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Marley Marl On The Bridge Wars, LL Cool J And Discovering Sampling

The cover of <em>In Control Vol. 1</em>.
Courtesy of Cold Chillin' Records
The cover of In Control Vol. 1.

Marley Marl is one of the most important people in hip-hop history. He's the one who figured out how to sample — how to get pieces of songs off vinyl records and into a drum machine. More than 30 years later, and 25 years after his first album, 1988's In Control Vol. 1, he sat down with Microphone Check hosts Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Frannie Kelley to tell stories about the moment he realized what his discovery meant, why the New York City Housing Authority should get a co-producer credit on some of his records and how he and LL Cool J got inspired to make Mama Said Knock You Out.

MARLEY MARL: I'm DJ Marley Marl. M-A-R-L-E-Y M-A-R-L. The DJ.

FRANNIE KELLEY: We're talking on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of In Control Vol. 1.

MARL: Wow, it's been that long? I felt like I just finished. You know, a lot of history's packed into that one, so we got a lot to talk about. 25 years ...

KELLEY: How old were you then?

MARL: I was in my upper 20s around then. It's when I bought my first house — with that budget right there.

KELLEY: Did you know it was gonna be a hit?

MARL: I had an inkling that it would do well because the momentum that the Juice Crew was building at that time, I just felt that it was going to be a retrospect of the Juice Crew where we was at, at that time.

KELLEY: Where was the Juice Crew at that time?

MARL: Well, the Juice crew was a budding new crew that was coming into the rap scene by ways of Mr. Magic. We had Big Daddy Kane, it's Kool G Rap, it's Roxanne Shante, there's MC Shan, Craig G, Masta Ace and Biz Markie. Collectively, we were called the Juice Crew because everybody had enough talent on their own to break out and do their own individual solo thing.

KELLEY: And what about the photo shoot for In Control Vol. 1?

MARL: Wow, the In Control Vol. 1 photo shoot — that was incredible. My ex-wife — at the time, she had a great idea, I got to give her the credit. I don't want to take her credit away. She said, "You guys are on the rise. You need to take a photo in front of a Lear jet to make it seem like you're bigger than life." Because at that point I have't seen any rappers in front of Lear jets. And she had the vision. Actually she was the main stylist or editor for Elle magazine at that time and that propelled us into — you don't even know, we became stars after that photo shoot.

ALI SHAHEED MUHAMMAD: Yeah, applause to your ex-wife, man, that was some vision. Cause it looked like — it felt like you guys were larger than life. I know I wanted to be like Marley Marl. No question.

MARL: Can I tell you something? The day that we took that picture in front of the Lear jet I was still living in the projects. I was paying like $110 a month for my rent, free electricity. So New York City Housing Authority kind of co-produced some of my earlier hits. Thank you guys. It was the crack era, come on now.

The Juice Crew on the back of <em>In Control Vol. 1</em>. From left to right standing: MC Shan, Big Daddy Kane, Marley Marl, DJ Polo, Masta Ace and Kool G Rap. Seated: Craig G and Biz Markie.
/ Courtesy of Cold Chillin' Records/Strictly Cassettes
Courtesy of Cold Chillin' Records/Strictly Cassettes
The Juice Crew on the back of In Control Vol. 1. From left to right standing: MC Shan, Big Daddy Kane, Marley Marl, DJ Polo, Masta Ace and Kool G Rap. Seated: Craig G and Biz Markie.

KELLEY: And is it true that you went straight from the photo shoot to the studio to make "The Symphony"?

MARL: Yes, we did. We all went. We were like, "Let's go make a record!" That song — that was a career-launching record. And a career-saving record for some — it could have been.

MUHAMMAD: How did you discover sampling?

MARL: I was into electronica first. I was like a DJ's DJ. I wasn't like, just a rap DJ. So I was interning at Unique Studios. Seeing a lot of technology happen, really playing around with Fairlight computers when they was too expensive to touch.

One day I was in the studio, and I was working on a Captain Rock record. And what happened, I was actually trying to get a riff off of a record. I made a mistake and got the snare in there before the sound came. I was truncating the vocal part but the snare was playing with the beat — we was truncating while the beat was playing. Thank God the beat was playing, because it probably wouldn't have happened if the beat wasn't playing.

So I was playing it and the snare sounded better than the snare that I had from the drum machine when I was popping it. I was like, "Yo, hold on." I started rocking it — and then it just smacked me in the face what just happened. I was like, "Hold up!" This will enable me to take any kick and a snare from any record that people love and make my own beat.

