n the grand narrative of film, the director has risen to prominence as the genius auteur behind the scenes, constructing the finished product from the raw material given to him by the actors and cameramen. The same goes for music. The producer has taken on nearly the same role in the shaping of the final product.
In the first edition of this special two-part edition, Stylus takes a look at some of the most influential producers of all time. What do they all have in common? They each have an unerring motivation within them to challenge the artists that they are working with. Their methods vary widely from neurotically hands-on to an equally as persistent desire to say away from the artist’s with which they are working, but in the end they’ve helped make some of the greatest music ever recorded.
Without further ado: Part One of Stylus Magazine’s Non-Definitive Guide to the Producers…
John Leckie’s influence on British guitar pop over the last four decades cannot be underestimated. His career started as a tape op at Abbey Road studios, where he worked on the only good post-Beatles album by any of the Fab Four, George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, and that Dark Side Of The Moon thing by Syd Barrett’s mates. In 1976 he became a producer in his own right, and soon built a name working with the likes of Magazine, XTC and Public Image Limited before producing records for Felt and Simple Minds in the 80s. What Leckie does best is facilitate dreams, and his work between 1988 and 1995 with three of the most important bands of recent memory demonstrated that remarkably. First he transformed The Stone Roses from marginal post-punk demi-goths to striding, shimmering pop princes, replacing the murky, Martin Hannett produced sound of their demos with a hazy pop sheen that both echoed the 60s and sounded completely of its own time. Then he turned (pre ‘The’) Verve from an aimless but ambitious jam band into psychedelic messiahs, before taking Radiohead from the grunge wannabe of “Creep” to The Bends, where they suddenly sounded both massive and intimate, organic and technological. Without Leckie’s early help it’s doubtful they would have found the confidence and ambition to get to where they are now. Plus Ian Brown claimed that one of the reasons The Stone Roses worked with Leckie was because he “looked like a wizard”.
The Stone Roses – “Fools Gold 9.53”
The retro accusations were more apt than the baggy ones on The Stone Roses, which was essentially just a very accomplished record of classic pop songs, and not the Madchester epic everyone seems to think it is. But on the follow-up single Leckie and the Roses went somewhere else indeed— “Fools Gold”, especially in the extended version, still sounds like it was beamed in from outer space. Not quite Pop, not quite Acid House, not quite Krautrock, it’s likely that without Leckie’s influence The Stone Roses would ever have moved fully beyond their Goth beginnings, let alone ever producing anything quite like this. And, perhaps most amazing of all, he made Ian Brown sound as if he could sing.
Radiohead – “High & Dry”
You can practically hear the dust rise off Phil Selway’s kick drum as this starts quietly, before unfurling and surging into the template for every sensitive, ambitious group of young men with guitars to follow over the next 9 years. To go from the lurching bombast of “Creep” to the simple and luscious sound of this required Leckie’s ear for smooth dynamics and space; every instrument falls into place perfectly and rings out with absolute clarity. When you know you can do the simple things perfectly, then you can feel free to move onto the more complicated stuff. That was Leckie’s gift to Radiohead.
Pete Rock began his career in music as a DJ on New York radio with Marley Marl, but it was his production that would cement his importance to hip-hop. Along with good friends and fellow producers Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest and Large Professor of Main Source, Pete Rock would push sampling from what was developing into an irksome trend—looping up the same James Brown drum breaks over and over—into an entirely new frontier. Thanks to the availability of the SP-1200, these three producers (who were only in their late teens and early 20s at the time) worked tirelessly to broaden the producer’s musical palette. They dug for more obscure records in order to exploit a larger pool of sampling sources. They also manipulated those samples to a great degree by panning, chopping and filtering. Most importantly, they used these groundbreaking techniques in order to create amazing music, the likes of which had never been heard before. Rock was the undisputed technical master of the sampler, but it was his ear for samples that makes him the king of early 90s sample-based hip-hop. Funky echoing horns, soulful filtered Motown bass lines, ringing, layered piano selections—this is the sound of Pete Rock. CL Smooth was the perfect match for his production—a suave MC with a serious romantic streak. However, Pete Rock’s work goes well beyond their collaborations as seen on 1998’s Soul Survivor solo debut. From the anthemic horns of “Good Life,” to the captivating ode to travel “All the Places,” Pete Rock is one of the most consistent producers of the period, so much so that his sound nearly defines east coast early 90s hip-hop production.
Pete Rock and CL Smooth - All Souled Out EP
The EP that introduced them to the world features a celebration of good times worthy of Chic, “Good Life,” as well as the impressive and moving sampling of “Mecca and the Soul Brother.”
