Over the last several weeks, there’s been an onslaught of Top 40 and 50 music conversations. A (truly misguided) top 50 rappers list led to people in the music industry and entertainment industry creating their own (including a really solid one from Mike Tyson), even a Top 40 Best Dressed/ Flyest Rappers of All Time list (immediately rendered void by Sean John “Preserve the Sexy” Combs sitting in the bottom three). In the midst of the listing frenzy, Timbaland put forth his Top 50 producers. Notably missing: any of Bad Boy’s famed Hitmen squad, the collective responsible for the overwhelming majority of the label’s hits in the mid-late 90s.
First, the Hitmen “captain,” Deric “D. Dot” Angelettie, reacted.
Then, the head Hitman himself, Puffy, bigged his squad up.
Puffy and D. Dot were absolutely right to say, “Um, remember us? The folks who kept the parties poppin’ for almost a decade?” The Hitmen are among the architects of the East Coast hip-hop sound. For the better part of the ‘90s, Bad Boy’s in house production team carried the label to dominance by mastering the marriage of hip-hop and R&B, creating the remix, and pushing rap to the top of the pop charts. However, it’s normal for them to be left off of classic producer lists specifically because they took hits from the ‘80s (yeah yeah) and made them sound so crazy (yeah yeah), instead of pulling obscure samples and/or creating complex sound structures like, for example, RZA. A producer friend once critiqued a Bad Boy song by dropping the needle on a 12”, and remarking, deadpan: “That’s how D. Dot produced that track.” But this is an unfair critique; if you go beneath the surface, you’ll find that the Bad Boy Hitmen were talents with their own styles, true musicianship, and the elusive understanding of the anatomy of a hit. And yeah, there was a lot of shiny pop and disco samples, but there was some real New York street ish in there, too.
Full disclosure, I’m a little biased about the Hitmen. I worked in Reggie Osse’s (aka Combat Jack’s) entertainment law office when his firm represented the full roster of producers. I remember when VIBE’s feature on the producers, “Mo Money Mo Problems,” hit stands in August 1998, and gushing to Mario Winans (who I had a paralyzing crush on) about how great he looked in the spread. I then went on to work at Bad Boy, so definitely not objective, but there’s plenty of sound evidence to support my argument. Production collectives don’t hit like they used to, but from the Motown and Stax era through Hip-Hop’s rise to the mainstream in the ‘90s and early ‘00s, a tight, dependable team of talent was often the secret ingredient in a label’s winning streak. Bad Boy would have lockouts at NY’s Hit Factory studios, and later Puffy’s own Daddy’s House studio, with a nonstop rotation of producers, talent, friends, etc falling through sessions. It was fertile ground for collaboration.
Season 3 of Netflix’s award-winning Hip-Hop Evolution looks into Bad Boy’s dominating era in music, starting with Biggie, but propelled by a distinctive Bad Boy sonic. Puff shared his motivation for forming an in house production squad: “I was always a big fan of Quincy Jones, not as a producer but as an orchestrator. I never saw him play an instrument, and that empowered me because I didn’t play any instruments (for the record, Quincy is a legendary jazz trumpeter, but had to stop playing after a brain aneurysm). I saw him giving direction, I was good at giving directions,” he explained to series narrator Shad. “The Hitmen believed in me and my leadership, so you had that cohesive sound, so it’s coming from one brain; our collective brain.” The formation of the Hitmen – of the Bad Boy sound – was the key to Bad Boy surviving Biggie’s death in 1997.
In 2016, D-Dot, Nashiem Myrick and a few other Hitmen sat with their former lawyer Combat Jack to talk about their legacy at the A3C conference. D-Dot compared the producers in their prime with another legendary NY team. “We started believing that we were the Yankees. We were puttin’ up home run hitters…everybody was contributing…Stevie would walk in with something. Then other teammates came; the next thing you know, Mario Winans joined [the team] later on. Then, shit got even crazier ’cause Chucky [Thompson], Stevie, and Mario are musicians. Like, for real musicians—five, six instruments apiece. Then to watch the three of them battle each other. Like, ‘Okay, we gotta make D-Dot or we gonna make Nash’s beat hot’…So Mario’s playing drums, Chucky is playing the bass, and Stevie’s on the keys—playing at the same time; they didn’t rehearse.”
