Entertainment Music The Top 25 Hip-Hop Producers They didn't need high-tech gear to make miracles Share PINTEREST Email Print Music Rap & Hip Hop Top Picks Basics Rock Music Pop Music Alternative Music Classical Music Country Music Folk Music Rhythm & Blues World Music Punk Music Heavy Metal Jazz Latin Music Oldies Learn More By Henry Adaso Henry Adaso has written about hip-hop since 2005 and founded the award-winning blog The Rap Up. He has written for "Vibe," MTV, Rap Rehab, and more. our editorial process Henry Adaso Updated December 13, 2018 Musical equipment wasn't originally designed for hip-hop beats, but despite the limitations of early drum machines, hip-hop producers made enduring art out of dirty sounds with whatever tools were available. Easy Mo Bee manually chopped up samples. Marley Marl nabbed kicks and snares from completely different records. Havoc recorded off cassette boomboxes and looped samples off the radio. Released in 1985, the E-mu SP-12, the godmother of sampling machines, was considered an innovative musical instrument, albeit limited. By the time the Ad-Rock rapped, "Well, I'm the Benihana chef on the SP-12" on 1998's "Putting Shame in Your Game," beat makers had moved on to the more "powerful" SP-1200 and the AKAI MPC60. Later hip-hop production transcends samplers and studios. Anyone with a Wi-Fi-enabled laptop can whip up a radio-ready hit from his or her bedroom. Producers have always been as pivotal to the creative process as emcees. The best producers don't simply lay down tracks. They steer the direction of songs and entire albums. They break in new artists and shift the culture forward. There are influential producers—Pete Rock and Marley Marl changed the game with the art of sampling. There are culturally powerful producers—Dr. Dre and Timbaland reinvented urban radio. There are sound visionaries—RZA and J Dilla possessed a third-eye vision that enabled them to make vodka out of water. See how this list compares with your favorites: 25 of 25 Mannie Fresh Tyler Kaufman/BET / Getty Images Bangers: "Bling Bling (B.G.)," "Back That Azz Up (Juvenile)," "Go D.J. (Lil Wayne)" Mannie Fresh created the Cash Money Records sound in the early days of the record label. He played a pivotal part in helping the label evolve from a bounce crew to a music empire. He produced several bangers for the label's first flagship star, Juvenile. He helped upstarts such as Lil Wayne and B.G. assimilate into the mainstream. Mannie is probably best remembered for Juvenile's "Back Dat Azz Up," a hit so transcendent even Sharon Stone was backing up the truck. 24 of 25 RJD2 FilmMagic / Getty Images Bangers: "Ghostwriter," "1976," "Superhero" "Deadringer" exceeded our expectations. It's one of the best instrumental hip-hop albums, up there with "Donuts" and "Endtroducing." Like much of RJD2’s production, it’s packed with scenic elements that create narratives without uttering a word. 23 of 25 Pimp C Bill Olive / Getty Images Bangers: "Ridin' Dirty," "One Day," "Quit Hatin' the South" Mike Dean and Pimp C are arguably the two most influential producers in Southern rap. The latter is massively underrated. While it's sometimes unclear who did what on UGK's masterful records (Bun B shares production credits on many songs), Pimp is credited on almost every UGK song. He has added musicality to the group's canon, blending live instrumentation with his and Bun's Texas twang. Pimp tapped sun-dampened samples to create what he dubbed "country rap." Check out his interlocked dark melodies with a slab of soul on "One Day," the minimalist bounce of "Murder," and the skeletal funk of "Pocket Full of Stones." 22 of 25 Erick Sermon WireImage / Getty Images Bangers: "You Gots to Chill," "It's My Thing," "Music" As EPMD's sound man, Erick Sermon was simply the complete package. E-Double had the fresh beats to complete his laid-back rhymes. He helped put the Def Squad on the map and introduced us to Redman and Keith Murray. In the late '80s, rappers were yelling at top of their lungs. Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith told us "You Gots to Chill." A generation of emcees listened. 