Sonic Genius: The Hip-Hop Producers Who Defined the ’80s

Hip-Hop’s first full decade as a recorded genre of music saw constant innovation and diversifying of the art form. From the early disco- and funk-influenced sounds coming out of labels like Sugar Hill and Enjoy Records, to the bombastic fury of decade-closing artists like Public Enemy, to the boho whimsy of the early Native Tongues, the 1980s saw Hip-Hop serve as a challenge against and inspiration to the sounds of contemporary pop. These were the musical gods behind the decade’s most impactful recordings.

Larry Smith
The Father of Boom Bap


Key songs:
“It’s Like That” Run-D.M.C.
“Five Minutes of Funk” Whodini
“King of Rock” Run-D.M.C.

Joseph “Run” Simmons (now known as “Rev. Run”) gave a high-profile shout-out to his friend and producer, Queens legend Larry Smith, on Run-D.M.C.’s first smash, “Sucker M.C.’s.”

“Larry put me inside his Cadillac…” he rapped.

Smith was the engine behind that iconic trio’s sound — and a host of rap hits from others. He started out as a bassist and formed a band called Orange Krush alongside Trevor Gale and Davy DMX. At the behest of Smith’s friend and partner, music promoter Russell Simmons, Orange Krush would play on Smith-produced tracks by Kurtis Blow.

“Larry and Kurtis Blow had the idea of having a band go out and perform with Kurtis, called Orange Krush,” engineer Akili Walker told Cuepoint’s Robbie Ettelson in 2014. “They were the first Hip-Hop band to back up a rapper. Larry played bass, Davy DMX was on guitar, Trevor Gale was on drums, Bobby Gas on guitar, Rakim’s brother Ron Griffin and Kenny Keys on keyboards and Eddie Colon on percussion.”

Smith used an Oberheim DMX drum machine to turn Davy DMX’s original “Action” drumbeat into a digital mutant of itself, and the skeletal backdrop (dubbed “the Krush Groove” by Smith) became the foundation for Run-D.M.C.’s classic “Sucker M.C.’s” and other famous Run-D.M.C. tracks, like “Together Forever” and “Darryl and Joe.”

“‘Sucker M.C.’s’ was just them and a drum machine,” Smith told Brian Coleman in 2006. “If I had had the budget, I would have hired live performers on the whole first Run-D.M.C. album. But we didn’t have the money. Russell and I took our money and made those early records any way we could.”

Smith’s approach gave mid-’80s Hip-Hop a foundation on which to launch the genre into the mainstream. But even with that stripped-down trademark, instrumentalists were still a fixture in his approach. He was a bass player, after all, and he used his own musicianship to propel his hits for others.

“One real quick story,” rapper Spyder D told The Halftime Show back in 2014, shortly after Smith’s passing. “I was in the studio at Chung King Studios with Russell, Rick Rubin, and Larry. D and Run came in and laid some vocals on a track and then broke out. It was plenty of time in the session. So Larry pulled out his bass and he just started riffing. He said, ‘Yo yo let’s lay this down.’ And that was the hellish bassline that became ‘Rock Box.’ And I’m sitting there as a young producer mesmerized by the drive.”

Smith would go on to helm Whodini’s successful mid-’80s albums and hits by the Fat Boys, in addition to Run-D.M.C.’s first two albums, Run-D.M.C. and King of Rock, giving the group a commercial-friendly sound that set them at the forefront of both the stripped-down, trunk-rattling boom bap and crossover-friendly rap rock that become their trademarks.

“This muthafucka made ‘Rock Box,’ ‘It’s Like That,’ ‘Sucker M.C.’s,’ ‘Freaks Come Out at Night,’ ‘Five Minutes of Funk,’ ‘King of Rock,’ ‘Darryl and Joe’!” Darryl “DMC” McDaniels stated in 2016, rattling off a string of Smith-produced hits. “Larry Smith is one of the greatest producers in Hip-Hop ever that nobody knows about.”

Ced Gee
The Underground King


Key songs:
“Ego Trippin’” Ultramagnetic MCs
“The Bridge Is Over” Boogie Down Productions
“The P Is Free” Boogie Down Productions

Ced Gee (Cedric Miller)’s early claim to fame was that he was one of the few producers in the Bronx who owned an E-mu SP-12 drum machine, which allowed him to chop up samples and make it sound like he had a full loop in there. According to Ced, nobody else was doing that at the time.

