Top 25 Hip-Hop Producers

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Who is the Greatest Hip-Hop Producer?

J. Dilla

Musical equipment were not designed for hip-hop beats. The E-mu SP-12, the godmother of sampling machines, was very limited. Released in 1985, the SP-12 was considered an innovative musical instrument. The letters stand for Sampling Percussion at 12 bits. Indeed, it sampled at a lo-fi 12-bit rate with an outstanding 5 seconds of sampling time. Oh, and you had to bank these 5 seconds into 2.5 seconds each of usable time. E-mu originally designed the SP-12 for dance producers.

Despite the limitations of early drum machines, hip-hop producers made enduring art out of dirty sounds. Early rap producers made the most of whatever tools were available. Easy Mo Bee manually chopped up samples. Marley Marl nabbed kicks and snares from completely different records. Havoc recorded off cassette boomboxes and looped samples off the radio.

By the time the Ad-Rock rapped, "Well, I'm the Benihana chef on the SP-12" on 1998's "Putting Shame in Your Game," beat makers had already moved on to the more "powerful" SP-1200 and the AKAI MPC60.

Today, hip-hop production transcends samplers and studios. Anyone with a Wi-Fi-enabled laptop can whip up a radio-ready hit from her bedroom. Machines come and go.Art endures.

Producers have always been as pivotal to the creative process as emcees. The best producers don't simply lay down tracks. They steer the direction of songs and entire albums. They break new artists and shift the culture forward.

Is there such thing as the greatest hip-hop producer? I'm not sure. There are influential producers—Pete Rock and Marley Marl changed the game with the art of sampling. There are culturally impactful producers—Dr. Dre and Timbaland reinvented urban radio. There are sound visionaries—RZA and J Dilla possessed a third-eye vision that enabled them to make vodka out of water.

Is there such a thing as the greatest hip-hop producer? I'm not so sure. Like you, I change my mind all the time. Today, as you read this, these are my 25 greatest hip-hop producers.

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25. Mannie Fresh

Mannie Fresh
(Ben Rose/WireImage)

Bangers: "Bling Bling (B.G.)," "Back That Azz Up (Juvenile)," "Go D.J. (Lil Wayne)"

I remember the first time I met Mannie Fresh. We were at a friend's party and my friend casually introduced us. Mannie was rocking his signature smile. Not a hint of ego. He was every bit as vibrant as his production style. I didn't realize it then, but I see now that one of the reasons Mannie was unstoppable for so long was because he lived and breathed his sound. He's the life of the party, and you hear it in his music. 

Mannie created the Cash Money sound in the early days of the label. He played a pivotal part in helping Cash Money evolve from a bounce crew to a music empire. He produced several bangers for the label's first flagship star Juvenile. He helped upstarts like Lil Wayne and B.G. assimilate into the mainstream. Through all his successes, Mannie is probably best remembered for Juvenile's "Back Dat Azz Up," a hit so transcendent even Sharon Stone was backing up the truck like what.

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24. RJD2

Bangers: "Ghostwriter," "1976," "Superhero"

There's this tiny record store on Westheimer, right next to a building that once housed a bigger record store in the 90s. The bigger store eventually went out of business in the 2000s, as CDs went out of fashion. The space became a Skechers store. The strange thing is that the tiny record store is still there somehow. Maybe it's a coke front, I don't know. Sometime in 2004, I walked into that tiny record store. I remember seeing Tragedy Khadafi's Intelligent Hoodlum, listed at $106. I thought it was either a misprint or a cruel joke. RJD2, Deadringer. $3. Best three bucks I've ever spent on music.

Wait, back up a bit. Let me tell you what brought me to this store. A week earlier, a friend had been raving about Deadringer. There was genuine passion in his voice when he talked about this album. He talked about it in such a way that me feel I was missing out on a unique experience. Turns out I was.