I did a whole snare track all the way through and then I just started playing with the kick next. And it just made me realize. I looked at the engineer — he didn't know what the hell I was talking about, what had happened. I was like, "Do you know what we just did?! Do you know what just happened?!" He was like, "Yeah, you just took the James Brown snare and you put it on there." "But do you know what that means?!" He's like, "Yeah, it means you took the James Brown snare ..." I was like, "Yo, it means more than that.! That means that I can go to my library at home — I've got so many records! I can take the kicks, the snares from everything and make my own patterns!" He looked at me like I was crazy like, what the hell are you talking about?

MUHAMMAD: That's amazing, man. I'm being very calm here but — yo, you're my hip-hop idol and just to hear that story — the blueprint of hip-hop is based off of that story right there. For my generation of hip-hop.

MARL: Of re-hip-hop. Because there was people making records before that. There was a lot of people — the pioneers, I take off my hat to them because those guys really paved the way for something big that was coming that they didn't even know what was coming. They made a lot of records. They wasn't the greatest records for rap, because, to be honest, when I was into electronica and I heard the first rap records come out, I was one to believe that rap wasn't gonna be around.

MUHAMMAD: When you say the first records, what are you referencing? Like Mantronix?

MARL: No, no it was before Mantronix. I'm talking about the earlier pioneers, like the Crash Crew songs, the earlier Sugar Hill songs and a lot of the earlier — like the Fat Boys and a lot of the earlier Kurtis Blow productions were great songs and great hooks. But it wasn't really touching what made me love rap, and I'm sure it wasn't touching what made people fall in love with rap.

You know? When you got the rap tapes from Harlem back in the day and the Bronx you would hear scratching, echoes, beat-boxing and just the element of breakbeats. So by the time I brought sampling in — Mr. Magic heard one of the remixes that I made and asked to play it on the radio. Now I become his DJ.

MUHAMMAD: Which remix was that?

MARL: It was a "Buffalo Gals" remix. Sometimes I still play it. That's the remix that changed my life.

MUHAMMAD: You got that little snare popping off and you feeling good about discovering — you stumbled on that and then who was the first person you felt like you wanted to bring that energy?

MARL: The "Marley Scratch." That was like, the first big boom bap and samples, drums that changed my production skills — that changed me as a producer. That song did it.

MUHAMMAD: That song for me — I lost my mind when I heard that as a kid. I didn't know what it was, but I knew it was --

MARL: It was hip-hop.

MUHAMMAD: Yeah, it was the greatest thing ever.

MARL: It was probably what you loved about hip-hop. Everything you loved — it was echoes, scratching.

MUHAMMAD: Yeah, the beat was thick — the beat was so thick. Shan just — his style on there, even spelling your name. It was just all these elements that it just felt like the best thing created ever. So you take that — and it's interesting because that same sample, you kind of carried in a few records. It's like as potent as a sperm cell. Can I say that on NPR right now? I mean, from Adam to wherever we end up, that's what Marley Marl's drums sound to me. You repeat things, but it's always fresh and authentic.

MARL: I guess it was just a thing in time. You don't know you're making history. You're just going with your heart, and as long as I can make the people dance outside my window that's all I cared about.

KELLEY: So part of what you're talking about is translating the live, performative aspects of hip-hop to a recording.

MARL: Right. And the feeling that those tapes from Harlem back in the days — how they used to make you feel and how they felt. You hear the crowd roaring, you hear the echoes, you hear mistakes, you hear the great parts, you hear everything. You might hear gunshots in the background. But that's what made a lot of people love hip-hop.

You gotta think: It wasn't on the radio. There was tapes that people would record right from their box, straight off the microphone, and those tapes would resonate throughout the city. That's how most of the people who loved hip-hop in the early-'80s, late-'70s — this was our smoke signals, those tapes, those early tapes coming out of Harlem and the Bronx.

MUHAMMAD: What were some of your early musical influences? Cause if you listen to some of the things, like the James Brown, Otis Redding, maybe the Five Stairsteps and stuff like that, it may seem like we have a real insight to your musical tastes, but you also mentioned that you were an electronic producer. So I don't know if that means Kraftwerk --

MARL: You know who my hero was before I even got into hip-hop? I just gotta lay it on the line: Giorgio Moroder. I was into Giorgio like you would not believe. See, I was into electronic music. I was into triggering bass lines and making it sequence — I was a sequence head. That's how I beat people in hip-hop early because I was already sequencing. I already knew what a trigger was. I knew how to trigger anything off of anything.

