The First Songs by Legendary Rap Producers

See where your favorite rap producers got their start.

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You can probably remember the first time you spotted your favorite producer in the liner notes, or heard their name get shouted out on the track. But the odds are they were putting in work for years, if not a decade, before you knew the name, or could identify one of their tracks just by the drums. Some of them came up on the underground circuit and DJed before they knew how to make a beat, some of them were mentored by hitmakers that came before them, and a rare few just broke down the walls with a smash hit right at the beginning of their career. From Dre to Ye, these are the First Songs By Legendary Rap Producers...

Written by Al Shipley (@alshipley)

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Mannie Fresh

Song: DJ Mannie Fresh & MC Gregory D "Freddie's Back" (1987)
Label: D&D Enterprises

A decade before Cash Money signed the distribution deal with Universal Records that made it a blockbuster brand name, the label's sonic architect was honing his New Orleans bounce sound as a local party DJ. Linking up with MC Gregory D, the duo released their first album in 1987, at a time when even famous New York rappers often didn't have their own full-length releases. Throwdown led off with "Freddie's Back," a campy ode to Freddie Kruger sampling Z-3 MCs that predated DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince's "Nightmare On My Street" by a year. Mannie Fresh's beats may have gotten more complex and sophisticated later on, but he never lost his sense of humor or his ability to set the party off.

Jermaine Dupri

Song: Silk Tymes Leather "New Jack Thang" (1990)
Label: Geffen

Among his various accomplishments, Jermaine Dupri may be the youngest Svengali in pop music history. He's enjoyed a long career of mentoring adolescent talents into superstardom, from Kris Kross to Lil Bow Wow. But J.D. was only a teenager himself when he took his first group under his wing, a trio of female rappers that called themselves Silk Tymes Leather. True to its title, "New Jack Thang," the rest of the group's 1990 album It Ain't Where Ya From...It's Where Ya At aped the trendy New Jack Swing sound of the time—making the sample of Ad-Rock proclaiming "it's the new style!" a bit ironic. When the group failed to become the next Salt 'N Pepa, J.D. moved on to build his So So Def empire.

The Alchemist

Song: Dilated Peoples f/ Defari "Third Degree" (1997)
Label: ABB

The Alchemist paid his dues in L.A. hip-hop, starting his first rap group with Hollywood scion Scott Caan, learning about production from DJ Muggs, and creating a buzz in the West Coast underground with the rising crew Dilated Peoples. Within a couple years, he did his first tracks with Mobb Deep, and became a force in the mainstream as a producer as well as Eminem's touring DJ. But all the way back on his first Dilated Peoples collaboration, "Third Degree," you can hear the love for boom bap drums and soulful samples that has defined his sound as he's continued to expand his clientele.

Lil Jon

Song: Lil Jon & The Eastside Boyz "Who U Wit" (1997)
Label: TVT/BME/Urban/Universal

Lil Jon had already been a presence in Atlanta for years, as a DJ and an A&R for So So Def (including assembling the So So Def Bass All-Stars compilation), before forming the Eastside Boyz. What's remarkable about the group's first regional hit from 1997 is that their vocal sound arrived pretty much fully formed, but the music hadn't. Jon's gang shouts with Lil Bo and Big Sam on "Who U Wit?" sound pretty much the same as they would on later national crossover hits. But the beat sounds dinky and small compared to the huge kicks and claps and zapping synths of the signature sound Lil Jon would soon develop.

The Neptunes

Song: Blackstreet "Tonight's The Night" (1995)
Label: Interscope

Like their Virginia Beach contemporaries in Swing Mob, Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo spent several years in apprenticeship with an established hitmaker before becoming a brand name in and of themselves. For them, the mentor was New Jack Swing architect Teddy Riley, who enlisted Williams with tasks like writing a verse for Wreckx 'N Effect's "Rump Shaker" and providing a memorable backing vocal on the hit remix of SWV's "Right Here." On the debut album by Riley's group Blackstreet, Chad Hugo blew a sax on one track, and both Hugo and Williams received production and writing credits on another track, "Tonight's The Night."

Dr. Dre

Song: World Class Wreckin' Cru "Juice" (1985)
Label: Kru-Cut

The original title of The Game's 2005 single "How We Do" was "Fresh '83," in reference to how Dr. Dre dipped back into the synths and claps of his early beats for the track with a modern update. We don't know what Dre's very first tracks sounded like in 1983, but we can hear his first released music with the World Class Wreckin' Cru from 1985. The single "Juice," however, sounds more openly indebted to the electro of Afrika Bambaataa with its vocoder refrain and music reminiscent of "Looking For The Perfect Beat." Soon, however, Dre would be producing Eazy E's "Boyz N The Hood" and laying out a blueprint for the creeping mid-tempo gangsta rap that would make him a legend.


