A Guide to Musical Pioneers You’ve Never Heard Of

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Last week, we were saddened to read that Brian Rust, the father of the modern discography, had died. Well, not initially — first, we had to find out who Brian Rust was. It’s typical: the stars get the headlines, but the technical pioneers that change things for real tend to stay in the back room. Here are ten such folks — some living, some not — who’ve helped make the world a more musical, and better, place.

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Brian Rust

“Mr. Rust embarked in the 1940s on a rigorous, deeply personal project that continued long afterward as he haunted archives and hunted down artists to reconstitute long-vanished recording sessions on paper,” explained the New York Times obit upon the 88-year-old discographer’s passing. That’s no small matter–our store of musical knowledge would be depleted if he hadn’t begun the hunt. Every crate-digger, historian, and critic in history thanks him.

Roger Linn and Dave Smith

Two of the great titans of machine music: almost everything you hear today sounds the way it does because of these two men. Smith designed the Prophet 5, the first polyphonic synthesizer, and helped develop MIDI, which revolutionized the way electronics were controlled and operated in the recording studio – -and how they sounded on record (locked in, controlled). Linn had a similar effect on drum machines: his Linn M-1 in 1979 was the first to trigger samples of actual drums, as opposed to digital approximations, and became the sound of the ’80s, particularly in the hands of Prince, who exploited the M-1’s capacities to their fullest. Both men have continued innovating — and just last month announced a new collaboration, the Tempest Analog Drum Machine, a full-service electronic-music composition/performance/real-time tool that makes even non-gear-heads salivate. Watch the video above; ignore the verbiage if you don’t understand it; just look at that beautiful thing. Then listen to the crazy things it can do.

Joel Whitburn

If Brian Rust founded rock discography, Whitburn turned the weekly Billboard charts into a manageable archive. Via his endless chart books — everything from mass paperbacks like the essential Hottest Hot 100 Hits to collector’s delights like oversized reprints of every Hot 100 chart for each decade starting from the ’50s — Whitburn has settled more arguments than just about anybody in music.

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Cholly Atkins

It’s easy to forget now, but in the ’60s, Motown was as much about its performers’ fluid onstage moves as its recordings. The man who made that happen was the label’s in-house choreographer, Cholly Atkins (seen above with Aretha Franklin), whose accomplishments, among other things invented the iconic Temptation Walk.

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Jimmy Douglass

Studio engineers don’t get the ink producers do, but they’re every bit as vital. Douglass has made as much music history as anybody. Here’s a very short list of folks he’s worked with: Television, Slave, Gang of Four, Foreigner, the Rolling Stones, Aaliyah, Timbaland, Missy Elliott. For more, read this great Sound on Sound interview from 2002.

Nellee Hooper and Tim Goldsworthy

The cult of the producer in dance music and hip-hop has made a lot of essentially quiet, nerdy mostly-guys into personalities if not stars. But Hooper and Goldsworthy (pictured with James Murphy, above) tend to stay out of the spotlight, preferring to work their studio magic more anonymously. In Hooper’s case, that’s been with Soul II Soul, Björk, Madonna, and Massive Attack, among others; Goldsworthy, meanwhile, was a co-founder of the DFA label along with Murphy, but those two parted company a little while ago.

Wendy Day and Rick Cummings

One of the many impressive things about Dan Charnas’s The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop is its vivid portraits of the music’s many kinds of backstage characters. Two that linger in memory especially are Day (pictured above, with Lil Jon), an artists’ advocate who helped rappers fight for their back earnings and more power within the business, and Cummings, who created the first all-hip-hop radio format on pop radio in the nation, for Power 106 in Los Angeles.