The code of the beat.

BeatTips Readers’ Poll™: Who is the Greatest Beatmaker (Hip Hop Producer) of All Time?

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If We Go by the Numbers Over Three Decades, Can there Be Any Consensus?

By AMIR SAID (SA’ID)

In major league baseball, numbers don’t lie. Just look at the Yankee’s sure-shot first-ballot Hall of Fame closer Mariano Rivera, who in 2011 season recorded his 603rd save, giving him the all time major league record (one that will likely stand forever…)

Just as numbers don’t lie in baseball, I believe that they shouldn’t lie in hip hop/rap music either. Take for instance the greatest beatmaker (I prefer to use beatmaker, “producer” is too often misused and misrepresented) of all time debate. Ask someone who the greatest beatmaker of all time is, and they’re more likely to give you an answer that reflects their personal favorites than they are to give you an answer that objectively considers the available facts. For instance, Mariano Rivera is the best closer in baseball history, it’s a fact. Period. Ask a knowledgeable baseball person who’s the greatest closer of all time in Major League Baseball, and they’ll reply: Mariano Rivera. But does that mean Rivera is the best pitcher in baseball? Some say yes; some say no because he was a closer.

In baseball, the closer usually enters the game in the 9th inning (sometimes the 8th) when the game is on the line, when a team needs to save a victory from defeat, or when a team needs the score to remain close (usually tied), preserving the opportunity for their team to win. Thus, the role of the closer is very different from that of the starting pitcher, who usually pitches roughly 6 or 7 innings (the bulk of the innings). And because of this, closers aren’t typically in the final discussion about greatest pitchers of all time. But Mariano Rivera isn’t your typical closer. For starters, 603 saves is nothing to sneeze at; but then there’s his post season wins record—42 wins! Again, in the post season—when it counts the most, no? This is made even more amazing when you consider his ultra low ERA (Earned Run Average). In other words, the guy is basically un-hittable all the time but especially when it counts the most! That’s why when Mariano Rivera enters the game, it’s usually lights out for the opposing team. Numbers don’t lie…

Yet when it comes to the question of Who’s the Greatest Beatmaker of All Time, I’ve found that many people either ignore the numbers, or they believe that numbers do indeed lie. For instance, if you examine hip hop/rap music from 1985 (roughly the start of the Modern Rap era) to the present, how many people can realistically lay claim to the “greatest” beatmaker title? If we go by the numbers—in this case, the sheer catalog, the number of quality songs with quality lyricists; the reach of influence on future beatmakers; the number of years and consistency; and similar metrics—can we draw a consensus? I believe so. But I’m interested to learn what others believe.

Also, after considering the many conversations that I’ve had with various people—across geographic, race, and age spectrum—about this question, and reading some “greatest” lists online, I’m often left asking three questions: (1) What criteria are most people using to determine who the “greatest” is? (2) Are most people loosely broadening the definition of “greatest” in favor of an interpretation that merely allows for inclusion of their favorites? and (3) How much history do most people know about hip hop/rap music?

That said, from 1989 to 2011 (and still going), has there been anyone who’s dropped—chronologically and consistently—a larger overall body of acclaimed beatwork than DJ Premier? Clearly no disrespect to Marley Marl, The RZA, Dr. Dre, Pete Rock, Just Blaze, J Dilla and a few others who all certainly deserve to be in the discussion for who’s the greatest. But in terms of the numbers—quality wins and impact songs and albums; and work with key lyricists; and range of influence over other beatmakers (many acclaimed in their own right)—over the longest period of time (not just five years), is DJ Premier the greatest beatmaker of all time?

Opinions vary with questions like these. Of course everyone has their personal tastes and biases. Moreover, it’s understandable that many people will favor the beatmakers that are linked to their age and era. And as I mentioned previously, there are a handful of names that should no doubt be in the discussion—for various reasons. So frankly, I don’t know if there ever will be complete consensus on the “greatest beatmaker of all time” question. But one thing’s for certain, when you consider the inception of beatmaking (more than 35 years ago), and then scan year by year with a cold, objective eye, all the way up to the present, examining the catalogs of each beatmaking icon, patterns—and sometime indisputable anomalies—inevitably emerge.