Deadringer exceeded my expectations. It's one of the best instrumental hip-hop albums. I think it's up there with Donuts and Endtroducing. Like much of RJ’s production, it’s packed with scenic elements that create unique narratives without uttering a word.

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23. Pimp C

Pimp C
Pam Francis/Getty

Bangers: "Ridin' Dirty," "One Day," "Quit Hatin' the South"

Mike Dean and Pimp C are arguably the two most influential producers in southern rap. The latter is massively underrated. While it's sometimes unclear who did what on UGK's masterful records (Bun B shares production credits on many songs), Pimp is credited on almost every UGK song. He definitely added musicality to the group's cannon, blending live instrumentation with his and Bun's Texas twang.

At his best, Pimp tapped sun-dampened samples to create what he dubbed "country rap." I love the way he interlocked dark melodies with a slab of soul on "One Day," the minimalist bounce of "Murder," and the skeletal funk of "Pocket Full of Stones." 

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22. Erick Sermon

Erick Sermon

Bangers: "You Gots to Chill," "It's My Thing," "Music"

Erick Sermon is one of the most influential hip-hop producers of all time. As EPMD's sound man, E-Double was the simply complete package. He had the fresh beats to complete his laid-back rhymes. Besides, he helped put the Def Squad on the map. He introduced us to Redman and Keith Murray. I know it's funny to think of, but in the late 80s, rappers were yelling on top of their lungs. Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith told us "You Gots to Chill." A generation of emcees listened.

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21. El-P

El-P
Yuliya Christensen/Redferns via Getty Images

There are producers with more accessible hits. There are producers with more influence. There are producers with more collaborators. But there are not many producers who consistently drop heat like El-P. From his early days at Company Flow to his recent work as one half of Run the Jewels, El has been a genius workhorse. That dystopian track that sounds like an apocalyptic party tune is El's bread and butter. You can also count on a curveball every now and then. And as far as rapper-producers go, El-P may someday go down as the best.

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20. Just Blaze

Just Blaze

Bangers: "U Don't Know," "Touch the Sky" "Exhibit C"

You've finished recording your album. You've got your girl song, your braggart anthem and your underground song. But you feel like something is missing. You need that one event record that's going to add some oomph and turn heads. You need that blaze. Just Blaze.

Over the last decade and change, Justin Smith has built a strong legacy as the go-to man for hit records. This was Just’s most consistent quality on those Roc-A-Fella records of the aughts. He blessed both Jays (Z  and Electronica) with heat rock on “U Don’t Know” and “Exhibition C” respectively. Just is a leading supplier of that trunk rattler so urgent, so intense, and so anthemic it's guaranteed to stand out on any album.

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19. DJ Muggs

Bangers: "Insane in the Brain," "I Ain't Goin' Out Like That," "How I Could Just Kill a Man" 

DJ Muggs is the mastermind behind the sound of Cypress Hill. Cypress Hill might have been a completely different story without Muggs—one told in hyperdrive, perhaps. Muggs brought a sense of ease with his dank-soaked sound. He slowed things down to a drawl, allowing B-Real to be live as he wanna be. Muggs crafted blunted hits out of old jazz records and helped Cypress Hill create two stellar albums back to back.

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18. The Alchemist

Alchemist
(Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images)

Bangers: "Keep It Thoro (Prodigy)," "Book of Rhymes (Nas)," "Break the Bank (Schoolboy Q)"

Every great producer is linked with a great act. In the case of Alchemist, he represents that sewage-grimy, late 90s/early-00s NYC hip-hop. Alc is a west coast guy with an east coast ear. You'll hear his beats on many Big Apple hits, Nas' "Book of Rhymes" and Cam'ron's "Wet Wipes," for example. He put his production stamp on the sinister sound of Mobb Deep. Put it this way: It's perfectly normal to hear an Alchemist beat and immediately visualize a scene from a horror flick.

