From Kevin Parker to David Byrne and even Ben Folds.
The producer is one of the most important elements of an artists album release, with them being an integral cog in ensuring the recording process occurs smoothly and making key decisions that affect the eventual outcome of a session.
Many musicians often lend a hand behind the production desk, some working on albums that you’d never expect. Today we’re diving into some of the most surprising producers who contributed to some albums we love;
- Nile Rodgers – The Swing by INXS
- Prince – Like A Prayer by Madonna
- Ben Folds – Rainbow by Kesha
- David Byrne – Mesopotamia by The B52’s
- Pharrell Williams – Hyperspace by Beck
- Jack White – Lemonade by Beyoncé
- Kevin Parker – Isolation by Kali Uchis + Astroworld by Travis Scott
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Nile Rodgers – The Swing by INXS
‘Never Tear Us Apart’ hitmakers INXS were joined by the legendary Chic frontman on their fourth release – The Swing.
Rodgers being a fan of the group long before they worked together on this album. During a 1984 interview with Molly Meldrum, lead vocalist Michael Hutchence detailed how the group came to work with the funk icon. “Nile come along to a show, came backstage and said ‘Hey, let’s have a jam at the Power Station (Iconic studio in New York City).” This session leading Nile behind the decks for The Swing. Check out the complete story about the album’s production here.
This iconic coupling leading the album to shoot up the Aussie charts, hitting the number one spot for five straight weeks.
Prince – Like A Prayer by Madonna
The one named ingenue helped produce the Queen of Pop’s most iconic album, Like A Prayer.
Alongside Madonna’s long-time production team of Patrick Leonard and Stephen Bray, Prince left an intentional uncredited mark on a number of the tracks, playing guitar on ‘Like A Prayer,’ ‘Keep It Together’ and ‘Act of Contrition.’ The pair worked on the track ‘Love Song’ at The Purple One’s Paisley Park compound in Minneapolis, which according to Madonna, was a terrible ordeal; “I couldn’t stand Minneapolis. When I went there, it was like 20 degrees below zero, and it was really desolate. I was miserable and I couldn’t write or work under those circumstances.” This wasn’t the case for Prince, who went on to create all of his hit albums at this home studio.
‘Like A Prayer’ has remained Madonna’s most popular album, it reaching Platinum in pretty much every corner of the globe.
Ben Folds – Rainbow by Kesha
Kesha’s resurgence into the music world culminated in her widely well received 2019 album, Rainbow.
Perhaps surprisingly for this release, we found ‘Rockin The Suburbs’’ hitmaker Ben Folds behind the production desk. Folds and Kesha have actually had a long lasting friendship, having performed together a number of times prior to this album, so Ben was an obvious choice for Kesha when it came to choosing a producer for her return into the music world. He also performed a number of instruments on the album giving it its own distinct flare.
Kesha received her first Grammy nominations for Rainbow, and it reached number one pretty much everywhere across the globe.
David Byrne – Mesopotamia by The B52’s
Maybe not the group’s most popular release, but with Talking Heads frontman David Byrne behind the production desk, there’s an interesting story to the production of Mesopotamia.
During his time in Talking Heads, much has been written about Byrne’s conflicts with the remainder of the band due to opposing visions and creative choices, this was also the case for his production efforts; throughout the recording of Mesopotamia, conflicts with The B52’s and their label culminated to the point where production just completely stopped, and the album was released as a shorter EP. The full history of the production can be further delved into here.
Mesopotamia was still pretty well received by critics and fans alike, with it reaching the top 50 on a number of charts. Byrne’s unique groove can be heard across the EP, with it sounding like something The Talking Heads could’ve released.
Pharrell Williams – Hyperspace by Beck
We all know super producer Pharrell is the brains behind a plethora of albums working with Kelis, Clipse and his own group N.E.R.D. through production duo The Neptunes. More recently he’s contributed to various records solo including Anderson .Paak, Frank Ocean, and Kendrick Lamar and now he’s ventured outside the R&B realm to produce rocker Beck’s 2019 album, Hyperspace.
Beck and Pharrell have long been fans of one another, with both expressing interest in working with each other, which hadn’t happened until this release. Beck employed Williams for this album as he wanted Hyperspace to have a ‘post-digital’ sound, an area extremely familiar to the N.E.R.D frontman.
Hyperspace was well received by critics, with many applauding the production efforts of Pharrell.
Jack White – Lemonade by Beyoncé
Yet another super-producer, Jack White, lent a hand to the production of one Beyoncé’s biggest albums to date, Lemonade.
White wrote the third track ‘Don’t Hurt Yourself,’ and has spoken extremely highly of the experience, and the sheer talent of Beyoncé in the recording studio; “she took a sketch of a lyrical outline and turned it into the most bodacious, vicious, incredible song, I’m so amazed at what she did with it.” The album was full of producers from a bunch of different genres; from Diplo to James Blake to Ezra Koenig from Vampire Weekend.
Lemonade was widely regarded as one of the top albums of 2016, and has been applauded for the message it conveys.
Kevin Parker – Isolation by Kali Uchis + Astroworld by Travis Scott
Australia’s very own Kevin Parker has always had ambitions to be behind the producers desk for some of the world’s biggest albums, and this was the case for his production efforts on Kali Uchis’ debut release, and contributing to The Weeknd’s most popular album to date.
Parker co-penned and played all the instruments on Uchis’ ‘Tomorrow’, one of the most popular tracks on Isolation. Uchis has since cemented herself as one of the most in demand vocalists in the R & B and soul world.
Kevin then switched genres into the rap realm for some pretty ground breaking work on Astroworld by Travis Scott. Parker gave his iconic psychedelic flare onto ‘Skeleton,’ which also featured production work from Kanye, Pharrell and The Weeknd, a special mix that resulted in a one of the most popular tracks on the multi-platinum release from the rapper.
For more, read about what a record producer actually does on this article from Berklee.