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On to the next one: the producers — and stories — behind Jay-Z's catalog

Jay-Z’s illustrious solo career has spanned nearly two decades and twelve albums. He has witnessed hip-hop’s rise from contentious urban art form to global cultural force — a time period during which he’s been at the top of the game.

Along the way, his music and lyricism have evolved with the times, from the sample-based mafioso rap of Reasonable Doubt to the distinctly Roc-a-Fella The Blueprint to throwback concept album American Gangster (and all points in-between). To do this, he’s relied on countless producers, among them the musicians that have defined the sound of contemporary hip-hop.

With the game-changing release of Magna Carta Holy Grail upon us, we took a look at the producers that Jay-Z has collaborated with along the way.

Use your keyboard’s arrow keys or hit the prev / next arrows on your screen to turn pages (page 1/11)

SKI

The North Carolina-bred producer had a hand in Jay-Z’s early solo material, beginning with the original version of his debut single ‘In My Lifetime’. Ski crafted dusty boom-bap and leaned on classic soul and jazz samples (the style du jour), but he also interpolated A Tribe Called Quest (’22 Two’s’) and — most famously — sampled Nas on ‘Dead Presidents’. The latter move indirectly led to the rappers’ half-decade long feud when Nas declined to appear on the song. Ski would go on to produce a pair of songs for In My Lifetime, Vol.1 , but was drummed out when Jay cleaned house before Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life.

Ski on ‘Feelin’ It’:

“It was me and Geechi Suede from Camp Lo, it was my hook and everything. Jay heard it and was like, “I want that record. I don’t care what you do, I want that record.” I didn’t want to give it to him, but I had to because I knew he was going to be the man at the time. So I said, “Fuck it, take the record.” It really was me and Suede from Camp Lo, the flow and everything, the way he was flowing on it. That’s the way we was flowing on it. So he just took the whole thing. But you know, he killed it in his own way.”

Other highlights:
‘Politics as Usual’
‘Streets Is Watching’

Use your keyboard’s arrow keys or hit the prev / next arrows on your screen to turn pages (page 2/11)

DJ PREMIER

The Gang Starr producer and hip-hop encyclopedia exhibited his scratch-and-speak style across Jay-Z’s first four albums. An unparalleled crate-digger, he sampled seven tracks on the multi-part lead cut on In My Lifetime, Vol. 1, reaching ouroboros-like levels on Life and Times‘s ‘So Ghetto’ by sampling lyrics from Jay-Z’s own ‘Who You Wit II’. And while he’s had countless credits since 1999, there hasn’t been another with Hova.

DJ Premier on ‘Intro/A Million and One Questions/Rhyme No More’:

“As soon as [Jay] said, ‘A Million and One,’ I thought, [Aaliyah’s] ‘One in a Million’. So I just sampled it, and pitched it up to the right key, and threw it in on the pad. Jay laid the first part, and walked back out to work with Too Short, and said, ‘Call me when you’re ready.’ I made the second part, and he said, ‘Yo, that’s it. Let me go right in the booth.’ He laid it, and I attached it. Back then to edit it we had to splice the tape, and put it together. Kids these days don’t know how to cut notebook paper with a pair of scissors. [Laughs.] You mess up on a punch, and you have to re-cut it. On Protools, you just press undo. But Jay-Z trusts me. He’ll just lay his vocals, and says, ‘Do the Premier thing.’” [via Complex]

Other highlights:
‘D’evils’
‘Friend or Foe ’98’
‘Bring It On’

Use your keyboard’s arrow keys or hit the prev / next arrows on your screen to turn pages (page 3/11)

THE HITMEN I

Puffy and his in-house production team, the Hitmen, have their fingerprints all over In My Lifetime, with credits on nearly half the tracks. Jay-Z’s efforts at Jiggy Era pop crossover are forgettable at best; ‘I Know What Girls Like’ earns the ignominy of being perhaps his worst song ever and he describes the album as “the one that got away.” It’s not all bad (boy), though: the album closes strong with the downcast, defiant pair of ‘Where I’m From’ and ‘You Must Love Me’.

Ron “Amen-Ra” Lawrence on ‘Where I’m From’:

Other highlights:
‘Imaginary Player’
‘Lucky Me’

Use your keyboard’s arrow keys or hit the prev / next arrows on your screen to turn pages (page 4/11)

SWIZZ BEATZ

For his third album, Jay-Z aimed for the brass ring of post-Biggie/Tupac hip-hop and grabbed it with style. For the most part, the producers of his first two albums were replaced with established hitmakers, including Swizz Beatz, who was fresh off his breakthrough track, ‘Ruff Ryders’ Anthem’; in that vein, he paired Jay with DMX on the synth-heavy ‘Money, Cash, Hoes’. The track inaugurated a collaborative relationship that continues to this day; Swizz appears on Magna Carta Holy Grail.

