Best known as rappers, Schoolly D, LL COOL J, Ice-T, EPMD, Too $hort, Ice Cube, Kwamé, and Ol’ Dirty Bastard also produced some of rap’s most acclaimed material.
It wasn’t important to many artists, but it was vital to Kwamé. The Queens, New York, act wanted to be known as a rapper-producer when he released his first album, 1989’s The Boy Genius.
“When it comes to rap, people only go by what is the cool thing to go by at the time,” Kwamé says. “So the cool thing is to have a big producer behind you or your producer/DJ. It just wasn’t a thing about being an artist-producer even though there’s never been an article or anything where I never mentioned it, because it was extremely important to me.”
Kwamé’s thinking was ahead of the curve, but many rappers who also produced in the 1980s and 1990s may only be recognized for their work behind the mic, not behind the boards. In reality, though, some of rap’s most influential and iconic artists also produced, including Too $hort, KRS-One, EPMD, and DJ Quik.
Two of the earliest rapper-producers were Kurtis Blow and Schoolly D. The former released several albums before emerging as a producer for himself and others, while the latter kicked in the door in 1985 with a self-produced song that is credited with introducing gangsta rap: “P.S.K. What Does It Mean?”
“I remember that Schoolly D was definitely one of the more intellectual producers at the time,” says QD3, who, like Schoolly D, produced songs on white female gangsta rapper Tairrie B’s 1990 LP, The Power of a Woman. “You have people who just have a really good sort of natural talent and then there’s other guys that that add another layer of intellect on top of it, like a Hank Shocklee. I feel like Schoolly D was somebody who definitely came in the game with a whole ‘nother level of business layer and a sort of technical expertise. You can tell just by the way he added that reverb on ‘P.S.K.’ that he wanted to stand out. He was like, ‘Let me do something to these drums that make it sound different than everybody else’s stuff.’ He put on the big arena reverb on those drums.”
LL COOL J’s early music rocked arenas, too. Even though LL helped shape the sonics on his first LP, 1985’s Radio, it was produced by Rick Rubin. When it was time to work on his second LP, LL COOL J stepped up as a producer, handling production duties on 1987’s Bigger and Deffer, which he produced with the L.A. Posse.
“Nobody looked at [LL] as a producer then,” says L.A. Posse member Darryl Pierce. “They just thought that he was a rapper. But you’ve got to use common sense. He has to have an idea of what he wants to do. He would come in with a record and be like, ‘Yo. I want this sound. Make it sound mean,’ and it was ‘Shaft.’”
The first song LL COOL J and the L.A. Posse recorded together was Bigger and Deffer’s explosive “Get Down,” which includes a sample of Isaac Hayes’ “Theme From Shaft.” For his part, LL COOL J was focusing on making great music, not establishing himself as a rapper-producer.
“I don’t even know that there was really an outlet for those kinds of conversations,” LL COOL J says. “Everybody was reading record credits. We would all rush home to read the credits of the album. The people that were early in the game would do that. But when you start talking about the press and stories and the idea of this one produces his own and this one doesn’t, where was that going to live? Where would that story live? It certainly wasn’t going to be in Billboard. They were going to talk about some rock shit. Word Up! was a fan magazine for kids, the Black equivalent of Tiger Beat or Black Beat. Those were fan mags. Those weren’t for industry heads.”
Kwamé proves LL COOL J’s point. Despite Kwamé’s best efforts, fans didn’t necessarily latch onto the fact that Kwamé and the Brothers Grimmmm wrote, performed, composed, arranged, and produced his 1990 LP A Day in the Life: A Pokadelick Adventure. “I can go back to all the random interviews that I did when I was younger, like Black Beat, Right On! magazine, and Billboard,” says Kwamé, who later produced for a wide range of acts including Lloyd Banks, Tweet, Will Smith, and Vivian Green. “They always made a point to state that I was an artist-producer because it just went along with the whole 'Boy Genius' moniker. So they always stated something about me playing instruments or me producing records. But the more important thing was, ‘Why do you wear polka dots?’"
As Kwamé was trying to establish himself as a rapper-producer to journalists and consumers, Big Daddy Kane and Ice-T were among the artists going from being produced to producing themselves.
Big Daddy Kane had worked exclusively with super-producer Marley Marl on 1988’s Long Live the Kane. On his second LP, 1989’s It’s a Big Daddy Thing, Big Daddy Kane produced nine of the collection’s 17 tracks, including the single “Smooth Operator.”
For his part, Ice-T was establishing himself as a sonic architect, thanks to his work with production partner Afrika Islam. “I had to grow into being a producer,” Ice-T says. “I was just trying to get my shit right. I wasn’t in a powerful enough mental position to say, ‘I can now help you in the studio.’"
Ice Cube was on a similar path. After learning under Dr. Dre while in N.W.A, and under the Bomb Squad and Sir Jinx while working on his 1990 debut LP, AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, Ice Cube grew into a producer with his second album, 1991’s explosive Death Certificate.
“He started off being absolutely an amateur and then still having the courage to try something that he didn’t know much about,” says Kam, who appeared on the Death Certificate cut “Color Blind.” “He soaked up game real good. Any teacher or leader, you have to start out being a good student. So he was a real good student. He was a real fast learner. He wasn’t scared to make mistakes. I admire that.”
Ice Cube studied and learned how to use studio equipment thanks to the wealth of producers he worked with in the early 1990s, including DJ Pooh, Sir Jinx, and Chilly Chill. Like other rapper-producers, Ice Cube knew the sound he wanted, which helped the creative process.
“LL, Ice Cube, and 2Pac were the best artists I’ve ever worked with,” QD3 says. “They had control over everything. They knew what they wanted, so if you gave them a beat, they wouldn’t meander. They would know right away. Especially with LL. When we were doing [LL's fifth album] 14 Shots to the Dome, he had a lot to do with the samples that we used, the type of songs and everything. He would more or less co-produce it, to be honest."
“He’d be like, ‘I like that bassline. Do you have a beat for it?’ ” says QD3, who produced 14 Shots to the Dome songs “Back Seat” and “Buckin’ Em Down.”
“I’d come up with one beat and then he’d be like, ‘Yeah. Try something else. Try this. Try this,’ and he would make you add like 10 different layers and then we’d start reducing it again. He wanted to always push the limits. The first thing that comes might be really, really dope. But try 10 more things. I just remember with LL it was a lot of hard work, in a good way. He was very specific about everything that he wanted.”
The same can be said for Ol’ Dirty Bastard. The late Brooklyn artist co-produced Wu-Tang Clan’s “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’ ” in 1993, and produced his own “Brooklyn Zoo” (with True Master) and “The Stomp” (co-produced with RZA) in 1995, among others.
“He didn’t master how to use the equipment,” RZA says of his cousin. “So because of that, you gotta tell somebody to sample this for me or loop this or cut it right here instead of being able to do it himself. But after the Wu-Tang came out, we bought him an ASR [advanced sampling recorder]. He only made three beats with it. One of them is ‘The Stomp.’ The other one is ‘Brooklyn Zoo’ with True Master.”
ODB rarely, if ever, talked in public about his work as a producer. Like the rapper-producers who emerged in rap’s golden era, getting credit for and being recognized as a rapper-producer wasn’t typically a driving point.
For that generation of artists, the focus was on making the best music possible. “The thinking was just different,” LL COOL J says. “It’s a total, totally different type of thinking.”