Pop is a quick study. If there's one hit with a catchy snare sound, by the end of the year there will be three more with the same feel, either by the same producer or some up-and-comer picking up a few tricks and running with them. Sounds travel fast, and a good one will often spread through a sizable chunk of the pop landscape over the course of a few years.
Trace the sound back to its source and you find the producer, often a pretty famous one. A good producer can define a whole era of pop, whether it's ushering in a new sound like teen pop or smuggling genres like trap or G-funk into the mainstream. You know the sounds even if you don't know the names, subconsciously tying them to a certain era of pop. In honor of this week's release of Giorgio Moroder's Déjà Vu, an overdue comeback for one of pop's most influential producers, we thought we'd take a look at 11 of the most influential pop sounds and the people behind them. We didn't get everyone, but these are the names with the biggest hits and the longest shadows.
Joe Meek: Studio Space Ghost (1962)
Essential album: I Hear a New World (1960)
Essential track: The Tornados, "Telstar" (1962)
Known for work with: The Honeycombs, The Tornados, John Leyton
This is where the story starts, arguably the beginning of a producer having a sound at all. While The Beatles were still looking for a drummer, Joe Meek was pioneering techniques like overdubs, compression, and electronic processing that would become the building blocks of modern audio engineering. Instead of recreating or enhancing the live performance, Meek used those tools to create completely new sounds, whether it was the fuzzed-out futurism of 1962's "Telstar" or the Pixies-predicting haunted house of "Johnny, Remember Me." Meek was dead by the time those techniques reached the mainstream, but his ghost wandered the British pop charts for years to come.
Phil Spector: Wall of Sound (1963)
Essential album: Various artists, A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector (1963)
Essential track: The Ronettes, "Be My Baby" (1963)
Known for work with: The Ronettes, The Crystals, George Harrison, Leonard Cohen
There was music before Phil Spector, and then there was music after Phil Spector. Spector was among the first producers who recorded songs that were designed to be hits — songs that would sound huge and vibrant and would immediately catch your attention even over the era's dull AM radios. It all came back to his (in)famous "wall of sound" production technique, which involved bringing a small orchestra's worth of musicians into a room to record a track that was quite literally packed with sound. His approach marked a big change from the typical style of the era — which carefully separated instruments — but it introduced a catchy and danceable style that others were eager to emulate. That includes Beach Boys' mastermind Brian Wilson, who fell in love with it and adapted Spector's techniques.
Giorgio Moroder: Krautrock Disco (1977)
Essential album: From Here to Eternity (1977)
Essential track: Donna Summer, "I Feel Love" (1977)
Known for work with: Donna Summer, Blondie, Kenny Loggins
In the era of the laptop producer, it can be hard to remember just how strange computerized music sounded when it first broke through. Kraftwerk made the first splash, all motorik and computer dreams, but before Moroder, it was hard to imagine anyone actually dancing to it.
Luckily, he had the tidal wave of disco on his side. Music was moving from concerts to clubs, while the emotional palette shifted from sex and violence to sex and nightlife. Moroder wasn’t a driving force for early disco, but he made the most of the turn once it happened, giving analog sounds the drama and sexuality of disco and turning a dance-pop resurgence into an electronic watershed. While 1977's "I Feel Love" is still the masterpiece, less aggressively computerized singles like "Last Dance" are better for showing the fusion at work.
Quincy Jones: Imperial Pop (1982)
Essential album: Michael Jackson, Thriller (1982)
Essential track: Michael Jackson, "Billie Jean" (1982)
Known for work with: Michael Jackson, Frank Sinatra, Lesley Gore
Thriller owned 1982, spawning single after single, growing and growing until it swallowed pop whole. This was a new kind of pop music, one built for mass-market radio and international appeal. String sections and synthesizers merged seamlessly with Eddie Van Halen and Vincent Price, breaking down the genre barriers that had kept many black artists off MTV and pop radio. Jackson was the star, undeniably, but Jones was behind most of the genre alchemy, coming off a decade of increasingly poppy jazz fusion. This was a sound that spanned every popular style of music, a platonic ideal of a hit record. Once the '90s hit, Jackson would move on to Teddy Riley and New Jack Swing, a sound he’d stick with for the rest of his career — but his biggest and most beloved hits still belong to Quincy.