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17. Q-Tip

Q-Tip

Bangers: "One Love" (Nas), The Renaissance (Q-Tip)

Two things account for Q-Tip's production success: 1) a sense of history as rich as his lyrical chops; and 2) a knack for refinement. Tip is a master of minimalist hip-hop production. As part of The Ummah production crew, he specialized in lush neo-soul where the chief goal was to warm your heart.

On A Tribe Called Quest albums, he mixed hip-hop with jazz and thick bass lines where the chief goal was to snap your head ever so gently.

As a producer for Tribe, Nas, and his own solo projects, Tip refined and distilled rap production into a glossy pad that’s inviting without seeming tame. Only a great producer like Q-Tip can make restraint look so effortless. 

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16. Havoc

Havoc Mobb Deep

Bangers: "Shook Ones Pt. II" (Mobb Deep), 

Something strange happens to me when I listen to a Havoc beat. As soon as I hear it, I get this urge to smack someone with a shoe. This is strange because his beats are never loud or bombastic. Far from it. His beats are jazzy, haunting and gloomy.

So what is it about Hav’s production style that makes you want to violate another human being with a shoe? Is it the gritty undercurrent? The scary QB projects that inspired his murder music? The dun talk that usually follows? I don’t know. Whatever it is, Capital H is wise to keep it a secret.

Hav has stayed true to the east coast sound over his 20-year career. He stayed true to it through the advent of Auto-Tune, EDM and hippie rap. The more things change the harder Hav re-commits to his sound. 

Tidbit: The original beat Havoc made for The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Last Day” mysteriously disappeared from the studio. He ended up recreating the beat from scratch

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15. Prince Paul

Prince Paul

There are two kinds of artists: those who follow and those who lead. I lied. There's a third kind: those who don't believe there are two kinds of artists. Prince Paul didn't just ignore your rule books, he ripped them up and laughed in your face. Then he went home and wrote a hit. Brave, experimental with a powerfully inventive resume, Paul plumbed samples and pieces from wherever he wanted. When everyone was sampling jazz, Paul went for rock, funk, soul, hippie soul, frickin' Hall & Oates. He even sampled himself before anyone knew that was a thing you could do, flippin' his old crew De La Soul's "Plug Tunin'" into Gravediggaz's "Defective Trip. "Whether with Stetsasonic or De La Soul, Paul made music his own way. Oh, and he invented the sketch comedy routine your favorite emcee uses today.

Tidbit: Influenced by Rick Rubin and the Bomb Squad, N.W.A.-era Dr. Dre.

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14. DJ Quik

DJ Quik

DJ Quik is one of the most underrated producers of all time. Not enough people know Quik's work and his influence on L.A. hip-hop. Those who know celebrate his legacy. That legacy? It's one forged from G-funk, itself forged from funk. The scientist that sparked that flame? Quik's the name. 

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13. Large Professor

Large Professor

Before discovering and mentoring Nas, Large Professor was already a well-respected producer. Large Pro put in work on several uncredited tracks on early Eric B & Rakim albums. He put his Sp-1200 to work on Main Source's Breaking Atoms, juggling pristine loops with pristine breaks. His production resume is rich with hits. Still, his greatest feat is producing 30 percent of the greatest rap album of all time, including highlights "Halftime" and "It Ain't Hard to Tell."

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12. The Bomb Squad

The Bomb Squad produced music so loud, so powerful and so militant that anyone who heard their songs felt something. Angst. Passion. Rage. Whatever. You didn’t just listen; you felt. The Bomb Squad made music that shattered every hip-hop paradigm in the 1980s and 1990s. They provided the soundtrack for a generation battling the crack epidemic and institutionalized racism. They soundtracked the struggle of a marginalized generation. And a nation of millions still couldn’t hold them back. The Bomb Squad was bigger than hip-hop.

