In 2013, comebacks and anniversaries were in abundance, one of which was the 20th year since the seminal Wu Tang Clan released ’36 Chambers’. An album that not only revolutionized the concept of the rap posse, but also what hip-hop production can be, through RZA’s razor sharp beats, filmic samples and gritty sheen. Now, a whole two decades on, the landscape of hip-hop production is barely recognisable, and certainly for the better.
Producers are no longer spectres in the dark, rappers can’t cut it by sampling the obvious, they’re instead left to rely and these production gurus for an existence. A Rapper is almost simply a mouthpiece for what the producer is trying to convey and define the sound of many albums/mixtapes. On Danny Brown’s ‘Old’, the high-energy hedonism of Side B is certainly accentuated by Rustie and SKYWLKR’s startling, club ready production. Run The Jewel’s self titled is as much the achievement of El-P’s destructive production, as it is an exhilarating collaboration. Even the much-maligned Kitty brought producer buzz, with her need for the cloud-rap whimsy of Hot Sugar, who perfectly complements her childlike raps, while Flatlander reliably pushed Death Grips industrial hip-hop in a direction previously unthought-of.
Perhaps 2013’s most substantial feat of production is, of course, ‘Yeezus’. Kanye West may have threatened to drop the unlistenable, yet its a musical palette rich with ideas ranging from calm career re-treads, to explosive moments of lunacy, it’s no surprise that there’s as many producers on Yeezus as there are moments of abrasiveness. As usual, he applies his technique of collaging samples, especially on the delightfully sentimental ‘Bound 2’, but the likes of No ID, Hudson Mohawke and Arca all had a part in Yeezy’s ambitious record.
While the rest of the big leagues found themselves stagnating by using the dependables (Timbaland oversaw Jay Z’s bland ‘Magna Carta…Holy Grail’, while Eminem’s most disastrous beats on ‘The Marshall Matthers LP 2’ were from the hands of Rick Rubin), the little guys have been responsible for defining the sound of modern hip-hop. For the last few years the likes of Clams Casino, Mike Finito (Heems’ ‘Nehru Jackets’), Yung Gud and Yung Sherman (yes, those sadboys AGAIN) and even jazz trio BadBadNotGood (the better moments of ‘Doris’ and ‘Old’) have been busy melding hip-hop’s love of the beat, with dense, layered electronics.
The crossover between the two genres means they’re now essentially bedfellows, with some of the most head turning electronic releases coming from musicians who are usually comfortable with a rapper by their side. Among them is Clams Casino’s last minute A$AP Rocky-heavy ‘Instrumentals 3’, which reminds us that he is consistently delivering the most definitive hip-hop of the years, and Arca’s ‘&&&&&’ carves out a titillating future for the producer.
For a group that has always been happy staying in the shadows, hip-hop producers have impressively proved themselves to be an essential component of the genre, the very reason why producer culture deserves the intrigue it creates.
Words by Connor Cass