Halftime: One-Man Armies - The Return of The Emcee/Producer Extraordinaire
From J. Cole and Big K.R.I.T., to Blueprint and Blu, to Evidence and Black Milk the days of the most-listened to emcees being the most talked about producers may have come full circle.
Through to the early 1990s, production was hardly the talking-point in Hip Hop that it has since become. Hip Hop fans appeared much more focused on lyrics than today, and a Source "Hip Hop Quotable" was paramount to a catchy instrumental for rappers to jack and record freestyles to. Otherwise, The Bomb Squad would be a household name.
A History Of Rappers Who Produce Their Own Albums
Following a tradition laid out by Kurtis Blow, Schoolly D and others, iconic emcees of the day, such as KRS-One, Rakim, Large Professor and Lord Finesse were all gifted producers, who made or had a strong hand in making many of their own classics (sometimes under the guise of another artist's name). Each were revered for their rhymes, though the beats slapped in a way that compared to some of the finest Rap producers of the day (45 King, Marley Marl, Ced Gee, and Dr. Dre).
With the help of people like Ced Gee, DJ Kenny Parker and D-Nice, KRS-One's production work on Boogie Down Productions' By Any Means Necessary (and two BDP releases after) is nothing short of amazing. Although The Teacha will always be respected as an emcee first, his sample choices ( and ability to bring a South Bronx frenzy to audio helped build a sound that immortalized a movement. It's no wonder that Black Star revisited BDP's "The P Is Free" to help build their rep with breakout 1998 single "Definition." According to reports, Rakim had a heavy hand in producing many of his and Eric B.'s early hits. The pair, allegedly joined by Large Professor, Marley Marl, and the late Paul C., crafted three classic albums together. Like KRS - who has laid out collaborative producer projects with Bumpy Knuckles, Marley Marl, Showbiz and Tru-Master, Rakim Allah has stepped back from the boards on his three subsequent solo albums. Just as fans yearn for the first Big Daddy Kane studio album in over 13 years, it's almost a travesty that these men deny fans what's on their musical mind.
Of the 1990s torch-carriers, two emcees who aren't stepping away from the MPC are Lord Finesse and Large Professor - who coincidentally have formed a new group with O.C.: The Alumni. Finesse started a movement with Diggin' In The Crates - a collective that included three self-producing emcees: himself, Diamond D and the aforementioned Showbiz, while producing near-flawless solo albums. Large Professor made a classic album in Main Source's Breaking Atoms, while producing for Eric B. & Rakim, Kool G. Rap & DJ Polo and developing acts like Nas and Akinyele. Both men are as respected at one, as they are the other. And interestingly enough, it was the burgeoning era of a la carte production that allowed them to get the props that Kurtis, Schoolly, Kris and Ra never could.
How The End Of Golden Era Changed Thoughts About Hip Hop Production
By 1994, albums like Nas' Illmatic, Notorious B.I.G.'s Ready To Die and Fat Joe's Represent were driven off of support from the reputation and sounds of super-producers like DJ Premier, Lord Finesse and Large Professor. Emcees like Biggie, Nas, O.C., Big L and Jay-Z thrived off of having cohesive albums with rotating personnel. The mid-'90s were the era of, "So, who produced your album?" And with the amazing work of the aforementioned class, along with guys like Havoc, Dat Nigga Daz (a/k/a Daz Dillinger), Scarface, DJ Quik, Pimp C, No I.D., Dre, Big Hutch, Warren G, Andre 3000, Big Boi, and others saw a lot of emcee-producers helping each other in the studio.
The golden era of Hip Hop was largely defined by the fact that those who participated in the culture usually had unquestionable love for music. Most emcees had experience with deejaying, production, mixing and record collecting. Staying active in the music-making made better music.
In 2011, I feel this coming back more than ever. After 15 years of hounding rappers for who was producing their debut albums (think of the press Saigon got with The Greatest Story Never Told and Game with The Documentary), we are celebrating guys like J. Cole, Big K.R.I.T. and Blu, who are multi-talented emcees and producers. Instead of asking tomorrow's star if they're working with Just Blaze, DJ Premier or Dr. Dre, we're asking them how much of the album they did themselves.
Meanwhile, similar to the early 1990s, it's a community effort. This year, J. Cole has made talk-of-the-blogs songs for guys like X.V. and Kendrick Lamar. K.R.I.T. produces for his Cinematic Music Group brethren and fellow DXnext alumni, Smoke Dza. Previously, Blu produced an entire under-the-radar album for Brooklyn, New York emcee Sene, while Jay Electronica famously tweaked Nas' Untitled intro "Queens Get The Money" . However, nothing is topping what each representative did for themselves.
A self-sufficient producer must be enticing to the labels. With crumbling budgets, saving thousands-if-not-millions on paying third party composers allows greater dividends. It is ironic that the artist who may have inspired this trend is none other than the most grandiose artist in Hip Hop today: Kanye West.
I recall my peer-and-friend, DX writer Luke Gibson passed me a Kanye West mixture somewhere in 2003. We were mispronouncing West's name ever since he laid down "The Truth" for Beanie Sigel, but nothing changes the fact that we were praising the man who was making samples sound more melodic by adjusting the pitch to create a Chipmunks effect on '60s and '70s Soul. Back then, we were saying, "Who knew he could rap?" By the later part of the decade, Kanye West was making top-selling, Grammy Award-winning albums on his own. Yes, there were vocal guests, but West was able to do the kind of work on his own that ultimately drew the fans in - as seen in his solo singles on Graduation and 808's & Heartbreak.
In between Kris and Kanye were a lot of talented producer-rappers: J Dilla, Madlib, Nottz, Evidence, Oddisee, Black Milk and so forth. However, Mr. West made the labels care. He helped break the convention that Trackmasters (shout out to Red Hot Lover Tone, another producing-emcee), Timbaland or Scott Storch were exclusively required to make an album meaningful.
How J. Cole, Big K.R.I.T., Blu & Others Are Reviving Self-Production
As K.R.I.T. and Blu clamor with powerful underground followings, the next in line appears to be J. Cole. As Jay-Z and Damon Dash helped pull Kanye West from a producer to a superstar, Cole may be one to follow. However, instead of moving from producer to rapper, the North Carolina native appears to be asking his many listeners to look in their liner notes (or digital track information). This will likely inspire an entire new crop of producers.
At halftime, some of the most meaningful projects this year have been self-produced. Blu's Her Favorite Colo(u)r, which was formally released by Nature Sounds this spring, shows Johnson Barnes away from Exile or Mainframe's sonic pocket. Similar things happened for Ohio's Blueprint, who broke out with RJD2 in Soul Position, but once again proved his groundbreaking production abilities in Adventures In Counter-Culture. Even the Beastie Boys, who have been producing their own material for 20 years, snatched it back with Hot Sauce Committee Part Two. This is not to overlook Kno, who upheld his Cunninlynguists' Oneirology with amazing in-house compositions.
I think talented producers will always have work in this industry. However, there is a new class and new appreciation for one-man (or woman) shows. Like the Folk singer or the street Jazz musician, the isolated studio lab-rat has a lot to say, and multiple forms of expression. With full-length debuts from K.R.I.T., J. Cole (and maybe even Jay Electronica) - along with Blu's major label debut planned for the second half of 2011, get used to simpler album credits and more artistry for your ears. Never before have one-man/in-house operations sounded so good.
Jake Paine is HipHopDX's Editor-in-Chief. He has over nine years of professional journalism experience, and has written for XXL, The Source, Forbes, and the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. A native of the Steel City, Paine lives in Philadelphia.