21 of 25 El-P Getty Images, / Getty Images There are producers with more accessible hits, more influence, and more collaborators, but there aren't many producers who consistently drop heat like El-P. From his early days at Company Flow to his later work as half of Run the Jewels, El has been a genius workhorse. That dystopian track that sounds like an apocalyptic party tune is El's bread and butter. You can also count on a curveball every now and then. As far as rapper-producers go, El-P may someday go down as the best. 20 of 25 Just Blaze WireImage / Getty Images Bangers: "U Don't Know," "Touch the Sky," "Exhibit C" Over the last decade and change, Justin Smith has built a strong legacy as the go-to man for hit records. This was Just’s most consistent quality on those Roc-A-Fella records of the aughts. He blessed both Jays (Z and Electronica) with heat rock on “U Don’t Know” and “Exhibition C,” respectively. Just is a leading supplier of that trunk rattler so urgent, so intense, and so anthemic it's guaranteed to stand out on any album. 19 of 25 DJ Muggs FilmMagic / Getty Images Bangers: "Insane in the Brain," "I Ain't Goin' Out Like That," "How I Could Just Kill a Man" DJ Muggs is the mastermind behind the sound of Cypress Hill. The group might have been a completely different story without Muggs—one told in hyperdrive, perhaps. Muggs brought a sense of ease with his dank-soaked sound. He slowed things down to a drawl, allowing B-Real to be as live as he wanna be. Muggs crafted blunted hits from old jazz records and helped Cypress Hill create two stellar albums back to back. 18 of 25 The Alchemist Nicholas Hunt / Getty Images Bangers: "Keep It Thoro (Prodigy)," "Book of Rhymes (Nas)," "Break the Bank (Schoolboy Q)" Every great producer is linked with a great act. In the case of the Alchemist, he represents sewage-grimy, late-'90s/early '00s NYC hip-hop. Alc is a West Coast guy with an East Coast ear. You'll hear his beats on many Big Apple hits—Nas' "Book of Rhymes" and Cam'ron's "Wet Wipes," for example. He put his production stamp on the sinister sound of Mobb Deep. It's common to hear an Alchemist beat and immediately visualize a scene from a horror flick. 17 of 25 Q-Tip Redferns / Getty Images Bangers: "One Love" (Nas), The Renaissance (Q-Tip) Two things account for Q-Tip's production success: a sense of history as rich as his lyrical chops and a knack for refinement. Q-Tip is a master of minimalist hip-hop production. As part of The Ummah production crew, he specialized in lush neo-soul where the chief goal was to warm your heart. On A Tribe Called Quest albums, he mixed hip-hop with jazz and thick bass lines where the chief goal was to snap your head ever so gently. As a producer for Tribe, Nas, and his own solo projects, Tip refined and distilled rap production into a glossy pad that’s inviting without seeming tame. Only a great producer such as Q-Tip can make restraint look so effortless. 16 of 25 Havoc WireImage / Getty Images Bangers: "Shook Ones Pt. II" (Mobb Deep) Havoc has stayed true to the East Coast sound over his 20-year career, through the advent of Auto-Tune, electronic dance music, and hippie rap. The more things change, the harder Hav recommits to his sound. Tidbit: The original beat Havoc made for The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Last Day” mysteriously disappeared from the studio. He ended up re-creating the beat from scratch. 15 of 25 Prince Paul Getty Images for CineVegas / Getty Images Prince Paul didn't just ignore the rule books; he ripped them up and laughed in your face. Then he went home and wrote a hit. Brave and experimental, with a powerfully inventive resume, Paul plumbed samples and pieces from wherever he wanted. When everyone was sampling jazz, Paul went for rock, funk, soul, hippie soul, and even Hall & Oates. He sampled himself before anyone knew that was a thing you could do, flippin' his old crew De La Soul's "Plug Tunin'" into Gravediggaz's "Defective Trip." Whether with Stetsasonic or De La Soul, Paul made music his own way. And he invented the sketch comedy routine your favorite emcee uses today. Tidbit: He was influenced by Rick Rubin and The Bomb Squad and N.W.A.