Song: Jodeci f/ Timbaland & Sista "In the Meanwhile" (1993)
Label: Uptown/MCA

In the early '90s, DeVante Swing of Jodeci formed a label, Swing Mob, stocking the roster with a murderer's row of future stars including Missy Elliott, Ginuwine and Timbaland. But the label collapsed before anyone had much of chance to make a name for themselves, and it wasn't until '96 that Swing Mob alumni began to find fame and change the sound of R&B with Timbaland-produced hits like "Pony". During the Swing Mob era, however, Timbo logged a few co-productions with DeVante Swing, including this James Brown-sampling cut from Jodeci's second album Diary of a Mad Band. 


Song: Jungle Brothers f/ Q-Tip "The Promo" (1988)
Label: Mercury

Given A Tribe Called Quest's group mentality, we may never know who did what on the production end of things—most of the beats are credited to the entire group (or later, The Ummah). For years, a division of the workload was presumed by the fans, who figured Ali Shaheed Muhammad did all the tracks while Q-Tip merely rapped. Now, we know how much Tip contributed to the production on ATCQ albums, but details remain a bit obscure. But before his outside production career took off with tracks on classic albums by Nas and Mobb Deep, Q-Tip appeared on and produced this cut from The Jungle Brothers' debut album. 

DJ Muggs

Song: The 7A3 "The 7A3 Will Rock You" (1987)
Label: Vendetta/Macola

A Queens kid who moved to L.A. as a teenager, DJ Muggs kicked around the nascent West Coast rap scene for a while before co-founding the group that would bring him platinum fame, Cypress Hill. Before he met B-Real and Sen Dog, Muggs produced and DJed for a group called The 7A3. Their debut single, "The 7A3 Will Rock You," rode the Run DMC/Beastie Boys rap-rock zeitgeist with a bombastic beat full of electric guitar blasts and a Queen interpolation. But the layers of additional percussion on the track gave a hint of what Muggs would accomplish later on in his more intricate, funky Cypress Hill productions.

Just Blaze

Song: Harlem World f/ Ma$e and Kelly Price "I Really Like It" (1999)
Label: So So Def

Harlem World, the Harlem group assembled by Ma$e, may have shared the name of his multi-platinum solo debut, but it fell far short of that kind of success on its only album, 1999's The Movement. Still, the album's production credits ended up being flush with future household names, including Kanye West, The Neptunes, and Just Blaze, who produced the album's lead single. The glitzy pop track may have been a bit different from the raw, bombastic hip-hop Justin Smith came to be known for, but you can still hear his skill in the drum fills and propulsive groove of the song beneath all those shrill synths.

Kanye West

Song: Grav f/ Kanye West "Line For Line" (1996)
Label: Correct Records

Kanye West produced all over Grav's 1996 debut album, Down To Earth. Although he produced eight tracks, he rapped on "Line For Line" so it's worth highlighting. The beat doesn't feature the sped-up soul samples that would eventually become Kanye's signature sound in the early part of his career. Instead, the beat is rough around the edges, with a skittering drum pattern that lacks the polish of Kanye's later material. 

Swizz Beatz

Song: The Lox "All for the Love" (1998)
Label: Bad Boy

Although his name would ring out in the streets of New York for producing DMX's classic single, "Ruff Ryders Anthem," Swizz Beatz first production credit is actually on The Lox's Bad Boy debut album, Money, Power, Respect. However, "All For The Love" does not feature the entire Yonkers trio, it's simply a solo Jadakiss record. And the beat doesn't have much in common with the Casio keyboard loops that would later become a calling card for Swizz. Despite not featuring the sound that would briefly make him the hottest producer in New York, Swizz Beats' first production credit laid the groundwork for his long and fruitful working relationship with The Lox. 

Organized Noize

Song: OutKast "Player's Ball" (1993)
Label: LaFace/Arista

"Player's Ball" is one of those songs that started it all for everyone involved: the members of OutKast, their Organized Noize production team, even the rest of their Dungeon Family crew that didn't appear on the song. And the lithely funky track provided the blueprint for OutKast's early sound as well as future Organized Noize-produced blockbusters like TLC's "Waterfalls," while only hinting at the adventurous sounds Rico Wade and company would explore further down the road. The version on Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik that became a career-launching hit, however, contains vestigial remnants of the song's origin: first recorded for the A LaFace Family Christmas compilation, the lyrics were revised to drop references to the holiday season, but the jaunty sleigh bells in the track remained as a part of the song's lush groove.