Pete Rock and CL Smooth - Mecca and the Soul Brother
Imperative listening, if not for the classic “T.R.O.Y.”, then for CL’s lover-man track “Lots of Lovin’” and horn-driven funk of “Straighten It Out”.
Pete Rock and CL Smooth - “Lots of Lovin’ (Remix)
This Wurlitzer sample, also used by Large Professor on Akinyele’s “I Luh Her,” is one of the most touching ever put to wax, and Pete Rock knows how to rock it. Not available on CD in the United States, but worth seeking.
More a thinker and musical/cultural theorist than a technical tinkerer, Brian Eno has been rescuing artists from stagnation and artistic redundancy by nurturing and cultivating their often discarded leftfield ideas. “Why?”, “Why not?” and “Try…” seem to be his production buzzwords. His goals, unlike many other producers are to look into all the possible permutations of an idea and, above all, to shift the musical perspective of those with which he works. His most famous production idea, the Oblique strategies concept (when at a musical impasse draw a card from a deck of random messages and follow its advice i.e. “Honour thy mistake as Intent” or “Play it in an orange style”), is in practice a silly idea born of a brilliant concept.
Eno is seldom happy with merely tidying up a mix or choosing the best solo from several hundred gigs worth of digital files, he feels the need to involve himself directly in the sounds, the feel and the motives of the music. That latter point is what separates him from your typical experimenter; he likes to create work that is both emotionally powerful and involving whilst moving away from the typical structures and sounds of pop and rock. Both U2 and James, for instance, came to him with an agenda, allowing Eno to help them take the great leap of tweaking loose the shackles of a successful musical past (“We have run into reverse, we need Eno”). It is in his innovative use of electronics as textures that he will be most remembered for, however. In Eno’s use, the electronics were shifted to be used not merely for its sonic properties, but also for their emotional characteristics.
U2 - Achtung Baby
In retrospect it wasn’t the incredible change in sound and direction that it seemed to be at the time—U2 reinventing themselves in order to open up the musical playing field beyond the staples of stadium rock. A mid-evolutionary record (like the record Radiohead might’ve done between OK Computer and Kid A had they cared about easing the fans in), it plays with characters, lyrics, FX and a transformed attitude to rhythms. Eno admits that he only had “a tangential involvement” in its making but his fingerprints are all over it. Popping in for a week at a time over the year in which it was made, he got to come and go simply suggesting, critiquing, enthusing and reminding whilst Daniel Lanois and Flood did the day to day knob twiddling.
David Bowie - Low
Ostensibly a Tony Visconti production you only have to slip on the headphones to realise that Eno directs and shapes the whole album. For a record that could have as easily (and probably more aptly) been titled Broken, it flawlessly fused the avant-garde and pop, making it without parallel until Loveless dropped. The twin spectres of Kraftwerk and Eno’s solo work invest Low with a heart (one replete with motor and emotional gauge) and with jarring synths and rootless melodies. A lucubrative album with pop hooks hidden within preternatural instrumentation, Low provided both a sanctum to the issue/coke addled Bowie and a path for modern music.
It’s fair to say that Tim Mosley has the finest CV in modern Pop, having produced a string of staggeringly creative and often sonically bizarre hits for a range of Hip Hop and R&B; stars over the last decade, from Missy Elliott and Aaliyah to Nas, Justin Timberlake, Ludacris and Snoop. The job of a Hip Hop producer is considerably different to that of a Rock producer; it’s not about making the drums sound just so or adding reverb to a dodgy vocal track—more often than not it’s about composing the whole musical backing to a vocal. Alongside The Neptunes and Outkast, Timbaland has helped to move Hip Hop out of the sampling era, and his extravagant, multi-layered signature style has given us more than a glimpse of the genre’s potential future. Deep kick drum hits, stuttering synths, use of his own voice as another layer of percussion, imperceptibly quick riffs and the kind of attention to detail and texture that electronica fans go nuts for make up the template of his sound, but extravagant hooks and infectious choruses reel listeners in just as much. Although he has produced his own records (in partnership with Magoo) his best material most definitely results when he teams up with artists who are strong personalities in their own right, and both sides bring something to the party. It’s arguable that his work with Aaliyah was so ahead of its time as to be the only real avant-garde music of the last 15 years (just listen to “What If” or “We Need A Resolution”); after all, being avant-garde is about discovering new ground and setting new trends, and where Timbaland goes others are sure to follow.