The whole "Bridge" — my song I made with MC Shan — all that was trigger music, triggering samples from a 808 with separate samplers around the room. The pulse from the 808 would go into my sampler and make it react. Once I made that discovery at Unique, guess what I did? I went right around the corner to Sam Ash, bought myself three little cheap samplers. I went home and started experimenting, taking all my drum sounds. Matter of fact, what I would do at that point, I went to my reel-to-reel. I would have leader, snare, leader. Leader, kick, leader. Hi-hat, leader. On the reel.

So I would sit with the artist and say, "So you want to make a song today? Pick out your kick and snare you want." Now this is before disc; that was my disc. I still have that reel, and that is the same drum reel I lost it in Power Play Studios and they made "The Bridge Is Over."

MUHAMMAD: I was just going to ask you about that — so is that story true? I didn't know if it was true.

MARL: Of course that's a true story.

KELLEY: Tell the whole thing.

MARL: Well, one day I was in Power Play Recording Studios in Long Island City — it's so funny that I say Long Island City which was like a Queensbridge studio, up the street from Queensbridge and — did you know "The Bridge is Over" was made in Queensbridge? That's crazy. But anyway — and off my drum sounds. That was the day Mr. Magic met BDP.

For years I was always wondering, "Why these guys are so mad at us? We killing the game right now. C'mon, what are you talking about?" I never understood. "Who are they?" So one day I was looking at KRS-One's bio and he said, "One day it all started when Mr. Magic dissed us at Power Play." I was like, "I don't remember that." Cause I was with Magic all the time. Then I started remembering: I remember a crew that he dissed because they was nice and waited and said, "Oh Mr. Magic could you listen to our stuff? It's the hottest stuff, come in the room." And you know Magic was arrogant so he was like, "Alright, alright I'll give you a shot. Let me go and listen to your s---."

So we go in there and they bumping it and everybody's jumping around like it's the s--- and Magic goes over to the knob and just turns it down while everybody's dancing. And everybody stops. "Oh you like it?" And he's like, "Yo, this is garbage."


MARL: "Straight garbage." He looked at them and said, "Yo, you want real s---? Marley Marl. MC Shan. Roxanne Shante. Mr. Magic. Y'all suck." And he just straight walked out the room. I remember that was the day I was trying to get up out of the studio because he made somebody real mad, and getting out of the studio so quick I lost my drum reel. I thought I misplaced it in my crib or something, I didn't realize I lost it at Power Play. "The Bridge Is Over" came out, and it still didn't hit me — hearing the record it still didn't hit that that was my drums.

Later on, an engineer told me — I found my drum reel about six months later, at Power Play, on the manager's desk. "Yo, Gary, what the f--- is this doing here?" He said, "Oh, you left this here. I was gonna give it to you." It's like six months later and then one of the engineers told me, "You know Ced-Gee found you drum reel?" I was like, "Yeah." He said "Yeah, when he made 'The Bridge Is Over' he put your drum reel up. I was there, I seen him do it." I was like, "For real?" Then I went back and listened to the record. I was like, "That's my kick and snare pitched up one on the SP-1200."

MUHAMMAD: One mighty sperm cell. That's all I have to say. There's so many different lessons in that.

MARL: Yeah, Lesson Number 1: Don't lose your drum reel.

MUHAMMAD: How did you meet Mr. Magic?

MARL: Dr. Bob Lee really saved my life. I was in Queensbridge not doing so well with myself, like, following the wrong people. And he came and literally saved my life. He came — took his van on the block, got in front of the place that I was at where I didn't belong, with the microphone, said, "Marley, come on out let's go. We got things to do." Embarrassing me kind of, so I came out and started hanging with him.

And since I had talent, as a local talented DJ, and stuff was starting to pop for me because I was interning at Unique, so I was already into doing what I was doing, and my producing — I was into electronica — I wasn't even into the rap stuff. So I was doing remixes when I DJ'ed every once in a while. And he heard one of my remixes. He was like, "Yo, can I put that on the radio, can I please put that on the radio? Why my record don't do that?" And I was like, "Because it's a Marley Marl remix and your record is not." And then, "Can I play it? Can I play it?" And I was like, "No." At first I was like, "No," because we didn't really get along at first because he was too arrogant. I didn't know him so — he was arrogant to me.

