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Top 5 Producers

5. timbaland

timbaland got lucky. he beat out mark ronson for #5, almost solely because of his work with justin timberlake. let me get the things i don’t like about him out of the way. first of all, he basically ushered in one of the worst eras of rap that (in my opinion) has existed since the very early days of rap, late 70s / early 80s. in the mid 90s, timbaland really took off as a producer, producing multiple albums for ginuwine and missy elliot, as well as work with aaliyah, destiny’s child, jay-z, nas, and others. and most of this stuff was just not good. remember that song pony by ginuwine? there was a burping-type noise throughout the whole song for crying out loud. awful. here’s what wikipedia has to say about the “timbaland sound”:

“The track for “Pony,” which Timbaland had created during the Swing Mob days, was characterized by a shifting, syncopated rhythm, similar to samba or drum and bass, which used snare and kick hits on typically non-accented beats in the measure. Stuttering high-hats typical of southern bass music accompanied the basic drum sounds, which were severely gated to create short, strong sounds that were unusual for hip-hop and R&B. This use of the “short snare” is in marked contrast to the “long snare” sound in New Wave music in the 1980s, which featured a heavily amplified, almost white noise snare drum put through reverberation. Accompanying the unusual rhythm were melody lines created by playing odd sound effects (vocal effects and cartoon slide whistles) through a sampling keyboard. Timbaland carried similar production and arrangements throughout the album. On many of the tracks, Timbaland can be heard either rapping or providing ad-libs, similar to what both Missy Elliott and Puff Daddy were doing at the time; Timbaland’s deep voice was usually vocoded to give it an electronic sound.”

i don’t know what most of that means. what i do know is that until recently, i was reluctant to be happy about a timbaland-produced tune because i immediately thought of missy elliot’s get ur freak on. remember that song? so bad. all these weird middle eastern sounds and odd beats and rhythms that didn’t seem smooth to me. i equated timbaland with missy elliot and that whole type of sound. which i didn’t like at all. lately though, he’s been redeeming himself over and over again. i’ll get to that.

another thing i don’t like about timbaland; he’s too hit or miss for me. when he hits, he really hits, but when he misses, his tunes just fall so flat. take most of the stuff off his latest album timbaland presents: shock value. i just went through the track list and counted off the songs i think aren’t bad: 6ish of 17. but those 5 or 6 are just ridiculously good. again, i’ll get to it.

ok now the good. lately, within the last few years, timbaland has been winning me back. thinking about it, it’s almost completely by the work he’s done with justin timberlake. the tracks he produced off justified were great (especially (oh no) what you got and cry me a river), and then he was the executive producer of my 2nd favorite album of 2006, the near-perfect futuresex/lovesound. this album not only realized justin’s full potential as an artist, but also introduced me to timbaland’s genius as a producer. there is so much good stuff on this album. to do a truly complete overview of timbaland would be to do a complete album review of futuresex/lovesounds. i think like the neptunes were so responsible for justified, timbaland was responsible for futuresex/lovesounds. but in lieu of doing an entire album review, i’ll just mention one of the best examples of the producing quality. lovestoned/i think she knows interlude is one of my favorite songs on the album, and tim’s producing really shines throughout, but starting at 3:43 in the tune, his production quality gets sky high. listen closely to how many parts are layered here, and how well they all blend and flow. what i hear:
1. the beat, a mixture of:
a. drum machine
b. justin beatboxing drum noises
2. justin beatboxing record scratching noises
3. the guitar from the previous “let me put my funk on the guitar on this one” part of the song (2:37).
4. the bass, matching the easy to hear melody line.
5. the violins playing the easy to hear melody line.

and all this stuff sounds so good. and as this passage continues, some parts start dropping out, new parts start jumping in, and it all just sounds beautiful. i’ve never heard such gorgeous, subtle beatboxing as justin’s work is here. and then at 4:38, the song just takes on completely new life. and from there on, it just soars higher and higher. this is what pop music should sound like. love it.