For this BeatTips Readers’ Poll™ I’m interested in seeing everyone’s honest and objective take on this question.


Articles, Beatmaking, Beatmaking Education, Beatmaking Pioneers, BeatTips Jewel Droppin', BeatTips Readers' Poll™, Big Influence, Book on How to Make Beats, DJ Premier, Editor's Choice, Features, Grandmaster Flash, Hip Hop/Rap Music Education, Making Beats, Sa'id, The BeatTips Manual

About Author

Amir Said (aka Sa’id) is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of BeatTips. A writer, publisher, and beatmaker/rapper from New York, Said is the author of a number of books, including ‘The BeatTips Manual,’ ‘The Art of Sampling,’ ‘Ghetto Brother,’ and ‘The Truth About New York.’ He is also a recording artist with a number of music projects, including his latest album 'The Best of Times.' Follow him on Twitter at: @amirsaid and @BeatTipsManual

  • Bing

    You know when I post my opinion, I have to explain it. First of all, I do not want anyone to think that DJ Premier is not as good as he is because he is a great producer. He has created tons of records and has created for numerous artist, but the greatest producer for me has to be Pete Rock. Everyone of the producers on the list had their time and did it well when they did, but undeniably Pete is the best sample based producer. I think that the reason he is best is because he digs deep! You seldom find Pete chopping something well known and tons of times you dont even know what he chopped because its just a D minor horn stab off a Japanese jazz record. Pete also has a unique way of putting things together. There are some beats that he does that you know are Pete Rocks and some that you wouldn’t know are his tracks. I think that the ability to have a “signature” sound without having signature sounds shows his diversity. DJ Premier has a signature sound because he frequently uses the same sounds over. He admittingly has a formula and says that he’ll keep using it because it isnt broken. It’s not broken, but is recognizable. I think that Pete Rock is the best as well because his style isnt easily imitated or duplicated. There are tons of people who have recreated DJ Premier’s tracks/style just because his samples are easily recognizable. Premier’s style is to take a short loop and chop it to pieces and then rearrange the stabs to his liking. Pete’s style is the same but he takes smaller pieces and they can be from anywhere in the track. Pete’s ability to build a dope bassline is something that producers to this day still havent mastered! He took the bass and put it in the forefront which is a difficult task. Above all else, he created T.R.O.Y!!!! What else needs to be said!

  • Great article, Sa’id!
    This really brings me back to the conversation that we had awhile ago about the matter.
    I voted Marley Marl mainly because of your point about how he not only discovered sampling individual sounds off records, but he understood it and he knew what it meant for beatmaking!
    Back to the sports analogy, it reminds me of Wayne Gretzky. He revolutionized holding the puck behind the opponent’s net and waiting for players to open up. He would feed them the puck in perfect position, which would usually result in a goal. After Gretzky did this, pretty well every other “playmaker” on each team would take a page out of his book with this play.
    Like Gretzky, like you pointed out in the BeatTips Manual, pretty well every beatmaker would borrowed from Marley Marl in some way or form. Someone may have discovered this eventually, but it says a great deal about the man when he instantly understood what it meant for hip-hop.
    Would Premier have been as dope as he was if it wasn’t for Marley Marl? It’s hard to say.
    Aside from that pivotal point, the fact that he made beats for LL Cool J, Kool G Rap, Big Daddy Kane, Raekwon, and Rakim goes a long way in my books. Without Marley we’d miss out on an awful lot of classic hip-hop records.

