The 11 greatest producers of all time

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Dr. Dre in his World Class Wrecking Crew years.

11 Quincy Jones

Some of you may have heard of this man. It's not especially daring to choose the producer with the most Grammy awards in music history, but I couldn’t ignore him. If Quincy Jones were glitter, he’d have been stuck to countless other producers’ clothes for over four decades. Of particular interest to me are his sleazy caper soundtracks of the late 60s/70s: The Anderson Tapes, The Hot Rock, Dollar$, The Lost Man, The Italian Job.

Here he took his extensive compositional knowledge (often big band) and married it to a sweaty, smutty electric rhythm section, creating a sound indelible to the era in film and television. Much like Macero with jazz, Jones played a strong hand in introducing electronic and synthesized instrumentation to its more traditional counterpart, wresting the soundtrack away from its European roots and giving it an urban swagger that would be more at home on a Harlem street corner than a concert hall.

It goes without saying that he paved the way for countless artists to follow in his steps (African-American music had scarcely been represented in cinema before him), but let me express my gratitude specifically for Curtis Mayfield. He also supposedly produced a record called Thriller though I’ve never heard it. And while some of you might criticize him for his Arsenio Hall band-at-the-roller rink vibe during the 80s, he’s such a creative force and has been for so long that you just have to make the concessions. –William Slater

10 Vangelis

An obtuse musical mind that reached an unlikely level of fame by way of a movie barely anyone watches. Like Giorgio Moroder, Vangelis was a stubborn type that seemed to see his futuristic sound hovering clearly in front of him and had no earthly interest in ordinary frivolities of musicianship like playing live.

He merged high musicology with a consistent sense of spiritually-enhanced exploration and built his sound up as tall as technically possible before the rest of the world could catch up. While he hit some sour notes that lasted the length of entire albums, his mastery of mood and tension-control inside of spontaneity is unmatched. It's safe to say that Vangelis could have sat down at a keyboard at any moment of the day and composed a piece of music that could stand the test of time.

He's one of a few people who single-handedly spearheaded elements of the electronic genre a good decade before it was really understood; he seized the potential of the synthesizer early on and matched the depth of Bladerunner note for note. –Emil Amos

09 RZA

I was pretty wide-eyed and young when Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) came out, and it came on the heels of a g-funk west coast hip-hop dominance that had always seemed to me pretty soulless and grandstanding. Enter the Wu just seemed so stylized and original. The palette was so diverse. To me, this record represents a part of the new frontier, a musical patchwork that can only be described as a sum of its parts: You have the Marley Marl-influenced sampling/beat-making, not content to repeat what others have done but instead to reprogram and rebuild beats from the bottom up. You have a wildly eccentric range of influences, from art-house theatre and old kung fu films to religious texts, not only refusing to propagate any semblance of the hip-hop cliché but instead blowing it up altogether. On his subsequent records, RZA would only inject more musicality, becoming known for his ability to speed/slow samples to match his beats and peppering his songs with live and avant instrumentation. Along with his contemporaries like DJ Premier (Jeru!) and Pete Rock, RZA deservedly represents a new standard in hip-hop production, where the producer can cut and paste, filter and layer, speed and slow every little nuance to his will, and with the building blocks being used to create the collage growing ever smaller and more malleable. –Willam Slater

Classic Wu pastiche (the drop at 0:22 still gives me the chills):

08 Conny Plank

A sampling of records produced or co-produced by Conny (Konrad) Plank:
Kraftwerk 2
Kraftwerk, Autobahn
Cluster & Eno
Cluster '71
Cluster II
Neu! 2
Neu! 75
Harmonia, Deluxe
Ash Ra Tempel

–Alex Hall

07 Lee Hazlewood

He's not often acknowledged for his production skills but many writers have speculated that Phil Spector got his idea for the endless reverb in his wall of sound from studying Hazlewood's ghostly/twang guitar records with Duane Eddy in the 50s. Hazlewood's perception of reverb was, in its way, a slightly psychedelic insight that he'd achieved by sending his mixes through an old grain tank he'd gotten for $200. It's possible that Hazlewood is also in the running for being one of the first independent producers to also own his own label (Joe Meek is often credited as the first).

Lee finally met his ego match in Gram Parsons, who slept with Lee's girlfriend, Suzi Jane Hokom, while she was producing the ISB record, so he pulled Parsons vocals off of “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” by legal means. There isn't much literature out there on Hazlewood, which I guess drives home just how underrated he was during his career. I've always seen his move to Sweden as a semi-insidious escape to a faraway land of young impressionable girls and sleazy freedoms… and I've heard he used to wear a gold razor-blade around his neck. –Emil Amos

06 Keith Hudson

By day he was your neighborhood dentist. By night, his records transmitted some of the stoned-est frequencies over Kingston during the 70s, until his death in 84… Churning out dank and haunted/wandering vamps that branded a lasting stink into the halls of the psych/dub pantheon. –Emil Amos

05 Dr. Dre

Video: (Embedding disabled)

NWA was an unpredictable spectre of power, anger and direct communication that exploded out of cassette decks everywhere, anchored by the sonic design of Dr. Dre's militant wallop. For slightly older kids with some social perspective, the Bomb Squad had already set up this fast-paced militant sound for Public Enemy using samplers with a short-blast/limited recording-time ability and propelled by mechanistic breaks, siren/noise and the ubiquitous sub sonic 808 drum machine. But for kids who were still lured by hooky sing-song nursery rhymes and the burn and rush of lyrics pulled from triple XXX mags, NWA delivered something so narcotically catchy that morality was easily discarded.