lovestoned/i think she knows interlude

so for me, futuresex/lovesounds definitely solidified timbaland as one of the reigning producers right now. but tim didn’t stop there. he released timbaland presents: shock value, an album that illustrates the value of how important a featuring artist can be for a tune. i’ve still got a little beef with this album because it’s SO hit or miss for me. as i wrote earlier, 6 (or so) out of the 17 songs i think don’t suck. most of the rest just kind of blow. legitimately, i haven’t given the rest of the songs much of a listen because the 5 that hit home are totally off the wall. mainly because of: (1) good beats, (2) good featured artists. his beats are of the utmost importance, but you can tell from who guests that they can make or break a tune as well. guests that make this album worth listening to: justin timberlake, one republic, elton john. granted, jt is on one track that sucks (let’s be honest. he’s good, i mean really really good, but missy elliot is on the track, and she is equally as bad, if not more bad than he is good.), the other one he’s on is one of the best dance tracks i’ve heard. one of the best feelings related to music i’ve ever had involved playing this song on at a mediocre dance party immediately turning it into a crazy fun dance party. other than the fact that justin is on this song (and he doesn’t have much of a part anyway), the reason this song is great is this beat. it starts with timbaland saying “alright” and then the hook starting, and when it hits you can really tell this is a super fun song. check it:

release feat. justin timberlake

how can you not at least bob your head to that? it’s just too much fun not to move your body to it. this is the type of thing that timbaland’s good at. good, catchy hooks. this is part of the weird thing about timbaland. he makes incredibly catchy, fun hooks, but there are great songs that he’s in where he does hardly anything. perfect example, the tune ayo technology by 50 cent. just to get it out of the way, i am in no way a fan of 50 cent. the reason this song is so good is because timbaland produced it and justin sings on it. 50’s verses suck. but other than the producing tim has like two lines in the song. this comes back to the whole featured artists thing. other than his producing, i’m not really a huge fan of timbaland. to me, he’s not much of a noteworthy rapper, he doesn’t sing, he doesn’t really do anything when he’s featured on a tune.

tim’s so great cause he shines when he produces. and hearing his evolution as a producer, i think he’s only getting better. and thinking about getting better than tunes like ayo technology and albums like futuresex/lovesounds gets me really excited for where timbaland’s gonna go.

4. just blazejust blaze is a tough entry for me because he has loads and loads of production credits of which i know nothing. he has been working for almost a decade, and i know probably 1% of all the producing he’s done. that being said, i’ll give you the lowdown on that 1%. it’s incredible. just blaze has produced some of the best beats in hip-hop history (killer alliteration), among which are some of my favorites.

here’s the problem with this entry. i know so little about just blaze, and i’ve been playing catch-up the last few days, listening to interviews, watching videos, reading his blog. the part of just blaze that is NOT one of jay-z’s best producers is not a part that i’ve known for a long time. this part of just blaze’s artistry is very new to me, and i haven’t had much of a chance to absorb it, digest it, and interpret it or analyze it. so half of that 1% will be my brand new opinions, and the other half will be thoughts on his work that i do know.

let’s start with the stuff i’m new too. just blaze has been around for a decade or so, producing for loads of artists. i don’t really know much of that music. other stuff i’ve learned; i don’t really like how he interviews. i hate to say this, but he doesn’t seem like he can talk about music very well. like, he doesn’t seem to be the most articulate on the subject of music. but at the same time you can tell he knows what he’s doing, what he’s talking about. and oh man can he put a beat together. check how great this video is.

how awesome is that? he lays it all down just like that. he starts with one little thing, a great horn sample from another track, and within ten minutes has a killer beat that makes me want to drive windows-down. that’s skill. i love that he makes the MPC 4000 his own instrument. and he obviously knows what he’s doing. the way he hits those keys, he plays it with flavor, like a guitarist or pianist or drummer have their own little playing quirks, just blaze has his own way of playing the MPC. love that. i would like to own one of those and learn how to play it. unfortunately, the cheapest one i’ve found is like 700 dollars. that’s too much guacamole for me. birthday present idea?

i really like how he djs. i would love to see him live. this are great:

sort of like the musical equivalent of israel and palestine signing a peace treaty. not that rap and blues don’t mix, way the opposite actually. it’s just that it doesn’t happen very often. this kind of musical juxtapostion is so rare. but that’s what i like about these videos, these two guys aren’t polished in these sessions. it’s a lanky white blues player and a tennis ball green sneakers-wearing hip-hop producer who just decided to try something way different. just blaze throws down some beats, mixing them on the spot, while john mayer throws down some electric guitar over them. sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. i like how both musicians seem a bit out of their element, and there are times when it doesn’t flow so smoothly. there are times when jm doesn’t seem to know exactly what to play with the guitar, so he waits a bit. just blaze sometimes scratches when he doesn’t need to. there’s so much experimentation in these sessions. i like the idea of one of music’s best rap producers sampling 80s adult soft rock and one of music’s best electric guitarists playing along. and obviously i love it when they hit on something great, like the hall & oates sample and the curtis mayfield sample.

