Behind the record industry and the endlessly grinding gears of the hit factory stand an elite group of individuals who are responsible for churning out the latest, greatest pop music the world has ever known. The Darwinian process that sees songs made or broken by a fickle public with millions of dollars at stake ensures the survival of only the fittest, but there are a select few who transcend the zeitgeist and end up defining the sound of a given moment. They aren’t always the biggest sellers or the most well-known but these are the producers who are defining what it sounds like to live in in the 21st century.
David Guetta: The Crowd Pleaser
It was inevitable that techno music would crack the mainstream but the speed at which it overtook everything else to establish its dominance and how undiluted it appears almost entirely in its pure form is still astounding. Gaga, Rihanna, Britney, Nicki, Katy and Madonna (again) made millions off of techno tracks produced by a crack team of technicians who go by the names RedOne, Dr. Luke, Calvin Harris and first and foremost David Guetta. If you’ve been anywhere near a speaker in the past couple of years you know Guetta. “Sexy Bitch,” “I Gotta Feeling,” “When Love Takes Over,” “Turn Me On” and most recently “Without You” are all Guetta creations that will forever be played on the radio, in clubs and at wedding receptions where even your 90-year-old grandmother will get up to dance because IT IS IMPOSSIBLE NOT TO. The Crowd Pleaser makes music that can sell equal numbers of cars and fabric softener and when they play at a party everybody gets to have exactly what they came for. Guetta sets his little sonic babies loose on the world to worm their way into your ear drums and build little houses where they’ll live forever. He makes big, screaming, banging HITS and that’s why he’s on this list.
In a recent trailer for the movie The Art of Rap, Kanye West said that he felt like his life was dependent on the success of his fifth album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. As a producer on Jay Z’s classic Blueprint with four critically acclaimed solo albums, it was a strange comment to make, but for a man cursed with ambition and high expectations, the world must have weighed heavily on his gigantic ego. Despite a much publicized Grammy snub for an Album of the Year nomination, Fantasy was still roundly hailed as one of the best albums of the year by critics who knew what they were talking about. His grandiose production absorbed elements of classical, indie rock and motown creating a prog-rap record that even old school heads could appreciate. With Watch the Throne, West seems to have shed his remaining performance anxiety and taken a victory lap. His massive ego unchained, he’s now promising to “galvanize amazing thinkers…and affect governments” (!) At this point in the game, produced by Kanye West is an umbrella term that includes Mike Dean, Hit Boy, Swizz Beatz, Q-Tip, The Neptunes and a whole slew of others, but Kanye is the face, the voice and, believe it or not, the brains behind an operation that, like it or not, is pushing music forward. Love him or hate him, as long as he keeps producing tracks like this year’s “Mercy,” Kanye West deserves to be on this list.
El-P: The Lord of the Underground
On the other side of the tracks lurk the independent producers who don’t stand the slightest chance of landing a spot on the Clear Channel rotation unless they were to die tragically and then be immortalized posthumously for influencing more popular artists. As Groucho Marx said and El-P paraphrases on his latest album Cancer 4 Cure, who would want to belong to any club that would have them as a member? El-P may soon eat those words. With Cancer 4 Cure and his collaboration with Killer Mike R.A.P. Music, El-P has dished out a one-two combination of albums this year featuring his signature mix of aggressive, staccato beats and weird embellishments that wouldn’t sound out of place emanating from a hostile extraterrestrial hooptie. El-P’s production on Cannibal Ox’s 2001 record The Cold Vein still holds up over 10 years later as a standard for dark, dystopian, underground rap reminiscent of early Wu-Tang and his musical vision hasn’t wavered much. The only thing that’s changed is that the future is finally catching up with him.
Diplo: The Mad Man
Under the banner of his Mad Decent label, Thomas Wesley Pentz, better known as Diplo, has ushered Baile Funk into the mainstream, resurrected danehall for the masses with his collaborative project Major Lazer and broken major acts including M.I.A. and Santigold on his now classic mixtapes Piracy Funds Terrorism Vol. 1 and Top Ranking: A Diplo Dub. An oracle of the street, Diplo hyped Azealia Banks before she went mermaid all over everything and his Major Lazer track Pon De Floor was famously sampled by Beyonce on her record Run the World (Girls). Dipping his pinky toe in the mainstream with soft pap like Usher’s Climax hasn’t dulled his peculiar tastes. Rather than become complacent, these triumphs have emboldened Diplo’s weirder tendencies. He’s working on a documentary exploring the New Orleans “Bounce” scene, prepping new albums with Major Lazer and Snoop Dogg and he recently dropped this banger.
Danger Mouse: The Chameleon
Brian Burton a.k.a. Danger Mouse may actually be the hardest working man in the music industry. Since he dropped the legendary Grey Album mashing up the Beatles White Album with Jay Z’s Black Album in 2004, Danger Mouse has touched on or explicitly produced classic albums across every genre. The Gorillaz Demon Days, Gnarls Barkley’s St. Elsewhere, The Good, the Bad and the Queen, The Black Keys Attack and Release and El Camino, and the self-titled Broken Bells debut are all instant classics that will spin long into the future. Aside from a penchant for subtle electronic distortion and a fetish for the music of spaghetti-westerns, he walks that fine line between too little and too much, teasing out the best in artists he works with without drowning them in his own aesthetic. He has the remarkable ability to make albums that sound fresh and retro at the same time. 2010’s Broken Bells, Burton’s collaboration with Shins frontman James Mercer, mixes new wave, post-punk, psych-pop and spaghetti-western to stunning effect. 2011’s El Camino sounds like a classic rock album with hints of Zepplin. With every album his craft gets better and better. His crowning achievement to date may be Norah Jones 2012 homage to heartbreak, Little Broken Hearts. Sometimes the simplest songs require the greatest restraint and Burton shows great depth in the silence and slow pacing on the album. Danger Mouse is currently in production on U2’s next album.