The Producer Power 20: The Biggest Beatmakers of 2008

One of the best features Scratch Magazine, which I briefly wrote for a couple years ago, had back in its last few months of existence in 2007 was a list in the back page of every issue ranking the top 20 hip hop producers of the moment. So I thought that as a logical extension of my Producer Series posts, I’d do a list like Scratch's for the whole year of 2008, but not just based on some vague sense of skills or buzz; I tried to measure their commercial success as objectively as possible. That involved creating a pretty convoluted tabulation system, in which singles were weighed based on their chart performance (i.e. their peak on the Hot 100), and other tracks were weighted on another scale with lesser value, based on the sales of the albums they appeared on. I won’t bore you with the details, but if anyone wants me to show my math I’d be happy to.

Like the Remix Report Card, the emphasis here is hip hop, but given how inextricably tied up and tangled the rap game is with R&B these days, I went ahead and included it, and unsurprisingly, R&B producers dominate a lot of the list. Even if you wanted to be a purist and cut this down to just the rap, where would you start? Would all of Kanye’s tracks stay, or just the ones without AutoTune? I could’ve gone all out and broadened the criteria to all genres, but I think the only pop/rock producer that keeps up a pace on the level of urban producers enough to rank would’ve been Max Martin. And again, these are all ranked on pure chart performance, but of course I’ll offer some commentary as to the artistic merit of each producer’s work.

I do realize, of course, the irony of making such a list at a time list this. Even's Scratch blog recently declared that the era of the "super" producer needs to end in 2009 and really, I don't disagree. In the past decade or so, producers have become name brands almost as much as rappers themselves, and while the rise of beatmakers with their own identifiable sound, personality and artistic development has been one of the most exciting things for me as a music listener and critic, I can also see the detrimental effect it's had on the industry. Every hit song begets 3 soundalikes, usually from the same producer, and most albums being released are patchwork messes, trying to capture of every sound that's already been hot in the last few months. And while I think it's great that the people who make the actual rhythms and melodies of the songs enjoyed by millions of people are now getting even a fraction of the money and attention the people who write and perform the lyrics have always gotten, the huge pricetags that the biggest producers are now commanding are increasingly absurd, as record sales drop, and a new crop of hungry producers is constantly coming up and making hotter shit for more reasonable fees (until they land a hit, and start asking for 100k a beat, and the cycle begins again). So this is list is as much a critique of that system as it is a celebration of its excesses, because when you see how rich and famous and influential some of these guys are, you have to really go back and listen to their latest tracks, and wonder if they're earning their keep.

1. Stargate
Tor Erik Hermansen and Mikkel S. Eriksen have been dominating R&B radio for three years straight now, but it’s still kind of an amusing shock to see two thirtysomething Norwegian crackers at the top of this list. In a year when Rihanna, Chris Brown and Ne-Yo collectively seemed to own the charts, Stargate was responsible for five top 10 hits from that trio (including a couple ’07 songs, “Don’t Stop The Music” and “With You,” that peaked in ’08). Add in smaller Mariah and Jennifer Hudson hits, and album tracks for Beyonce, Nas and Usher, and they were downright unavoidable. While they weren’t always inspired, Stargate did show a bit more creativity in ’08 than they had in years previous, when they seemed to xerox the sound of “So Sick” or “Irreplaceable” a dozen times each. I can take or leave some songs, like “Take A Bow” or “Bye Bye,” but “Closer” was my favorite single of the year, and “Spotlight,” “Miss Independent” and “Don’t Stop The Music” weren’t far behind. And given the way American producers have been biting Europop the past couple years, it’s appropriate that some actual Europeans got a piece of the action.

2. Tricky Stewart
Much like Stargate's ascent was driven by their creative partnership with Ne-Yo, Christopher “Tricky” Stewart stormed the charts by hitching his wagon to another star singer/songwriter, The-Dream. Of course, Tricky had a pretty great little run of hits earlier in the decade (“Case Of The Ex,” “Who Dat,” “Hit ‘Em Up Style,” etc.), but it wasn’t until “Umbrella” ruled 2007 that he really became a brand name and started churning out hits at a ridiculous clip. I’m not a big fan of his two big #1s of the year (“Single Ladies” is an annoying “Get Me Bodied” redux, and Tricky vastly improved on “Touch My Body” with his 2nd beat for the remix), and LL Cool J and the Gym Class Heroes flopped hard by putting their faith in Tricky and The-Dream for lead singles. But he still delivered some tracks I loved, particularly Jesse McCartney's "Leavin'" and May J.'s "Just Fine" (which came out in '07 but peaked in '08).

