Performers tend to get most of the credit for hit songs. JAY-Z’s song “Big Pimpin” is considered just that, “a JAY-Z’s song.” But the brilliant Egyptian flute sample that makes the beat so catchy? That’s the work of producer Timbaland. Hip-hop producers like Metro Boomin (who has had 13 Platinum tracks in the last two years) can dominate the charts just as much as any performer. Some producers, like Dr. Dre, are household names, but many, like DJ Premier or Scott Storch, are mostly just known by hardcore hip-hop fans.
Some music producers operate like film directors, getting the most out of the performs they’re working with and keeping an eye on the overall vision of the production. Like director Stanley Kubrick, who was known to demand that actors retake scenes ad nauseam, Dr. Dre is described as a perfectionist in the booth. Snoop Dogg recalls working with Dre and redoing verses word for word until it was perfect. In fact, he once said in an interview that working with Dr. Dre is like “dealing with God…You have to be perfection when you do a record with him, because his sound is right, his direction is right.”
Given the extent to which a producer’s creative vision and direction impacts the creation of a song, it would make sense for producers to get as much credit for a track’s success as the performer gets. To highlight the producers behind everyone’s favorite songs, here’s a list of the greatest hip-hop producers of all time.
Signature songs: JAY-Z, “99 Problems” and Beastie Boys, “No Sleep till Brooklyn”
Rick Rubin is often known as a rock ‘n’ roll producer, having worked with artists such as Red Hot Chili Peppers, Johnny Cash and Aerosmith, but Rubin’s discography as a hip-hop producer may be even more impressive. His minimalist hip-hop style calls upon his rock ‘n’ roll roots to create some of the finest production in all of music. “99 Problems,” the JAY-Z track off of The Black Album, might be the best example of this technique.
Signature songs: Dr. Dre f/ Snoop Dogg, “Still Dre” and Eve f/ Gwen Stefani, “Let Me Blow Your Mind”
Scott Storch’s life has been a tale of excess and indulgence. Storch dominated the 2000s producing hits for artists like Beyoncé, 50 Cent and Lil’ Kim. In recent years, though, he’s suffered financial troubles, blowing $70 million and reaching bankruptcy in 2015. Once a premier producer recognized for his distinct keyboard-based style, Storch has struggled to make hits at the rate he once did. Despite his hardships, Storch had one of the most prolific runs of any hip-hop producer, and he belongs in the conversation with the all time greats.
Signature songs: UGK, “One Day” and “Diamonds & Wood”
Perhaps no producer is more respected in Southern hip-hop than the late Pimp C. As half of the groundbreaking duo UGK (along with Texas-native Bun B), Pimp C’s production style leaned heavily on slow grooves and live instrumentation, which was a new trend in the early 2000s. Pimp C died in 2007 at the age of 33 as a result of an overdose caused by codeine syrup and sleep apnea.
Signature songs: Missy Elliott, “Lost Control,” Mýa, “My Love is Like…Wo”
Missy Elliott is perhaps better known for her career as a performer, with hits like “Get Ur Freak On” and “Work It” (you can read our list of her best songs here), but her skill as a producer alone places her among the all time greats in hip-hop. While health issues have slowed her down in recent years, Missy has been one of hip-hop’s most inventive and innovative producers since the early 1990s.
Signature songs: Nas, “New York State of Mind” and Notorious B.I.G., “Unbelievable”
DJ Premier may not have the same notoriety as producers like Dr. Dre and Kanye West, but he was undoubtedly one one hip-hop’s most influential producers. He helped to craft the sound of some of New York’s biggest rappers, working to break artists like Nas, Notorious B.I.G and JAY-Z. He also pioneered the technique of chorus scratching, which has since become ubiquitous in hip-hop.
Signature tracks: Wu-Tang Clan, “Bring da Ruckus” and “Protect Ya Neck”
Staten Island native RZA has been writing, producing and performing for more than 25 years. He was the maestro behind the legendary Wu-Tang Clan, and is often credited as being the glue to hold together the different parts of the New York City supergroup. However, RZA also has a vast production discography outside of his work with the Wu-Tang Clan, earning executive producer credits on a total of 31 albums.
Signature songs: JAY-Z, “Big Pimpin’” and “Dirt Off Your Shoulder”
Timbaland’s work often straddles the line between hip-hop and pop, working with everyone from JAY-Z to Justin Timberlake to OneRepublic. He also helped to establish legendary artists such as Aaliyah, producing her No. 1 single “Try Again.” Although versatile producer, Timbaland does have a sort of signature style when it comes to hip-hop production, which is best seen on JAY-Z’s 1999 hit “Big Pimpin.” The verses by Southern rap icons UGK and the beat’s distinctive Egyptian flute sample exemplify the eclectic sonic palate that Timbaland tends to create in his work.
Signature Songs: Snoop Dogg f/ Pharrell, “Drop it Like It’s Hot” and Nelly, “Hot in Herre”
There’s perhaps no hip-hop producer who is more prolific than Pharrell Williams. Along with N.E.R.D. cohort Chag Hugo, Pharrell has been a go-to hitmaker since the ‘90s. The Neptunes have worked with all time greats like Michael Jackson, Madonna and even The Rolling Stones. One writer even theorized that every Pharrell-produced hit song begins with the same “quick four-count loop of the first beat.” After listening to a compilation of those intros, you’ll wonder how you never realized that signature before.
Signature songs: JAY-Z, “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” and Kanye West, “Through the Wire”
Kanye West’s celebrity persona and his massive success as a performer have made him a household name. But even without his 21 million albums sold and his 15 top 10 hits, Kanye would still be one of the most successful figures in hip-hop. Before releasing his debut album The College Dropout in 2004, Kanye had already established himself as a preeminent producer with hit songs created with JAY-Z, Lil’ Kim and Nas.
Signature songs: Dr. Dre f/ Snoop Dogg “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang” and Dr. Dre f/ Eminem, “Forgot About Dre”
In the pantheon of hip-hop royalty, Dr. Dre stands above the rest for pioneering such a distinct West Coast style. Known for synth-heavy beats and deep bass, Dr. Dre’s G-funk style moved hip-hop into the 90s and brought the West Coast to the forefront of the rap game. With 16 top 10 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 charts, the quantity and quality of Dr. Dre’s production work places him atop this list.