio clips from old kung-fu movies with hard-hitting boom bap beats, RZA (also known as Bobby Digital) quickly established his signature sound. He’s gone on to both direct and score films as well as consult on the popular Hulu series, Wu-Tang: An American Saga, alongside Ghostface Killa, Inspectah Deck, Masta Killa and GZA. On a commercial level, the legendary producer has received Grammy Award and Emmy nominations for his contributions to the culture.
Love him or hate him, Kanye West’s production discography speaks for itself. Kicking off in 1999 with “It’s Bigger Than Hip Hop” by Dead Prez and “Joanne” by Trina & Tamara, Kanye has amassed a long list of production credits over the course of his career. From Beanie Sigel and Jay-Z to Scarface and Ludacris, the Chi-Town native quickly blossomed as Roc-A-Fella Records’ standout producer. After launching his solo career in 2004 with The College Dropout and establishing his own label, G.O.O.D. Music, Kanye explored a vast array of sounds, including symphonic arrangements, synthesizers and Auto-Tune. With more than 160 million records sold, 20 top 10 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 (over 140 entries all together) and 22 Grammys, he’s among the most successful artists of all time—he also happens to be one of the most controversial.
Before Dr. Dre became a billionaire Beats mogul, the Aftermath Entertainment trailblazer was in the lab cooking up the World Class Wreckin’ Cru’s electro funk album World Class (1985), N.W.A’s pioneering gangster rap album Straight Outta Compton (1988) and, of course, his seminal solo debut, The Chronic (1992). Built on a foundation of George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic samples, The Chronic ushered in the G-Funk era and paved the way for a slew of rappers to follow. He also earned a Grammy in the Best Rap Solo performance category for “Let Me Ride,” which relies heavily on Parliament’s 1976 single “Mothership Connection (Star Child).” A bona fide architect of West Coast G-Funk, he’s avidly working in the studio to this day (hopefully on that nearly mythical Detox project). When it comes to accolades, Dre has six Grammys, an Emmy and six top 10 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 to his name.
Pete Rock—one half of Pete Rock & CL Smooth—created arguably one of the most recognized samples in hip-hop history with “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)” from 1992’s Mecca and the Soul Brother. With an affinity for jazz samples and the SP-1200, Rock has crafted masterpieces for Stetsasonic, Gang Starr, A Tribe Called Quest and The Roots, among many others. More recently, he’s collaborated with the likes of Smoke DZA and Skyzoo, as well as put out multiple solo albums, culminating with 2022’s Return of the SP-1200 2. He hasn’t received many nods on a commercial level, but his impact will never be lost within the genre and on the streets.
From RZA and DJ Premier to Madlib and Pete Rock, Cold Chillin’ Records in-house producer/DJ Marley Marl has influenced the careers of a wide array of hip-hop artists. The New York City native was discovered by local radio DJ Mr. Magic and the two went on to form the legendary Juice Crew. Marley Marl caught his big break in 1984 when he produced “Roxanne’s Revenge” for Roxanne Shanté. He went on to craft the entirety of Craig G’s The Kingpin, Big Daddy Kane’s Long Live The Kane, Biz Markie’s Goin’ Off, Kool G Rap & DJ Polo’s Road to the Riches, MC Shan’s Down By Law and Born to Be Wild and Roxanne Shante’s Bad Sister. The platinum-selling producer is perhaps best known for producing “The Symphony,” a posse cut boasting verses from Juice Crew members Masta Ace, Kool G Rap, Craig G and Big Daddy Kane.
J Dilla is one of rap’s most lauded producers. Despite his premature death in 2006, Dilla’s extensive catalog has proven to be an influence on countless others. Beginning with Slum Village and Soulquarians, the Detroit native established his distinct sound with a customized Akai MPC3000. In addition to solo albums such as 2006’s Donuts, he went on to produce for The Pharcyde, A Tribe Called Quest, MF DOOM, Common and Erykah Badu (the latter two of which he earned Grammy nominations and Billboard entries with). Multiple posthumous projects started arriving shortly after his death, including The Shining, Jay Love Japan and Jay Stay Paid. Dilla’s mother, Maureen “Ma Dukes” Yancey, has worked tirelessly to keep his legacy alive, exceeding any and all expectations.
As a founding member of Gang Starr, DJ Premier is the production genius behind classics such as “Above The Clouds” and “You Know My Steez.” For the past three decades, he’s continued pushing the envelope, working with a wide array of artists; from J. Cole and Bishop Nehru to Oasis’ Liam Gallagher and Torii Wolf. When producing Christina Aguilera’s 2006 album Back To Basics, he admitted people were skeptical. But as he told Life + Times magazine, “I never want to be just attached to hip-hop. I want to be attached to music—country, rap, soul, jazz, blues, it doesn’t matter, gospel music—I come from all of that.” And he’s kept his word. Additionally, Premier has taken home a few Grammy Awards for his genre-crossing productions.
