Before 'Illmatic': The Major Hip-Hop Albums With Multiple Producers
By Todd Smith
Illmatic, the debut album from Queens rapper Nas, helped to usher in two major movements in ’90s Hip-Hop: the resurgence of East Coast hardcore after a period of West Coast dominance and the multi-producer approach to major rap albums. Prior to the making of Illmatic in 1994, the general perception was that classic rap albums were chiefly helmed by a single producer. Illmatic deserves a lot of credit for realigning the approach for the future. Classic rap albums like JAY-Z’s Reasonable Doubt, 2Pac’s All Eyez on Me, and The Notorious B.I.G.’s Life After Death featured a bevy of talented producers.
But the approach didn’t exactly start with Illmatic.
Prior to its inception, some major rap albums did employ a multi-producer approach. Illmatic’s impact is undeniably significant, but there are noteworthy projects that preceded the classic release and utilized a who’s-who of big names behind the boards.
In 1988 Big Daddy Kane debuted with his classic Marley Marl-produced LP Long Live the Kane. Showcasing his dexterous battle raps, wit, and smooth lover-man persona as well as classic tracks like “Raw” and “Smooth Operator,” it made the Brooklyn MC one of rap’s biggest new stars. Suddenly the biggest name in producer Marley Marl’s Juice Crew, Kane would quickly return to the studio to craft a follow-up. Big Daddy Kane’s sophomore album wouldn’t be so Marley-centric. It’s a Big Daddy Thing is, arguably, a broader and more fully realized project than the classic it followed, and that’s largely due to Kane recruiting several hot producers and utilizing his production skills to craft much of the album. “It’s a Big Daddy Thing was always my favorite,” Kane explained to Okayplayer. “I’ve always liked Big Daddy Thing better than Long Live the Kane. I feel like on Long Live the Kane, I hadn’t really seen much. I could only talk about what I had seen in the hood. On It’s a Big Daddy Thing I had a broader spectrum. I had seen a whole lot more at that time, so I could relate to so many more people.”
After the Beastie Boys’ acrimonious departure from Def Jam Recordings in 1988, a new act fronted by white MCs was waiting in the wings to assume their position within the label. 3rd Bass (MC Serch, Pete Nice, and the decidedly not-white DJ Richie Rich) were the new kids on the label, armed with a wit that seemed as at home with the Native Tongues as their braggadocious lyrics echoed the brashness of a Slick Rick or an LL COOL J. “No one could just try to sound black, you either had it or you didn’t,” Nice recalled in 2012. “You were nice or you were the proverbial sucker MC.” The trio released their first project The Cactus Album in 1989, featuring production from the underrated Sam Sever and the legendary Prince Paul, who’d just helped craft De La Soul’s masterful debut, 3 Feet High & Rising, as well as Public Enemy mainstays the Bomb Squad.
MC Lyte was a well-established Hip-Hop star by 1989. She’d broken through as a teenage battle rapper circa 1986 before dropping her acclaimed debut Lyte as Rock in 1988. A year later on the equally well-received follow-up Eyes on This, she recruited a lineup of all-star producers. Tapping King of Chill, PMD, Grand Puba, Marley Marl, and Audio Two, Lyte dropped another boom-bap classic that cemented her reputation as one of street Hip-Hop’s most accomplished and brashest rhymers. After This and its street success, the L-Y-T-E decided to recruit a different cadre of producers for a more commercial sound with heavy lifting by new jack dance gurus Wolf & Epic (fresh off their success with Bell Biv DeVoe’s multiplatinum Poison), Queen Latifah’s secret weapon Mark the 45 King and her old buddies Audio Two and The King of Chill. The resulting album, Act Like You Know, wasn’t exactly the success she’d primed it to be, but it yielded her the two memorable singles “When in Love” and the classic “Poor Georgie.” Lyte would revert back to a more hardcore sound on 1993’s Ain’t No Other, again recruiting a pack of producers. With K-Cut and Sir Scratch, Markell Riley of Wreckx-N-Effect, and the ever-present Audio Two, she again had single success (“RUffneck” would become her biggest Billboard chart hit to date) and the album was a bit better-received on the charts than Act Like You Know. The gold-selling single was produced by Wreckx-N-Effect and would be nominated for a Grammy for Best Rap Single.
Kool G Rap and DJ Polo’s second album, Wanted: Dead or Alive, is a street rap masterpiece showcasing G Rap’s gritty storytelling, Polo’s masterful scratching, and a lineup of accomplished beat-makers. The legendary Large Professor, alongside Eric B., Biz Markie, and the ever-present Marley Marl, provide a sonic backdrop for one of the Golden Age’s strongest releases and arguably the best record of G Rap and Polo’s tenure together. It set a new bar for hardcore East Coast Hip-Hop as a new decade dawned and was one of the more creatively successful examples of a multi-producer rap album that maintained a seamless feel and vibe throughout. It would prove to be influential throughout the 1990s in sound, subject matter, and approach.
By 1993, Run-D.M.C. looked like a legendary act whose career was trending downward. Their 1990 album Back From Hell was a spectacular failure, as the trio of Run, D.M.C., and Jam-Master Jay plodded through new jack swing beats and lackluster songwriting that made them look desperately out of step with the rest of Hip-Hop. As peers like Public Enemy, the Beastie Boys, and LL COOL J were delivering career-defining works, Run-D.M.C. were suddenly uncool and irrelevant. Manager Russell Simmons decreed that their follow-up album would not be the embarrassment that Hell had been, and he recruited a number of super-producers to ensure things would be different this time around. With Jermaine Dupri, Kay Gee of Naughty by Nature, Q-Tip, and Large Professor on-board, Run-D.M.C.’s sixth album Down With the King would put the kings from Queens back on the mainstream radar. The Pete Rock-produced title track would storm the pop top 10, becoming the trio’s second biggest hit after 1986’s rap-rock crossover “Walk This Way.”
Another veteran undergoing a major shift in 1993 was KRS-One. Finally abandoning the Boogie Down Productions moniker after five albums (and six years after the murder of partner DJ Scott La Rock), KRS dropped his debut under his own name. And unlike so many of BDP’s latter albums, KRS decided to invite outside producers into the studio. For his official solo debut, Kris recruited boom-bap luminaries Showbiz, Kid Capri, and Norty Cotto. Return of the Boom Bap reinvigorated KRS artistically and commercially after the lackluster last days of BDP with singles like “Sound of Da Police” becoming a classic single and “Outta Here” and “Can’t Wake Up” standing alongside the best tracks of the Bronx legend’s career. “I could have done my same old sound, which is a stripped-down Kris rhyme,” he would explain to Rap Pages in 1994. “And I would have come with a couple of concepts you might have liked or not liked. I don’t make any money on albums. I do this to maintain some sort of personality in the music world.”
What made Illmatic special? It was the debut album by a buzzed-about MC that actually surpassed the hype. It wasn’t the first multi-producer rap record, but it was a resounding success and major accomplishment for an artist who already had a significant amount of scrutiny and attention on him. It wasn’t exactly groundbreaking, but it was a game-changer.