As with anything in history, someone always does it — whatever “it” might be — first. In terms of drum sampling, Marley Marl (born Marlon Williams) was an innovator during hip-hop's early days. Although sampling in rap music is common today, Marl pioneered the art of drum sampling before most had picked up on it. His use of pounding kick drums and banging snares, lifted as samples from vinyl albums and mixed with killer drum-machine beats, gave the artists that he worked with a powerful and unique-sounding musical landscape — artists such as LL Cool J, Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie and Eric B. & Rakim.
Hailing from the streets of Queensbridge — the same Queens, N.Y., housing project of artists such as Mobb Deep and Nas — Marl began honing his production chops as an intern at the now-shuttered Unique Recording Studios. Displeased with the corny sounds of most drum machines, he began mixing elements from the likes of James Brown and Parliament with the technology of the time. Marl found his power in the Roland TR-808 and his signature sampler, an SDD-series Korg Digital Delay (of which he had three). “I was sampling a vocal snippet, but the snare was in there, too,” Marl says. “I noticed it sounded better than the snare I had on the drum machine, so I started to play around with kick and snare sampling.” The new concoction spawned a slew of fresh-sounding, club-booming records that hip-hop kids embraced. “In the parks is where it got started,” Marl says. “I had the [sound] system, and there was an incredible community of musicians [living in Queensbridge]. They would bring their keyboards, guitars and basses, and we'd run it through my stuff and just get it going.”
Although Marl released “D.J. Cuttin” under the pseudonym N.Y.C. Cutter for Tuff City Records in 1985, he had already become something of a household name after producing “Roxanne's Revenge” for Roxanne Shanté in 1984. The track, one of the first diss records, was a response to U.T.F.O's “Roxanne, Roxanne.” Marl's next step to notoriety started with a cut called “The Bridge” that he produced for fellow Queens native MC Shan; Bronx newcomer KRS-One released a response called “The Bridge Is Over,” which heated the battle for borough supremacy.
Not confined to the studio, Marl was one of the first producers to also be an A&R exec. He guided the careers of numerous artists on Cold Chillin' Records, home to acts such as Biz Markie, Big Daddy Kane, MC Shan, Kool G Rap & Polo, Master Ace, Craig G and others. “I used to say that all of those early Cold Chillin' Records were co-produced by the New York City Housing Authority 'cause I built a studio in my sister's crib [in Queensbridge],” Marl says with a laugh. Adds Chuck D from Public Enemy: “His [sound] and arrangements for [all of the] Cold Chillin' artists were set apart from each other and distinct. Marley Marl, in essence, was the one-man production predecessor to Dr. Dre.”
Through the Cold Chillin' artist roster, Marl also put together one of the first real rap crews (long before 50 Cent put together his G-Unit). The Juice Crew comprised Kane, Markie, MC Shan, Masta Ace, Craig G, Kool G Rap & Polo, Shanté and others. As for how it all got started, Marl breaks it down: “There was Shanté, who was a battle rapper, but she needed someone to beatbox for her; that's how the Biz came into it. Then, when Biz did his thing onstage, I knew he was a great performer. Biz had a great writer named Kane, and when I heard Kane on tape, it was incredible. I knew Polo from school, and he brought in G Rap.” And each artist had a different style. “Biz was the clown; Kane was into his raw power; Shan was a fly boy; Polo was into the fly-gangster thing,” Marl adds. With the Juice Crew in place, Marl recorded the first posse cut, “The Symphony,” which became a hip-hop classic.
Marl's style and sonic creativity are sprinkled all over rap in classics such as “Make the Music With Your Mouth Biz” and “The Vapors” by Markie, “Ain't No Half Steppin'” by Kane and “Road to the Riches” by Kool G Rap & Polo. Interestingly, Marl also produced Eric B. & Rakim's classic track “Eric B. for President,” though he rarely worked on anything but songs for his Juice Crew. That all changed around 1990, when he teamed up with LL Cool J to release one of the most successful albums in rap history, LL's Mama Said Knock You Out (Def Jam, 1990). Marl's speaker-poppin' beats and thumping bass helped Mama Said not only become LL's biggest selling album but also earn Marl a Grammy Award.
Today, Marl remains busy producing remixes, developing new artists and scoring for commercials and TV shows. Not one to rest on his success, he is as at home in the studio as he is behind the mic, having also logged a 20-year stint on the radio as a host of various shows. Starting on Mr. Magic's Rap Attack on WBLS in New York back in the '80s, Marl eventually teamed with Pete Rock on WBLS' In Control With Marley Marl and now broadcasts on satellite, syndication and the Internet with his Future Flavas show. Through these broadcasts — not to mention his legendary productions — Marl has helped an endless number of artists become superstars. And with a hip-hop career spanning three decades, something mostly unheard of today, Marl stands firmly etched into the history of rap music.