Every superhero needs a theme song, and every great rapper needs a dope beat. While G.O.A.T. debates in hip-hop are often reserved for rappers themselves (“Who’s the best MCs / Biggie, Jay-Z and Nas?”), there are countless producers in the genre’s 40-plus-year history who deserve praise for doing with sounds what MCs have been doing with words, and changing the world in the process. After all, what's a revolution without a soundtrack?
As much as we’d love to celebrate each and every legend who has blessed us from behind the boards, there’s only a select number of hip-hop producers who deserve to be mentioned in the Greatest of All Time discussion. Producers who’ve created iconic records that have impacted and influenced the game, achieved both critical acclaim and commercial success, displayed versatility in their craft and collaborations, and have done all this with consistency and longevity.
How you rank them ultimately comes down to personal preference. But here, in alphabetical order, are the eight hip-hop producers who deserve to be called the Greatest of All Time.
Honorable mentions: Pete Rock, Mannie Fresh, The Alchemist, 9th Wonder, Q-Tip, Large Professor, Madlib, Rick Rubin, The Bomb Squad, Marley Marl, Havoc, P Diddy, Organized Noize, No I.D., Jermaine Dupri, DJ Quik, Swizz Beatz, Erick Sermon, Scott Storch, Prince Paul, Boi-1da, Mike WiLL Made-It, Mike Dean, El-P, Zaytoven, MF DOOM, Metro Boomin and Lord Finesse.
Real Name: Christopher Martin
Birthplace: Houston, TX
Active Years Producing: 1989— Present
Biggest Records: Nas “N.Y. State of Mind,” Gang Starr “Mass Appeal,” Biggie “Unbelievable,” KRS-One “MC’s Act Like They Don’t Know,” JAY-Z “D’Evils,” Biggie “Ten Crack Commandments,” Gang Starr “You Know My Steez,” Mos Def “Mathematics,” Nas “Nas Is Like,” D’Angelo “Devil’s Pie,” Common “The Sixth Sense”
DJ Premier is the shining light of golden age hip-hop that refuses to go out. As one-half of Gang Starr alongside his late partner-in-rhyme Guru, Preemo crafted numerous classic albums (Hard to Earn, Moment of Truth), expanded hip-hop’s James Brown-obsessed sonic palette with jazz samples and, not least, recorded a spoof of watered-down radio rap that ended up becoming a hit itself (“Mass Appeal”). He’d go down as one of the greatest producers of all time for these reasons alone.
Take into account his phenomenal work outside Gang Starr, though, and it’s tough not to crown DJ Premier the greatest producer of all time. From 1990 onwards, Preemo honed his signature sound—funky basslines and crackling drums often laced with entire hooks made from scratched-in vocal samples—and branched out to produce some of the decade’s most iconic records: Nas’ “N.Y. State of Mind,” JAY-Z’s “D’Evils,” Biggie’s “Ten Crack Commandments,” KRS-One’s “MC’s Act Like They Don’t Know” and Mos Def’s “Mathematics,” to name just a few.
DJ Premier certainly wasn’t the first beatsmith to break new ground in the Big Apple—he cites Marley Marl and Rick Rubin as his two biggest influences—but it’s Preemo’s sound that is most synonymous with ’90s New York rap, a magical era that, for many, represents hip-hop at its highest level. Even when operating beyond these boundaries (like, say, working on Christina Aguilera’s Back to Basics LP), DJ Premier has always remained true to the timeless boom bap blueprint he laid almost three decades ago. As the man himself says, “I represent what we call the purest form.”
Real Name: Andre Young
Birthplace: Compton, CA
Active Years Producing: 1984 — Present
Biggest Records: N.W.A “Straight Outta Compton,” Dr. Dre “Nuthin' But a 'G' Thang,” Snoop Dogg “Gin and Juice,” 2Pac “California Love,” Dr. Dre “Still D.R.E.,” Eminem “The Real Slim Shady,” Eve “Let Me Blow Ya Mind,” 50 Cent “In Da Club”
Around the same time that DJ Premier was shaping the gritty sound of ’90s East Coast hip-hop, Dr. Dre emerged as the West Coast’s preeminent pioneer. In 1988, not long after leaving the electro-funk outfit (and you should see the outfits) World Class Wreckin’ Cru, a young Andre Young took gangsta rap mainstream—all the way onto the FBI’s radar—thanks in part to his bombastic production on N.W.A’s seminal debut album, Straight Outta Compton.
