Tyler, the Creator. J Cole. Mac Miller. Childish Gambino. Kid Cudi.
Hip hop’s new generation seems to be filled with artists that wear the hat of both “producer” and “rapper” like never before – but this DIY movement is no recent phenomenon. We trace the lineage of today’s dual-discipline artists to its origins, over 30 years ago.
The storied birth of hip-hop in the Bronx in 1973, with DJ Kool Herc chopping up his record collection into an epic block party that would plant the seed of “breakbeat” into American culture forever, left little time or room for the beat-smith to work the mic. Formed in the heat of performance, beat curators would craft a vibe, and, in time, emcees would find pockets to deliver words. There was a clear distinction between the two disciplines, such that modern hip-hop still divides praise between producer and rapper, and this divide is still so entrenched that the production efforts of mainstream rappers are sidenotes, making an article series such as this necessary.
There is an emerging generation of mainstream rappers developing and spreading this dual-discipline approach, diversifying their artistry by becoming fully-fledged producers in their own right. It’s tempting to attribute credit for this current wave of artists to Kanye West, especially considering his struggle to be accepted as a rapper on his debut album College Dropout. Kanye’s influence is rarely overstated, and the career he has forged over the last two decades paved a path for artists to express themselves in the studio more fully than ever before.
But Kanye wasn’t the first, and to give Ye all the credit does a disservice to those who came before. Barriers were broken in the 1980s by some legendary artists who are often forgotten as pioneers when more recent generations of artists are analysed. There was a vibrant period from 1987-1994 in which artists like Kool Moe Dee, Too $hort, Ice T and Ice Cube blazed a path on which rappers and producers could blur the line between the two disciplines, and fully express themselves as complete artists without sacrificing mainstream success.
The curious aspect to this corner of hip-hop history is illuminated by Kanye West, and the narrative around him. Rappers were producing their own albums and going Platinum 17 years prior to The College Dropout, yet the late 90s and early 2000s were not awash with dual-discipline artists pocketing cheques from major labels. Instead, rapper/producers like Missy Elliott and Lauryn Hill are seen as anomalies or special cases, as most mainstream rappers gave up creative control of their production to multiple outside sources.
The current wave of dual-discipline artists, which emerged in 2010, bears striking similarities to the original generation of the late 80s and early 90s: they’ve all experienced mainstream success, they have all popped up in a short period of time, and all of them are primarily considered rappers first, producers second, which sadly relegates their production to lesser praise.
Under the surface, they have already begun to exert influence on the latest generation: Ugly God is listed as a producer on 80% of his 2017 album The Booty Tape, Russ famously handles all his own production (and mixing), and Rich Brian produced 95% of 2018 breakout album Amen. These artists aren’t isolated incidents; xxxtentacion, Nav, Tory Lanez and G-Eazy all produce some, or the majority of, their own material.
This suggests the genre is on the precipice of an era in which artists control all aspects of their sound. This series of articles will use the data as a jumping point for a much deeper analysis of the oft-forgotten top-tier producers who are well-known and respected as mainstream rappers:
- Tyler, The Creator
- Janelle Monae
- Kid Cudi
- J. Cole
- Travis Scott
- Mac Miller
- Earl Sweatshirt
- Big K.R.I.T.
- Childish Gambino
The Legacy of Dual-Discipline Artists in Hip-Hop
1980s and early 1990s: Producers With Bars
As hip-hop grew, so did artistic scope, and the producer who raps was born. In this period the dual-discipline artist fell into two categories: those who provided beats and rhymes for a group, and solo rappers who handled some or all of their own production.
It’s often those who began their mainstream dual-discipline artist career in a group who recieve the plaudits for pushing the artistic boundary between the two disciplines. Erick Sermon and PMD of EPMD, Chuck D of Public Enemy, Dr. Dre of World Class Wrecking Cru and then N.W.A., Q-Tip in A Tribe Called Quest, and RZA in Wu-Tang are all thoroughbred producers who rapped, and history looks upon their contribution to both sides of hip-hop with appropriate reverence. However, each existed in a group, which served to lighten their musical load. Even Q-Tip, who performed a huge amount of the vocals on the first 3 ATCQ records, still only spent 60.7% of the time on the mic. Being part of a group afforded these artists a chance to step back and relinquish or delegate some aspect of the creative process, reducing the risk they’d fall victim to a drop in quality by taking on too much responsibility. It also solidified praise for their production efforts, as it was less entwined with their rap careers.