MUHAMMAD: He's trying to put your music on the radio and you were like, "No"?

MARL: Yeah. I mean, I didn't even like him at that point. But after a while — that day I was playing more remixes and more stuff, and he was like, "Come on, man, you gotta let me put some of this on the radio. Man, this is dope — my records don't do this. Listen, I got a million listeners."

"Alright, where's it at? I'll come and play it for you." I had an attitude like that because he was so arrogant. Before I even met him I didn't like him because he was arrogant to me.

MUHAMMAD: How old were you?

MARL: I was about 16, 16ish. When I got on the radio I was 17.

MUHAMMAD: Wow. So you met Magic, and what was the relationship like from the jump?

MARL: Well, at first I didn't like him, and then I got to know him. He would come pick me up — because I was that broke and poor that I couldn't — I ain't even have money to get to Manhattan, and that was just over the bridge. So he would come pick me up and bring me to the radio station.

The first night — when he first played one of my remixes he knew that I was different. Because he would play the mix, and he was going to grab a record to go behind it and I was like, "What you doing? That don't mix with it." Kind of sucked my teeth like, "What you doing, man? That don't mix with it." He was like, "What you mean, 'that don't mix with it?' Show me. Go through here and find out — show me what you mean."

So I was going through the bins, the record — there was about a minute left, so I picked up a record, went over to the turntable, pitched it, got the timing right. And he didn't trust me, so he brought the fader up over the air and brought the other one down. It was a smooth transition. And at that time there was not smooth transitions in hip-hop, because everybody was scratching and going back and forth — that's what it all was about. But I brought a blend factor because I came from electronica. When I was a club DJ we would do nice blends, and nobody was blending in hip-hop.

MUHAMMAD: They still don't. Drives me crazy.

MARL: Yeah, yeah. If a DJ can't go over four bars in a mix — you suck!

MUHAMMAD: You heard that?

MARL: If you can't blend for more than four bars and it starts going off beat after four bars and you gotta slide the fader across and save face? YOU SUCK.

MUHAMMAD: Go back home and practice.

MARL: Yeah, you suck. You really suck.

MUHAMMAD: Just go back home and practice. So at 16 you're interning, you're turning down offers to get on the radio.

MARL: I really didn't even know what it meant. I didn't know what it was gonna turn into.

MUHAMMAD: You're kind of like, in the neighborhood, doing things. Queensbridge produced a lot of talent.

MARL: Let me tell you, man, it's something in that water.

MUHAMMAD: I want to know what's in the water.

MARL: You gotta go get a specimen. It's something in the water in Queensbridge. That's all I got to say. You gotta think: the six blocks have made a lot of stars. NBA stars, singers, rappers. And it was going on before we even started.

"It's A Thin Line Between Love And Hate" — those guys wrote that out there. Those guys — there was a studio right in Queensbridge — they made that song out there. "Mana dana bo-fana. Bo-bee-fi-bo-bana?" Back in the day? That lady Shirley so-and-so? She was a resident of Queensbridge — "The Name Game Song." It's been — before we even started with hip-hop, there was Darryl Payne, who made "Thanks To You." All the Sinnamon records. A lot of the disco era stuff.

MUHAMMAD: What did you learn from growing up in Queensbridge that you still carry with you today — that's a prominent part of your life?

MARL: Life lessons? Number 1: always ride smooth — ride quiet but carry a big stick. That's the Number 1, cardinal rule that I learned from living in the hood, in Queensbridge. Be nice to people. Because you never know — everything's full circle, everything comes back around, that's most important.

And the family aspect. There's nothing like the QB family. QB's a family: they're always happy for everyone's success, and it just goes on. You're carrying the torch, you're keeping the legacy going. So I learned a great family ethic from living in Queensbridge.

MUHAMMAD: How'd you tie into the Brooklyn cats? Big Daddy Kane. Was Biz from Brooklyn?

MARL: Biz was from everywhere. Biz was the original, "Wherever I lay my hat is my home." He was the original rolling stone. But I got with the Brooklyn crew — basically Kane was brought to me through Biz Markie.

