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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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’. His CV stretches from The Ronettes to The Beatles’ ‘Let It Be’, Tina Turner’s ‘River Deep Mountain High’, ‘Imagine’ and ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over’) but his true legacy is of course his pioneering “wall of sound” technique, what he referred to as “a Wagnerian approach to rock ‘n’ roll”, a devasting sonic approach that’s influenced everyone from Springsteen to the shoegazers. It’s precisely that kind of creative approach that elevates a producer from knob-twidldler to a key member of the band, whoever the band might be. NB: The Beatles, Harrison and Lennon only absent from the Spotify player as they just don’t have them.
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. Diana Ross’ ‘Upside Down’, David Bowie’s ‘China Girl’ and Madonna’s ‘Like A Virgin’ were just three of the biggest; INXS, The B-52s, Duran Duran, Grace Jones, Cyndi Lauper, Mick Jagger and countless others also benefitted from his deft hands. The guy refuses to give up, too. Having fought off cancer for the time being he’s still belting out disco good times live and just worked on a project with Daft Punk. A true legend.
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. Then there’s the illustrious trumpet-playing career, the philanthropic endeavours, the numerous “first African American to…” landmarks, and the desk/arranger duties for Andy Williams, Ray Charles, Little Richard, Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin and Frank Sinatra. ‘We Are The World’? Yep, that was him too. But if he’s always pigeonholed as the guy that sprinkled magic onto the biggest-selling album of all time, it could be worse.
What is it that makes a truly great producer, beyond the ability to successfully commit a band’s ideas to tape? If it’s to bring new ideas to the table, such as the strings on ‘Yesterday’, or to provide orchestration and instrumentation on a complete variety of tracks, or to translate an artist’s vague ideas and hopeful humming into a tangible melody on a proper instrument (as he did with ‘Penny Lane’’s piccolo solo), or to explore new studio techniques, equipment, time signatures and dynamics and create masterful new sounds and ideas in the process, or simply to be behind no less than 30 Number Ones in the UK alone, then it’s hard to argue against Sir George Henry Martin CBE as the greatest producer of all time. NB: The Beatles don’t exist on Spotify, so here’s a selection of some of his greatest work.
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? It was unlike anything anyone had heard before, packed full of claviolines, bizarre distortions and weird sonic effects, all achieved in Meek’s home recording studio above a shop on Holloway Road. In an era of nerdy white coat-wearing studio techs, Meek was a complete trailblazer, attempting endless new ideas in his search for the perfect sound. Multiple over-dubbing, close miking, compression, echo, reverbs and sampling are all techniques that can be traced back to Meek and his maverick approach to making music. That he passed up the chance to work with Bowie and The Beatles, or eventually shot and killed his landlady and then himself, is by-the-by. The legacy of his endless experimentation is writ large over most of your favourite music today.