There’s an amazing story that DJ Premier relates near the beginning of this excellent hour + interview with Chairman Mao. Although he’s now synonymous with New York hip-hop, the legendary hip-hop producer and DJ was born and raised in Texas. His grandfather, however, was a BK resident, and Premier would frequently visit him as a child. On his first trip to New York in the fifth grade, Premier was on a subway car that ran over a man who had jumped onto the tracks. The train backed up, and a young Premier peered out the subway window and watched as the man’s disembodied arm wriggled on the tracks. According to an excited Premier, this had been a suicide attempt. “Wow, this is where I want to live,” DJ Premier remembers thinking.To a certain extent, this is just a typical NYC origin story -- the sort of semi-mythological shit you say to sound like a comic book bad-ass. But it also embodies a lot of the qualities of DJ Premier’s music --gruesome, grimey, traumatic, and incredibly vivid. Hip-hop is clearly bigger than one person, city, or era, and any attempts to claim ownership are misplaced -- to say the least -- but few figures seem to embody the music and the culture better than Premier. It’s not that he invented it -- he was nowhere near its mid-70s birth -- but he created a style and sound that was uniquely and singularly hip-hop. Bleary, spiraling samples wrapped around and onto drums that were harder than nails -- pounding, body-rocking combinations of the snare and bass drums known by its onomatopoeia, “boom bap” -- and paired with rough-hewn, Mt. Olympus raps from a rotating pantheon of legendary emcees (Jay-Z, Nas, Rakim, and, of course, Guru). But more than being a singular touchpoint for ‘90s hip-hop, Premier was arguably the most important sample-based musician, ever; his vision of hip-hop pastiche was unlike anything before it, and, due to market forces, it’s doubtful anyone will return to such a nuanced, intricate manner of sampling music, in hip-hop or elsewhere.Like a lot of early hip-hop innovations, the quintessential DJ Premier sound was born partially of necessity. It took a while for Premier to hone his godlike sound, though the journey there is almost as compelling as the destination. Listen to the early albums with Gang Starr, his flagship group with the Boston emcee Guru, and the sound is looser, jazzier. The instrumental “DJ Premier in Deep Concentration” from the 1989 album No More Mr. Nice Guy serves as an initial calling card of sorts for the young producer. The track is anchored by a liberal sample Kool and the Gang’s “Summer Madness” that achieves the neat trick of gliding off the track with soaring, croaking synth line, while also feeling diffuse and guazy -- it’s a multi-textured sonic illusion that be-bop musicians were particularly skilled at pulling off. There are no rapped vocals in “DJ Premier in Deep Concentration,” but Premier weaves in a variety of samples and callouts to various producer (“Prince Paul!”), so that the track both has vocal presence and texture and even a narrative focus. All of the components of his later masterworks are there: the sample-based pastiche, the self-referential callouts, the swagger, the soul.Around 1992, Premier begin to switch up his style. Like a lot of early hip-hop innovations, this evolution was born of necessity. In 1991, Biz Markie was sued for his use of Gilbert OSullivans 1972 hit, "Alone Again (Naturally)." Judge Kevin Duffy’s ruling against Markie not only cost the rapper $250,000, but also meant that hip-hop producers had to be much more careful and either clear their samples before use or cut them up to the point that they were unrecognizable. Premier largely, though not exclusively, decided for the latter course of action. He recognized that it was not just the rhythms or melodies that drew him to classic soul, jazz, and funk, but the textures and sound of the music, so he would cut his drums into millisecond intervals and overlay them on one another, combining them with a cache of synth and piano samples that seemed to emphasize their pure otherworldliness. For Gang Starr, this made sense. They had largely been marketed as a jazzy, college hip-hop, but that didn’t feel entirely true to either Guru’s personality or DJ Premier’s artist ambitions. They were nostalgist, to a degree, but their milieu was more modern and urban. The music they made on 1992’s Daily Operation and 1994’s Hard to Earn reflected this grimier reality. The dizzying organ sample laid of “Soliloquy of Chaos,” the chaotic swirl of “Brainstorm,” or the urgent, corporal drum breaks of “Code of the Streets” signal Brooklyn. It’s broken crack vials and loosey butts, summer nutcrackers and skelly sketches. Rarely has a music so embodied such a particular time and space.This would be the template for all of Premier’s best known productions, from Nas’ hip-hop totum “NY State of Mind” to Biggie’s dizzy disorienting “Unbelievable.” Though the sound undeniably strange and novel, it’s also immediate and visceral, which allowed it to ascend the charts in the mid to late-90s. It’s hard to believe, but, at one point, Premier was among hip-hop’s most on-demand commercial producers. The specificity of his music meant that designation wouldn’t last. Beginning in the late 90s, Southern hip-hop would loosen the genre’s focus -- bringing back the more overt homages to funk and soul -- and the music would move back onto the dancefloor. And New York hip-hop would adopt the more polished nihilism of G-Unit and Dip Set, before later seeming to abandon any notion that there was a unified, tri-state sound. But, for a minute, thanks to Premier, the music was pure, aberrant, and purely hip-hop.