Bubba Sparxx - Deliverance
Possibly the best full album Tim has produced for any artist, Deliverance is a potent mix of redneck-futurist heartbreak that regurgitates snatches of Tim’s whole career into the middle of a backwoods hoedown. Only Supa Dupa Fly and Aaliyah come close to sustaining his muse this well over the course of a full hour, and that’s high praise indeed.
Missy Elliott - “Work It”
“Get Ur Freak On” was a monster single that slayed dancefloors and airwaves alike while still managing to be bizarre. “Work It” turned the weird-o-meter up a few dozen notches, spinning both backwards into Hip Hop’s daisy age and forwards into some weird future of pointillist electronic pizzazz. Possibly Missy & Tim’s finest moment together, although you could say that about just about any single from “The Rain” onwards. Missy’s Greatest Hits, if and when one ever arrives, could just be the best record ever.
Rick Rubin is the über producer; a man without a signature sound, mood or style. His elusive talent for production appears to rely on his extraordinary ability to provide a stable and safe enough atmosphere for the given artists to feel comfortable and confident enough to push the boundaries of what they do and draw out something else. With such a simple concept that could be so potentially damaging to a band, in terms of identity and commercial appeal, it maybe takes someone as respected as Rubin to convince them that they can musically ‘think outside of the box’. Acting as a fairy godmother (or hairy godfather), Rubin’s reputation at delivering the goods also means that a record company are less likely to militate changes to a record he has worked on.
Co-founder of the once all-powerful Def Jam with Russell Simmons, Rubin produced many of its early hit records, developing the (now defiantly old-school) Boom Bap style. Rubin has recently returned to Hip-Hop, after an astounding 15 years absence, to produce Jay-Z’s current hit, “99 Problems”, prompting his reappraisal as a Hip-Hop producer. Depending on your view, Rubin is either one of the first men to revolutionise or/and betray Hip-Hop by applying the traditional structural constraints of rock and roll to the early freeform rap style, making it more palatable to America’s white neighbourhoods.
Like most seriously obsessive music fans his taste is excitingly eclectic. People who have LL Cool J, Tom Petty, Rage Against the Machine and/or the Beastie Boys in their collection probably have them because of what Rubin brought to the recordings. Despite this, there are complaints from some quarters (most recently and loudly from RHCP’s John Frusciante) that Rubin always mixes lead vocals way too high above the rest of the instrumentation, sometimes leaving equally strong no-vocal ideas way back in the mix.
Perhaps best known for his recent work with the late Johnny Cash, Rubin suggested and encouraged Cash to tackle songs that he believed would suit his delivery, playing style and were appropriate for a man both visibly and audibly nearing the end of his life. His cover of Trent Reznor’s “Hurt” has to be one of the most unlikely and perfect cover versions ever recorded, made all the more poignant by both his and his wife’s death.
Red Hot Chili Peppers - Blood Sugar Sex Magick
The Chili’s are gradually moving further and further away from their rap-funk hybrid into a much more traditional songwriting format. But the break came from the rowdy boys party album Mother’s Milk to this one. Can you see Kiedis suggesting they all batter trash can percussion for the conclusion of the hippie derived “Breaking the Girl”? Right. It was the combination of their less public influences and the self-assurance that Rubin seems to generate that allowed them to write and record their first all-out ballad in the shape of “Under the Bridge”.
Slayer - Reign in Blood
1986; listening to this it’s near impossible to believe it was recorded 18 years ago. Much of a Metal album’s impact can come with a decent production job, and prior to Reign in Blood Slayer hadn’t had one. It was Rubin that gave them the push that brought the existing elements into the light. Previous albums like Hell Awaits and Live Undead were a fine-tuning of the formula, but still remained mired to a flat sound. This album, on the other hand, has a physical presence, and it’s not one that you’d like to meet with your pants down around your ankles. An underground band at the peak of their powers with a producer looking to bring out their best meant a classic album. It cannot be overstated as to how much of a massive influence this has been to both Thrash and Death Metal.