I met Biz Markie — Biz Markie hung out for the weekend in Queensbridge and everybody was telling me what a great, phenomenal beat box guy he was. And you know the Fat Boys was ruling at the time. I'm like, "Dude. Do I need another beat box? Come on, dude, I don't want to even hear that." "No, but he's special, he's good!" And I heard him, and I was like, "He's special, he's good." "Come to my house tomorrow, let's get busy. I got something for you. I got a beat for you. I got something for you."

Then Biz — his ghostwriter was Kane. One day Kane showed up at my door saying, "I was supposed to meet Biz at the train station over here. I got some lyrics for him, I'm his writer." And I'm like, "Come on — he got to do better than that to get in my house, dude. You can't just tell me you're his writer and you're gonna get in. Tell me something you wrote for him that didn't come out yet." And he said a line that I knew never came out. Oh, it must be true cause he knew.

So I let him in, and then Biz came, and he was like, "That's my boy, Kane." Then after a while Kane started coming to sessions — never saying that he was a rapper. One day he came by himself and said, "I want to hear my voice on the track." So I said, "Let's see what you got," and I just threw up "I'll Take You There," and that was our first song we ever made together.

MUHAMMAD: So, a guy like Pete Rock comes along. How does he make you feel?

MARL: Wow. That's dope because now I have a session with Heavy D up at the House of Hits and he brings his cousin over. His young cousin who's just getting his ears wet in this hip-hop thing. So what happened, I was doing a song called "Girls They Love Me" — I was a little tired. I didn't want to do the cuts, and so Pete Rock goes over to the turntables just playing around with the turntable cutting. And in the headphones I hear what he's doing and I'm like, "Yo, this guy has crispy cuts." "You want to cut on this song?" He's like, "Yo, I could do it?!" I'm like, "Yeah." Pete never made a record yet — he's a hard-bottom shoe-wearing guy coming to my house — he's chillin'. But he wasn't — he hadn't made a record yet — he was, like, Heavy's younger cousin. He did the cuts on the record, and they was dope.

We paid him for what he did. He was like, "Wow, I'm getting my first money in this game!" Then, I had — DJ Kevvy Kev was one of my DJs [on the radio show called In Control that Marley hosted after leaving Mr. Magic's show, which was called Rap Attack], and Clark Kent was a DJ — I would switch up with them. Now, DJ Kevvy Kev crashes his car, breaks his leg, can't come to the radio station. I get on the phone, like, "Yo, Heavy, what's up with your cousin that was at the studio last month? Tell him to meet me at WBLS. I may want him to DJ. I need a DJ." He's like, "OK."

Now, this is how God works in mysterious ways: Pete Rock really didn't have all the songs to play on the radio, but he had a lot of breakbeats. So what he would do — I would play some songs, he would go through the breakbeats and he would do it in such a way that it made it so funky. We was doing a rap show, but we had a little edge over it, because we was playing breaks too.

We was playing some of the breaks that made the songs, and he's cutting it up. He was a phenomenal scratcher, and you could tell — he would cut a record for like five minutes. Straight back-to-back, straight back and forth, perfectly. So that got a lot of people's attention. Pete Rock — he broke his self off on the radio. He got known in like one month. One quick month, he was already on his way. Now we have Pete Rock here.

MUHAMMAD: LL Cool J. Don't call it a comeback. Let's go back to "Jingling."

MARL: That was one of the pinnacle points of LL's return. In a big way.

MUHAMMAD: I don't know, man. You've had such a history. I don't know if there was ever a down moment, but it seemed like that moment was enlightening for you because — again — it highlighted the remix and the special aspect of your remixes. And then comes the next album, the monster album for LL.

MARL: That opened the door. We did the remix; it did well. His numbers started going back up, the street cred was right. And no more getting booed on 125th Street. No more getting booed in Harlem.

KELLEY: Can we describe what happened exactly?

MARL: I think it was a anti-gun rally — matter of fact I did see it was a anti-gun rally in Harlem, and I think PE was performing. They said, "I want to shout out my boy LL Cool J. He's here!" "Boooooooo." I seen a video of his face. I was like wow. I heard about it but I never seen it until I saw the video.

His street cred wasn't right. Because of the Walking With A Panther album — it was a great album but it wasn't street. Because N.W.A. started coming out at that point. You got Public Enemy fighting the power. It was political or gun s---. He was in the middle and that's just what happened. I guess the hood felt that he wasn't supplying them with what they want, and they booed him. He had to regroup. His grandmother said, "Go knock 'em out," and he came to my house and we knocked 'em out.

