When the topic of rap super producers comes up, names like Pharrell, Kanye, and Timbaland are mentioned, but few remember rap’s first super producer, Larry Smith. Smith, rap’s King of Beats, passed away on Dec. 19, 2014. Born in 1951 in the St. Albans section of Queens, N.Y., he developed skills as a bassist. He eventually dropped out of Andrew Jackson High School to master his craft by going on the road. Smith ended up touring the South, the Midwest, and eventually Toronto.
Smith got his first break when he was recruited to play on the Kurtis Blow song “Christmas Rappin’.” The song became a hit, and Smith began his career as a rap producer, working on rap hits like Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks,” an early rap record that was included in Billboard magazine’s Hot 100 singles.
Through his work with Blow, Smith met Russell Simmons (then, Kurtis Blow’s manager), and they formed Rush Groove Productions, producing local rap hits like “The Bubble Bunch” and “Money (Dollar Bill Y’all)" featuring Jimmy Spicer as well as Krush Groove’s “Action.”
Smith’s career began to fly when he produced demos for Run-DMC, “It’s Like That” and “Sucker MCs”. As a musician who played speed metal, Smith introduced the electric guitar to rap in the Run-DMC song “Rock Box.” During the recording of these songs at New York’s Greene Street, studio owner Steve Loeb was skeptical of Smith incorporating rock guitars in a rap song. “You’re out of your mind,” Loeb said to Smith. Smith replied, “Niggas play rock and roll too.” Released on March 27, 1984, Run-DMC’s self-titled debut album was an instant smash, mostly because of songs like “Sucker MCs” that catered to true rap fans and “Rock Box,” which was an instant crossover hit and became the very first rap video to appear on MTV.
The genius who was Larry Smith knew when to infuse rock with Run-DMC and when to switch to classic R&B sounds with early rap group Whodini. Together they produced hits like “Five Minutes of Funk,” “Friends,” and “Freaks Come Out at Night.” He also produced songs for rap group the Fat Boys as well as Rodney Dangerfield’s rap spoof record, “Rappin’ Rodney.”
Larry Smith’s work with Run-DMC and Whodini ushered in a new era of rap. The “New School” was born, replacing the “Old School” movement that was championed by pioneer acts like the Sugarhill Gang, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, and Spoonie Gee.
As the famed partnership between Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin picked up steam in their Def Jam label, Smith’s relationship with Simmons soured. Still, Smith flexed his skills on Run-DMC’s second album, King of Rock, which incorporated more rock sounds and heavy guitar riffs than their prior album. Released on Jan. 21, 1985, King of Rock established Run-DMC as that era’s rap kings. They even landed a cover of Rolling Stone, the first rap group to ever do so.
How such an influential pioneer of this art form could end up like this is criminal.
With the advent of sampling ushered in by fellow super producer Marley Marl, Smith found himself disconnected with rap’s new wave. As a consummate musician, he refused to sample other artists, and this stance resulted in him leaving the music game. Still his body of work left an indelible print in the genre as his music has been sampled by Jay Z, Kanye West, Snoop Dogg, Tupac Shakur, Kid Rock, De La Soul, Redman, Maino, and more.
In 2007, Smith suffered a severe stroke that left him unable to speak. He spent the last few years of his life in a New York City hospital as a “ward of the state,” meaning he was not able to afford medical care on his own. He passed away during the early hours of Dec. 19, 2014, due to complications in connection with his failing health. How such an influential pioneer of this art form could end up like this is criminal.
Still, in speaking to top producers like Just Blaze, Larry Smith will always remain in their “Top Five” rap producer lists. In communicating with his son Lawrence Smith, a.k.a. “G5- ELZ” via text and Twitter, he shared, “Tell people don’t be sad. Tell them to just listen to his music. Let them know about King of Beats.”