Producers are an often overlooked but always integral part of the recording process. They’re the people who often make the idea come alive. We highlight and celebrate the 50 most influential producers ever. Edited and compiled by Tim Chester.
50 DJ Shadow
Remix work – and a stint in UNKLE with his Mo’ Wax boss James Lavelle – aside, Josh Davis has largely kept his production smarts to himself, extending the remit of sampladelica beyond anyone’s imagination. Essentially a hip-hop album, 1996 debut ‘Endtroducing…..’ took sample culture to its (un)natural conclusion as Davis pieced together the entire record from snippets of jazz and psychedelic tunes picked up in record stores, along with cuts from interviews and other hip-hop records, and spliced it all together with his AKAI MPC60.
49 Paul Epworth
The Grammy Award-winning Paul Epworth, we should say. Adele’s ‘21’ has ensured Epworth will never want for diamond-encrusted mixing desks, but he was already well established as a producer of classy albums on the right side of the cool divide. To that category you can add Bloc Party’s ‘Silent Alarm’, Florence and the Machine’s ‘Lungs’ and even Plan B’s schizoid double. And to top it all, he’s been helping 2012’s future ruler Azealia Banks with her forthcoming debut album ‘Broke With Expensive Taste’. We’ll gloss over the first Kate Nash album. MH
48 George Clinton
While George Clinton is perhaps best known for his production on his own work, most notable Parliament and Funkadelic, and creating p-funk, he was also called in behind the desk for Bootsy Collins and Red Hot Chili Peppers for their seminal ‘Freaky Styley’ album.
47 Pete Rock
Making his name with CL Smooth and their seminal 1992 hit ‘They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.), Pete Rock was one of the movers and shakers of a jazzy style of hip-hop practised by Stetasonic, A Tribe Called Quest and, of course Guru and Gang Starr. On his own, Rock has become one of the most influential producers of his era and in his field, credited on Nas’s Illmatic, albums by Redman and Common and Jay-Z and Kanye West’s ‘Watch The Throne’. He’s also flexed his remixing skills on tracks by artists ranging from Black Eyed Peas to Scritti Politti.
Diggs secured his place in hip-hop history from the get-go producing his group Wu-Tang Clan’s 1993 debut ‘Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)’ and introducing the world to a new, fluid, insidiously menacing style of rap production. Wu-Tang albums have popped up only occasionally, but the collective’s solo efforts have kept the RZA in work – as have precursors Cypress Hill and, recently, Kanye West on ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ – and he’s enjoyed a nice sideline as Bobby Digital, releasing three unhinged albums in the 2000s, plus another under the RZA name. MH
45 Roy Thomas Baker
Let’s put it this way: ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. Even if you’re heartily sick of it 30-odd years down the line, you have to admit it’s a production job of some chutzpah. Baker was behind half a dozen Queen albums as well as Free’s classic blues-rock third ‘Fire And Water’, but he managed to evolve his style to produce a clutch of Cars and Devo albums in the 80s. One of the many who attempted to harness Guns ‘N Roses’ ‘Chinese Democracy’, Baker returned to the pomp rock fold with The Darkness’s ‘One Way Ticket To Hell… And Back’ in 2005. MH
44 Jerry Wexler
From that most noble of backgrounds – music journalism – Jerry Wexler went on to become one of the most revered record industry executives, co-heading Atlantic Records and getting his hands dirty in the production booth. He steered Aretha Franklin from gospel to soul, produced Dusty Springfield’s ‘Dusty In Memphis’, worked regularly with Ray Charles and set Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack on their way to stardom, confirming his place as one of the true visionaries of classic R&B. All this and he even managed to coax a gospel album – 1979’s Slow Train Coming – out of Bob Dylan.
43 Jimmy Miller
US producer Jimmy Miller struck up a fruitful mid-60s relationship with Steve Winwood and never looked back, working on records by the Spencer Davis Group and other Winwood projects Traffic and Blind Faith, before etching his name in louche rock’n’roll folklore with his production on peerless Rolling Stones albums ‘Let It Bleed’, ‘Sticky Fingers’, ‘Exile On Main Street’ and more. It was this intimate acquaintance with the more addled end of rock that led Primal Scream to bring Miller in to help out on 1991’s ‘Screamadelica’.
