Women in Hip-Hop (Part 2): Producers
In my first installment of the Women in Hip-Hop series, in which I interviewed hip-hop journalists, I wrote that being a female rap enthusiast is a strange space to occupy. From male domination of the charts to rampant lyrical sexism, hip-hop has, historically, been steeped in misogyny.
When I spoke to Los Angeles DJ and electronic musician Asma Maroof last spring, she told that when touring, people always assume she is a singer. Sadly, this anecdote didn’t surprise me. Traditionally, female musicians are thought to exist primarily in front of the microphone—gazed upon, watched, the spectacle. Women are less known for operating behind the scenes. In 2014, The FADER wrote that less than 5% of music producers and engineers are women.
While a gender gap in production remains, 2016 saw—as Vice put it—“a new guard of young, crazy talented producers [who] are being celebrated for the music they make.” From WondaGurl to Abra, to the amazingly talented women featured below, women are infiltrating hip-hop production with ferocity and panache.
Shakari Linder, or TRAKGIRL, began producing at age 16 in DC. She comes from a classically trained musical family. Shakari eschewed the traditional route, instead taking direction from fellow Mid Atlantic-bred producers like Timbaland, Pharrell and Missy Elliott. In college, she produced "Ode To Tae," which was featured on Omarion's Care Package EP. She has since produced for Luke James, King Chip and Mansions On The Moon. Her “key impetus,” she tells me, “is paving the way for other women in music.”
Kate Ellwanger, known more commonly as Dot, is a producer, vocalist and founder of Unspeakable Records. She grew up in the small town of Olympia, Washington, where she mostly studied classical music and vocal performance. After moving to Southern California to attend the Conservatory at Chapman University, she began experimenting with digital music production and learned Ableton Live. In 2012, she and some friends started doing weekly beat cyphers as TeamSupreme, and she hasn’t slowed down since. Dot has spent the past few years producing music for herself and other artists, performing live and DJing, and dabbling in writing music for film and television. Unspeakable Records, which Dot founded shortly after graduating from Chapman, will celebrate its third anniversary in April 2017.
Last but certainly not least, Harlem-born Crystal Caines grew up around the corner from A$AP Ferg and began producing at his suggestion. The first beat she ever made became Ferg’s “100 Million Roses,” and according to Complex, she was the “mastermind” behind Trap Lord’s “spooky, smoky sonics.” Like TRAKGIRL, Crystal idolizes Missy Elliott, and Ferg calls her “Missy and Timbaland in one.” In addition to her work with Ferg, Crystal has produced for Pharrell signee BIA and provided guest vocals for Baauer and Nick Hook.
Read my conversation with these inspiring women below!
Anna Dorn: What do you consider to be the best-produced rap album of all time?
TRAKGIRL: Best-produced rap album? That's such a tough question considering there were so many projects back in the day that influenced my music today. Not only in hip-hop but in other genres such as R&B, alternative, etc. The '80s and '90s era was my favorite. Ah…I would have to say Nas' Illmatic…Jay Z's Reasonable Doubt…and B.I.G.'s Ready To Die album are a few of my favorites.
Dot: The Shining holds a very special place in my heart for sure. Forever a fan of J Dilla—his work speaks to me in a way that no one else's music can.
Crystal Caines: As a fan of music, in general, I can't pick. [Laughs] I'd say any album that pushed creativity to a new level has deserved the title of being one of the best.
AD: What skills make a good hip-hop producer?
TG: I'm not a fan of labeling myself in one genre of music. From a creative process perspective, I think as a producer overall having a great ear is essential. Having some knowledge of music theory helps as well…knowing the basics. Even that isn't always required in my view. Producers should also know some of their history when creating. Learning from others helps. I always go back in time. From a more personal skill/attribute, having an open mind helps. Being open to criticism...having patience is key.
D: I think being a good hip-hop producer has less to do with technical skill and more to do with being clear on the message you are trying to communicate. The more real you are with yourself and your emotions, the better it comes across in such a deceptively simple style of production. You just can't pull it off if you're not true to yourself.
CC: I feel like being and having a sound of your own makes you a great producer. Being able to capture that essence of the old school, but still also being able to add your own twist to it, makes you a great hip hop producer. Hip-hop is a form of expression and if you can take how you feel and incorporate it in your production the way you want, you're already on the road to greatness.
AD: What is your favorite song you have produced?
TG: "Bad News" by Luke James is my favorite. It's so open and the record lets Luke's vocals shine. Producers should create records that essentially give the artist a free lane to do what they want. Luke's vocals are so powerful, I had to let him turn up on the song.
D: My favorite song that I've produced has to be "Euphraxia" by SZA. I adore her voice and style of writing.
CC: My favorite song I have produced would be “La Tirana” by BIA. I always challenge myself to try something new and [do] innovative things. Working on the record inspired me to think outside the box and listen to new things as always. That was the first record I've ever used a Spanish sample [in]. Around that entire month I listened to nothing but Spanish music and believe it or not, things like that help me with push[ing] my creativity forward.
AD: Besides yourselves, who are the best female producers in hip-hop right now?
TG: I'm a huge fan of my friend…Crystal Caines. [Laughs] I like WondaGurl's sound! Missy Elliott is one of the greats.
D: WondaGurl is killing it these days! She's a huge inspiration for sure.
CC: The best female producers in hip-hop right now would be TRAKGIRL, WondaGurl, Syd from The Internet and I'm sure there's some that I missing but can't think of at this moment.
AD: Is the industry any less male-dominated than it was when you began producing?
TG: The industry is becoming more diverse which is awesome to see. We still have more work to do for sure.
D: I'm not sure if it's any "less" male-dominated, although I definitely see more visibility for women involved in writing and production these days, and certainly more awareness in the press of how fucked up things can be for us. From my limited perspective, it seems that the media is talking about these issues more, but little has been done to actually change anything, which is why I decided to start an all-female record label and do something proactive!
CC: I just feel like doors were open this time around. More women got a shot and a chance to prevail [in 2016]. A chance to stand alone and prove that we can produce just as well as, and be creative in our own right.
AD: Do you have any advice for women who aspire to become hip-hop producers?
TG: Have patience…remain consistent and always practice your craft. Keep your faith high as well. And never let anyone tell you that you aren't good enough. Remember, you rock! Also, ladies, respect yourselves so others will respect you.
D: Never be shy or timid about putting your music out there in as big and bold of a way you possibly can. Reach out to anyone and everyone you want to work with and shamelessly ASK for opportunities, because no one is going to hand you anything. If doors get closed on you, break through some windows and create your own path.
CC: My advice for women who want to do anything in life, not just production, would be to stick to what you love. There will be naysayers but believing in yourself is more important than anyone else believing in you. You have to know that you have what it takes. That will, drive, and power will be the motivation to make it to the next level. And each level will require a new you, some growth, and an aspect on how to make it as a woman finding her way in the industry.
By Anna Dorn. Follow her on Twitter.