Sunday, July 13, 2008

Wait a minute...your favorite producer's a phony! A great big phony!

Dude all this guy does is sample trip hop, Middle Eastern songs and videogames. Oh and baby sounds, seriously what kind of sick fuck does that.

Word to that one Family Guy episode. My bad if I messed the quote up.

Recently I made a very intriguing find that sparked this idea for a blog post. Originally I had a detailed defense of Dwayne Carter lined up, and while it's finished and my logic on it's pretty much bulletproof, let's face it it's only been a little over a month and people've done enough talk about Tha Carter III to last a year. So I figured I'd spare you guys...for now.

But what prompted this somewhat random topic you ask? Well you see, I was listening to Jay-Z's The Blueprint the other day and came across something interesting. In my iTunes notes for "Never Change," I have the writing credits listed as S. Carter and B. Miller. And for the record right now I only occasionally include writing credits for rap songs where someone other than the rapper/producer/sampled artist is involved, or it's a "produced by The Neptunes"-style thing where only either Pharrell Williams or Chad Hugo wrote it...but yes I am a music nerd with too much time on his hands. Anyway, I had noticed this before, but it only just now hit me -- you might know Brian "Allday" Miller as the guy listed as the second producer on Kanye's decidedly non-highlight song (it's cool though don't get me wrong) "Champion" off last year's Graduation. In some random SOHH article a while back (no I don't make a habit of reading that rag) 'Ye also admitted that Miller did Cam'ron's "Down and Out," where production and co-writing are solely credited to 'Ye. I suppose the B. Miller on "Never Change" could be a different Miller who wrote the David Ruffin sample the song uses but I kinda doubt it, though feel free to correct me if I totally missed something obvious.

The point of all this? Don't get me wrong, I'm not ignorant about the instrumental/co-writing/co-production/occasionally even (gasp!) ghost production work hip-hop producers get done for them, but this one did kinda fuck me up, if only because unlike the other two songs there's clear evidence in the liners themselves that imply that 'Ye contributed nothing to one of my favorite BP tracks. That's not the point either though. The burning question this late Sunday night is: To what extent is your favorite producer responsible for their own output? I'm not an industry insider or anything (though just you wait...) but I do read, errrr, stuff, so going by what I know let's have a look shall we.

Timbaland. After The Neptunes overtook him in popularity/eventually quality for a time (both through their improvement and his temporary slight creative rut) and Tim Mosley fell off the radar sometime around 2003 or 2004, he made his Nelly Furtado/Justin Timberlake 2006 comeback with the help of new production partner Nate "Danja" Hills (who I call by his production company name Danjahandz cuz that sounds cooler than just Danja,) who added a more overt synth-pop layer to his new work. Naturally this got Internet nerds in a frenzy about "OMG, Timbo's not doing his own work!" despite the fact that none of Danjahandz's solo beats except T.I.'s "Tell 'Em I Said That" (and even that sounds distinct, albeit with Timbaland influences) sound as great as his best work with Tim/Tim's best work before mentoring him.

The truth as far as I can tell? Well, Timbaland's more of a rhythmic/sound genius than a melodic genius. A lot of his most melodic and slightly more traditional productions (Missy Elliott's "Take Away," Justin Timberlake's "What Goes Around.../...Comes Around," his Middle Eastern-sampling tracks, others I'm sure) are either done with co-writers/co-producers or use samples. Tim's not a trained musician so it makes sense that he'd have keyboardists and other instrumentalists working with him who occasionally are credited as having co-writing/co-production input on certain tracks. At the same time, none of this implies that he's not coming up with the shit himself. What's telling is that out of Tim's collaborators past and present -- Danjahandz, Scott Storch on the first JT album, random dudes you haven't heard of like Hannon Lane, Nisan Stewart, Big Tank, Craig Brockman and Brian Kidd (last seen producing two shitty Rich Boy Timbo-knockoff tracks) -- only Danja has blown up (well OK, Storch used to be hot but let's just forget about that) and if you listen to his solo beats compared to those other guys he's the only one with the potential to eventually improve to Tim's level. You can always tell when Timbaland's involved -- the melody, keys and sound effects might be completely different depending on the track, but there's always an unmistakable, unique and infectious off-kilter sense of rhythm. Often of the stuttering or beatboxed variety. So the ghost production BS to me is just that, bullshit.