Then, in ’92, Dre changed the game again with his solo debut The Chronic. Flipping P-Funk samples into gorgeous G-Funk grooves, the album carried gangsta rap from the cell block to the block party as the whole nation got high on hits like “Nuthin’ But a 'G' Thang” and “Fuck wit Dre Day.” Hip-hop had never seen a joint rolled so perfectly. “It’s the benchmark you measure your album against if you’re serious,” wrote Kanye West, arguably hip-hop’s most serious album artist.
Forget that Aftermath album or The Firm flop; in 1999, Dr. Dre proved he was still years ahead of the competition with 2001. Using the critics—and, of course, the chronic—as fuel for his comeback, Dre’s G-Funk compositions found a new gear thanks to spine-tingling synths, sticky-icky guitar licks and exceptionally clean mixes, a byproduct of his notorious perfectionist approach. That same year, The Doctor also solidified himself as one of hip-hop’s ultimate diamond polishers as Eminem became his latest understudy to catapult to stardom; that list also includes Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent, The Game, Kendrick Lamar and, most recently, Anderson .Paak.
To define one era of rap music is special enough. To define multiple eras while continually reinventing your own innovations cements Dr. Dre on hip-hop’s Mount Rushmore. And that’s without mentioning the guy’s net worth.
Real Name: James Yancey
Birthplace: Detroit, MI
Active Years Producing: 1993—2006 (Deceased)
Biggest Records: The Pharcyde “Runnin',” De La Soul “Stakes Is High,” A Tribe Called Quest “1nce Again," A Tribe Called Quest "Find a Way,” Slum Village “Raise It Up,” Janet Jackson “Got ’Til It’s Gone (Jay Dee Remix),” Q-Tip “Breathe & Stop,” Common “The Light"
J Dilla saw the least commercial success of any producer on this list (The Pharcyde’s “Runnin,” which peaked at No. 55 on the Billboard Hot 100, was his highest-charting song). But what Jay Dee lacked in hit records and Platinum plaques, he more than made up for in pure talent, prolific output and enduring influence.
A magician on the MPC, Dilla was famed for his unquantized (or loosely quantized) drums, manipulation of basslines and masterful sample chops. This unique approach not only gave his beats a human quality—a soul, if you will—but left an indelible mark on his musical peers. “He’s the zenith of hip-hop to us,” The Root’s Questlove said of Dilla, whose “dirty” and “drunk” sound helped to shape D’Angelo’s magnum opus Voodoo. Kanye once likened his music to “good pussy.”
If Dilla’s music felt like sex, then neither party could get enough. From Slum Village to the Soulquarians to Spacek, Jay Dee’s relentless worth ethic created an extensive and continually evolving catalog full of low-end thumpers (De La Soul “Stakes Is High”), warped techno (Jaylib “The Heist”) and some of the most beautiful hip-hop beats you’ll ever hear (Common “Love Is…”). Even while battling lupus and a rare blood disease in the mid-’00s, he’d be sat in his hospital bed pouring what life he had left into his final—and most beloved—project, Donuts. Dilla had soul, swing and spirit like no one else.
J Dilla sadly succumbed to ill health in 2006, but he’ll forever be remembered as one of hip-hop’s finest producers, an underground legend who left a legacy that can be felt from the annual Dilla Day concerts in Detroit, Michigan to the Allée Jay Dee street in Montpellier, France.
Real Name: Justin Smith
Birthplace: Paterson, NJ
Active Years Producing: 1997 — Present
Biggest Records: JAY-Z "Song Cry," Cam’ron “Oh Boy,” JAY-Z “Public Service Announcement,” Joe Budden “Pump It Up,” Kanye West “Touch the Sky,” Fabolous “Breathe,” Jay Electronica “Exhibit C,” Eminem “No Love,” Drake “Lord Knows,” Beyoncé “Freedom”
The dynasty that Roc-A-Fella Records built in the early ’00s remains one of the most beloved and influential runs in hip-hop. And among the small team of in-house producers powering that success was Just Blaze.
After being scouted by Roc-A-Fella A&R Gee Roberson while interning at The Cutting Room, the young New Jersey native hit the ground running. Within a few years, he’d contributed, if not commandeered, some of the label’s biggest records, including JAY-Z’s The Blueprint and The Black Album, Beanie Sigel’s The Reason and Freeway’s Philadelphia Freeway.
Though Kanye West and Bink! were also instrumental during this time, Just Blaze’s production just felt like the perfect soundtrack for Roc-A-Fella. Blending soul samples, bangin’ drums, orchestral arrangements and epic drops, Blaze’s beats were hard enough for the streets (“U Don’t Know,” “Public Service Announcement”), energetic enough for the clubs (“Oh Boy,” “Roc the Mic”) and soulful enough to humanize the artist (“Song Cry,” “Mom Praying”).
