Filed under: Features,Feedback,Not Your Average,The Unkut Opinion
Written by: Robbie Ettelson
Some things are hard to define. What exactly is the role of the ‘Executive Producer’ on an album? Is it the guy who paid for the record to be made? The dude who decided which beats to use and which guests to invite? Or the character who sat up the back and simply nodded his head in approval as each song was completed? Truth be told, it can be any of those things and more. Same thing applies to the credit of ‘Producer’ on a rap record. While songs recorded in a studio by a band would have somebody sitting at the mixing desk, yelling out, ‘Cut!’ or ‘Can you redo that guitar solo?’, hip-hop and dance music is a different beast altogether. While you might think that’s it’s simply a case whoever made the beat, it isn’t that simple a lot of the time.
Following the ‘house band’ sound of early Sugarhill and Enjoy singles in the early 80’s, drum machines and turntables became the dominant sound of rap records. You might assume that whoever programmed the beat would be the credited producer, but old habits die hard, so many independent records from the period continued to credit whoever paid for studio time or owned the label as the ‘producer’. That’s not to say that the hard work of beat makers always went unrecognized, however. If you check the labels of many of your favorite 80’s hip-hop singles, you’ll usually notice an ‘Engineering’ credit being given to people like Ivan ‘Doc’ Rodriguez (DJ Doc) and Paul C. McKasty (Paul C.). Turns out that that once sampling became commonplace, a lot of groups would turn up to a session with a couple of records James Brown records they liked and tell the engineer to make them a beat. Since samplers were still primitive and expensive, this often involved cut and pasting reel-to-reel tapes and technical studio wizardry to get the end result.
But what about the case of Juice Crew? Over the years, almost every member of rap’s greatest collective have made a point of mentioning that they didn’t get the credit they deserved on the music they released with Marley Marl. Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie, Kool G Rap and Masta Ace have all let it be known that they played a big part in the sounds of their debut albums, even though the credits may not reflect this. Kane explains:
“I would bring beats to the studio and basically tell Marley what part of the beat I wanted sampled, like ‘I wanna sample this part right here’ or ‘Can you make this part the first half and that part right there the second half?’, or ‘Make the 808 hit here’. Marley Marl was more or less acting as the engineer. But tracks like ‘Lean On Me’, ‘Young, Gifted and Black’ and ‘I’ll Take You There’ – those are tracks that Marley just did on his own. I had no input on those three.”
Ace mentioned a similar situation:
“In most cases with Marley, I would bring a sample from my mother’s record collection. I didn’t know how to produce as far as working the equipment – I knew kinda what I wanted it to sound like – but he knew how to work the equipment. So I would bring him a record, he’d listen to it – ‘Yo, this is hot’ – he would sample it, chop it up, add drums and all that stuff, then I would spit the rhymes. It was pretty much that way across the board with most of the artists on Cold Chillin’. Everybody contributed musically. I was the first artist on Cold Chillin’ to actually get co-production credit. Because all the projects that came out with Marley’s name on ‘em, pretty much they were co-produced by the artist, but at that time they weren’t gettin’ the credit for it. That’s why a lot of ‘em were mad at him – like Biz and other people. They felt like he was getting too much of the credit, when they were contributing a lot.”
So it seems that Ace was happy to be credited as a ‘co-producer’, since he was sourcing samples but couldn’t program. Diamond D championed this system too, as his amazing Stunts, Blunts & Hip-Hop credits co-producers on several tracks. I didn’t understand what this meant at the time – since he obviously was more than capable of making his own beats – but he would later explain that those credited (including Q-Tip, Lakim Shabazz, Large Professor and 45 King) had simply supplied the records for him to loop. Which brings me to my next point – how important is the programmer/engineer? Staying with the example of the Juice Crew alumni, the engineer is incredibly significant. When Marley has been quizzed on the subject in the past, he’s made an undeniable point – if these guys made those albums on their own, then how come the stuff that they recorded without Marley doesn’t sound anywhere near as good? While there are a couple of exceptions, he does make a good point. Compare A Taste of Chocolate to Long Live The Kane, or I Need A Haircut to Goin’ Off. Marley Marl and his patented ‘project sound’ are unmistakable and can’t be replicated by anybody else, even if you were to use the same records.
It’s not all as straight-forward, though. What of the case of ghost producers and under-studies? K-Def, Joe Fatal and J-Force have all told of beats they’ve created that were credited to Marley Marl when they were released. K-Def isn’t too concerned though:
“It’s kinda like paying dues. I felt like as many songs as I did come out at that time, I had like sixty-something songs with Marley, so I could deal with maybe three or four getting a little screwed-up.”
Once you’re on the level of Dr. Dre, you can justify having other people sharing the work-load by explaining that they simply play keyboards and bass under your direction, and beyond that there’s the previously-discussed ‘hands off’ technique of Rick Rubin, who acts in an advisory capacity without even touching a mixing console. Are these two less deserving of the title of ‘producer’ than the kid slaving away over his MPC all night, trying to chop his sample just right? Or is the guy tuning his snares for hours and selling tracks to rappers on Myspace simply a ‘beat-maker’? Or should the title of ‘producer’ be reserved for those who see a project through from beginning to end, including being involved in recording the vocals and even helping with developing the hooks and song structure?
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