Black History Month: UNSUNG – The Producers
Welcome to the final week of UNSUNG, a four-part series of articles celebrating Black History Month at TIDAL Read. In this roundup we highlight some of our favorite producers, the beatmakers and musical auteurs who shape the records we love out of the spotlight. Also be sure to check out our surveys of underrated musicians, vocalists and songwriters/composers. – Ed.
From Brampton, Ontario, here comes WondaGurl. Born Ebony Naomi Oshunrinde in 1996, she began making beats when she was a preteen, and has become a prolific and versatile producer at just 23. Her most prominent placement is probably Travis Scott’s “Antidote,” the mosh-pit anthem that propelled Scott into the vanguard of pop. For Drake and Lil Wayne, WondaGurl created the urgent, relentless “Used To,” from the former’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. Most recently, for Pop Smoke’s Meet the Woo 2, she produced “Christopher Walking” and “Dreaming.” Both are cavernous, dazzling and bold — fitting platforms for the late Brooklyn rapper’s easy charisma.
Chicago-based drummer/producer Makaya McCraven (pictured at top) refers to himself as a “beat scientist,” and the label fits. Inspired by hip-hop, he took a different approach to combining the music with jazz, borrowing not only its grooves and feel but its techniques. The result was the radical improvisatory collage of his breakthrough release, 2015’s In the Moment, which culled freeform improvisations by a host of top-tier musicians as source material to be sampled, chopped and reshaped. He’s continued to explore his innovative approach on a series of albums and mixtapes; on his latest, the Gil Scott-Heron project We’re New Again, his process reaches stunning new heights. McCraven has also lent his drums and post-production wizardry — often a hybrid of the two — to similarly minded outings by guitarist Jeff Parker, bassist Junius Paul and trumpeter Marquis Hill.
You’ve heard Cardo’s beats: They’re narcotic and woozy, the kind of thing that might be playing in a Mad Max vehicle driving through the desert in the dead of night. The Twin Cities producer started out working with Wiz Khalifa and the late Mac Miller, and after branching out he contributed the conspiratorial undergirding to one of Meek Mill’s early breakthroughs, “Levels.” Since then he’s shaped the apocalyptic instrumental of “THat Part,” from Schoolboy Q’s Blank Face LP, and the seasick “untitled 07 | levitate,” off Kendrick Lamar’s untitled unmastered. And, of course, he was essential to the delirious effervescence of Drake’s “God’s Plan.”
The multitude of Jimmy Fallon fans who tune in to the Tonight Show each evening probably don’t realize that the house band’s comically mellow keyboardist, the Roots’ James Poyser, is one of the most influential and experienced songwriter-producer-players in the history of urban music. His credits could stand as a veritable Hall of Fame for the last 30 years of hip-hop and R&B, and include work helming records for Common, Erykah Badu, Mariah Carey, Jill Scott, Musiq Soulchild, Bilal, Anthony Hamilton, Estelle, Big Sean and many others. A three-time Grammy winner (including two awards for the Roots/John Legend collab Wake Up!), the Philadelphian has been a sterling example of hard-earned, old-school musicianship in an era of technology-fueled beatmaking.
Bassist Derrick Hodge grew up in Philadelphia at just the right time. At the very moment that he was studying jazz at Temple University under trumpeter Terell Stafford, he was being mentored by James Poyser. Meanwhile, the neo-soul movement was flourishing in the city, featuring a ridiculous abundance of talent that included Jill Scott, Musiq Soulchild and Floetry. Hodge lent his talents to recordings by all of those artists, and was in demand in both the jazz and R&B worlds by the time he left school. He’s recorded and toured with trumpeter Terence Blanchard and pianist Mulgrew Miller, and collaborated with some of hip-hop’s best, including Common, Kanye West and Q-Tip. He’s sat behind the boards alongside some of music’s most pioneering producers, such as Quincy Jones and Don Was, helming projects for younger artists like Justin Kauflin and James Francies. Nowhere has he straddled the two worlds more deftly than as a member of the Robert Glasper Experiment, though his work for the Kendrick Scott Oracle’s A Wall Becomes a Bridge closes the divide in a completely different and visionary fashion.
Think: strings, vocal samples and horns that sound like they’re announcing the homecoming of a victorious army. You may know this Atlanta producer by his soulful, sample-heavy productions for Lil Bibby and Meek Mill, and by his extensive work with Jeezy, Rick Ross and The Game. On “Rich Is Gangsta,” off Ross’ 2014 Mastermind, Black Metaphor’s instrumentals provide a lush backdrop over which Ross deploys his luxury raps. That year, Black Metaphor produced three tracks for Jeezy’s Seen It All: The Autobiography, “How I Did It (Perfection),” “Win Is a Win” and “Beautiful.” The lattermost song features The Game boasting about renting out the Versace mansion over a yawning vocal and piano glissandos. If Gianni had made beats, they might have been this extravagant.
The relationship between hip-hop and jazz has never been more au courant, with an artist like Terrace Martin splitting his career between blowing sax alongside Herbie Hancock and crafting tracks for Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar and others. Detroit’s Karriem Riggins is another must-know name for those fascinated by jazz and rap’s interdependence. At the same time the drummer/producer was playing in bands led by greats like Mulgrew Miller, Roy Hargrove and Ray Brown, he was working side by side with influential producer J Dilla in Slum Village and forging a close and ongoing collaboration with Common. Riggins continues to practice both disciplines at the highest level, touring and recording with Diana Krall, Norah Jones and Esperanza Spalding while producing records for Kanye West and the Roots. The two worlds converge in the super-trio August Greene with Common and Robert Glasper, which released its self-titled debut in 2018.
Since he was a high school student in Kingston, Jamaica, DJ Frass has been musically inclined. His early mixtapes caught the attention of dancehall artist Buju Banton, who gave Frass some exclusive drops and dubplates and encouraged other top artists like Bounty Killer to do likewise. Inspired by their support, Frass continued his musical journey, touring the world with dancehall star Mavado in the mid-2000s, during the height of dancehall’s Gully vs. Gaza war. Paying his dues during that epic musical rivalry, Frass earned Mavado’s enduring loyalty. When Frass teamed up with Rvssian in 2009 to release his first production, a various-artists project called the “Clearance” riddim, it was only natural that Mavado was the first artist to lay vocals on the track.
Over a decade later DJ Frass may not be a household name, but he’s one of the most influential producers in Jamaica, pushing reggae and dancehall in new creative directions. “Big up the whole of the elder them,” Frass told Reshma B, TIDAL’s reggae and dancehall editor. “Big up all those who come set the pace. We try make a different thing in dancehall right now because we can’t do what everybody else did.” He executive produced I-Octane’s album My Journey as well as New Level Unlocked, the critically acclaimed debut album from breakout star Alkaline. “Alkaline is one of the baddest young artists,” Frass said. “Him full of melody, and him full of lyrics and him have the image.” Frass has also produced hits with rising star Jahmiel, a member of the MVP collective along with Alkaline and Mavado.
Frass’ creativity is not limited to dancehall. He has put his own unique spin on classic “one drop” reggae rhythms for Morgan Heritage’s Grammy-winning album Strictly Roots and Grammy-nominated projects for Etana and J Boog. More recently Frass has been developing a female artist named Moyenne, who’s featured on his latest project, the “High Res” riddim. “I’m producing for over 11 years now and I ain’t slowing down,” Frass said. “It’s just getting bigger and bigger and bigger.”
Image of Makaya McCraven courtesy of the artist.
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