Always at the forefront of innovation, Timbaland made a name for himself producing for the likes of Ginuwine, Jodeci, Aaliyah and Missy Elliott throughout the 1990s. The aughts found him in the studio with Justin Timberlake, Brandy, LL Cool J, Xzibit, Snoop Dogg and dozens more. Needless to say, Timbaland’s versatility was like a secret weapon for any artist who stepped in the booth. From R&B to rap, the 4x Grammy Award-winner continues to flex his creative muscle. In 2022, he crafted two tracks for Jack Harlow’s Grammy-nominated album, Come Home The Kids Miss You, and followed up with contributions to The Game’s Drillmatic—Heart Vs. Mind project. As far as charts go, Timbaland has two No. 1 hits on the Hot 100, with five that have gone top 10.
Without Mannie Fresh, it’s unlikely Lil Wayne would be the superstar rapper he is now. The New Orleans producer is behind nearly most of the songs on 17 multi-platinum, platinum or gold albums for Cash Money between 1998 and 2004. His first Top 100 hit, “Ha” by Juvenile, put him on the map, but the group’s follow-up single “Back That Azz Up” made him a hot commodity. Credits include The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Hope You N-ggas Sleep,” Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter and Big Tymers’ “Still Fly.” These days, he has the freedom to pick projects based on interest. He’s currently working on a collaborative album with The Cool Kids and traveling the world playing DJ sets. Yep, still fly.
The Bomb Squad
As the powerhouse behind Public Enemy’s frenetic and often disruptive sound, The Bomb Squad sewed together swatches of samples like surgeons in an ER. Comprised of brothers Hank and Keith Shocklee, Eric Sadler, Gary “G-Wiz” Rinaldo, Bill Stephney and Chuck D himself, the production crew was behind Public Enemy’s most celebrated albums, including It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Fear of a Black Planet. The Bomb Squad was also behind albums such as Ice Cube’s AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, Bell Biv Devoe’s Poison and Slick Rick’s The Great Adventures of Slick Rick. With all of that in mind, they are of course no strangers to plaques and chart placements.
Hit-Boy was already a Grammy Award-winning producer, having crafted the Hov and Kanye West classic “N-ggaz In Paris” in 2004, Kendrick Lamar’s “Backseat Freestyle” from Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City and Beyoncé’s “Sorry” from Lemonade, but his work with Nas over the past few years have heightened his notoriety. In 2021, Hit-Boy won a Best Rap Album Grammy for his contributions to Nas’ King’s Disease. Its sequel, King’s Disease II, was nominated in the same category the following year. Last month, he added another gilded trophy to his collection after Beyoncé’s Renaissance took home the Best Dance/Electronic Album honor. With five Grammy wins altogether and a slew of Hot 100 entires, Hit-Boy continues to pump out classics to this day.
Chi-Town native No I.D. garnered national acclaim first alongside fellow Chicagoan Common, pumping out multiple songs on 1994’s Resurrection—including the memorable ode to rap, “I Used To Love H.E.R”—and then as a co-producer with Jermaine Dupri. He also introduced Kanye West to both hip-hop production and Roc-A-Fella Records A&R Kyambo “Hip Hop” Joshua, who eventually signed West to Hip Hop Since 1978, inadvertently propelling the young rapper to superstardom.
No I.D.’s résumé boasts a stint as G.O.O.D. Music president and additional credits with JAY-Z, Nas, Drake, Rick Ross, Big Sean, Rihanna and, of course, West. In 2008, he produced West’s 808 & Heartbreaks single “Heartless,” which sold more than four million copies. His latest work includes Beyonce’s Renaissance single “Church Girl” and two songs for Brent Faiyaz from the album Wasteland. Elsewhere, I.D. also won multiple Grammys for his contributions to Hov’s “Run This Town,” a record that of course landed on the Hot 100, out of the many, as well.
If there was no Mike Dean, Kanye West’s discography basically wouldn’t exist—at least not in its final iteration. In addition to mixing both The College Dropout and Late Registration, the Houston native—who made his initial mark with Rap-A-Lot Records artists—sprinkled his production magic on Graduation, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Yeezus, The Life of Pablo, Ye and the two Donda albums. His penchant for synthesizers and brooding, ethereal soundscapes largely define his body of work and easily sets him apart from other producers. Dean is the co-founder of Apex Sound along with fellow producer Apex Martin and a 7x-Grammy winner. Just give him a bong hit and watch him go.