Like most dynasties, Roc-A-Fella’s run eventually came to an end. But throughout the late ’00s and early ’00s, Just Blaze continued to lend his signature sound to top-tier MCs like Jay Electronica (“Exhibit C”), Drake (“Lord Knows”) and Kendrick Lamar (“Compton”) while finding huge success by experimenting with his second love, electronic music (T.I. “Live Your Life,” Eminem “No Love”). Pound for pound, Just Blaze is one of the best to ever do it.
Real Name: Kanye West
Birthplace: Chicago, IL
Active Years Producing: 1996 — Present
Biggest Records: Beanie Sigel "The Truth," JAY-Z “This Can’t Be Life,” JAY-Z “Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” Alicia Keys "You Don't Know My Name," JAY-Z “Encore,” Kanye West "Through the Wire," Twista “Slow Jamz,” Kanye West "Gold Digger," Kanye West "Stronger," Lil Wayne "Comfortable," Kanye West "Heartless," Drake “Find Your Love,” JAY-Z & Kanye West “Otis"
Kanye West is one of the greatest artists of all time, and a big reason is that he’s one of the greatest producers of all time. Anyone who’s heard “Last Call” (which is just about everyone) knows Kanye's life story: studies under No I.D., ghost produces for D-Dot, makes hits for JAY-Z and Roc-A-Fella Records, persuades Hov and Dame to let him drop his own album. Jesus walked, Kanye soared. The rest is history.
If Kanye’s initial come-up required a 12-minute breakdown, then his evolution as a producer could be an entire college course.
On The Blueprint and The College Dropout, Kanye injected soul back into mainstream hip-hop with his signature "chimpunk" sound. By 2005, he’d refined, if not exhausted, this approach with Late Registration and Common’s Be. As he entered second-half of the decade, Kanye once again steered hip-hop in a new direction on 2007’s Graduation, which was full of electronic and synth-heavy anthems worthy of a glow-in-the-dark arena tour. A double dose of heartache shortly after its release birthed the sparse, sorrowful, Auto-Tune-soaked sound of 808s & Heartbreak, still the most influential album of the last decade.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Yeezus and The Life of Pablo all continued Kanye’s thrilling and unpredictable trajectory, whether through ambitious maximalism or aggressive minimalism. And with each album, it only became more clear that Kanye West isn’t just an immensely talented producer, but hip-hop’s finest conductor. From collaborating with the famed composer Jon Brion on Late Registration to recruiting EDM architects like Daft Punk, Hudson Mohawke and Arca on Yeezus—even getting Timbaland to fix the drums on "Stronger"—Kanye understands his weaknesses and recognizes other musicians' strengths in order to plug those holes.
“Seeing him put things together and pull the right people in to do certain things, it’s really genius,” S1, who produced “POWER,” told us last year. “He just knows what to do and how to accomplish it.”
Real Names: Pharrell Williams & Chad Hugo
Birthplace: Virginia Beach, VA
Active Years Producing: 1992—Present
Biggest Records: Ma$e "Lookin' At You," N.O.R.E. “Superthug,” JAY-Z “I Just Wanna Love U,” Ludacris “Southern Hospitality,” Mystikal “Shake Ya Ass,” Busta Rhymes “Pass the Courvoisier, Part II,” Usher “U Don’t Have to Call,” Clipse “Grindin',” Nelly “Hot In Herre,” Justin Timberlake “Like I Love You,” Snoop Dogg “Beautiful,” Pharrell “Frontin',” Gwen Stefani “Hollaback Girl,” Kelis “Milkshake,” Snoop Dogg “Drop It Like It’s Hot”
Two high school band geeks who met in their hometown of Virginia Beach, The Neptunes always seemed to exist on their own planet. After getting their start under New Jack Swing pioneer Teddy Riley in the early ‘90s, Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo set out on their sonic odyssey and developed their own unmistakable sound that redefined pop music with a funky, futuristic hip-hop flavor.
By the turn of the millennium, seemingly every hot rapper from JAY-Z (“I Just Wanna Love U,” “Excuse Me Miss”) and Snoop Dogg (“Beautiful,” “Drop It Like It’s Hot”) to Nelly (“Hot In Herre,” “Flap Your Wings”) and N.O.R.E. (“Superthug,” “Nothin”) was after a Neptunes beat. The duo also brought their neck-snapping funk to R&B (Usher, Kelis) and rock (as part of N*E*R*D alongside their high school buddy Shay Haley) while turning innocent pop sensations into grown-and-sexy studs (Britney Spears “I’m a Slave 4 U,” Justin Timberlake “Like I Love You”). Pharrell and Chad’s shit just sounded cool with the right amount of quirky.