42 Steve Albini
Uncompromising hard rock, punk, grunge, you-name-it producer Steve Albini arrived with his own noise outfit Big Black in the early 80s and has continued to record since, for the last 20 years with Shellac. But his fame – whether sought or not, as he attempted to avoid major label advances – is down to his production work, whether boosting Pixies along the path to legend status on ‘Surfer Rosa’ or trying to keep Nirvana in one piece on ‘In Utero’.
41 Trevor Horn
Fresh from the Buggles – and an alarming stint in Yes – Trevor Horn established himself as the 80s producer nonpareil with his opulent pop efforts on ABC’s 1982 debut album ‘The Lexicon Of Love’. The Sheffield new romantics torpedoed themselves but Horn moved on to make Malcolm McLaren an unexpected hip-hop pioneer on ‘Duck Rock’ and set the chart goalposts aflame with mid-80s situationist phenomenon Frankie Goes To Hollywood.
40 Steve Lillywhite
Steve Lillywhite’s breakthrough came with Siouxsie and the Banshees’ 1978 top 10 hit ‘Hong Kong Garden’, revolutionising the post-punk band’s sound with an innovative approach to laying down the drums. With his name made Lillywhite became Island’s in-house producer, capturing U2’s stadium echo on their early recordings and later overseeing Morrissey’s trio of mid-90s albums. It wasn’t all rosy – Lillywhite was in the chair for The La’s’ sole album, immediately disowned by loose cannon Lee Mavers.
39 Trent Reznor
Nine Inch Nails noisenik Trent Reznor has been draping his industrial squall over the US alternative scene for the best part of three decades, most commonly with NIN but most notoriously with shock-rock misfit Marilyn Manson. NIN’s 1989 debut Pretty Hate Machine was a proto-grunge shot in the arm for hard rock, fusing cranium-caving industrial noise with samples to form an unlikely transatlantic hit, and greater success followed as Reznor honed a warped pop sensibility.
Prince Rogers Nelson was just a teenager when he released debut album ‘For You’ in 1978, displaying precocious dexterity in writing, producing and performing the whole record all on his tod. He would take on and discard additional musicians over the years but continued to produce his sleazy pop-funk himself, delving into psychedelia on 1985’s ‘Around The World In A Day’, taking care of almost every element of 1987 tour de force ‘Sign ‘O’ The Times’ and becoming a global phenomenon on his own terms.
37 Mark Ronson
London fop Mark Ronson emerged blinking into the light with the frat boy hip-hop of his 2003 debut ‘Here Comes The Fuzz’ but was soon lined up for production work with Christina Aguilera and Lily Allen. But the championship move came with Amy Winehouse’s 2006 classic ‘Back To Black’ where Ronson’s natural old skool instincts provided the perfect bed for Winehouse’s retro soul obsessions and set a template for the adult pop of the next decade.
36 Max Martin
Max Martin is the Swedish pop producer with the almost unfailing Midas touch. In the game since the mid-90s, he’s presided over successes by R&B-tinged boybands Backstreet Boys and N’Sync and sprinkled his big ballsy hit dust over P!nk’s ‘So What’ and Kelly Clarkson’s awesome ‘Since U Been Gone’. Specialising in pop with the punchy dynamics of rock music, Martin can take (co-)credit for Britney Spears’ globe-scoffing smashes ‘…Baby One More Time’ and ‘Oops!… I Did It Again’ and the endless stream of chart-toppers from Katy Perry’s ‘Teenage Dream’.
35 Jeff Lynne
Beatles fandom has its own rewards. From drenching the Electric Light Orchestra in classic Fab pop in the 70s to masterminding George Harrison’s solo renaissance at the end of the 80s, Jeff Lynne has worn his Beatley heart on his sleeve. It led to some great MOR hits for ELO and a stint with supergroup The Traveling Wilburys as Lynne cornered the market in warm, plush production, effortlessly speaking to the CD-buying baby boomers.