Easy E's voice cut swiftly through Dre's mixes and created a schoolyard superstar, while Ice Cube sculpted his lyrics and helped design the entire West Coast vibe that'd migrated over from Ice-T. I only know every lyric to a few songs and a couple of them are on Eazy-Duz-It.

Dr. Dre issued a sleek sonic design that hit you over the head like a meditation rod made out of candy. The implications were too big to get a handle on, and NWA was too good to describe. Tapes passed like wildfire and the music world shifted overnight. –Emil Amos

04 Teo Macero

First producer that sprang to mind. Teo Macero’s involvement with avant-jazz/third stream and musique concrete in the early 50s afforded him the perfect vantage point to produce some the most innovative records the world will ever know. As such, he was audacious enough to repaint jazz music as a studio rather than live art by applying the practices of modern composition. His roles in the making of In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew are easy to overlook, but if you could peek behind the closed doors of the studio, you’d have seen mad scientist Macero sitting there with a razor blade, sifting through countless hours of sometimes indecipherable recorded noise and improv and splicing together pieces of magnetic tape until eventually he invoked the perfect emotional trajectory.

In a sense, he was Miles Davis’ own personal Edgard Varese, playing the players and meticulously creating what these records arguably really were: tape collages. It's no wonder why he had such distaste for the live, unedited studio recordings from these sessions… they just don’t carry the same weight. Tape editing and bugged-out affectation were absolutely integral to the finished product, and when you listen to them with that in mind the compositions take on an added depth and sophistication that surely seemed completely mental/surreal to jazz traditionalists of the times. Extra points to Macero for fanatically embracing the new frontier of electronic instruments during these years and helping to put them into the hands of people who could really wield them, and for dealing with some of the most decadent & egomaniacal musicians of all-time. …more extra points for producing the soundtrack to The Graduate and Robert Palmer’s Addicted To Love.–William Slater

(Tape Collage #1)

(Tape Collage #2)

03 Joe Meek

Opening up a can of worms that isn't worth the time it'd take to clean up, I'd say that along with Les Paul, Joe Meek can be crowned the other father of modern home-recording …and, if yr nasty, the earliest King of Lo-Fi. To hit the charts over 40 times by recording and mixing entirely in the bedroom of a tiny city flat is impossible in almost any era, but Meek seized a window of invention and imagination that others were sleeping on in their obedient lab-coat, EMI-based recording methodologies. And late at night, Meek would join hands in seance to resume the ghost of Buddy Holly for career and spiritual guidance.

Meek remained balanced on the cutting edge of shifting popular tastes for a few years while the waves were quiet just before the storm, and then the Beatles came to decimate his stylistic perch and reveal his dormant non-talents. Meek could not sing or play anything but was able to build a lot of his cutting edge effect processors out of garden hoses and household springs. Near the end of his life he would only pass notes to others, refusing to speak because of his belief that bugs in the wall would transmit his recording secrets to any competitors. Driven by a mania that was not simplified by his conflicted homosexuality and a ticking time bomb of bi-polarisms, he concluded his life's narrative with a shotgun and unnecessarily took the landlady along with him. –Emil Amos

02 Barry White

A very particular type of talent and sonic understanding that hits the deep-tissue pleasure-zone more succinctly for me than the various other Phil Spectors. Listening to this clip of “Mellow Mood” you can sense the genesis of all modern gangster swing. Barry White had a complete God's eye view on how to construct a perfect relationship between the highs and lows of the sonic spectrum. He leaves a massive amount of space open between those two poles to emphasize only the cogs of a song that massage your mind… and he controlled these aspects with absolute precision. White constantly exhibits a supremely philosophical use of elements that are usually taken for granted,, like the overall purpose of a hi-hat in a song's structure. You can hear the application of actual science and pure musicology in his arrangements. And to compare it with other production you may have to reach back to classical composers, because you don't experience frequency-control like this as a result of most pedestrian rock/pop production standards. Later on, the use of strings in disco was largely accredited to his early introduction of the Love Unlimited Orchestra. Just another offshoot of his compositional might. –Emil Amos

01 Les Paul

An actual human/god. The musical equivalent of the first man to step on the moon, Les Paul was the first to make the charts by overdubbing himself on magnetic tape in 1947, manipulating the speed of his performances and spearheading a lo-fi methodology by doing it all from his kitchen. It's fair to argue that while overdubbing had technically existed in a few embryonic instances, Les Paul's experiments created unforeseen futuristic textures and made overdubbing itself a fundamental aspect of the songwriting process.

The overdub has always been dogged with a connotation of witchery… it was actually banned by the 'American Federation of Musicians' in '41 because they believed it would bring an end to the jobs of many musicians. But from Les Paul to Jimmy Page, to Alexander Spence or Michael Jackson and the Beatles, time and again the overdub has proven to be a spiritual device, taking the art of musicology to some of it's most progressive heights. One of Les Paul's lesser acknowledged talents was his fearless skill in entering the world of pop music, a task that most jazz players would've never lowered themselves to …and one in which most lacked the vocabulary needed to attack the charts with the agility that Les Paul did.

Music was irrevocably thrown into a new dimension in 1952 when, simultaneously, Ampex began marketing the first eight-track tape recorder (designed by Les Paul) and Gibson issued his signature guitar series that, if we consider his earlier designs from the 40's, may've been the first solid body electric guitar design.

If we celebrated kings in American Music History like the Egyptians had, there would be mile high sphinxes with Les Paul and Mary Ford's face on them. It must have felt insane to hear the speakers in your kitchen playing back the world's first dubbed five-part harmony as it was being sung by your wife.

Here's a video of him overdubbing onto his breakthrough song “Lover”. To have heard the second half of this in 1947 would've been like hearing a truly alien musical transmission:

–Emil Amos