so great. check them both out. i wish john mayer did more stuff like this, and more hip-hop producers in general did more stuff like this.

so that’s basically most of what i’ve learned about just blaze in the last few days. the other half of the 1% i’m aware of is his work with jay-z. since jay’s the dynasty…roc la familia album, the two have had a great working relationship, out of which has come real hip-hop perfection. there is almost nothing better than jay rhyming over a just blaze beat. i can think of one thing better, but that’s better left for another entry. it’s weird, having done a bit of research for this, i’ve realized that just blaze actually hasn’t done loads of songs i’m absolutely in love with for jay. i think the reason he is so high on this list is that he produced possibly my 3rd or 2nd favorite jay song, and his overall style of beat-making is way awesome. along with one of my other favorite producers, he almost single-handedly ended the ‘timbaland sound’ of the late 90s with his work on jay’s the blueprint. this album is oustanding, and just blaze produces some killer beats on this. namely girls, girls, girls, u don’t know, and song cry. in these songs, he samples old school funk and soul artists, the most notable of which is bobby byrd, long-time james brown sideman. this style of sampling old funk, soul, and r&b tunes for current hip-hop beats changed the rap game for the next few years and thank goodness is still a prominent producing style today, and just blaze was one of the forerunners of this comeback.

what i like about just blaze’s sampling style is his subtlety. a lot of time it’s hard to hear the samples he uses; they aren’t in your face. for december 4th off the black album, i’ve listened to the sample he uses, the chi-lites that’s how long, and it’s near impossible to place it. but that tune is one of my favorite jay tunes. the way the beat hits is just off the wall. the other example of how good just blaze is at what he does:

dear summer

how incredible is that tune? let’s break it down.

1. jay’s rhymes.
2. the ooo ooo melody sung by the girls.
3. the keys playing the melody.
4. a laid back drum beat.
then the break-it-down:
6. some free and easy horns in the background

i just can’t get over how good the bass is in this tune. the way it nails the harmonies, completely playing off the melody of all the other tracks. man so great. and are you kidding me? a total of 6 tracks? i’m sure there’s more but even listening hard, that’s all i could really hear. it’s completely nuts to me how bare this track is and how good it sounds. but that’s just blaze. he’s got a subtle style, and he samples the coolest stuff to make the coolest beats. so good.

3. ?uestlove

before you continue, start this song and then read on while you listen.

?uestlove, pronounced “quest-love”, is a whole different case as far as producers go. i’ve done my best to keep other non-producing influences out of this list (for example, not letting the fact that jay-z is an incredible rapper and rhymes over some of just blaze’s sickest lines influence blaze’s spot on my list, i.e. letting only the production value of an individual producer decide their place on the list), but i can’t really do that with ?uestlove. the biggest reason? honestly, i don’t know enough of the music he’s produced well enough to break it down. the one album that i know thoroughly is d’angelo’s voodoo, and i’m not gonna write much about it because i’m saving that breakdown for another post. so here we go. ?uest is a musical anomaly to me. as far as the hip-hop scene goes, he is ubiquitous among a certain set of artists. he is part of numerous musical collectives, each incredible in their own right. he’s worked with such an incredible variety of artists, inside and outside of hip-hop. he’s the founder of okayplayer, an incredibly awesome online musical community for artists and fans alike. while i wouldn’t call him the founding father of neo-soul, maybe the founding father’s son? better yet, the founding father’s brother. or something like that. doing research for this one entry has led me to nearly 100 (no joke) multiple tabs up in firefox. i’m talking wikipedia pages, interviews, videos, album reviews, etc. and every single one of them is directly related to ?uestlove or can easily be traced back to him. there are so many facets to his musicality and his personality that it’s hard to know where to begin. let’s start with the music.

namely, neo-soul music. he does loads of work outside of this specific genre, but since he basically spearheaded the neo-soul movement in the late ’90s to early ’00s, i’ll start here. he is, along with d’angelo, james poyser, and j dilla, one of the founding members of the soulquarians, one of the best musical collectives of this generation. ?uest, d’angelo, poyser, and j dilla (to boil their talents down to one fundamental faculty each, drummer, singer, keyboardist, DJ, respectively.) started this collective and with the addition of multiple other members, have gone on to produce some of the best, and most critically acclaimed albums, of the last fifteen years. the main bulk of the soulquarian members are pictured: in the back from left to right, talib kweli, mos def, james poyser, erykah badu, ?uestlove, d’angelo, q-tip, and bilal, and then common is kneeling* on the left and j dilla kneeling on the right. such an incredible group of artists. i think this is such a cool concept; loads of extremely talented musicians and artists drawn together by the same musical vision, yet all coming with different aspects of it in mind. how great is that; that this many different artists with distinct tastes and talents can come together and share a united musical goal.

but back to the neo-soul movement. while not completely responsible for it, you can feel ?uestlove’s presence all over the neo-soul movement at the turn of the century. he’s involved in SO much of it. before i go any further, i’ll let ?uestlove actually break down the term “neo-soul”.