The disco genius behind Carl Douglas’s immortal ‘Kung Fu Fighting’, Biddu Appaiah left Bangalore for England in 1967 to make his name as a singer. The background would soon claim him however, as recognition on the Northern Soul scene bled into success with Douglas before Biddu found himself scoring disco-soaked softcore Brit flicks The Stud and The Bitch. His none-more-commercial disco touch also lit up Tina Charles’s UK No.1‘I Love To Love (But My Baby Loves To Dance)’ but as disco faded he moved into Bollywood soundtracks and eclectic work with his own Biddu Orchestra. MH
33 Danger Mouse
Compulsive collaborator Danger Mouse (or Brian Burton in plain clothes) cemented his reputation fast with ‘The Grey Album’, his droll 2004 mash-up of Jay-Z’s ‘The Black Album’ and The Beatles’ White Album. Burton’s sonic skills were in immediate demand, with his dusty, organic sound attracting Damon Albarn – Gorillaz’ ‘Demon Days’, ‘The Good, The Bad & The Queen’ – and sprucing up The Black Keys for a chart assault. His cash-snatching highpoint has been the hip-hop soul of Gnarls Barkley but Burton’s been working with U2 and Daft Punk (not together, thankfully) in pursuit of greater glory. MH
32 Jimmy Iovine
Music industry mogul Jimmy Iovine started out as an engineer on albums by Bruce Springsteen and John Lennon before breaking through as Patti Smith’s producer on ‘Easter’, containing the Springsteen song ‘Because The Night’. He excelled himself in the 80s, cornering the accomplished US AOR market with work for Tom Petty and Stevie Nicks, overseeing Dire Straits’ 1980 album ‘Makin’ Movies’ and becoming U2’s go-to live producer for ‘Under A Blood Red Sky’ and ‘Rattle And Hum’.
31 Tom Dowd
Tom Dowd was an in-house engineer at Atlantic Records for 25 years, working the knobs for artists including JohnColtrane, Charlie Mingus and Ornette Coleman before stepping up to helm records by Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett. In the 1970s he stepped into the rock sphere, shaping the blues boogie of The Allman Brothers and teaming up regularly with Eric Clapton – and putting them all together in Derek And The Dominos. Dowd is also the man responsible for the making of Rod Stewart as a global force, cannily blending rock, soul and MOR on 1975’s Atlantic Crossing.
30 Sam Phillips
Rock’n’roll might have happened anyway without Sam Phillips, but it would have probably not been the same. Starting out in the blues world, he set up Sun Records and have hands in the early careers of Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash. In fact, it was Howlin’ Wolf who Phillips considered to be his greatest discovery. The second? Elvis Presley, who he famously discouraged from releasing a ballad, and so changed the course of history.
29 Berry Gordy
Not just the man who made Motown great, but the man who made Motown. Not just a brilliant producer responsible for forging the trademark Tamla sound, first with The Miracles and on through The Supremes and eventually The Jackson 5, Gordy coupled his melodic and technical nous with the skill as a manager and record executive to create a beacon that would define the shape that black American music was going to take.
28 J Dilla
As jobbing producer for the likes of A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Busta Rhmes and Common, James Dewitt Yancey would eventually become one of the most lauded hip-hop producers of his generation. His work as an artist in his own right with underground crew Slum Village was also growing in stature by the early 2000s, and J Dilla was truly on his way. Tragically, as his music was hitting its tipping point, he died in 2006 of the rare blood disorder TTP, at the age of just 32.
27 Mutt Lange
Chest-beating, fist-pumping and elbow-clutching just wouldn’t exist in the same way without the sterling work of multitrack pioneer Robert John ‘Mutt’ Lange. One of the very architects of arena rock, he put the ‘oof’ in AC/DC’s ‘Highway To Hell’ and ‘Back To Black’ and be credited with a large part of the success of Foreigner and Def Leppard, and co-wrote Bryan Adam’s planet-eating ‘Everything I Do (I Do It For You’)
Showing no small skill in aligning himself with music’s most powerful, Lange was last heard on Lady Gaga’s ‘You And I’ – one of the better tracks on ‘Born This Way’.
26 Teo Macero
One of the giants of the jazz world, Macero served as in-house producer at Columbia, where he produced seminal records by Miles Davis, including ‘Kind Of Blue’ and ‘Bitches Brew’. Macero’s mastery on those records, along with Dave Brubeck’s ‘Time Out’ meant he was the man behind three of the most famous jazz records of all time.
25 John Leckie
An apprenticeship with the greats at Abbey Road was always going to stand the young Leckie in good stead, but making two iconic records of consecutive decades is Godlike by anyone’s standards. ‘The Stone Roses’ actually provided the watermark where the 80s ended moved on into an age of something grander, and five years later he achieved the same majesty with Radiohead and ‘The Bends’.
