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Musician Pharrell Williams of the music

Playlist: Performing Producers

August 11, 2008
by Christopher Coats
There was a time when the knob twiddlers, studio hermits and engineers behind the sound boards were an anonymous bunch, forever lost in the shadow of the music and the musicians they helped to create. But that time has long since passed.

Taking Center Stage

Stepping out of the studio shadows, a number of producers have become musical brands in their own right—personalities with a melodic Midas touch, whose involvement can almost guarantee an album’s spot in the top ten. It started decades ago, with Barry Gordy and Phil Spector, followed by pioneers like Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois. But the last few years have seen producers take on a level of fame and recognition unlike any time in music history.

Hip-Hop Leads

No other genre has produced as many of these crossovers as hip-hop. Dr. Dre, in his productions of N.W.A in the early 1990s, made the transition to performing with enviable ease.

Following in Dre’s footsteps, more and more hip-hop producers have made the leap into the spotlight, with a few making the most of the professional relationships they established behind the decks.

Arriving on the scene as one half of the production team, The Neptunes’ Pharrell Williams began honing his singing skills as a guest performer on tracks for Snoop Dogg and Jay-Z. Initially striking out on his own with the group N.E.R.D (made up of The Neptunes plus vocalist Shae Haley), Pharrell soon gained a solid reputation as a performer.
Heralding from the same Virginia Beach neighborhood as The Neptunes, hip-hop and rock producer Timbaland broke out with a style that melded deep bass beats and global cues along with Indian tablas and space-age effects, creating hits for Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake. Last year, Timbaland tried his hand at a record of his own, with the dense, guest-heavy “Shock Value.” In true producer form, the deep-voiced Timbaland tapped his roster of friends for a collection that sounded more like a clientele mix tape than a solo album.

Making a decidedly more successful splash, Timbaland’s early production collaborator, Missy Elliot, hit the spotlight with a career that now spans six platinum albums and a lengthy list of number one hits. However, as successful as she’s been behind the mic, Elliot has never strayed far from the soundboard, trading production credits with her old partner.

Turning the Tables

Blending the lines of production and performance, DJs have become the middle ground between the two worlds. Originally working as turntablists specializing in samples and beats, producers like DJ Shadow move seamlessly back and forth between solo efforts and group production. For every track of his own, the San Francisco-based DJ includes a collaborative cut, with collections that are as much about his guests as him.

Bridging the gap between performing and production still further, Brian Joseph Burton, better known as Danger Mouse, began his career by intricately weaving an a cappella version of Jay-Z’s “The Black Album” with the Beatles’ “The White Album.” The result, appropriately titled “The Grey Album,” was an obvious violation of copyright and earned the producer little money but more exposure than he could have hoped for. In the five years since, Burton has been tapped to produce albums from rock to rap, lending his hand to efforts by the Gorillaz, Beck and The Rapture, all the while performing as the silent partner of the dark soul group, Gnarls Barkley.

The Pioneers

Though he began his professional career as a performer with a stint in the glam-rock world of Roxy Music, Brian Eno has straddled the line between producing and performing longer and more successfully than anybody in popular music. Known as the godfather of ambient music, Eno introduced technology to music in the 1970s. Since then, Eno has been the driving force behind some of rock’s most popular performers, including U2, The Talking Heads and most recently, Coldplay, all the while releasing a steady stream of solo efforts, from ambient soundscapes to sprawling pop tracks with collaborators including David Bowie and David Byrne.

An early collaborator with Eno, Canada’s Daniel Lanois had the good fortune to begin working with him shortly before they were asked to produce U2’s breakout album, “Unforgettable Fire.” Recruited by Bob Dylan, Peter Gabriel, Willie Nelson and U2 on several more occasions, Lanois established himself as one of the most demanding and consistently talented producers around. Throughout his career, the guitarist-by-training has recorded nine solo albums of low-key rock.

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