The squad taught each other new techniques, played off of each other’s strengths and pushed each other to be better. “It made for great competition…That’s how the hits got made.”
Over the full course of Bad Boy’s run there’ve been more Hitmen than Wu Tang members – even Kanye was rumored to have joined the production team for a hot second several years ago. However, not all Bad Boy producers are Hitmen; that’s a special distinction appointed by Puff himself. As with other collectives, sometimes individual credit was skipped for the sake of the bigger picture. But also, in true team style, several Hitmen often worked on a track, with one laying the foundation, working with the artists on their vocals, and one closing out as the anchor with final touches. Today, we’re focusing on some of the key members in the lineup at its strongest: Deric “D Dot” Angelettie, Ron “Amen-Ra” Lawrence, “Stevie J” Jordan, Nashiem Myrick, Chucky Thompson, Mario Winans, and Rashad “Ringo” Smith.
THE CAPTAIN: Deric “D-Dot” Angelettie
THE ELDER: Ron “Amen-Ra” Lawrence
Several of the original key Bad Boy staff members and label collaborators originally met at Howard University. Deric “D Dot” Angelettie (aka the Mad Rapper) promoted parties with Puff, and he and another day one Hitman Ron “Amen-Ra” Lawrence started as a rap duo called Two Kings in a Cipher.
Deric is universally recognized as the head of the original Hitmen, second to only Puff, and had his hands in almost everything the collective did not only as a producer, but the label’s head A&R: figuring out what track worked for whom, coaxing performances out of developing artists, and guiding new producers coming into the fold on how to develop Bad Boy’s Midas touch. As a producer in his own right, he and partner Ron Lawrence were behind some of Bad Boy’s biggest hits.
Even though Deric was at the helm in the shiny suit era, he prefers a harder sound than the bop-inducing tracks. “I’m more grimier hip hop, that’s where I’m from.” Deric has explained. “But I love to dance and I love money. Puff said ‘If you can combine those two with what you do, you can be an asset to me.’”
While the dance and bling tracks are what most immediately come to mind with Bad Boy’s chart-topping era, there was way more in the catalog than the soundtrack for bottle poppin’ and partying. The Mad Rapper reminded the A3C crowd in the Combat Jack conversation, “What people don’t realize is that we probably had some of the grimiest hip-hop records in history…along with them joints that popped on top.”
He was talking about songs like classic posse cut “Money, Power, Respect,” a power anthem flipped from a ‘70s jazz fusion song, complete with DMX barks for that extra umph.
And “Where I’m From,” the haunting track Deric and Ron gave to Jay-Z after Puff passed it up, (and then got mad, even though he passed it up). 20 years later, the song still prompts that screwface only a disgusting beat and flow can inspire.
But even when moving on the dark side, a necessary Hitmen trait was the ability to walk the line between street, soulful and sexy. Shout out to Carl Thomas and Too Short.
There was one track D-Dot absolutely did not want to touch because it was too on the nose: Mase’s “Feels So Good.” (The sample from Kool & the Gang’s “Hollywood Swinging” is the one my producer friend criticized.) He tried to pass it to Nashiem or Stevie, but Puff insisted he produce it.
Even though Deric and Puff weren’t always on the same page with musical styles, he has always been one of the most vocal defenders of the team’s talents and the Hitmen legacy, as he was back when folks were accusing them of just dropping the needle on the record. “Let me see you go up in the studio, coach vocals, mix a record, and add all the necessary shit you need to get them three thousand eight hundred [radio] spins a week,” he told VIBE in 1998. “Puffy can do that. Deric Angelettie can do that. Stevie J. can do that. Nashiem can do that. Ron Lawrence can do that. That’s what makes us producers.”