A longtime Stones Throw Records affiliate, Madlib got an early taste of success with Tha Alkaholiks’ 1993 debut, 21 & Over. Credited as Lootpack—his production crew with Wildchild and DJ Romes—Madlib’s love of jazz, soul and funk weaved its way into his beats. He soon found himself clicked up with MF DOOM (as Madvillain), J Dilla (as Jaylib) and, eventually, Freddie Gibbs (as MadGibbs). His rumored project with Mac Miller, MacLib, was thwarted by Miller’s 2018 death. Madlib has produced for Erykah Badu, De La Soul, Living Legends, Snoop Dogg, Kanye West, Anderson .Paak, Mos Def, Westside Gunn and Open Mike Eagle as well as his own alter ego, Quasimoto. Though he’s never won a Grammy, commercial success has in fact been achieved, in instances like his work on Gibb’s Bandana, which debuted in the top 25 on the Billboard 200 album chart.
The Dust Brothers
The Dust Brothers (E.Z Mike and King Gizmo) are responsible for one of the most sample-heavy albums of all time—Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique (1989). With more than 100 snippets of songs from artists such as James Brown, Bob Marley, Afrika Bambaataa, The Eagles and ZZ Top, the ambitious project highlighted The Dust Brothers’ innate ability to make sense out of chaos. The Los Angeles-based duo later left their imprint on Beck’s Odelay, Midnite Vultures and Guero, the soundtrack for Fight Club and “MMMBop” by Hanson. Their work with the Beastie Boys has also earned them a stack of platinum plaques and Billboard chart nods.
When DMX died in April 2021, Swizz Beatz vowed to finish X’s comeback album, Exodus—and he did. Loyal until the end, Swizz Beatz was instrumental in DMX’s career, producing the infamous “Ruff Ryders Anthem” from his 1998 debut, It’s Dark and Hell is Hot, several tracks on Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood and “Party Up (Up In Here)” from 2000’s …And Then There Was X. Swizz Beatz, who’s also the co-founder of the popular Versuz series, has produced for his wife Alicia Keys, Eve, Cassidy, Hov, Beanie Sigel, Busta Rhymes, The Lox, Damian Marley and dozens of others. More recent work includes Mary J. Blige’s “Runnin’” off the Grammy-nominated Good Morning Gorgeous and Westside Gunn’s “Science Class” featuring Stove God Cooks, Bus-A-Bus, Raekwon and Ghostface Killah. The Grammy Award-winning producer is also no stranger to cracking Billboard’s Hot 100 across decades.
DJ Quik is a pillar of early West Coast rap, widely known for the solo singles “Tonite,” “Born & Raised in Compton” and “Dollaz & Sense.” But his moniker is a giant clue as to what his first love is—DJing and producing. Once he’s behind the board, Quik is like a scientist, mixing little doses of funk with hip-hop to put his G-Funk signature on everything he touches. From Snoop Dogg and Tupac to The Game and Eazy-E, DJ Quik’s production discography reads like a who’s who of rap. Stints at Profile and Death Row Records only solidified his legacy. Quik is famous for using a vocoder, which was introduced to him by Zapp & Rogers’ Roger Troutman. As indicated by one of Quik’s latest Instagram posts, the platinum-selling beat architect still talking about his influence 30 years later.
With a penchant for weaving colorful sonic tapestries out of a plethora of diverse samples, Grammy Award winner Prince Paul stitched together De La Soul’s kaleidoscopic debut, 1989’s 3 Feet High & Rising. While he’d already established himself as a founding member of the Long Island hip-hop group Stetsasonic, his work with De La Soul put him on another level. He went on to form Gravediggaz with RZA, Too Poetic and Frukwan as well as Handsome Boy Modeling School with Dan The Automator. Subsequent collaborations include Gorillaz, Souls of Mischief and George Clinton, among many others. He’s also scored Billboard 200 entries off of his own solo work, so shoutout to that.
As A Tribe Called Quest’s de facto leader, Q-Tip was among the catalysts of the jazz-infused hip-hop movement that dominated the ‘90s Golden Era. A member of the Native Tongues, Tribe was all about “beats, rhymes and life.” Behind the board, Q-Tip was an innovator, influencing future legends Pharrell, Kanye West, 9 Wonder and J Dilla. His production on Tribe’s The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders remains timeless. Outside of hip-hop, the Grammy Award-winner has smashed songs such as Mariah Carey’s “Honey,” which landed at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1997. He’s gone on to work with Nas, Jay-Z, Kanye West, Santigold, John Legend and Kendrick Lamar, among others. The “vivrant thing” is currently working on LL Cool J’s first album since 2013’s Authentic.
