It’s great to see more rappers crack the rock ‘n roll hall of fame. This time it was a long overdue L.L. Cool J. and billionaire, Basquiat-look-alike Jay-Z. One guy you probably won’t be seeing in Cleveland anytime soon is a man behind the music, hip-hop’s first super-producer, Marley Marl. Before there was Preemo, Pete Rock, RZA, Dr. Dre, Pharrell or Swizz Beats, Marlon Williams laid the blueprint for the cutting-edge beatmaker, crafting some of rap’s breakout hits of the 80s (and certainly reviving the career of L.L. on his 1990 comeback album, Mama Said Knock You Out). Marley was the first hip-hop producer with his own stable of top talent—namely, The Juice Crew, including Biz Markie, Kool G. Rap and Big Daddy Kane—as well as being the man behind the success of Eric B. & Rakim.
Born September 30, 1962, Marley grew up in the infamous Queensbridge projects a sprawling public housing complex that has produced an inordinate amount of rap talent from Roxanne Shante and MC Shan to Nas and Mobb Deep. Exposed to hip-hop’s early days through cassettes from the Bronx, Marley chose his path as a deejay while still in high school. He was spinning at clubs like Pegasus in Manhattan when he was only 15, while also interning at legendary recording studio Unique. There, he learned his way around production, working with Jazzy Jay and Arthur Baker, who co-produced the huge electro hit “Planet Rock,” with Afrika Bambaataa.
In the studio, Marley’s claim to fame was being the first to sample drums, albeit accidentally, when he captured a snare from Art of Noise’s “Beatbox” that he used in “Cosmic” by a rapper called Captain Rock. That led to his own first foray into production with the 12-inch “Sucker DJs” (1983) featuring female rapper Dimples D from his Sureshot Crew in Queens. He followed that off with “Roxanne’s Revenge” (1984) by Roxanne Shante, another resident of Queensbridge, who was only 14 at the time. An answer to the U.T.F.O smash “Roxanne, Roxanne,” Marley’s record also became a street hit and led to the formation of The Juice Crew.
Around the same time, he met radio personality Mr. Magic (John Rivas), responsible for launching “Rap Attack,” rap’s first regular show on commercial radio, 107.5, WBLS, in 1982. Impressed by the young teen’s skills after hearing his remix of Malcolm Mclaren’s “Buffalo Gals,” Magic drafted him to be his on-air deejay. According to DJ Stretch Armstrong, a religious listener of that show, “Marley was an impeccable blender of beats, playing records simultaneously for minutes at a time, often with scratching on top supplied from a third turntable. To be clear, though, Marley didn’t just blend. He cut the hell out of records on air and on many of the classics he produced. It wasn’t uncommon for Marley to add sound effects and snippets from movies and television like Woody Woodpecker or Star Trek to make a point or add a dose of humor.”
Marley continued with the practice of sampling drum sounds on “Marley Scratch” (1985), the first song he made for neighborhood rapper MC Shan, using three Korg SDD samplers, each with 1.5 seconds of sampling time. Then, taking a kick and snare from an obscure 1973 Honeydripper’s funk track, “Impeach the President,” he returned with Shan on “The Bridge” (1986), a song originally intended to be theme music for Queensbridge Day celebrations. It was also the first rap song to employ pure noise in a musical context, using a horn sample played backwards with added reverb. The 12-inch became a huge hit in New York, leading to the infamous “Bridge Wars” with rapper KRS-ONE from the Bronx.
By 1986, when Cold Chillin’ Records was formed by Magic’s manager Tyrone “Fly Ty” Williams and Lenny Fichtelberg, Marley became the label’s in-house producer, making whole albums for fellow Juice crew members MC Shan, Big Daddy Kane, Kool G. Rap & Polo, Roxanne Shante and Craig G. He also had a hand in Eric B. & Rakim’s breakout debut Paid In Full (1987), some of which was recorded at his home studio in Queensbridge located at 4114 12th Street, #2A, his sister’s apartment in the projects.
If Marley Marl’s early contributions to the innovative sound and gritty style of rap in the 80s weren’t enough, he was also the first producer to debut the posse cut with “The Symphony.” Featuring Kane, G. Rap, Masta Ace, and Craig G., this 1989 hit set the precedent of several (usually high profile) rappers appearing on a track together, a forerunner to the cameos that occur regularly today. Marley, of course, capped off his decade of heavy influence with the biggest crossover hit of his career, L.L. Cool J.’s Mama Said Knock You Out (1990). So, with L.L.s recent induction to the rock ‘n roll hall of fame, chalk up another victory for his super producer, Marley Marl, another one of the unsung heroes of the art form.
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