They reimagined not only how the genre sounded, but how it felt. They changed the rhythm, and, by embracing compositional pastiche and kitschy psychedelic, they crafted music that was deeply cerebral and personal. And while they both heavily sampled jazz and soul — the dominant source for the boom bap era producers who served as their shared stylistic avatars — their palette was more expansive and worldly, privileging obscurity over nostalgia, grainy textures over raw masculine presence.You can hear echoes of their work in some of today’s most critically lauded and commercially successful music, from the space jazz symphonies of Flying Lotus to the pan-African milieu of Kendrick Lamar, the refactored soul of Frank Ocean or the jittery, jump-cut flow of Kanye’s Life of Pablo. For this playlist, we’ve collected their best.
Like his longtime associate DJ Drama, producer Donald Earl Cannon hails from Philadelphia but made his mark on hip-hop after relocating to Atlanta, where his brassy, sample-driven productions stood out on hit albums by Jeezy, 2 Chainz and Ludacris. But he’s also shown love for his hometown, working with Philly artists like Freeway and Lil Uzi Vert, whose breakout hit “Money Long” was co-produced by Cannon with Maaly Raw. As the in-house producer of Drama’s Gangsta Grillz series of mixtapes and albums, Cannon’s bombastic tracks have been blessed by hall of famers like Lil Wayne, Jadakiss, and even Outkast, who collaborated with him on “The Art of Storytellin’ Part 4.”
Although he’s released four acclaimed solo albums, Raphael Saadiq has made his greatest impact on popular music as a member of groups and as a producer and songwriter for major artists. After touring as a bassist in Prince’s band in the late ‘80s, Saadiq led the ‘90s groups Tony! Toni! Tone! and Lucy Pearl, and began a fruitful production career. As something of an elder statesmen of the neo soul movement, he co-wrote D’Angelo’s two biggest singles, as well as hits for Erykah Badu and Bilal, and produced Solange’s chart-topping third album A Seat At The Table. And as a songwriter and guest vocalist, he’s collaborated with multiple generations of hip-hop artists, from The Roots to Rick Ross.
Click here to subscribe to the Spotify playlist.It’s difficult to name another hip-hop musician who has stayed relevant as long as Q-Tip. He launched his career in 1988 with a verse on the Jungle Brothers’ “Black is Black.” But it’s his underrated talents as a producer, not as a rapper, that holds the key to his continued relevance. Alongside DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad, he produced most of the beats for the group’s first three albums, including classics like “Bonita Applebum” and “Electric Relaxation.” He devised several tracks for Mobb Deep’s The Infamous, worked with Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey, and briefly served as part of Kanye West’s GOOD Music team, resulting in numerous contributions to Kanye and Jay Z’s Watch the Throne. This year, he has continued to land production credits on major albums like Solange’s A Seat at the Table. However, the recent surprise release of A Tribe Called Quest’s We Got It From Here…Thank You for Your Service is a reminder that Q-Tip is best known as one of the greatest ensembles in the genre’s history.
