Every art form has a canvas. It’s where imagination is stored, where expression is recorded, and where ideas are fully manifested. Rappers are creators, audio artists, and producers provide them with a canvas for their rhymes, ad libs, humming, and Auto-Tune gargles. They are essential architects, the foundation-builders of hip-hop’s sound. Beats are the backbone, giving structure to songs the way walls and ceilings maintain the structure of buildings.
Producers are also artists, though. They should be considered alchemists the way they turn singular noises into a bed of harmonious sounds. To talk of rap music, especially in 2017, is to speak of the architects shaping its sound and pushing the genre’s boundaries.
Among all the talented producers giving sonic life to hip-hop, 10 names, in particular, stood out in 2017. Praise the rapper, but never forget who provided the canvas.
10. Monte Booker
Before T-Pain’s acknowledgment and before SZA’s tour, Monte Booker and Smino were a dynamic duo. A majority of Smino’s breakout debut blkswn is driven by Booker’s jubilant, futuristic bounce. There’s a soothing, yet exuberant feeling to Monte’s beats, a winning combination alongside a rapper with such personality and range. There’s a level of greatness a rapper is able to achieve when they have a producer who understands their style, approach, and vision, and Smino and Monte have a special synergy that made blkswn one of the best albums of the year.
9. Pi’erre Bourne
Pi’erre Bourne, a crafter of quirky, yet infectious trap ground-shakers, exploded into prominence in ‘17 after the monstrous virality of Playboi Carti’s “Magnolia.” His zany, video game-inspired beats are becoming must-haves for the new cusp of rappers rising from SoundCloud to mainstream success, most notably Carti but also including Lil Uzi Vert, 21 Savage, Trippie Redd, Young Nudy and more. An artist in his own right, Pi’erre’s production has quickly established him as one of the architects of what is poorly considered ‘mumble rap’ or ‘SoundCloud rap.’ It starts with becoming the sound of today and then expanding, and Pi’erre Bourne is looking like a rocket ship ready to burst from the trap launching pad.
8. 9th Wonder
Whatever 9th Wonder touches turns to soul. Of course, this has been the case since the genesis of his production career, but 2017 served as yet another pleasant reminder. Kendrick’s “DUCKWORTH.” is the tale of Ducky and Anthony, an incredible story, but one that wouldn’t be the same without 9th’s three eloquent beats laying underneath. Rapsody’s long-awaited Roc Nation debut, Lalia’s Wisdom, is another hub of angelic bliss, for which 9th is credited with producing or co-producing eight out of the album’s 14 tracks. Age hasn’t caused any rust and the times haven’t inspired a radical change in direction; 9th Wonder is still getting better and doing it with soul in the forefront.
7. Pharrell Williams
Unlike No I.D., who aligned himself with a veteran legend, Pharrell found himself alongside young newcomers. Beautiful magic was made with Lil Uzi Vert on “Neon Guts,” Vic Mensa’s “OMG” revived Hell Hath No Fury vibes, and 2 Chainz’s “Bailan” is the glittery trap that hits with fluttering chords and striking drums. For artists seeking sonic palettes with a vibrant groove, Skateboard P is still serving the masses. For all his work with the newer generation, though, it was reuniting with Chad and Shay for the first N.E.R.D album in seven years that best showed off P’s futuristic production capabilities.
6. No I.D.
No I.D. did what no other producer has ever done: produce an entire album for JAY-Z. The sparse, yet soulful infrastructure was an open world for Hov’s honest introspection. It was an album that was meant to be personal and the sound had to mirror the intimacy, a quality that No I.D. masters in. Soul music for soul-searching lyricism. Soft loops and nostalgic chops, 4:44’s production speaks a language without rhymes. If immortality comes in the form of a classic album, No I.D.’s name will be engraved in history for what he did with Hov in 2017. Based on everything he’s already accomplished in his long career, however, many pages in the history book bare his name.
