Deep on the dancefloor with Marley Marl - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart

In his 2014 Red Bull Music Academy interview with journalist Jeff “Chairman” Mao, pioneering hip-hop producer Marlon Williams, aka Marley Marl, talks about the influence of Donna Summer’s 1977 disco classic “I Feel Love”. Produced by Italian electronic music composer Giorgio Moroder, “I Feel Love” captured both the freewheeling eroticism and futuristic vision of 70s club culture. Speaking about the influence of Moroder and “I Feel Love” on his own production work, Williams is enthused and reverent. “That song really, really, really changed my life.”

It shouldn’t be surprising that such a decorated hip-hop producer would point to a disco record as such a formative influence. Both hip-hop and disco were forged in the rich cultural stew of New York city in the 1970s; each genre has cherry-picked and freely exchanged influences from one another throughout their histories. For Marley Marl — a man whose work traverses both hip-hop and dance music — the interconnectedness of both cultures can be clearly seen in his discography. From his early history as a disco DJ in Queens, to his engineering production and remixing work for dance labels like Prelude (CD III – “Get Tough”) and NIA (The Fantastic Aleems – “Release Yourself”), dance music was an integral part of Marley Marl’s early career. He even spent time in legendary New York discos like The Shelter, Better Days and The Paradise Garage.

Ahead of his April 6th guest DJ set at World Cafe supporting Philly dance music legend, Lady Alma, we spoke with Marley about his relationship with dance music.

DJ Marley Marl & Lady Alma feat Kenny Bobien - Joy Hallelujah (Extended)

John Morrison: To start back at the beginning, I take it you started with DJing, before production? How did you get into that?

Marley Marl: I was a DJ first, ’cause my brother had a crew called High Fidelity in Queensbridge. It was like a DJ crew and they kept the equipment up in my house sometimes. So, you know, I would be able to like, touch the equipment sometimes or see what it was or be near it. Get the energy from it. [laughs] And that’s how it started for me. Then he went to the service and he left his shit at the crib. I think it was like a few crates of records they left and I started going through the records. He left a little thing that was like a mixer in the crib. So me and the little brothers from the crew got our own crew together.

JM: Okay. What kind of records was your brother and them playing?

MM: They was playing records like Cymande’s “Bra”. Herman Kelly and Life’s “Dance To The Drummer’s Beat”. Even before that they was rocking like Edwin Birdsong records. It was like a DJ dance crew. Everybody was dancing. Everybody was dressing up and DJing and just finding fly music to play. And then one time I was in school and I heard a n**** playing hip-hop and that changed my everything right there.

JM: Was it a tape?

MM: It was a tape. It was a Breakout tape.

(DJ Breakout is a legendary hip-hop DJ who was inspired by Kool Herc and Bambaata. He would form The Brothers Disco duo with DJ Baron before becoming a member of The Funky Four.)

I remember everything clearly. It was the “Dance To The Drummer’s Beat”, beat and a motherfucker on the mic going “Yes, yes, y’all…y’all,  to the beat y’all…y’all… freak freak y’all…you don’t stop. Breakout….out.” And the  n**** walked through the gym…he walked through the lunchroom with that shit blasting. Everybody stopped and looked and was like, “What the fuck was that?” I went home and made a crew of n*****. I got a crew of n***** together that day.

JM: That shit had to sound like it came from another world.

MM: Yo, I was already a DJ too. So, for me to hear that and to see the attention that it got, if it hit me that way, [laughs] man… I remember the n**** name that had the tape that I never saw that muthafucka again. His name was Calvin, he came through with a boombox, tall n****.He had muthafuckas walking behind him and had hip-hop blasting and the whole room stopped while he walked through. Everybody was like, “yo, what was that?” He was a Bronx n**** too. A tall Bronx n**** with a denim suit on. He was dressed too. From that day on, the school was changed.

JM: What school did you go to?

MM: That was in a school called Manhattan High in the city.

JM: So you put together your crew, you playing records. Where were y’all playing at? Around what time? Like what year is this?

MM: Now, we were playing in Queensbridge and Queensbridge Park, Jacob A. Riis Center where they used to throw all the parties. You know, we was lucky in Queensbridge because for some reason, a lot of entertainment used to always come to Queensbridge. Afrika Bambaataa and them came out there. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious five. These guys called the Disco twins, I guess they found Queensbridge to be a good place for parties or something, but they wasn’t even from Queensbridge. And they used to come out there and throw parties and bring real out there.

JM: So Disco Twins was bringing everybody to the bridge?

