Words: Chairman Mao | Photos by C+
Originally published in ego trip #12, 1998.
It’s not every day that you get to disturb a living legend out of a deep sleep. But that’s what happens when I ring the doorbell at Marley Marl’s House of Hits home/studio nestled within the suburban calm of Chestnut Ridge, NY. Perhaps still feeling the after effects of a celebratory birthday trip to Atlantic City two days earlier, the Queensbridge born-and-bred super-producer pokes his sleep deprived dome out of his bedroom window to identify his guest before raising the gates (actually, the garage door) to his castle. Inside, the lair of the man whose innovations forever revolutionized hip-hop production resemble less the mad scientist’s laboratory of his “Droppin’ Science” 12” single picture sleeve with Craig G than the deck of the S.S. Enterprise. Amongst the many artifacts: an illuminated 48-track mixing console, an original Fender Rhodes electric piano, a master tape library cryptically entitled, “MARK DA BOXES OR LOSE YOUR SONG,” and an autographed copy of Isaac Hayes’ Hot Buttered Soul. Excusing himself to freshen up, Marley vanishes upstairs, leaving a few moments to reflect on his esteemed history.
Introduced to hip-hop as a teen via DJ Breakout tapes circulated by Bronx classmates at Manhattan High School, the aspiring DJ Marlon Williams quickly adapted his blend techniques to conform within hip-hop’s jagged arsenal of back-spinning and cutting. Eventually excelling as the spin doctor for Mr. Magic’s legendary Rap Attack radio program on WBLS in New York, Marley Marl became inspired to try his own hand at production when he grew tired with hip-hop’s reigning boardsmen.
“In those days,” he will later remember, “Kurtis Blow was the king as producer – producing the Fat Boys, himself, the ‘AJ Scratch,’ and all that other shit. They started throwing little singing hooks in there, havin’ them Linn and DMX drum beats – all that dumb shit soundin’ stupid. But I was Magic’s DJ, and since [Kurtis] was his man I had to play all these wack records that I hated. I was like, 'Yo, man, I can make better shit than this.'"
He did. One day during a Captain Rock remix session, Marley accidentally discovered modern drum sound sampling, thus magically enabling funky drummers from his scratchy record collection to cross decades and sit-in on his own productions. What followed were hip-hop classics for MC Shan, Eric B. & Rakim, Roxanne Shanté, Biz Markie, Big Daddy Kane, Kool G Rap & DJ Polo, Masta Ace, Tragedy, Craig G, Dimples D, Supernature (a/k/a Salt-N-Pepa), Spoonie Gee, and Heavy D that are literally too numerous to mention individually. Hearing Marley Marl’s output circa ’86-’89 was an experience the impact of which was akin to discovering aural electricity every couple of weeks, one five-minute serving at a time; as memorable for the introduction of newly re-discovered sample sources, as the dirty, echo-heavy sound he somehow generated from his original House of Hits studio in the galaxy of Queens.
In 1990, when Marley helmed LL Cool J’s multi-platinum comeback album, Mama Said Knock You Out, he’d reached the pinnacle of hip-hop success. Unfortunately, legal disputes with his former unofficial label, Cold Chillin’ Records, proved the source of great frustration. Though it certainly wasn’t the first of his beefs within the music industry (e.g. the infamous BDP – Queensbridge feud), it eventually resulted in less than amicable personal and professional splits with several former associates. Having finally won control of his Cold Chillin’ masters, Marley now plans to properly restore his back catalog of renowned, as well as unreleased, material to the listening public. Between his weekly Future Flavors program with Pete Rock on Hot 97, as well as international radio transmissions from his broadcasting studio upstairs at House of Hits, Marley still finds time to knock out successful remixes for the R&B world (Aaron Hall’s “Curiosity” featuring Redman; Shai’s “Tonight” featuring Jay-Z) while maintaining extremely impressive ties to the hip-hop underground (Capone-N-Noreaga’s “Capone Bone” and “L.A., L.A.” remix; Kamikazee’s “Snakes”; Fat Joe’s “Find Out”).
Fresh dressed like a million bucks, Marley returns downstairs to resume his proper place – in the studio, behind the boards – and share some thoughts. I listen intently. You see, in case you were somehow unaware, Marley Marl is hip-hop’s greatest producer of all-time. Beliedat.
In the midst of one of your most prolific creative periods, you had an interesting process for assigning snare sounds for records.
Marley Marl: Yeah. I had the drum sound of the week. It was funny because you could tell all of the records that I made in the ame week back in the days. They all sounded the same: [Eric B. & Rakim’s] “Eric B. Is President,” [MC Shan’s] “The Bridge,” [Biz Markie’s] “Nobody Beats the Biz.” I did a song for Tragedy back when he first came out with Hot Day called “Superkids” that had the same snare sounds. When I made [Kool G Rap’s] “It’s a Demo,” that same week I made “Take It Off” by Spoonie Gee.
