Hip-Hop’s first full decade of existence saw an abundance of innovation and experimentation, which helped the genre grow and evolve into what we know it today. Initially commencing with its disco and funk-influenced records, the 1980s saw hip-hop remain close to its parent genres.
However, with its rapid pace of acceleration, the funky hip-hop of the early ’80s began to get darker. Slowly but surely, with groups such as Public Enemy and N.W.A making the genre more political, the disco-derived whimsy of rap began to fade and saw hip-hop’s sonics and purpose shift. However, this wasn’t just down to the emcees.
Hip-hop, across the years, has undoubtedly seen its fair share of legendary producers. From Timbaland to Kanye, from Dr Dre to J Dilla, the culture most definitely had and still has a plethora of talented beatmakers churning out incredible instrumentals. However, each era brings new sounds, and the 1980s undoubtedly had a distinctive sound.
In this article, we will look at some of the legends behind the production of 1980s hip-hop.
Producers who defined the sound of 1980s hip-hop:
A name not many have heard, Larry Smith is one of the rap cultures’s hidden super-producers. Born and raised in Queens, he is often referred to as ‘The Father of Boom Bap’. Smith’s production style, akin to Dr Dre, was habitually recreated by others and, in itself, turned into a temporary subgenre.
Joseph ‘Run’ Simmons, who is the legendary Rev Run of Run-DMC, in fact, gave a nod to Smith on the trio’s first hit, ‘Sucker MCs’, as the producer was one of the group’s driving forces. Smith used an Oberheim DMX drum machine to create magic and was one of New York’s most highly sought producers during the 1980s. With hits such as ‘It’s Like That’ by Run-DMC
‘Five Minutes of Funk’ by Whodini and ‘Rock Box’, Larry Smith was undoubtedly a defining producer of the ’80s.
Rick Rubin was just a master of music with a talent that knew no limits. Akin to Larry Smith, he was highly involved with Run-DMC, the face of hip-hop in the ’80s. However, Rubin was affiliated to such an extent that he founded what would become Def Jam Records alongside Russell Simmons.
Rubin’s musical interest stemmed primarily from rock. However, hip-hop and rock (both innately rebellious) informed his music and made him a pretty special beatmaker. The legendary DJ Jazzy Jay of the Zulu Nation taught Rubin the ropes of rap music production. However, with his NYU education, he took things to an entirely new level and, alongside Jay and Simmons, created hip-hop history when the three of them ‘It’s Yours’ by T La Rock and Jazzy Jay.
This was the first ever Def Jam Recordings single, but it would not be Rick Rubin’s only hit. He created LL Cool J’s ‘Rock The Bells’, ‘Peter Piper’ by Run-DMC and was the primary producer of the Beastie Boys. Rubin was a pioneer of 1980s hip-hop.
Queensbridge native Marly Marl (real name Marlon Williams) was one of hip-hop’s first sample-chop producers and is an icon. Unlike fellow Queens native Larry Smith, Marly Marl is a known name in hip-hop, but this is due to the fact that he was the founder and sole producer of the legendary Juice Crew.
Comprised of Big Daddy Kane, Kool G Rap, and more, the Juice Crew were one of the biggest crews in New York during the 1980s and had quite the reputation. Marley Marl is the cousin of MC Shan, part of the Juice Crew, and it was he who produced Shan’s diss-track ‘The Bridge’. Directed at KRS-One and Scott La Rock of BDP, the track initiated the legendary “Bridge Wars”, which saw Juice Crew feuding with Boogie Down Productions out of the Bronx.
Marly Marl worked with the best of the best across his city, including Eric B and Rakim, Big Daddy Kane and Heavy D. Williams was the brains behind ‘Ain’t No Half-Steppin’ by Big Daddy Kane, ‘The Symphony’ by Juice Crew and ‘The Overweight Lover’s In the House’ by Heavy D & The Boyz. A true legend.