MM: Yeah. The parties wasn’t where they was from. Their legendary parties was in Queensbridge. Yeah. They was known  around they way, but their legendary status came from coming to Queensbridge. That’s how they blew the fuck up. Yeah. And then they went to the Hotel Diplomat and all that other shit.

JM: You ever get to play at any of those Disco Twins parties?

MM: Yo, to be honest, for the Disco Twins in the beginning stages, they knew I was an aspiring DJ. And they told me they used to just be fucking with me. They used to be bothering me, but a few times they didn’t let me in their party. I wasn’t old enough and they really didn’t let me in. I think when Bambaataa came and Grandmaster Flash, I wasn’t old enough to get in that bitch. I had to be outside. I had to hear that shit from outside?

JM: How old did you have to be to get in?

MM: They said 18 and up and I was probably like 14 or some trying to get in the party, trying to be around the older people. I had to go outside, listen to the side of the window. The doors going [makes heavy bass noise] boom-boom [laughs] and hear on the mic and people in there going “Say hooooo!”

JM: I’m super curious about those records that Flash and Bam and all them were playing in this era. What songs do you remember?

MM: They were playing the disco breaks. You know what it was? Everybody else was playing the whole record. They was the ones playing just the short breaks and cutting the brakes up and extending the brakes and bringing it back fast, fast. You know what I’m saying? That’s what they was doing. That’s why they call it hip-hop, I guess. Yeah. Everybody had DJs. Everybody had the same music, but they took it upon themselves to cut up the break parts while somebody’s rapping.

JM: Yeah. It depends on how you play it. You can have the same record, but it depends on how you play it.

MM: Right, right. They was doing it different.

JM: Yeah. And how did you learn how to do all that? Like, catching the break and, and running it back, extending it. Like when did that come in for you?

MM: The Disco Twins. One day. It was this guy, he was called Disco kid. He was down with Disco Twins. His name was Louie Roman. He was like the first person I ever seen scratch. I was like, “oh, that’s how you scratch?” He was scratching “Hot Shot” by Karen Young. When he was doing it, going “hot, hot, hot, hot.”, he had his hand on the cross fader going across because they had that GLI mixer. Everybody else had the up and down (mixers with just vertical channels and no fader).Like, just a bass/a Bertha and two mids

JM: So, you said to him “yo, show me that”?

MM: Nah, I’ve seen it one time. That was it. One time, I went to the Disco Twins’ house and I saw Louie Roman editing.

JM: A tape?

MM: Splicing. Yeah. I saw him splicing. He was there splicing a reel-to-reel. I saw him do it one time, I remember saying in my mind, if I ever get my hands on a reel-to-reel, this is how you edit. And once I got my hands on the reel-to-reel, I went to it, marked it, cut it, marked the other part, cut it, connected it, and learned how to edit. That’s how I learned how to edit from seeing him do it one time.

JM: What was he editing?

MM: They used to have those special mixes. The Disco Twins special mixes.

JM: Ah, and would they bring that out to the party to play? Like a reel?

MM: They would make like a plate.

(Dubplate is a soft wax acetate record that DJs would get pressed up in order to play their own specially made remixes at parties.)

But they would chop it up on the reel first. Bring it to the place to make a plate…a record. And then they would throw the record on and have like a special mix of a song.

JM: Oh wow. You don’t, you don’t really hear too much about that. You hear about like the Jamaican cats [reggae DJs] making the dub plates, but I haven’t heard too much about people doing that over here.

MM: Yeah. Yeah. The twins used to have plates because they, yeah, I think they was the Disco Twins first [before hip-hop]. So they was playing disco records, ’cause they had the disco sound system. They was the first muthafuckas coming out with a Bertha.

(The RLA Bertha was a massive subwoofer designed by legendary engineer, Richard Long. For context about the power of these speakers, renowned New York nightclubs, Studio 54 and Paradise Garage employed Bertha’s, but the Disco Twins were using them outside.)

That was also educational too. When we came out, we came out with a PA system. My crew came out with a Shure PA system. Disco Twins came with the Berthas, it was like night and day.

JM: Yeah. I was gonna say it had to be like a MUCH bigger sound.

MM: Yeah [laughs]. They came with the shit and it was just a little bit of shit.

JM: You mean like, it wasn’t a lot of components to it [the total system].

MM: Right. It was like three, four speakers. Like, just a bass, a Bertha, and two mids. And it sounded like something you never heard before. Like from blocks away. They had the right speakers. They had Richard Long speakers. He was the guy. They was the first muthafuckas in hip-hop to come outside with a Richard Long system.

JM: Yeah. ’cause those speakers was made for the club. It was a whole club setup essentially. But they could move it around outside. Were cats using,  like the Echoplex [tape delay unit] and all of that?

