Marley Marl's Blueprint For The Golden Era

Updated: Dec 26, 2020

I think people either forget, don't know or don't appreciate the groundbreaking and trailblazing work Marley Marl created in the mid to late 80s. His work helped create and defined, the "Golden Era" of Hip-Hop.

Marl was born Marlon Williams on September 30, 1962 and grew up in the Queensbridge housing project in Queens, NY. He became interested in music through local talent shows and neighborhood parties and became an accomplished DJ during rap’s early days. He did mixing work on a number of singles for the old-school hip-hop/electro music seen and started up his own studio, which he initially ran out of his sister’s apartment in Queensbridge.

Working as an intern on Dr. Bob Lee's WBLS Juice Mobile, he was introduced to Sir Juice aka Mr. Magic. Through that introduction, in 1982, it led to Marley DJing on Mr. Magic's Rap Attack Show on WBLS. Anyone old enough will recall what it meant to record a Mr. Magic Rap Attack Show. Those cassette tapes got passed all around the world. The legendary show had a six year run.


Marley began recruiting for what became one of rap’s first talent collectives, the Juice Crew. He caught his first big break as a producer in 1984 when he produced Roxanne Shanté’s “Roxanne’s Revenge,” one of many answer singles inspired by U.T.F.O.’s smash “Roxanne, Roxanne”. However, “Roxanne’s Revenge” became the biggest of the answer singles and it put both the artist, and producer on the map.

As the co-founder of the Juice Crew, Marley assembled a roster filled with some of the finest hip-hop talent in New York: MC Shan, Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie, Roxanne Shanté, Kool G Rap & DJ Polo, Tragedy (Intelligent Hoodlum), Craig G and Masta Ace. All of which their first albums were fully produced by Marley. Marley also fully produced LL Cool J's 1990 classic album, "Mama Said Knock You Out".



His production work for those and many other artists generally boasted booming, and robust sound that — along with his ear for a catchy sample — helped move street-level hip-hop’s sonic blueprint into a more accessible territory. Most importantly, though, were his skills as a beat maker. Marley was among the first to dig in the crates for James Brown records in search of that funky grove. He also learned how to craft his own drum loops through sampling, which decreased hip-hop’s reliance on tinny-sounding drum machines (specifically the 808), giving his ’80s productions a fresh, modern flavor.



Many of the classic songs he produced are so classic, they are simply remembered by name. You don't even have to include the artist's name. Similar to the way some athletes are so great, you just say their first or last name, such as Kareem, Wilt, Magic, Bird, Jordan, Shaq, Kobe, LeBron.

Songs such as "Roxanne's Revenge", "The Bridge", "Eric B Is President", "Ain't No Half Steppin", "Make The Music", "Nobody Beats The Biz", "Road To The Riches", "My Melody", "The Symphony", "Boomin System", "Overweight Lover", "Around The Way Girl", amongst many others are all hip-hop classics under the belt of Marley.



Bridge Wars: Red Alert vs Mr. Magic/Marley Marl; Kiss FM vs WBLS; Juice Crew vs BDP

In 1983, as a new comer on WRKS 98.7 Kiss FM, Kool DJ Red Alert’s name was on the rise, so much so that WBLS rival Mr. Magic (and partner Marley Marl) started taking notice. “Remember, Magic was the only man on the air,” Red contextualizes. Magic chided “Red Dirt,” “Duck Alert,” and “Woody Woodpecker” referring to the ruddy-haired DJ, clowning him on air. “I came to the program director and said, ‘Yo, this nigga is dissin’ me’,” recalls Red, who was heated. However, he used the advances to define his everlasting persona.

Instead, Kool DJ Red Alert focused on breaking records, on his terms. Supplied by Select Records with U.T.F.O.’s single “Hanging Out,” Red instead, favored a B-side, “Roxanne, Roxanne.” He explained, “I didn’t like it, so I flipped it to the B-side.” Being the first DJ to play the subsequent hit by the Brooklyn, New York trio, Mr. Magic and Marley Marl would respond.

As Propmaster Red Alert tells it, “That’s when Marley went ahead and got a young lady in his neighborhood for an answer record, Roxanne Shante.” 14 year old Roxanne Shanté would notably release “Roxanne’s Revenge,” a famous diss record produced by Marley Marl, that would ultimately form “The Roxanne Wars.”