Dr. Dre. It seems to me like Timbaland's overtaken Dre in ghost production whining shenanigans lately, both because Dre has kinda sucked since going one for four on Jay-Z's Kingdom Come and because Timbaland's become the hottest pop producer on the planet (though Polow da Don might be coming for the number one spot this year...not that he deserves it, "Love in This Club" is OK, Nas's "Hero" is listenable but let's not pretend it's all that far ahead of that bullshit "Forever" Chris Brown single that's all over the radio.) But Dre's been dogged by ghost production allegations for a while now -- anyone from Daz Dillinger to Mel-Man, Scott Storch, Mike Elizondo, Ron Feemster, Mark Batson and Dawaun Parker (I trust you all check your liner notes and are familiar with each and every one of these guys) depending on what era you're talking about. So is it true? Is the supposed perfectionist really just a lazy motherfucker caking off other honest people's hard work?

Well, I think the complaints about Dre are more justified than those about Timbaland, mostly because the different phases of Dre's work are pretty distinct (Timbo's changed/evolved while retaining his trademark weirdo rhythmic sense as mentioned.) West Coast G-funk, futuristic spaced-out shit on 2001, loopy minimalist Eminem shit, more straightforward hard piano for 50 Cent/G-Unit. Like Timbo Dre's not a trained musician, and while he comes up with the drum beats for songs he's talked about his process before and it's basically jam sessions where he isolates individual session players/collaborators and refines/improves their sound. There's also the fact that on a lot of Dre's best mid/late-period songs guys like Storch, Elizondo and Mark Batson tend to have at least co-writing credits, if not co-production.

Once again though, through our infallible "are these guys as good without their evil exploiting producer?" logic we observe that none of these guys have blown up on their own except Scott Storch...and really now, what songs does Storch have that're that good? OK, I like "You Ain't Know" and "Make It Rain" even though they still can't fuck with the truly elite producers' best beats, but let's not forget the cornball bullshit he put out when he was hot ("Lean Back," "Naughty Girl," the double pandering 50 Cent threat "Candy Shop"/"Just a Lil' Bit.") Oh, and a couple lame Dre-lite knockoff tracks for The Game. As for Daz Dillinger, if you can't hear the difference between his beats on 2Pac's All Eyez on Me and Dre's work on The Chronic and Doggystyle I just feel sorry for your ears. Well OK "Skandalouz" is the smoothness, but still.

DJ Premier/Pete Rock/9th Wonder. I'm not equating/comparing any of these guys so don't get mad 9th haters. However these guys all share a true-school (or in 9th's case throwback) aesthetic -- namely, soul/jazz samples and boom-bap drum patterns. As far as I know they don't get any help (though I'm less familiar with Pete Rock outside of his best known stuff -- I know, blasphemy and I'll correct it soon,) but remember that they use samples. Don't get me wrong, I like Premo and Kanye West and Just Blaze are two of my favorite rap producers so this isn't a rockist "psssh...rap takes no talent dude!" deal, but you do have a melodic advantage when you're working with previously recorded material. So think of the ghosts of soul, jazz, hell probably blues music too's past as their co-writers. Hey, they're credited as 'em in the liner notes! Unless of course on the occasion these guys don't wanna pay for sampling...those crazy hip-hop kids...

Just Blaze. Same thing as far as I can tell, I just didn't group him with those guys cuz he's basically a more hard-hitting, amped the fuck up next-gen version of DJ Premier, but not entirely true school (being vague I know)/not traditional boom bap.

