Hip-hop production often splits between the craftsmen who make hits out of popular styles (like Drake's "emo-rap" sound) and the innovators who make their own visions regardless of whether it's commercially viable. When I posted my first roundup of rising rap producers last winter -- featuring Lex Luger, J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League and others -- it drew comments that the list was too focused on the mainstream. (One reader said I should have included Oddisee, even though he's been producing albums since the early 2000s.) Over the course of 2011, the divide grew even starker, as many artists drawing attention for the first time -- including Block Beataz (G-Side, Freddie Gibbs) and Squadda Bambino (Main Attrakionz) -- made their best work on Internet mixtapes, not the rap charts.
However, everything rises from the underground, whether through regional trends or Internet memes. Mixtapes are not only an avenue for gaining attention, but also a piece of currency between artists and producers who want to avoid messy label deals and contracts. These days, it's rare to find a producer at any level of the rap industry who hasn't spent time on the underground circuit. It's a problem when mixtape trends begin to outpace the retail side, but as the following list demonstrates, there's less separation between the two than we sometimes think.
Producer: J. Cole
Twenty-twelve Grammy Best New Artist nominee J. Cole is a rapper/producer, but his lyrical acuity outshines his work on the boards. His tracks have rudimentary structures that eschew rhythmic tricks or strong melodies so the listener can focus on his vocals, not the beat. It's questionable whether he should have used more talented producers for his debut album. Atlanta veteran Brian Kidd produced Cole World's biggest radio hit, "Can't Get Enough," but the New York-via-North Carolina rapper worked on the others, including the Top Ten pop hit "Work Out," as well as the 2010 teaser single "Who Dat." And Cole's bare-bones formula worked wonders on Kendrick Lamar's underground hit "HiiiPower."
Producer: Eric Dan
Pittsburgh producer Eric Dan has shepherded Wiz Khalifa's career for years, as the principal behind the production company and management firm ID Labs and Rostrum Records. Khalifa's breakout album, Rolling Papers, featured only a handful of tracks by E. Dan; its major hits were produced by Stargate ("Black & Yellow"), Jim Jonsin ("On My Level") and Benny Blanco ("No Sleep"). However, Dan's preference for laptop tracks with a slow and gauzy pace suitable for cruising the boulevard almost certainly determined the Rolling Papers sound. This became clear when his next major client, Mac Miller, used the same template and a wealth of ID Labs beats for Blue Slide Park.
As is increasingly the case with Kanye West's records, "N***as In Paris" was a four-man operation, also including Texas producer Mike Dean, engineer Anthony Kilhoffer, and West Coast producer Chauncey "Hit-Boy" Hollis. The song itself is a marvelous pastiche that flips from a bounce track to a vocal sample of Will Ferrell in Blades of Glory to a pseudo-dubstep climax. Up until then, Hit-Boy crafted memorable tracks that nevertheless lacked a distinct imprimatur: Rowland's "Lay It on Me" is a typical if stylish urban-pop romp, while Pusha T's "My God" was adorned with mocking church organs. His next assignment will be a G.O.O.D. Music compilation scheduled for this year.
Tyler "T-Minus" Williams' best tracks alternate between heavy bass bottoms and amorphous synth washes. "How Low" carries a thumping beat adorned by wailing strip-club sirens, and "Make Me Proud" sounds like a rattling car anchored by massive woofers. It's less remarkable when he uses the aforementioned "emo-rap" style for "She Will" and "I'm on One" -- not because they aren't good songs, but because that sound has become a cliché in the hands of J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League, Noah "40" Shebib, Boi-1da and many others.
Producer: Clams Casino
With the exception of Lex Luger, Clams Casino was the most heavily written-about producer of 2011, thanks to Instrumental Mixtape, which collected his work for Soulja Boy Tell 'Em, G-Side, Lil B and others, and an atmospheric EP, Rain Forest. (Tri-Angle, the label that issued Rain Forest, doesn't post its releases on streaming services.) The New Jersey producer was celebrated as a leader of "cloud rap," a new micro-genre that emphasizes dreamy melodies and soft percussion, resulting in sounds that seemingly hover in the (weed-generated) clouds. He landed only one major placement, two tracks on Mac Miller's Blue Slide Park, but he will undoubtedly get more this year.
As an in-house producer for the Diplomats, AraabMuzik made tracks for Cam'ron, Jim Jones, Vado, and others. But it was when he began performing at live shows and beat battles, furiously slapping the pads on his Akai MPC, that he drew notice outside N.Y. thug rap circles. On last year's mixtape Electronic Dream, he chopped up house and Euro trance hits by Kaskade and Jam & Spoon into head-nod beats. However, it's unclear if acclaim for his extracurricular activities will have any kind of effect on future Dipset assignments.