Click here to add to Spotify playlist!Ohio musician Jay Joyce played with bands like In Pursuit and Iodine in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but in the 21st century, he’s reached enormous success as a producer and songwriter for country music. Having recorded all five of Eric Church’s studio albums, Joyce has cultivated a sound that’s both polished and homemade, with warm acoustic textures and a reverb-soaked ambience that recalls the work of Daniel Lanois. Church’s hits have ranged from the poignant, piano-driven “Springsteen” and the thunderous power ballad “Give Me Back My Hometown” to the raging celebration of “Drink In My Hand,” and the combination of Church’s ambitious songwriting and Joyce’s lively production has yielded a string of platinum plaques.After his success with Church, Jay Joyce was in high demand in Nashville, producing chart-topping singles for Carrie Underwood and Zac Brown Band. He’s put his stamp on everything from the soulful groove of Thomas Rhett’s “Make Me Wanna” to the doo-wop balladry of Little Big Town’s crossover hit “Girl Crush.” In 2011, he produced one of country legend Emmylou Harris’ most successful albums, Hard Bargain, and in 2015, Joyce was nominated for Producer of the Year, Non-Classical, at the GRAMMYⓇs—the only country producer to appear in the category in recent years.But Joyce’s rock roots and skill at capturing a live-band feel have also brought a wide range of clientele from outside of country music. Early in his career, he produced a solo album by Crowded House frontman Tim Finn, and he produced Kentucky alt-rock band Cage the Elephant’s platinum 2009 self-titled debut, as well as albums for garage punk band FIDLAR, and hard rock revivalists Halestorm. This playlist lets you appreciate the sheer breadth of his work.
Though he may not have been present at the birth of Detroit techno, Carl Craig exerts a huge influence on that scene. He was the founder of seminal label Planet E Communications, was the co-creator of the Detroit Music Festival and is responsible for some of the most eclectic and well-known tracks from that scene. Hes also a very eclectic remixers, as this playlist from Jess Harvell at Beats demonstrates. From Throbbing Gristle to Junior Boys, the picks have a random quality to them, but Craigs signature oddball soul provides a common thread.
Prince may have owned the 80s, but his former collaborators Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis owned R&B in the 80s (and early 90s). They first rose to prominence as members of The Time, but theyre probably best known as the go-to producers for Janet Jackson. Though, really, diminishing their contributions to one band or one singer does them a disservice. Check out Soulbounces succinct retrospective of their best hits.
The editors at Hip-Hop DX honored the legendary producer by compiling some of his greatest beats. Theyre all essential, and theres a few surprising picks, like A Tribe Called Quests "(Weve Got) Jazz," which Pete claims Q-Tip copied from him, and the Notorious B.I.G.s "Juicy (Remix)," which also involves claims of behind-the-scenes nonsense. The list sticks to the Chocolate Boy Wonders 90s heyday, but his latest work is also worth a listen. -- Mosi Reeves
Apple’s generally excellent write-up of this playlist notes that Metro’s production are “surreal, vaguely dystopian soundscapes” that sound a “thousand years ahead of his time.” It’s a good description of the sound, but his soupy, sludgy sounds always struck me as more retro-futuristic, a regression towards a vision of a sinister pre-millennial tension rather than the glittering, bleached oppression that currently dominates our assumptions about what lies in front of us. Regardless, few producer/singer teams have been as successful at developing an instantly recognizable (and wildly successful) aesthetic as Future and Metro Boomin, and this playlist collects the best of them. This is pretty essential for understanding where hip-hop music was in the mid-’10s.