“It was just something nobody had in the hood,” he said to Sway in the Morning in 2018. Ced Gee’s unique approach led to him ghost-producing the bulk of Boogie Down Productions’ uber-classic debut album, Criminal Minded, in 1987, and it set the stage for the Ultramagnetic MCs’ own innovative first album a year later. Critical Beatdown was and remains a revelation, a groundbreaking record driven by the group’s off-kilter samples and legendary MC Kool Keith’s abstract wordplay.

“When we came out we were the only ones doing this style with the way we were sampling and the boom bap styling, as they labeled it,” Ultramags’ TR Love told Acclaim Magazine. “We cultivated the sound and then progressed with it and kept moving on when we felt it was right. We took our vibe and channeled it into the world and everybody adapted and took to it. It was a beautiful thing.”

The Ultramagnetic MCs never broke through to much mainstream visibility, but their impact set the stage for left-leaning Hip-Hop acts to come — from the Jungle Brothers to Del the Funky Homosapien. And Ced Gee became a common link between two legendary Bronx camps: The Ultramagnetic MCs and Boogie Down Productions.

“Everybody was over at the crib to do things, and it was more Keith than Kris [KRS-One] for Ultramagnetic,” Ced explained last year. “Out of the whole batch of MCs, Keith and Kris were the best. So it merged down to Scott [La Rock] taking Kris from the people he was dealing and then Keith from the people he was dealing with to make the things grow to the level where they would be appreciated for their talents.”

Clifton “Jiggs” Chase
The Radio Rap Pioneer


Key songs:
“The Message” Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five
“It’s the Joint” The Funky 4+1
“Yes We Can-Can” The Treacherous Three

At Sugar Hill Records, the sound was funky and still heavily informed by disco sensibilities. Sylvia Robinson had seen the commercial potential in rap music, and after “Rapper’s Delight,” the label had gone into New York City and signed a few of the most popular acts coming out of the Bronx. Now touting a stable of artists, Sugar Hill tapped Clifton “Jiggs” Chase to be the label’s in-house producer for soon-to-be-legends like the Treacherous Three and the Funky 4+1.

In 2019, Jiggs recalled to Mike T of The Love Zone USA how he connected with the Robinsons and Sugar Hill Records.

With a musical history dating back to his father showing him chords on an old boogie-woogie piano, the largely self-taught producer was already making disco records when he met Joe and Sylvia Robinson. After Jiggs pitched them a young female singer he’d produced, the founders of Sugar Hill Records declined the artist but decided to hire Jiggs because of his arrangements. He was immediately put to work with the Sugarhill Gang and eventually the rest of the label’s roster.

Jiggs’ musical imprint led to some of early Hip-Hop’s most indelible tracks: “Yes We Can-Can” by the Treacherous Three, “That’s the Joint” by the Funky 4+1, the Sugarhill Gang’s “8th Wonder,” and “Simon Says” by the Sequence, Hip-Hop’s first female rap group. Jiggs’ sequencing on “The Message” (which would famously be sampled on later hits like Ice Cube’s “Check Yo Self” and Puff Daddy’s “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down”) remains some of the most inspired production ever on a rap record.

“The rappers would come up with lyrics or a hook,” he told Mike T. “We’d listen to it, try this and try that, until we got a groove going on. With the horns and the house band there, they were funky!”

His loose, funky grooves defined early Hip-Hop’s commercial sound, but underneath it all his love of jazz permeated those records.

“I started doing funky beats and arrangements. But I was sneaking jazz in there.”

Prince Paul
The Oddball Genius


Key songs:
“Me Myself & I” De La Soul
“Talkin’ All That Jazz” Stetsasonic
“The Gas Face” 3rd Bass

Prince Paul (Paul Huston) was a self-proclaimed goofball with a love for odd samples and absurdist jokes. He was barely out of high school when he was recruited to join Stetsasonic — the famed “Hip-Hop band” whose work became an important jumping-off point for a producer destined to become one of the game’s most visionary.