Swizz Beatz on ‘On To The Next One’:

“I got this call from Pharrell and Q-Tip about the band Justice and they were saying, ‘Swizz you should vibe with Justice. You’re the only person who could pull it off and throw that hip-hop vibe to it… The ‘On To The Next One’ sample is not even saying, ‘On to the next one.’ I just made it sound like ‘On to the next one.’ … That was a nice way for me to introduce people to Justice.” [via Complex]

Other highlights:
‘Jigga My Nigga’
‘On To The Next One’
‘Girls Best Friend’

Use your keyboard’s arrow keys or hit the prev / next arrows on your screen to turn pages (page 5/11)

TIMBALAND

Timbaland was one of the established hands brought into the fold for Hard Knock Life. In his trademarked style, Timbo crafted the shifty beat for the staccato showcase ‘Nigga What, Nigga Who’, the fan-favorite, Middle Eastern-tinged ‘Big Pimpin’, and the inimitable ‘Dirt Off Your Shoulder’; you know you’ve captured the zeitgeist when Barack Obama references your song. Like Swizz Beatz, he continues to work with Jay-Z, producing and appearing on Magna Carta Holy Grail.

Timbaland on ‘Big Pimpin’:

“I did [the beat] for me, for Tim and Magoo, but I knew the only person that could sound good on it besides me would be [Jay-Z]… It was too dope, I couldn’t come up with nothing for the track… I played it [for him], he went “wooo,” he turned back around, took his coat off, took his hat off — I knew [he had it].” [via]

Other highlights:
‘Hola’ Hovita’
‘What They Gonna Do’
‘Off That’

Use your keyboard’s arrow keys or hit the prev / next arrows on your screen to turn pages (page 6/11)

JUST BLAZE

Starting with The Dynasty: Roc La Familia, Just Blaze and Kanye West helped revive a soul-heavy style that had fallen out of favor in hip-hop and would come to define the sound of the early aughts. For proof, look no farther than the chipmunked samples of ‘U Don’t Know’ and ‘Girls Girls Girls’. But Just Blaze was never a one-trick pony, as proven by his work across the second disc of The Blueprint 2, from the sorrowful piano and guitar that punctuate the sorrowful ‘Meet the Parents’ to the synth-shine of ‘Show You How’. His last productions for Jay-Z (‘Oh My God’, ‘Kingdom Come’, and ‘Show Me What You Got’) are the highlights of his otherwise-forgettable “comeback” album.

Just Blaze on ‘Hovi Baby’:

“Every once in a while I have my little moments where I can see the sounds, and that was one of them… He hit me back like, ‘Yo, you’re my favorite. You’re the best. Keep going.’ That record re-solidified our relationship. We already had a relationship, but he was super hype. If you had heard the original record and then what it ended up being, it wasn’t completely different but it was night and day, in terms of how big it sounded.” [via Complex]

Other highlights:
‘Song Cry’
‘December 4’
‘Ignorant Shit’

Use your keyboard’s arrow keys or hit the prev / next arrows on your screen to turn pages (page 7/11)

KANYE WEST

There is no producer more associated with Jay-Z than Kanye West. Long before the two were getting fucked up in Paris, Kanye was an in-house producer at Roc-a-Fella trying to pen Jay’s next hit. Like Just Blaze, he debuted on The Dynasty: Roc La Familia, but the hits wouldn’t come until The Blueprint: insta-classic ‘Izzo (H.O.V.A.)’, the Doors-sampling ‘Takeover’, or ubiquitous ‘Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love)’.

He would go on to produce the first collaboration between Jay-Z and Beyoncé (‘03 Bonnie and Clyde’) and songs across Jay’s subsequent albums, but — with few exceptions — Kanye has saved his best material for his own albums since his solo career blossomed. Kanye had a hand on Magna Carta, and there’s always the possibility of a sequel to Watch the Throne.

Kanye on ‘03 Bonnie and Clyde’:

“I popped the [Makaveli] CD in and started playing songs. I went to ‘Me and My Girlfriend’ and was like, ‘Oh, sh–, this joint would be crazy for [Jay-Z] and Beyoncé.’ He had told me a week before that he needed a joint for him and Beyoncé. I remember he called [and] said, ‘We got this joint, it has to be the best beat you ever made. Just picture if you got my first single — Hov and Beyoncé — how big you would be then.’

