Happy 30th Anniversary to Marley Marl’s In Control, Volume 1, originally released September 20, 1988.
Over the years, a lot has been made in hip-hop circles about recognition. These days, old school heads (such as myself) often wax philosophic about how the importance of the DJ to hip-hop has been minimized, citing how there was a time when the DJ was listed before the emcee on the covers of 12-inches and albums.
But what’s often not recognized was that during hip-hop’s formative years, the producer often didn’t get a lot of attention. It may be because the lines between producer/engineer were often pretty blurred back then, but in an age when some of hip-hop biggest icons are the people who first made their fame working behind the boards, it’s easy to forget that the producer of a hip-hop song used to just be a guy listed in the fine print.
Marlon “Marley Marl” Williams was hip-hop’s first “super producer” and In Control, Volume 1, released 30 years ago, was rap music’s first high profile, producer-driven compilation. And it collected music from some of the best rappers in the game at the time, as well as young up-and-coming talent.
Marley, who grew up in the infamous Queensbridge housing projects, got his start as a DJ, performing at talent shows and house parties throughout New York City. He also studied under Mr. Magic, the legendary DJ for WBLS, who was instrumental in getting hip-hop played on the air. Marley continued to work as a DJ and a producer, scoring his first big break as a beat-maker for Lolita “Roxanne Shanté” Gooden’s “Roxanne’s Revenge,” a response to the iconic UTFO single “Roxanne, Roxanne.” He followed it up by producing his cousin Shawn “MC Shan” Moltke’s breakthrough single “The Bridge,” an ode to the aforementioned projects.
Marley was an innovative producer when it came to using a sampler, learning how to manipulate and maximize the device’s capabilities, instead of being limited to drum machines and keyboards to create the hip-hop sound. Eventually, Marley helped put together the Juice Crew, a collective of talented emcees, and his own record label, Cold Chillin’. He also earned his own radio show on WBLS, which he called “In Control.”
And when In Control, the album, hit the shelves, Marley Marl was on a helluva run. In 1988 alone he had produced smash debut albums like Biz Markie’s Goin’ Off and Big Daddy Kane’s Long Live the Kane. He’d also helped put together a slew of singles for Kool G Rap, who, along with Kane, was considered among the best emcees recording music. The artists he’d worked with were red hot, and Cold Chillin’ wanted to keep the momentum going with another Marley Marl-helmed project.
However, Marley has said that In Control is mostly made up of, for lack of a better term, “leftovers.” The album is filled with material that Marley recorded previously but had yet to release, or different versions of songs that would eventually be released on other projects. That said, much of the material held together very well, and the album demonstrates Marley’s ear for talent.
Marley has said by the time In Control dropped, he was focusing on developing the next generation of Juice Crew talent, particularly rappers Craig G, Tragedy, and Masta Ace. Craig G and Tragedy were both teenagers and too young to sign recording contracts with Cold Chillin’, but they all possessed the presence of seasoned veterans on the microphone.
Craig G starts off the album with lead single “Droppin’ Science,” a dedication to displaying his lyrical skills. Over a loop from the breakdown to James Brown’s “Make It Funky,” Craig drops lines like, “You're steppin’ to us? You need traction / Or you’ll be another sucker missing in action.” Marley has said he prefers the single version of this song, which incorporates a sample of Lou Donaldson’s version of “Who’s Making Love?” along with parts of “Make It Funky.” In my opinion, both versions are dope in their own way.
By the time In Control had dropped, Marley had been working with Tragedy for a number of years. The Queensbridge teen had been recording raps since he was 12 years old, many of which were produced by Marley. He also had issues staying out of juvenile hall. Still, Marley was able to help Tragedy harness his talent and inspire him to put his creative forces into his music. “The Rebel” is one of In Control’s best track, with Tragedy displaying the seasoned lyrical wizardry of an emcee well into his prime. Marley provides Tragedy with a guitar-based sample from the JBs’ “Hot Pants, Pt. 1,” and Tragedy blesses it, opening the track with, “I’m here to bust your shit, the mastermind of manuscripts / The force of extremity, my rhymes are the remedy / You can’t deal with the T-R-A-G / Rap annihilist flowing like Pegasus.”
Masta Ace makes his debut with “Eyes On the Prize,” which combines his braggadocio stylings with some social commentary. Ace laces rhymes about the superiority of his poetical skill, while also encouraging his audience to live positive as a way to honor those who came before them and chastising those who profit from the pain and despair of others. According to Marley, he first hooked up with Ace after the Brooklyn-born emcee won a contest through a local skating rink, where the first prize was studio time with the producer. Marley said he enjoyed working with Ace so much that he decided to bring him into the fold.
It’s never been clear what project “We Write the Songs” was originally intended for, but I do know that the collaboration between Biz Markie and Heavy D is one of the best songs on In Control. The two legends make a great combination, as Biz’s distinctive slur is balanced by Heavy D’s sharp delivery. And both inject some humor over a piano-heavy track that samples Joe Tex’s “Papa Was Too,” as Heavy commands wack emcees to “eat their Tender Vittles” and The Biz occasionally sings completely off-key in his always-endearing way.
The album’s pinnacle is “The Symphony,” the one song recorded specifically for In Control. The legend goes that after completing the photoshoot for the album’s artwork (which features most of the crew members on an airport runway by a rented private plane), Marley invited everyone to the studio to record a song. What resulted is rightfully considered one of the best posse cuts of all time. Masta Ace, Craig G, Kool G Rap, and Big Daddy Kane all bless the track, each contributing some of the best verses of their respective careers. The beat Marley produces is literally one of the greatest and most distinctive in hip-hop history, as it’s built around an unforgettable piano sample of Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle.”
