Why DJs Make Great Music Producers


REVIEW: DJing was a great training ground to become a great producer for the likes of Dr. Dre, Pete Rock, Swizz Beatz, Jimmy Jam, the Bomb Squad and more.

Editor’s note: The following article is an editorial, and the opinions expressed are those of the author. Read more opinions on the Grio.

The definition of a music producer is not the same for everyone. This rings especially true in contemporary black music from the mid-twentieth century.

You have people like Sly Stone, who produced his band. Flyte Time’s Jimmy Jam, who often composes the music he produces with partner Terry Lewis. Then there’s Pete Rock, who uses samplers and drum machines to create beats for MCs.

All of these producers are from different generations and have different sounds and techniques. Although there are several things they all have in common, one crucial thing connects them: they were all DJs.

Producer Pete Rock talks to Tracklib about the origins of the production. Screenshot from YouTube.

The attributes of a DJ help them unite a crowd in a collective movement, both literally and emotionally. It’s a DJ’s job to put together the right records, play them in the right order, and contort their sonic characters in real time to get the perfect response from partygoers and onlookers. These are the same attributes that make a successful music producer.

It’s a producer’s job to serve what’s best for the artist and the song. This often involves technical know-how, matching the right artist with the right material, choosing people who will bring the song to its full potential, knowing what elements to add to captivate a listener, and helping to put together a track list for a album to make sure. gives sound and thematic meaning to the listener.

Many successful and imaginative black music producers rose to fame through the training they received as DJs: Dr. Dre, Manny Fresh, Swizz Beatz, Lil Jon, J Dilla, DJ Premier, Marley Marl , Kay Gee, DJ Mustard, D-Nice, Lee “Scratch” Perry, 9th Wonder, Evil Dee, DJ Wayne Williams and Prince Paul, to name a few.

Each of these men has carved out a place for himself in the pantheon of black music success, and DJing is the profession that has built that acumen.

The DJ is many things – a music player, tastemaker, guardian, art curator and cultural liaison. Before the MC was the one who got the crowd moving, it was the DJ who was responsible for the movement of those in attendance.

Brian “Raydar” Ellis, professor at Berklee College of Music and DJ/producer, says the DJ needs to control the flow of the music and the crowd.

Black Music Action Coalition's Second Annual Music In Action Awards Gala

Jimmy Jam attends the Black Music Action Coalition’s 2nd Annual Music in Action Awards Gala at The Beverly Hilton on September 22, 2022 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Leon Bennett/Getty Images for Black Music Action Coalition)

“You kind of work like a traffic light, like an intersection,” Ellis told the Grio. “The energy will circulate and intersect. And you have to make sure they don’t crash. So you have to have really dope records, and then you have to know when to play those records.

It all starts with that innate ability to understand not only which drives work best for crowds, but how those drives work to create a reaction in the crowd. A good music producer understands the sonic elements of melodies, harmonies, and rhythms, as well as song structure and arrangements that can engage the listener.

Pete Rock was just a young child, admiring the popular DJs of early hip-hop when he began to understand the almighty lesson of curation.

“It forces you to be extremely mindful of everything you’ve learned from these other DJs and apply it to yourself,” Rock told theGrio. “You remember some records they play that get the crowd moving. And you just started calculating and documenting all those things in your brain that never leave you..”

Radio DJs not only have the pulse of people, they set the beat. For black radio DJs, it wasn’t just about playing the hottest songs of the day, but they created the soundtrack to people’s days by exposing them to new artists and finding the right songs. to work together.

Slyvester Stewart became Bay Area funk maestro Sly Stone due to his scholarly songwriting, influential bandleader skills, and mastery of multiple instruments. But his days as a DJ at San Francisco’s KSOL-AM in the early 1960s helped him understand what people wanted. The fusion of soul artists with white pop artists like the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan would later inform his production skills for his integrated band, Sly and the Family Stone.

BET Experience 2013 - Concert by Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar, J.Cole, Miguel and SchoolBoyQ

Rapper Dr. Dre performs during the Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar, J.Cole, Miguel and SchoolBoyQ concert at the 2013 BET Experience at Staples Center on June 29, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Chelsea Lauren/Getty Images for BET)

Two decades later, two radio disc jockeys from Long Island were able to use the encyclopedic knowledge of the records they spun as references for the music they would later make as the production team of Public Enemy, the Bomb. squad.

“Hank Shocklee and Keith Shocklee on Long Island, they DJed with Spectrum City for many, many years,” said Dan Charnas, New York University professor and author of “Dilla Time.” “That experience gave them the cultural depth, the library depth to then go on and create a revolution in sampled music.”

This inner library was the source of their radical sampling collage style that destroyed conventional methods of hip-hop production. Songs like “Fight the Power,” “Don’t Believe the Hype,” and “Bring The Noise” ushered in a new era of production that caught millions off guard until others followed suit. .

The Bomb Squad succeeded not only because they knew which records worked, but also because of their mastery of sampling and drum programming. Thanks to them, and others like Pete Rock and his mentor DJ/producer Marley Marl and Prince Paul, sampling and interpolation have become the go-to technique for producers, hip-hop and beyond.

As the DJ-turned-producer began creating powerful and innovative records, the Producer’s Tools became essential tools for DJs in clubs, parties, and during performances. DJs received instant on-the-job training as improvisational producers.

Hip-hop was a jumble, a collage of different records put together in sequence, in the right order,” Charnas said. “And that became, very quickly in the mid to late 1980s, part of a DJ’s skill set was not only being able to work the decks, but also being able to work the drum machine and the sampler.

Vulture Festival LA presented by AT&T - Opening Night Gala

DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad attends the Vulture Festival LA Opening Gala presented by AT

It’s this kind of multitasking that has pushed the boundaries of black music. Acquiring the technical know-how as a DJ also laid the foundation for a future as a producer.

Dr. Dre was packing his bags into big crowds in California as a DJ who could fuse contemporary dance beats with 1960s Motown vocal tracks. As he tirelessly continued to learn about recording and mixing, he realized he wanted to make new music. The future media mogul took his knowledge and ear to make infectious beats for his boys in Compton.

From NWA, JJ Fad, Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent, Eminem, his own solo work and beyond, Dre’s beats have defined a generation and a region.

Another DJ who would help define a city’s sound as a producer was Mannie Fresh. As the son of legendary New Orleans DJ, DJ Sabu, Mannie developed his own skills as a DJ, arranging and spinning records like his old man, but he split up incorporating a box to beats at DJ gigs, getting the crowd to plead for his beats more than the songs.

Combining his knowledge of traditional second-line New Orleans jazz and Bounce hip-hop with his ability to make beats, Mannie was responsible for the signature Cash Money Billionaires sound that took the nation by storm in the late 1980s. 1990s and 2000s.

Although you don’t have to be a DJ to be a great producer, the examples of men like Ali Shaheed Muhammad, J Dilla, DJ Screw and others show that the path to becoming a great producer can be shorter. if you are a DJ first. .

Matthew Allen is a music and culture entertainment writer for theGrio. He is an award-winning music journalist, television producer and director based in Brooklyn, NY. He has interviewed Quincy Jones, Jill Scott, Smokey Robinson and many more for publications including Ebony, Jet, The Root, Village Voice, Wax Poetics, Revive Music, Okayplayer and Soulhead. Her video work can be seen on PBS/All Arts, Brooklyn Free Speech TV and BRIC TV.

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