“So I went home and called my dog E Base, who plays a lot of instruments up at Baseline [studio] for me and [producer] Just Blaze. [E] came through. I programmed the drums in 10 minutes, and then he played all the different parts. This version is all live bass, live guitars, [live] chords on it. I brought it to Hov that night, he heard it, he thought of the video treatment before he thought of the rap. He just knew it was gonna be the one.” [via MTV]

Other highlights:
‘Encore’
‘Run this Town’
‘Brooklyn Go Hard’

Use your keyboard’s arrow keys or hit the prev / next arrows on your screen to turn pages (page 8/11)

THE NEPTUNES

The intergalactic, synth-driven sound pioneered by Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo was ubiquitous on hip-hop and R&B radio around the turn of the century, and Jay-Z was no stranger to the Virginia Beach-bred pair. The Neptunes have produced some of Jay’s most sultry tunes, including #1 hit ‘I Just Wanna Love U’, the grown-and-sexy ‘Excuse Me Miss’, and the fashion-forward ‘Change Clothes’, but they’ve also provided the type of sparse-and-shifty beat they perfected with the Clipse (‘Blue Magic’). Pharrell is doing more of his work solo these days; he’s featured on Magna Carta Holy Grailcon.

Jay-Z on ‘I Just Wanna Love U’:

“I had ‘Parking Lot’ up and running. It’s an incredible, hot song. I was all ready to go with it but the next day I made [‘I Just Wanna Love U’] and it was just the vibe. The vibe of everyone in the studio…the immediate reaction, people were singing it by the time the second hook came on.

“My man Sparks he had this hook for a while and I was looking for a beat for it. I was looking all over, calling a lot of producers telling them ‘yo I got a hit, I’m telling you I got a hit, all I need is a track to match it,’ and it took me a couple of weeks but I found the track… The Neptunes did it.” [via MTV]

Other highlights:

‘Nigga Please’
‘I Know’
‘Glory’

Use your keyboard’s arrow keys or hit the prev / next arrows on your screen to turn pages (page 9/11)

DR. DRE

The West Coast titan only has a handful of collaborations with Jay-Z, and they’re mostly on the lukewarm comeback album Kingdom Come. For what it’s worth, his contributions are some of the album’s best: the low-key personal-update ‘Lost One’ and touching (if heavy-handed) ‘Minority Report’, a tribute to the victims of Hurricane Katrina. Mostly, we’re left to wonder what would have happened if these two had connected before Dre fell down the rabbit hole of Detox and headphone sales.

Jay-Z on the making of Kingdom Come:

“Dre just called me out of nowhere, and he just said, ‘Yo I’m in Hawaii, I’m about to send you something.’ Now Dre, you know, he’s not a tape making person. He sent me about like 25 beats, and it was gone from there. It was like, Okay, this is a problem right now. You know, 25 Dre beats, I mean, what the fuck.

“Actually we was going to do the whole album together but I knew that wouldn’t work, only because it’s Dr. Dre and Jay-Z, you know, its very difficult to get those two guys in a room together. Dre, he’s a creative guy so you can’t push those kind of guys. He works his own way. You gotta let him work at his own pace. So, I knew that wouldn’t happen.” [via AHH]

Use your keyboard’s arrow keys or hit the prev / next arrows on your screen to turn pages (page 1/11)

THE HITMEN II

On soundtrack/concept album American Gangster, the Hitmen (in this incarnation, Diddy and producers Sean C & LV) fared much better than they did on In My Lifetime. Their six tracks lend the album a consistent sheen, sampling legends like Marvin Gaye and Barry White and relying on the string work of fellow Hitman Mario Winans. ‘Pray’, ‘American Dreamin’, and ‘No Hook’ are somber, soulful instrumentals that allow Jay-Z to establish the album’s narrative, while the brassy ‘Roc Boys’ prefigured the tenor (if not the sound) of Watch the Throne.

Sean C on the making of American Gangster:

“Puff called us when he was in Saint-Tropez on vacation talking like “’Jay-Z wants to work with me on his new album and I want y’a’ll to work on it with me.”’ So when he got back, we were all in the studio playing beats and what not. Puff then calls Jay and is like, ‘“I need you to come down to the studio, I never tell you to come down, I need you to come down here now.’ “ Jay got there in record time, I mean like 15-20 minutes. He was only supposed to stay for 15 minutes but he stayed for about 2-3 hours and listened to like 30 beats. He left and came back 2 days later with 2 songs: one was “’Sweet”’ the other was “’No Hook”’. That there was the start of American Gangster.”

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