3. Kanye West
Kanye stopped really being a producer-for-hire when The College Dropout went platinum almost five years ago. Even after that, though, he usually kept doing a lot of beats here and there for Common and other close friends and collaborators. But since his big production project for '08, The Blueprint 3, got pushed back to ’09, there weren’t a whole lot of Kanye beats in the past year that he didn’t rap (or sing) on himself, plus he did more guest appearances on other people’s beats than ever. 808s & Heartbreak was still huge enough that producing it and its two top 5 singles puts him pretty high on this list, though, along with “Swagga Like Us,” the last couple Graduation singles that peaked in ’08, and a small number of outside productions (including two of the best songs on Tha Carter III and a decent Game song). I’m pretty so-so on his current direction – “Swagga” is clunky as hell, and the production on 808s just isn’t interesting enough to offset the terrible vocals and toxic sentiment, in my opinion. Plus, with the number of co-producers on his best beats lately (Eric Hudson on “Flashing Lights,” Deezle on “Let The Beat Build,” No I.D. on “Heartless”), I’m starting to wonder at what point Kanye will just kind of become a name brand with a revolving team of collaborators doing much of the legwork, a la Dr. Dre.

4. Danja
I was really happy to find Nate “Danja” Hills so high on the list this year, given the fact that throughout his mentor Timbaland’s triumphant comeback of 2006, Hills seemed to be the secret weapon. He was the co-pilot on Loose and FutureSex/LoveSounds, and established himself as a solo producer in ’07 with hits like “We Takin’ Over.” In 2008 he got the best of both worlds, working on Timbo’s biggest hit of the year, “4 Minutes,” and several other tracks on Madonna’s album, while striking out on his own to produce singles for T.I., Pink and Lil Mama, and album tracks for (deep breath) Britney, Usher, Danity Kane, Fat Joe, DJ Khaled, and Day26, among others. He’ll probably never have a totally distinct identity apart from Timbaland, or match his accomplishments, but right now, I do think Danja is the better producer, and it’s fitting that he’s reaping the rewards.

5. Polow Da Don
I’ve been a fan of this guy all through his rise to A-list status. And while it was tempting to get cynical about him in 2008, considering that his biggest hit, “Love In This Club,” was exposed as a GarageBand jack move and his next biggest was a fucking chewing gum ad, he put in good work pretty consistently, from noble failures like the Nelly/Fergie and Ne-Yo/NKOTB collabs to the best Nas single in years. I just hope that “A Milli”-biting new Rich Boy single “Drop” isn’t a harbinger of things to come.

6. Pharrell Williams
There’s no doubt that the Neptunes have had an amazing run, and it’s impossible to ever fully count them out. But in my estimation, their consistency started to drop off a good 6 years ago (I remember buying The Blueprint 2 and expecting four “Give It 2 Me”-level jams, and being shocked at the garbage they came up with). And unlike their most frequent point of comparison, Timbaland, there haven’t been many high peaks since then to balance out the valleys. In recent years, they've kind of dismantled the Neptunes brand and worked together and apart on and off; in '08 Pharrell did a lot of stuff without Chad Hugo, while Chad only went solo to waste his talents on the Ashlee SImpson album. And Skateboard P remained a ubiquitous force in ’08, muscling his way onto this list mainly by virtue of the N.E.R.D. album and the many non-singles on the Common and Madonna albums (each was responsible for one of his two piddling Hot 100 entries in ’08). And, even more shockingly, he made a song I actually liked, on the John Legend album, although other people really liked that Solange single too.

7. Timbaland
As I mentioned previously, Timbaland and Danja Handz mostly worked separately in ’08, and to my surprise Timbo didn’t fare nearly as well on his own. Not that he was actually “on his own”: most of his latest tracks were just with a different set of protégés known as The Royal Court. Not that I begrudge guys like Tim or Kanye for relying on the helper of younger talent to help make hits, after they spent years and years proving they could do it themselves, but there’s something kinda depressing about it all the same. And unfortunately, carrying on from his Furtado/Timberlake hits, Tim went all the way pop in ’08, but every album he contributed multiple tracks to sold well below expectations, including Madonna, the Pussycat Dolls and Ashlee Simpson. Meanwhile, the hits he did have all seemed to be follow-ups to much bigger songs (Flo Rida’s “Elevator,” Rihanna’s “Rehab,” etc.).

