Ten Producers to Keep an Eye on
A quick look back at five producers who had a phenomenal 2015, and a few educated guesses on who’s going to have a phenomenal 2016.
By Charlie Wooley, University of San Diego
Production is perhaps the most misunderstood and overlooked aspect of the musical world.
While studio musicians serve as the focal point of most forms of music, someone has to do the dirty work behind the scenes, mixing and mastering and oftentimes handcrafting elements that add to a song’s atmosphere.
Although production is an art, relying on the same theories that all musicians study, many cast it aside as a lowbrow, simplified version of pure instrumental music.
The rapid improvement of technology has allowed hip-hop and electronic artists to not just draw inspirations from other music but to directly sample it, creating their own unique brand and atmosphere.
To many critics, this direct sampling process is seen as stealing the artistry of another, proving the illegitimacy and laziness of newer musical forms, such as electronica and hip-hop. The reality is that sampling has always been a staple of Western music, tracing its roots back to classical works such as the famous “1812 Overture.”
While modern production techniques utilize computer programs, allowing for more obvious, precise interpolations and modifications, the concept is not unfamiliar in our culture. Artists in many genres, from electronic to hip-hop and even modern pop, use sampling techniques in their own unique fashions.
However, hip-hop in particular suffers criticism for its sampling habit. Ambiguous legal precedents obscure the legitimacy of samples on free mixtapes, confusing those relatively unfamiliar with the genre. Is it immoral or illogical to borrow another’s instrumentation, releasing it in another fashion for free? Is the question more about artistic freedom or monetary compensation?
Despite the unfortunate stigma surrounding hip-hop sampling, there are plenty of modern musicians proving the artistic merits of production. Here are some of the most influential producers of years past, and some predictions about what and who’s going to be trending in 2016.
His dark trap beats dominated the Southern scene, appearing on acclaimed projects such as Future’s DS2, Travis Scott’s Rodeo and Pusha T’s King Push – The Darkest Before Dawn.
Beginning with household names like Zaytoven and Lex Luger, an orchestral flair has prevailed in the south for nearly a decade. It wasn’t until recently, however, that Metro Boomin’ tweaked the formula to include a more brooding, baroque and maximalist sound, which is now dominating mainstream sound.
His influence can be heard in plenty of newcomers, such as Lantz, whose production on Marauding in Paradise proved to be some of the best of the year. Metro Boomin is one of the few modern producers who excels in both quality and quantity.
Since day one, Ellison has been trying to live up to his uncle’s legacy in his own way. The prodigal nephew has been creating his own brand of electronic jazz-fusion since the early 2000s and has slowly gained a reputation in indie music spheres. A 2012 indie hip-hop tape under the moniker “Captain Murphy” gained some public attention, but the mysterious alter ego only increased FlyLo’s obscurity.
In 2014, Ellison’s You’re Dead! launched the producer into moderate mainstream popularity, as he collaborated with big names such as Herbie Hancock, Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar and Thundercat.
Then last year Ellison struck gold, joining Thundercat and George Clinton to add a funk flair to To Pimp A Butterfly, a consensus top 5 album of the year. Additionally, FlyLo reunited with Herbie Hancock and Thundercat for a phenomenal funk EP, The Beyond / Where the Giants Roam.
His versatility in the world of music production is a rare and valuable skill that has resulted in Ellison’s best year yet. As mainstream rappers are revitalizing jazz-fusion influence and vice versa, Ellison’s stock can only rise from here.
He paints an incredible atmosphere for underground MCs, drawing heavy inspiration from the classic jazz era.
L’Orange adds obscure radio samples on top of dizzying vocal jazz loops, which paint eerie pictures of smoke-filled lounges, nefarious gangsters and varying degrees of insanity.
Collaborations with Blu, Jeremiah Jae and even the legendary Kool Keith have influenced the underground community, strengthening the Mello Music Group’s booming reputation.
London on Da Track
I would be remiss if I failed to mention London on Da Track. He’s been producing ever since he began playing piano at age 17. After distributing his beats to fellow Rich Kids crew, London on Da Track finally started gaining a reputation in the Atlanta scene in 2009.
His melodic, piano-centered beats complimented local Atlanta group Rich Gang, who have quickly burst onto the scene thanks to their unique flows and Birdman cosign.
London’s collaborations with Young Thug alone have garnered the attention of critics nationwide, sparking many musical debates. Thugger’s unique, often nonsensical approach to lyricism has resulted in fairly split critical reception but most agree that he’s at least one of the most unique acts in modern hip-hop.
While Young Thug thrives off ambiguity, there’s no better producer to provide him with a consistently catchy atmosphere than London.