Saying “neo-soul” means you don’t have to say “post-’70s smooth jazz over breakbeats” or something equally unwieldy.

perfect. post-’70s smooth jazz over breakbeats. to me that basically defines d’angelo’s brown sugar and voodoo, erykah badu’s baduizm and mama’s gun, among other albums. it’s a gorgeous, tranquil, flowing, musical sound. there is no fluff in neo-soul; it’s not a fence-riding genre. most people either love it or don’t care for it. i feel like as far as music goes, it’s far too in-depth to feel mediocre or indifferent about. it’s so intense. the soulquarians were at the head of this movement, and ?uest was at the head of the soulquarians. this group was so intertwined; when one member released an album, it usually consisted of production, musicianship, beats, guest spots, etc., from the other members. there isn’t a single album released around this time period from one of these artists that doesn’t have another member involved in some capacity. such a cool thing. they were all so connected; for example, the ridiculously great song chicken grease, off voodoo, was originally intended for common’s like water for chocolate and d’angelo finally convinced common to give it to him. wise decision com. eventually, the group expired, as did the movement, when this happened:

Somehow we all forgot that we needed each other. All the sudden it became about ‘This person sounds like me.’ That type of thing. Then the isolation set in.

it’s weird to think about a group, that isn’t officially a group, unofficially disbanding. a lot of the members still work together, so i don’t think the dissolution of the soulquarians was necessarily a negative thing. talib and kweli went on to form black star, ?uestlove and james poyser still produce albums together, and everyone else still guests on everyone else’s albums. it’s just less of a collective unit now than before.

so that’s a bit about the fundamental sound of ?uestlove, and what came as a result of that sound. i’ll come back to it in a bit, but first i have to touch on something else fundamentally important to ?uest’s career.

the roots are a rap group that have been together over fifteen years, with their first studio LP dropping in ’93. ?uestlove is the drummer, and along with the group’s MC, black thought, is the most well-known member of the ensemble. the problem is that i’m just not a very big fan of them. aside from the song the seed (2.0), i haven’t really fallen in love with anything they’ve ever released. it’s great hip-hop, but i think it’s just not melodic enough for me to really get into musically. that being said, they are one of the few rap outfits who record their music live rather than put together a few drum beats in a computer. that’s why they’re noteworthy to me. ?uestlove actually plays the drums you hear on their records; their keyboardist actually plays the keys, etc. i’ve never seen them live but they’re on my list of bands to see. they’ve performed as the backing band for such artists as jay-z (including jay’s unplugged album for mtv, his 10-year anniversary reasonable doubt concert, and in part of his fade to black show.), and basically every band (minus the fugees and jill scott) that performed for dave chappelle’s block party, among others. they’re respected among their musical peers, but i just don’t like their albums all that much. it’s straight forward hip-hop, and it’s not all that fun to listen to, and i think that’s where i get snagged. they write political, socially conscious lyrics, but it just never grabs me. it’s weird that the maybe the biggest part of ?uest’s musical work is the part i like the least.

but this is where ?uestlove gets interesting to me. i’m not a huge fan of his band, so where do i go from there? i could randomly pick a hip-hop artist that i like and ?uest will have some connection to them. here are a few great albums from the soulquarian members that ?uestlove has been directly involved with.

first off, erykah badu’s mama’s gun. i’d call erykah as close to a female d’angelo as you can get. she’s got a very smooth style, and this whole album just oozes soul. laid-back grooves, intelligent, pro-love, pro-peace, anti-racism lyrics, and a voice that at times sounds weird and at other times recalls billie holliday is just a teaser of what this album has to offer. it’s not a windows-down record though. i have a feeling it’s gonna sit with me for a long time, and every now and then i’ll give it another listen and learn to appreciate it in new ways.

secondly, common’s electric circus. if erykah’s the female d’angelo, common could be labeled the hip-hop d’angelo. he goes for the whole nine yards on this album, in some places it works and fewer places it doesn’t. but it’s still great. such a weird, eclectic mix of progressive rap and rock and jazz and soul. although not a perfect album, ?uestlove does his part with some great beats and producing. even though it’s not always perfect, it always sounds good as far as production goes. as much as common is not really a car-thumper type artist, this album is his furthest away from that idea of radio-friendly rap. but i still think it’s cool.