While Deric’s sonic heart was sometimes more in the streets, his partner Ron Lawrence – who could just as easily move between the two works – often kept the party stuff going even when working outside of the label.
THE GRIMEY ONE: Nashiem Myrick
Day one producer Nashiem Myrick is rarely one of the first – or second, or third – Hitmen that comes to mind, but he was one of Big’s favorites – probably because he translated Big’s energy to track so perfectly. Nah started as a studio engineer, and started being pulled into sessions until he became part of the official first Hitmen lineup, along with his partner Carlos Broady. He’s lowkey been responsible for some of the grittier songs out of the camp. I mean, this is one of the hardest tracks of all time. Period. Till this day. The song was originally for Mary J. Blige’s “My Life,” but Big went too hard with his verses. They put an interlude version on Mary’s album (with Keith Murray), and when the full version dropped it was perceived as a shot fired at 2Pac, inciting the infamous East Coast/West Coast beef between Bad Boy & Death Row (the song was written and recorded long before Pac was shot at NYC’s Quad Studios). Song lore aside, it’s still one of Big’s best (and still my go-to when I need motivation for anything – public speaking, a negotiation, a run, a drug heist, whatever).
Nashiem got (and gets) very little light, despite the classics he’s put up. He was never one of the “faces” of the camp, but he’s said that wasn’t his goal. “I didn’t care about radio…Radio wasn’t in my domain. I just wanted to rock the streets, rock people’s minds…I just wanted to be the hardest dude out there.” And he did that without losing or compromising the trademark Bad Boy energy. (Nash’s songs are also some of Puff’s greatest adlib moments.)
Some of your favorite ugly Big joints are Nash’s. (This is also one of my favorite uses of this Al Green sample.)
He was also behind Lil’ Kim’s most Biggie’ish song.
The thing about being part of a collective is, there’s work that nobody will know you did because it was credited to the collective name, or to just one of the producers, or, in the early years with this team, sometimes just Puffy. Nash has said he produced one of the best Mariah remixes of all time (with Puff, of course).
Nash did put some radio points on the board under his own name.
And here, with the help of Stevie J.
His R&B direction was even still kinda hard – a reminder that the Hitmen were one of the earliest and most adept teams at using hip-hop tracks under R&B voices.
Almost all of the Hitmen also had East Coast hip-hop classics outside of the Bad Boy ecosystem, and Nash had one of the most NY joints ever – the inspiration for his eventual company name: Top of New York Productions. You got beef, I got beef.
THE R&B SPECIALIST: Chucky Thompson
DC native Chucky Thompson was part of the Hitmen before the Hitmen were the Hitmen, but he isn’t discussed as much as his counterparts. That may be because his work is better known in R&B circles – two of Chucky’s biggest career markers are his work on Mary J Blige’s seminal sophomore album, My Life, and on Faith’s debut album. But he was a core element of Bad Boy’s foundational hits.
He joined the Bad Boy affiliation to work on Usher’s debut, which LA Reid had turned over to Puff to oversee. There was no real Bad Boy production team of any kind yet at this point.
Look at little itty bitty baby Ush!
Chucky became a core producer for the label, and would float from session to session in NY’s Hit Factory (Bad Boy’s studio home before Daddy’s House), adding keys here, guitar there, a drum track there. The beginning of the collaborative nature of the eventual team.
He really found his groove when he started working with Mary. Puffy initially wanted him to do maybe one song for My Life, but Chucky ended up spearheading the production of the whole project.
(This is my sh*t.)
The producer met Faith while working on Usher (Faith and Donnell Jones wrote “Think of You,”) and then continued working with her on Mary’s album. When Puff signed her, Faith told Chucky she wanted him to produce her album. His church-taught musicianship and her church-bred vocals were a perfect fit. She heard a track Chucky was working on for Total, who Puff was developing, and snatched it up.
Chucky didn’t just bless R&B artists; he was also good for adding a bit of swing and melody in a rap track.