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11. Timbaland

Timbaland

Bangers: "Big Pimpin,'" "4 Page Letter," "FutureSex/LoveSound

When I think of Timbaland, I think of clubs and hits. Indeed, Tim Mosley has had his hands in more hip-hop hit singles than many of the names on this list combined. When I think of Timbaland, I think of stars: Aaliyah, Missy Elliott, Justin Timberlake. When I think of Timbaland, I think of a man playing silly putty with sounds: He dominated urban radio with a by incorporating everything from synths and Egyptian flutes to animals and cooing babies. When I think of Timbaland, I think of a canon that extends beyond the walls of hip-hop.

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10. The Neptunes

Neptunes

There was a time in this country when you could glance at Billboard on any random Tuesday and find at least 5 Neptunes beats in the Top 10. Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo may be the best production duo in hip-hop history. What the childhood friends from Virginia did for sure was craft memorable rap hits that bore their unmistakable bling sound. If The Neptunes gave you a beat, it also came with an invisible tag: Your Biggest Hit Since...Remember Birdman's "What Happened To That Boy" alongside Clipse? The song that popularized Baby's bird call? Produced by The Neptunes. Remember Snoop's "Drop It Like It's Hot"? The Neptunes, baby. What about Busta's "Pass the Courvoisier" or Slim Thug's "I Ain't Heard of That." The Neptunes all the way.

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9. Madlib

Madlib, Freddie Gibbs
Freddie Gibbs (L) and Madlib (R).

While he's never had a national hit or worked with a name bigger than Doom, Madlib more than compensates with innovation and excitement. Listening to Madlib instrumentals, it becomes a game of guess that sample in which you're almost guaranteed to lose every round. He has a talent for mining gold out of obscure samples. Madlib's pulls off production tricks that make him sound like a magician. And he stays behind the curtain, leaving just enough room for the narrator to fill the mix.

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8. Rick Rubin

Rick Rubin and Jay Z
Kevin Mazur/WireImage

Rick Rubin is one of the greatest producers in any genre. His hip-hop work is alone towers over many knob twirlers who work primarily in the genre. There's a must-watch scene in Fade to Black clip where Rick casually scratches his beard and Jay Z's "99 Problems" falls into his lap. Okay, it didn't quite go down like that. But that's how easy he makes it look.

Rick has been here from the start, having co-founded Def Jam with Russell Simmons. No matter where you land on his discography, stunning production awaits. His finest run was in the 1980s when he produced hits for the likes of Beastie Boys, Public Enemy and Run DMC.

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7. Marley Marl

Marley Marl

Marley Marl is the all-time king of sampling. He stumbled upon the art of sampling in the 1980s, blazing a trail for an entire generation of sound architects. The genius of Marley's early style was that he found a way to work within the limitations of the SP-1200. He treated his samples like a band, grabbing a kick from a James Brown record and a snare from godknowshwere. He would bring it all home with his own magic. Marley's style sounded like nothing else at the time. 

Marley was the go-to producer of the Juice Crew and its key members Big Daddy Kane, Kool G Rap, Biz Markie and MC Shan. He produced Eric B & Rakim's early hits, including "My Melody" and "Eric B Is President." He played an instrumental role in early hip-hop beefs, having produced Rocanne Shante's diss record to UTFO. 

Above all, Marley defined the east coast sound. He understood the potential break beats presented and helped others visualize where that potential could lead. He was more than a resident beat maker; Marley Marl was a rapper's producer. He inspired stunning performances from his collaborators. Every producer who has ever sampled a James Brown kick owes him lunch.

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6. Kanye West

Kanye West in the studio

Bangers: "Power," "Jesus Walks," "Run This Town," "You Don't Know My Name" 

Before the VMA Vanguard Video award, before the Grammy rants, before the clothing line and the Yeezys, Kanye West had vision. He was going to make the best music possible while rapping to anyone who would listen. Kanye realized this vision and much more. No one stumbles into a Texas-sized boulder overnight. When he was a Chicago kid producing music for the 8th grade talent show, Kanye still believed he was the nicest thing since emaciated bread. Passion is what fuels the best.

