Atlanta hitmaker Sonny Digital once argued that XXL should dedicate their annual Freshman cover not just to hip-hop’s breakout stars, but to the producers behind their hit songs. That sounds like a logistical nightmare (getting 10 rappers in the same room is challenging enough by the sounds of it), but his sentiment rings true nevertheless: producers are an essential piece of the puzzle and they deserve more recognition.
As much as we gravitate towards the lyrics, performances, and personalities of our favorite artists (for better or worse), their music wouldn’t be what it is without, well, the music. So it’s only right to spotlight—and rank, because everyone loves an irrationally heated debate over music opinions—the producers who soundtracked some of the biggest and best hip-hop of the last 12 months.
Last year, Metro Boomin ran away with the honors in a show of dominance not seen since The Neptunes claimed 43% of all U.S. radio spins in 2003. But this year was a much closer and more exciting race for Producer of the Year with established hitmakers like Kanye West and Boi-1da and breakout beatsmiths like Tay Keith and Kenny Beats putting numbers on the board (no pun intended). In the end, I guess you can say we were the real winners.
Narrowing this list down to just 10 names was harder than Timbaland’s drums. So before we get into it, here’s a list of honorable mentions who also deserve praise for their significant contributions over the last year: Frank Dukes, CuBeatz, Turbo, Sounwave, !llmind, Zaytoven, Hit-Boy, Pi’erre Bourne, Metro Boomin, Cool & Dre, Teddy Walton, Mike & Keys, ChaseTheMoney, Daringer, Quay Global, and Animoss.
Here are the 10 best hip-hop producers of 2018, ranked.
10. Mike WiLL Made-It
Credits: Jay Rock “King’s Dead”; Eminem “Fall,” “Greatest”; Lil Peep “Falling Down,” “Sunlight on Your Skin”; The Weeknd “Try Me”; Nicki Minaj “Good Form”; Rae Sremmurd SR3MM; YG "666"; Trouble Edgewood; Creed II: The Album
Mike WiLL Made-It wasn’t as dominant in 2018 as he has been for most of this current decade, and if you comb through the credits, you’ll notice he shared most of the workload with his team of talented in-house producers like 30 Roc, Pluss, and Marz. But the Ear Drummers conductor still made his presence felt in 2018. He fleshed out the menacing, monstrous beat behind Jay Rock, Kendrick Lamar, Future, and James Blake’s Banger of the Year contender “King’s Dead”; piloted two cuts on Eminem’s Kamikaze; co-produced Lil Peep and XXXTentacion’s top 20 posthumous collaboration “Falling Down”; and helped score the high spots on Rae Sremmurd’s triple album SR3MM, including “Buckets,” “Offshore,” and the Platinum-certified “Powerglide.” While his star-studded Creed II soundtrack was hit-and-miss, Mike WiLL’s profoundly sinister album with Atlanta rapper Trouble, Edgewood, made for one of the best suspense thrillers this year.
9. The Alchemist
Credits: Freddie Gibbs & Curren$y Fetti; The Alchemist Bread EP, Lunch Meat EP; Roc Marciano “Fabio”; Evidence “Powder Cocaine”; Westside Gunn “Brossface Brippler”; Wiz Khalifa “Universal Studios”; Benny The Butcher “Broken Bottles”
Like the fine wine you might find him sipping on Fuck, That’s Delicious, The Alchemist has only gotten better with age. In his 21st campaign as a professional producer, Uncle Al released arguably his best in a long line of collaborative projects, scoring the cinematic, smoked-out soundtrack to Freddie Gibbs and Curren$y’s Fetti. Gangsta Gibbs may claim to be the “coldest n*gga you ever heard on Alan or Otis shit” (word to Madlib), but fellow top-tier MCs Earl Sweatshirt, Black Thought, and Roc Marciano gave him a run for his ill-gotten money on Al’s Lunch Meat and Bread EPs. The Alchemist’s busy year was rounded out by standout beats on Evidence’s Weather or Not, Roc Marciano’s Behold a Dark Horse, Benny The Butcher’s Tana Talk 3, and Westside Gunn’s Supreme Blientele and Hitler Wears Hermes IV. May Alan Maman hotbox our headphones for another 21 years.