Nile Rodgers: Funk for the Funkless (1985)
Essential album: Madonna, Like A Virgin (1984)
Essential track: David Bowie, "Let's Dance" (1983)
Known for work with: Madonna, Duran Duran, David Bowie, Grace Jones, Diana Ross
Nile Rodgers is responsible for some of the funkiest beats to ever reach the masses. After the death of disco, Rodgers took the genre's finest element — funk — and helped it stay alive by infusing it into the music of some legendary artists. He turned David Bowie's "Let's Dance" into an appropriately danceable hit, and he filled Madonna's "Like a Virgin" with the kind of family-friendly funk that makes the masses go wild.
Rodgers' work as a producer isn't always quite as funky as the clear guitar and eminently danceable pop beats that go into his work with Chic — you have to wonder if that's a matter of adapting to the audience — but he still treats artists with tunes that are far cooler than many deserve. And fortunately, he's still doing the same thing today, most notably turning Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" into one of the most addictive songs of 2013.
Rick Rubin: The Reducer (1986)
Essential album: The Beastie Boys, Licensed to Ill (1986)
Essential track: LL Cool J, "I Need A Beat" (1984)
Known for work with: The Beastie Boys, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Run-D.M.C., LL Cool J, Jay Z, Adele
When Kanye West needed to clean up Yeezus just weeks away from its 2013 release date, he turned to Rick Rubin, a producer famous for helping artists hone in on — and strip down — their sound to its core elements. Rubin came around as hip-hop was evolving and still sounded, to his ears, like an out-of-sync mashup of rap and R&B. To fix that, Rubin decided to pull back the production to make his tracks feel more like something you'd hear alongside a DJ scratching in a club; add in a simple structure, and they quickly became as addictive as any pop track.
The formula worked, and Rubin's "stripped-down" style — pulling out everything but the most necessary sounds and bringing strong vocals and beats to the forefront — went everywhere, even outside of hip-hop as Rubin's range expanded. Rubin's hands have been in an incredible amount of music since the ’80s, from LL Cool J and The Beastie Boys to Red Hot Chili Peppers and Weezer to Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond, all bringing a different touch. But it's not hard to trace the ideas running between them once you know what to look for.
Dr. Dre: G-Funk (1992)
Essential album: Dr. Dre, The Chronic (1992)
Essential track: 2Pac, "California Love" (1995)
Known for work with: NWA, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, 50 Cent
Who have guessed that Roger Troutman would show up on a #1 single in 1995 or, even less likely, that he would be singing the hook over a 20-year-old Joe Cocker sample? It’s a sign of how thoroughly Dr. Dre had rehabilitated '70s and early '80s funk, from 1992's The Chronic through to the golden age of Death Row. Sampling was at the heart of the sound, but Dre layered the samples with reedy synths lines and vocal hooks into a smooth, sinister symphony, worlds away from the aggressive chops of Rick Rubin and Dre’s own work with NWA.
In some ways, it was a less sophisticated approach than East Coast icons like Prince Paul were taking — but Dre’s work hit bigger, and it’s easy to see why. Instead of trying to establish his artistry, Dre found a great hook and got out of the way. And unlike the East Coast sound collages, Dre’s was an easy sound to imitate. Soon Ice Cube and Biggie were building hits on top of Isley samples, and a generation of producers would start looking to old funk records as a source for easy hits... that is, until copyright claims caught up with them and hip-hop was forced to move on to an aesthetic with less legal baggage.
Max Martin: Big Teen (1999)
Essential album: Britney Spears, Oops!... I Did It Again (2000)
Essential track: The Backstreet Boys, "I Want It That Way" (1999)
Known for work with: Britney Spears, The Backstreet Boys, Pink, Katy Perry
At the turn of the 21st century, as sampling changed the pace of hip-hop, Max Martin made his production a hallmark of any good pop song. Martin is known for comping — a ridiculously tedious process wherein a producer will listen to every syllable of a vocal take and piece together the best ones. It’s an almost boringly precise method that favors perfection over anything else. The Swedish producer and songwriter branded almost every pop anthem of the late ‘90s and early '00s with this style, and it meant that there was little room for imperfections. There was nothing funky or unusual about a Max Martin jam, and definitely nothing minimalist. Anything Martin touched was protected by a thick top coat of shiny gloss.
Here are some benchmarks of Big Teen: frosted tips, pleather pants, and silver halter tops, if you molded them into something musical. Vinyl scratches that make it sound like you’re inside a roller rink DJ booth. The wobbly, rippling synths, the tinny one-two dance beats, the percussion that comes in like a stampede. And those monster hooks that eventually defined the era; the kind that burned what otherwise would’ve been throwaway pop songs into the public consciousness for the next decade. Think N’Sync, Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears — anyone the late ‘90s consensus deemed swoonworthy.