24 DJ Premier
Hip-hop braggadocio can account for a lot, but not for the chosen nom de plume of Christopher Edward Martin. For most of the 90s and beyond, he was the genre’s most distinguished trackmaster, representing the New York sound more authentically than anyone else. Dre may have been bigger, but Premier’s mastery with jazz and funk samples, together with fierce loops and heavy scratching made his a generation’s go-to guy. Plus his encyclopedic memory for rhymes means he can scratch in lines from different songs to create entirely new phrases. Way cool.
23 Jim Steinman
Never has rock been more melodramatic and piano-drenched than when it comes from the hand of El Steino. Quite fitting for a man with a background in musical theatre (Whistle Down The Wind), and he brought those qualities to the table in wheelbarrow’s to Meat Loaf’s ‘Bat Out Of Hell’ and its sequel. But never one to let bombast overshadow the emotional core, he was also the brains (as well as the brawn) behind Bonnie Tyler’s ‘Total Eclipse Of The Heart’.
One of the founding fathers of all the best bits of modern US R&B. And so you can’t hate him if some of the schlock can be traced back to him also. Babyface was a pioneer of New Jack Swing in the 80s, before setting up LaFace with old mucker Antonia ‘LA’ Reid to give the world TLC, Usher and Toni Braxton under their guiding hand. There’s barely a prominent artist in the genre he hasn’t worked with, and as a result he’s clocked up a mammoth 26 R&B number ones.
21 Chris Thomas
It takes a genius to work on both punk and prog, and do both justice, but Chris Thomas had the Midas touch. Not only did he mix ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ (and produce several key Roxy Music albums including ‘For Your Pleasure’), Thomas also helmed The Sex Pistols’ debut single ‘Anarchy In The UK’. Versatile indeed.
20 Andrew Weatherall
While Weatherall is as much a remixer as he is a producer, he’s nevertheless played a vital role in the development of indie music and in particular its intersection with dance sensibilities. It was his re-edit of ‘I’m Losing More Than I’ll Ever Have’ and work overall on Screamadelica that made Primal Scream so vital in the early nineties, and his mixes of My Bloody Valentine and New Order are as vital as his strictly production work on Fuck Buttons and Beth Orton.
19 Daniel Lanois
Rolling Stone once called Lanois the most important producer of the 80s, and they’ve kind of got a point. While Brian Eno gets most of the credit, the chair next to him was occupied by Lanois on numerous occasions, including during the making of U2’s ‘The Joshua Tree’. He worked his magic on several albums for Bono, as well as for Bob Dylan, Peter Gabriel and Willie Nelson, coaxing a unique widescreen sonic template from the studio.
18 Todd Rundgren
Four words: ‘Bat Out Of Hell’. There’s a reason Meat Loaf’s debut album sat on the charts for nearly 500 weeks, and it lays in Rundgren’s work on the sound desk. His production nous was employed by a whole host of artists in the 70s, however, making him the go-to guy of the decade. Surprisingly, he also had time for a successful solo career and was a pioneer of music videos and internet-based music services. TC
17 Stephen Street
Another one of those guys who contributed as much in the live room as he did behind the desk, Street was almost more of a musician than a producer. Although perhaps best known for his work with The Smiths, he actually only stepped up from engineer to producer for their swansong, ‘Strangeways, Here We Come’, and hit his creative stride with subsequent albums for Morrissey, followed by Blur and then The Cranberries.
16 The Neptunes
Few producers have owned such a distinctive sound as Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo. Their late ‘90s future funk was stamped across all manner of top artists, from Justine Timberlake to Britney, Kelis to Jay-Z. Crucially, though, it always sounded unmistakably Neptunes-y.
15 T Bone Burnett
Multi-Grammy Award winner Burnett has worked behind the desk for all manner of artists, from Elvis Costello to Spinal Tap (and also played guitar for Bob Dylan on the Rolling Thunder Revue) but his real genius lies in his all-American soundtracks, from The Big Lebowski to O Brother Where Art Thou and Walk The Line.
14 Nigel Godrich
The sixth member of Radiohead has been a key driving force behind the band’s constantly evolving sound since the mid-nineties. While John Leckie can claim credit for their earliest work, he engineered ‘The Bends’ and co-produced one of their greatest tracks, ‘Black Star’ and was their inseperable friend and partner in crime since then.
Having produced minor R&B acts for a couple of years, Timbaland hit paydirt with LPs for Ginuwine, Aaliyah and Missy, and went on to forge a fine line in hop hop / R&B crossover tracks, blurring the formerly sharp distinctions between the two. He’s been relentless prolific and equally as diverse ever since, while retaining a true Timbaland sound. Producing material for Justin Bieber nowadays, but the greens must make it worthwhile.