Credits: Lil Baby & Drake “Yes Indeed”; Meek Mill “Going Bad”; Young Thug “Chanel (Go Get It),” Slime Language; Future & Juice WRLD “Fine China,” WRLD ON DRGS; Metro Boomin “Space Cadet”; Migos “White Sand”; Quavo “FLIP THE SWITCH”; Gunna “Pedestrian”; Trippie Redd "Bird Shit"
Wheezy was definitely out of here in 2018. One of the sonic architects behind Atlanta’s new wave, the 26-year-old producer cooked up the hypnotic, hard-hitting beat for Lil Baby and Drake’s “Yes Indeed” while adding his “soul-romantic-trap” sauce to Lil Baby and Gunna’s Drip Harder, Gunna’s Drip Season 3, and Migos’ Culture II. Meek Mill’s own collaboration with Drizzy, “Going Bad,” just recently earned Wheezy his second top 10 hit of the year. Having produced the bulk of Young Thug’s Barter 6 and I’m Up, Wheezy is no stranger to taking the reigns of a project, but this year saw him step into an official executive producer role on both Young Thug’s Slime Language and Future and Juice WRLD’s WRLD ON DRGS, joining Metro Boomin, Zaytoven, and Southside in the rare group of producers Hendrix trusts to oversee a project. There's a case to be made that Wheezy has also cemented his place in the echelon of modern-day Atlanta production greats.
Credits: Drake “God’s Plan”; Kendrick Lamar & Travis Scott “Big Shot”; Travis Scott “WHO? WHAT!”; Mac Miller “Conversation Pt. 1,” "Programs"; Meek Mill “Stuck in My Ways”; Migos “Open It Up”; Jay Rock “Troopers”; 2 Chainz “Girl’s Best Friend”; Sheck Wes “Danimals”; Payroll Giovanni Big Bossin Vol. 2
Despite appearing on Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN., Cardo was relatively low-key in 2017 compared to his star turn the previous year (when we crowned him the Best Hip-Hop Producer of 2016 thanks to Travis Scott’s “goosebumps,” ScHoolboy Q’s “THat Part,” and Kendrick Lamar’s “untitled 07,” among other year-defining songs). But in 2018, the St. Paul, MN native was right back where he belongs. In January alone, he co-produced Drake’s No. 1 (and currently 8x Platinum) hit “God’s Plan” alongside Yung Exclusive and Boi-1da, and gave Detroit rapper Payroll Giovanni’s street tales a slick sheen on Big Bossin Vol. 2. Cardo carried that momentum into the rest of the year as he blessed Travis Scott (“WHO? WHAT!”), Mac Miller (“Conversations Pt. 1,” “Programs”), Meek Mill (“Stuck in My Ways”), Migos (“Open It Up”), Jay Rock (“Troopers”), and 2 Chainz (“Girl’s Best Friend”) with his refined, speaker-rattling bounce. It’s only fitting that the guy who produced “goosebumps” also brought Kendrick Lamar and Travis Scott back together for the Black Panther banger “Big Shot.” With a joint project with Valee and his long-awaited solo album (which apparently features André 3000) on deck, expect more boss moves from Cardo in 2019.
6. Murda Beatz
Credits: Drake “Nice For What”; 6ix9ine “FEFE”; Cardi B “I Do”; 2 Chainz “Bigger Than You”; Future & Juice WRLD “Red Bentley”; Migos “Gang Gang”; Quavo “WORKIN ME”; Nipsey Hussle “Grinding All My Life”; Smokepurpp Bless Yo Trap; Gucci Mane "I'm Not Goin'"
Since DMing his way into collaborations with Chief Keef and Migos five years ago, Murda Beatz’s career has gone from strength to strength. After producing hits like Drake’s “Portland” and Migos’ “Motorsport” last year, the shaggy-haired Canadian’s rising stock soared even higher in 2018 as he scored his first No. 1 single with Drizzy’s “Nice For What,” a triple Platinum collaboration with legendary New Orleans bounce producer BlaqNmilD. 6ix9ine and Nicki Minaj’s “FEFE” (No. 3), Cardi B and SZA’s “I Do” (No. 23), and 2 Chainz, Drake, and Quavo’s “Bigger Than You” (No. 53) made Murda Beatz a mainstay on the Billboard Hot 100, while he also popped up on major albums like Future and Juice WRLD’s WRLD ON DRGS (“Red Bentley”), Migos’ Culture II (“Gang Gang”) and Nipsey Hussle’s GRAMMY-nominated Victory Lap (“Grinding All My Life”). It wasn’t all hit singles and high-profile album cuts, though; Murda expanded his repertoire by producing a joint project with Smokepurpp called Bless Yo Trap and headlining his own record, “Fortnite,” featuring Lil Yachty, Ski Mask the Slump God, and Yung Bans. At just 24 years old, there’s no telling how high Murda Beatz’s ceiling goes. “I’m not here to be hot for a year,” he told The New York Times.
