Beat Generation: DJ K.O.'s Take On The Rise Of Producers In Hip Hop
New Jersey producer/album-maker DJ K.O. submitted HipHopDX a piece on what it means to be a producer within Hip Hop to varying definitions, citing DJ Jazzy Jeff, Diddy and Dr. Dre to illustrate points.
“Without saying the producer's name all over the track / Yeah I said it what you need to do is get back to reading credits” – Posdnuos of De La Soul, “Rock Co. Kane Flow”
Hip Hop’s fascination with the record producer is quite a unique phenomenon. It’s a pretty rare occurrence to find a producer’s name associated with the marketing of a song/album or even, as Posdnuos noted, being mentioned in an actual recording within other popular genres of music. The role of a producer is one usually reserved for unassuming audiophiles who painstakingly oversee the recording process from inception to the final master. So how did it become commonplace for record producers to garner comparable fame to that of a recording artist in Hip Hop? Let’s take a minute and go back to 1979.
The role of a producer in Hip Hop has undoubtedly evolved since the days of The Sugarhill Gang and Sylvia Robinson when they created “Rapper’s Delight." At its inception of acceptance into popular culture, the creation of a Hip Hop song was not unlike that of a Rock, Pop or Jazz record. Session musicians were brought in by the producer to lay down drums, bass, guitar and some keys. Then a few guys came in to lay some vocals over the music. However, there was no doubt about it, Wonder Mike, Master Gee and Big Bank Hank were the stars of the show. Unless you were in the industry or a music aficionado studying credits on your record (yes, those black vinyl things), you probably didn’t know who Sylvia Robinson was. Somewhere along the line, that paradigm shifted.
Trying to pinpoint that exact instant is really up for interpretation. However, for me, the introduction of programming/sequencing machines to the genre and departure of session musicians seems to be that moment. It was no longer necessary to have someone coordinating the various individuals required to compose the music for performs to record over. In theory, all you needed was one person to create the musical composition. Thus, the birth of something very unique to the genre, welcome the beatmaker/De facto producer.
As time progressed, Hip Hop had seemingly gotten further and further away from the generally accepted definition of a record producer. That was until the emergence in 1988 of a one Andre Young, professionally known as Dr. Dre. He seemed to embrace both roles of beat-maker and record producer. While N.W.A was making headlines due to its lyrical content, people were starting to take notice of him since he was pulling double duty on the mic and the boards. Parlaying the success of N.W.A’s two albums (Straight Outta Compton and Efilzaggin), the world was given its first real taste of what would now be considered a “producer album,” The Chronic. Yes, Dre was rhyming on the album, but the hype was around “the sound, not his rhymes. Dre’s beats, coupled with the rhymes of the West coast’s finest, was the talk of the industry, and more importantly, the consuming public. We were sold – hook, line, and sinker.
Back in 1992, those who were really into reading album credits noticed a couple of names, Daz and Warren G, popping up in a lot of those songs on The Chronic. While it may not have been discussed amongst the casual fan of that album, Hip Hop heads were chopping it up about who was “producing” Dre’s songs. Did he have “ghost producers”? Well, I guess that depends on your definition. The idea of collaboration in creating the music didn’t seem possible to some. Genius like that could only be derived from the pure source of one individual’s mind. On the flipside, there were talks of Dre taking credit for other people’s work. For one reason or another, we still couldn’t shake our idea of what a producer of a Hip Hop record was. They were the person who made the beat. At least it seemed like we had started a discussion on what the definition of a producer was relating to Hip Hop records.
While Dre was enjoying the success of The Chronic and subsequent releases he was producing for artists on Death Row Records, there was another producer creating some hit records and serious buzz in the industry. Enter Sean “Puffy” Combs. Unlike Dre, Puff did not assume both roles as beat-maker and record producer, just the latter. Again, the public seemed to have a hard time believing he was “producing” all of these hit records. Was Puffy just tagging his name on because it was his label? Well, I can’t call it as I wasn’t there. I will say this – at least from various stories I’ve heard over the years, Puff was known to be a studio rat back then, constantly working with his artists, producers and engineers on the records. He was probably not the one behind a beat machine chopping up samples and arranging / sequencing drums. However, it’s certainly not a reach to think he was producing in the generally accepted musical sense. Okay, let’s fast-forward a few years and go to 2001.
The Beat Generation series by UK label, BBE (Barely Breaking Even), was the next defining moment for me in understanding what being a record producer is really all about. Peter Adarkwah and his staff offered some of the States' most revered producers free reign in their creative process, letting them do what they do best and craft producer albums. The result was some of most unfiltered and inspiring albums I’ve had the pleasure of listening to. Getting this material on radio and television seemed to be the last thing on the minds of guys like Jay Dee, Pete Rock, will.i.am and Marley Marl. The only goal appeared to be making an album the way they envisioned without any interference. The game changer for me came in 2002 with The Magnificent by DJ Jazzy Jeff. I won’t sit here and tell you it’s the finest piece of music you’ll ever hear in your life. However, after listening to this album, I finally understood what it meant to be a producer. Jeff had a vision, and he recruited various musicians, beat-makers, producers, emcees and singers to bring it to life. If you were to take a look at the liner notes, you’d see names like Kev Brown, Oddisee and Kenwood all over the production credits for the individual songs. However, it was under Jeff’s direction that a cohesive body of work was created from the numerous contributors. This album is ultimately what inspired me to start making my debut LP, Picture This, back in 2005.