Working with Stetsasonic gave Paul a chance to flex his creative muscle and bolster the group’s sound — like his inspired interpolation of Lonnie Liston Smith’s “Expansions” for Stetsasonic’s hit “Talkin’ All That Jazz.”

“We were in the studio and Delite, who was in my group Stetsasonic, said, ‘Yo, I wanna use ‘Expansions,’” Paul recalled in 2016. “But I don’t think we found a good way of sampling it and playing it at the tempo we wanted. So he hummed it out to [Don] Newkirk, who didn’t know the song. He was clearly going by Delite humming the notes and figuring it out! And then he played it and I said, ‘I’ve got a beat for that.’ It wasn’t about choosing to sample or not to sample — the record was there. Now if you listen to the record itself, it would have required some chopping. Back then we weren’t chop savvy; it would have taken a bit of work.”

Of course, Prince Paul would go on to produce De La Soul. Their classic 1989 debut, 3 Feet High and Rising, was a game-changer, an eclectic mishmash of psychedelia and urban realism as filtered through his and the group’s quirky sensibilities. His approach to album-making — a love of skits, a focus on cohesive flow — would be a benchmark for most 1990s Hip-Hop albums. Paul and De La Soul would part ways in the late ’90s, as he went on to reinvent himself again and again with collaborators like Gorillaz and Dan the Automator.

“I’m not trying to trivialize my life and what I’ve done or say that I haven’t done anything, but I don’t think I’ve done anything that anybody else couldn’t have,” the characteristically modest Paul told Wax Poetics in 2012. “I just took risks. I think people are so scared to take risks that they get stuck in the same old same old. But I don’t see it as being anything super special. Maybe if I had saved a woman from a fire, from a building that was burning — I could say that and that would be great.”

Hurby “Luv Bug” Azor
The Hitmaker


Key songs:
“Push It” Salt-N-Pepa
“Rollin’ With Kid ’n Play” Kid ’n Play
“Cinderfella Dana Dane” Dana Dane

By the mid-1980s Hip-Hop was bum-rushing the mainstream, with a sound that had moved away from the elastic disco and funk grooves of the late ’70s/early ’80s, toward something that was harder but with even more commercial heft. But a Haitian-born young producer from Queens wasn’t interested in making boom bap. Hurby “Luv Bug” Azor made immaculate pop records that would carry acts like Salt-N-Pepa and Kid ’n Play to mainstream stardom.

Hurby’s infectious blend of Hip-Hop, pop, R&B, dance, and go-go made for multiplatinum success — first with Salt-N-Pepa, then with Dana Dane, Kid ’n Play, Kwamé, and others. He made records for the radio, and he was one of the best in music. The man also known as “Fingerprints” was emboldened after the success of “Push It” in 1988 and never looked back. He wanted big hits — even at a time when “crossing over” was still viewed with skepticism.

“The scene was very underground, and we weren’t considered real Hip-Hop because we wanted to be on Top of the Pops,” Pepa recalled in 2017. “We kept pushing it until they had to start respecting us.”

Of course, Hurby would go on to even bigger chart success in the 1990s, producing the bulk of Salt-N-Pepa’s indelible hits. But his relationship with the group grew increasingly frayed as they became bigger than ever following 1993’s multiplatinum smash Very Necessary, on which they’d demanded more creative control. Hurby worked with others and produced Salt-N-Pepa’s last chart hit (1997’s “Champagne”) before walking away from the music industry at the end of that decade. Despite how things ended, Hurby’s legacy as a Hip-Hop and pop hitmaker remains undeniable.

Paul C
The SP-1200 Wizard


Key songs:
“Give the Drummer Some” Ultramagnetic MCs
“In the Ghetto” Eric B. & Rakim
“The Rhythm” Kwamé

Paul C (born Paul McKasty) was a production and engineering wunderkind, working with everyone from Queen Latifah to Devo. C was the secret weapon on Ultramagnetic MCs’ uber-classic Critical Beatdown, mixing behind the scenes, as well as more famously producing the groundbreaking song “Give the Drummer Some.” He was the original producer for Eric B. & Rakim’s 1990 classic Let the Rhythm Hit ’Em, though the album was completed by his protégé, a then-unknown Large Professor.