MM: Yeah. They was doing all of that shit. And so that’s what I was brought up on though. Before hip-hop came, I was doing all that type of shit. I had a sound system. Cerwin-Vegas [speakers] and all that. After I started recording, I got rid of all that.I  was like, I’m not gonna get no money off that busting my ass moving that equipment around like that.

JM: Yeah, you’re moving around a tank, basically.  How did you fully make the transition from DJing into producing records?

MM: I was a DJ, so I was already rocking in clubs. So when the Dimples D record came out.

(“Sucker D.J.’s (I Will Survive)” which came out on Arthur Baker’s Partytime Records in 1983.)

That’s when I was like, “I need somebody to go get the money when we go perform.” That’s when I met Tyrone

(Tyrone “Fly Ty” Williams. Marley’s manager and co-founder of Cold Chillin’ Records and the Juice Crew.)

He worked at the radio station [WHBI] and he started bringing Mr. Magic along and that’s how that whole thing started.

(John “Mr. Magic” Rivas was a radio DJ and host of the radio show Mr. Magic’s Rap Attack)

(L-R) Marley Marl and DJ Mr. Magic (John Rivas) on air in 1983 | photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

JM: Before stuff was really popping with the Juice Crew and all of that. Were you like mixing records or doing remix stuff? You were working with different labels like Prelude, Partytime…

MM: Yeah, I was doing remixes. That’s how I kind of got out there too. I was a DJ, but I was trying to do people’s remixes. The guys on the block was making a lot of records like “beat the street. Gotta beat the street….”

(Sharon Redd’s “Beat The Street”. Prelude Records 1982)

I’m like, “yo, let me get in the studio. I can fix your records”. These n***** laughing at me. [laugh] I was that little kid on the block like, “yo, lemme go in the studio”

JM: Crazy. How was you doing the remixes? Like what, what was the process like?

MM: It all started for me because I used to have all my equipment when I was playing in the park, and then one time the musicians was in the park too. They didn’t have no crowd. I let them plug into my system. Then after that, the musicians started coming to my house. The very next day, muthafuckas showed up to my house with a guitar with a keyboard. I’m like, who is this? I’m a DJ! [laughs] But I was learning how to make it sound good and then they kind of started trusting me. I became like the sound guy for the band

(The band was the R&B quintet called B.B.C.S.&A. Who released the single “Rock Shock” on Sam Records in 1982.)

I was always the engineer, [producer/keyboardist] Andre Booth was my guy, the keyboard guy and now I’m at rehearsal, I’m behind the board. EQing. You’re making it sound loud and good. Now they got shows and now I’m with them. I got a show in Queensbridge and I tell MC Shan, “Hey, let’s make a, let’s make a intermission record to play in between the band called “The Bridge.” Let’s talk about Queensbridge.

For producing, I always wanted to have my own sound, obviously. So what I used to do is put my drum sounds on the reel,  the kick, snare…I was crafty with the reel and with editing. Let me be honest say that I was around a lot of professionals at Unique Recording Studios.

(Marley interned there in the early 80s)

I was like at the top of the tier of muthafuckas making records. Every record you heard back then came from Unique. So the top engineers was there and I was right there with these muthafuckas watching and shit and they was sampling already. They were sampling, but they wasn’t putting hip-hop in that bitch. Yeah. They was putting backgrounds (sounds) in that bitch. And I’m watching this like Mmmm. You could put anything in there”.

The owner Bobby [Nathan], he was the tech head. Anything came out he would buy it. Because Sam Ash was right around the corner, Bobby would send me one over here. “Take the credit card. Go get, matter of fact, go get two. We need one for the A room and the B room.” [laugh] Yeah. He wouldn’t have that. And those would go up there and start racking they brains working the equipment. Arthur Baker was there.

JM: Yeah. I wanted to talk to you about Arthur and working with him.

MM: He was there [at Unique]. I met him through my keyboard guy (Andre Booth) He played on a lot of, he played on, he played on Afrika Bambaata and The Jazzy 5’s “Jazzy Sensation”. He was the keyboard player so he brought me to that session. Arthur Baker produced it and Andre played keyboards.

JM: I wanted to ask you about [Bronx-born disco DJ/remixer] Tee Scott. Did you know him?

MM: I remember Tee Scott from back in the day. You talking about DJ Tee Scott from [famed Black gay disco] Better days? Yeah, Andre even knew Tee Scott.

JM: Yeah. I was thinking it was some kind of connection. But I wasn’t sure.

