10 Best American Music Producers

Updated on June 21, 2018
Robert Ortman profile image

Robert is a Graduate of Columbia University's MFA program. He writes short stories, poetry, and critical essays. He is also a drummer.

Read about 10 great record producers who have shaped American music.
Read about 10 great record producers who have shaped American music. | Source

Behind every star performer, there's a producer listening to and analyzing every note. When Michael Jackson performs a vocal swell, rising to an octave that sounds like it's going to shatter his voice box, it's easy to forget that someone was on the other side of the glass asking questions like, "Can you hit that note every night, or will it hurt too badly? Maybe we should lower it an octave to save your voice?" Producers make hundreds of decisions in each song, not to mention the push and pull relationships they have with talented performers. These relationships can ruin careers or save them. Some of your favorite bands and artists wouldn't be so memorable without a great producer helping to guide their distinct voices.

10 Best Record Producers Who Shaped American Music (1950-Present)

  1. Teo Macero
  2. Quincy Jones
  3. George Clinton
  4. Rick Rubin
  5. Trent reznor
  6. Dr. Dre
  7. DJ Shadow
  8. J Dilla
  9. Lauryn Hill
  10. Danger Mouse

1. Teo Macero

Born: October 30, 1925—February 19, 2008

Years Active: 1953–2008

Genres Produced: Jazz, classical, third stream, orchestral jazz, fusion

Essential Albums Produced: Bitches Brew, Kind of Blue, Time Out

Quick Bio:

Attilio Joseph "Teo" Macero was an American jazz saxophonist, composer, and record producer. He was a producer at Columbia Records for twenty years, and most notably co-produced, with Irving Townsend, Kind of Blue, the Miles Davis album which is the highest-ranked jazz album on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

How Teo Marcero Influenced Music

  • Macero produced Davis' Bitches Brew, and Dave Brubeck's Time Out.
  • The freedom he gave his musicians led to new developments in the jazz genre.
  • Bitches' Brew and Kind of Blue influenced generations of producers from jazz to hip-hop.

Associated Acts: Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Dave Brubeck

Miles just called and said he wants this album to be titled: "BITCHES BREW." Please, advise.

— Teo Macero

2. Quincy Jones

Born: March 14, 1933

Years Active: 1951–present

Genres Produced: Rhythm and blues, funk, soul, big band, swing, bossa nova, jazz, hip hop, rock and roll, pop

Essential Albums Produced: Thriller

Quick Bio:

With 55 years in the business, Quincy is about as legendary as they come. He was the guy responsible for "Billie Jean" and "Thriller", but he did so much more, including 33 film scores. He's a multifaceted jazz and pop figure who became the most Grammy-nominated artist in history with 79 nominations and 27 wins. He began his career with his Seattle teenage friend Ray Charles, who interested him in arranging. He played trumpet and arranged for Lionel Hampton, then worked as a freelance arranger on many jazz records. He served as musical director for Dizzy Gillespie's overseas big-band tour (1956), worked for Barclay Records in Paris. This influences would lead Jones to become one of the most iconic and unique voices in pop.

How Quincy Jones Influenced Music

  • Quincy Jones used his clout among major American recording artists to record the much-celebrated anthem "We Are the World" to raise money for victims of famine in Ethiopia.
  • His work on behalf of social causes has spanned his career.
  • Quincy Jones started the Listen Up Foundation, which built more than 100 homes in South Africa in 2001.
  • Jones produced the 1985 film The Color Purple, directed by Steven Spielberg.
  • He produced the television series The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990-96), starring Will Smith.
  • He also published the magazines Vibe and SPIN, and in 1990 he formed Quincy JonesEntertainment (QJE).
  • In 1978, he produced the soundtrack for the The Wiz, starring Michael Jackson and Diana Ross.
  • In 1982, Jones's produced Michael Jackson's all-time best-selling album Thriller.

Associated Acts: Frank Sinatra, Eddie Van Halen, Nik Kershaw, Dinah Washington, Karina Pasian, Nana Mouskouri, Dean Martin, Patti Austin, Tevin Campbell, Tamia, Trey Songz, Lesley Gore, Nikki Yanofsky, Michael Jackson, Etc...