The modern underground equivalents of The Neptunes in terms of influence, importance and ubiquity, The DFA have become as synonymous with discopunk as Lee Perry is with dub or Steve Albini with indie. The DFA consists of Tim Goldsworthy (the pre-DJ Shadow brain behind U.N.K.L.E.) and James Murphy (currently interchangeable with LCD Soundsystem), who met in New York in 1999 working on a David Holmes record. Soon the two were recording tracks for Zero Zero, Turning Machine, and even matching wits with Primal Scream on one of XTRMNTR’s best songs, “Blood Money.” But it was their relationship with “sonic death groove” group The Rapture that proved to be the most fruitful relationship, beginning with the “Out of the Races and Onto the Tracks” single in 2001. A year later, arguably the most famous indie dance single of the last 10 years, “House of Jealous Lovers” was released with their help. By using their customary bass/percussion-heavy producing techniques to bring out the groove impulses in The Rapture’s punk attack, they made the songs accessible and danceable without neutralizing the band’s edge. The same year, the DFA started their own self-titled record label, and signed acts Juan McLean and Black Dice. Almost immediately, they became the go-to producer team for any guitar band with aspirations of hitting the dancefloor, attracting work from Le Tigre and Junior Senior, while attracting the mainstream attention of the Neptunes project N.E.R.D. and Britney Spears (the latter of whose collaboration remains criminally unreleased). Nearly single-handedly, The DFA made it seem like it was 1982 all over again, bringing about a whole wave of post-punk revivalists insistent on bringing back the punk-funk of Public Image Ltd., Gang of Four and A Certain Ratio with a New York-based contemporary sensibility.
Le Tigre - “Deceptacon (DFA Remix)”
Junior Senior - “Shake Your Coconuts (DFA Remix)”
J.O.Y. - “Sunplus (DFA Remix)”
These three are only a fraction of the great songs the DFA have taken and made their own, without shedding the great hooks or distinctiveness of the originals. Never before has a remix felt so much like a great band’s new single.
LCD Soundsystem - “Yeah”
Still the best single of ’04, The DFA’s James Murphy helmed this incredible nine-minute freakout that is to discopunk what “Fools’ Gold” was to Madchester. The DFA’s minions chant incessantly on the chorus, acid squelches threaten to burn the paint of your speakers and the world’s biggest cowbell explodes, throwing shards of clanging shrapnel in every direction.
The Rapture - “House of Jealous Lovers”
Any more praise I heap on this song puts me at risk of being bumped back from 200 to 500 feet by both band and producers. If you don’t believe it’s the best song of the decade by now it’s no fault of mine.
A native of Houston, Texas, DJ Premier’s production aesthetic oddly came to define the sound of New York City hip-hop. Gang Starr’s second release, the classic performance Step in the Arena first brought his superb jazz-laced production to the ears of hip-hop heads. It was, when taken in the context of what came next, the culmination of looped sample-based hip-hop. This was followed by the second classic Gang Starr album, 1992’s Daily Operation. Taking Large Professor’s work with Main Source to the next level, the chopped “Skull Snaps” drums on “Take it Personal” and filtered bass line of “Ex Girl to Next Girl” introduced Premier’s trademark style to the world. Samples were no longer simple instrumental loops layered over drum loops; they were chopped, spliced, filtered, panned, and altered in other ways that had never been done before on such a wide scale. In the next three years, Premier was thrust into the spotlight as the central figure in a revolution of hip-hop production.
Continually redefining his sound—the tunnel-banging minimalist boom-bap of Jeru the Damaja’s “Come Clean,” the triggered blast of dissonant sound on Gang Starr’s “Speak Ya Clout,” and the scratched vocals for the chorus of Nas’ “Memory Lane” speak volumes about his contributions to hip-hop. But it is not simply these impressive techniques that define Premier’s style; it’s the way he adapted these production methods to make his beats emulate the record-scratch sonics of the hip-hop DJ and the way his drums became the epitome of “street” hip-hop. It was how he could take the most average MCs—the Group Home were not exactly microphone fiends—and polish their dry technique into pure street funk. Premier was also a master of harnessing sound. “Mass Appeal” doesn’t sound like musical instruments sampled and thrown together. It is noise, the chaotic clatter of the urban environment—trains rattling on the tracks, horns beeping in the intersections, music playing from open tenement windows.
Gang Starr - “DJ Premier in Deep Concentration”
An instrumental track that shows Premier’s style was already quite advanced; a highlight from an otherwise unexceptional debut album.
Nas - Illmatic
It only features three Premier tracks, but every one is Premier at his best. The dark, gothic banger “NY State of Mind,” the nostalgic organ-sampled “Memory Lane” and the vibraphone bounce of “Represent.”
Jeru the Damaja - The Sun Rises in the East
An entirely Premier-produced masterpiece that pitted the afro-centric rapper with sufficiently banging beats. The highlight is the huge minimalist single “Come Clean.”
Gang Starr - Hard to Earn
The ultimate Gang Starr album, this features Premier at his musical peak—tunnel-banging drums, abrasive, chaotic, programmatic sampling and Guru’s smooth monotone to balance Premier’s gritty musicality.