Oddly, this dynamic of groups with a dedicated producer who could also rhyme fell by the wayside quickly, to be almost non-existent in the mainstream during the 2000s. Outkast, Lil Jon & The Eastside Boyz and The Black Eyed Peas (production and rhymes by will.i.am) became anomalies in a market dominated by huge major label budgets spent on turning solo rappers into megastars, with plentiful allowance for top-tier production. The emergence of the in-house producer and labels devoted to hip hop has reduced the amount of rap groups, transforming them to rap crews and collectives. Cash Money Records formed in 1991 with producer Mannie Fresh behind the bulk of the beats and a host of solo records dropping as the artists formed into a collective rather than a group. This approach gained in popularity as Bad Boy (The Hitmen), Death Row (Dr.Dre), Rocafella (Just Blaze) and Ruff Ryders (Swizz Beatz) dominated the 1990s.
The First Solo Rapper/Producers
Kool Moe Dee was the first rapper to hit major mainstream success as a solo dual-artist. His sophomore effort, 1987’s How Ya Like Me Now is 11 tracks long, and Kool Moe Dee has a production credit on every song. From there it was a cavalcade of major artists dropping successful solo rap albums with their own production:
Platinum Solo Albums on which the Rapper has 40+% of Production Credits
From 1987-1994 there were 18 Platinum albums by solo rappers with a production credit on more than 40% of the tracks. This is, by far, the largest number in a 6 year period in hip-hop history prior to streams being counted towards album sales.
The list above features multiple hip hop legends, yet the weight of influence in dual artistry often falls upon Dr. Dre, and his debut album The Chronic. That album brought gangster rap to an even larger audience than he managed with N.W.A, and is cited as a high watermark in hip-hop production not surpassed until Dre’s sophomore 1999 record 2001. Because it’s such a titan in hip-hop history, it tends to dwarf the achievements of other solo dual-discipline artists who came prior.
Ice T is often attributed as the “first gangster rapper”, and his debut album Rhyme Pays, on which he produces (alongside Arfika Islam) 8 of the 9 tracks, contributed heavily to the uptake of West Coast rap in the mainstream. That album went Gold, and he doubled it in 1988 with Power, which was eventually certified Platinum. The recording process for that record was detailed by both Ice T and Afrika Islam in Check the Technique: Liner Notes for Hip-Hop Junkies by Brian Coleman, and they touch on a point that’s crucial in understanding how many of these solo rappers became involved in the production process on their early albums: as yet, there wasn’t enough money in hip-hop for giant budgets, recording studios, mix engineers, and the luxury of time. Power was recorded “in a matter of months” in a closet at the house of Evil E, a DJ who found fame via Ice-T. Their lack of funds and resources brought Ice T into the production process almost by default; there wasn’t enough time nor money to search for a variety of hot beats from hot producers, so he did it himself.
That collaborative spirit between producer and emcee often came before mainstream success. MC Hammer’s relationship with producer Felton Pilate began when Hammer was an independent artist, releasing projects on his own record label Bust It Productions. His independent 1986 release Feel My Power featured the Felton/Hammer collaborative partnership, one that survived Hammer’s landmark $1.75m record deal with Capitol, and the creative relationship forged in Hammer’s independent days was strong enough to see Hammer producer 97.4% of his first 3 major label albums (all multi-Platinum) alongside Pilate. Their relationship morphed from skipping the demo process and recording straight to the master to save time and resources, to later having the luxury of an album budget that covered any samples Pilate would ever need.
