Rap Producers Run Pop, So Why Won’t The Grammys Notice?

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The producer with the most hits on the Top 40 of the Hot 100 last year was the 24-year-old Metro Boomin. He had 11 smash singles, including Future’s “Mask Off,” Kodak Black’s “Tunnel Vision,” 21 Savage’s “Bank Account,” Gucci Mane’s “I Get The Bag” and Migos’ “Motorsport” — a commanding collection of inescapable hip-hop hits.

As a hip-hop producer dominating the charts, Metro Boomin is not alone. The production team with the second-most credits on Top 40 hits was Cubeatz with eight (Travis Scott, Drake, Nicki Minaj). Tied for third was Sounwave, the in-house producer for TDE (Kendrick Lamar). Tied for fourth were Mike WiLL Made-It (Rae Sremmurd, Yo Gotti) and DJ Dahi (Lamar). In all, seven of the top ten most successful producers this year are known for their work in rap.

It would make sense, then, for the Grammy nominees for the Producer Of The Year, Non-Classical award to reflect hip-hop’s dominance. But they don’t. At all. Of the five producers up for the honor this year, only one, No I.D., comes from a rap background. The Stereotypes occasionally dabble in the form, but they are up for the award because of their work on Bruno Mars’ throwback R&B extravaganza 24K Magic. Blake Mills (mostly rock and singer/songwriters) and Greg Kurstin (pop) have little facility with hip-hop. Calvin Harris spent seemingly every dollar he had buying countless rap features to boost his latest album, but he doesn’t really know how to produce hip-hop, and none of his singles made it inside the Top 20 in the US.

The Grammys’ decision to ignore rap producers is not a new development. In fact, since Dr. Dre won Producer Of The Year in 2001, just one other producer (or production group) with serious rap credentials — and ongoing involvement in rap — has taken home the award: The Neptunes in 2004. (Pharrell also won on his own after storming the world with “Happy,” not exactly a rap song.) From year to year, it’s routine that a hip-hop producer won’t even be nominated.

Who wins? The rock and pop and roots guys. It seems like there is a U2 rule: Anyone who helps put together a U2 record wins a Producer Of The Year Grammy at some point in their career — Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, Steve Lillywhite and Danger Mouse. Adele is quickly becoming a similar powerhouse, punching winning tickets for Paul Epworth and Greg Kurstin. The Recording Academy’s knee-jerk nomination appears to be T-Bone Burnett, famous for faithful musical anachronisms.

There is remarkably little variation in the Producer of the Year nominees over time: You would hope that Grammy voters would be digging through liner notes — or Wikipedia — to find new names, but they tend to vote for the same people over and over. Since 2000, Danger Mouse has been nominated five times, Burnett four times, Rick Rubin four times, Rob Cavallo four times, Jam & Lewis six times. The best predictor of a Grammy nomination is a previous Grammy nomination, suggesting a stagnant system. But when the voters do make room for a first-timer — Ethan Johns in 2010, Ariel Rechtshaid in 2014, Blake Mills in 2016 — it’s rarely a rap producer.

Of course, the Grammys’ neglect of hip-hop production is not surprising. Historically, the Recording Academy has paid little attention to black popular music. Few R&B albums by black singers have ever won Album Of The Year. And just one rap act has won that award: Outkast in 2003. (Lauryn Hill won in 1998, but her traditional soul singing chops undoubtedly helped). Why would the Recording Academy acknowledge producers if they won’t even honor MCs?

But producers arguably have even more impact than those who rap on their beats. Turn on the radio or turn to a playlist on your streaming service of choice: You might be listening to country or rock or pop, but you’ll hear 32nd note patterns programmed on the hi-hats and slabs of bass thick enough to block out the sun. You’re not hearing those thanks to the efforts of Producer of the Year-winners John Shanks or Dan Auerbach. Atlanta hip-hop producers perfected a sound so potent that it took over every corner of popular music. And the Grammys ignored them for it.

How many times has Kanye West retooled what an album can sound like? He’s never been nominated as Producer Of The Year. How many pop and R&B and country records do you hear trying to nail the viciously mopey backdrops that Noah “40” Shebib gave Drake? 40 has never been nominated. The braintrust responsible for Lamar’s sound has not been nominated. Mike WiLL Made-It has been a highly influential producer since 2012; no nominations.

It is true that rap albums often rely on multiple producers, whereas the mythical idea of a producer — established, of course, by countless rock tales — is one man (always a man) working into the small hours of the morning helping a band reach their full potential. Maybe the multi-producer system splits votes, or voters prefer to have a single name to latch on to and remember come ballot-time. But Adele also uses numerous producers, and in recent years, so does U2. It doesn’t seem to have hurt them. And early hit albums from Kanye West (College Dropout, Graduation) or Drake (Take Care) relied primarily on a single producer. It didn’t help them.

To the extent the Recording Academy does acknowledge rap producers, it does so when they have moved into pop or rock. Rick Rubin was once a visionary rap producer; decades later, he won Producer Of The Year in 2007 and 2009, at which point he was primarily focused on resuscitating rock and pop acts in mid- or late-life crises. Timbaland never won, but he got a nomination after making Nelly Furtado’s Loose and Justin Timberlake’s FutureSex/LoveSounds. Once will.i.am moved the Black Eyed Peas away from hip-hop towards turbocharged dance pop, he was nominated twice.

When the Recording Academy released its latest Grammy nominations it was showered in praise. The gist of the conversation was, “they got it right, finally!” But in the producer category, hip-hop is represented only by No I.D. And although No I.D. has fingerprints on important releases in contemporary rap — see West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy — his nomination this year is almost entirely due to his work on Jay-Z’s 4:44. The beats on that album are slick, simple loops of soul records; although some of these instrumentals are excellent, they’re not indicative of where hip-hop’s mainstream is now or where it’s been recently. Rap’s cutting edge isn’t hard to find — just turn on the radio. But even in the face of hip-hop’s Top 40 onslaught, the Recording Academy remains oblivious.