Trying to ascertain the truth about Martin Hannett’s life and career is not easy. As, like the majority of people involved in the story of Factory Records, it’s difficult to know where the legends stop and the facts begin. Did he really refuse to produce U2’s first album because he was so distressed by the recent death of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis? Was it him that asked A Certain Ratio guitarist Martin Moscrop to "Right…play that again—only this time make it faster, but slower"? And did he really ask New Order’s drummer Steve Morris to take his drum kit apart and rebuild it from scratch, nut by nut?
Maybe. Who cares? The bands that Hannett produced for Factory and Rabid at the end of the 70s act as a far more impressive legacy than a few dodgy anecdotes. As a producer, Hannett combined a love of new technology with a stubborn, uncompromising temperament in the studio. It was this combination that was to bring him his success: at the end of the 70s, the North of England was brimming with young punk bands eager to record their music, but with little to no idea of what to do once they got into the studio. The naivety of this new scene must have seemed like Hannett’s idea of heaven: here was all the raw material that he could ever need, played by people whose techno-savvy extended no further than being able to tune their guitars. Before he had even produced a record he seemed to be everywhere in Manchester, soaking up the vibe: even while ostensibly working in a chemistry lab he managed to start his own music promotion company, while somehow finding time to also work as a soundman and booking agent. Then, known on the local scene as ‘Martin Zero’, a local punk band called the Buzzcocks offered him his first job, producing a little EP called “Spiral Scratch”…and four slices of punk perfection later, his reputation was made.
However, it was his first session in late 1978 with a small band on Factory called Joy Division that would see the fullest idealization of his unique vision. By now overwhelmingly sure of his own talent, Hannett had little time for those who didn’t share his vision. In an interview with the NME in 1997, New Order’s Bernard Summner remembered early sessions with Hannett: “He used to say to Rob [Gretton, manager], 'Get these two thick stupid c-s out of my way'. In the studio, we'd sit on the left, he'd sit on the right and if we said anything like, 'I think the guitars are a bit quiet, Martin,' he'd scream, 'Oh my God! Why don't you just f- off, you stupid retards.” It was in these less-than-congenial surroundings that one of Hannett’s most often employed (and copied) techniques made its debut. Cheap digital memory for recording was slowly becoming available in the 1970s, and Hannett had just received a digital delay unit that he wanted to use in Joy Division’s session. But instead of employing it as a traditional echo unit, Hannett fed Steve Morris’ drums through the unit with a infinitesimal delay, producing a crisp ‘chreank’ sound that utterly changed the band’s identity: while Joy Division had entered the studio with Hannett as a talented punk bund, they left it as purveyors of unique, futuristic pop music. From then on, an icy patina covered their music, replacing their distorted sounds that they used live; of course, the band hated it. Luckily, the critics loved it, recognizing the extent to which Hannett’s production was responsible for Joy Division’s sound. By slyly subverting the punk ethos and slipping synths and dub-plate production techniques in amongst the teenage angst, Hannett helped usher in the era of post-punk. And, yes, he worked with the Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses later on, but to this day he’s probably best remembered as being portrayed in ’24 hr Party People’ by that bloke that does Gollum in Lord of the Rings.
Joy Division - “Autosuggestion”
One of the finest and yet least well-known Joy Division tracks, “Autosuggestion” is like nothing else the band recorded. Sounding like it was recorded inside a hollowed-out mountain; it’s a magisterial track that foreshadows later experiments with dub techniques by bands like AR Kane. The song is a prime example of Hannett’s ability to take simple elements and fashion otherwordly music from them, acting as post-hoc arranger. Here, Peter Hook’s famously busy bass style is absent, the few moments of fractured guitar from Bernard Sumner act to arrest the progress of the song instead of propelling it forward, and even Steve Morris’ drums are subdued, leaving only Ian Curtis’ lonely vocal to jag through Hannett’s icy ambiance. Classic.
New Order - “Everything’s Gone Green”
A seething, roaring mass of machines and guitars, “Everything’s Gone Green” is the best song to come out of Hannett’s work with New Order. Although by this point the band had evolved past their Luddite-like origins, the drum machines and synths on this track have Hannett’s stamp all over them, combining live, filtered drums with electronics to give the track an aggressive, tribal sound. The far-off vocal woops in the song’s second half act to give a sense of depth to the eventful foreground, filled to the brim with Frigidaire-like clanking and pulsing, Moroder-like bass. “EGG” stands as the best example of the unfettered futurism of Hannett’s production, completely devoid of nostalgia or respect for what had come before. It’s this feeling, rather than any particular collections of sonic trickery, that best sums up the Hannett touch.
By: Stylus Staff
Published on: 2004-05-17