For his multi-decade-long career, Daniel Alan Maman, better known as the Alchemist, has balanced the philosophies of craft and instinct in his production. A fusion of the words alchemy and chemistry, Alchemist brings both of these fields of study together as a producer. He is a tactician in finding the symmetry between the technical and chemical elements that structure an instrumental. and the magical or meditative. He finds the most magical and meditative moments in the samples he flips, manipulating older musical pieces into new mosaics of sound.
The most impressive part of Alchemist’s output, however, is his longevity. From having started in the mid-’90s touring with Cypress Hill and learning to make beats from DJ Muggs to being a Grammy-nominated producer for his work on Freddie Gibbs’ 2020 Alfredo album, Alchemist has conquered production in more eras of hip-hop than most legends.
When tasked with breaking down 17 of his best beats, some ground rules had to be set. No album could have more than one entry, and no main artist on a track could be repeated unless it was Alchemist himself. Also, the production could only be credited as solo. Most importantly, each soundscape had to give “that feeling” — from the first noise to the final expression. These are the 17 best Alchemist beats of all time.
Though still under the tutelage of legendary producer DJ Muggs, Alchemist can be heard crafting his own sound on this track. With its punchy boom-bap drums and grimy individual piano notes, Alchemist is clearly embodying the influence of producers he looks up to while trying to develop his own style. The slick bell plucks and vintage horror movie-sounding transitions elevate the core of the soundscape, pairing well with Buc Fifty’s potent rap warnings.
“TANK” may be the Alchemist’s happiest beat and funniest song he has produced aside from Agallah’s “The Crookie Monster.” This is also Al teaching a production lesson in “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” as he keeps the original piano and drums from the song’s sample — Harri Stojka Express’ “How Much I Love You” — relatively untouched. This leaves more than enough space for Action Bronson and sidekick Big Body Bes to spit ridiculous life musings like, “Another loser on the corner doing card tricks / I’m on the plane to Russia with a hard dick and a tank top from Target.” You can almost envision Al shaking his head in dismay in the booth, while knowing in the back of his mind that the track is truly fire.
Here, Alchemist masters the warped vocal effect to match the tone of Mac Miller’s most interesting and experimental project he had released up until that point — 2013’s Watching Movies With The Sound Off. The sampled voice is from Camel’s “A Heart’s Desire,” which Al morphs into an alien-like sound that fits within the aesthetic of Mac’s album like a ball in a glove.
Joey Crack, Big Pun, and the Terror Squad brought The Alchemist aboard for their self-titled debut, with the producer crafting the beats for “99 Live” and “Bring It On.” Although both were breakout placements for Al in his early career, “Bring It On” is the standout, the beat more reflective of Al’s distinct sound and approach to producing. The instrumental has a lot of the same elements as “Dead End Street:” grimy piano, horror movie-esque transitional strings, and hitting drums. The main difference is how much more anthemic and clean it feels. Arik Einstein and Miki Gavrielov’s 1980 composition, “Arik Einstein’s היא יושבה לחלון (She Sits by the Window),” is the sample at the core, but it’s complimented by Al’s driving percussion pattern, resulting in a beat that makes you rock with it.
Taken from The Chain Gang Vol. 2 the second and final studio album by Philly super rap group State Property, “Still in Effect” is easily a contender for having the best instrumental from the album despite being overshadowed by Young Gunz’s smash single “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop.” The Stylistics’ “Children of the Night” sample rings with a ripple effect that bleeds onto Al’s punchy drums, making for an instrumental that feels like it’s laced in the finest silk, or a blinged-out entourage of 15 deep as they make their way into a club.
As the standout track off Rawkus Records’ second installment of their Lyricist Lounge series, Mobb Deep affiliate Big Noyd dips and weaves over Alchemist’s production, the rapper sounding just as powerful and triumphant as the horn samples that accompany him. This song feels like Noyd is looking out from a balcony in a newly-purchased apartment in NYC that is high enough he can see his old hood in the distance. The beat feels like a victorious reflection.
An offering from one of Alchemist’s own tapes, The Cutting Room Floor 3, “Doo Top” fell a bit under the radar because of bigger name features on the tape. But its production gives off a superior ethereal quality. Here, you can hear Al exploring a new style, where his drums become less of the core of his beats, and more of a compliment to his loop collaging. The sounds of a quick-strummed guitar act as the beat’s through-line, with drum fills added in to hold it all together.
This standout beat and track from Domo Genesis and Alchemist’s collab tape No Idols showcases just how good Al is at maximizing the use of one sample. When you listen to the original piece — “I Only Know My Name” by Frank Vanbderkloot — back to back with Al’s instrumental, it’s startling to realize what he got out of it. The pitching up, speeding up, and rearranging of what existed before is akin to a chemist splitting a water molecule and repurposing its components for renewable energy. Paired with the pungent braggadocio of Domo Genesis and Smoke DZA, the beat is made even more satisfying than it already is on its own.
