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10 Unheralded Producers Who Defined the Sound of 2000

Bryan Michael Cox and Jermaine Dupri
Rick Diamond/Getty Images for Trojan

Bryan Michael Cox and Jermaine Dupri during The Magnum Live Large Project VIP Party at Ventanas on June 18, 2010 in Atlanta.

Following our Billboard staff-picked list of the 100 greatest songs of 2000, we're writing this week about some of the stories and trends that defined the year for us. Here, we look back at 10 producers who aren't as well-remembered as the year's biggest behind-the-decks names -- Timbaland, The Neptunes, Max Martin -- but who were still integral in crafting the year's sonic identity. 

The world didn’t end in 2000; in fact, any new millennium anxiety was soon replaced by indelible career achievements for many folks in the music industry -- many of whose names have faded from the history books. 

It’s a sad fact that though a song or album might be a celebrated fixture of the public’s imagination, the producers and songwriters behind the work rarely get their flowers. You recognize the four deep throbs and exclamation of “hot s--t!” that opens “Country Grammar,” and you know that the voice you’re hearing is Nelly’s -- but do you know who programmed those drums? And did you know that the same person who did also produced every other single on Nelly’s diamond-selling debut? It’s okay that you don’t: It’s the Internet’s job to remember it for you. 

Here are ten producers who made their mark in 2000, but haven’t received continued recognition.

Mr. DJ of Earthtone III

Best known for: “Ms. Jackson,” “B.O.B.” and 12 other songs on OutKast’s Stankonia; three songs on Mystikal’s Let’s Get Ready

Organized Noize is the production crew most often mentioned when discussing OutKast’s stunning four-album run, from the duo’s 1994 debut Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik to 2000’s Grammy-winning Stankonia. But beginning with ATLiens, in 1996, OutKast and the group’s DJ, David “Mr. DJ” Sheats, began sharing in the work. 

By Stankonia, the trio was officially credited as Earthtone III behind the boards -- the first and only time it would be the case on a ‘Kast record, as Big and Andre 3000 began to separate artistically after its completion. Before that, though, they recorded smashes like the spastic spiritual “B.O.B” and the pop breakthrough “Ms. Jackson” -- you can hear Mr. DJ’s voice in the spectral “wooo-ah” vocal that floats in the background of “Jackson.”

That same year, Earthtone III produced three songs on Mystikal’s fourth solo album, Let’s Get Ready, including the scathing “Ain’t Gonna See Tomorrow” and soulful “Neck Uv Da Woods,” which featured OutKast and originally appeared on the soundtrack for 1999’s The Wood

James Poyser

Best known for: “My Girl” and “You Be Alright” by Musiq Soulchild; seven songs on Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun; six songs on Common’s Like Water for Chocolate; two songs on Who Is Jill Scott?; and “Lift Your Fist” on Guru’s Jazzmatazz Vol. 3: Streetsoul

If you watch The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, you see James Poyser on a regular basis -- he’s the keyboardist in the Roots. But perhaps you’re unaware that he was a critical player in the neo-soul movement of the late ‘90s and 2000s, playing keyboards and co-writing on Baduizm, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, and, lest we forget, the D’Angelo and Roots smooth joint “The ‘Notic,” from the Men in Black soundtrack. 

As a member of the production collective the Soulquarians, he touched the debuts from Musiq Soulchild and Jill Scott (like the vocalists, Poyser calls Philly home), Erykah Badu’s magisterial sophomore album Mama’s Gun, the third volume of Guru’s Jazzmatazz series, and Common’s earthy and warm Like Water for Chocolate. And that’s just as a producer -- he also played keys on D’Angelo’s masterpiece Voodoo. 

Of the four founding members of the Soulquarians, Poyser maintains the lowest profile -- D’Angelo can’t help but occupy a large space in the public imagination, despite how hard he tries; in death, J Dilla has found rightful and everlasting adoration; and Questlove has always felt comfortable as a soul music spokesperson. Then there’s Poyser, forever in the liner notes -- and also on your TV screen.

Jay E

Best known for: “Country Grammar,” “E.I.,” “Ride Wit Me,” and six other songs on Nelly’s debut 

A St. Louis native, Jason Epperson made his way into the city’s music scene DJing house parties, eventually moving up the ranks to a popular local roller rink that housed a recording studio in back. After months spent playing the wall and learning by watching the producers at work, he was allowed to get on the MPC, and while making his first batch of beats a local crew walked in for a session. It was the St. Lunatics, and founding member Ali liked what he heard from Epperson, who was going by DJ Jay E at the time. They eventually cut a song called “Gimme What U Got,” and the disco-sampling track dominated local radio in 1997; Jay E dropped the DJ from his moniker -- he’d found his lane. 

Music industry wisdom suggested that it was easier to break a solo star than a group of five rappers -- especially one hailing from from a city that didn’t have national recognition as a hip-hop hotbed, and so the St. Lunatics put forth Nelly. At the time Jay E was selling beats on the cheap -- as little as $100 -- but he couldn’t get someone to spring for the instrumental to “Country Grammar.” Ali and the rest of the Lunatics hated it. But Nelly heard something -- the potential for a “hood classic,” as he put it in one interview -- and found a sing-song flow for the hook. (They originally recorded a version with a child on the chorus but scrapped it.)