  • I personally think 9th Wonder is up there with one of the best as well, but on the whole I would have to say DJ Premier is the GOAT

  • Robert

    Well,I chose Premier but the choices of Pete Rock and Marley Marl are great one too!The reason I chose
    Premier is because he still very relevant to this day and his sound will appeal the streets like the mainstream.So I’m going to bring the football analogy…lol
    Premier is like a running back who can get big runs and tough short yardage yards,pick up the blitz and catch the football.Maybe he won’t ever lead the league in rushing but he’s always in the mix and his versatility makes him a nightmare matchup!
    That just explain my choice but this could go in so many ways…

  • Bing,
    A couple of things…
    First, I want to remind you that part of the aim of my article was to try to get people to think “objectively”. Over the years, I changed my mind about this, mostly because I confused my personal favorite (at the time) with an all-to “subjective” view. Now, mind you, we can not completely eliminate our subjectivity, but I do believe that certain clear lines can be drawn.
    For example, we can determine the number of top MCs that each of these beatmakes (producers) have made songs with; that’s NOT a subjective determination. However, saying that one is the “undeniable” best at sample-based beatmaking is purely subjective, meaning that it can’t be proven as fact.
    Second, your comment doesn’t seem to consider DJ Premier’s work over a three-decade period; instead, it would appear that you focus on his recent work. Sure, Premier has a formula, most do. And everybody in the “greatest” discussion has a recognizable sound. But again, my point is this: If all of these names on the list are all close in terms of who’s #1, then what are the things that we can examine that are FACTS that we can use to determine separation? In other words, what “numbers” (baseball analogy) or metrics can we look at that prevents us from being purely subjective?
    Third, I like Pete Rock, always have. He’s dope and he’s one of the pioneers of modern beatmaking. In fact, T.R.O.Y. is my favorite hip hop/rap song of all time. But I can’t allow that to cloud how I look at the work of everyone else on the list—over a three-decade period.
    —Sa’id

  • DK,
    I completely hear you…
    If you asked me a year ago, I would’ve said Marley Marl. Marley’s significance can never be undone; like I say in ‘The BeatTips Manual,’ he’s the father of modern beatmaking. *But if we go by the numbers, the same way we would a quarterback, do we say that the #1 spot is reserved for the quarterback who was first to throw the forward pass? or do we rate #1 based on the number of wins, number of playoff wins, number of Superbowl wins, number of games started (consistently), total number of touchdown passes, total number of yards, total number of years played? See what I mean?
    —Sa’id

  • larkz,
    Yeah, 9th Wonder deserves some consideration… He’s in my personal top 25 favorites. But “greatest” of *all time*? I’m sure even he wouldn’t accept that. But he could go on a run over the next decade, giving him a 20-year career…
    —Sa’id

  • In my merely mortal opinion,
    quality of music cannot be determined anything other than subjectively, for it is not – sorry Craig – a science but an art (and most definitely not a sport).
    “Reach of future influence” and “number of quality songs with quality lyricists” cannot be accurately measured.
    Number of hits is as much to do with marketing and money as anything else.
    I believe it is perhaps possible to make a sensible case to place one producer over another (within specific parameters) but the aforementioned criteria do not really figure in such a debate.
    I believe the concept of a top 10 is antithetical to the paradigm of art; but if someone had a gun to my head and was forcing me to say who I objectively thought was the greatest hip-hop producer (sorry ‘Beatmaker’) was, I’d probably have to say Marlon, even though I prefer Cedric.

  • Robert,
    Ha, we both see the football analogy. But I see Premier at the quarterback position: Completion rate high—routine accuracy; strong throwing arm; low turnover rate; high win percentage; iron man—durable and always working; perfect red-zone numbers.
    —Sa’id

