In this weekly feature, we’re profiling the unsung heroes of hip hop music: the producers. These musicians, responsible for creating beats, sampling and collaborating with MCs, slave away behind the scene while rappers get most (if not all) of the credit. With Behind The Boards, we’re looking to shine the spotlight on the best producers in the game.
Kanye West needs no introduction. In ten years as a solo artist, he's released six platinum albums, worked with everyone from Jay Z to Elton John, and achieved a level of critical acclaim that's rare for hip hop artists. But while Kanye is more visible as a rapper and social provocateur, it's his production chops that initially got his foot in the door and continue to sustain his career in a way that his verbal skills, though adequate, could not. He began churning out beats at a workhorse pace in the late '90s, and even while releasing six solo albums in ten years, has had a steady stream of production credits for other artists in the past few years. Follow us on the part of Kanye's journey that doesn't require him to open his mouth at all: his evolution from freelance beatmaker to star-making curator.
"Doing Five Beats a Day for Three Summers"
The above line appears on the College Dropout track "Spaceship," a somewhat autobiographical tale of West's struggle to get a big break, detailing the grueling schedule he imposed on himself to better his craft. In the mid nineties, West was a teenager living in Aurora, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. At age fifteen, he befriended older producer No I.D., who in 1993 had already produced the majority of Common's first album (he called himself Common Sense at the time). I.D. became a mentor of sorts for West, buying him his first sampler and taking him under his wing. In 1996, when West was 19, he got his first production credits on an album called Down To Earth by little-known Chicago rapper Grav. Below, listen to "City To City," a slap bass-accentuated highlight from the album.
Though "City To City" contains none of the "chipmunk soul" that West would later pioneer, you can definitely hear the foundation of a style based around samples from the '70s, with a deep cut by jazz fusion artist Eddie Henderson fueling this particular jam. By this period in time, digging in dusty record crates for obscure samples was already a time-honored tradition, but Kanye would flip the game on its head in the years to come.
Around this time, West started running with a group called The Go Getters, whose members also included GLC and Really Doe, and recording his first tracks as a rapper. You can listen to their one compilation mixtape, World Record Holders, right here on Zumic.
It was around 1998 when Kanye began stepping out of his hometown scene to work with other artists. First, he got linked up with D-Dot, the head honcho of Bad Boy Entertainment's in-house production team, The Hitmen, and began ghost-producing songs that Dot didn't have time to deal with. In addition to scoring production spots on albums by Goodie Mob, Foxy Brown and Mase's Harlem World group, he start getting credited as a co-producer on songs that D-Dot performed under his alias The Madd Rapper. Here's a highlight track from Dot's album Tell 'Em Why You Madd, which also features a fresh-faced Eminem in all of his eccentric glory:
"Stir Crazy" features a Latin bounce that was hot in the late '90s, thanks in part to another rising group of producers: The Neptunes. On their early tracks, like Noreaga's "Super Thug," they seemed to be operating in the same cutting edge territory as West was at the time. They would go on to perfect that club-ready sound on later singles by Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake, whereas Kanye would move towards more soulful territory. In 2000, West was finally brushing shoulders with big names in the hip hop world and preparing for his moment to shine, which would soon come courtesy of one of the biggest MCs around, Jay Z.
"Roc-A-Fella, My Home"
Just after The Madd Rapper released Tell 'Em Why You Madd, West was in the studio with Beanie Sigel, a recent signee to Jay Z and Dame Dash's hugely successful Roc-A-Fella label. A Kanye-produced track, the Graham Nash-sampling "The Truth," became the title track, album opener, and first single from Sigel's debut album, all of which definitely aided in Kanye getting approached by Kyambo “Hip Hop” Joshua, an A&R director at Roc-A-Fella. Joshua encouraged West to send him more beats, and West obliged, albeit yielding little initial success.
Then one day, West thought he had a breakthrough. Speeding up Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes' "I Miss You," creating a loop, and jacking the hard-knocking drums from Dr. Dre's recent song "Xxplosive," he had finally arrived at at chipmunk soul, the stylistic culmination of his early work. He played the track for Hip Hop over the phone, saying he might want to give it to DMX, but Hip said, "Oh, yo that shit is crazy. Jay might want it for this compilation album he doing, called 'The Dynasty.'" As Jay Z was the record label's flagship artist, this was a huge step up for Kanye. That beat would go on to be "This Can't Be Life," a standout track on The Dynasty: Roc La Familia, an album that also featured the production talents of The Neptunes and Just Blaze. Listen to the track below.
After the success of "This Can't Be Life," West went on to serve as an in-house producer for Roc-A-Fella, making more beats for Sigel, Jay, and Philadelphia rapper Freeway. On Jay's landmark 2001 album The Blueprint, West produced almost a third of the tracks, including "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)," Jay's first top ten hit. Part of the song's success was due to how recognizable the sample (The Jackson 5's "I Want You Back") was, a cunning move that West would later use to flip songs like Chaka Khan's "Through The Fire," Daft Punk's "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger" and Nina Simone's "Strange Fruit" into hits for himself. By triggering that somewhat confused "Wait... I know this" feeling in young listeners, West created a new paradigm for the hip hop tradition of sampling.
