Over the past four decades, hip-hop music has transformed popular culture and touched every inch of the globe. Its origins have been explored through various cinematic mediums. Throughout the exploration of the art form, numerous artists and producers have received proper credit for their trailblazing contributions. There is one name that should be world renowned but has remained in the shadows. His name is Larry Smith. By the end of the 1970s, Smith, a native of St. Albans Queens, NY, was on the verge of creating the blueprint for hip-hop production that would be followed by future masterminds. As a highly skilled musician, he used his idiomatic inclinations to formulate a potent mixture of genre-bending sounds to propel a burgeoning movement to achieve unprecedented success. During his illustrious career, he produced groundbreaking albums for Run-DMC, Whodini, and Kurtis Blow. After a debilitating stroke in 2007, he is now voiceless, partially paralyzed, and bedridden, but his musical influence still lives on today.
EBONY sat down with two legendary emcees, Kurtis “Kurtis Blow” Walker, Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels, and a legendary bassist Val Burke to discuss the vast contributions from this unsung pioneer.
EBONY: When and where did you first meet Larry Smith?
Darryl McDaniels: When [Rev.] Run was “The Son of Kurtis Blow,” I used come over to Joe’s house. We used to deejay, drink 40 ounces and smoke weed and then I would go home. At that time, I was going to Rice High School. I remember seeing Kurtis Blow sleeping at his house one day in his room, because Kurtis didn’t go home after his show. Joe used to always introduce me to what he was doing with his brother Russell, because Russell was managing Kurtis Blow. Before Kurtis Blow, Russell had Rush Productions, and he used to throw all the parties. He would go hire DJ Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, and DJ Hollywood. Joe and I went to the same school, and we played basketball together. When hip-hop came to the streets of Hollis Queens, we would sit in my basement and deejay and emcee, or we would go to Joe’s attic and deejay and emcee. After I would go to Joe’s to deejay and emcee, he would tell me, “D, I’ll see you on Monday because Saturday night I’m going to Bear Mountain. I have a show with Russell, Kurtis Blow, Crash Crew, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, and Afrika Bambaataa.”
I would always leave Joe’s house right before Larry would pull up in his blue Cadillac. It was a Sedan DeVille Cadillac that had two doors. It was one of the long ones. Then, what happened was, Joe found my rhyme books and saw that I was a straight A student. Joe said, “Once Russell lets me make a record, I’m putting you in my group.” The day that Russell decided to let him make a record he told me, “We have to go to Larry’s house to make the demo.” When I got to Joe’s house, Larry came in a Jeep to pick up us, and we went over to his house. It was somewhere on the Southside. I remember it was a long journey. I was wondering where the hell were they guys taking me. [laughs] Larry was this great musician. He reminded me of Rick James and all of the funk dudes. He was a bass playing musician, but he made hip-hop beats. He was in the Orange Krush band that was making records for Jimmy Spicer, Kurtis Blow, Alyson Williams, and others. But he was hanging out at Disco Fever with Melly Mel, Busy Bee, and all of those cats. Larry was so, incredible. He could produce a funk record, but also youthful energetic music and that was key to the success of Run-DMC. The first time I met Larry, he was energetic and a ball of giggling enthusiasm. He also had a jheri curl. This was the first day I met him. During that same day, we laid down the demo for “It’s Like That.” This was in the summer of 1982.
Kurtis Blow: I met Larry through a mutual friend and musician, Denzil Miller. Denzil Miller was contracted and hired by my producers J.B. Moore and Robert Ford. Denzil Miller was a classical pianist. His right hand man was Larry Smith. Denzil Miller was in a band out of Queens called Creative Funk. They had a hit back in the day entitled “Ready Made Family.” J.B. and Robert were my producers for my first five albums. So — I was barely 18 at the time. I remember at the first initial meeting I had with J.B., we were sitting down with musicians. I sat down with Denzil, Larry, and J.B. They were three strange guys to me, but they taught me a whole lot about this music industry. I met Larry in October of 1979 at J.B. Moore’s small apartment on 45 and 9th avenue. It was upstairs on the fourth floor. We met up there and had our initial creative meeting for my album.