It was an independent grind that led Too $hort to collaborate with musicians in the Bay Area to create and deepen his signature sound. He’s known as an “out-the-trunk tape slanger”; an independent artist who hustled his way to success, and his earliest production work began via “drum machines and musicians”, which were all he had in his early studio visits, eschewing the traditional reliance on samples in favour of creating a unique and signature sound via live instrumentation. Similar to MC Hammer, $hort formed his own record label, Dangerous Music, and began releasing music he produced himself. Also similar to Hammer, $hort continued his creative interest in the production of his albums after his major label deal (Jive Records); of his 6 Platinum albums, $hort has a production credit on more than 40% of the tracks on 3, dropping off in 1992 when legendary Bay Area producer Ant Banks became heavily involved with $hort’s discography. By this stage $hort was well established in mainstream rap, entirely on the back of both his production and lyrical efforts.
Dual-Discipline Artists Who Produced Their Music Alone
Hip-hop lavishes praise upon the self-made, because at its heart, it grew from total independence. When major labels began offering inflated deals in the early 90s, it was only the result of 15+ years of hard grind. It wasn’t until The Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill in 1986 that hip-hop hit Number 1 on the Billboard 200, a full 13 years after the birth of the genre.
Solo rappers who find mainstream success whilst handling the bulk of the production entirely alone are true unicorns, and worthy of even higher praise. Tyler, The Creator (92% of discography) and Big K.R.I.T. (70.8% of discography) are two current artists who handle a mind-boggling amount of their own production alone, and their lineage in this contains some artists who aren’t praised enough for their artistic process.
The first dual-discipline artist to release an entirely self-produced Platinum album is Sir Mix-a-Lot, and he wasn’t shy about broadcasting his solo production skills. On “I’m A Trip”:
I make my own jams because my mind is able / To rock the West Coast you must know more than just turntables / Yeah, I said it and I’m right, Program computers every night”
His debut record, Swass, has 14 tracks, only two short guest spots (Kid Sensation and Metal Church), and one listed producer: Sir Mix-a-Lot. Sir Mix’s background was technology — he started with a pair of walkie talkies he received as a 13 year old — and his lifelong love manifested into a career devoted to the technological side of all genres of music. Building his first amplifier at 15 gave Sir Mix entirely new eyes on the music production process, and rather than inspiration coming from early hip-hop pioneers and jazz, his came from artists like Kraftwerk:
They were playing music with gadgets… And I realised, that’s what I wanted to do… Rap was new, so I didn’t care whether I sang or rapped, I just wanted to make those noises, and I just went nuts, chasing it.”
This process recalls how Just Blaze’s interest in music and production was first sparked; a love of taking technology apart and putting it back together. It informed the insanely catchy dance-centred sound that threw Sir Mix-a-Lot into wild mainstream success, and similar to the artists listed above, it came from humble and independent beginnings: in his own house with his own equipment, selling his original beats for $10/tape.
DJ Quik and Warren G also deserve special mention. Both artists dropped Platinum solo albums in the early 90s, and both handled over 90% of the production on them alone. Quik is The Name (1991) and Regulate… G Funk Era (1993) dropped at the beginning of the West Coast mainstream takeover, and proved hugely influential in pushing the sound forward and solidifying its dominance over the next 5 years. When coupled with Dr Dre’s The Chronic in 1992 — 87.5% of which Dre produced alone with no co-production — there are 3 jewels in the West Coast crown whose artistic direction came almost solely from dual-discipline artists.
All three are strongly linked. Warren G and Dr. Dre are stepbrothers, and collaborated heavily in the early 90s, notably on The Chronic and Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle (1993). DJ Quik lists Dr. Dre as a heavy influence, especially in mixing and engineering:
If I had never heard Dre’s production, I wouldn’t have known how loud to have my hi-hats. See, Dre tells you where to put shit at in the mix. It’s not an easy code, and to be a Dr. Dre clone, you have to understand the laws of music, moving air and speakers, depth and emotion. Dre knows how to make music move on people’s skin.”