finally, voodoo, by d’angelo. this album is so good it’s on my Top 5 list, so i’m not gonna say too much about it here. comparing other artists to d’angelo is a bit naive because these artists are all phenomenal in their own right and have their own talents, but as far as neo-soul as a genre goes, everything comes back to d’angelo for me, and specifically to this album. it’s just too good to not know. it’s taken me four full years to appreciate it as much as i do now, and that love will only continue to grow as years go by. for its genre, its artist, its sound, its songs, it’s as perfect of an album as i’ve ever heard. and that’s all i can say about it right now. here’s a taste of the genius of d’angelo and ?uest.

chicken grease

the important thing about these albums is that they’re all phenomenal, they all embody the neo-soul genre (especially voodoo), and they’re all connected to ?uest. he laid down the drum tracks for mama’s gun, and while not credited as producer, obviously had a hand in the production along with credited producers james poyser and j dilla. for the other two, ?uest is credited as executive producer or co-producer. he was intimately involved with the creation and development of these two musical ideas. as far as ?uest’s production style, i would rather let the albums speak for themselves than to try and break it down.

moving on a bit. one reason i love the sounds of ?uestlove’s albums is that he comes from such a unique musical background. he has lived music literally his whole life. when he was a kid, his dad was in a doo-wop group and his parents didn’t believe in babysitters so ?uest basically grew up on the road, touring with his family. he started playing the drums at age two and by age seven he was performing on stage. he grew up surrounded by music; the unique musical tastes of both his parents (including pop, soul, funk, etc.) was what he lived and breathed. as far as musicians in today’s music business go, he is one of the most knowledgeable dudes out there. it’s crazy to read interviews and hear him talk about music. with every single interview i read, i learn about a new artist or new album that i really want to get a hold of. example: in an interview with online magazine independent weekly, which by the way is possibly the best interview i’ve read with ?uest, so much in-depth talk of the roots, the soulquarians, music, hip-hop culture, politics, it’s great. but anyway, in this interview ?uest mentions a collection of songs put together by alan lomax. here’s what he says about it.

“Yeah, he built his whole empire, going around down South and sliding a few hundred to prison guards to let him record chain gangs. But the music was amazing. They’re on iTunes right now. The compilation is called The Land Where Blues Began. There’s a song called “Early in the Morning.” Dude who actually wrote it was named Prisoner No. 22. If anything, that song is a precursor to funk music, especially because of the particular way that they had shovels or something—don’t know if they were digging graves or ditches or whatever—but they were banging with a heavy emphasis on the two and the four. The beat was reminiscent of an early version of “We Will Rock You.” You could have easily slid a breakbeat behind that and rocked it today, but it was made in the ’30s.

maybe if i mentioned alan lomax to my grandparents they would know who he was. but that’s about it. but ?uest knows him, and knows the music he’s collected. he knows the plot line of music since the turn of the century. he knows how trends happen and where they go and how they get there, he knows how genres are separated and how they relate, he knows intensely intimate things about the history of music. it’s incredible to read and learn so much just by him talking about things he’s into. and all this gets infused into his own brand of music. i respect that so much; a person that is so unbound by social or cultural norms and restraints that they are wide open to whatever influence and let it show in just the right way through their creativity.

this eclectic knowledge of music makes him one of the most interesting interviewees on the music scene. i learn more about music from one interview with ?uest than i can from multiple interviews from so many of today’s leading pop/hip-hop/rock/whatever stars. and this multifaceted grasp of the last 100 years of music directly contributes to what i think might be one of the coolest parts of his career, record spinning. that’s right, aside from being one of music’s most respected drummers and having many soon-to-be classic albums under his production belt, ?uestlove moonlights as a DJ. i honestly don’t think he could get any cooler after this. there is a night club in philadelphia called fluid which hosts a saturday night dance party called tasty treats. ?uestlove is one of two DJs for this party. it is a dream of mine to go visit philadelphia, if for no other reason than to visit this specific club and this specific party, just to see ?uest rock the turntables. a long time ago, i was reading gq magazine during a slow day at the gas station, and i read one of the coolest interviews ever by ?uest. he talked a lot about his DJ gig at this club, and he said that his DJ set at the club was for meant for the wallflys; the shy people who loved music but didn’t often dance. you could go to this place, the lights were low and there was just music, and loads of people dancing. and that was it. it was a party with the sole purpose of providing a comfortable atmosphere for people who wanted to enjoy some great music but were always a bit shy about it. he also mentioned different records that he liked to play, and it was as far away from the typical club dance music. he talked about experimenting and putting on johnny cash records to see how they would hit, and putting on crazy things like that. sounds awesome.