In this period before his solo career took off, Kanye continued producing for an increasingly recognizable rolodex of stars, including Cam'ron, T.I., Ludacris and Beyoncé. The 2002 song "'03 Bonnie and Clyde" linked up future couple Jay and Bey for the second time, and featured Kanye sampling 2Pac and reverting back to a Spanish-influenced sound, flamenco guitar and all. Take a listen below.
"I Put on for My City"
2004 saw Kanye overcome the steep odds of a producer-turned-rapper (described in detail on his brilliant "Last Call" outro), and score a major hit with The College Dropout. Though still able to continue producing for big-name artists, Kanye leveraged his newfound clout and founded the GOOD Music record label, singing some of his hometown collaborators and helping them with the release and production of their own albums. One of these artists was John Legend, whose backing vocals litter The College Dropout, and was a struggling singer-songwriter at the time. With West behind the reigns, Legend became an overnight success, with his first Kanye-produced album going platinum and winning Legend three Grammys. Even though Kanye's personal tastes would eventually venture away from smooth R&B, he continues to produce a fair amount of Legend's work to this day.
Along with Legend, the other initial GOOD Music signee was Common, who, despite having success in the late '90s, was floundering after label troubles. But throw West into the studio with him, and voilà, the resulting album went gold and was nominated for four Grammys. Below, listen to "Go!" from Common's 2005 album, Be.
Kanye continued signing Chicago mainstays who had never achieved huge success, like his former Go Getters pals GLC and Really Doe, putting his city on the map as the epicenter of conscious hip hop. Almost singlehandedly, West created a scene around himself, not allowing his fame to get in the way of collaborations with longtime friends.
"Ain't Nobody Fresher than My Clique"
Until the late 2000s, Kanye kept going with the first GOOD Music class' smooth, soul-influenced style, but soon came a time to reinvent his production style. Preparing for the release of his own My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, he decamped to Hawaii and invited a who's-who roster of hip-hop producers to come join him. With Q-Tip, RZA, No I.D., Swizz Beatz, DJ Premier, Madlib and Pete Rock all stopping by, Kanye created a veritable petri dish for hip hop production that Complex magazine dubbed "Rap Camp." West emerged from these sessions with fresh ideas, new artists on his roster, and you guessed it, another hit album.
With guest spots from Pusha T, Cyhi the Prynce and Kid Cudi, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was the first document of a new era for GOOD Music. Most of these guys would turn up on the label's 2012 compilation Cruel Summer, an album that saw Kanye experimenting with new styles like trap and drill, aided by collaborations with young producers like Hudson Mohawke, Mike Will Made It and Young Chop. Below, listen to the colossal single "Mercy," featuring a very inventive beat co-produced by West.
This led right up to the controversial Yeezus era, the bulk of which we won't address here, but it saw Kanye adopting a radically different style. Getting help from veteran producer Rick Rubin, a master of minimalism, West crafted a sound that was influenced by industrial music and dancehall reggae, along with contemporary trends in American hip hop. Concurrently, West also worked on Pusha T's My Name Is My Name, a much more traditional-sounding album, showing his ability to exist in different stylistic worlds simultaneously. My Name Is My Name's back-to-basics approach yielded him his biggest success since his group Clipse broke up, spurred in part by lead single "Numbers on the Boards." Listen to that slice of spine-tingling simplicity below.
By the end of 2013, Kanye was making drastically different music than he was a year earlier, but still impressing the majority of the hip hop world. Though including plenty of it on Yeezus, he never allowed his brash personality to disrupt the work of artists he produced for, showing intense dedication to the specific focuses of each project he signed onto.
"I’m Living in the Future so the Present is my Past"
Though details of a new Kanye album are murky at best, 2014 is already shaping up to be a big year for Kanye the producer. Yesterday, we learned that he will act as executive producer on Tyga's new album, which comes days after Cyhi the Prynce's Black Hystori Project (also counting West as its executive producer) dropped. Next week, Rick Ross' Mastermind will hit shelves, also containing a song produced by Kanye, and rumors have been circulating that West will appear on Chief Keef's new mixtape.
Does Kanye West ever take breaks? It certainly doesn't seem like it. Even if you're totally turned off by the things that come out of his mouth, odds are that Kanye West has made a beat that you'd like. His many changes, in sound, supporting cast, and production techniques, have become representative of hip hop's recent stylistic shifts, whether due to coattail riders or West's intense study of the constantly-shifting zeitgeist. There are few artists today who have the reach, influence, and ability to affect trends that all define Kanye.