MM: He [Andre] used play on his shit. He used to play on his shit too.

It was like a crew from Queensbridge. It was like a guy named Charlie Street. All the guitar on those records, he played on.

(Northend’s “Happy Days” features Charlie Street, Tee Scott and Andre Booth)

Michael Bailey, he was a guitar player from Queensbridge. They used to call him Mike Tracks and he was nice. And they was working. I could go through about 20 records that they made that inspired me to do what I do.

JM: So, you were in the studio. Were you like mixing stuff or remixing when you were working around like Arthur and all of them? What was your role at that time?

MM: My role around Arthur, I was like an assistant. I was actually not doing shit. I was going to the muthafucking store for these n***** [laugh]. But I’m in the studio watching these n***** making great records. Watching them make [sings] “Give Me the tonight….” (Shannon “Give Me Tonight” Emergency Records, 1984)

JM: Back in those days, did you ever see Larry Levan play at the Paradise Garage?

MM: Yes, I did.  I went to the Paradise Garage when I first got with WBLS, Frankie Crocker used to have all his birthday parties for like, the whole month. So one day me and [Queensbridge DJ] Bob Lee, we was like, yo, let’s go. We gonna go to Frankie’s party. I ain’t know where it was at. Next thing you know, we downtown and I’m going up this runway, not even knowing where the fuck I’m going and all of a sudden we in the DJ booth.

JM: Wow. So he was known to be that guy at that point?

MM: Oh yeah. I didn’t realize how important that day was and how that place wasn’t gonna be there anymore. I didn’t realize all of that. But it was a moment in time.

JM: You remember what records he was playing?

MM: Yeah. He was playing Double Exposure’s “My Love is Free”. He was playing a lot of Prelude. He played First Choice’s “Love Thang,” he had a different mix. He was the guy with the different mixes and because the system was so good…I’ve never heard nothing like that in my life. I think that’s what gave me the club fever. It gave me the disco fever.

JM: Once you were  kind of in the scene and everything, you got the disco fever around that time. Were there any other parties you were going to? Other DJs that you would go out and see?

MM: Hell yeah. I used to have my ass in [famed Manhattan club] The Shelter. I used to take my ass to The Shelter bro. I used to wait, go there like three in the morning, four in the morning. It used to be crazy. I’m like, I get up maybe two, three, drive my ass  to the city. Walking to The Shelter. It’s like a whole world. You get outta there and the sun is up. The world looks different now.

JM: And you did a lot of House mixes too. You wasn’t just producing hip-hop records. I know you did some stuff for Sleeping Bag Records at one point. Can you talk a little bit about that process of remixing and making those House versions of songs?

MM: Yeah. I was always doing house mixes because I was always involved with some type of midday mix for the radio station, in the middle of Mr. Magic stuff. When I first left Mr. Magic’s show, that’s when I first started doing the noon mix at WBLS mm-Hmm. And that’s when I started really experimenting and showing everybody that I’m not just hip-hop. I started doing mixes for Sleeping Bag records (Hanson & Davis – “Can’t Stop (Marley Marl Mix)“), NIA Records. like R&B songs and making ’em into House songs or, or doing house mixes on like the Chaka Khan remix project they did at Warner Brothers. I wanna show people that I could do more than just hip-hop. I was doing more than hip-hop before hip-hop came out. [laughs]

JM: I was gonna, say you came from that whole dance music thing.

MM: Yeah. I’m telling you, my block was R&B, my block was Disco. My block was disco breaks.

JM: Fast forwarding to today. Could you tell me a little bit about this track with Alma? Could you tell me a little bit about how that collaboration came together.

MM: One day I was looking at my Facebook and I saw this African dude [Nhlaka Mncwabe] mouthing the words to a song [The Rainmakers and Lady Alma’s “Let It Fall”] the audio was muted but he looked so passionate about it. I said, let me unmute this and see what this guy is doing. I heard the song and was like, “yo, this is nice.” What, what song is this? And so I looked up the title, went to Traxsource and I, I got the song and saw that it was Lady Alma singing. I said, “yo, I gotta get in touch with her.”

When we got on the phone she said, “Hey Marley” and I was like, oh, you sound like one of my cousins and a sister or somebody. And we just connected. We got in the studio. She started hearing my mixes and my tracks and my music. And she was like, yo, I didn’t know you was this nice with this House music. It’s a very spiritual song. It’s very touching and we gonna be doing it at World Cafe. It’s gonna be crazy on the fifth.

JM: Yeah. What can people expect when they y’all do this live? What do y’all have planned for Philly?

MM: You know how we do it. It’s like we taking them to church, so it’s always fun.

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