Lately I’ve been thinking more and more about the role of the producer. It’s probably because I’ve been listening to Jean Grae’s Jeanius which was produced entirely by 9th Wonder. I really think that hip hop needs to make the distinction between “producer” and “beatmaker”.
Hip hop has tons of beatmakers, but relatively few producers. Producers do more than supply a track; they shape an album. There’s a reason why Nigel Godrich has such a good name as a producer; because he can create a vibe. But how many hip hop “producers” can do that? In hip hop it’s much about a collection of beats from a variety of producers, which creates an uneven product. It’s also following the pop music model of making an album.
Who do I consider actual producers? Kanye West did an amazing job of revitalizing Common on Be (which featured only two beats not produced by West.) DJ Premier has crafted every Gangstarr album, as well as releases by Jeru and the Group Home. The departed Jay Dee made plenty of magic with Slum Village. 9th Wonder made Buckshot tolerable on Chemistry and made many take notice of Murs on two separate occasions. Even Dr. Dre, as overrated as he is a beatmaker, knows how to produce an album.
It’s not just about having a sound; it’s also about being able to create an album. Scott Storch has a sound, but I can’t imagine him having enough talent and vision to shape an album for an artist and provide every soundscape.
And as much as I hate to say it, I think that trend of picking and choosing beats from a variety of producers had its start with Nas’ classic Illmatic. I honestly can’t think of an album prior to that which received as much critical acclaim while having beats from a myriad of high profile producers. Illmatic was the album that made it a must to have a beat from “hot producer A”, “hot producer B” and “hot producer L.” There have been occasional examples of artists who are strong enough to make that model work (Ghostface, Jay-Z), but most flounder.
Of course that formula has been expanded on to include “the down South track”, “the song for the ladies”, “the song for the radio”, etc. And that formula has led to albums that sound like everything else out.
I’d really love to hear hip hop going back to a much smaller MC to “Producer” ratio, but the only folks who appear to be doing that are the indie acts like Jean Grae and Murs. I do think that it’s a good sign that the two albums by the Clipse, both produced by the Neptunes, are critical darlings. Hopefully labels will take note that too many cooks do indeed spoil the broth.