Southside of 808 Mafia doesn’t stop. He has the work ethic of a man who is constantly chasing what’s next. The latest Gucci album, El Gato: The Human Glacier, is entirely produced by Sizzle, and that doesn’t even begin to highlight his incredible year. There are smash hits from Kodak Black (“Tunnel Vision”) and Gucci and Migos (“I Get The Bag”), multiple credits on albums from Future, Young Thug, 21 Saage, and Playboi Carti, and work alongside DJ Khaled, Big Sean, G Herbo, Ty Dolla $ign and more. Southside provided trunk-rattling explosions for damn near everyone and continued to prove why he’s a magnet for big records and undergrounds scorchers.
4. Mike WiLL Made-It
Mike Will is known for being the powerhouse producer who gifts rap bangers to Southern rappers and molding popular music to his bass-heavy liking. Everyone from 2 Chainz to Beyoncé has gotten their hands on an EarDrummers slapper, but this year, to our surprise, the biggest records Mike made belonged to Kendrick Lamar. The two have worked together in the past, but this year they delivered “HUMBLE.,” “DNA.” and “XXX.”―three musical behemoths that sent shockwaves through bodies like the stomping presence of Godzilla. Being half of the best rapper-producer duo right now was just another piece of another banner year for Mike, one that included the release of his Ransom 2 album, producing the biggest hit of Yo Gotti’s career with “Rake It Up,” and helping Ty Dolla $ign turn out one of the best singles of the year in “Dawsin’s Breek.”
3. Frank Dukes
There’s a best kept secret quality to Frank Dukes’ production. He may be overlooked by those who aren’t aware of his name, or it could be due to the fact his production work is often a part of a collaboration. In 2017 alone, he co-produced three Blonded Radio-premiered gems from Frank Ocean (“Chanel,” “Biking” and “Lens”), touched five records from Aminé’s sunny Good For You and most of Lorde’s acclaimed Melodrama album, and worked on hits and fan favorites from SZA (“Go Gina”), ZAYN and PND (“Still Got Time”), Smokepurp and Travis Scott (“Fingers Blue”), Cousin Stizz (“Jo Bros”), A$AP Mob (“Feels So Good”) and Drake (“Madiba Riddim”). The biggest song of his year, though, is Camila Cabello’s “Havana.” The Young Thug-featured single just missed the No. 1 spot and had an impressive global reach. Whether you know his name or not, Frank Dukes is producing hits for your favorite artists across all genres.
2. Teddy Walton
Quiet as kept, Memphis, Tennessee’s Teddy Walton is one of 2017’s biggest winners. Walton is still fairly new, a producer whose work is much bigger than his name. He laid down the beat for one of the year’s biggest and best songs in “Crew,” the single that took GoldLink, Brent Faiyaz, and Shy Glizzy global. Teddy also brought to life “LOVE.,” Kendrick’s sensual single and top-20 hit. He also provided “GOD.” for Kenny, the excellent “Crushed Glass” for Freddie Gibbs, and a handful of records found on Bryson Tiller’s True to Self sophomore album. As his catalog continues to grow, Teddy Walton is primed to become a force in this league of super producers. His placements may have been few, but they were big. Quality over quantity.
1. Metro Boomin
Mainstream pop music belongs to Metro Boomin. To some, Metro’s dominance isn’t a new occurrence, but another year added to his impressive run. If you check the tape, Metro has been on fire for the last few years, but 2017 was another level of scorching for the young producer. He trampled across the charts while delivering an array of production to everyone from Lil Uzi Vert to Lana Del Rey, and produced four full-length albums—Gucci Mane, NAV, 21 Savage and Offset, and Big Sean. The infamous Metro tag was everywhere; almost every big album had his name attached or at least his influence present. Countless 2017 staples—from Future’s internet bulldozing “Mask Off” to Gucci’s “I Get The Bag” to Offset’s solo opus “Ric Flair Drip” and countless others—were Metro productions. Big singles and underground bangers, collaboration tapes and crossover records, there wasn’t anything that Metro Boomin didn’t do this year.
Metro has always declared his desire for more and this year he went and got all he could have; not in just rap but across the spectrum. While so many producers wonder how they can go pop, pop had to go Metro. He didn’t start trap music, but he is the current ruler.