MUHAMMAD: You guys came back so strong. What was the conversation going into that album?

MARL: The conversation — it was none. You know what it was? It was strictly hitting the clubs, driving home about 120 mph almost killing yourself to get to the studio with that same vibe that you felt in the club, and go make records and go get this thing back.

MUHAMMAD: Do you get that energy today?

MARL: Sure. Yes, I do. I'm still a fan. That's why I can make a dope remix now. That's why I could do that — that's why I could do what I do because I'm still a fan of what I do. Once I become not a fan of what I do, that's when the problems come. I stay a fan to the whole genre. Maybe it's personal, but I'm still a personal fan to this.

I don't look at rap music today as it sucks, like a lot of people would think. I look at progression, because things have to progress. I'm sure I made a lot of people mad when I came with sampling and put it in hip-hop so I'm sure somebody was like, "Oh, that's not nothing. All they doing is taking somebody's music."

But there's a craft to sampling. The art of sampling is the Premiers. You gotta look at the Pete Rocks. Even Kanye took it to the next stratosphere. You gotta look at the J Dillas, you gotta look at — even the work that even that Q-Tip put in as being the ghost dude in the game. You gotta look at all of that. That's creative work, creative sampling right there.

MUHAMMAD: I was going to ask you about a couple but you named 'em. The only one that you left out was Flying Lotus and only cause he's from the electronica/hip-hop aspect of it.

MARL: There you go.

KELLEY: Can we talk about "Symphony"?

MARL: Sure. "I don't care who's first or who's last!"

KELLEY: So that's a pretty recognizable sample.

MARL: Oh yeah, that's why it was kind of chopped up. That was one of the loops that I got from WLBS library. I was privileged enough to have access to one of the greatest libraries in music history. I had Hal Jackson's records. He used to keep all his records at the WBLS library, and that was one of them. The drums under it was one of them.

MUHAMMAD: Did you bring the records home and then bring 'em back? Or do you not want to say? You just brought the SP-12 up to WBLS and sampled them?

MARL: No what I did, was I would really take the records home and sample 'em and I would bring them back. For sure. Most of them I brought back. Most of 'em I could say — 100% of them didn't go back, but most of 'em went back.

MUHAMMAD: Thank you, WBLS.

MARL: Thank you, Hal Jackson. Rest in peace.

MUHAMMAD: I always thought Cold Chillin' was your label.

MARL: I know, everybody thought that. It wasn't. I was actually a staff producer. I knew that that would open doors for me further down because the funny thing about my whole Cold Chillin' experience back in the day — as opposed to my whole Def Jam/LL experience is that one album outsold my whole career down there.

I knew it was about numbers. I knew it was about progression. I knew it was about moving forward, and moving this hip-hop thing forward because, yeah, we had fun at Cold Chillin'. We had a lot of fun, and we made a lot of good, local records that did really well. But my successes in life came after that. The Grammys, you know.

MUHAMMAD: Lords of the Underground.

MARL: Really.

MUHAMMAD: What were you feeling when you met those guys? I'm pretty sure at that time you were, still are, a god to them. But the energy felt, at least for me, hearing that album I was like, "Yo this is --" it put pressure on me.

MARL: In which way?

MUHAMMAD: I mean, you have to understand Marley, you're like the everything in terms of our crew. Q-Tip and Phife are from Queens — everything that you did from the radio perspective. In aspiring to take what you did and build on it and to try to be worthy, in a sense, in what we're doing, what we're creating — how do I say this?

KELLEY: Y'all were in competition. In 1993, right, you have Here Come the Lords and Midnight Marauders.

MUHAMMAD: That's what I'm saying — it was pressure because it had that Marley Marl thing that we aspired towards. It's like your dad or your big bro just coming and putting that whooping on you. It's like dag, I can't live can I?

MARL: I never looked at Tribe as competition to be honest because Tribe always was my favorite group that I never produced. Always. I tell everybody that, I don't care. Straight up, any interview — my favorite all time group in rap is Tribe Called Quest. That's hands down. I always looked t you guys like — wow.

Y'all took rap to — we was kind of like the gritty, grimy, projecty dudes who was just making it and people just like us for what we do. I felt that by the time y'all came out y'all kinda made it cool. You know what I'm saying? Y'all had cool rap; we had dingy raps. That's how I looked at it. We was like, from the hood, from the projects. I'm making songs in my house. You guys got on African beads and chillin' you know what I'm saying? It was cool. You guys made rap actually cool.