Kanye West. I was also gonna include Kanye with those guys except for the fact that he actually does have collaborators like I mentioned. We all know about Jon Brion's love-or-hate orchestral contributions to Late Registration, Toomp's work on "Good Life," "Can't Tell Me Nothing" and "Big Brother," as well as a bunch of other instrumentalists and producers under him especially on Graduation. However, I'll let Kanye's verse on "Barry Bonds" tell it: "I don't need writeers, I might bounce ideas/But only I could come up with some shit like this." I can't lie, it'd be cooler if 'Ye did his work by himself especially when you consider that he already uses samples as the base of his beats, but "Good Life" and "Can't Tell Me Nothing" have distinct elements compared to Toomp's solo work, and again there's the fact that none of his other collaborators have blown up on their own. Well I know Brion's supposed to be a real talented dude and obviously LR wouldn't have been possible musically without him, but I can't say I'm familiar with his pop work. I know, so ignorant.

Swizz Beatz. Seriously? You've heard "Ruff Ryders' Anthem," if you can't do that shit on your own you just plain suck. I'm being hard on Swizzy though, he's really stepped his game up in the last few years. He's not elite in my mind but he's nice with the singles, as "Bring Em Out"/"I'm a Hustla"/"Diamonds on My Neck"/"It's Me Bitches" can attest to. You can't really act like "Dr. Carter's" a stroke of Swizzgenius though when he just jacked a jazz sample for it. One of my favorite Carter III tracks (shit I broke the no Wayne rule here!,) just pointing that out.

The Neptunes. And finally, we get to the purest hip-hop producers of them all (not meant to be ironic, we're talking purity from the production ghosts my friend.) Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo have never been dogged by ghost production accusations, at least not to my knowledge, and almost all their work consists of original compositions. If they were Scott Storch or Lil' Jon-style Top 40 hacks I wouldn't give a shit, but they're two of the most ingenious hip-hop producers ever, so I gotta give 'em props. I've tended toward Tim since his big comeback but now I'm still not always sure who I like better. What can I say, both two, I mean three really talented dudes. Anyway Pharrell has kinda diminished the Neptunes brand in the last couple years by producing a bunch of pale second-rate beats while still credited as "The Neptunes," even though in my mind he's more than redeemed himself with the great new N.E.R.D. album, his solo debut and to a lesser extent the Clipse's Hell Hath No Fury, but there's no fronting on these guys in their prime. Actually it makes sense that a production duo wouldn't need outside help, no? From their respective solo work (seriously, check Chad Hugo's work on Kenna's Make Sure They See My Face from last year, cinematic shit) it's clear that Pharrell is the synth-pop/funk/percussion half, and Chad Hugo's the nerdier, zapping outer-space synths sci-fi guy. At their peak I'm sure they fed off each other's good ideas.

Although, while his lazy recent work for anyone not named the Clipse, himself, or N.E.R.D. (which basically is just Pharrell now come to think of it...) might have you thinking otherwise, it might be a good thing that Pharrell and Hugo are working separately now. Out of the three songs on N.E.R.D.'s Seeing Sounds that involve both Neptunes only "Love Bomb" is great. "Anti Matter" might actually be the worst Neptunes beat in the last 1-2 years, which is saying something considering the massive shit Pharrell recently took on half of Madonna's album and Common's two new songs.

Anyway, I know this kind of turned into stanning for The Neptunes at the end (and just for the record Timbaland is still the man, this isn't fair-weather/"who's hot" shenanigans,) but if you managed to make it this far hopefully we all got some edumucation on what does and doesn't go on behind the dark, shady hip-hop scenes. Don't worry, your favorite producers really do their own work. They might just get a little help sometimes.

Oh, and props to Jeff Weiss over at Passion of the Weiss. I had a nice email chat with him about the "Never Change" Jay-Z deal and originally wasn't gonna make the topic a blog, but what can I say it was a thought-provoking exchange. Plus I needed something to write about. Besides the infallibility of Weezy F. Baby that is.

UPDATE: I'm an idiot, the song 'Ye sampled for "Never Change" is in fact written by a different B. Miller, Bobby Miller actually. And it took me about five seconds on Google to just find that out. Ah well, I did get a post out of it and it's good to know the beat was his own work.


brandon said...