Imagine what a harmonious world it could be if every single person, both young and old shared a little of what he is good at doing.

— Quincy Jones

3. George Clinton

Born: July 22, 1941 (age 76) Kannapolis, North Carolina, U.S.

Years Active: 1955–present

Genres Produced: Funk, rock, soul, psychedelic funk, electro-funk

Essential Albums Produced: Freaky Styley

Quick Bio:

While George Clinton is best known for his production on his own work, most notable Parliament and Funkadelic, and for creating p-funk. He was also called in behind the desk for Bootsy Collins and the Red Hot Chili Peppers for their seminal Freaky Styley album.

How George Clinton Influenced Music

  • Recording both as Parliament and Funkadelic, George Clinton revolutionized R&B during the ’70s by shaping soul music into funk by adding influences from several late-’60s acid heroes: Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, and Sly Stone.
  • The Parliament/Funkadelic machine ruled black music during the ’70s, capturing over 40 R&B hit singles.
  • The early ’90s saw the rise of G-funk (courtesy of Digital Underground, Dr. Dre, and Warren G.) and funk rock (Primus and Red Hot Chili Peppers). They were all inspired by Clinton's work.
  • Clinton’s music became the soundtrack for the rap movement.
  • Artists from MC Hammer, to LL Cool J to Snoop Doggy Dogg depended heavily on the infectious groove of Clinton's productions.
  • Clinton’s Parliament/Funkadelic was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997.

Associated Acts: Parliament, Funkadelic, Bootsy's Rubber Band, Red Hot Chili Peppers

If it wasn't for flashbacks, I wouldn't remember anything at all.

— George Clinton

4. Rick Rubin

Born: March 10, 1963 (age 55) Long Beach, New York , U.S.

Years Active: 1982–present

Genres Produced: Rock, hip hop, heavy metal, country

Essential Albums Produced: Californication

Quick Bio:

Rick Rubin’s greatest strengths as a producer is his ability to get on with anyone and coax the best from them, regardless of genre. Rubin's influence on thrash metal and '90s hip-hop survives the test of time.

How Rick Rubin Influenced Music

  • His seven Grammy wins stretch across all types of music, from rap to metal and country.
  • Run DMC, Slayer, and the Dixie Chicks are just three wildly diverse acts from an astonishing number that owe him a serious debt.
  • His ability to blend genres can be found throughout hip-hop production and indie rock production.
  • Along with Russell Simmons, he is the co-founder of Def Jam Recordings. He also established American Recordings.

Associated Acts: AFI, The Avett Brothers, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Johnny Cash, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, The Black Crowes, Jazzy Jay, Dixie Chicks, Slayer, Beastie Boys, Weezer, Jay Z, Adele, Kanye West, Metallica, Etc... etc.

For me, the Beatles are proof of the existence of God.

— Rick Rubin

10 Amazingly Well Produced Albums

Artist/Band
Album
Producer
Nirvana
"In Utero"
Steve Albini
Deftones
"White Pony"
Terry Date
Nas
"Illmatic"
DJ Premier
The Beatles
"Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band"
George Martin
The Smiths
"Strangeways, Here We Come"
Stephen Street
Radiohead
"OK Computer"
Nigel Godrich
Prince
"Sign O the Times"
Prince
Missy Elliot
"Miss E... So Addictive"
Missy Elliot
David Bowie
"Heroes"
David Bowie
Daft Punk
"Random Access Memories"
Daft Punk

5. Trent Reznor

Born: May 17, 1965 (age 53) New Castle, Pennsylvania, U.S.

Years Active: 1982–present

Genres Produced: Industrial rock, industrial metal, alternative rock, post-industrial, synth-pop

Essential Albums Produced: The Downward Spiral

Quick Bio:

Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor has been draping his industrial squall over the music scene for the better part of three decades. Usually with NIN, but most notoriously with Marilyn Manson, for whom Reznor helped create his dark sound. NIN’s debut Pretty Hate Machine was a proto-grunge shot in the arm for hard rock, fusing industrial noise with samples, forming an unlikely hit. Greater success followed as Reznor honed a warped pop sensibility, changing what was deemed "radio-friendly."