The ’90s have never sounded better than they do right now—especially for modern-day indie rockers. There’s no shortage of bands banging around these days whose sound suggests formative phases spent soaking up vintage ’90s indie rock. Not that the neo-’90s sound is itself a new thing. As soon as the era was far enough away in the rearview mirror to allow for nostalgia to set in (i.e., the second half of the 2000s), there were already some young artists out there onboarding ’90s alt-rock influences. But more recently, there’s been a bumper crop of bands that betray a soft spot for a time when MTV still played music videos and streaming was just something that happened in a restroom. In this context, the literate, lo-fi approach of Pavement has emerged as a particularly strong strand of the ’90s indie tapestry, and it isn’t hard to hear echoes of their sound in the work of more recent arrivals like Kiwi jr. or Teenage Cool Kids. Cherry Glazerr frontwoman Clementine Creevy seems to have a feeling for the kind of big, dirty guitar riffs that made Pacific Northwestern bands the kings of the alt-rock heap once upon a time. The world-weary, wise-guy angularity of Car Seat Headrest can bring to mind the lurching, loose-limbed attack of Railroad Jerk. And laconic, storytelling types like Nap Eyes stand to prove that there’s still a bright future ahead for those who mourn the passing of Silver Jews main man David Berman. But perhaps the best thing about a face-off between the modern indie bands evoking ’90s forebears and the old-school artists themselves is the fact that in this kind of competition, everybody wins.
It may be that 2019 was the best year for ’90s metal since, well, 1999. Bands from the decade of Judgment Night re-emerged with new creative twists and tweaks: Tool stretched out into polyrhythmic madness, Korn bludgeoned with more extreme and raw despair, Slipknot added a new drummer (Max Weinberg’s kid!) who gave them a new groove, and Rammstein wrote an anti-fascism anthem that caused controversy in Germany (and hit No. 1 there too). Elsewhere, icons of the era returned in unique ways: Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor scored a superhero TV series, Primus’ Les Claypool teamed up with Sean Lennon for some quirky psych rock, and Faith No More’s Mike Patton made an avant-decadent LP with ’70s soundtrack king Jean-Claude Vannier. Finally, the soaring voice of Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington returned for a moment thanks to Lamb of God guitarist Mark Morton, who released a song they recorded together in 2017.
Taking a look at the playlists for my show on Boston’s WZBC might give the more seasoned college-radio listener a bit of déjà vu: They’re filled with bands like Versus, Team Dresch, and Sleater-Kinney, who were at the top of the CMJ charts back in the ’90s. But the records they released in 2019 turned out to be some of the year’s best rock. Versus, whose Ex Nihilo EP and Ex Voto full-length were part of a creative run for leader Richard Baluyut that also included a tour by his pre-Versus outfit Flower and his 2000s band +/-, put out a lot of beautifully thrashy rock; Team Dresch returned with all cylinders blazing and singers Jody Bleyle and Kaia Wilson wailing their hearts out on “Your Hands My Pockets”; and Sleater-Kinney confronted middle age head-on with their examination of finding one’s footing, The Center Won’t Hold.Italian guitar heroes Uzeda—who have been putting out proggy, riff-heavy music for three-plus decades—released their first record in 13 years, the blistering Quocumque jerceris stabit; Imperial Teen, led by Faith No More multi-instrumentalist Roddy Bottum, kept the weird hooks coming with Now We Are Timeless; and high-concept Californians That Dog capped off a year of reissues with Old LP, their first album since 1997. Juliana Hatfield continued the creative tear she’s been on this decade with two albums: Weird, a collection of hooky, twisty songs that tackle alienation with searing wit, and Juliana Hatfield Sings the Police, her tribute record to the dubby New Wave chart heroes (in the spirit of the salute to Olivia Newton-John she released in 2018). And our playlist finishes with Mary Timony, formerly of the gnarled rockers Helium and currently part of the power trio Ex Hex, paying tribute to her former Autoclave bandmate Christina Billotte via an Ex Hex take on “What Kind of Monster Are You?,” one of the signature songs by Billotte’s ’90s triple threat Slant 6.