‘As a kid, I wanted to rap,’ admits Jae5, the British-Ghanaian producer best known for his work with J Hus and Burna Boy. One of the UK’s most sought-after producers, the Grammy Award-winner (real name Jonathan Kweku Awotwe-Mensah) rose to prominence as part of the JOAT Music production group before receiving acclaim in 2015 for his work on J Hus’ debut mixtape, The 15th Day. Since then, he’s worked with virtually all the contemporary big-hitters in the UK scene — including Skepta, Headie One and Dave — as well as with international stars like Koffee and the aforementioned Burna Boy.
But, as he tells M, becoming a producer wasn’t his original dream career path. 'Rap wasn't working for me. I just didn't feel I was good enough,’ Jae5 adds. ‘The next best thing was making beats. I actually found that more enjoyable than rapping, and I got good at it quicker… I could sit at a computer for eight hours and not realise that [time] had gone by.’
With the 50th anniversary of hip hop falling this year, there's been much celebration of the biggest MCs the genre has birthed, from Rakim and Jay-Z to modern greats like Kendrick Lamar. But production — the breaks, beats, scratches and loops — has been 'at the root' of hip hop since its inception, as the celebrated broadcaster, photographer and DJ Normski explains to M.
'The most important part of the musical side of any hip hop act is the producer,’ Normski, who has been immersed in hip hop culture in the UK since the ‘80s, argues. ‘You really do need to have that kind of collaboration [between producer and performing artist].’ UK hip hop DJ and radio presenter Dave VJ agrees. 'Being the producer is always about trying to give the performer the best platform to perform,' he says when asked by M to define the producer’s role.
Not only are the producers vital to the artists themselves, they’ve also been integral to shaping and propelling the sound of hip hop and all its related forms. Indeed, the very origin of hip hop can be traced back to instrumentals: during one set in August 1973, the Bronx’s DJ Kool Herc laid down the blueprint that would become the basis for modern hip hop production by mixing isolated breakbeats from funk and reggae records on twin turntables. To many, this is the moment that the essence of hip hop was born.
One way of looking at it is that without producers, the MCs couldn’t get to work. ‘I've seen in a lot of hip hop sessions that the rapper won't even approach the mic until they know they've got a beat that sounds incredible,’ notes Mr Hudson, the artist, producer and songwriter best known for his work with Kanye West and Jay-Z. ‘Whereas if you're in indie or alternative [music], [the artist] might be sitting on a porch with the guitar.’
Jae5 is keen to point out that 'a lot of times an artist gets credited for introducing a new sound, but more times it’s [because of] the beat, not necessarily the flow. The production is what dictates what's new, what's poppin’, what's trending. The producers dictate where the sound is going.’
'The most important part of the musical side of any hip hop act is the producer.' - Normski
It’s true: if you look at the sub-genres that have spawned from the UK scene alone, their hallmarks all come from a distinguished sound that’s adopted at producer-level. For trip hop, it was all about the elongated, downtempo breakbeats, while UK garage centred around its shuffling rhythms. Grime sped things up to 140 BPM, allowing MCs to spit rapid-fire bars, and UK drill synced snares and hi-hats to achieve its signature sound.
Producers have also continuously reflected and reinforced the very DIY nature of hip hop culture. Over the years, hip hop music has regularly incorporated the various home studio technological advances of the times: whether that’s drum machines and samplers for loops in the 1980s, synthesisers for basslines and stabs, or software taking over from hardware, with digital consoles completely opening up the realms of possibility at one’s fingertips.
'We come from a do-it-yourself world,' says Dave VJ, which Normski agrees with: 'One thing with hip hop is that you don’t have to be a musician: the producer is a whole band in a room.’
But how has the hip hop producer’s role changed over the years? Well, for one, there’s more recognition now of how essential producers are to the creative process, rather than just acting as a technical engineer. 'A lot of people are starting to understand the role of producers, especially with artists and the relationship between them,’ says emerging UK producer CeeBeaats, who has worked with the likes of Digga D and AJ Tracey. 'Sometimes you have to sit down with the artist and create that sound together.’
Jae5, though, points out that there’s still much to be done in elevating the producer’s stature in the current scene. ‘I think there was more recognition in the past,’ he says. ‘I think now you know a producer’s name because we put a tag on the track. But in the past there were super-producers like Dr. Dre, Timbaland and Quincy Jones. I don't know if we have many of those types of producers now.’
Recent years have, however, seen more recognition for how UK producers have grown the sound of hip hop through sub-genres like grime and drill. Mr Hudson points out that while hip hop might not be considered to be ‘our’ genre, UK music creators constantly succeed at adding ‘a twist’ to the form.
‘UK producers have been able to create something [unique], for example UK rap, Afroswing,’ adds CeeBeaats. ‘It has shaped [hip hop] in different ways… it’s growing very quickly and expanding.' Dave VJ agrees: ‘Without a shadow of a doubt, the UK are leaders in the world.’
‘I think it's important to celebrate hip hop,’ CeeBeaats goes on to say of this milestone year for the genre. ‘Hip hop mainly came from the streets and has become mainstream now. This shows how influential it’s been.’
Normski appears taken aback by the growth that has happened over the past five decades. ‘I can't believe I'm talking about a subject that’s 50 years old,’ he says. ‘It's really been our lifeline and backbone… they’re now using hip hop beats as incidental music in the background of Masterchef! Nobody thought this was ever gonna happen in the beginning. Well, I can hear it on the news now! That's how important hip hop production is to this day.’