-era Dr. Dre. 14 of 25 DJ Quik Scott Dudelson / Getty Images DJ Quik is one of the most underrated producers. Not enough people know Quik's work and his influence on L.A. hip-hop. Those who do celebrate his legacy, which was forged from G-funk, itself forged from funk. The scientist who sparked that flame? Quik's the name. 13 of 25 Large Professor FilmMagic / Getty Images Before discovering and mentoring Nas, Large Professor was already a well-respected producer. Large Pro put in work on several uncredited tracks on early Eric B & Rakim albums. He put his SP-1200 to work on Main Source's "Breaking Atoms," juggling pristine loops with pristine breaks. His production resume is rich with hits. Still, his greatest feat is producing 30 percent of Nas' "Illmatic," the greatest rap album of all time, including the highlights "Halftime" and "It Ain't Hard to Tell." 12 of 25 The Bomb Squad Getty Images for NAMM / Getty Images The Bomb Squad produced music so loud, so powerful, and so militant that anyone who heard their songs felt something. Angst. Passion. Rage. Whatever. You didn’t just listen; you felt. The Bomb Squad made music that shattered every hip-hop paradigm in the 1980s and 1990s. They provided the soundtrack for a generation battling the crack epidemic and institutionalized racism. They sound-tracked the struggle of a marginalized generation. And a nation of millions still couldn’t hold them back. The Bomb Squad was bigger than hip-hop. 11 of 25 Timbaland Shareif Ziyadat / Getty Images Bangers: "Big Pimpin,'" "4 Page Letter," "FutureSex/LoveSound" When we think of Timbaland, we think of clubs and hits. Indeed, Tim Mosley has had his hands in more hip-hop hit singles than many of the names on this list combined. When we think of Timbaland, we think of stars: Aaliyah, Missy Elliott, Justin Timberlake. When we think of Timbaland, we think of a man playing Silly Putty with sounds: He dominated urban radio by incorporating everything from synths and Egyptian flutes to animals and cooing babies. When we think of Timbaland, we think of a canon that extends beyond the walls of hip-hop. 10 of 25 The Neptunes FilmMagic, Inc / Getty Images There was a time in this country when you could glance at Billboard on any random Tuesday and find at least five Neptunes beats in the Top 10. Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo may be the best production duo in hip-hop history. What the childhood friends from Virginia did was craft memorable rap hits that bore their unmistakable bling sound. Remember Birdman's "What Happened to That Boy" alongside Clipse? The song that popularized Baby's bird call? It was produced by The Neptunes. Remember Snoop's "Drop It Like It's Hot"? The Neptunes. What about Busta's "Pass the Courvoisier" or Slim Thug's "I Ain't Heard of That"? The Neptunes all the way. 09 of 25 Madlib Redferns via Getty Images / Getty Images While he's never had a national hit or worked with a name bigger than Doom, Madlib more than compensates with innovation and excitement. Listening to Madlib instrumentals, it becomes a game of guess that sample, in which you're almost guaranteed to lose every round. He has a talent for mining gold out of obscure samples. Madlib pulls off production tricks that make him sound like a magician. And he stays behind the curtain, leaving just enough room for the narrator to fill the mix. 08 of 25 Rick Rubin WireImage / Getty Images Rick Rubin is one of the greatest producers in any genre. His hip-hop work alone towers over many knob twirlers who work primarily in the genre. There's a must-watch scene in "Fade to Black" where Rick casually scratches his beard and Jay-Z's "99 Problems" falls into his lap. OK, it didn't quite go down like that. But that's how easy he makes it look. Rick has been there from the start, having co-founded Def Jam with Russell Simmons. No matter where you land on his discography, stunning production awaits. His finest run was in the 1980s when he produced hits for Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, and Run DMC. 07 of 25 Marley Marl Ilya S. Savenok / Getty Images Marley Marl is the all-time king of sampling. He stumbled upon the art of sampling in the 1980s, blazing a trail for an entire generation of sound architects. The genius of Marley's early style was that he found a way to work within the limitations of the SP-1200. He treated his samples like a band, grabbing a kick from a James Brown record and a snare from who knows where. He would bring it all home with his own magic. Marley's style sounded like nothing else at the time. Marley was the go-to producer of the Juice Crew and its key members: Big Daddy Kane, Kool G Rap, Biz Markie, and MC Shan. He produced Eric B & Rakim's early hits, including "My Melody" and "Eric B Is President." He was instrumental in early hip-hop beefs, having produced Roxanne Shante's diss record to UTFO. Above all, Marley defined the East Coast sound. He understood the potential break that beats presented and helped others visualize where it could lead. He was more than a resident beat maker; Marley Marl was a rapper's producer. He inspired stunning performances from his collaborators. Every producer who has ever sampled a James Brown kick owes him lunch. 