At their height in 2003, The Neptunes were responsible for an astonishing 43% of all songs being played on the radio in the U.S. It’s hard to imagine hip-hop’s current chokehold on the charts had it not been for The Neptunes’ Korg-driven revolution. Nor would we have a creative force like Tyler, The Creator, just one of many outcast music nerds who found inspiration and a sense of identity in Pharrell and Chad Hugo’s irresistible beats. We all Vulcan salute the Star Trak empire.
Real Name: Robert Diggs
Birthplace: Brooklyn, NY
Active Years Producing: 1991— Present
Biggest Records: Wu-Tang Clan “C.R.E.A.M.,” Method Man “All I Need,” Ol’ Dirty Bastard “Brooklyn Zoo,” Raekwon “Ice Cream,” Ghostface Killah “All That I Got Is You,” Biggie “Long Kiss Goodnight,” Wu-Tang Clan “Triumph,” Wu-Tang Clan “Gravel Pit,” Kanye West “Dark Fantasy," JAY-Z & Kanye West "New Day"
In 1993, Wu-Tang Clan rocked and shocked the nation with their debut album Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). Shrouded in mystery, this nine-strong army of Staten Island soldiers came out chessboxin’ with references to kung-fu flicks, Five Percent philosophy and a spiritual homeland known as Shaolin. The album carved out an entirely new lane in hip-hop and birthed arguably the genre’s greatest-ever group. And none of it would’ve been possible without RZA.
As the Wu’s spiritual leader and chief sonic architect, RZA oversaw not only 36 Chambers, but the group’s succession of follow-up solo albums: Method Man’s Tical, Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s Return to the 36 Chambers, Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, GZA’s Liquid Swords and Ghostface Killah’s Ironman—all decked out with RZA’s dark and dirty production, all certified classics.
By 1997, RZA’s five-year plan to turn his Shaolin soldiers into chart-topping hip-hop stars was complete, but that his vision didn't end here. Since then, RZA has parlayed Wu-Tang’s global success into acting, directing and scoring soundtracks for Tarantino movies. Not to mention four solo albums—three under his alias Bobby Digital—and scattered production credits for The Notorious B.I.G. (“Long Kiss Goodnight”), JAY-Z (“New Day”) and Kanye West (“Dark Fantasy”), whose signature chipmunk sound was inspired by RZA’s unique sampling techniques.
No one freaked an ASR quite like The Abbott.
Real Name: Timothy Mosley
Birthplace: Norfolk, VA
Active Years Producing: 1993—Present
Biggest Records: Ginuwine “Pony,” Aaliyah “One in a Million,” Missy Elliott “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly),” JAY-Z “Nigga What, Nigga Who,” JAY-Z “Big Pimpin',” Aaliyah “More Than a Woman,” Bubba Sparxxx “Ugly,” Missy Elliott “Get Ur Freak On,” Justin Timberlake “Cry Me a River,” Missy Elliott “Work It,” JAY-Z “Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” Justin Timberlake “SexyBack,” 50 Cent “Ayo Technology,” Beyoncé “Partition,” Justin Timberlake “Suit & Tie”
Like Pharrell, Timbaland has always marched to the inimitable beat of his own drum. As teenagers, the Virginia natives actually teamed up to form a collective called Surrounded By Idiots which, in hindsight, was the least idiotic thing either of them could’ve done. The group didn’t last long, of course, and as Pharrell and his new partner Chad Hugo were learning the ropes under Teddy Riley, Timbo was already reinventing the sound of hip-hop and R&B.
After cutting his teeth as part of Jodeci member DeVante Swing’s Swing Mob, Timbaland announced himself in ’96 and ’97 by producing Aaliyah’s One In a Million, Ginuwine’s Ginuwine…The Bachelor and Missy Elliott’s Supa Dupa Fly. Bursting with unorthodox drum patterns, quirky vocal elements and funky melodies that reverberated from your cervical vertebrae all the way down to your calcaneus, these albums laid the foundation for Timbo’s eccentric sound.
You couldn’t possibly expect the guy who produced “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” to stagnate, though, could you? In a legendary run that continued well into the next decade, Timbaland’s beats only became more innovative, more infectious and more international (in both sound and success) as he scored regular hits for JAY-Z (“Big Pimpin,’” “Nigga What, Nigga Who”), Justin Timberlake (“Cry Me a River,” “SexyBack”) and Missy Elliott (takeyourpick). Under his Mosley Music Group label, he also introduced the world to Keri Hilson, revitalized Nelly Furtado’s career and became a Platinum-selling solo artist himself.
A battle with oxycontin addiction and self-doubt may have dimmed Timbaland’s Midas touch in recent years, but that would only tarnish his legacy if the stuff he was making 20 years ago didn’t sound like it came out today. Just ask Ski Mask the Slump God.