So that's why I never looked at it like it was crazy competition, like we gotta beat them. I felt like it was like a different plane. That's why I went with L, because for me it was me cleaning up my act, going with LL. LL was Mr. Ladies Love — girls love him and he's that guy. He's ready to make movies. So I looked at my career like, "Alright, I'm trying to move over here to the cool side. I'm trying to do some cool stuff now." We was kinda like pioneerish — we wasn't pioneers, but we was pioneers in our own right.

MUHAMMAD: You definitely were pioneers, I mean, still to this day you go — I don't know, any corner of the world — Cologne or wherever, Melbourne — you play any one of your songs and people go bananas.

MARL: That's the God's will because you don't know when you're making these songs that it could even last that long. It's God's will because, dude, I made my first record in '81 and we're here talking about hip-hop right now. At NPR. God's will.

MUHAMMAD: No doubt.

KELLEY: Do you think there was anything special about the year 1988?

MARL: Oh, yeah.

KELLEY: Why do you think it was so productive and creative?

MARL: Because '88 — you gotta look at the atmosphere, the climate. It was like do-or-die, because crack was rampant. Nighttime was night of the living dead. So you really had to — if you wasn't going to do it, if you wasn't going to be over here, you was gonna be over there.

It made a difference for me, because — alright, I'm from Queensbridge. It was a rough ride until one year I went to London and seen how famous I was. I came home a clean person and I've been clean ever since that day. No rehab, no nothing — I just saw how famous I was in another country. People knew my name. They was screaming my name. It changed my life. That showed me that there was more to my six blocks where I was living.

You gotta look at it — the '80s was do-or-die, '88 was do-or-die. '89 was a little more do-or-die than '88, but if you got into the '90s, clearly you was OK.

Records was selling at that point, so we took it more serious, the budgets were bigger, the videos look better, the gold chains were bigger. For real though. Cause we were proven at that point.

MUHAMMAD: What was the craziest thing you've ever purchased that you were like, "Man, that's probably not the smartest thing"?

MARL: I'll tell you the craziest thing I never purchased that would have not been the smartest thing. I live up in Rockland, so down the street is Upper Saddle River. You got the million dollar houses down there that — Russell Simmons and Kimora used to live around the corner. Wyclef had something over there. Everybody. Run's House is filmed up there. It's like the next town over, and I always had my eye on this big old conglomerate house about four point something.

It would have been nice, but when I was deciding to buy the house I also had my eye on an SSL board for my house. I was debating, "Should I get this big house? Or should I put this SSL board that costs 3 times as much my house right now, in my house? What should I do? What should I do?" I was about to sign off on the house, but something told me get that board.

And I built a studio in my house, and I was able to accommodate the Mama Said album. I was able to make a Grammy off of that console. I was able to make the console pay for itself. So I think the biggest thing that I never bought that would have been stupid to me was that house. To be honest I never brought a dookie rope so I wasn't into buying things — I never did nothing stupid like that.

KELLEY: Yeah, the cover of In Control — those aren't your chains?

MARL: Nah.

KELLEY: Those are Kane's?

MARL: Yes, they are. Kane and G Rap's. I borrowed those for the shot — as you see on the back, I don't have any chains on, they have them on. I borrowed it for the shot. I never bought a dookie rope, how you like that? I never bought one.

MUHAMMAD: I believe it. I always admired the way you rolled, just the way you carried yourself — you've been the blueprint for me, my movement in this music business.

KELLEY: Thank you so much for coming by.

MARL: Thanks for having me. Just when y'all said the 25th anniversary of In Control that's incredible because time really does fly. Like I said, the album was a perspective of the Juice Crew and where we were all at, talent-wise. It was just a perspective, and it was my time — since I was producing everybody — it was my time to have an album. Since I wasn't really a rapper I would do an album where I showcased my talents and that would be my little emcees at that time.

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Frannie Kelley is co-host of the Microphone Check podcast with Ali Shaheed Muhammad.
Ali Shaheed Muhammad is a world-renowned producer, songwriter and musician, and a founding member of A Tribe Called Quest, Lucy Pearl and production group The Ummah. He cowrote D'Angelo's "Brown Sugar" and has worked with John Legend, Maxwell, Mint Condition, Angie Stone, Mos Def and Gil Scott-Heron among many others.
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