Words by Martin Connor
The relationship between the rapper on a song and the beatmaker behind him is one of the most crucial ingredients in determining whether a particular record becomes a classic or not. In fact, sometimes you can’t even mention a rapper without automatically thinking about the man (or woman) who was usually behind the soundboard supporting them. How could you talk about Rakim without Eric B.? Run-D.M.C. without Jam Master Jay? Guru without DJ Premier? It just wouldn’t feel right.
A lot of the time, the beat from someone like Eric B., and the rhymes over that beat from someone like Rakim, are produced independently from each other. The producer might make the beat and then give it to a rapper, who only then comes up with lyrics.
But sometimes the connection between a song’s beat and that song’s rap is so tight, so completely enmeshed together, that it seems like the rapper and producer just had to have sat down together and crafted their own specific parts simultaneously. It’s as if one of the great rapper-producers in the industry, like Kanye West or John Forté, had had their two respective roles split into different people: that’s how well some duos, like those below, seem to be in sync.
The beats and bars of the following 7 songs match each other so closely that it goes beyond chemistry: it’s straight science.
1.Kendrick Lamar on “m.A.A.d city”, produced by Sounwave, THC, and Terrace Martin
Kendrick Lamar’s discography is amazing for the fact that, although he’s worked with dozens of producers, his own music largely has a varied, yet unified, sound. In fact, on To Pimp A Butterfly, every track but one has at least two producers credited, and yet all 17 songs still have that feeling of continuity that is so crucial to a concept album.
But on his first album, good kid, m.A.A.d city, Kendrick’s versatility was brought to a new level on the song “m.A.A.d city,” which was produced by Sounwave, THC, and Terrace Martin. In fact, “m.A.A.d city” is really like two songs in one. That’s because about two and a half minutes into the song, the beat completely changes. The backing track goes from a drum-heavy feel that places all the focus on groove and rhythm, to a garishly grandiose accompaniment dominated by an austere string section that watches over all of Kendrick’s lines.
Kendrick himself reflects this quick beat flip, particularly after MC Eiht’s featured verse, in his own bookending verses. On the first half of the track, Kendrick’s rhythms are more consistent, and relatively slow. But when the beat ups the tension with an angry, unloved bass line under drum samples that are closer to the acoustic than the electronic, Kendrick matches this change in dramatic tension by changing his own rap as well. Around 4:44, Kendrick’s rhythms become more complex: they take on a quasi-traffic-jam, start-and-stop feel that is even more jarring when it’s combined with Kendrick’s faster pace.
2.Eminem on “Real Slim Shady,” produced by Dr. Dre
Big fans of rapper-producer combos will have been expecting this collabo to be mentioned from the moment they read this article’s title. Some of the tandems here are infrequent track teammates, like DJ Premier and Notorious B.I.G. On the other hand are Eminem and Dr. Dre, who, before he sold headphones, oversaw most of Eminem’s early discography that launched him to a level of sales that makes the Detroit emcee the best-selling artist of the 21st century in America. With achievements like that, it’s no wonder that Dre and Em have tracks with incredible chemistry; the challenge is in picking only one.
The track on which their symbiosis is most obvious is “Real Slim Shady.” You might be familiar with Eminem’s in-your-face, gratuitous themes of murder, drugs, and societally unacceptable topics. The challenge facing Dre was this: how do you back up a rapper who refuses to be conventional?
The answer, quite simply enough, was to be unconventional in the musical choices behind that rapper. Perhaps that was the thinking that went into Dr. Dre’s unusual choice to place a harpsichord in the beat behind Eminem on “Real Slim Shady,” Dr. Dre is no stranger to unusual orchestration choices — a sitar appears on another Dre/Eminem production, “Ass Like That” — but rarely did those choices have both an aesthetic and poetic impact like on this single from The Marshall Mathers LP.
That’s because a choice for a harpsichord to appear on a gangsta song is just awkward, irreverent, and unexpected enough to go toe-to-toe with Eminem’s own jokes: “Christina Aguilera better switch me chairs / So I can sit next to Carson Daly and Fred Durst / and hear them argue over who she gave head to first.” The fact that the harpsichord is usually associated with reserved, regal settings, like the refined courts of medieval kings, only drives home how flippant and tongue-in-cheek Dre’s choice of harpsichord was.
Black Thought on “Without A Doubt,” produced by the Grand Wizzards
A lot of times great chemistry isn’t the result of a rapper and a production team doing something nobody else has done — it’s the result of a rapper and his team doing something everyone else does, just better. Such is the case of Black Thought and The Grand Wizzards on The Roots’ song “Without a Doubt.”
Before he was backing up Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show, Black Thought was (and still is) an elite MC who would go on to have his own 50-foot mural and Grammy award. This was when he was making songs like “Without A Doubt” over beats from The Roots production team called the Grand Wizzards, which was comprised of the other Roots members and their close collaborators.
Beat drops are a major part of making a track interesting, but it takes an expert producer and an expert rapper to put those beat drops in the right place. Too early, and the song might feel like it stopped before it ever even got started. But on “Without A Doubt,” the production team holds it at the perfect time, right before Thought hits it. In an answer that was a few years early to Nas’ own argument that Hip Hop Is Dead, Black Thought beats the Illmatic emcee to the punch over a positively reckless beat drop: “Hip Hop has not left yet.” At this point, the Grand Wizzards have taken the beat completely out, making Black Thought’s lines delivered with a maximum amount of ferocious force.
Without a doubt, the fact that ?uestlove and Black Thought have known each other since high school certainly shines through here.