8. T-Pain
I’ve been banging the drum lately that T-Pain’s hook-singing skills are distracting everyone from just how good and versatile a producer he is. A lot of his biggest hits lately, though, have been produced by other people (“Low,” “Got Money,” “The Boss,” etc.), leaving mainly Thr33 Ringz and its various singles, and Lil Mama’s “Shawty Get Loose,” to speak for his success as a beatmaker in '08.

9. Akon
I was surprised to see Akon right behind and almost tied with T-Pain on this list, since I’d gotten the impression that Akon had long since been outshined by his labelmate. But he kept up, largely on the strength of producing his own solo hits, and Lada Gaga’s awful “Just Dance,” which I avoided so actively all year that I never even realized until recently that it hit #2 on the charts.

10. Drumma Boy
Cocaine Blunts already proclaimed Memphis’s Christopher “Drumma Boy” Gholson the producer of the year, and I agree enough that I wish he had placed a bit higher on this list (although if you removed all the R&B and made it a straight rap list, he probably would rise very near the top). He was the common denominator between virtually every major Southern rap album in ’08 besides Wayne (T.I., Jeezy, Rick Ross, Plies, Soulja Boy, Ace Hood), produced a couple of my favorite singles (“Put On” and "What's Up, What's Haapnin"), and I kinda respect his beats even when I dislike the song (“Umma Do Me,” “Here I Am,” etc.). I thought he was a pretty generic producer for a while, and was annoyed that his big trademark (that ascending “WHEEEEEEE” synth whine) was already Just Blaze’s signature first, but the subtle variety within his body of work is increasingly impressive, while others in the same lane, like say, DJ Toomp, is just getting more predictable with every song.

11. J.R. Rotem
J.R. Rotem started blowing up pop radio a couple years ago by throwing Carribean teenagers on samples of megahits of yesteryear (Rihanna on “Tainted Love,” Sean Kingston over “Stand By Me” and “Red Red Wine”), and I thought maybe his whole steez would just be jacking big obvious pop samples over and over. But he turned out to be a pretty solid Southern rap producer with Rick Ross’s “The Boss” and Bun B’s “That’s Gangsta,” and able to turn out a big pop hit without sampling on Leona Lewis’s “Better In Time.” The proof of his ability, though, is that “Bust It Baby Pt. 2” was just one of those songs I wanted to hate so much, but the beat was undeniable.

12. Cool & Dre
A few couple years ago, when they were making “Hate It Or Love It” and “Holla At Me,” I definitely would’ve called Cool & Dre one of the best newish production teams in the business. But sometime around 2007, Dre started singing horrible hooks on most of their tracks, and the only difference in ‘08 is that he sang less and the tracks still sucked, so now they’re definitely the worst dudes on this list. This year their crimes included the Busta Rhymes/Linkin Park monstrosity, a bunch of Game and Gym Class Heroes bullshit, the worst beats on the Lil Wayne and Scarface albums, and putting Nas on a track with Chris Brown. I liked the one track they did on the DJ Khaled album, at least.

13. Rodney Jerkins
Jerkins is kind of the ultimate R&B journeyman, with over a decade’s worth of megahits on par with Timbaland, but he’ll never be as admired and recognized as Tim, simply because he’s neither as eccentric nor as chameleonic...or, well, good. The last few years, he’s kind of settled into this groove of producing lead singles for big artists that are just good enough to be hits, but not really especially liked by anyone as far as I can tell. For a while he was dragging down every Destiny’s Child/Beyonce project, but in ‘08 he kept the charts in dullsville with Janet Jackson’s “Feedback” and Ludacris’s “What Them Girls Like.”

14. Jim Jonsin
Jim Jonsin skated onto this list with two of the biggest hits of the year, Lil Wayne’s “Lollipop” and T.I. “Whatever You Like,” but he didn’t do much of anything else of note to get higher up. I'm sure there are a ton of album budgets with his name on them in '09, though.