12 Arif Mardin
Part of the trio credited with creating Atlantic records’ signature sound (with Tom Dowd and Jerry Wexler), Mardin cut his teeth as Ahmet Ertegun’s brother Nesushi’s assistant. From the belly of the Atlantic beast he honed his craft on an almost endless string of hits from Phil Collins to Hall & Oates, Culture Club and The Bee Gees, ensuring he was behind the sound of your mum’s car stereo for years to come. A man with the Midas touch regardless of the genre.
11 Lee Scratch Perry
Perry was a true pioneer. One of reggae’s early adoptors, he began innovating at the very beginning of his career, sampling baby cries for ‘People Funny Boy’, and went on to push the mixing board to its limits from his bespoke Black Ark studio, kind of inventing dub in the process. A master of sparse and minimal atmospheric production.
10 Dr. Dre
Leaving aside Andre Romelle Young’s astounding career as an artist in his own right (first in N.W.A. then solo with the Grammy-winning debut ‘The Chronic’), Dr Dre has left an indelible mark on hip hop and urban music through countless other acts. ‘The Real Slim Shady’ and ‘In Da Club’ are just the tip of the iceberg.
9 Butch Vig
Thought ‘Nevermind’ was a bit good? You’ve got this behind-the-scenes genius to thank. Garbage’s drummer was the driving force behind many of the best grunge and alt rock albums of the early nineties, including The Smashing Pumpkins’ ‘Gish’, and Sonic Youth’s ‘Dirty’. TC
8 Brian Wilson
While the world loves ‘Good Vibrations’, ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’, ‘God Only Knows’ and the rest, few consider quite how groundbreaking Brian Wilson’s studio techniques were in the mid-60s. Hand written notations, multi-track experimentation, flirtations with echoes and reverb and the concept of the studio itself as an instrument all joined forces to produce an LP, ‘Pet Sounds’, that would baffle most producers today.
7 Brian Eno
Brian Eno’s management refer to him as a “sonic landscaper” rather than a producer, but while that may sound howlingly pretentious coming from most quarters, with him it kind of fits. The man previously known as Roxy Music’s keyboardist has left popular music, and the outlying territories of sound, an awful lot, from Windows’ start up theme to U2’s most epic work, as well as Coldplay’s bombast.
6 Rick Rubin
One of Rick Rubin’s greatest strengths as a producer, aside from his technical know-how and his way with a mixing desk, is his ability to get on with anyone and coax the best from them, regardless of genre. His seven Grammy wins (and numerous nominations) stretch across all types of music, from rap to metal and country. Run DMC, Slayer, and the Dixie Chicks are just three wildly diverse acts from an astonishing number that owe him a serious debt.
5 Phil Spector
Writing, singing on, and producing a chart-topping hit record before your 20th birthday aint a bad way to kick start a career, and that’s exactly how Phil Spector announced himself to the world with The Teddy Bears’ ‘To Know Him Is To Love Him’.
4 Nile Rodgers
Nile Rodgers’ CV from the ‘80s reads like a who’s who of who was hot and on top during that decade. Having resucitated disco with Chic’s raft of hi-NRG hits (‘Le Freak’, the astonishingly good ‘I Want Your Love’ and ‘Good Times’, which also went on to pretty much define hip hop via the Sugahill samples) he went on to produce a frankly embarrassing wealth of riches.
3 Quincy Jones
Where to even begin with this one? 55 years in the business, 79 Grammy nominations, 110 million record sales (and that’s just for ‘Thriller’) – Quincy is about as legendary as they come. Yes he was the guy responsible for ‘Billie Jean’ but old QJ (as he’s known to his mum) did so much more than that. 33 film scores for a start, from writing The Italian Job to producing John Williams’ work on the E.T. soundtrack.
2 George Martin
What is it that makes a truly great producer, beyond the ability to successfully commit a band’s ideas to tape?
1 Joe Meek
To truly appreciate Meek’s genius, and understand why he’s placed above usual favourites Martin and Spector, we have to go back to Matt Bellamy’s dad, and his band The Tornados. Their early hit, ‘Telstar’, was the first single by a British band to reach the top spot on the Billboard 100 (and this was before the tragic days of 1D). The reason?