4. Cam’ron on “Oh Boy,” produced by Just Blaze
Out of all the tracks here, this one might be the most impressive. That’s because of how closely Killa Cam and Just Blaze would have had to work together to make this song not sound like a completely jumbly mess. The instantly recognizable song from this sample — a pitched-up sample of the words “Oh boy” — comes from a 1975 Rose Royce record called “I’m Going Down.”
Other artists have made use of a close interplay between their words and the samples behind them, such as Canibus. But few have done it as engagingly as Cam’ron and Just Blaze did in 2002. That’s because that classic “oh boy” sample doesn’t always happen in the same place, or in the same way. Sometimes it’s only repeated once; sometimes it’s repeated four times. When it’s repeated four times, sometimes it’s halfway through the verse, while at other times, it only comes at the end of a verse. Sometimes the “boy” from the sample responds to an actual guy, and at other times it refers to drugs. Just Blaze and Cam’ron would have had to have worked very closely together in order to make sure that the Rose Royce sample came in the right place, and not, for instance, in the middle of a Canibus line awkwardly.
Even the feature on this song, Juelz Santana, gets in on the act.
All of these constant changes means that the listener never quite knows what to expect, and that makes the song not only supremely satisfying, but also giving it endlessly replay value.
5. Drake on “Fear,” produced by DJ Khalil
You were expecting Noah “40” Shebib, weren’t you? Well, sorry Drake Stans, but it turns out that Drake works with tons of producers. One of those includes DJ Khalil, who you might know from his work with Chase Infinite as half of Self Scientific or the killer beat on the second single from Eminem’s 2013 album The Marshall Mathers LP 2, called “Survival.”
But years before, Drake had called Khalil’s number for “Fear,” a track from his 2009 EP So Far Gone. (Don’t worry, Shebib shows up there too.) But on “Fear,” instead of the spacey, atmospheric soundworld of 40’s own work, we get some sonic messages that are much more groovy. A lot of this track’s musical ride centers around Khalil adding more and more instruments to the beat in order to keep making things more and more dramatic. This lets Drake do his “venting,” as he explains at the beginning of the record.
At 0:36, for example, the electric piano chords start moving higher and higher in pitch, right before some singing strings come in afterwards. For the hook at 1:08, proud horns and splashy crashes are added to the mix. Meanwhile, Drake has changed at this point from rapping to soulful singing. This completes the emotional climb to Drake’s blissful begging of you on the chorus to “Look me in my eyes / Please don’t be scared of me.”
You’re from Canada. You were on DeGrassi. You rap about crying. Don’t worry…we’re not scared of you.
Killer Mike on “The Whole World,” produced by Earthtone III
Killer Mike might be known by most through his recent smashing success as part of the Run The Jewels duo. But back in 2001, he was beside André 3000 and Big Boi on the mic, not El-P. That was on the jangly, off-kilter song “The Whole World,” which is a stellar example of OutKast’s ability to somehow make disparate musical elements all add up to something that’s bigger than a simple sum of its parts.
Technically, this track is credited to the production team Earthtone III, which consists of Big Boi, André 3000, and Mr. DJ, a producer from Atlanta who would win two Grammys with OutKast for “Ms. Jackson” and Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. But way before either of those achievements, this trio put together a beat that Killer Mike absolutely murdered.
The track itself musically divides the drumbeat into three equal parts, called triplets. Killer Mike perfectly syncs up with his three soundboard magicians when he makes his own flow something that’s called a triplet flow. That kind of flow is when every 3rd syllable in a rap is accented, as on Killer Mike’s opening lines at 2:18: “PLAYer i GRIND, my FOcus is CRIME, RAW with the RHYME, and SLICK with the SLIME.” There, the capitalized words are emphasized by Mike in the way he says them; “rhyme” is the 3rd syllable after “with” and “the,” for instance. This unifies the rap and the beat together in a unique way that rarely happens in the genre.
It’s a shame that one of the best OutKast songs never appeared on a true album, but was simply an element of OutKast’s first compilation album Big Boi and André 3000 present… OutKast. In any event, we should all be glad that Killer Mike stopped by back then to kill it on the mic, even if he’s more recognized now for his most recent work.
Notorious B.I.G. on “Rap Phenomenon,” produced by DJ Premier
It’s fitting to end this article with the two biggest OGs here. Everyone knows about the great chemistry DJ Premier had with Guru, but what might be underrated is the fact that Preemo had great chemistry with almost everyone he worked with. It’s clearly visible on Mos Def’s 1999 track “Mathematics,” as well as on the Notorious B.I.G. record entitled “Rap Phenomenon.”
In fact, on Biggie’s own song, DJ Premier uses the same technique that he did on “Mathematics” to build a chorus. The Gang Starr member took a series of samples from completely different places, and then put them together in a way that makes for an unexpectedly seamless musical collage. While other producers have done this as well, like The Fugees, Diamond D, and Jerry Duplessis on their 1997 song “The Score,” it’s damn near a hallmark of Primo’s own work.
But for “Rap Phenomenon,” Premier mixes things up by sticking to not only samples from just anywhere, but to samples only from other Biggie songs. In this way, “Rap Phenomenon” turns out to really be many different songs at the same time, as “Ten Crack Commandments,” “Kick In The Door,” and “The What” all get verbatim shout-outs on the hook. Biggie himself then backs this up by talking about a lot of the same things that those samples during the hook mention: classic mafioso subjects of drugs, sex, and violence. This makes “Rap Phenomenon” almost a good summary of Biggie’s entire career; he was phenomenal at rap, no question.
It turns out that some producers and some rappers can have great chemistry, even when one of them is no longer alive. Unfortunately, this Preemo/Biggie concoction was put together after Notorious B.I.G.’s death with unfinished, unpublished material from his previous catalogue. But at least it got put together at all.