2013 In Review: Sizing Up The Year’s Breakout Hip-Hop/R&B Producers
Here at Idolator, one of our favorites tasks is gauging the larger trends of mainstream music culture. With hip-hop and R&B increasingly driving the zeitgeist (oh hai Beyonce!), there are few better ways to chart pop’s 2013 narrative than to take a closer look at the beat-makers who stepped up their game and came to define the sounds of the past twelve months.
From mega-trap to hazy nihilism to radio-ready stickiness, hip-hop and R&B in all its forms flourished this year, and the following breakout producers were instrumental in the movement.
Love him or hate him, Macklemore’s platinum-selling sophomore album The Heist was ubiquitous in 2013. The album’s stadium-worthy production was exclusively crafted by 25-year-old Seattle producer Ryan Lewis who, up until The Heist, had few credits to his name. As conflicting as it can be to really throw support Macklemore, it’s really hard to nitpick Lewis’ boisterous, multi-layered work that set new standards for what pop-rap could accomplish. From the skittering hi-hats and playful horn hook on “Thrift Shop,” to the freight train piano figure, handclaps and tambourine hits on “Can’t Hold Us,” Lewis constructed tight songs appeared to roll downhill, gaining momentum with each pass. At this point, he seems poised to become a ’10s version of will.i.am, dominating the Hot 100 with every beat he drops, and becoming just as polarizing along the way.
Mike WiLL Made It
Mike WiLL Made It makes for an interesting entry on the hip-hop producers list. The 24-year-old ATLien most famously gave Miley Cyrus the keys to the ratchet kingdom as executive producer on Bangerz, but he also used his pliable form of southern trap to fuel a handful of gold- and platinum-selling hip-hop bangers (B.o.B’s “We Still in This Bitch,” Lil Wayne’s “Love Me,” and Ace Hood’s “Bugatti”) as well as R&B slow burns (Ciara’s carnal “Body Party,” Rihanna’s “Pour It Up”). It’s a testament to Mike’s talent that his beats sound great in any context, in any genre, with any MC or chanteuse providing the vocals.
(Extra credit is given for his production and guidance on Bangerz, which basically allowed Cyrus to obliterate any vestige of conservative white America that still had a voice in mainstream music culture.)
Off the top of my head, with the exception of Odd Future‘s Syd Tha Kyd, it’s not very easy to name a female hip-hop producer. That’s why it’s an important sea change when Jay Z picks a 16-year-old Canadian named WondaGurl, who previously worked with Travi$ Scott on the ominous, whacked out “Uptown,” to produce a track that actually ended up on Magna Carta Holy Grail. And, granted, while I spent a lot of time railing against Jay Z’s creative conservatism this year compared to Kanye West‘s zeitgeist-smashing zeal, the WondaGurl-produced “Crown” (with some help from Scott) is probably the most sonically adventurous song on the album. It’s a misshapen hellscape; all menacing horns, terrifying, disembodied voices and John Carpenter keyboards. If WondaGurl can make me sit up and take notice of a Jay Z deep cut from his really boring golden years phase, I’m keeping close tabs on her next move.
Christian Rich is actually the production duo consisting of twin brothers Taiwo Hassan and Kehinde Hassan. Former proteges of Pharrell Williams, Christian Rich are a bit of an under-appreciated name in the production game. The Chicago natives cut their teeth working on on little heard tracks for Diddy and Lupe Fiasco before teaming up with arguably Odd Future’s most unique voice, Earl Sweatshirt, to put together a handful of tracks for his much-heralded 2013 debut album, Doris, including the tar-black, piano driven stunner “Chum.”
The guys moved on to contribute a heroin guitar laced cut for J. Cole‘s Born Sinner called “Sparks Will Fly” before linking up with Drake and Jay Z on the silky, narcotic Nothing Was The Same track “Pound Cake / Paris Motion Music 2.” Sonically, Christian Rich has a solidly cinematic flair which translates to big, widescreen washes of synths and histrionic hooks from R&B singers. Their last song of 2013, “1. crawl” from Childish Gambino‘s because the internet, is their best work to date, cranking up the high stakes drama with the kind of production that turns pop-trap thwap into something considerably more sinister, using skittering hi-hats like a frantic ticking clock, deploying all kinds of horror movie melodies and dropping in a recurring Kubrickian choir of of unnerving voices to layer on the mood. Christian Rich is poised to get their hands on a bigger project in 2014, and we’ll all be paying attention.
If you scan across the production credits on Kanye West’s Yeezus, it pretty much reads like a who’s who of emerging producers and avant-garde EDM artists — including, but not limited to, Gesaffelstein, Arca, and Evian Christ — who have been blowing up music blogs for the past two years. But young Brit Hudson Mohawke‘s work on the searing “I Am A God” and, most importantly, the cataclysmic “Blood On The Leaves,” allowed him to leave the biggest mark on the year’s biggest hip-hop album. He’s shown great promise since signing with Ye’s G.O.O.D. imprint in 2012, popping up on tracks like the effortlessly cool posse track “Mercy” and Azealia Banks‘ “Jumanji” before getting invited to Kanye’s now infamous Paris hotel room in January to work on what would become Yeezus. But, as far as I’m concerned, the volcanic, horn-laden beat drop that Mohawke contributed to “Blood” — which itself was a reworked version of his and fellow collaborator Lunice‘s “R U Ready?” from their TNGHT project — is a piece of production he can hang his entire career on.
After poring over Yeezus for a good 48 hours after it was released, I remember scouring Twitter for reactions, and seeing one music writer comment that he wished he could go back in time and hear those horns on “Blood On The Leaves” for the first time again. If your beats elicit those kinds of reactions, young HudMo, you’re doing it right.
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