“The influence of Paul C on the game is incredible because of all the intricate ways that he would program and engineer,” Large Pro said in 2017. “[He was an] extremely dope engineer and DJ also. And a beat-maker. Paul C, to this day…you gotta be of the type that know, but I can still hear his influence on the game with certain [techniques and styles of programming].”

Paul was instrumental in the early careers of countless mainstays of ’90s East Coast Hip-Hop — legends like Kwamé, Organized Konfusion and Rahzel of the Roots.

C’s murder in 1989 cut a promising career tragically short, but his legacy has remained in the creatives he worked with directly.

“Paul C was the person who originally was working with Eric B. & Rakim,” Large Pro explained. “Once he got murdered, I was the only person who knew, kinda, how Paul did it. ’Cause he showed me.”

Questlove famously called Paul C “the J Dilla of his day” while gushing over C’s SP-1200 on Instagram back in 2016.

“Today I got to see with my own eyes the #SP1200 that was utilized by the late great #PaulC. The engineer/producer/beatdigger who inspired your fav producer’s favorite producer. Like seriously — next to #MarleyMarl Paul was one of the first cats to production and try ideas no one thought to ever do on such a limiting machine. Damn near the #JDilla of his day. So amazing to see his tools of the trade in the flesh.”

Arabian Prince
The Cali Royal


Key songs:
“Supersonic” J.J. Fad
“It Ain’t Tough” Arabian Prince
“She’s Got a Big Posse” Arabian Prince

He may be known today as the guy who left N.W.A. just before they became superstars, but Arabian Prince’s history as a producer and artist goes back to the days before the Niggaz With Attitudes. Prince (given name Kim Renard Nazel) was a major figure in the LA Hip-Hop scene, specializing in the Mantronix-esque sounds of electro.

“Back before N.W.A. I was one of the early DJs on the West Coast and helped to start the West Coast Electro movement,” Prince told dubcnn. “I came up doing DJ sets at schools, small clubs, and roller-skating rinks in Compton and around LA with Egyptian Lover, Dr. Dre, DJ Yella, Unknown DJ, and a lot of other West Coast DJs.”

His tendency toward heavily digitized beats was born of a love of various musical styles and a love of technology.

“My mother was a classical pianist, and my father was a book writer and editor of magazines and newspapers, and my uncles were all into music really heavily. One of my uncles was my big influence. He was into Parliament Funkadelic. He was into all of the funk. He was into early electronic and rock. So I had this weird, crazy influence of music in my head.”

Arabian Prince deserves credit for his role in helping to shape the sound of West Coast Hip-Hop, specializing in a more dance-driven feel and high-energy electro beats — even as gangsta rap came to prominence. His most famous production is undoubtedly the club classic from three ladies signed to Ruthless Records in the late 1980s. The skittering electro-bass of J.J. Fad’s 1988 smash “Supersonic” made that song a No. 1 rap hit in the day and the foundation for two more recent hits in Fergie’s “Fergalicious” and Eminem’s “Rap God.”

“People said that record was the record that allowed Eazy to open his first bank account,” he told Huffington Post. “I put Dre and Yella’s names on it as co-producers just because we were a family, even though I did the record by myself.”

Marley Marl
The Sampling Mastermind


Key songs:
Ain’t No Half-Steppin’” Big Daddy Kane
“The Symphony” The Juice Crew
“Vapors” Biz Markie

Marley Marl is the man behind some of the most beloved rap records of the late 1980s and early ’90s, like Heavy D & the Boyz’ “The Overweight Lovers in the House,” Big Daddy Kane’s “Ain’t No Half-Steppin’,” and MC Lyte’s “Cappucino.”

Queensbridge legend Marlon Williams wasn’t Hip-Hop’s first superproducer by a long shot, but he came to embody the term in the era of Yo! MTV Raps and Rap City. No Golden Era producer was more integral to that period than Marley.

Marl broke big with Roxanne Shanté in 1984, producing “Roxanne’s Revenge” and scoring a hit with the 14-year-old rhymer. It was his work with his cousin MC Shan that would reshape the rest of the decade: Marley produced Shan’s Queens anthem “The Bridge,” the song that both initiated the formation of Marley’s Juice Crew collective and inadvertently sparked the “Bridge Wars,” the infamous beef that saw Marley’s Juice Crew feuding with Boogie Down Productions out of the Bronx.