  • I the t,
    Ha! Lighten up…
    As far as “reach of future influence,” at the moment this can be measured fairly well. Even a brief survey of interviews (of acclaimed beatmakers/producers and those new to beatmaking) on *who influenced or influences* them will generate certain names, some with more regularity than others.
    As for “number of quality songs with quality lyricists,” well, the canon of hip hop/rap songs and lyricists makes it relatively easy to come to a consensus. For instance, check these names: Rakim, Kool G. Rap, Nas, Jay-Z, Biggie, Eminem, KRS-One, Chuck D., LL Cool J, Big Daddy Kane… Regardless of how each person would rate them, we all would agree that they’re at the top. So it’s not a stretch to be able to get a base line metric for quality lyricism.
    As for “number of hits,” I deliberately did NOT include “hits” as a criteria in my article or any comment, specifically because there are many non-music factors that determine a “hit” record.
    As far as “the concept of a top 10 is antithetical to the paradigm of art,” come on… there’s nothing wrong with examining careers of music artists and determining the greatest among them. In many cases, it works as a gateway for people to more closely examine the work of music artists that they may not have otherwise. This often leads to a broadening of one’s musical understanding—nothing wrong with that.
    In the end, though, you got to the point: you objectively thought about it (well, as objective as you or anyone could). And that’s what I was interested in seeing.
    —Sa’id

  • Bing

    Sa’,
    I took into consideration Premo’s earlier body of work which is why I think that he is second, in my opinion. I love his earlier work with Gangstarr, etc… but I still like Pete better. Also if you want to list of the greats that Pete worked with we can start at Big Daddy Kane, Heavy D, Kool G Rap, Raekwon, Prodigy, Big Pun, Nas, Phonte, Rapper Big Pooh, Kanye West, etc… Pete just released Monumental with Smif and Wesson so Pete is still contributing to hip hop as well. I have always placed Pete at #1 and even though there is no clear cut way to decide that fact, but for me, its Pete. #2 and #3 changes constantly. Lol.

  • Was thinking about this again today. In sports like hockey and basketball, the greatest players made everyone around them better. I think one of the biggest arguments for Premier is that he’s made a lot of mediocre rappers sound good on his beats (Eg. Group Home).
    Not sure if the same can be said to the same extent for the other guys in the poll.

  • Robert

    @Sa’,ha you’re right,Primo is the ultimate qb!!
    @DK,couldn’t agree more!

  • Bing

    Wait, so Peyton Manning is the greatest QB because he is obviously the reason why the Colts were winning. That means that Premo is the greatest because he makes the players around him better. I guess. Still saying Pete though. Lol.

  • mekkanic

    Ali shaheed muhammed is my “greatest producer” nomination. Hands down.

  • Josh

    my personal all time fav is dilla. I just dont think theres been a more genius mind when it comes to beat making. The way he flips samples makes me scratch my head, his drums hit harder and are by far the illest in hip hop, he took pete’s basslines and sound to a next level. Pete and dilla are my two favs but i think dilla took petes formulas to that next level which makes him stand alone. His drums are just crazy. its incredible how he got that mpc3000 to sound. that off beat swing, those funky basslines, the way he uses voices in his samples and how they stab in and out as if theyre horn stabs. Dilla is just to ILL. I feel as though a lot of people overlook him and try not to embrace his genius because there are so many “band wagon” dilla fans out there now.
    Dilla completely flipped the tribes sound upside down. Beats rhymes and life and the love movement sound nothing like previus tribe releases and that q tip record amplified is a club classic. All the artists Dilla worked with made their best records with him. Take common for example, like water for chocolate is just incredible and its basically all dilla (and some help from poyser and quest). Also the slum village records are so unique. FANTASTIC VOL 2 and the main ingredient are my two fav hip hop records. You can hear Petes influence in dillas work, but i just feel as though dilla took it to the next level. Welcome to detroit, the shining, donuts, ruff draft, jay stay paid, his solo career is veryv ery solid as well.
    side note: whats up witj dj toomp deing ont he list but not diamond d, lord finesse, showbiz, 9th wonder, da beatminerz, q tip, ali shaheed, dj scratch, in my opinon all of them should be on there over toomp….