Dre also invited Quik to work on the perpetually sidelined Detox album. Both Quik and Dre distinguished themselves as producers outside of their solo rap careers. As a producer, Dre has overseen multiple classic projects: Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle (1993), Eminem’s first two projects, Get Rich or Die Tryin by 50 Cent (2003) and The Documentary by The Game in 2005. DJ Quik has produced for 2Pac, Janet Jackson, Will Smith, Jay-Z and The Game.
It’s tempting to cite Quik and Dre (and to a lesser extent Warren G) as
early markers for pure dual-discipline artists like Tyler, The Creator and Big K.R.I.T., on the basis that both groups produced a high portion of their solo rap career alone, with no co-production. In truth, when the numbers are dissected both Quik and Dre were more successful as producers than rappers.
The Late 1990’s: The Disappearance of the Dual-Disciplinary Movement
This explosion in dual-discipline artists had the potential to become a movement in hip-hop, and to challenge the traditionally separate role of producer and rapper.
Yet 1988-1994 was the mainstream peak for the role:
Since then, very few new dual-discipline artists have emerged in hip-hop. Of the 10 Platinum dual artists between 1995 and 2014, three are genuine producers (Jermaine Dupri, Puff Daddy and Timbaland), and Lauryn Hill has only released 1 studio album.
It’s safe to say, the movement that was beckoning between 1988 and 1994 never eventuated.
A lot of the early dual-discipline pioneers gravitated towards producing their own music out of necessity. Ice T, MC Hammer and Too $hort produced their own music as independent artists, with no budget and limited equipment. Kool Moe Dee, the first solo dual artist to go Platinum, said the following about this period in hip-hop:
The generation that we come from, we did it because we loved it. It wasn’t really a lot of money involved”
Of the 11 dual-discipline artists from 1988-1994, 6 of them either started out entirely independent, or remained independent for the bulk of their career:
Independent labels, some even set up by the dual artists themselves (MC Hammer with Bust It Productions and Too $hort with Dangerous Music), were handling mainstream releases in lieu of investment from major labels (Jay-Z would say in his memoir that major labels were “signing rappers for cars” in stinging criticism of how they were being treated during the 80’s). This was well before major label budgets allowed artists like Jay-Z to fly private jets across the country to find a different producer for every track on his album. Rappers looked much closer to home for production, and usually formed a strong collaborative spirit with their producer that carried through multiple songs and projects, and even through major deals. Too $hort explained why he continued to produce his own music even with an album budget and the offer of professional direction:
During the recording process, A&R people like suggesting stuff. That kind of stuff doesn’t throw you off – but it affects the album that you make. You’ve got someone suggesting what song to make, which direction to go, what song not to use or which feature to have. This is just me letting everything happen organically, the way that I like to work. I wanted to make an album that had a lot of instruments and a lot of singing. The beats are smooth.”
The mechanics of a label must be remembered. Def Jam was distributed by major labels during the 80s (CBS, Columbia, Warner), but this didn’t extend to recording budgets. Albums were delivered into the clutches of the major label distribution network, which expanded their reach and potential, post-recording. A major label offering an advance and a recording budget allows a solo rapper to pick and choose their producers, to travel to meet them, to buy beats off them, to pay them for studio time.
If I want to work out a new arrangement of the song, I don’t have to do it at the studio, it’s not like I have to worry about the album budget.” – Felton Pilate, MC Hammer’s producer, after signing with Capitol Records
MC Hammer signed an epic deal just before his first major label release in 1988. He picked up a $1.75m advance from Capitol Records, a precursor to the $1m Eric B & Rakim scored from MCA around 1990. This led to the opulent 90s, where major labels became a key player in hip-hop history. Wu-Tang Clan signed to RCA in 1993, and Outkast signed to LaFace, both under the German Bertelsmann Music Group umbrella. Nas’ legendary 1994 record Illmatic came out on Columbia, and became one of the first classic solo albums to begin a process inherent in big-ticket releases to this day. Nas gathered a production superteam that included DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Large Professor, and Q-Tip.