Metro Boomin kicked off his career at just 16 years old while still living in St. Louis. After moving to Atlanta in 2011, he connected with a small army of ATL rappers, including Young Thug, Future, 21 Savage, Gucci Mane and Migos. He found mainstream success with 2014’s “Tuesday” by iLoveMakonnen and Drake, which reached No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100. He landed his first chart-topper with Migos’ “Bad & Boujee” two short years later and hasn’t looked back. In 2017, he would produce what would become his first diamond-certified single, Post Malone’s “Congratulations” featuring Quavo. The versatile beat magician earned a Grammy nomination in the Album of the Year category for his work on Coldplay’s 2022 album Music of the Spheres at the 65th Annual Grammy Awards, has laced four top 10 hits on the Hot 100 and topped the charts with his own album Heroes & Villains last year. Boom indeed.
Just Blaze served as Roc-A-Fella Records’ in-house producer throughout the early 2000s, producing for the likes of Beanie Sigel, Jay-Z, Freeway and Cam’ron. Among his biggest hits are T.I.’s “Live Your Life” featuring Rihanna, which landed at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Just Blaze is the CEO of Fort Knocks Entertainment, has composed soundtracks for video games and was a character in NBA Street Vol. 2. The 8x-Grammy nominee even received a nod in the Best Contemporary Christian Music Performance/Song at the 64th Annual Grammy Awards for Lil Baby and Kirk Franklin’s “We Win (Space Jam: A New Legacy).” Other nominations include Album of the Year for Beyoncé’s Lemonade and Kanye West’s Late Registration.
Grammy Award-winning production duo Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo—collectively known as The Neptunes—are essentially a hit factory. With a discography that includes Nelly’s “Hot In Herre,” Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Got Your Money” featuring Kelis and the gold-certified “Lookin’ At Me” from Ma$e and Diddy, the proud Virginians haven’t let off the gas since producing Wreckx-n-Effect’s 1992 smash “Rump Shaker” while still in high school. In 2001, they catapulted to international recognition with Brittney Spears’ “I’m A Slave 4 U” and continued churning out tracks for Gwen Stefani, Snoop Dogg, Beyoncé and Hov, among others, in addition to their own group N.E.R.D and Pharrell’s solo work. In 2020, they were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and honored with Honorary Doctorates from Berklee College of Music the following year. Altogether, they’ve won four Grammy Awards and stacked up plenty of platinum plaques to match their recurring Hot 100 entries.
Down South, Dungeon Family trio Organized Noize was making, well, noise. Throughout the 1990s, Sleepy Brown, Rico Wade and Ray Murray orchestrated culture-defining albums such as Outkast’s Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, ATLiens and Aquemini and Goodie Mob’s Soul Food. But they also branched out into other genres, crafting several hit singles, including TLC’s “Waterfalls,” En Vogue’s “Don’t Let Go (Love)” and Ludacris’ “Saturday (Oooh! Ooooh!).”
Outkast credits Organized Noize for their success. As Big Boi said in a 2017 interview with Billboard, “They were our big brothers, and they did a production deal with LaFace Records. They were the ones that gave us our first shot and we been doing music with them since the beginning.” Moreover, on a commercial level, they seem to have every relevant accolade under their belts, from Grammys to chart-topping hits.
Rick Rubin is often exalted to deity status for his non-traditional approach to production. Using more feeling and energy than technical prowess these days, the Def Jam Recordings co-mastermind can usually be found holed up at his Shangri-La studio in Malibu guiding the creative direction of artists such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Blossom and Run The Jewels. Early in his career, he was the driving force behind Beastie Boys’ Licensed To Ill, Public Enemy’s Yo! Bum Rush The Show and LL’s Radio. Following Larry Smith and Russell Simmons’ work on Run-DMC’s albums Run-D.M.C. and King of Rock, Rubin took the reins on the trio’s third album, Raising Hell, which included the first big crossover Hip-Hop/rock hit,“Walk This Way” with Aerosmith.
An early member of Cypress Hill’s Soul Assassins, The Alchemist originally rapped under the moniker “Mudfoot” but ultimately found his calling as a producer thanks to guidance from DJ Muggs. After honing his skills as Dilated People’s primary producer, he branched out into producing for Mobb Deep, Nas, Fat Joe, Jadakiss, Ghostface Killah and Snoop Dogg. He also landed a gig as Eminem’s tour DJ following Green Lantern’s departure from Shady Records in 2005. The Alchemist earned his first Grammy Award nomination in 2020 for Alfredo with Freddie Gibbs. That late nod doesn’t tell the entire story though, as he’s been racking up chart entries and RIAA certifications for years now.