Val Burke: I moved to Hollis Queens in 1965. I had been playing bass guitar for about a year before I moved there. I started doing gigs here and there. I got hooked up with Willie Feaster & the Mighty Magnificents and Skip Sonny And Pace Brothers. We were the band in Queens at the time. We became the studio band at Stang Records and All Platinum Studios for three years. It was during this period when I met Larry for the first time. At the time, Larry had just finished high school. This was in 1968. I remember when he finished high school; he was the first cat in the neighborhood to get a car. Larry and I became friends because he showed an interest in playing the bass. We used to go to each other’s homes. He used to come down to my house and I had a basement there, and we used to go down there and play tunes. We listened to and learned how to play James Brown, Wilson Pickett, and other R&B songs. This was when the music scene in Queens first started coming together. One of the things that stood out to me was his dad, Nathan Smith had a dry cleaning shop on Linden Blvd. I used to go up there with him. I remember his father asking me, “My son wants to be involved with music. He wants to play bass. Do you think it’s a good idea for him to do that?” I replied, “Well, if it’s in his blood, it’s going to be hard for him not to do it.” I got to know Mr. Smith and Mrs. Smith very well. They were two people who had a lot of character and were lovely and loving people.
What made you strike up a friendship with him, but also the desire to teach him what you knew about playing the bass?
VB: Larry was such a nice cat. He would do anything for you. He was just that kind of person. I knew him before he became successful in the music business. The reason why I started working with him musically is because he showed such a genuine interest. He really loved to play, and he wanted to learn how to play. By then, I was a steady road musician. Music was my life, but he was just getting into it. He had some knowledge of how to play bass; he could play a few tunes. He was a raw talent. I showed him how to play a groove on the bass and “lock it in” and to not worry about playing any of the extraneous stuff. We used to play the same repetitive lines over and over again. I told him to stay conscious of his time. We played music in my basement for years. There wasn’t a set time when we would get together. Larry and I were great friends.
How would you describe your musical collaborations with him?
DM: I would describe it in two words. It was a park jam. Larry was Rick Rubin before Rick Rubin. Like Rick Rubin, Larry would always want to add the artist personality to the song. For instance, on our first album, the reason why we did “Rock Box” was because I always wanted to make a record like Billy Squier’s “The Big Beat.” So, Larry let me actually drum the drum beat into the DMX drum machine. He took out his bass, and he laid down the bass line. I had this routine for smoking weed, but I had to rework my lyrics because I didn’t want to preach drinking Old English and smoking weed to the young kids. I knew we had a responsibility. So, I changed my lyrics. The crazy thing was I laid the beat, he laid down the bass line, and put the bells on it. After Run and I put our raps down, we left the studio. When we came back the next day, it had guitars on it. That was the origin of “Rock Box.” So – it was like a park jam. What I mean by park jam is a DJ used to pull out beats and sounds for an emcee to rap over, but every recording session with Larry was like a park jam. That’s why it was so innovative, so fun, and so creative. Everybody else was making records, but Run-DMC was making park jams. [laughs]
KB: Larry was a mentor to me. He was about four or five years older than I am. When we first met, it was like a teacher and student situation. I was an emcee, DJ, and a breakdancer. I took music in school. I went to the High School of Music and Arts, but I had no real knowledge of putting songs together and getting in a studio. At our first initial meeting at J.B. Moore’s house, we sat down and they proposed a question to me. They asked, “What type of sound would you like?” I said, “What do you mean by sound?” Larry said, “The sound. You know, the style of music. Who is your favorite artist?” I replied, “James Brown. I’d like to have a sound that is a mix of James Brown and Chic.” At that time, the number one band in 1979 was Chic. They had that “Good Times” groove out. They were trying to get me to start thinking along those creative lines about the style and sound of my music. My sound started in that room in 1979.
What made him stand out among his contemporaries in terms of his production methods and musical arrangements?
DM: He was a musician. Even today, you have beat makers and producers who are musicians. The best producers are musicians and DJs. Anybody can make a beat. I could make a beat and then put lyrics on it and it could become a record, but I’m not a musician. Larry knew music. What separated Larry way back then and what allowed him to make all those hits was the fact he was a musician. Run and I used to tease him because he talked like a musician. The jazz, blues, and rock musicians all call each other “cats.” We would use our hip-hop slang, and he would always use his musician slang. Run and I were irresponsible little kids. We would giggle when he would say “other cats.” We were like, “What the hell is he talking about?” But he was a musician. He could produce blues, rock, gospel, R&B, and hip-hop.
KB: When I made the decision to really pursue this, I left college. I got a record deal, and I had the opportunity to make records in a studio on a consistent basis. I started studying music and doing research and Larry was a big part of that. He taught me how to count bars, knowing how to stack tracks, and the main thing I learned from him early on was how to stack tracks. When I usually went to record, I went into a sixteen track or twenty-four track studio. So, if I went into a twenty-four track studio, that meant it had twenty-four tracks, meaning different channels where you can record one instrument on a track. For instance, you would put a kick drum on track one and a hi-hat on track two and so on and so forth. That way of recording is what I learned from Larry and J.B. Larry was a master at stacking tracks, meaning he would take three tracks and record three different kick drums. Then, he would take all three of those tracks and bounce them down to one track with a little compression, so you’ll have three tracks bouncing out together of one kick drum sounding real big. I learned that success through Larry Smith. It was a big thing in the sound of the tracks we started to make, and later on in the eighties, we had a whole big, fat sound because of Larry.