He was also great for a good ol’ hip-hop hood love story.
Like I said, all of the Hitmen also had key classics outside of the Bad Boy roster, Chucky included. He’s a regular collaborator with Nas.
THE MVP: Stevie J
In 2019, Stevie J. is known mostly as a reality TV star, and there’s an entire generation of people watching his exploits and ego like “I don’t get it.” But his self-aggrandizing is kinda justified: he was an integral part of one of the hottest eras in urban music history. Listen, “Steebie” ain’t sh*t. Ain’t never been sh*t. But he is talented as hell. The PK (pastor’s kid) plays multiple instruments, writes, arranges, sings…
Stevie said in his own response to the Top 50 list, there’s a difference between a beatmaker and a producer. Steven Jordan is a producer.
Stevie came into the Bad Boy fold working with Jodeci, and at one point was was part of Devante’s Swing Mob collective. He was the on-call person when Puff needed a specific touch. Much like Puff himself, Stevie was good for making a track sexy (“sexy” is a tangible thing at Bad Boy).
Like Deric tried to do with “Feels So Good,” other producers would kick certain songs over to Stevie when they felt like it was something destined for the pop chart by way of the dance floor. “One day Mase comes in the studio… he pulls up a Diana Ross record, ‘I’m Coming Out.’ He was like ‘Yo, Nash, hit that for me. I need that. I want to do that.’” Nash once shared. “I was like, ‘Nah, that’s not me. Steve about to come here. Let Steve do that.’” Mase took it personally and was allegedly never really good with Nash after that, but Nash wasn’t trying to be shady. “I knew I couldn’t bless it like Stevie. Stevie comes in, does it, it comes out, sold 2 million.” Then Puffy heard it, said it was fire, and told Mase it was going on Big’s album (poor Mase).
In my personal opinion, Stevie and Puffy were very similar. They had the same flair; Stevie moved a lot like Puff back in the day – you’d catch him out with full-length furs, platinum crosses and Jesus pieces, and no shirt on – which made him a perfect collaborator.
But that also meant they were destined to eventually clash. Similar to young Puffy while at Uptown, Stevie was hungry to grow, telling VIBE in ‘98 “I wanna see my name in big lights without Puffy as well as with Puffy.” With his ability to add live instrumentation on top of samples and loops – or even recreate samples on the spot – Stevie was an MVP for the team and contributed to two of Bad Boy’s most anthemic hits.
Stevie had a strong run of success outside of the label, too, if not long-lived.
He co-produced several songs on Mariah Carey’s Butterfly album, garnering his second Grammy.
While not the biggest of his hits, one of my personal favorite Stevie J contributions is Dave Hollister’s “My Favorite Girl,” his debut solo single after leaving Blackstreet. I love this song so much, because it is so soulful, has so much church up in it, but is so damn disrespectful. If you listen closely, you can hear Stevie in the background vocals.
THE BABY: Mario Winans
Mario Winans kept things poppin’ when the veterans started leaving the fold, bridging the gap between the classic Bad Boy era and the P. Diddy and the era with The Family, G Dep, Danity Kane, Da Band, and Dirty Money.
He’s like a Stevie J. Jr with a touch of Chucky: a church-raised musician (his mother is Vicky Winans) who could play multiple instruments, write and sing.
He brought the sexy…
The core R&B feel…
And he was an artist in his own right.
But if Mario never did anything else in his career, we are thankful to him for these two classics. I’m team Part 2, by the way.
THE MOST KNOWN UNKNOWN: Rashad “Ringo” Smith.
Ringo Smith is a wildcard member of the Hitmen. There’s almost no info on him – google him and you’ll find some credits but no real interviews or video footage. I’ve worked in this game my entire career and never heard anybody say, “Yo, Ringo Smith is dope.” And yet, he’s respected enough in music circles to have been one of the faces memorialized on A Tribe Called Quest’s iconic Midnight Marauders cover.