Perfection is the name of Max Martin’s game, and you can see the effects of it in Katy Perry’s jitter-free boyfriend cuts or Adele’s shimmering ballads. It’s not too big a jump to imagine Max Martin helped solidify the idea of pop stars as flawless beings, and why we still like to think of a certain breed of musicians as poreless robots existing solely to entertain.
Kanye: Chipmunk Soul (2003)
Essential album: Kanye West, Late Registration (2005)
Essential track: Jay Z, "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)" (2001)
Known for work with: Jay Z, Common, himself
At the start of 2004, Kanye West’s debut album The College Dropout entered a music landscape saturated with slick, sensual but tough party hits. The previous year’s No. 1 single on the Billboard Hot 100 chart was 50 Cent’s "In Da Club," followed closely by R. Kelly’s "Ignition (Remix)." Britney Spears released her all-grown-up comeback album, In The Zone. In comparison, West’s LP was practically quirky. Pitch-shifted beats knocked against a gospel sensibility; "Jesus Walks" coupled together a Curtis Mayfield sample with an a capella choir; "All Falls Down" paired a Lauryn Hill throwback with an acoustic guitar strum. And Kanye produced the album himself (for the most part), which meant it was easy to catapult him to icon status — this whole thing was his own doing.
So his sound rippled. A slew of fairly nebulous up-and-comers like Kid Cudi, J Cole, and Childish Gambino copped Kanye’s sound, throwing their own idiosyncrasies into the mix. Even if Cudi might balk at the idea, "Day N Nite" wouldn’t have existed without West. Hip-hop purists hated Gambino’s Camp, but the Kanye influence on "Firefly" was so thick it sounded like a College Dropout b-side. Kanye’s staccato flow has something to do with his staying power, but West is not as good a rapper as he is a producer — one listen to Yeezus is proof of that. Production is where West’s strange ecclesiastic tics make sense, and where they can be easily replicated.
The Neptunes: The Space Age (2004)
Essential album: Justin Timberlake, Justified (2002)
Essential track: Snoop Dogg, "Drop It Like It's Hot" (2004)
Known for work with: Nelly, Clipse, Snoop Dogg, Justin Timberlake, Kelis
At the same time Kanye’s pitch-shifted soul was spreading and dissipating, snares started getting very aggressive. On more and more hits, everything that wasn't needed dropped out, leaving just a skeleton adorned by a few fluorescent synths. Year after year, hit after hit, Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo brought an aggressively futurist sound into pop music, combining rap's most minimal impulses with an oddball sonic sci-fi. After decades of rap production, it was genuinely like nothing anyone had ever heard.
Then there’s Justified, which applied the same aesthetic to one of the world’s biggest pop stars, and came away with a stranger version of the Quincy & Michael chemistry that had ruled the charts 20 years before. No one could replicate the Neptunes’ strangest impulses, so the lasting result was a shift toward harsher drum sounds and less of everything else. Melodies have made a bit of a recovery in the years since, but the needle has yet to swing all the way back.
DJ Mustard: The Minimalist Squelch (2011)
Essential album: YG, My Krazy Life (2014)
Essential track: Ty Dolla $ign, "Paranoid" (2013)
Known for work with: YG, Tyga, Trey Songz
Mustard on the beat. That’s what you’ll hear at the start of every song DJ Mustard produces, and it’s a lot of songs. The phrase is always a garbled, rapid-fire missive, but at this point — a few years after Dijon Isaiah McFarlane produced his first big hit, Tyga’s "Rack City," in 2011 — everyone’s well aware of what he’s saying. DJ Mustard is huge, but his sound is small and strange (like a little pocket alien of rap). Just a few years after Timbaland started drowning songs in sad grey matter, and RedOne (who produced Lady Gaga’s breakout hit "Just Dance") made glitter a necessary pop accessory, DJ Mustard went all in on a sound that can be summed up in a single onomatopoeia: The Squelch.
DJ Mustard’s production — a weirder, abstract version of the low-riding G-funk synth line — swallows up almost every club hit today. You’d recognize it if you heard it: that static, squishy beat that sounds like a giant plodding through puddles in rubber rain boots. It’s the kind of sonic stepping stone that rappers love to skip verses on, because there’s almost nothing to it. You can hear it in Ty Dolla $ign’s "Paranoid," or YG’s "My Nigga." You can also hear it in dozens of other Mustard-free tracks, including, somewhat infamously, Iggy Azalea’s "Fancy" — a song actually produced by The Invisible Men. Mustard wasn’t happy with the imitation, but Azalea isn’t the only one guilty of it. DJ Mustard created the blueprint for a certain type of slipshod Southern bounce, and there’s nothing producers love more than a blueprint for a hit.