Do you believe that because he was a trained musician and didn’t listen to music trends it played a part in him providing hip-hop with an innovative sound and it introduced the art form to a larger audience?
DM: Yes, one hundred percent. Jermaine Dupri would tell you that his whole production enthusiasm and inspiration came from Larry Smith. You have to remember that Jermaine Dupri was a dancer not only on the Raising Hell tour but on the two tours before that one. He was a kid back then. He was with us from day one. Larry’s music defined those two to three years Jermaine was with us. If you ask him, he’ll tell you Larry Smith is the greatest. Larry made it so we didn’t have to sample a track and rhyme over it any more. We could go into the studio and make music. That’s what Larry Smith did for hip-hop.
KB: Yes, because he came from an R&B background, and that was perfect for us. He had the knowledge of knowing the different artists and musicians that came before us like James Brown. So, he understood me when I told him I wanted that type of sound. He understood how to read and write classical music. We all didn’t have that same experience. Larry was incredible. So, that was the greatest asset. He was a master musician, and he came in writing charts for us. It became the norm for Kurtis Blow and the Kurtis Blow sound. We hired the best musicians like John Tropea, Seth Glassman, and Jimmy Bralower on drums. It was a top-of-the-line professional production that we were putting down.
Why do you think he has been forgotten about by hip-hop purists and historians?
DM: People tend to forget that Larry is the greatest hip-hop producer that has ever existed that nobody has ever heard of. He produced Run-DMC’s first two albums and Whodini’s groundbreaking album. The reason why I say that he is the best is, because most producers, when you say their names, they have a certain sound and that’s all they got. None of the records that Larry produced over a four year period sound alike. When you think about Whodini’s albums, he produced “Friends,” “Five Minutes of Funk,” “One Love,” and “Freaks Come Out at Night.” For Run-DMC, he produced “Sucker MCs,” “It’s Like That,” “Darryl and Joe,” and “30 Days.” He held down hip-hop by himself for four years. Nothing sounded alike. He was running radio, tours, and everything coming out back then. He didn’t have a production team. Because “Walk This Way” was so huge and other hip-hop acts started to blow up, many people forget about him. It wasn’t until Dr. Dre and Jermaine Dupri when producers started to get recognized. All of his music has been sampled by the Dirty South, the West Coast, and everyone. Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, Grand Wizzard Theodore, and all the groups that came before us are the real architects and pioneers of this whole thing, but Larry Smith is the architect of hip-hop production. He is definitely a genius and the greatest producer ever. When we got inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, my speech was about Larry. At that time, he had his stroke and he lost his ability to speak. That day I got into Larry’s car to go to his house to record changed my whole life.
KB: Well, a lot of people we just tend to forget. In African American culture, we tend forget our elders and pioneers, and we don’t lift them up as legends. A few of us fall by the wayside because of that. I don’t know what the reason is, but it’s a travesty. He should be recognized and noticed as a legitimate music legend in the music industry, for sure.
Can you put him in proper context as one of the most seminal producers in the history of music?
DM: He belongs on the list of greatest producers alongside George Martin, Phil Spector, and Quincy Jones. We can’t limit his greatness to just hip-hop music. Larry is one the top five producers of all time. Nobody did what he did. He’s in a class all by himself.
KB: I would definitely rank him up there as one of the most innovative producers in modern history just by the nature of the songs that came out. Listen, this guy was on the very first certified rap song in the history of hip-hop and not only that; it was the second certified gold twelve inch record in the history of music. I’m talking about “The Breaks.” This was something he created from scratch. He produced the first rap group ever signed to a major label, which was Whodini. He broke new ground with his productions and his style. He went from the R&B, James Brown, and Chic sound of Kurtis Blow to the hardcore, synthetic, rock and roll sound of Run-DMC and then having the audacity to come and mix it up and have a balance right in between with Whodini. It was incredible. The sounds from those three groups were so different, but we had an individual swagger because of the sounds he created for us. It was amazing that a guy had that kind of vision and was able to complete it. He should be noted as one of the greatest producers in the history of music.
Chris Williams is an internationally published writer. You can follow him on Twitter @iamchriswms.