5. Mike Dean
Credits: Travis Scott ASTROWORLD; Pusha T DAYTONA; Kanye West & Kid Cudi KIDS SEE GHOSTS; Kanye West ye; Beyoncé & JAY-Z “BOSS”; Teyana Taylor K.T.S.E.; Nas NASIR; Migos “BBO (Bad Bitches Only)”; Christina Aguilera “Accelerate”
Since mixing The College Dropout’s “Two Words,” Mike Dean has been one of the few constants in Kanye West’s ever-changing career. This year was no different as the 53-year-old producer and engineer steadied Kanye’s hectic summer. Not only did he lend his epic synths and guitar riffs to all five Wyoming productions (DAYTONA, ye, KIDS SEE GHOSTS, NASIR, and K.T.S.E.), but he mixed and mastered them—sometimes down to the wire (“I was literally making revisions that Kanye asked for right before we got in his car,” he told EW). However, it was Mike Dean’s partnership with another G.O.O.D. Music star, Travis Scott, that truly flourished this year as he helped craft La Flame’s Houston-indebted blockbuster album ASTROWORLD, a full circle for the Texas OG who got his start working with UGK, Geto Boys, and Scarface in the early ’90s. Add to his résumé production credits on JAY-Z and Beyoncé’s EVERYTHING IS LOVE, Migos’ Culture II, and Christina Aguilera’s Liberation, and it’s no wonder Mike Dean wound up hooked up to an IV this year. This man deserves his flowers, if not a well-earned vacation.
4. Kanye West
Credits: Pusha T DAYTONA; Kanye West & Kid Cudi KIDS SEE GHOSTS; Kanye West ye; Kanye West “I Love It,” “Lift Yourself”; Teyana Taylor K.T.S.E.; Nas NASIR; Migos “BBO (Bad Bitches Only)”; Christina Aguilera “Accelerate”
Sure, Kanye West pulled some shocking stunts this year, even by his standards. But behind the boards, away from Trump, Twitter, and TMZ, Mr. West reminded everyone why he’s one of the best producers of all time. In his most prolific run as a producer since the early ‘00s, Kanye dove back into the trenches and scored five albums in as many weeks, a pace that would make even the Based God blench. In June came Kanye’s beautifully-produced bi-polar confession ye; his grungy, cathartic collaboration with Kid Cudi, KIDS SEE GHOSTS; Nas’ 11th album NASIR which, despite being a disappointment, still contains a couple thumping throwbacks; and Teyana Taylor’s soulful, sensual K.T.S.E. However, the crown jewel in Kanye’s cruel summer was Pusha T’s DAYTONA, an Album of the Year frontrunner sizzling with scintillating beats and surgically sliced soul and funk samples, to say nothing of Push’s slick, serrated bar(b)s. We should know the routine by now: whether it’s locking himself in a room to make five beats a day for three summers, relocating to Hawaii to plot his comeback, or finishing five albums in five weeks out in Wyoming, when Kanye West goes off the grid, expect greatness to follow.
Credits: Drake “God’s Plan,” “Mob Ties,” “Duppy Freestyle,” “Diplomatic Immunity,”; Cardi B “Be Careful,” “Best Life”; Travis Scott “NC-17”; Beyoncé & JAY-Z “FRIENDS,” “HEARD ABOUT US”; Eminem “Luck You”; Jay Rock “WIN,” “The Bloodiest”; 6ix9ine “TATI”; A$AP Rocky “Fukk Sleep”; Nicki Minaj “Hard White”; Royce Da 5'9" “Power”
If you were to rank hip-hop producers by field goal percentage, Boi-1da would come out on top in 2018. As clinical as Steph Curry is from the free throw line, almost everything the Toronto hitmaker touched turned to gold—or better yet, platinum. There was Drake’s 8x Platinum hit “God’s Plan”; Cardi B’s Platinum-certified “Be Careful,” as well as her Gold-selling “Best Life” collaboration with Chance the Rapper; and a further five Billboard Hot 100 entries with Drizzy alone (“Diplomatic Immunity,” “Mob Ties,” “8 out of 10,” “Ratchet Happy Birthday,” “Final Fantasy”). Dive deeper into Boi-1da’s discography and you’ll find standout cuts on some of the year’s biggest albums: Travis Scott’s “NC-17”; Beyoncé & JAY-Z's “FRIENDS” and “HEARD ABOUT US”; Jay Rock’s “WIN” and “The Bloodiest”; and Eminem’s “Lucky You.” More than a decade into his career, Boi-1da only seems to be getting better. It’s no surprise he goes into 2019 with a career-best eight GRAMMY nominations, including his first—and long overdue—nod for Producer of the Year.