The favorite game of Kanye critics is to dismiss the music because they dislike the man. But strip away the circus and you're still looking at one of the most creative forces in hip-hop history. Turn off the lights and roll away the red carpet, you're still looking at one of hip-hop's most intriguing minds.

Consider his staggering body of work: shifted the landscape of hip-hop production with The Blueprint; pushed hip-hop toward sped-up soul samples on The College Dropout; followed up with an experimental album that stacked layers of orchestral strings and sprawling instrumentals on top of each other on Late Registration; steered hip-hop toward an obsession with electro on Graduation; returned to his drum machine and changed the game again with the highly Auto-Tuned, highly influential 808s & Heartbreak; continued to push the genre with the grandiose My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy; divorced everything that came before and reinvented his sound again on Yeezus. Everything Kanye touches turns gold.

Tidbit: Kanye West originally wanted to design video games.

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5. J. Dilla

J. Dilla

J Dilla was a hip-hop superhero. As he lay dying in his hospital bed, Dilla somehow had the vision and inimitable work ethic to create a masterpiece. Donuts. Consider the limitations of his work space: an MPC, a turntable and a crate of vinyl records. Imagine where his boundless imagination could have turned if he was still alive.

But this isn't a posthumous lifetime award. It's not a spot reserved for the producer with some mythical heroic quality. Dilla was human. He struggled with the complications of lupus for a long time, occasionally performing in a wheelchair.

Whenever people talk about Dilla in glowing terms, there's a tendency to relegate his work to the background. Yes, this is about the man. By all accounts, Dilla was a convivial and compassionate human being. But this is, ultimately, about the music. Dilla is Top 5 dead or alive because of the music he left behind.

Dilla had the utmost respect for the creative process. No one hip-hop producer has pushed the boundaries of sound the way Dilla did. Listening to Dilla's beats, you can almost hear the story. What if you could speed up a snare? What if you tipped the drum juuuust a tad off kilter? What would happen if you clothed tip of your drum sticks with a thread of toilet paper? The best description of Dilla's distinctive quality I've ever heard comes from one of his most popular students, Questlove. "If you could look at the glass and say it's half-full or half-empty," Questlove told me, "Dilla would find a third way to look at it."

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4. RZA

RZA
Patrick Ford/Redferns

Bangers: "C.R.E.A.M.," "Shimmy Shimmy Ya," "All That I Got Is You"

RZA's sound was conceived in the slums of Shaolin. RZA created his early tracks on a Roland 606 stolen by Ol' Dirty Bastard. RZA put it to work, fetching gritty sounds from the drum machine. Members of what would eventually become the Wu-Tang Clan would stop by and test out their in-progress rhymes against RZA's in-progress beats amidst smoke billows. Those early instrumentals and the gripping narratives they inspired created the foundation for the greatest hip-hop group of all time.

The Abbot helped shape the direction of 90s hip-hop. His love of sinister samples and Kung Fu flicks added flair to the bravado of Wu-Tang's early raps. Blessed with a third-eye imagination, RZA successfully quarterbacked a team with an incredibly diverse quirks and perspectives.

Tidbit: RZA was largely influenced by Stetsasonic.

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3. Pete Rock

Pete Rock

Bangers: "They Reminisce Over You"

From his early days chopping up samples on the primitive SP-12 to his rise as one half of the 90s duo Pete Rock & CL Smooth, Peter Phillips has always been a sound innovator. Like many of the producers on this list, The Chocolate Boy Wonder started out as a DJ. His point of entrance to the music business was Marley Marl's WBLS radio show, In Control with Marley Marl.

Pete Rock set the game on its head with a warm production style that combined drum breaks, sun-dried jazz and horn samples. Alongside CL Smooth, he produced one of the best three-album runs between 1991 and 1994. All are worth visiting, but if you must pick one start with The Main Ingredient and work backwards. 