06 of 25 Kanye West Dimitrios Kambouris / Getty Images Bangers: "Power," "Jesus Walks," "Run This Town," "You Don't Know My Name" Before the Video Music Awards Vanguard Video award, before the Grammy rants, before the clothing line and the Yeezys, Kanye West had vision. He was going to make the best music possible while rapping to anyone who would listen. Kanye realized this vision and much more. When he was a Chicago kid producing music for the eighth-grade talent show, he still believed he was the best. Passion fuels that attitude. Kanye critics' favorite game is to dismiss the music because they dislike the man. But strip away the circus and you're still looking at one of the most creative forces and intriguing minds in hip-hop history. His staggering body of work shifted the landscape of hip-hop production with "The Blueprint" and pushed hip-hop toward sped-up soul samples on "The College Dropout." He followed up with an experimental album that stacked layers of orchestral strings and sprawling instrumentals on top of each other on "Late Registration"; steered hip-hop toward an obsession with electro on "Graduation"; returned to his drum machine and changed the game again with the highly Auto-Tuned, highly influential "808s & Heartbreak"; continued to push the genre with the grandiose "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy"; and reinvented his sound again on "Yeezus." Everything Kanye touches turns to gold. Tidbit: Kanye West originally wanted to design video games. 05 of 25 J Dilla fuseboxradio/flickr.com/CC BY-SA 2.0 J Dilla was a hip-hop superhero. As he lay dying in his hospital bed, Dilla somehow had the vision and inimitable work ethic to create a masterpiece, "Donuts." Consider the limitations of his workspace: an MPC, a turntable, and a crate of vinyl records. Imagine where his boundless imagination could have turned if he were still alive. But this isn't a posthumous lifetime award or a spot reserved for the producer with some mythical heroic quality. Dilla was human. He struggled with the complications of lupus for a long time, occasionally performing in a wheelchair. Whenever people talk about Dilla in glowing terms, there's a tendency to relegate his work to the background. By all accounts, Dilla was a convivial and compassionate human being. But this is, ultimately, about the music. Dilla is in the top five dead or alive because of the music he left behind. Dilla had the utmost respect for the creative process. No hip-hop producer has pushed the boundaries of sound the way Dilla did. Listening to Dilla's beats, you can almost hear the story. What if you could speed up a snare? What if you tipped the drum just a tad off-kilter? What would happen if you clothed the tip of your drumsticks with a thread of toilet paper? The best description of Dilla's distinctive quality comes from one of his most popular students, Questlove: "If you could look at the glass and say it's half-full or half-empty, Dilla would find a third way to look at it." 04 of 25 RZA WireImage / Getty Images Bangers: "C.R.E.A.M.," "Shimmy Shimmy Ya," "All That I Got Is You" RZA's sound was conceived in the slums of Shaolin, creating his early tracks on a Roland 606 stolen by Ol' Dirty Bastard. RZA put it to work, fetching gritty sounds from the drum machine. Members of what would eventually become the Wu-Tang Clan would stop by and test their in-progress rhymes against RZA's in-progress beats amid smoke billows. Those early instrumentals and the gripping narratives they inspired created the foundation for the greatest hip-hop group of all time. The Abbot helped shape the direction of '90s hip-hop. His love of sinister samples and Kung Fu flicks added flair to the bravado of Wu-Tang's early raps. Blessed with a third-eye imagination, RZA quarterbacked a team with incredibly diverse quirks and perspectives. Tidbit: RZA was largely influenced by Stetsasonic. 