Lastly, the most overlooked of the bunch is perhaps Chicago’s OnGuad. While a harder-hitting drill scene has dominated the Chicago scene for the past few years, conscious rappers akin to Common, Lupe Fiasco and early Kanye West have begun to gain some serious attention from critics.
Newcomers such as Mick Jenkins, Saba and NoName Gypsy are known for their crafty lyricism but also benefit from amazing production teams. Serene, mellow and atmospheric beats dominate OnGuad’s catalogue, giving him a perfect union with Jenkins on The Water[s].
While he’s still focused on representing the underground, OnGuad has had an incredible two-year stretch and has potential to revitalize a conscious-approach in Chicago.
Five Producers to Watch
First, comes another up-and-comer from the legendary Stones Throw label—Knxwledge. Utilizing a sample-heavy production technique, Knxwledge comes off as a cross between Flying Lotus and DJ Shadow. In fact, his latest project, Hud Dreems, was perhaps the finest instrumental hip-hop release of 2015.
Hud Dreems clearly takes some inspiration from the past, coming off as a modernized, glitch-hop version of J Dilla’s Donuts, which effortlessly blends samples from soul, electronic and hip-hop origins.
Additionally, Knxwledge has recently branched beyond the underground scene, uniting with more mainstream artists, producing “Momma” for Kendrick Lamar and uniting with Anderson Paak for a quick EP.
Not only has Knxwledge proven his versatility as a producer, he’s been gaining momentum for the past few years. Look for him to have even more of an impact on the mainstream this year.
Socially conscious songs about same-sex marriage and consumerism were just as frequent as easy-going party songs on a fairly catchy release that appealed to a broad audience.
However, not all of the attention has been positive; the critical acclaim for “Thrift Shop” has been matched by an equal amount of criticism. The duo’s calling card of indie-influenced beats and politically correct lyrics struck some as insubstantial or even culturally appropriated. Political issues, paired with Macklemore’s infamous 2012 Grammy text prompted the duo to quickly exit from the spotlight.
Controversy aside, it’s pretty apparent that Ryan Lewis is a phenomenal producer. He samples indie artists such as Arcade Fire, The Killers and Beirut, providing an easy-going, uplifting atmosphere for Macklemore.
As the two plan on releasing This Unruly Mess I Made in 2016, it’s bound to be a great year for Ryan Lewis. While Lewis rarely moves outside his comfort zone, he may find even more success if he produces for some bigger names outside of Macklemore.
Third on our list is yet another member of the Mello Music Group—Apollo Brown. 2011’s Clouds put Brown on the map, showing he could make a hell of an instrumental tape and Thirty Eight proved he wasn’t just a one-hit-wonder.
Both his 2015 releases, Grandeur and Words Paint Pictures were phenomenal underground projects, as he perfectly complimented fellow Mello Music MCs with catchy, soul-driven production.
After collaborating with Oddisee, Evidence, Freddie Gibbs and Sean Price, Brown has proved time and time again that he can provide complimentary production for the most technically proficient of MCs.
The only thing Brown is missing is attention from mainstream critics. Hopefully, he’ll be able to unite with a big name to gain the praise he deserves.
As the new era of minimalist cloud rap gains momentum in the mainstream, there are a few names that have been slowly floating to the surface—Lil Ugly Mane, Nickelus F and Main Attractionz to name a few. Among the most unique however, is Awful Records’ Father.
Since releasing the self-deprecating, yet ridiculously catchy “Wrist” in 2014, he’s really crafted his own unique image. Father sounds like an even more monotone, hedonistic version of Earl Sweatshirt who rides over creepy, off-kilter synthesizers.
At times it’s hard to tell whether Father takes himself seriously, as he sounds mind-numbingly bored while discussing Fake Versace and various sexual escapades. His production is jarringly simplistic, drawing huge inspiration from the throbbing 80s Miami bass movement made famous by 2 Live Crew.
The beauty of Father’s “rough around the edges” style is that it seems purposeful—even when he’s a bit boring, he’s doing so truthfully, making addictive, entertaining beats. In a year so dominated by maximalist production, Father remains brief, direct and straight to the point. While 2015 saw the rise of “baroque trap,” it’s possible that the simplistic, minimalistic of Awful Records could rise back to the top in 2016.
Tremaine Johnson, AKA Tree MC
His Sunday School mixtape series gained Tree a reputation, with his hash, crooning vocals showing a newer, more soulful side of a city. By blending elements of the soulful underground movement and heavy-hitting mainstream trap approach, Tree has unified the city under his original subgenre.
While his bizarre voice on the mic is a breath of fresh air, his best talents lie in production, which is the key to uniting the two subcultures of hip-hop. If Tree hones his talents on production instead of rapping, he could have a breakout 2016.