To round out the demo (and showcase the crew) they also recorded “Ride Wit Me,” “Batter Up,” and “E.I.” -- in other words, every single released from Nelly’s blockbuster debut. Epperson produced all four, united by busy and varied percussion -- handclaps, bells, sirens -- but always with room for Nelly to carve out a hook. Without Epperson, one of the most successful rap albums of all time (and a major geographic reorientation of 2000s hip-hop) doesn’t happen. 

Ben Grosse

Best known for: "Everything You Want" and every other song on Vertical Horizon’s Everything You Want; "Take a Picture” and the rest of Filter’s Title of Record; and "Hemorrhage (In My Hand)" and the rest of Fuel’s Something Like Human 

At the start of Ben Grosse’s long career, he moved back and forth between Detroit techno and hard rock. One day he’d remix a Juan Atkins track, the next he’d be tasked with helping a label break a UK act in the States by creating a guitar-heavy mix for American radio. This gave him a unique understanding of discrete scenes, and how to produce with crossover success in mind.

Tired of tinkering with already realized work, he moved into producing full-time, forging an especially tight relationship with the Ohio rock act Filter. After mixing their 1995 album Short Bus, he became one of the lead producers on the 1999 follow-up, Title of Record, which yielded the band’s biggest single ever, the melancholic “Take a Picture.” (The album dropped in August, but “Take a Picture” didn’t reach its chart peak until 2000.) Similarly, his first time producing for the band Vertical Horizon, on their third album Everything You Want, resulted in the set’s Hot 100-topping title track. Rounding out his banner year, Grosse’s first time getting behind the boards with PA post-grunge act Fuel gave the world “Hemorrhage (In My Hands).” 

All three songs have huge hooks, with big, glossy riffs to match and lyrics that get embedded in your head with one listen. You’ve probably shouted along to all of these songs on a night drive down some desolate road, contorting your voice like you were born with a goatee and a grimace. 

Shondrae

Best known for: “What’s Your Fantasy” and five other songs on Ludacris’s debut Back for the First Time

This is a little bit of a cheat, but before Bangladesh was Bangladesh he produced under his born name, Shondrae. (The man behind Lil Wayne’s “A Milli” and Gucci Mane’s “Lemonade” was born Shondrae Crawford in Des Moines, Iowa.) Trained as a barber, he used money made cutting heads to buy an MPC after he’d relocated with his aunt to Atlanta, where he befriended an aspiring rapper with a wicked sense of humor named Chris Lova Lova. From his aunt’s basement, Crawford put together a heavy intro for a beat that didn’t pan out. 

But there was something about that intro, and when his rapping friend grew frustrated talking to labels and decided to release an album independently, he told Crawford to add some hi-hats. Voila: “What’s Your Fantasy,” the breakthrough single on Ludacris’s Incognegro, which was eventually retooled by Def Jam South and released as Back for the First Time in October, 2000. The hypnotic, off-kilter beats he became known for, on songs like Mario’s “Break Up” and Rihanna’s “Cockiness,” are present in nascent form on “Ho” and “Stick ‘Em Up.”   

Bryan-Michael Cox

Best known for: “Just Be a Man About It” by Toni Braxton; “Promise,” “Let’s Get Married,” and six other songs on J.E. Heartbreak; “Bounce With Me” by Lil Bow Wow

R&B heads know Bryan-Michael Cox, the songwriter-producer who came up in Houston and attended the same high school as one Beyoncé Knowles. (Cox was a senior her freshman year.) But it was his move to Atlanta in 1997 that forged the most significant creative connection in his life: Enrolled at Clark Atlanta University, Cox worked on demos that caught the attention of Jermaine Dupri, who got him working on songs for Mariah Carey, Jagged Edge and the forgotten guy group Ideal. (Ideal’s “Get Gone,” co-written and co-produced by Cox, was sampled on Drake’s “Faithful,” from Views.) 

In 2000, he worked alongside Dupri on Lil Bow Wow’s debut, and Jagged Edge’s slow-dance specials “Promise” and “Let’s Get Married”; Cox also collaborated with Teddy Bishop, a favorite songwriter and producer of L.A. Reid’s, on Toni Braxton’s top 40 single “Just Be a Man About It.” Like Because Cox so often collaborated with other producers and writers, like Dupri, he never occupied the spotlight. But his fingerprints are all over the late ‘90s and early 2000s, including such later hits as Usher’s iconic “Burn” and Mary J. Blige’s heartrending “Be Without You.” Listen to his R&B hits and it’s clear Cox knows his way around a piano ballad.

Byron Gallimore

Best known for: “The Way You Love Me” by Faith Hill, “Let’s Make Love” by Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, Jo Dee Messina’s Burn, and Phil Vassar’s self-titled debut album

In the same way that Usher’s music is inconceivable without Jermaine Dupri, or OutKast’s without Organized Noize, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill are happily tied up with producer, engineer, musician, and songwriter Byron Gallimore. Gallimore has co-produced every studio album McGraw has released, all 15 of them, and six of Hill’s eight studio albums.