Not only is Pete Rock one of the most creative samplers ever, he's also the original king of remixes. Before Diddy and R.Kelly, it was Pete Rock who made it fun to reimagine songs with a unique flair. Rock reworked several 90s hits, including "Hip-Hop Hooray" (Naughty by Nature), "Shut 'Em Down (Public Enemy)," "Rampage (EPMD)," and "Jump Around (House of Pain)."

Pete Rock's sultry soul samples laid the foundation for future disciples J. Dilla, Kanye West and 9th Wonder. 

Tidbit: Pete Rock was originally inspired by Teddy Riley and Marley Marl.

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2. Dr. Dre

Dr. Dre in the Studio

Bangers: "Express Yourself," "Nuthin' but a 'G' Thang," "California Love"

No producer has influenced the landscape of mainstream hip-hop like Dr. Dre. Since the 1980s, Dre has has a hand in some of the most innovative hip-hop music in America. You know the history: Dre started as a DJ, produced groundbreaking records for N.W.A. and redefined the sound of the west coast at Death Row before ultimately building his own empire at Aftermath Entertainment.

So, what makes Dre one of the greatest hip-hop producers of all time? Three things.

One: His ear. Dre understands the little things that imbue a particular artist or song with supreme quality.

Two: His minimalist production style. Dre has a way of stripping everything down to the barest elements: piano melodies backed by hard-thumping drums and making it sound like a hurricane.

Three: The most distinct quality that puts Dre in the Mount Ruhsmore of hip-hop production is his perfectionism. Dre's obsession with perfection may frustrate collaborators, but it's also why they seek him out in the first place. Dre made Eve repeat a word 45 times. In response, Eve shattered a glass with a bottle and dropped her microphone. After getting the word right, she was finally allowed out of the studio. He made Eminem scream in the studio. After signing to Aftermath, Rakim disagreed with Doc's creative prescription. He left the label without dropping an album.

Yet, for every recording session horror story, there are twice as many success stories from Dre collaborators. Eve says Dre's tough love approach got the best out of her. Dre helped launch the careers Eazy-E, D.O.C., Snoop Dogg, Eminem, 50 Cent and The Game. Kendrick Lamar was a rising star when he partnered with Dre, but he has grown from album to album, thanks to the Medicine Man.

Tidbit: Dr. Dre originally deejayed at a club called Eve After Dark under the alias Dr. J (after his favorite basketball player, Julius "Dr. J" Erving). Dr. J would soon become Dr. Dre (a combination of his original nickname and his first name Andre).

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1. DJ Premier

DJ Premier

Bangers: "Nas Is Like," "Mass Appeal," "Ten Crack Commandments"

Merriam-Webster defines "premier" as first in position, rank or importance. How apropos for a man who is, in my view, the greatest hip-hop producer of all time. Although Primo snagged the No. 1 spot on the original version of this list, there was no guarantee he would retain his spot when I revisited the list seven years later. But Primo is still numero uno in my book.

What Premier does on the board is too complex to translate to words. You only have to hear rap classics like "Mass Appeal" and "D'Evils" and "Nas Is Like" and PRhyme (his collaborative project with Royce da 5'9") to appreciate Preem's prowess.

The reason Primo is still numero uno is simple. It's not just because he revolutionized sampling. It's not just that he influenced an esteemed legion of track masters like Havoc and 9th Wonder. It's not because he makes beats that snap your neck off your joint. Nay. Primo is still numero uno because he never let up. Over the last 20-something years, he's managed the incredible maneuver of driving the game forward without steering too far from The DJ Premier Sound. Sure, you'll recognize that drum-loop-drum combo today, but its execution is constantly changing. It's why you'll hear Primo's ever-evolving sound on Dr. Dre's "Animals" and wonder how he's able to stay on top for longer than some of his fans have been alive. Then it hits you. Maybe Primo never really evolved. Maybe our ears evolved to keep up with Primo.

Tidbit: DJ Premier started out sampling snares and kicks from old funk records.