15. Bangladesh
Like Jonsin, Shondrae “Bangladesh” Crawford got here almost purely on the strength of a massive Lil Wayne hit, “A Milli,” and gets extra credit for it being by far the most freestyled-on beat of the year. But he didn’t do much else besides bite his own shit a couple times for Beyonce, and make some completely unmemorable Busta Rhymes and Dem Franchize Boyz singles. And given the fact that Shondrae has a long history of way way way better beats than “A Milli,” I hope he takes advantage of the spotlight while he’s got it to show some more range soon.

16. Ron Browz
6 months ago, Ron Browz was a respectable mid-level NYC producer with a couple of genuine classics under his belt, and a steady clientele of C-list rappers like Jae Millz and Joe Budden. Then he bought an AutoTune plugin, created the abortion that is “Pop Champagne,” and became some kind of acceptable placebo for east coast MCs who want to make awful club jams but still think they’re too ‘street’ for T-Pain, bumping him up to a steady clientele of B-list rappers like Jim Jones, Busta Rhymes, Fat Joe and N.O.R.E. You might’ve thought this shit was cute for a few minutes, but this dude looks pretty determined to make you completely sick of him in 2009. He's partly on this list because he released a pretty good pre-AutoTune indie album, The Wonder Years, over the summer, though.

17. Swizz Beatz
The second coming of Swizzy had pretty strong momentum, and he seemed to get more ubiquitous every year from ‘04 to ‘07. Last year he finally seemed to fall back a little, and the closest thing to a major hit that he had, “Swing Ya Rag,” got a raw deal from all the bigger T.I. singles and Gucci and LV squashing the video. He did have a pretty enjoyable run of sample-based remixes for Mary J. Blige, Leeshakeez and Maroon 5, but his actual album work for Luda, Fat Joe and G-Unit was generally pretty uninspired. And weirdly he was at his best when not sounding like himself at all, on Wayne’s “Dr. Carter” and Mariah’s “I Stay In Love.”

18. Jermaine Dupri
Back in ‘04 and ‘05, Jermaine was largely responsible for a ridiculous number of chart-topping singles and the biggest-selling albums of each year, with Usher and Mariah respectively. So it’s kind of odd that when both came back with new albums in ‘08, they buried J.D.’s contributions in the deep cuts, and even his boo Janet barely worked with him on her latest flop, and only has-beens like Nelly and Ashanti went to him for singles.

19. No I.D.
No I.D. is another favorite of mine that I’m really happy to see place here at all. Right now most of his major work is as a co-producer to bigger names (with Kanye on “Heartless,” with J.D. on the Usher/Jay-Z song, and with Polow on “Turnin’ Me On”), but he also recently notched a pretty big hit with a solo production on “Put It On Ya” by Plies, and I’m hoping he keeps inching towards being a big name producer in his own right.

20. Soulja Boy Tell ‘Em
All through 2008, 2007’s biggest supposed one-hit-wonder kept showing up on the radio with self-produced hits like “Donk” and “Yahhh!” and making beats for V.I.C.’s “Get Silly” and Bow Wow’s “Marco Polo.” Now that his 2nd album has flopped everybody's writing obituaries for his career, but as long as this dumb kid can find even dumber kids to sell his (admittedly kind of weirdly awesome) beats to, he should be able to keep annoying us for years to come.

Missing In Action:
Of all the producers I thought would surely be running when I started working on this list, I was most surprised to see that The Runners didn’t make the cut once I added all the numbers up, so I guess they weren't as integral to the Miami rap explosion as I thought. Ryan Leslie was one of R&B’s most exciting producers in 2008, with his solo singles and tracks for Slim and Cassie, but it didn’t quite add up to a big chart impact. Just Blaze had one of the biggest songs of the year with T.I.’s “Live Your Life,” but that Saigon album spent another year on the shelf and he didn’t release much of anything else. The-Dream’s other go-to producer, Los Da Mystro, is still in Tricky Stewart’s shadow, even if I think he’s doing more exciting work right now. DJ Toomp has had all eyes on him since “What You Know” and the Kanye co-sign, but hasn’t done much to justify the attention lately. I’m sure Dr. Dre made a lot of beats in ‘08, he just didn’t release any of them. Lil Jon doesn’t have TVT to blame anymore, but he’s still not making a comeback anytime soon. And then there are guys like The Alchemist, Nottz, and Don Cannon, who put in great work on major label rap albums this year, but didn’t make any real noise on the radio tip, and tons more underground/indie producers who will never make this kind of numbers-driven list, but are dope just the same.
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