The Studio Rigs of 9 Great Hip-Hop Producers: No I.D., J Dilla, and More

The study of producers and their chosen DAW, equipment, and studio setup is a tricky one to navigate. Many veterans caution aspiring beat makers against fetishizing gear and promote a philosophy of getting the job done regardless of what tools you have access to. Or as Madlib once said, "If you don't bear, it don't matter. It's about what you put into it."

While this may be true, studying producers and their methods isn't an endeavor without merit. It can provide us with some interesting insights into how certain equipment features and limitations helped notable artists create their signature sounds. And looking at the vast array of tools used by producers over the years can bring about a newfound appreciation for the rampant DIY ingenuity in rap and sample-based music.

With that in mind, here's a look at nine notable production masters and their weapons of choice. Though some of the artists covered below use the same gear, you'll notice that each person has a distinct workflow that highlights their originality and inimitability.

In the end, we hope these artists and vignettes inspire you to take whatever equipment you have access to and create something distinctive and unique.


No I.D.

After starting out as a house music DJ, No I.D. found his footing in the rap game by flipping house samples on Common's 1992 debut Can I Borrow A Dollar?. According to a 2011 interview with Complex, his production started to morph into the classic beats on Common's Resurrection after he learned crate-digging secrets from Buckwild, Ju Ju of The Beatnuts, and V.I.C.

Using the SP-1200 at the time, the Chicago native has since moved on to more modern modes of production like Apple's Logic and Native Instruments Maschine. Famed engineer and producer Young Guru even said in a 2009 Sound on Sound interview that No I.D. was working exclusively in Logic at the time and made Jay-Z's "Death of Autotune" with the program in 15 to 20 minutes.

A 2010 interview with Native Instruments seems to contradict this, however, as No I.D. reconstructs the beat with his Maschine sampler and says, "I really love just the way the clock from programming in drums is probably the tightest thing since I was on a physical drum machine."

He further explains that the portability of a laptop is crucial to his creative process and he sometimes makes beats at the beach or in his car. No I.D. has since added Ableton Live to his production rig, with John Mayer (who No I.D. worked with on "New Light") describing his use of the DAW as similar to a violin in a 2018 Beats 1 interview.

Vince Staples - "Jump Off the Roof" (produced by No I.D.)

J Dilla

Though he is widely associated with the Akai MPC 3000, Dilla's musical evolution involved several other machines before he settled on his favorite model. After impressing producer, musician, and former Parliament member Amp Fiddler with some pause-tape concoctions in the early '90s, the late producer borrowed Amp's MPC and taught himself how to use the machine.

Before turning to the MPC exclusively, he had a brief stint early in his career flexing on the E-mu SP-12 and then the SP-1200. Although his unpredictable and distinct drum patterns are often credited to his deft use of the MPC, veteran rapper Skillz said in a 2008 Smoking Section interview that it was actually Dilla's SP-1200 trickery that helped him nail the neck-snapping drums and eerie sound on "The Jam"—further noting that Dilla used the Akai S950 in tandem with the 1200.

Once he moved on from the 1200 Dilla tried out the MPC60 and 60II before eventually settling on the 3000. He produced much of his career-defining material with the machine, telling Scratch Magazine in his last interview, "I've tried other samplers but the 3000 is best for me for what I like to do."

Creating until his very last days despite battling serious health complications due to a rare blood condition, Dilla crafted much of his iconic Donuts album in his hospital bed with an SP-303 and a portable turntable shortly before his untimely passing, according to a 2006 remembrance in The Source.

BlackStar - "Little Brother" (produced by J. Dilla)

Apollo Brown

After first learning how to make beats on Voyetra software for Windows 95, Mello Music Group mainstay Apollo Brown later upgraded to the multi-track editing and recording program Cool Edit 2000 in 1996.

The prolific producer still composes and creates all of his music with the same archaic software today, even though music technology has improved exponentially in the past 22 years. And Brown doesn't seem the least bit concerned that such limited tools may not yield the same squeaky clean sound as some of his peers. In fact, it's his preferred aesthetic.

As he so aptly put it in a 2015 interview with WatchLOUD.com, "I don't like clean beats, clean videos. It's not me. It's not who I am." Much as Brown seems to revel in the art of grimey sounds, he did reveal in a 2012 Kevin Nottingham interview that he uses three different studios to record, mix, and master his material, as he likes having three different perspectives to ensure that his gritty compositions sound professional.

Apollo Brown and Skyzoo - "Nodding Off"

DJ Khalil

An early adopter of Propellerhead's Reason software, Aftermath producer DJ Khalil first made beats by chopping up vinyl samples with an Ensoniq ASR-10 keyboard.

While his transition from hardware to software is notable, Khalil's focus on creating original samples is an equally important part of his artistic evolution.

This technique is on full display throughout Clipse's "Kinda Like a Big Deal", where his Grammy Award-winning collaborator Chin Injeti's guitar riffs are distorted with Native Instruments' Guitar Rig plugin until they sound like someone screaming in certain parts of the song.

Khalil has since cited Guitar Rig as his most valuable and versatile plugin, telling the website Hit Talk in a 2016 interview that he uses it to alter guitar strings, keyboards, and vocals.

Clipse - "Kinda Like a Big Deal" (produced by DJ Khalil)

Jake One

DJ Khalil may have ditched his ASR-10 for Reason, but other producers have not found it so easy to part with the vintage sampler. This has long been the case for Jake One, who developed an enduring affinity for keyboard samplers after learning to make beats on a Roland S-10. From there he graduated to an E-Mu Emax, an Ensoniq EPS, and eventually an Ensoniq ASR-10—the same machine he uses today.