But the super low key Smith produced some of Bad Boy’s biggest early bangers.
He belongs in the hall of fame for this alone.
Ringo even made some of your non-Bad Boy faves from this era. “Doin’ It” was originally intended for Big’s Life After Death follow up, which is why “Go Brooklyn” is sampled throughout a song by the very-much-from-Queens LL. *Makes it hot*
I called Ringo a wildcard because he could move in so many different directions. He doesn’t have a sonic signature.
He could effortlessly go back and forth between left-of-center and shiny, happy, everybody-report-to-the-dancefloor right now.
THE EXECUTIVE PRODUCER – PUFF DADDY
Finally, we have to address the team General Manager (literally; all Hitmen were managed by Puffy). There’s been a lot of speculation over the years about Puff as an executive producer. Did he just come in and push a button and get EP credit? But a majority of the Hitmen have said on record that Puff has the most important element of a good producer: the ear.
Hitmen Jeffrey “J-Dubb” Walker and Anthony Dent talked about Puff’s strengths as a producer in a round table with other members of the team for The Urban Daily. He echoed the same sentiments Puff shared in Hip-Hop Evolution. “People say Puff can’t play an instrument, he ain’t no producer. You ain’t gotta play sh*t to be a producer,” J-Dubb argued. (Clearly, that standard for producers is long gone) “He knew what he heard in his head and he knew who could make that happen. … That was his job!”
Anthony added an example from his early days with the team when Puff asked him to turn off the sample machine while he was talking to him. “(Puff) was standing by the SP and I said, ‘It’s right there, turn it off.’ He looked at the equipment and said ‘Playboy, I don’t know how to work none of this sh*t in here. I know how to make a hit.’ And that’s when it hit me: You know how to put a record together, you’re a producer.
So the Hitmen were not just a ‘70s and ‘80s sample factory – but also, why was there even so much hate around sample-based hits (aside from the whole not seeing any back-end money because of publishing thing)? As Nash exclaimed at A3C, “Hip-Hop was created by taking an old record, rapping on it, and making it new again. That’s how the foundation of Hip-Hop started, so how could you be mad at what we’re doing? We were just doin’ it on another level.”
From the perspective Puff shares in Hip-Hop Evolution, crossover or not, the music was still serving us: black folks. “I just started to choose real big, worldwide samples, and I figured out how to keep it black as a mothafu**a. And they would go pop, but they would still be so fu**ing black. We make that cookout music, we made that get married music, we make that make that make your baby music.” As much as we look back on the shiny suit era with disdain today, after years of gangsta and mafioso rap, we needed some party music. We needed fun hip-hop. And there’s a reason the songs still hold up: the samples were classic and the production was flawless. In my opinion, the sole difference in good production versus flash in the pan ish is whether or not you can run the track in 20 years and it still feels fresh. I guarantee you danced to a Hitmen-produced track at least once this summer. All their top joints still feel fresh.
Even though the OG’s are long gone and the days of Bad Boy as a full roster of artists and producers are gone as well, the Hitmen are a lifetime fraternity. Going back to the VIBE interview 20 years ago; the vets were just starting branch out. Deric was cultivating Crazy Cat (with more John Blaze), Stevie was working on his own stuff (he didn’t even show up for the photoshoot, on some superstar ish). But Deric, in true team captain fashion, insisted it didn’t mean there was bad blood. “In fact, it’s endorsed.” He insisted. “When Puffy assembled us, the first thing he said was, `It’s gonna take time for y’all to become what y’all need to become, but at the end of the rainbow, there could be label deals, production deals….’ So kill all the rumors. If Stevie J. leaves, if Deric leaves, we’re still Hitmen. Our line to each other is, `Once a Bad Boy, always a Bad Boy.’ “
#MusicSermon is a series by Naima Cochrane that highlights the under-acknowledged and under-appreciated urban artists and sub-genres from the ’90s and earlier. The series seeks to tell unknown and/or forgotten stories that connect the dots between current music, culture and the foundations of the past.