On the ghostwriting tip and Pete Rock, there's a lot of talk that Large Professor actually made the classic 'TROY' beat.

Nice post! Keep em coming!

Vee (Scratch) said...

As far as the Dr. Dre is concerned. Many cats think just because they programmed a beat they're producers. Or just because they can work Pro-Tools they're producers but probably lack the overall ability to put the song together from beginning to end.

By many fans definition, Quincy Jones* is not a producer because he does what Puffy more or less does. And then there's Rick Rubin. *I know Quincy wore many hats.

Bringing in a talent like Jon Brion is similar to getting Premier to do scratches for you. It is what a producer does to make a record complete. Jermaine Dupri was worked with many talents, but he sure knows how to make the record complete.

Jonathan said...

I'm an amateur producer (isn't everybody?) and as far as samples and etc. go, I find that using them isn't a shortcut at all. When I make beats, it's all about making the different sounds do I want them to do, and I need to be just as creative working with a sample as I do with guitar/keyboard parts I've played and recorded myself. Perhaps other people have a different experience, but for me, I don't think sampling is riding on anyone else's ideas.

(Also: nice read. Good analysis, and your conclusions were admirably fair-minded.)

Trey Stone said...

i actually did know about the Large Pro thing with "T.R.O.Y.," it just slipped my mind cuz like i said i'm not especially knowledgeable about the guy outside of that song and a few others. good catch.

vee -- yeah i know what you're saying, and that kinda fleshes out my "these guys aren't as good without him" argument more. obviously Timbaland was shit-talking when he subliminally dissed Storch with "i'm a real producer and you just the piano man" on "Give It to Me" last year, but considering what he sounds like without Dre it's hard to argue with.

although, while Quincy Jones and Dre are definitely directly involved producers i see Puffy as more of an executive production figure at this point. i mean i dunno what exact involvement he had in picking those samples/the drums back in Bad Boy's golden days with the rest of the Hitmen but he seems like more of a mogul. although those LV and Sean C guys who produced Jay-Z's last album with him haven't sounded as good without maybe mostly exec, occasional producer nowadays?

jonathan -- yeah i wasn't saying sampling = talentless. i know there's some sample-based producers who chop 'em up in a completely different way and obviously not just any whoever can do that. it's definitely a different process from original composition though just by nature, and there's also guys like Kanye West who don't wanna fuck with the melody so they basically loop the sample and add new elements that build on it. i've only fucked around with a friend's beat/synth machine a couple times though lol so i can't say i have firsthand experience.

thanks guys, appreciate it

tray said...

Yeah, I thought there was a sort of anti-sampling undercurrent going on here. Personally I've always felt that sampled beats are more, you know, "real hip-hop"... while folks like the Neptunes and Timbo provide agreeable backdrops for non-rapping rappers like Noreaga and Missy to spew their gibberish over. Speaking in very broad terms, of course. But an interesting post... it's always good to hear some new reasons to deem Kanye an overrated hack.

Trey Stone said...

i agree that Timbaland seems to like working with rappers who're all about stylistic weirdness and being goofy, but i wouldn't lump Nelly Furtado and JT into that category. not that their new albums try to make any groundbreaking statement (and they're not rap 'course) but there's more to 'em than "Promiscuous" and "SexyBack" (great songs, but obviously more about the vibe than anything)

as for The Neptunes. they broke with Mystikal/Noreaga/Nelly type guys because that's what you need to do if you wanna get in demand but their Star Trak/affiliated artists are a different story. while i've talked about my problems with the Clipse and obviously Kelis is just kinda weird (not familiar with her outside of "Milkshake" though,) Kenna is a really good singer and N.E.R.D. is their best project. Pharrell is a really weird and insular dude but he's also real smart, the way he approaches N.E.R.D.'s really juvenile stuff is pretty funny and elevates 'em above braindead, vacuous Top 40 stuff. well and N.E.R.D.'s beats of course