The layout of the ASR gives Jake the freedom to chop samples and deftly replay them into a unique beat, as evidenced in his "Behind The Beat" videos for songs like "Rock Co.Kane Flow." Though the Seattle native eventually tried switching over to an MPC several times, he never felt fully comfortable with the pad pushing workflow.

"I could fundamentally [use it], but I couldn't necessarily have the feel that I wanted to make the beat mine," he told XLR8R in a 2008 interview. Still loyal to his trusty ASR today, Jake has since added a karaoke machine to his setup to give certain samples a different texture and feel.

De La Soul - "Rock Co.Kane Flow" (produced by Jake One)

!llmind

The warmth of the Ensoniq ASR-10 played a critical role in !llmind's early development and helped him achieve his highly regarded drum sounds. Leaning heavily on his ASR and Pro Tools to construct the majority of his catalog up to 2010, it seemed like the veteran producer would never let go of his cherished sampler.

That changed, however, when the endless creative possibilities of Pro Tools started to overshadow what !llmind could achieve with his ASR. In the end, the freedom to multitask while making a beat within the DAW made him drop Ensoniq's famed machine from his process and he hasn't looked back since.

"Everything lives in Pro Tools," he tweeted in November of 2012. "This allows me to mix WHILE I create, which I love. It allows me to not deceive my ears while creating." Despite this change, fans of the ASR's ear-pleasing qualities shouldn't fret. Whether or not !llmind owns the vintage beat machine, he continued to run drum sounds through his ASR for beats and Blap Kits sample packs as recently as 2012.

J. Cole - "Love Yourz" (co-produced by !llmind)

Large Professor

After learning how to make pause-tape beats with his friend and Onyx producer ChySkillz in the late 1980s, Large Professor's life changed when the late Paul C lent him his E-mu SP-1200 for two weeks. Determined to demonstrate his aptitude with the machine to his late friend and mentor, Large Pro made 30-40 beats in 14 days and eventually secured studio sessions with Biz Markie thanks to his early beat binge. Many of Extra P's famous productions from the ensuing years utilize the Akai S-950/E-mu SP-1200 combo and feature a trademark filter that teases the bassline out of the beat's central sample.

Interestingly, Pete Rock first showed him how to employ the technique. "That was crazy, because now you could just get the bass out of a record," Large Pro explained in a 2015 episode of the Microphone Check podcast. "I mean, but that's Jamaican. That's the roots. You going to the dub." Upon learning how to filter from Pete Rock, Large Pro helped further advance the art of beat making by passing the knowledge along to DJ Premier and Q-Tip.

Though a recent interview with 247HH suggests that his setup has shifted focus to the Akai MPC1000, 4000, and Renaissance, as well as the Ensoniq ASR-X and ASR-10, there's no denying that the SP-1200 was instrumental in shaping Extra P's sound and career trajectory.

Large Professor - "Ultimate"

Mannie Fresh

Although the SP-1200 use of East Coast legends like Large Professor and Pete Rock is well-documented, the influence of the machine on rap music in other regions is often overlooked. Case in point: Former longstanding Cash Money Records producer Mannie Fresh cites the iconic drum machine and sampler as one of his favorites.

Like many producers who started out with vintage gear, he seems to enjoy the feeling that comes with actually touching the equipment and pressing buttons. Beyond the comfortable feel of the machine, he has also referenced the multi-pitch feature—which lets you repeat a sample over all eight pads in a series of increasing pitch—as a go-to tool for beat construction. "Every time I find a new instrument, I'll just sample from a middle C and go from there, so everything can be in key," he told Electronic Musician in a 2005 interview.

Though Fresh has shown an increased willingness to embrace technology in recent years with his use of the iPad and the popular Beatmaker 2 app, a 2015 Beat Summit video of him using the 1200 in conjunction with his Beatmaker 2 indicates that he won't give up his trusted sampler anytime soon.

Big Tymers- "Still Fly"

Ohbliv

Richmond, Virginia sample slicer Ohbliv has long been an esteemed member of the beat community thanks to an endless string of DIY remix projects and instrumental albums spanning back nearly a decade.

After learning to chop samples and emulating A Tribe Called Quest songs with his father's record collection and a home stereo cassette deck, Ohbliv transitioned to a Roland/Boss SP-303 sampler—which he had an immediately affinity for.

The veteran producer felt some pressure to experiment with FL Studio in the early and mid-2000s after watching 9th Wonder's meteoric rise in the music industry and the growing popularity of the software, but the now-legendary program never felt quite right. Since then Ohbliv remains a devoted Roland SP user, having upgraded to the 404 several years ago.

In addition to enjoying the button-pushing aesthetic of the SP, Ohbliv also prefers to go by his carefully trained ear instead of looking at a tracked-out beat on a computer screen. "I was stubborn and I learned on hardware initially," he told Micro-Chop in a 2017 interview while explaining his reasons for sticking with the 404. "It felt more natural to me. I'm definitely a more sound-driven artist."

Ohbliv - "Take Me Ohm"


About the author: Gino Sorcinelli is a freelance journalist and the editor of Micro-Chop, a website dedicated to covering beat making, rapping, crate digging, and DJing. For more of Sorcinelli's work, including interviews with producers, breakdowns of classic albums, and more, check out Micro-Chop here.


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