This flush of major label cash took the necessity out of solo rappers producing their own music. With a budget and studio time, they could focus intently on rapping, and collecting the finest producers in music. It also spurred more producers to focus heavily on their own craft, motivated by the explosion in demand for top-tier beats and able to charge a much higher price. The dual artist was no longer needed.
Hip-Hop Labels and In-House Producers
Earlier in the article, the death of the mainstream hip-hop group with an in-house producer who also rhymed was uncovered. Outkast, Wu-Tang Clan, A Tribe Called Quest, The Fugees and De La Soul all emerged and dominated in this realm during the late 80s and early 1990s, yet this trend fell drastically away post-2000. Only Outkast, Black Eyed Peas and Lil Jon’s collective appearing regularly in the mainstream from 2000-2010, and since 2010 Migos (and a one-off A Tribe Called Quest reunion) have been the only hip hop groups charting well.
The answer likely lies in the formation of hip-hop record labels that became legacies of influence in the genre. Cash Money, Bad Boy, Death Row, LaFace, Roc-A-Fella, Ruff Ryders, who became rap crews not dissimilar to rap groups. The trend led to the in-house producer, roles filled by artists like Mannie Fresh (Cash Money), Organized Noise (LaFace), The Hitmen (Bad Boy), Dr. Dre (Death Row), Just Blaze and Kanye West (Roc-A-Fella), and Swizz Beatz (Ruff Ryders). These record labels often operated like groups, collaborating heavily on each solo artist’s project, and by taking in and signing a hot producer, there was little need for the dual artist solo project. Even if a rapper did choose to produce some of their own beats, as DMX did on some of his early 2000s releases, it made more sense for the solo artist to focus on rhyming, and the producer on producing.
Lauryn Hill, Kanye West, Eminem, and Missy Elliott
4 dual artists emerged during the late 90s and early 2000s that inform the current generation more so than the fruitful 1988-1994 period. All 4 of these artists and with major label backing, plentiful production options and peak mainstream success, yet all chose to produce a large amount of their own work.
Lauryn is a true rap unicorn, releasing just one studio album in which she handles almost all the production and lyrics. Both Eminem and Missy Elliott produced more of their own music after they achieved mainstream success. The most Eminem production credits come on The Eminem Show, at the height of Em’s fame and popularity. Missy didn’t have a credit on either of her first 2 records, but had a credit on 97.8% of the songs on her next 3 projects, which were all certified Platinum.
Kanye West’s story is legendary, and we ran the numbers to highlight the fight he had to win to become seen as more than just a producer. On his debut album The College Dropout, he produced 19 of the 21 tracks alone, with no co-production. As he grew into his role as a true dual artist, he brought on a bevy of extra production help, to the point where his 2018 album ye had 15 separate producers over 7 songs, featured an average of 4.3 producers per-track.
Kanye is often cited as a heavy influence, and the final article in this series will deal with the links between each artist in the 2010 Generation, which will undoubtedly uncover just how deep Ye’s career runs in the veins of hip-hop and dual artists post-2010.
2010’s: The New Generation of Dual-Discipline Artists
The purpose of the following article series is to highlight and dissect the production side of mainstream rappers who produce a large portion of their own discography. The data is not the focal point; it’s a jumping point for a deeper analysis, a way to uncover these dual artists for further study.
Each artist in this analysis has rightfully earned their spot amongst the new school of rappers handling a percentage (usually high) of their own production. Some have been more prolific than others (Tyler, Childish Gambino, J. Cole), some started late (Mac Miller), some only dabble at this stage (Logic), some mostly co-produce (Travis Scott, Janelle Monae), all embody the spirit of the dual-artist; fully realising a piece from all angles.
I started making beats because I used to rap over instrumentals, but that shit wasn’t setting the mood for me. Like I needed that shit more darker.” – Travis Scott with Complex (2012)
Here they are, ranked by the percentage of tracks on their studio album discographies they have a production credit on:
An article at the end of the series will sum up all the data. The 10 data-backed followup articles on each artist will centre on their production styles, and the narrative behind a side of their artistry that is often forgotten and rarely praised or analysed. Thanks for reading!