The most underrated song off the Pulitzer Prize-winning Kendrick Lamar album DAMN., the beat for “FEAR.” seems to reach backward while progressing forward at the same time. The drums retreat back to a repeated loop that sounds like a boom-bap deep cut from Alchemist’s work in the late ’90s, but it’s the intermingling of samples here that ground the track in the present, specifically Al repurposing another Kendrick song he previously co-produced, “The Heart Part 4.” He recaptures the tone he helped craft on “The Heart Part 4” and experiments on it in a way that is refreshing on “FEAR.,” calming the intense and warped guitars and vocal loops while still keeping their frenzied essence.
Alchemist and Freddie Gibbs’ grammy-nominated Alfredo is full of memorable beats, but none stay implanted in your mind like its lead single. The opening sample of Bernie Mac’s Kings of Comedy set sets the scene, as Al cleverly uses Mac’s percussive sputters to kick start the actual beat of the song, gliding guitars and splashy cymbal hits crashing into each other. The beat presents Al and Gibbs as modern day desperados leaving their enemies in the dust. This track is the epitome of Al’s everlasting alchemy, its beat a testament to his prowess and continued experimentation as one of hip-hop’s greatest producers.
While “Pinto” wasn’t as revered as some of the other tracks on Boldy James and Alchemist’s 2020 album The Price of Tea In China, the beat is a masterclass and presents Boldy and Al’s chemistry at its peak. The drums, the waning string sample, and those brooding bassline plucks set up Boldy so well, the menacing tone of the track a perfect companion to the rapper’s unnervingly cool delivery.
This is the beat in Alchemist’s catalog that immediately evokes a feeling of pure joy. While Pharoahe Monch’s Internal Affairs had a tone of dark rage, the title track for his second album showed him as a renewed version of himself. The way Showtyme’s soulful hook plays off the chopped string sample from Lamont Dozier’s “The Picture Will Never Change” can only be described as euphoric. The beat feels like coming back into your apartment after a long hot day in NY in July, only to realize you left the AC on all day. You know it’ll hit your pockets later, but for the moment it’s pure bliss.
“Scottie Pippens” paints an image of cigar smoke ruminating atop a table occupied by dangerously calm men in three-piece suits holding glasses filled with dark liquor on ice. And yes, the three men are the diabolical trio of Alchemist, Curren$y, and Freddie Gibbs, forming a union that foreshadowed the Fetti tape they would release together in 2018. The year 2011 was arguably the birth of Al’s second act as a producer, and Covert Coup as a whole — but especially “Scottie Pippens” — is a testament to that.
The instrumental for “We Gonna Make It” is so ubiquitous and instantly recognizable. It’s in the canon of not just classic Al beats but classic hip-hop beats. Jadakiss’ opening declaration — “Fuck the frail shit” — wouldn’t be what it is without Al taking the strings from Samuel Jonathan Johnson’s “My Music” and pairing them with hard-hitting drums, culminating in one of the greatest beat drops in hip-hop history. Al crafted the lane and Kiss drove down it like Lebron prepping for a D-Wade alley-oop, making for a track that demanded instant replays.
The way Alchemist chops up the keys of Jack Mayborn’s 1978 song “Disco People” — a vocal sample from Millie Jackson’s “There You Are” is also sampled on the track — to sound like electric raindrops creates an undeniable ricochet effect that is the melodic centerpiece of “Keep It Thoro.” Al and Prodigy have a catalog that will go up against any other producer-rapper combo in existence, and this early joint surpasses all the rest in its sheer luminescence. When you listen to the original samples and see how he tweaked and repositioned them to craft a perfect pocket for Prodigy, you can’t help but be moved.
Alchemist’s work with LA hip-hop group Dilated Peoples is arguably the most extensive in his catalog. He has a group with rapper/producer Evidence in Step Brothers, and even has countless solo productions with rapper Rakaa. That said, his instrumentals for the group as a whole reached their peak effectiveness twice: first with the 2001 single “Worst Comes To Worst” and then again with 2006’s “Back Again.” This instrumental will make you shake your head in amazement, as Al effortlessly arranges four different samples as if they’re individual instruments in a quartet. Alchemy in its truest form.
To choose between the A and B side of this 11-minute epic would be a disservice to the arc and progression of a track that’s best experienced in its totality. More than a beat or an instrumental, “Yacht Rock” is a meditation on the purity of Alchemist’s alchemy. It’s a representation of maturity and freedom granted to a legacy producer, as Al proficiently pieces together soft rock songs that now would be branded under its more contemporary name — yacht rock — with various sound clips. The end result is a sonic collage that’s garnished with a variety of guest verses from different rappers.
Miki Hellerbach is a freelance music and culture journalist from Baltimore, whose work can also be found on CentralSauce, Euphoria Magazine, Notion Magazine, GUAP Magazine, and Complex. He also regularly co-hosts the In Search of Sauce music journalism podcast that highlights the top tier work of other writers.
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