With Marley Marl producing “Roxanne’s Revenge,” an attack on a record DJ Red Alert broke, Red spoke about Marley’s production of songs, which became plentiful during Red Alert's 1983-1994 run as host/DJ of his radio show on Kiss FM . “That’s a thing, a lot of people don’t understand: even though Marley was producin’ a lot records, if they sounded good, I was playin’ those records!,” says Red (while on the Combat Jack Show).


It becomes apparent how the would-be “Bridge Wars” began with rival DJs at two of New York City’s premiere radio stations. “The radio war mainly was the Rap shows,” says Uncle Red, referring to his KISS platform versus Magic and Marley at WBLS. “You gotta understand, U.T.F.O. had a record. Then Marley go’ ahead, and he get an artist in Roxanne Shanté. They have a record. There’s my man Spyder-D ran and got a lady Sparky D to go at Roxanne–and I ended up being her DJ.”


Around this time, Marley Marl not only developed Shanté, but he also had MC Shan. The Queens, New York MC was famous for his belligerent bars, both at LL Cool J, as well as other members of Red Alert’s would-be crew, namely KRS-One. As for Red Alert, he says that Shan had goaded him more than once. “He was tryin’ to size me up a couple times, ’til I caught him.” As far as what exactly put the stop to Shan stepping to Red, Heads will have to wonder. “We leave that alone,” says Red, when pressed for details. DJ Red Alert adds that the late Mr. Magic enjoyed his power, and frequently dissed artists on air, as well as to their face. One act (left nameless in the conversation) was dropped from a label deal due to Magic’s on-air clowning. The contrasting styles between the two 1980s NYC radio icons becomes quite apparent.

It is around this point, in the mid-1980s that Red Alert says he met Scott La Rock. The young acquaintance was eager to show Red a particular MC “from my job” (as Scott explained). That MC was KRS-One. Red recalls hearing Kris Parker’s booming vocals for the very first time at Latin Quarters’ Celebrity Tuesdays.

He recalls hearing “South Bronx” on acetate (a temporary 12″ format), played back-to-back. Scott presented Red to play the track on air (which dissed MC Shan for being dropped by MCA Records, among other jokes). In perhaps a David vs. Goliath move, Red explains just how he set the premiere up that very same evening. “I’m about to play MC Shan & Marley Marl’s ‘The Bridge’ right as it got to the chorus, I slide in Boogie Down Productions’ ‘South Bronx.'”

The discussion grows into some interesting facts surrounding “The Bridge Wars.” Notably, some of BDP’s famous diss records were, as Red points out, recorded “not far from Queensbridge.” KRS and Scott used Power Play Studios, right within the skyline of the Queensbridge Houses. Red Alert also points out what may be the oft-forgotten final shot of the infamous wars. “There was one more, that was ’88,” he begins, adding that it came immediately following the Dope Jam Tour, which featured Eric B. & Rakim, Doug E. Fresh, Biz Markie (notably, a Juice Crew member), Boogie Down Productions, and Ice-T.

Following 53 cities, BDP and Red returned home to hear a record by MC Poet. “We heard that the guy named Poet did a diss record at BDP and KRS One called Beat You Down.” Famously, Poet would later form Screwball, sign to Tommy Boy Records, and years later, as a soloist, work extensively with DJ Premier and Year Round Records.

Poet’s advances alongside Noel Rockwell on “Beat You Down” prompted a rarely heard alternate mix of Boogie Down Productions’ “I’m Still #1.” “Numero Uno” as it's known, was a partly-Spanish version of KRS-One tearing into Poet, years before they would work with many of the same people. According to Red Alert, this closed out “The Bridge Wars.”

With all of that, Marley Marl and KRS One obviously buried the hatchet, because in 2007, they collaborated to release the album, Hip Hop Lives.


Marley took sampling to the next level. He did not just create a new sound, but he ushered in a new era that can not and never will be duplicated, "The Golden Era". Marley laid down the blueprint for the next generation (and beyond) of super producers like Pete Rock (who studied under Marley), Ced Gee, Prince Paul, DJ Premier, Dr. Dre, Bomb Squad, Large Professor, Q-Tip, Diamond D, Lord Finesse, Havoc, RZA, Showbiz, Organized Noise, Beat Minerz, J-Dilla, Alchemist, Kev Brown, Just Blaze, 9th Wonder, Marco Polo, Statik Selektah and many others.


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