In this third edition of an annual survey of the hottest producers in the hip-hop industry, one thing is certain: Only a few emerge each year.
While the world of overground rappers swells with rising stars and pan-flashes, the studios staffed largely in support of these vocalists constitute a club that's open to new faces and ideas, yet is still exclusive enough that not just anyone can crack its revolving door. Rappers feed on beats, but entry into the upper echelons of the production fraternity requires hits (and yes, sadly, this club is dominated by men). A hit can be defined by a popular underground/mixtape cut like French Montana's "New York Minute," which got Harry Fraud noticed, or a regional track that ascends to national radio, like YC and Future's "Racks," which established Sonny Digital's career. There are other methods: Hudson Mohawke's reputation as an electronic innovator helped him land on the recording session for Kanye West's "Mercy" as a keyboard player. His peer in the world of beats and bass, Flying Lotus, has said that he wants to produce for high-profile rap acts like Drake and Lil Wayne, but doesn't get those phone calls.
Much like the incessant wars of words between rival rappers, competition among producers can be intense, if less public. No one can mimic a rapper's unique vocal tone, though many try: See Future and his many imitators. But the style of a beat can be easily copied. In 2011, producers clamored to rip off Lex Luger's hammering orchestral pomp from Rick Ross' "B.M.F."; last year, DJ Mustard's ratchet sound on Tyga's "Rack City" spawned the most followers. Biters may be legion, but it's actually encouraged. Everyone will do whatever it takes to land a placement on the next major-label album.
That's why so many producers are inspired by Pharrell Williams. His production unit, The Neptunes, ruled mainstream rap in the early 2000s with a brittle, funky and highly melodic keyboard tone that's recognizable from the moment you hear it. And while far removed from his hitmaking days, Pharrell has still made recent album tracks for Kendrick Lamar, Rick Ross, Tyga, T.I., Wiz Khalifa, Curren$y and others. They're an honorarium for his lasting influence as a maverick.
We can complain about the state of the music industry and how it stifles creativity, or we can sit back and enjoy it. One positive development is the revival of instrumental beat albums, including Keyboard Kid 206's The Transition and Cardo's Everything I$ Gold. It's a sign that producers are slowly realizing their fates aren't necessarily tethered to the fortunes of their rapper overlords. So why do they still list their "favorite artists they want to work with" in interviews on blogs? They want a big pop hit, too.
Here are five producers whose careers are on the come up.
Producer: DJ Mustard
Key Tracks: Tyga, "Rack City"; 2 Chainz, "I'm Different"; Joe Moses, "Ratchets"
Dijon "DJ Mustard" McFarlane mostly worked with L.A. club artists like Y.G., TYDOLLA$IGN and Joe Moses until he made Tyga's "Rack City," one of the biggest rap hits of 2012. He coined a brand name for the skittering percussion and keyboard stabs of that track: ratchet. It seems like someone reinvents minimalist beat production every few years, whether it's the def beat era of the mid-1980s (see Schoolly D's "P.S.K. [What Does It Mean?]" and U.T.F.O.'s "Roxanne, Roxanne") or the Atlanta snap music fad of the mid-2000s (see D4L's "Laffy Taffy" and Dem Franchize Boyz' "White Tee"). Mustard's ratchet sound spawned so many rip-offs that you couldn't turn on the radio or go to a hip-hop club without hearing that style. His latest contribution to the phenomenon, 2 Chainz' ironically titled "I'm Different," is currently soaring on the charts.
Producer: Mike Will Made It
Key Tracks: Kanye West, "Mercy"; 2 Chainz, "No Lie"; Juicy J, "Bandz a Make Her Dance"; Future, "Turn on the Lights" and "Neva End"
While DJ Mustard proved the most distinctive of newcomers, Michael "Mike Will Made It" Williams was the most commercially adaptable. He specialized in ratchet-style club joints like "Bandz a Make Her Dance," pseudo-dub conflagrations like "Mercy," and trancelike mirror-ball urban pop for Future's "Turn on the Lights." He can't be pinned down by one sound, so you wouldn't know he produced these tracks except for the way he watermarks his beats with a female voice intoning, "Mike Will Made It."
Producer: Harry Fraud
Key Tracks: Smoke DZA, Rugby Thompson; Action Bronson, "Bird on a Wire"; French Montana, "Shot Caller"
Harry Fraud is descended from the Alchemist school of menacing retro-gangster allusions and dread vibes. He hasn't landed any major placements, but his murky work is omnipresent in the New York street rap scene, from French Montana's Mac & Cheese mixtape series to sundry Action Bronson cuts and Smoke DZA's acclaimed Rugby Thompson. He watermarks his tracks with the phrase "La musica de Harry Fraud." Last month, he announced plans for an instrumental album in 2013.
Producer: Sonny Digital
Key Tracks: Future, "Same Damn Time"; 2 Chainz, "Birthday Song"
Sonny Uwaezuoke, aka Sonny Digital, benefits from his home base in Atlanta. When "Racks" became a signature catch phrase of 2011, Sonny Digital earned assignments with numerous local rappers like Gorilla Zoe, Roscoe Dash, Waka Flocka Flame and others. Though his beat for "Same Damn Time" sounds like Drumma Boy (and any number of lesser Dirty South producers), it's solid bedrock for Future's imaginatively ridiculous boasts. 2 Chainz' "Birthday Song," which Digital coproduced with several members of Kanye West's Lifted team, shifts through several trap clichés from dense, low-end orchestral thuds to rattling percussive arpeggios. It makes for a track better than the sum of its sonic parts.
Producer: Jahlil Beats
Key Tracks: Meek Mill, "Young & Gettin' It," "Ima Boss" and "Amen"; Kid Ink, "Lost in the Sauce"
Jahlil Beats recently signed a deal with Jay-Z's Roc Nation management company. It has already led to an unusual assignment: coproducing "Trouble," the lead single for Leona Lewis' Glassheart. (The album is already out in the U.K. and drops in the U.S. this spring.) Jahlil established himself producing tracks for Meek Mill's Dreamchasers series; his best work to date is Meek's "Amen," coproduced with Key Wane, which builds on a fervent, gospel-like organ arrangement. It signifies a world where the rap life is a religion, and its stars are members of the cloth ready to "preach."