How Trent Reznor Influenced Music

  • He introduced industrial music to pop.
  • He brought the sampler to prominence in hard rock.

Associated Acts: Nine Inch Nails, How to Destroy Angels, David Bowie, Pigface, Option 30, The Innocent, Exotic Birds, Tapeworm, Marilyn Manson, Lucky Pierre, Queens of the Stone Age, Saul Williams

I really try to put myself in uncomfortable situations. Complacency is my enemy.

— Trent Reznor

6. Dr. Dre

Born: February 18, 1965 (age 53) Compton, California, U.S.

Years Active: 1984–present

Genres Produced: Hip-hop, gangsta rap, G-funk

Essential Albums Produced: The Chronic

Quick Bio:

Dr. Dre, is an American rapper, record producer and entrepreneur. He is the founder and CEO of Aftermath Entertainment and Beats Electronic. Before that, he was co-owner of Death Row Records. Dre has produced albums for rappers, including 2Pac, The D.O.C., Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Xzibit, Knoc-turn'al, 50 Cent, The Game, and Kendrick Lamar. He is a key figure in the popularization of West Coast G-funk. As of 2017, he is the third richest figure in hip-hop, with a net worth of $740 million.

How Dr. Dre Influenced Music

  • Produced Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Tupac, 50 Cent, and many more.
  • Founded Aftermath Entertainment and popularized West Coast G-funk.
  • His symphonic sound has left an imprint on countless producers.

Associated Acts: N.W.A, World Class Wreckin' Cru, 2Pac, 50 Cent, The D.O.C., Eminem, The Game, Kendrick Lamar, Michel'le, Nate Dogg, Snoop Dogg, Warren G, Xzibit

“No matter how hard you work to bring yourself up, there’s someone out there working just as hard, to put you down.”

— Dr. Dre

7. DJ Shadow

Born: June 29, 1972 (age 45) San Jose, California, U.S.

Years Active: 1989–present

Genres Produced: Hip-hop, instrumental hip hop, trip hop, electronica, turntablism, sampledelia, ambient

Essential Albums Produced: Endtroducing.....

Quick Bio:

Josh Davis has extended the remit of sampladelica. Essentially a hip-hop album, his 1996 debut Endtroducing….. was entirely pieced together from snippets of jazz and psychedelic records picked up in record stores. It was all spliced together with his AKAI MPC60.

How DJ Shadow Influenced Music

  • Popularized the sampladelica genre.
  • Popularized instrumental hip-hop.

Associated Acts: Unkle, The Quannum Collective, Cut Chemist

I always managed to fly a bit below the radar, but high enough to avoid colliding into anything.

— DJ Shadow

8. J Dilla

Born: February 7, 1974 in Detroit, Michigan

Years Active: 1993–2006

Genres Produced: Hip-hop, soul, instrumental hip-hop, electronic

Essential Albums Produced: Donuts

Quick Bio:

  • Born in Detroit Michigan, elements of Midwestern Jazz, Soul, and Blues would be recurring themes in his music.
  • As the producer for A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Busta Rhmes, and Common, James Dewitt Yancey (J Dilla) would eventually become one of the most praised hip-hop producers of all time. Few people have a resume like his.
  • Tragically, Dilla died in 2006 of the rare blood disorder TTP, at the age of just 32.

How J Dilla Influenced Music

  • Dilla's resume is long and varied. He's worked with everyone, from Erykah Badu to MF DOOM.
  • His signature sloppy (intentionally so) kick drum laden beats inspired great drummers like Questlove to experiment more with off-time and arhythmic beats.
  • Dilla's akai mpc is in the Smithsonian museum. He revolutionized sampling by refusing to quantize his beats. That means that his performances would vary, bringing humanity to the electronic.

