Words: Nathan Slavik for The Art of Sampling
In hip-hop terms like ‘overlooked’, ‘underappreciated’ and ‘slept-on’ get used so often they’ve almost ceased to have any real meaning, which is a shame, because if anyone’s been overlooked, if anyone deserves to have their name brought up more often, it’s Larry Smith.
Even when producers, DJs and true music nerds are discussing the forefathers of hip-hop Larry Smith’s name is rarely, if ever, brought up, but his resume is simply extraordinary. That revolutionary Run-DMC sound that catapulted the Queens group to international fame and gave hip-hop its first real commercial stars? Larry Smith was behind the boards throughout the genesis of that sound. And that means that while he used samples relatively infrequently, the music he made is the source for a river of classic samples. Let’s swim down that river for a moment:
Smith got his first real placements producing when he met a young upstart named Russell Simmons and together they produced Jimmy Spicer’s “Money (Dollar Bill Y’All)” (sampled more than 30 times), famously used by RZA as the foundation of Wu-Tang’s breakthrough single C.R.E.A.M., as well as being referenced in Montell Jordan’s R&B hit “This Is How We Do It”. So there, you’re now one of the few people alive who know what Wu-Tang and Montell Jordan have in common. You’re welcome.
Smith also worked closely with Whodini, producing a number of hits for the trio that would also find a home in classic hip-hop beats. Whodini’s “Friends,” (sampled more than 100 times), is the basis of both Nas’ “If I Ruled the World” and 2Pac’s “Troublesome ‘96,” while “Freaks Come Out at Night” (sampled more than 20 times) was later sampled by The Game for his “Westside Story” and “I’m a Ho” became a staple of early gangster rap, finding its way into “Boyz-N-The-Hood” by Eazy-E and UGK‘s “Front, Back & Side to Side”. And we’re just getting started.
But really it was his work with Run-DMC that resonated most. The production behind Run-DMC’s “Rock Box” (sampled more than 70 times) was nothing short of revolutionary in its day. While most instrumentals of the time leaned on disco and funk for their source material, Smith opted instead to incorporate hard hitting rock sonics. Jay Z was clearly a fan of the sound, having used a “Rock Box” sample on “Where I’m From” and “Justify My Thug”. (For the record, Jay would also use another Smith sample, Orange Krush’s “Action” (sampled more than 40 times) on “Primetime,” so yeah, Shawn Carter is clearly a fan). But it doesn’t start and end with Jay. J Dilla, DJ Premier and a cast of hip hop greats have all borrowed from Smith’s productions over the years. Kanye West’s “We Major”? Yep, that’s a Larry Smith sample. Or on we could go all the way to Ke$ha’s pop hit, “Tik Tok” – you guessed it, also a Larry Smith sample.
And that’s just the rough outline. In total Smith’s music has been sampled close to 800 times, his most sampled production, 1983’s “Sucker MCs” by Run-DMC, has been sampled close to 150 times alone.
Confronted with the statistics, it’s hard to say why Larry Smith’s name doesn’t ring out as loudly as many of his hip-hop peers – he certainly put in the work. But it’s never too late. We can pay tribute to Smith now, and we can do it through the lens of hip-hop, by marveling at the awesome amount of great music he inspired. So the next time you’re talking about samples, the next time you’re talking about the greatest producers ever, make sure you mention Larry Smith’s name. He deserves it.
‘The Art of Sampling’ is the most comprehensive exploration of sampling in the hip hop/rap music tradition and copyright law ever written, check it out.