A real Nashville fairy tale, Gallimore grew up on a farm in rural Tennessee, near the Kentucky border, the son of a school bus driver in a big family that loved music. He was first introduced to vocal harmonies listening to his two older sisters sing with a female cousin, and listened to gospel music around the family’s piano; he picked up the electric guitar as an adolescent and played in multiple bands before hitting Nashville proper in the ‘80s. 

In 2000, he won his first and to date only Grammy, for co-producing Faith Hill’s 1999 blockbuster record Breathe, which yielded the “The Way You Love Me,” a pop-country smash that reached No. 6 on the Hot 100. (The radio mix features a slightly altered chorus, with Auto-Tune on Hill’s backing vocals -- a bold choice at the time.) That same year, he was also riding high on the success of Jo Dee Messina’s Burn and its crossover single “That’s the Way.” 

Black Mob Group and Righteous Funk Boogie

BMG: Best known for: “Shut Up” and two other songs on Trick Daddy’s Book of Thugs; “Da Baddest Bitch” and “I Don’t Need You” Trina’s Da Baddest Bitch
RFB: Best known for: “Pull Over” and six other songs on Trina’s Da Baddest Bitch; seven songs on Trick Daddy’s Book of Thugs

Before the post-regional boom of YouTube, “type” beats, and sites like Beatstars, a rapper would typically link with a producer from wherever they called home to put together a song. This was especially true for independent labels like Cash Money or No Limit, which kept the pool of creativity homegrown and local; in-house production proliferated. (It is staggering how many great Cash Money albums Mannie Fresh produced in full.) 

Same for Miami’s Slip-N-Slide Records, the original home of Trick Daddy, Trina, and Rick Ross. Founded in 1994 by Ted “Touche” Lucas, the label released two monsters in 2000 -- Trick Daddy’s Book of Thugs: Chapter AK Verse 47 and Trina’s Da Baddest Bitch -- and if you read the credits you’ll see that Black Mob Group and Righteous Funk Boogie are largely responsible for each. Black Mob Group is the alias for Tony Galvin and Ernest Foxx, who had a production deal with Slip-N-Slide; the Group put out a compilation album called The Capitol in 1999 but is best known for Trick’s “Shut Up,” a forever banger that uses the sound of the black marching band to spectacular effect. 

There’s little information on the Internet about Righteous Funk Boogie, but the producer’s credits are unimpeachable: Trick Daddy’s turn-of-the-millennium hits “Nann,” “Take It To Da House” and “I’m a Thug”; and Trina’s unlawful-possession-of-a-fat-ass anthem “Pull Over.” A critical purveyor of the Miami sound -- massive 808s, uptempo dance rhythms, horn samples, often from local funk acts like KC and the Sunshine Band -- through their work with Slip-N-Slide, Righteous Funk Boogie is a name in danger of being lost to history, from the time before ubiquitous producer drops. The music lives on as the figures behind the scenes recede further and further into the background. 

Steve “Stone” Huff

Best known for: “Treat Her Like a Lady” by Joe, all of Avant’s My Thoughts

Despite the rise of so-called hip-hop soul, live instrumentation and the genre’s gospel roots didn’t leave soul music in the ‘90s or early 2000s. Trained as a bassist in a church band in his native Evanston, Illinois, outside of Chicago, Steve “Stone” Huff brought his upbringing to bear on major releases from traditionally minded R&B stars Joe and Avant in 2000. Joe’s “Treat Her Like a Lady,” a regretful recommendation to take the titular advice, and Avant’s “Separated,” a nasty account of betrayal, are anchored by memorable bass lines; “Separated” reached #23 on the Hot 100, a reminder of a time when a downtempo R&B ballad could get significant play. Huff continued to work with Avant across subsequent albums and was a co-writer on “Read My Mind,” which Jacquees sampled on his 2017 hit “B.E.D.”   

Rami Yacoub

Best known for: "It's Gonna Be Me" by *NSYNC; “Oops!...I Did It Again” and four other songs on Britney Spears’ Oops!...I Did It Again; “Shape of My Heart” and two other songs on the Backstreet Boys’ Black and Blue

“Merely good music is often more dangerous and destructive than bad music.” That’s the ice-cold and somewhat hifalutin way you get to talk about music when you’ve produced *NSYNC’s “It’s Gonna Be Me,” to name but one song in Rami Yacoub’s game-changing CV. After launching Britney Spears’ career alongside Max Martin with “...Baby One More Time” in 1998, the Swedish-Palestinian producer went on to work with *NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys during their head-to-head battle for boy band dominance in 2000. 

Compared to early tracks from *NSYNC and Spears, songs like “It’s Gonna be Me” and “I Did It Again” made pop sound harder, with crashing piano stabs. Ultimately, it didn’t matter to Yacoub who pulled out ahead in the TRL-era showdown—he won either way, especially because he had a special solo producer credit for *NSYNC’s meme-making No. 1 hit: Look Ma, no Max. 

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