What makes an amazing producer? Is it their technical know-how, or their innate musicianship? Is it an ear for a hit or a knack for the commercial? The ability to faithfully reproduce an artist’s sound, or steer them in a new direction? Do you need people skills, a GSOH or experience as a babysitter?
Having compiled our list of the Top 50 Producers Ever, it seems it’s some or all of the above, albeit in wildly varying degrees. Our countdown of influential producers features a massive range of talented individuals, from studio pioneers to improv legends, students of the understated and masters of the bombast.
The only thing they have in common is that they play a massively important and yet largely under-appreciated role in music. As we toast their genius, one of my favourite producers Nile Rodgers - who found fame with Chic, before producing albums for the likes of Madonna, David Bowie and Duran Duran - gives his own take on the process.
What makes a great producer?
Almost all the producers I know and dig, like Quincy Jones or Brian Eno, are really musicians first. I’m a composer, an orchestrator, an arranger and a musician first. I know how to write and rewrite songs, and the genius is really in the rewriting. You don’t hear the first or second or sometimes only fiftieth thing we producers do, you hear the final one. That’s the gift of really great producers: they’re terrific writers or rewriters.
That said, there are some that are strictly engineers, who can’t pick up your instrument and explain your idea back to you or rewrite your idea on another instrument but are still great. They’re also brilliant producers because they’re great organisers or cheerleaders. A great producer has to keep the artist pumped up.
Is there any one thing that’s most important than the rest?
From my point of view, a really good producer is one that gives the artist a level of real comfort. My responsibility is to the artist first. There’s something that artists intrinsically know about their music and their fanbase that neither the record company nor the producer really knows. We have to meld into their alter ego, and be comfortable with them. We have to be an extension of who they are. Once we really connect with them, we can make them comfortable so they can connect to their fanbase and their work. You become an extension of the artist.
This is the way I’ve chosen to work, and why I feel so comfortable with everyone I work with, regardless of if they’re a jazz artist or classical or African or French. It makes no difference to me. I get completely immersed in their world. I live almost for them, for the time we’re working together. Listening, reading, talking – mainly talking to them. Nothing clues me in as much as my conversations with the artists. I don’t believe in the philosophy of stumbling across hit records.
You’ve worked with everyone from David Bowie to Diana Ross, Madonna and Duran Duran. How have these partnerships come about?
My career has been wacky and not at all normal. I’ve never had a manager, nobody gets jobs for me. I wind up working with artists that I meet. Our whole relationship starts from a real encounter and develops into a business relationship. Apart from minor exceptions like Sister Sledge, all the biggest artists I’ve worked with have come like that. Diana Ross was the first proper star I worked with. We spent three days interviewing her, as if we were making a documentary. After three days when we had digested all that material, only then did we start to compose.
You're currently working with a totally diverse bunch of musicians, including Scissor Sisters, Daft Punk and Adam Lambert. How does that work?
I grew up as a studio musician. I walk in, read the music, start to rewrite the parts and re-interpet them and work off the other musicians in the room. For any of those three, I had to get myself in the situation and think ‘hmm, now what do I bring to the party, understanding everybody else’s role in the situation? How do I play to this person's strengths so that we all end up winning the game?'
In your book (Le Freak: An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco and Destiny) you talk about the Deep Hidden Meaning of a song. Can you explain the concept?
As a producer you have to really understand what the song is really about. If you don’t understand that, how can you transmit the message? I have to know what my artist is trying to convey. Take David Bowie’s ‘China Girl’. I knew David was a recovering drug addict at the time, but that when he wrote the song he was probably very much an active drug addict. So I just assumed that a song, with ‘china white’ and girl’ was slang for speedballing. I made up my own Deep Hidden Meaning, because I didn’t want to get David into an uncomfortable position.
One of your most unique qualities as a producer is the ability to steer an artist in a new direction. David Bowie’s dance direction springs to mind.
What’s interesting about my big hit records is that I’m usually helping the artist go to that next place in their career, and the record companies and gatekeepers haven’t seen that place yet. They’ve only seen the past and can’t imagine the future. Madonna was a good example.
You have to make these records with the concept of the future in mind. Quite often albums don’t come out for a while after they’re released. Labels have to digest the record, take on the vision, and work out what it represents. Because they’re not really sure in advance, especially with me as a producer. It may come out sounding nothing like the demos, and if I’m the writer they don’t even hear the demos. I only give them a record. That’s probably half the reason I didn’t do as much as I could have.
What do you think of modern production? Is there a laziness nowadays in the digital age?
I don’t know how other people do what they do. They come up with brilliant stuff. In my era it was all live musicians and live music. Even in early digital, we only switched because the format went faster. We still approached everything in a linear way, which is still how I think. I can’t say that people are lazy now, because they only know the way they’ve come up. Records make you feel good, and even if they don’t sound as well as I like that doesn’t matter because we rarely listen with big beautiful speakers nowadays but earbuds.
50 greatest producers ever