Larry Smith (producer)
Larry Smith in 1983
|Birth name||Lawrence Smith|
June 11, 1952|
St. Albans, Queens, New York
|Died||December 19, 2014
Flushing, Queens, New York
|Associated acts||Kurtis Blow, The Fat Boys, Run DMC, Whodini, Jimmy Spicer, Russell Simmons|
Lawrence "Larry" Smith (June 11, 1951 – December 19, 2014) was a pioneering African-American musician and hip hop record producer. He is best known for his co-productions (with Russell Simmons) of Run-DMC's Run-D.M.C. (1984) and King of Rock (1985) and his solo production of Whodini's Escape (1984) and Back in Black (1986).
It is a measure of Smith's creative range that he could work simultaneously with the decidedly dissimilar Run-D.M.C. and Whodini. The former was rock-oriented, the latter leaned toward R&B—or as the critic Tom Terrell suggested, "Smith envisioned Whodini as the luxe Cadillac Seville to Run-D.M.C.'s Electra 225 hooptie."
Smith's work has engendered not just critical esteem, but popular success. In the month ending February 23, 1985, both Run-D.M.C. and Escape were certified gold by the RIAA, as was the Fat Boys' eponymous debut album, on which Smith played bass and helped to compose the hit single "Jail House Rap." These were among the very first hip hop albums to be certified for Gold-level sales by the Recording Industry Association of America.
In 1987 Whodini's John "Ecstacy" Fletcher described Smith as "the Quincy Jones of rap." In 2010 Run-DMC's Darryl "D.M.C." McDaniels claimed, "Larry Smith's musical arsenal equals Dr. Dre's." In 2009, the producer DJ Premier placed Smith first on his list of Top-5 Dead or Alive Producers, ahead of Marley Marl, Quincy Jones, James Brown, and Rick Rubin.
Larry Smith grew up in St. Albans, Queens, New York, and attended Andrew Jackson High School. He taught himself to play bass by listening to James Brown's records. Eventually, Smith did all kinds of session work, played punk-rock, jazz, and blues, then logged stints in the house band of more than one musical.
In 1979, Smith was recruited by his old friend Robert "Rocky" Ford, then an aspiring record producer, to play bass on Kurtis Blow's "Christmas Rappin'." Smith went on to co-write and to play bass on other Blow recordings such as "The Breaks" (one of the first hip hop records to crack into Billboard's Hot 100 singles chart and achieve Gold sales status), "Hard Times," "Tough," "Day Dreamin'," and "The Deuce."
It was while working with Blow that Smith met Blow's manager, Russell Simmons. By 1982, the pair was producing records together, starting with a couple of singles for the rapper Jimmy Spicer: "The Bubble Bunch" (1982) and "Money (Dollar Bill, Y'all)" (1983). The latter has been sampled no less than 34 times, including by De La Soul ("Bitties in the BK Lounge," 1991), Maino ("Hi Hater," 2009), and Kanye West ("Eyes Closed," 2010). Retitled "Money Money," the song was covered in 1987 by the Jamaican toaster Reverend Badoo, who gave it a dancehall reggae treatment. (In 1985 Smith produced "Roots, Rap, Reggae" for Run-DMC and guest artist Yellowman. It was one of the earliest rap-reggae collaborations.) It was also covered by Coolio in 1997.
It was also in 1983 that Smith teamed up with guitarist-deejay Davy DMX and drummer Trevor Gale in a group called Orange Krush. Its one single, "Action," was very influential, not least because of Gale's stark and funky drumbeat. Before the year was out, Smith had transferred the beat to a Oberheim DMX drum machine, added some handclaps, and bestowed a name on the result: Krush Groove. He proceeded to apply the Krush Groove as a foundation to four of Run-DMC's early singles: "Sucker M.C.'s (Krush-Groove 1)," "Hollis Crew (Krush-Groove 2)," "Darryl & Joe (Krush-Groove 3)," and "Together Forever (Krush-Groove 4)."
Making Run-DMC and King of Rock
Although Smith was a trained musician, he chose not to employ live studio musicians to provide the music for Run-D.M.C. Aiming to reproduce on record the super-spare sound of hip hop music as it was then being made in the city's parks and clubs, he relied instead on drum machines. The revolutionary result—embodied in Run-DMC's first single, "It's Like That" b/w "Sucker MCs"—was little more than beats and rhymes. "With its lack of bass and emphasis on drum claps, 'Sucker MCs' provided the template for most [hip hop] records from '83 until '86-'87," according to critic Jesse Serwer. "[That single] completely changed hip hop…rendering everything that preceded it distinctly old school with one fell swoop," wrote Peter Shapiro in "The Rough Guide to HipHop." "Sucker MCs" was sampled by Kid Rock on "Super Rhyme Maker" (1990), by De La Soul on "Ego Trippin' (Part Two)" (1993), by Tupac Shakur and Redman on "Got My Mind Made Up" (1996), and by Snoop Dogg on "Hoop Dreams (He Got Game)" (1999), among many others.