and check out the tasty treats flyer.how cool is that. pictures of all the different artists they play. take a close look at that flyer. there is such a broad range of artists pictured. i will go to philadelphia one day and dance at this party. this is a video of ?uestlove DJing at some gig a little over a year ago. love how he transitions between james brown and michael jackson. great stuff.

speaking of philadelphia, that leads into another great part of ?uestlove’s career. philadelphia is ?uest’s home town and the city’s musical and cultural heritage is where he got a lot of his own musical upbringing. enter the philadelphia experiment, a progressive/modern jazz album featuring ?uestlove on drums, “avant-garde pianist” uri caine on keys, and jazz bassist christian mcbride, who attended high school with ?uest. they recorded this album one weekend; just three musicians from different musical backgrounds combining their sounds to see what would result. the album is full of really fun, groovy pieces: great example, grover, the tune that opened up this entry. there’s no vocals on the album, just killer jazz. another dimension of ?uestlove’s skill. this guy does it all.

seeing how this is a Top 5 Producers list, i need to get back to ?uest’s production. one project he produced recently was with the musical collective “the yessirs”, consisting of ?uest, james poyser, their engineer Crazy Steve, and others i’m unaware of. let’s backtrack a bit: pharrell williams released his debut solo album in my mind in ’06, and it never really took off. which is weird, cause listening to it now, i actually like it a lot. while not as good to me as the n.e.r.d. album fly or die or some of the neptunes/pharrell’s other work, it still sounds like a fun pharrell record. fastforward to ’07; pharrell got in contact with ?uestlove and james poyser and they decided to redo the album under the moniker “the yessirs”. not a complete redo, just reworking the actual musical tunes themselves. words stay the same, music changes a lot. the finished product was called out of my mind and it was never released officially by a record company but it leaked somehow online and it’s available for download. i’ve listened to the whole thing two or three times; i haven’t had enough time or dug deep enough to really compare the two albums, but here is my initial reaction. pharrell’s original is much more polished, MUCH more glossy. it sounds like a neptunes-produced album of pop music. which i like. the yessirs version is almost like a record full of the demo versions. they seem a lot more stripped-down, with a lot of new instrumentals. but i really do like it. the biggest thing i’ve noticed is that ?uest’s drumming really propels the whole thing forward. and it’s cool to hear how they’ve rethought the tunes a bit. here’s a video of james poyser on keys and adam blackstone (producer for jill scott) on bass re-recording take if off (dim the lights). ?uestlove behind the camera. this really doesn’t have much to do with ?uest at all, but the bass is laid out in such a way that i had to post it. check it out.

how great is that bass. there is so much groove in it. it’s obvious here that ?uestlove surrounds himself with truly great musicians and not just fluff artists. and out of my mind is cool, definitely worth a listen.

i seem to have backed myself in a corner with this ?uestlove entry. doing research for this entry i’ve come to the realization that i really don’t know much of the stuff that ?uestlove himself has explicitly produced. it seems like everything i’ve talked about so far hasn’t actually been produced by ?uestlove himself, except for like two or three things. whatever. i’m way too far to turn back now. so finally, the last album that ?uestlove has produced that i know very little about….al green’s lay it down. granted, the reason i don’t know anything about this is that it hasn’t been released yet. but come may 27th, al and ?uest are coming out with possibly the best soul album to hit human beings since the late ’70s. holler. add in corinne bailey rae, john legend, anthony hamilton, and the dap-king horns, and you’ve got a top-notch work of art. if you click this, scroll down the page, you can stream clips of the duets al green sings with corinne bailey rae and john legend. the corinne track absolutely kills me. if this is any indication of the quality of rest of the album, it will be outstanding. can’t wait to hear what happens when ?uest gets together with a legend.

so there you have it. ?uestlove in a nutshell? not even close. but it’s the best that i can do for now. give me a few years and a few of the actual albums he’s produced, and i’ll be able to write a better entry concentrating solely on his production. but i love ?uest, he’s far too good to leave off this list. for a billion reasons, many of which you now know.

kneeling, or almost falling over, or pretending he is catwoman. you decide.