2. Kenny Beats
Credits: Vince Staples FM!; Freddie Gibbs Freddie; Rico Nasty Nasty, “Smack a Bitch”; Key! 777, 777 Deluxe, “Time of My Life”; ALLBLACK 2 Minute Drills; J.I.D “Slick Talk”; Ski Mask the Slump God “Foot Fungus”; YoungBoy Never Broke Again “Traumatized,” “Permanent Scar”; 03 Greedo "In My Feelings,” “Basehead,” "Conscience"; JPEGMAFIA “Puff Daddy”; Zack Fox “Square Up”
At the start of the year, Kenny Beats was down to his last $1,000 after recently quitting his lucrative—yet unfulfilling—gig as an EDM DJ to refocus on his first love: rap. As the year comes to a close, he clocks out as one of the very best hip-hop producers of 2018 (with a healthier looking bank balance, I’d imagine). During a prolific and increasingly high-profile run between May and December, the 27-year-old Connecticut native cranked out two full-length collaborations (Key!’s 777, ALLBLACK’s 2 Minute Drills), the bulk of three critically-acclaimed projects (Vince Staples’ FM!, Freddie Gibbs’ Freddie, Rico Nasty’s Nasty) and album cuts for J.I.D, Ski Mask the Slump God, 03 Greedo, and more. Not only did hearing his “Woah, Kenny!” producer tag reassure you that he’s got your back for the next two-and-a-half minutes, but Kenny’s choice of exciting, leftfield collaborators made him a legitimately trustworthy—and I hate to use this word—tastemaker in a world of wannabe tastemakers.
Given his wide-ranging collaborations that span regions and subgenres, Kenny Beats hasn’t devoted himself to carving out a signature sound in the vein of previous year-defining producers like Lex Luger or DJ Mustard. Instead, his strength lies in locking in with an artist (in person), tailoring his hard-hitting beats to their sensibilities or specific demands, and engineering and creatively steering the music at hand. “I produce records. I don’t make a beat and then send that beat to a bunch of emails,” he told DJBooth earlier this year. Whether it’s harnessing Key!’s mercurial talent, adding bite to Rico Nasty’s bark, or taking Vince Staples from European clubs to California car speakers, Kenny Beats' organic approach speaks for itself.
1. Tay Keith
Credits: Travis Scott “SICKO MODE”; Drake “Nonstop”; BlocBoy JB “Look Alive,” “Rover 2.0,” Simi; Eminem “Not Alike”; 6ix9ine “STOOPID”; Lil Baby, Gunna & Drake “Never Recover”; Lil Baby "Exotic"; Wiz Khalifa “Real Rich”; Metro Boomin “Don’t Come Out the House”; Quavo “SHINE”; Meek Mill “Tic Tac Toe”; Lil Wayne “Hasta La Vista”; Rico Nasty “In the Air”; Key Glock "Since 6ix"; Lil Yachty "Who Want the Smoke?"
Tay Keith lived up to his producer tag in 2018. The 22-year-old Memphis native’s breakout year appropriately started with a WoooorldStaaaar-worthy knockout when he produced longtime collaborator BlocBoy JB and Drake’s “Look Alive,” an indescribably hard, piano-powered banger fit for a super villain’s entrance. The song, which soared to No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100, secured an already-buzzing BlocBoy’s place on XXL’s 2018 Freshman cover, but it was Tay Keith and his punishing production that benefitted most from Drake’s co-sign.
In the months that followed, Tay cracked the Hot 100 six more times as he produced Travis Scott’s “SICKO MODE” (No. 1), Drake’s “Nonstop” (No. 2), Lil Baby and Gunna’s “Never Recover” (No. 15), Eminem’s “Not Alike” (No. 24), 6ix9ine’s “STOOPID” (No. 25) and Metro Boomin’s “Don’t Come Out the House” (No. 38). Not since Drumma Boy has a Memphis producer made such a dent in the mainstream, only Tay's success is more staggering and his sound more indebted to hometown heroes like DJ Paul, Juicy J, and DJ Squeeky. In any case, Tay Keith established himself as the hottest producer of 2018 while proving the Memphis bounce can still tear the club up.
What’s even more impressive about Tay Keith’s rapid rise is the fact that he did it all while he was still in school. Earlier this month, the same week he celebrated "SICKO MODE" going to No. 1, he earned his bachelor’s degree from Middle State Tennessee University. Just imagine what Tay Keith might accomplish in 2019 with his focus fully on music.