10 best Black music producers ever

OPINION: TheGrio highlights 10 of the most important Black music producers not named Quincy Jones.

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Let’s get this out of the way — Quincy Jones is the GOAT music producer. So, there’s no need to put him on this list. He produced Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, Lena Horne, The Wiz, Roots, and that’s before he and Michael Jackson set a new standard for pop music with Off The Wall, Thriller, and Bad.

So now that that’s out of the way, let’s celebrate the greatest Black music producers ever. Choosing from a stable of some of the greatest, most innovative, and significant producers in music history to narrow it down to 10 was no small feat.

2019 Soul Train Awards - Show
Terry Lewis and Jimmy Jam accept the Legend Award during the 2019 Soul Train Awards at the Orleans Arena on Nov. 17, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Gabe Ginsberg/Getty Images)

The Neptunes’ sound is entering its fourth decade of domination. Timbaland and Missy Elliott are arguably the last true originals in Black music production. The seeds of Nile Rodgers’ dance music production are still sowing new artists and producers today.

DJ Premier and Pete Rock are as crisp beatmakers as they were when they started in the 1980s. Kanye West has done more than most to elevate the potential of hip-hop production, proving to be as adventurous and prolific as he is polarizing.

When considering the best producers, we had to take into account their artistic malleability, sonic idiosyncrasies, ingenuity, and longevity. Here’s what we came up with:

10. Charles Stepney

Stepney incorporated a luxuriant symphonic sound that Black music had scarcely heard in soul music. His maximalist wall of sound for the Rotary Connection and Minnie Riperton’s solo debut, Come into My Garden, stood out from contemporary music.

However, the full range of his powers wasn’t fully realized until he linked with Earth, Wind & Fire. “Shining Star,” “Can’t Hide Love,” “That’s The Way of the World” and “Getaway” were showcases of Stepney’s prowess with a tapestry of aural imagery.

9. Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds

Renowned as a hitmaking songwriter, Babyface, along with partner L.A. Reid, established a sophisticated take on New Jack Swing style that dominated airwaves from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s. Once on his own, he brought love and class to the table, with lush production and chords, evident in Boyz II Men’s “Water Runs Dry,” and Eric Clapton’s “Change the World.”

8. Teddy Riley

Riley invented a music genre – New Jack Swing. Combining the urgent rhythms of hip hop with the gospel-inspired fervor that makes R&B what it is, Riley was responsible for a sonic revolution.

From Bobby Brown’s “My Prerogative,” Guy’s “Groove Me,” to Michael Jackson’s “Remember the Time” and Blackstreet’s “Before I Let You Go,” Riley is one of the most copied producers in history.

7. Larry Smith

Every hip hop producer owes their career to Smith. A skilled bassist and composer, Smith helped rap music reach the pop music stratosphere, thanks to the minimalistic, rock-edged production of Run-DMC’s “Sucker M.C.s” and “King of Rock,” and the infusion of soulful melody for Whodini’s “Friends” and “One Love.”

6. Dr. Dre

Called the “Quincy Jones of Hip Hop” by his peers, Dre earned that moniker for propping rap music up to sonically match the crisp intensity of the most technically progressive pop music. From gangsta rap anthems like N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton,” and his “Ain’t Nothin’ but a ‘G’ Thang,” to R&B crossovers like Michel’le’s “No More Lies” and Mary J. Blige’s “Family Affair,” Dre became the standard not just for West Coast hip-hop, but hip-hop in general.

5. Norman Whitfield

Emerging from the shadow of Motown’s hothouse of legendary songwriting and production teams, Whitfield rose from an office assistant to be one of the most singular producers at Hitsville.

Responsible for classics like Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and The Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” he was a precursor to the Blaxploitation sound that would dominate Black radio in the 70s. He would perfect that sound with Rose Royce classics like “Car Wash” and “Wishing on a Star.”

4. J Dilla

Dilla was the bridge between the Native Tongues and the Soulquarians. The Detroit-based producer/rapper/instrumentalist helped innovate a kind of musicianship for sample-based hip-hop, but ushered in a new way to think of time signature in Black music.

First bursting out with The Pharcyde’s “Runnin’,” and his group Slum Village’s Fan-Tas-Tic Vol. 1 and 2, Dilla is responsible for neo-soul reaching a creative zenith, thanks to songs like Common’s “The Light,” and Erykah Badu’s “Didn’t Cha Know.”

3. Holland/Dozier/Holland

Brothers Edward and Brian Holland, along with their friend Lamont Dozier, were the go-to production and songwriting team at Motown during its 60s heyday. Their run of hits, performed by house band The Funk Brothers, personified Berry Gordy’s motto of Motown being The Sound of Young America.

The Supremes’ “Where Did Our Love Go,” The Four Tops’ “Reach Out, I’ll Be There,” The Isley Brothers’ “This Old Heart of Mine” is just the tip of the iceberg of the H-D-H sound that inspired generations.

2. Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis

Along with Prince, Jam and Lewis are the architects of the Minneapolis sound. Aside from writing stellar songs, their approach using vocals to highlight melody over icy, rhythmic synth work and industrial beats made superstars out of Janet Jackson, Alexander O’Neal, and New Edition.

What stands out about this duo is their ability to adapt to the times and different artists. From Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” to Blige’s “Everything,” Jam and Lewis continue to push the envelope to this day.

1. The Mighty Three: Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff, and Thom Bell

Bell had his signature style, one that leaned heavily on classical music and elaborate emotive arrangements. Such as The Stylistics’ “People Make the World Go ‘Round,” The Delfonics’ “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind This Time,” and The Spinners’ “Could It Be I’m Falling in Love.”

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