Associated Acts: Slum Village, Soulquarians, Common, Bilal, Mos Def, Questlove, Erykah Badu, The Ummah, A Tribe Called Quest, Madlib, MF DOOM, Dwele, Guilty Simpson, Frank n Dank, Phat Kat, Black Milk, Waajeed, Beat Junkies, Busta Rhymes, De La Soul, The Pharcyde

You don’t pay attention man/that’s why your money is the size of your attention span.

— J Dilla

9. Lauryn Hill

Born: May 26, 1975

Years Active: 1989–present

Genres Produced: R&B, soul, neo-soul, hip-hop, folk, reggae

Essential Albums Produced: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill

Quick Bio:

  • She was raised mostly in South Orange, New Jersey.
  • Hill began singing with her music-oriented family during her early childhood.
  • She enjoyed a little success as an actress as a youth, with her older brother Graham Hill, appearing in a recurring role on the television soap opera As the World Turns.
  • She also appeared in the 1993 film Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit.
  • In high school, Hill was approached by Pras Michel to start a band, which Wyclef Jean joined.
  • They renamed themselves the Fugees and released the albums Blunted on Reality (1994) and the Grammy Award-winning The Score (1996).

How Lauryn Hill Influenced Music

  • While Hill has not produced as many records as the others on this list, her influence on music can be seen in many female rappers and singers today.
  • She helped to bring Caribbean music influences to rap and her rendition of the hit "Killing Me Softly" inspired many to begin producing neo-soul.
  • Hill's great accomplishment was her ability to seamlessly blend musical genres.
  • Her genre-blending techniques can be heard all across early 2000s music.

Associated Acts: Fugees, Nas

Be honest, brutally honest. That is what's going to maintain relationships.

— Lauryn Hill

10. Danger Mouse

Born: July 29, 1977 in White Plains, New York, United States

Years Active: 1998–present

Genres Produced: Hip-hop, alternative rock, electronica

Essential Albums Produced: The Grey Album

Quick Bio:

Compulsive collaborator Danger Mouse cemented his reputation with The Grey Album, his 2004 mash-up of Jay-Z’s The Black Album and The Beatles’ White Album. Burton’s skills were in immediate demand, with his dusty sound attracted Damon Albarn of Gorillaz. His production work on Demon Days helped solidify his career. After creating Gnarls Barkley, Burton’s worked on several Grammy-nominated albums.

How Danger Mouse Influenced Music

  • Mixed '60s psychedelia with neo-soul and hip-hop.

  • Has crossed music production with film directors in order to create stand-alone albums that also sound like soundtracks.

  • His cross-genre combinations have pushed many popular artists to do the same.

Associated Acts: Danger Doom, MF DOOM, Gnarls Barkley, CeeLo Green, Broken Bells, James Mercer, Sparklehorse, The Black Keys, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Gorillaz, ASAP Rocky, U2, Portugal. The Man, Raury, Norah Jones, Electric Guest

I was thinking that people have to believe you're crazy in order to take you seriously as an artist.

— Danger Mouse

More Great Producers and Albums

Producer
Album
Phil Spector (insanity and murder aside)
"Let It Be" by the Beatles
Jay-Z
"The Black Album"
George Martin
"Abbey Road " by The Beatles
Brian Wilson
"Pet Sounds" by The Beach Boys
David Bowie
"The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars"
Nas
"Untitled" (He was co-producer on many of his other great albums)
RZA
"Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)"
Prince
"Purple Rain"
Eminem
"Relapse"
Curtis Mayfield
"Roots"
Jerry Wexler
"The Great Ray Charles" by Ray Charles
Beyoncé
"Lemonade"
El-P
"Run the Jewels" (all of them are great)

Up and Coming Record Producers (2018)

Producer
Genres
Tay Keith
HIp-Hop
Ness
Hip-Hop
Jack Antonoff
Indie-Pop
KnOXledge
Hip-Hop, Neo-Soul, etc...
Toxe
Electronic
Terrance Howard
Hip-Hop, Jazz, R&B
Calvin Harris
Pop
Anderson Paak
Hip-Hop, Neo-Soul, etc...
Dave Cobb
Country

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