2. quincy jones

quincy comes in at #2 because of three ingenious works of art: off the wall, thriller, and bad. i guess to be completely accurate this entry should be quincy jones and michael jackson both, seeing as though they co-produced each of these albums. i am just now getting into bad, but off the wall and thriller are two of the best albums ever recorded that i know well. thriller to me is the quintessential definition of perfect pop music. let’s dig a bit deeper into these three albums and what makes them special.

first off, off the wall. while not as strong overall as thriller, Q/MJ are on the right track. while there are a few mediocre tracks and one awful one (she’s out of my life i think has the lowest playcount of any mj tune i have*), there are some ridiculously good stand out tracks. what’s great is that even the mediocre tracks make phenom dance tracks. this whole record is full of catchy hooks and fun melodies. and i’m not sure what it is about this songwriting team, but there are loads of songs off these three albums that have the perfect walking rhythm. rock with you is the best walking track on this record; it’s perfect for a walk at night.

it’s also my favorite track on the album. one of the smoothest, sexiest tunes i’ve ever heard. such a sparse collection of sounds, but just the right instruments are used and to such great effect. everything is in its right place on this song. a simple little guitar riff, sexy spacey synthy sounds, great string arrangements, just the tiniest bit of horns, bass that doesn’t take over but supports the whole tune from underneath everything else, and the beat? it’s weird, it’s so subtle it’s like you forget there’s even a beat driving this song. phenomenal production. perfect for a packed dance floor and some black lights. plus, what’s better than a dance track about dancing? get a load of this video too. look at that ridiculous outfit young michael is wearing. whatever, still a great song.

so the sparsity really makes the standout tracks on this album. but really the whole thing is worth two, or three, or ten listens. the best thing is that this is only the first of the trio of Q/MJ collabs. three years later, they released thriller, generally considered the best selling album of all time. some estimates are around the 100 million mark. think about that for a second. 100 million albums sold. unbelievable. but for good reason; there isn’t a dull moment on this entire record. the only thing that might take the momentum down a smidge is the girl is mine, but even that track is still a really great one. everything else is as perfect as pop music gets. danceable, catchy, exciting songs.

prime example: p.y.t. (pretty young thing). first off, the title is an acronym; how could this song go wrong? all i really have to say about this track is this: BASS LINE. i’ve never been able to figure out how to play guitar with this track because there aren’t really chords to hear and pick out, just an outrageous bass line and awesome sounds floating in and around and on top of the bass. excellent use of robot voice in the break-it-down too. but what a cool tune, driven completely by bass that again, like rock with you, is so subtle you don’t even realize that it’s really the bass you’re bobbing your head to. obviously the rest of the arrangement is outstanding; the rhythm guitar all throughout, synth chords during the verses, the killer synth riffs during the chorus, the high energy beat following the bass line around the song, and the sweet djembe percussion complementing the drums. there are few songs in the world that better fit with the word “pop” than this one. so great.

p.y.t. (pretty young thing)

is it even worth talking about the rest of thriller? i could write the same sentence for every song: “this tune is another outrageously good tune called ____, produced by quincy and mike.” the whole album is great. i’ll save more tune breakdowns for a full album review or something.

finally, we end this brief Q/MJ overview with bad. this was the last album that the two collaborated on, which i guess is a good thing. who knows what would’ve come out of more recording sessions between the two superproducers, but because you can just barely start to see the first signs of mike getting further and further away from thriller-quality work, it’s best that this is where they split. stop while you’re ahead. i’m not very well acquainted with this record, i only just heard the whole thing in its entirety in the last month, so i’m getting to know it as i’m writing this. first off, it doesn’t top thriller; that’s near impossible. however, it does pick up the pieces after thriller completely blew the roof off where pop music was in ’82, and does a decent job at keeping up with thriller. there is 1 bad song, 1 horrible ballad, and all the rest of the songs are all real killers or way close. there have been a couple songs that have really caught my ear, namely smooth criminal. this song is ridiculous. i can barely hear a chord progression that makes any sense whatsoever, but i know one has to be there cause the song rules. plus the break-it-down? hawt. there is some outrageous synth work in the break-it-down. and it’s possibly the only MJ song that i can sing somewhat in my own vocal range, so that’s another reason i like it. check it out. break-it-down starts at 2:40 and then brings that hot fire at 2:48. so awesome.

can’t get enough of that break-it-down. this album has some of the most high energy moments out of all three of these albums. ironically enough, as i was writing that last sentence, the way you make me feel came on. terrible track, i have no idea how it made it onto the album. but songs like smooth criminal and bad are bursting with energy, and leave me alone features some ridiculously good harmonizing chorus vocals, and even dirty diana, although its tempo is way slow, boasts some furious guitar. this album is awesome.

so there we have it. #2 goes to quincy jones/michael jackson. there’s just something really special about these albums. this music has an energy unlike anything that i’ve never heard captured on tape. it’s so vibrant, so lively, so fun. there’s a zest in this music that’s almost palpable. and it’s so smooth, so sleek, so glossy. perfectly-produced pop music. it’s just too good.