No I.D.

Song: Common Sense "Take It EZ" (1992)
Label: Relativity

Lonnie "Common Sense" Lynn and Dion "Immenslope" Wilson came into the game together, putting on for the Chicago underground and making a name for themselves together over three albums in the '90s, although their names quickly changed to Common and No I.D. "Take It EZ," the debut single that landed Com in The Source's Unsigned Hype column, finds him in a more animated mode than he came to be known for, his voice squeaking with excitement, but No I.D.'s lush, soulful boom bap was already in effect. 20 years later, Common is a respected veteran and No I.D. is an exec at Def Jam, but they're still in the studio together, working on the upcoming album, Nobody Smiling

J Dilla

Song: Da' Enna C "Now" (1994)
Label: N/A 

J Dilla spent much of his early career working with major label artists at their commercial peak: The Pharcyde, A Tribe Called Quest, and Erykah Badu. But the legacy he left behind was that of an underground producer whose idiosyncratic sounds were not meant for the masses. It makes sense then that Jay Dee got his start when a little-known group out of Detroit called Da' Enna C tapped the budding producer to handle their production. The outcome was a track called "Now" featuring hints of what James Yancey would bring to the game. 


Song: Prince Rakeem "Ooh, I Love You, Rakeem" (1991)
Label: Tommy Boy

The Wu-Tang Clan, true to its pulpy kung-fu movie aesthetic, has an origin story in which its heroes fail an early challenge, and must learn from the experience before returning to battle. For the RZA and the GZA, that experience was their initial solo deals going south. It was a particularly humbling experience for the RZA, who as Prince Rakeem, released the kind of goofy, cartoonish debut single and video that was working for acts like Biz Markie at the time. After Tommy Boy chewed Prince Rakeem up and spit him out, he went back to the drawing board, and returned with a very different sound on "Protect Ya Neck."

Pete Rock

Song: Johnny Gill "Rub You The Right Way" Remix (1990)
Label: Motown

By the time Pete Rock began producing, he'd already been a familiar name to many New York hip-hop heads, DJing since he was a teenager on WBLS's "In Control With Marley Marl." Best known for the work he and high school buddy CL Smooth created—starting with the All Souled Out EP and, later, Mecca And The Soul Brother and "They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.),"—Pete got his first production credit when he teamed up with Eddie F. Nevelle and produced a remix to Johnny Gill's hit single "Rub You The Right Way." 

DJ Premier

Song: Gang Starr "Words I Manifest" (1989)
Label: Wild Pitch

It's odd to think that there was ever a Gang Starr without DJ Premier, but Guru was backed by other DJs and producers on the group's early 12"s in 1987 and '88. It wasn't until '89 that Guru received a beat tape from a producer from Houston and found his perfect foil. The chemistry was immediately evident on their funky yet cerebral debut single "Words I Manifest," complete with a scratched hook from Premo, and the lineup was cemented when the duo appeared together on the cover of Gang Starr's debut album, No More Mr. Nice Guy. DJ Premier may not have been a founding member, but from them on, he was always 50% of Gang Starr.

Rick Rubin

Song: T La Rock "It's Yours" (1984)
Label: Partytime/Def Jam

In 1983, the Long Beach guitarist of a hardcore band called Hose met a member of Afrika Bambaataa's Zulu Nation and decided to try out producing a hip-hop record, and nothing was the same. Rick Rubin's first rap record under the tutelage of DJ Jazzy Jay, "It's Yours" by T La Rock, helped forge the connection between Rubin and his future Def Jam partner Russell Simmons. And it also foreshadowed the more polished bombast of Rubin's blockbuster production work for LL Cool J and the Beastie Boys in the following years. "It's Yours" continues to reverberate through generations, its hook ringing out in songs by the Wu-Tang Clan and Drake.

Marley Marl

Song: Les Love & The Love Kids (1982)
Label: Express Records

You love to hear the story, again again, of how it all got started way back when: two Queensbridge natives, rapper MC Shan and producer Marley Marl, released an explosive single celebrating their home borough. KRS-One and Boogie Down Productions took umbrage at what they believed to be Shan's claim that Queens birthed hip hop, and defended their own borough's legacy with "South Bronx." MC Shan ddn't make it through the ensuing 'bridge wars' unscathed, but Marley Marl went on to become one of rap's first super producers. However, before all of that, Marley Marl lent a hand in remixing Les Love & The Love Kids' "Let's Get It On" single. 

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