We continue our celebration of hip-hop’s 50th with a deep dive on producers—exploring the art of production through a series of audio specials, DJ mixes, and, of course, a handpicked collection of classic records and must-hear playlists.

The Art of the Beat

From the beginning, hip-hop was driven by the beat. If an MC was measured by how they could twist and organize language, the producer was measured by how they could twist and organize sound, whether it was Rick Rubin stretching the decay on his Roland TR-808 to get the classic boom of the Beastie Boys’ “Brass Monkey” or Marley Marl playing around with an early sampler and realizing he could rip a Clyde Stubblefield drum break and drop it in anywhere. The key wasn’t resources, but ingenuity: Yeah, you could make a track on your mom’s couch (or in Rubin’s case, in a dorm), but the real question was whether you had anything to say. Technology evolved, styles changed. The sample collage of The Bomb Squad and Scott La Rock in the late ’80s gave way to the live instrumentation of Dre’s The Chronic and Outkast’s Aquemini. DJ Premier conjured New York noir for Nas’ “N.Y. State of Mind,” while Memphis’ Three 6 Mafia was making the crude, brutal beginnings of trap. Every time the MCs evolved—your JAY-Zs, your Eminems—the sound did, too. It makes sense that hip-hop’s takeover of mainstream pop in the 2000s coincided with the rise of artists like Timbaland and The Neptunes: As much as hip-hop thrived on the lyricism of MCs, the beat was what listeners connected with first. Now, you have producers like Metro Boomin taking up as much space on the cultural marquee as the rappers out in front of them, if not more. Like LL Cool J said in 1985: “The beat expands to many foreign lands/Germany, Italy, France, and Japan.” At the time, it sounded like the kind of hyperbole that made rap fun. Now, it just sounds like the truth.

All Episodes

Have a listen to our original audio series on hip-hop’s foundational figures and storylines, hosted by Ebro.

    • The Edge
    • David McCallum
    • Jungle Boogie
    • Kool & The Gang
    • Cola Bottle Baby
    • Edwin Birdsong
    • It's Just Begun
    • The Jimmy Castor Bunch
    • Heaven and Hell Is On Earth
    • 20th Century Steel Band
    • I Get Lifted
    • George McCrae
    • I Get Lifted
    • KC and the Sunshine Band
    • Pleasure Boys
    • Visage
    • Apache
    • Incredible Bongo Band
    • Mary, Mary
    • The Monkees
    • Do The Funky Penguin (Part 1)
    • Rufus Thomas
    • Get Me Back On Time, Engine Number 9, Pts. 1 & 2
    • Wilson Pickett
    • Dance to the Drummer's Beat
    • Herman Kelly
    • Looking Out My Window
    • Tom Jones
    • Get Up and Dance
    • Freedom
    • Shack Up
    • Banbarra
    • Also Sprach Zarathrusta (2001)
    • The Cecil Holmes Soulful Sounds

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