When Run-D.M.C.'s eponymous first album was released in the spring of 1984, it was hailed by Robert Christgau ("the dean of American rock critics") as "easily the canniest and most formally sustained [hip hop] album ever." One of the album's standout tracks was "Rock Box," a pioneering hybrid of hip hop and rock. According to Bill Adler in Tougher Than Leather: The Rise of Run-D.M.C., the record came together when the group overheard a rock band named Riot recording in New York's Greene Street Studios. "They saw these loud guitars," remembers Russell Simmons, "and they started screaming, 'We can do that! What the fuck—we're going to make loud shit, too!'"
Steve Loeb, Greene Street's owner, was frankly skeptical of the viability of a rock-hip hop crossover. "You're out of your mind," he told Smith.
"Niggas play rock 'n' roll, too," Smith replied. He then recruited his old Hollis, Queens, friend Eddie Martinez—known to his friends as the Manic Hispanic—to lay in the guitar part for "Rock Box."
Named by The Source magazine in 1998 as one of the 100 Best Rap Albums Ever and by Rolling Stone as one of the 100 Greatest Albums of the 1980s, Run-D.M.C. is "the LP that forever tore rap away from disco and made it its own thing," according to critic Tom Breihan in 2005.
Smith and Simmons's second album for Run-D.M.C. was King of Rock. The title track, which again featured Eddie Martinez on guitar, let the group "crunch and pop like some sort of hip-hop Black Sabbath," in the words of Rolling Stone's J.D. Considine. In recent years, it was featured on the soundtrack of the video games "Guitar Hero: Aerosmith" and "Thrasher: Skate and Destroy." The album was certified for Platinum-level sales in 1987.
In the wake of the success of Run-D.M.C.'s first singles, Smith was engaged to produce a new album by Whodini, a Brooklyn hip hop trio that had been recording for then-London-based Jive Records since 1982. Just as "It's Like That" b/w "Sucker MCs" anchored Run-D.M.C., so Smith's production of the single "Friends" b/w "Five Minutes of Funk" would anchor Whodini's Escape. Ultimately, it reached number four on Billboard's Hot R&B Singles chart.
In a 2009 interview with Jesse Serwer, Whodini's Jalil Hutchins recalled being introduced to Smith at Disco Fever in the Bronx: "Me and Larry became friends, and when we was going to record, we said, 'Lar, what you got?' He laid out his ideas real fast, and the first was 'Five Minutes of Funk.' When we caught that beat, we were like, 'Messing with you is gonna be fun.' We made that record in, like, a half hour."
In 1985, the reviewer Crispin Sartwell called "Five Minutes of Funk," "one of '84's most memorable singles. Memorable, in fact, is an understatement; trying to get that little three-note riff out of your head is like trying to bench press Milwaukee." As of 2016, "Five Minutes of Funk" has been sampled at least 44 times, most notably by Jayo Felony (on "Nitty Gritty," 1998) and Snoop Dogg (on "Game of Life," 2004).
John "Ecstacy" Fletcher's memory of the making of "Friends" hinges on Whodini's goal of making "a song that people in the projects would play outside their window in the summertime. We knew from [Larry's] beat that that's what we had with 'Friends.'" As of 2016 "Friends" has been sampled at least 116 times, most notably by Nas on "If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)," in 2004, but also by Dr. Dre, KRS-One, 2Pac, and Will Smith.
Escape's other notable single was "Freaks Come out at Night," about which the critic Greg Tate wrote: "[The track's] sybaritic verses would be just so much more overbaked hip hop toasting without Smith's sizzling contrapuntal eruptions arcing and looping in and out of the vocals. Smith and Whodini have laid the groundwork for a genus of hip hop as capable of personal revelation as the blues of Robert Johnson and as worldly wise as the melodic muse of Wayne Shorter." Certified platinum in 1987, Escape was named one of the 100 Best Rap Albums in The Source in 1998.
The critic Vince Aletti, writing for Andy Warhol's Interview magazine in April 1986, summed up the impact of Smith's work for Whodini: "A funky but melodic mix that gives the material the appeal of songs rather than bare-boned rap attacks, these songs have gone on to become hits that helped open ears and airwaves to [hip hop]."
He died on December 19, 2014.
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- Tom Terrell, "The Vibe History of Hip-Hop," 1995, p.50
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- Serwer, Jesse, "The Chauffeur Drove Off: the Genius of Larry Smith," April 19, 2009, http://jesseserwer.com/blog/?p=97.
- Shapiro, Peter, "The Rough Guide to Hip-Hop," 2005, pp.326-327.
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- Village Voice, April 24, 1984.
- Adler, Bill, "Tougher Than Leather: The Rise of Run-DMC," 2002, p.91.
- In a telephone interview with writer Bill Adler, conducted on June 25, 2011, Robert Ford provided Martinez's nickname.
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- "100 Best Rap Albums," The Source, January 1998, http://www.rocklistmusic.co.uk/source.htm.
- Williams, Houston, "Legendary Producer for Run DMC & Whodini Suffers Stroke," allhiphop.com, November 8, 2007, http://allhiphop.com/stories/news/archive/2007/11/08/18854095.aspx
- "Larry Smith, Renowned Run-D.M.C. Producer, Has Died". SPIN. Retrieved 19 December 2014.