Musicians get all the credit. Whether you’re into R&B, SoundCloud rap, or old school hip-hop, chances are that you’ve let your interest in specific artists guide your tastes.
But the truth is that there’s a force just as important behind the development of a hit record. A singer, rapper, or band may provide the musical talent and the vision associated with a song, but the end result won’t mean much without the skills of a talented producer. But many fans are still uncertain about exactly what it is a music producer does.
The Captain of the Ship
The fundamental role of a music producer in the development of an album isn’t that different from the role of a director in creating a movie. They provide guidance to the talent, determine where music will be recorded, and provide editing on the fly to smooth out any rough patches.
But the fact of the matter is this: a music producer’s role varies depending on the producer, the artists, and the sound engineering involved.
A more laid back music producer with talent by his side might spend most of their time just supervising and letting everyone else do their job; but, a more devoted – or authoritarian – producer might be involved in every aspect of the process. This could mean providing guidance to the musician, deciding which tracks to cut and which to keep, and even helping the sound engineer pick out what equipment to use.
Music producers are also generally in charge of booking studios for recording, lining up session musicians, securing any specialized equipment that might be needed for the song, and securing guest vocalists.
To put it in the succinct words of famed producer Rick Camp, “The producer is in charge of everything”. Whether or not they let someone else take the lead on certain issues or not is up to them.
Music producers in hip-hop will often take a more dramatically hands-on approach.
In many cases, the producer themself will write and compose the music the artist will ultimately perform. Even if they don’t, it’s their responsibility to craft the songs into something workable and saleable and to ensure that each song flows into one another over the course of the album. That means taking into consideration hit songs that can be turned into singles and more low-key or experimental tracks that can take advantage of an artist’s unique talents.
The Relationship Between Artist and Producer
At its core, there are two critical talents for a producer: a good ear and a good way of working with people. The latter is important because a producer is handling practically all of the logistics of a recording.
They’re finding the studio to book, hiring additional musical talent, and getting a good sound engineer onboard. And this is a situation where there isn’t necessarily a best fit for every musician. A talented producer will be able to recognize which musicians and which engineers will work best with which artists, after all.
And the producer will have to maintain a relationship with all of their artists. This relationship is often dramatic – intimate, creatively rewarding, and frustrating – often all at the same time. A producer’s job is to make a musician sound as good as they can, and that sometimes means telling musicians hard truths, pushing them outside of their comfort zones, and making commercial choices that fly in the face of a musician’s artistic sensibilities.
That’s where those interpersonal skills come in. A silver tongue can help you convince a young artist of what they need to do to make it big, but it also helps you build a larger network in the industry so you can connect the right people and get access to the best studios.
And it can certainly help when wrangling musicians as well. A producer that’s cut their teeth and worked with struggling young talent will be better equipped to handle the more diva-esque qualities that crop up with some of the world’s biggest celebrities.
Artists as Producers
It’s only natural that a lot of musicians transition into a role as a producer. After all, years of working in the studio provide them with a working understanding of how the equipment works, and their talent for music helps them better understand what works and what doesn’t, both in terms of expressing their sound and giving fans what they want.
Some former musicians have become so popular as a producer that their career as a musician just becomes a secondary accolade. Dr. Dre’s influence on gangsta rap via N.W.A. can’t be ignored, but he’ll be remembered for his role in guiding, producing, and mentoring some of the genre’s greatest talents. Pharrell and Jay-Z have taken different trajectories, but they’ve filled practically every role in the studio possible.
The desire to become a producer isn’t limited to just the hip-hop game either. From Nine Inch Nail’s Trent Reznor to Blur’s Damon Albarn to Brian Eno, it’s very common for musicians to crossover into the production space.
And in many instances, these musicians will continue to make music while performing and even oversee their own work. For a talented musician, becoming a producer simply means taking full and total control of their art.
Producers in Hip-Hop and Rap
That said, it can seem like practically every hip-hop artist in the game has ambitions to produce.
That wouldn’t be far from the truth, but it makes sense. That’s because of how closely production and rapping are yoked together. Hip-hop got its start as a by-the-bootstraps genre. Kids who couldn’t afford musical instruments would drag out their record players to spin vinyl, and the flow and rap would develop from that.
In a way, the role that the producer fills in hip-hop is the genesis of hip-hop itself. And in many cases, the role between producer and artist is inconsequential. Since it primarily uses pre-existing beats, instrumental hip-hop is essentially a producer-only craft – and indie breakouts like MF Doom, Madlib, and RJD2 all built a name for themselves exclusively for their talents at the soundboard.
And as we move forward, chances are that we’ll see a closer relationship between what an artist and a producer actually does. More and more of production is handled with easy to access software.
So a musician who doesn’t have the money to hire or a producer or wants to maintain full creative control can essentially make what they want in their basement. Results will vary depending on the quality of the equipment, but the ability to make music has never been as accessible as now.
Dedicated producers will be around for a long time, but so will innovative and driven kids with an old laptop and a copy of Logic Pro. There’s a reason that producers are around, and even if they don’t get the praise and front-of-the-cover recognition that musicians do, it would be hard to make a serious commercial hip-hop or rap record without the fingerprint of a talented producer.
Just bear in mind that being a producer involves a lot more than just nodding to the music.