03 of 25 Pete Rock WireImage / Getty Images Bangers: "They Reminisce Over You" From his early days chopping up samples on the primitive SP-12 to his rise as half of the '90s duo Pete Rock & CL Smooth, Peter Phillips has always been a sound innovator. Like many producers on this list, The Chocolate Boy Wonder started out as a DJ. His point of entry to the music business was Marley Marl's WBLS radio show, "In Control With Marley Marl." Pete Rock set it all on its head with a warm production style that combined drum breaks, sun-dried jazz, and horn samples. Alongside CL Smooth, he produced one of the best three-album runs between 1991 and 1994. All are worth visiting, but if you must pick one, start with "The Main Ingredient" and work backward. Not only is Pete Rock one of the most creative samplers ever, but he's also the original king of remixes. Before Diddy and R. Kelly, it was Pete Rock who made it fun to reimagine songs with a distinct flair. Rock reworked several '90s hits, including "Hip-Hop Hooray" (Naughty by Nature), "Shut 'Em Down" (Public Enemy), "Rampage" (EPMD), and "Jump Around" (House of Pain). Pete Rock's sultry soul samples laid the foundation for future disciples J. Dilla, Kanye West, and 9th Wonder. Tidbit: Pete Rock was originally inspired by Teddy Riley and Marley Marl. 02 of 25 Dr. Dre WireImage / Getty Images Bangers: "Express Yourself," "Nuthin' but a 'G' Thang," "California Love" No producer has influenced the landscape of mainstream hip-hop like Dr. Dre. Since the 1980s, Dre has had a hand in some of the most innovative hip-hop music in America. Dre started as a DJ, produced groundbreaking records for N.W.A., and redefined the sound of the West Coast at Death Row Records before ultimately building his own empire at Aftermath Entertainment. What puts Dre on the Mount Rushmore of hip-hop production? His ear. Dre understands the little things that imbue a particular artist or song with supreme quality. His minimalist production style. Dre has a way of stripping everything down to the barest elements, such as taking piano melodies backed by hard-thumping drums and making them sound like a hurricane. His perfectionism. Dre's obsession with perfection may frustrate collaborators, but it's why they seek him out. Dre made Eve repeat a word 45 times. In response, Eve shattered a glass with a bottle and dropped her microphone. After getting the word right, she was finally allowed out of the studio. He made Eminem scream in the studio. After signing to Aftermath, Rakim disagreed with Doc's creative prescription. He left the label without dropping an album. Yet, for every recording session horror story, there are twice as many success stories from Dre collaborators. Eve said Dre's tough-love approach got the best out of her. He helped launch the careers of Eazy-E, D.O.C., Snoop Dogg, Eminem, 50 Cent, and The Game. Kendrick Lamar was a rising star when he partnered with Dre, but he has grown from album to album, thanks to the Medicine Man. Tidbit: Dr. Dre originally deejayed at a club called Eve After Dark under the alias Dr. J (after his favorite basketball player, Julius "Dr. J" Erving). Dr. J would soon become Dr. Dre (a combination of his original nickname and his first name, Andre). 01 of 25 DJ Premier Brad Barket / Getty Images Bangers: "Nas Is Like," "Mass Appeal," "Ten Crack Commandments" Although Primo snagged the No. 1 spot on the original version of this list, there was no guarantee he would retain his spot seven years later. But Primo is still numero uno. What Premier does on the board is too complex to translate into words. You only have to hear rap classics such as "Mass Appeal," "D'Evils," "Nas Is Like," and "PRhyme" (his collaborative project with Royce da 5'9") to appreciate Preem's prowess. The reason Primo is still up top is simple. It's not just because he revolutionized sampling. It's not because he influenced an esteemed legion of track masters such as Havoc and 9th Wonder. It's not because he makes beats that snap your neck off your joint. Primo is still numero uno because he never let up. Over the last 30-ish years, he's managed the incredible maneuver of driving the game forward without steering too far from The DJ Premier Sound. You'll recognize that drum-loop-drum combo today, but its execution is constantly changing. It's why you'll hear Primo's ever-evolving sound on Dr. Dre's "Animals" and wonder how he's able to stay on top for longer than some of his fans have been alive. Then it hits you: Maybe Primo never really evolved. Maybe our ears evolved to keep up with Primo. Tidbit: DJ Premier started out sampling snares and kicks from old funk records.