* false. i believe the way you make me feel now holds that title.

1. kanye westhere we are. the louis vuitton don coming in at #1. kanye’s my #1 just because of his producing style and the wealth of quality music he’s produced. i’m gonna do my best to keep his rapping career separated from his producing career here, cause that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms.

kanye comes in at #1 because of his whole production style. he has one of the most completely unique approaches to music production and beat making in our music culture. it always hits me right where it needs to. it’s so complex that i can’t even break it down as well as i’d like, but the biggest part of it involves sampling. and sampling like no one else does. kanye finds the coolest old artists and the coolest old songs to sample, and rethinks them in such a way that it keeps the soul of the original and makes it fresh and relevant and awesome. here are just a few examples:

heart of the city (ain’t no love) the best song off jay-z’s classic album the blueprint. kanye takes a great bobby “blue” bland track and reworks it into possibly the best jay tune in existence. he speeds the sample up and changes the key and ends up with about the most soulful jay-z track there is. incredible. so this and the other kanye’s produced tracks off the blueprint were kind of the world’s first real exposure to the “kanye sound”, i.e. his use of samples. from then on, kanye released hit single after hit single. he also honed this sampling sound on his debut album the college dropout. this was such a new sound in rap, an eclectic mix of pop and hip-hop with the most inventive use of samples rap had heard in a long time. just a few artists kanye samples on this album: aretha franklin, marvin gaye, luther vandross, bette midler….what? yeah, bette midler. how crazy is that. and he pulls it off left and right. this album is too good.

with his sophomore release late registration, kanye only pushed his sound and his sampling further. this album was coproduced by kanye and jon brion (who composed such movie soundtracks as eternal sunshine of the spotless mind and punch-drunk love, among many others.), and it’s chock full of outrageous samples that kanye uses in the best possible way. here are just a few artists he samples: shirley bassey, otis redding, curtis mayfield, ray charles, among others. and he added a killer element to his sound, synth. there is so much great synth on this album; it’s really the driving element to this new phase of kanye’s sound.

so kanye added a very cool electronic aspect to his sound with late reg, and then dropped graduation two years later. i’m not really sure how to classify this album, if there even is a classification that would really fit it. i guess it’s a good mix between his first two albums, lots of elements of both albums are present here. and the samples are off the wall here too: daft punk, steely dan, michael jackson, elton john, etc. awesome. here is one of the greatest uses of one of the greatest songs of all time, p.y.t.:

ok you might be wondering how this is a sample? go back and listen to both one more time, paying extremely close attention to the chorus of p.y.t. and the main riff of good life. the entire foundation of good life is the chorus of p.y.t., just slowed waaaaaaay down. i remember the first time i realized that, i flipped out. kanye’s a genius. he takes one an amazing song and makes another amazing song. so great.

aside from his own work and his work with jay-z, ‘ye’s also produced loads of hit singles and outstanding albums, for everyone from beyonce to rhymefest to common to john legend to alicia keys to mariah carey. loads of stuff. and so much of it is good. he’s got the most addictive sound: so often loud, full, energetic, happy. such good summer music. his tunes are just the best hip-hop tunes i’ve ever heard, they hit me in just the right place, and they make me feel so full of life. he’s great; if you don’t know him, go buy his albums. and here’s one of the main reasons he’s my #1:

flashing lights

incredible. the synth…it’s all about the synth. possibly my favorite hip-hop tune of all time. it’s in the running anyway.

so that’s my list. congrats to kanye. but honestly, i would say the Top 3 are interchangeable. it all depends on what song is shooting through the old earbuds on what day. as everyone knows, different moods call for different songs, and that almost guarantees that no Top 5 list is completely set in stone. for me, the last month or two, i would’ve put kanye at 3, ?uest at 2, and quincy and mike at #1. the only reason kanye made it to #1 is cause i remember what it’s like when i’m in a kanye phase, and it’s just the best. it feels like summer. and speaking of, i’ve got a good feeling kanye, quincy, and ?uest’s new al green album will be in constant rotation in my car this summer. can’t wait.



Filed under Music, Spain, Top 5