Why did you do it like that? Was it just simpler or were you in love with those sounds to the point where you wanted to use them over and over again?
Marley Marl: Back then I was like this: if I make three or four records with the same drum sounds, I thought one of them was gonna hit. I wasn’t expecting everything to hit! When I was makin’ records in Queens in my sister’s living room and then when I moved to Astoria to my own living room I had to improvise a lot. I ain’t have much equipment. I only had four tracks [to record with], I had to put that slap echo on [my songs] because I didn’t have a reverb [effect]. The drums was always dry. I think what eventually happened that changed my sound is [motions to the studio around him and laughs]. I made money off the Mama Said Knock You Out album and got better samplers that sounded clearer. I figured by that time since I was working with an established artist – LL was a million seller already – I knew I had to tweak my shit up.
One of the most amazing yet least known turn of events in hip-hop occurred in the mid-80s when your exclusive cache of drum sounds mysteriously changed hands.
Marley Marl: I lost my drum reel in Power Play Studios, the reel with all my shit – every drum sound that I made at the time. it just so happened that I was stupid enough to just forget it that day. [After that] all of a sudden Power Play became a big hit studio, like, “Wow, come to Power Play – we got the sounds!” So the engineers that was working there actually stole my drum sounds. Later in the ’90s I found out that DJ Doc got ahold of the reel and he made “The Bridge Is Over.” Matter of fact, Ced Gee got hold of them too. He started making fuckin’ Ultramagnetic songs. Nobody [at the time] knew what the fuck I was doin’. The day I lost my drum sounds, that let the whole engineering and producing world know how I did my shit.
Since Ced Gee also helped BDP produce Criminal Minded is that album also created from your drum sounds?
Marley Marl: Yeah, and the funny thing is I remember that day I lost my drum sounds was the first day that the whole BDP war started. Scott La Rock – God rest the dead – and KRS were in one studio and [Mr. Magic and I] were in another studio. [Scott and KRS] were actually fans of Magic. They were like, “Wow, Mr. Magic! Yo, come hear our stuff!” So Mr. Magic and I went in there, they played their stuff and were happy and smiling like, “Check it out!” Mr. Magic is standing there and he says, “Hold up, turn that down. That’s wack. That is total bullshit. You know what’s dope? MC Shan, Roxanne Shanté, the Juice Crew. That’s dope. Y’all are wack!” and he just walked out and he left me in the studio. I was like, “Well, you heard him.” What could I say? So, I left. That was the last day I fuckin’ seen my fuckin’ drum sounds. That very day.
The [BDP – Bridge wars] started in '86 or '87, but to be honest I never seen KRS after that for years. I would always just be hearing the records. After I started working at Hot 97 I finally met him. I never spoke to him cuz I didn’t like how [BDP] did their shit. I was never friendly with him. But one day I was going out of [the station], he was comin’ in. He looked at me like, “Oh shit – fuckin’ Marley Marl!” I was like, “Yo, what’s up?” And we just started talking. We got real cool with each other, but it was only two years ago. I know he was in communication with MC Shan and Magic cuz they did that Sprite commercial. But I didn’t participate because Cold Chillin’ robbed me so bad throughout the years. They wanted me to be in the commercial, but I was like, look - just pay me my residuals from using my music in the commercial cuz I don’t wanna be involved with anything that’s gonna make them money. And I explained that to Kris too.
In light of how recent rivalries in hip-hop have evolved, a lot of people have been saying things to the effect that back in the days it wasn’t like that. When you were in a battle you didn’t take it personally or let it escalate. But you were in the midst of one of the greatest wars in hip-hop and it obviously did have an effect on you.
Marley Marl: [Shan and I] never said on “The Bridge” record that hip-hop started in Queensbridge. We said, “Look, we’re gonna tell you a story about where we came from,” and how hip-hop evolved in our area. We didn’t say, “This is where hip-hop came from.” And when Kris came out and made his first record, “South Bronx,” [and charged us with saying that] I felt saddened by the hip-hop community because I felt that the hip-hop community was illiterate. Because they couldn’t comprehend what was goin’ on. I was like, how could he pull this off? It’s a lie. He’s rhymin’ about a lie! Now if everybody’s gonna support him and act like he’s tellin’ the truth, they’re stupid. They’re actually dumb. They need to go back to school and learn comprehension! I was really saddened by the fact that the hip-hop community embraced his lie – for years, and they still do.