  • Josh

    havoc, erick sermon, nottz, pharrell, madlib, alchemist, kev brown, damu the fudgemunk, i feel as though theres a lot of producers out there that are much more worthy then dj toomp. just my opinon of course…i used to like the TI joints he did, if thats worth anything…

  • Bing,
    I completely hear you…. Everybody’s personal favorite can be different. And when good discussions like this emerge, we ALL learn and broaden our horizons. Again, that’s why I really wanted to see what peoples’ objective thoughts were, because we all have our subjective views and styles of preference. But its dope to discuss the metrics of a consensus.
    P.S., Premier, Dilla, Pete, etc. all of them worked with quality names….
    —Sa’id

  • mekkanic,
    I’m not sure if you’re referencing A Tribe Called Quest or just Ali Shaheed Muhammad, but what about Q-Tip?
    —Sa’id

  • Josh,
    You’re certainly not alone in your thoughts about Dilla. And as far as genius sampling and chops go, Pete, Premier also fit that description as well.
    As far as “flipping” Tribe’s sound, I wouldn’t necessarily look at it like that. Tribe were *three albums deep before Dilla; they’d already carved out a style, sound, and considerable catalog. When Dilla came aboard, things went in a different direction. That’s not to say a bad direction, just a new/different direction. Many Tribe fans embraced that new sound; no harm, no foul.
    Regarding ‘Like Water for Chocolate,’ that’s a beautiful album. Everything Dilla did on there was dope, engaging, interesting, and inspiring—my favorite shit is/was “Heat”. Bottom line for me with Dilla is his outstanding range and creativity….
    As for the side-note of other beatmakers (producers) on the list, truth is, I think everybody you mentioned is dope. But making a *page-long* poll makes no sense; there has to be some narrowing of the list. So although many of the beatmakers you cite are all great in their own right, should they all be considered on the short-list of the greatest of *all-time*? It’s kind of like looking at the 50 greatest NBA players of all time; so many, but deciding on that short-list of the top 10-15 should have the most objective consensus.
    Finally, regarding DJ Toomp, when you study the Southern Rap sound, I mean really look at it over a 20+ year period, you’ll see just how instrumental Toomp was in the development of that sound. And you’re right to mention his work with T.I., because it brought in that “trap muzik” style and sound…that still influences the Southern Rap sound today.
    —Sa’id

  • josh

    nice post sa’id…
    as you stated tribe went in a different direction once dilla came into the picture with the “Ummah” production group (consisting of raphael saadiq, tip, ali, and dilla). But my point was that dilla, who was inspired by people like pete and tip, ended up changing a legendary groups sound. Almost like the student inspiring the teacher. that was my point. But i still cant decide if i like beats rhymes and life or midnight maarauders more, all the tribe records are timeless.
    my personal top 3 are dilla, pete, and finesse, but i guess its all taste. Theres no one true answer, point blank primo, rza, scratch, theyre all incredible and inspirational to all of us.
    peace man, keep up the good work with the blog!

  • Me personally, I had to drop a vote for primo, for basically what was stated above, but my personal fave would have to be Pete Rock or Large Pro. (I’m torn between the two). Kanye West, Dj Toomp, and Timbaland shouldn’t even be in this list to me because they’re more pop music producer than hip hop to me. And, they also haven’t even been in the game long enough to be considered vets compared to all the others on the list. I never cared for Kanye’s music style. To me it sounds amateurish in a way, and his music lacks soul. A dude was at my house one day listening to some tracks, and was like damn, that s**t gave me chills! Music is intended to stir emotions in the listener. It’s more of a listening AND feeling experience. If you can’t feel the music, it’s not going to leave an impact on the listener. That’s what’s the problem with today’s music. Now any kid with a computer can be a “producer”. And sadly enough, this is the crap peddled to the public en masse. There’s no soul in hip hop music anymore. The acts today remind me of the five horsemen (we’ve got soul!) group in the five heartbeats movie. Eminem the greatest rapper alive, please!!! I know regular dudes in the hood that would destroy Em in a rap battle! And I’m sure, probably all of y’all on this board know someone like that personally, and has no deal, money or fame. Hip hop is a joke now. Fuck occupy wall street, occupy hip hop!
    P.S. Nice Heartbreak hotel joint S’aid!!!
    That’s what’s up, keeping real hip hop relevant and alive.
    Peace!

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