“When I tripped upon sampling, it was actually through James Brown, because I realized that being a DJ, every time a DJ would put on a James Brown record people would lose their mind,” Marley told Red Bull Music Academy. His love of James Brown planted the Godfather of Soul’s sound firmly in the Hip-Hop landscape of the late 1980s, as Marley’s Soul Brother No. 1 samples formed the bedrock for most of the Juice Crew’s hits.

Even beyond Brown, Marley Marl’s gift for samples reached far and wide. Marley’s flip of Graham Central Station’s “The Jam” provided the beat for Biz Markie’s screwball classic “Pickin’ Boogers,” and that beat would go on to become one of the more widely sampled in dance music of the late ’80s and early ’90s.

“I had the beat, Andre Booth played the bassline, and Biz wrote the bugged rhyme,” Marl recalled in 1991. “The groove was hype and I’m still hearing people sampling it.”

“When I first heard [Soul II Soul’s 1989 hit] ‘Keep On Movin’” I bugged out. I was like ‘oh shit, right off my jam.’”

His gifted sampling became a hallmark of Hip-Hop’s Golden Age. His ghost production on Eric B. & Rakim’s “My Melody” and “Eric B. Is President” is the stuff of legend, and he’s the man behind so many classic albums, from Long Live the Kane to Mama Said Knock You Out.

“I come from the school of ‘make do with what you have,’” he said in 2014. “If I was making all these records off of a four-track, I would definitely figure out a way to DJ on the radio and sound hot. I always have it in my mind to take it to the next level and be more creative with the equipment that I touch.”

The Bomb Squad
The Sonic Revolution


Key songs:
“Fight the Power” Public Enemy
“Teenage Love” Slick Rick
“Keep Risin’ to the Top” Doug E. Fresh & the Get Fresh Crew

Hank Shocklee. Keith Shocklee. Eric “Vietnam” Sadler. Gary “G-Wiz” Rinaldo. And Bill Stephney. The men behind an iconic sound that reshaped Hip-Hop sonics and charted a path for pop and R&B to follow into the 1990s, the Bomb Squad was a crew of studio maestros who’d been affiliated with Public Enemy ever since frontman Chuck D was an up-and-comer. The crew’s brilliantly complex approach to sampling showcased their creativity and penchant for crate-digging.

“This is why we had the Bomb Squad,” Hank Shocklee explained to Red Bull Music Academy. “Because everybody at the time had to have a specific function and a specific duty. And especially from the things we were doing with records — combing through records, finding the right sound or the right part or the right drum break or the right turnaround or the right horn hit or the right tambourine loop or the right spoken word piece, the right bass piece. That’s hours amongst hours on top of hours of combing through the records.”

The Bomb Squad’s sound was unlike anything heard before or since; a noisy product of the age when producers could run wild with the creative possibilities in sampling. The crew layered dense sound collages over funky grooves that gave P.E. its signature sound, and their influence reached as far as the wailing backdrop of Janet Jackson’s smash “Rhythm Nation” and Prince’s aggressively thumping early 1990s hits like “Get Off” and “My Name Is Prince.”

The Bomb Squad’s sonic trademarks became hallmarks of the late 1980s into the early 1990s, as they helmed P.E. anthems like “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” and the ubiquitous “Fight the Power”; “Steppin’ to the A.M.” by 3rd Bass; Slick Rick’s “Teenage Love”; and Doug E. Fresh’s smoothed-out hit “Keep Risin’ to the Top.” For Hank Shocklee, the secret was an instrumental base steeped in musicianship.

“The way we did it was like a band. Like in ‘Rebel Without a Pause,’ Flavor played the snare portions, which was the James Brown, because Flavor had the kind of feel that was good for that,” Shocklee told Tape Op in 2006. “Eric might play the kick and hi hat, I would play the horn and Norman would come in and put the scratch on it. So when you get all these different feels together, it’s a band and that’s what we wanted to get, because I didn’t like sequencing.”

* Banner Image: Photo by Joseph Branston/Future Music Magazine/Future via Getty Images

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