W. Clement Stone once said, “Aim for the moon, that way, even if you miss you'll still be amongst the stars." I adopted this as my philosophy when I began putting together Picture This. My goal was simple, to produce an album from the perspective of a fan. My method to achieving that goal was pairing up some of my favorite emcees over beats by my favorite producers. Utilizing connects from my college radio days (88.7 WRSU-FM, Rutgers University), I was able to link up with the producers (9th Wonder, Analogic, Ayatollah, Black Milk, Buckwild, !llmind, Khrysis, M-Phazes, Marco Polo) on my list first so I could select the beats I wanted for the album. Once the sonic backdrop was in place, it was time to piece together the puzzle of who I would have crafting bars over the beats (Writer's Note: Picture This included guest appearances from Talib Kweli, Royce Da 5’9, Elzhi, Phonte, Masta Ace, O.C., Diamond D, Edo. G, Wordsworth, Stricklin, Supastition, John Robinson, Skyzoo, Torae, Emilio Rojas, Kenn Starr, Finale, Eternia, Shabaam Sahdeeq, Median, Chaundon, Silent Knight, East, K-Hill, Sean Boog, Soulstice, Kaze, Archrival & J. Siinastah).
At the time, in late 2005, Masta Ace and Phonte had yet to work on a song together. I thought it would be really dope to make that happen. Analogic had this beat I thought would be a great fit. I made a few calls and sent a few e-mails, 'Tay was down. He got the beat, laid his verse. I was off and running now. I got Masta Ace and Wordsworth on board and they laid down their verses. I then added K-Hill to round out the track. Before I knew it, the first song ("Ladder of Success") had come together. Once the song was done, I e-mailed it over to 'Tay and he wrote back, “It’s just funny how it sounds like niggas was all in the same room together and we ain't even met.....the chemistry was still there...Good job, man." It was at that exact moment I knew I was onto something. I’ve got countless other stories and little bits of info from those days, but that’s for another time. Here’s a little parting fact though from Picture This for the books – when I got Royce da 5’9 and Elzhi on “Best to Do It," that was the first time they had ever done a record together.
So whether it was thinking which emcee would fit on a song or being at recording sessions imparting my vision for the track to the artists or engineering sessions for the mixing engineer or sitting with Analogic while the songs were being mixed – you name it, I had my hands on it. To me, that’s the essence of what a producer is. It’s the person who oversees a song from inception to completion. You see the finish line before everyone else does and pull the right strings to help the artist(s) get there. Whether it’s making the beat, getting help from another beatmaker or producer, adding live instrumentation or bringing in vocalists to add harmonies. It’s understanding that every song presents its own unique challenges and that it’s your responsibility to identify what it takes to make it right, then make it happen. I will say this though - it’s rare to achieve one’s goals without some help along the way. I certainly had support from Analogic and Silent Knight on that album. Ultimately Picture This turned out to be exactly what I envisioned though, dope beats coupled with dope rhymes. No frills Hip Hop.
After using the last four years to continue building the Elementality brand, I decided to throw my hat back in the ring with the new album, EMPBeTheTeam. While this one may lack the blockbuster names of its predecessor, it certainly does not fall short of the level of quality established by my debut. However, this time I wanted to provide the EMP team with opportunities to showcase what makes them unique as artists, yet still gives fans a sound they’ll find familiar. The result (hopefully) is an album that offers both style and substance. Most of the songs are still that good, old-fashioned Hip Hop. There’s a raw, angry gutter sound mixed with more smooth, soulful tracks. EMP veterans like Silent Knight, East and K-Hill continue to put their lyrical prowess on display, while newcomers like MadKem, Jered Sanders and Justin Bates set the bar for what's to come.
So we’ve taken a glance into my catalog along with discussing a few events that may have led to the popularity of producers in the Hip Hop world and the roles these producers played in the songs they’re adored for. Let’s switch gears and get into the inner workings of how and where the credits are given. There’s an old adage – knowledge is power. Sometimes a little research can lead to understanding confounding situations. Take for example, writing credits in music. With the recent explosion of coverage surrounding Nas and his 2008 album, Untitled, an exploration into the songs publishing might help uncover the “mystery” around who contributed to what. As I previously mentioned, most songs, especially those released via major labels, are registered with a performing rights organization. The PRO can define a writer as an author, composer or author/composer. In most legitimate scenarios, anyone who has contributed to writing a piece of music will be properly credited with a PRO to guarantee their royalties.
Whether you’re a writer authoring lyrics or composing music, there are usually multiple individuals involved in the creative process. A lot of times when artists are in the studio, ideas get bounced around between performers, songwriters, producers, managers, A&R’s, mixing engineers, etc. Ultimately all of the crediting in the creation and performance of the song is contained in the album’s liner notes or digital booklet. More importantly, it’s registered with a PRO (which is public information). So for all of those inquiring minds wondering who is responsible for what, maybe it’s time to heed Pos’ advice. Oh, and I hear the jury is still out on what a producer is in the world of Hip Hop. All I can hope is they’re having a healthy discussion considering the evidence presented.
DJ K.O. is a New Jersey based producer. Elementality Productions just released the follow-up to DJ K.O.’s 2008 LP, Picture This. EMPBeTheTeam is available on iTunes and fine music retailers nationwide. Follow DJ K.O. on Twitter, @elementalitypro.