Exclaim!'s 2013 in Lists: 5 Mainstream Rappers Working with Underground Producers

Exclaim!'s 2013 in Lists: 5 Mainstream Rappers Working with Underground Producers
Rap has a long history of breaking artists from the underground to the mainstream. Just Blaze went from crafting beats for popular rappers' weed carriers to creating chart toppers for Jay-Z, Kanye West and T.I.; Lex Luger and Mike WiLL Made It both went from shopping beats online to hits with Miley Cyrus, Juicy J, Rick Ross and Future. The rise of EDM and dubstep have resulted in the genres bleeding into rap, pop and R&B.

This is not about Skrillex working with A$AP Rocky or David Guetta producing for any fool eager to reach the sunglasses-and-glowsticks crowd; there is a new generation of experimental producers whose unique, IDM-influenced sound is sought after by every rapper with their ear to the club instead of the streets. Here are a handful of underground producers and mainstream rappers that, together, are pushing the genre forward.

For more of our Year-End coverage, check out our 2013 in Lists section.

5 Mainstream Rappers Working with Underground Producers:

Rapper: Mac Miller / Producer: Flying Lotus

Mac Miller began his career as a Pittsburgh backpacker who recorded peppy, poppy music to soundtrack teenage tailgating. His 2011 debut, Blue Slide Park, hit number one on Billboard, marking the first independently distributed album to do so since 1995. Though his fame and success only grew, no one took Miller seriously until he started messing with his sound. Aligning himself with the Los Angeles underground, the rapper began collaborating with Odd Future's Earl Sweatshirt and the Alchemist, but most emblematic of this change was his choice of lead single for his sophomore release, Watching Movies With The Sound Off: "S.D.S.," produced by experimental electronic producer Flying Lotus. FlyLo's druggy, maximalist beat on "S.D.S." set the tone for Watching Movies' narcotic studio pilgrimage, and established Miller as a credible rapper capable of matching Schoolboy Q or Action Bronson bar for bar.

Rapper: Jay Z / Producers: J-Roc, Gonjasufi, Wondagurl

Jay Z began aging faster than his audience. New York's crowned king needed to stay relevant on his twelfth album, so although he and producer Timbaland have a long history, he relied on the venerated outré beatmaker to outsource and look to the younger generation to push more out-there sounds on Magna Carta Holy Grail. Enter co-producer J-Roc, responsible for the trap drums and Sega Genesis synthesizers of "Tom Ford," the samples of contemporary psychedelic soul producer Adrian Younge ("Picasso Baby") and the shamanistic crooning of Gonjasufi ("Nickels and Dimes"). Teenage Brampton producer Wondagurl even chipped in with the reverberating bass and dancehall vibes of "Crown." Young blood helped the Sinatra of rap get at least a little of his swagger back.

Rapper: Chance the Rapper / Producers: Nosaj Thing, James Blake

Chance the Rapper is a Pharcyde-loving rapper from West Chatham, on Chicago's South Side. His breakthrough mixtape, Acid Rap, drew on familiar samples and references — an a Tribe Called Quest loop here, a Curtis Mayfield interpolation there, a whole lot of The College Dropout's soulful aesthetic — all without ever sounding derivative. In a brilliant feat of sequencing, the tape's strongest song arrived after the half-minute pause following "Pusha Man." Produced by L.A. Low End Theory regular Nosaj Thing, "Paranoia" explores the fear and distrust simmering in Chicago over icy synths and percolating percussion. Nosaj Thing's spacious production unlocks the room behind Chance's voice, focusing all attention to the rapper's emotive cadence and heartfelt lyrics. Chance's remix of "Life Round Here" by UK electronic producer James Blake channels a similar aesthetic to great effect, pointing the way forward for the young Chi-Town spitter.

Rapper: Drake / Producer: SBTRKT, Hudson Mohawke

When Toronto statesman Drake hopped on UK bass producer SBTRKT's dubstep/R&B number "Wildfire" in 2011, it seemed like an odd match. Though Drake's patented OVO sound, developed with Noah "40" Shebib — chilly synths, minimalist melodies, muted drums, sub bass — shares sonic ancestry with UK dubstep, the connection wasn't yet clear. Drake's verse on "Wildfire" led to work with SBTRKT and collaborator Sampha on Nothing Was The Same bonus track "The Motion" and album highlight "Too Much." Elsewhere, Drake delves into electronica on the 40/Hudson Mohawke co-production "Connect" and the pulsing synths of "The Language." For other rappers into EDM, a helpful tip: more collaborations with forward-thinking producers, fewer Avicii samples.

Rapper: Kanye West / Producers: Arca, Hudson Mohawke, Lunice, Evian Christ, Daft Punk

On every album, Kanye West discovers a new genre: orchestration on Late Registration, synths on Graduation and maximalist prog rock on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. On Yeezus, Kanye went industrial. Though he previously collaborated with Scottish electronic music producer Hudson Mohawke on "Mercy," Yeezus marked a first for Kanye: a full immersion into a new sound, backed by boundary-pushing producers who knew the game. This aesthetic comes through strongly, whether on Evian Christ's "I'm In It," all breathy moans and peaking synths, or TNGHT's (Mohawke and Lunice) Nina Simone cries and blaring trap beat on "Blood On The Leaves." Whether or not Yeezus will provide the blueprint for any other artists remains to be seen, but boundary-pushing always has a place in hip-hop.