It’s really impossible to say who had the strongest verse of the four emcees. The pair of “new-comers” Ace and Craig G each hold their own, with Ace rapping, “Once you hear the capital ‘A’ rap, it’ll stay / With you for awhile, it won’t go away / Unless you force it, because it stays with you, my friend / And if you toss it away, Imma hit ya again.” Craig G delivers in the #2 spot, rapping, “That's how I'm living: on surprise mode / Don’t even sleep, try not to keep your eyes closed / ’Cause if you do, when you awaken, your so-called spot will be taken.”
Kool G Rap’s verse is considered by many to be the song’s peak. The legend goes that he rapped so long that Marley ran out of tape and was forced to trim his verse down (G Rap has said the rest of what he recorded became the first verse of “Men At Work”). Regardless, what remains is one of the best verses of G Rap’s career and one of the best verses of all time. G Rap completely blacks out, rapping, “Take a deep breath, because you don’t have another left / I’m coming back like I'm avenging my brother’s death / Making veterans run for medicine / ’Cause I put out more lights in a fight than Con Edison.”
This isn’t to say G Rap completely out-shines Big Daddy Kane, who rounds things out rhyming fourth. With his signature smooth yet rugged delivery, he delivers some of the song’s most memorable lines, rapping, “So take caution. I'm not horsing around / In a throwdown, clown, I’m taking yours, son / So just acknowledge the way that I kicked it / ’Cause if rap was a house, you'd be evicted / And dismissed from the microphone, choking on a bone, cause Daddy’s home / And battling me is hazardous to health / So put a quarter in your ass, ’cause you played yourself.”
In Control does lose some steam on its second side. Tragedy, Ace, and Craig G all get another solo song, but none are as good as their initial offerings. Tragedy offers another excellent lyrical performance on “Live Motivator,” but the song is hampered by a cheesy synthesizer-based replaying of Collage’s “Get In Touch With Me,” which doesn’t fit with the rest of the album’s production stylings. Masta Ace delivers what’s intended to be a club song with “Simon Says,” but it’s not nearly as inspired as his previous effort.
Craig G’s “Duck Alert” is the strongest track on the album’s second half. Originally a promo for the “In Control” radio show, it functions as an extension of Marley’s beef with other hip-hop radio personalities. Over a loop from James Brown’s “Funky President,” well-timed scratches, and creatively sampled snippets of dialogue from Star Trek, Craig targets DJs Chuck Chillout and Red Alert for choice disses. He even throws in a jab at “beat biter” Hurby Luv Bug. Craig maintains his laid-back demeanor even while sounding threatening, as he raps, “And if you wanna get all hype, I’ll have to settle ya / By pulling out my 12-gauge shotgun / And if you wanna go rhyme for rhyme, I got some / Dope rhymes for sure. Or should I say galore? / But I won't sound old-schoolish, in other words foolish.”
The album doesn’t close particularly strong, even with entries by two of the longest -standing Juice Crew members. MC Shan’s “Freedom” is on the dull side and completely forgettable. It also feels a little weird to dis Roxanne Shanté’s faux-Electro “Wack Itt,” if for no other reason than it’s clearly intended as a joke. Or specifically, a dis towards JJ Fad, who had gone Gold off the success of “Supersonic.” It’s hard to take the song seriously when Shanté raps, “Choose the wackest, wackest beats, and add the wackest, wackest rhymes / The wacky, wacky, wacky voice, which I really shouldn't say, is wacky / Some people say it's wack, but it's not, it's just cracky.”
Marley Marl continued his hot streak after In Control, helming Shan’s Born to Be Wild (1988) and Kool G Rap & DJ Polo’s debut album Road to the Riches (1989). Even as the Juice Crew began to rupture in the early ’90s, Marley persevered. When LL Cool J looked to restart his career in 1990 after hitting a rough creative patch, he enlisted Marley to produce Mama Said Knock You Out (1990) in its entirety.
In 1991, Marley and Cold Chillin’ released In Control, Volume II, but it was much less successful. Whereas the first addition of In Control was relatively lean, the second installment felt bloated at 20 tracks deep and lacked creative direction. There were a few dope tracks by both established artists and some lesser known talent, but no stars were born from that album.
However, it should be said that in 1988, Marley’s ear for talent was impeccable, and the three emcees that debuted on In Control would go on to become greats in their own right. Tragedy would of course go on to become Intelligent Hoodlum before morphing again into Tragedy Khadafi. He’s now a respected elder statesman of Queensbridge emcees and helped guide the careers of artists like Nas and Capone-N-Noreaga. Craig G released a few solid albums and is considered one of the best freestyle/battle rappers of all time. He also wrote all of the battle scenes in the Eminem vehicle 8 Mile. And Masta Ace has gone on to have the most consistent musical career of any artist in the Juice Crew and still releases quality music to this day.
Looking back on In Control, Volume 1, the amount of talent present on the album remains a bit stunning. And almost all of the artists on the album were there because at some point, Marley Marl recognized their tale and nurtured it, helping them on their journey to become legends. And he gave them banging beats to rap to, to boot. It’s the combination of Marley’s long-term vision and command of his production equipment to create indelible sounds that earned him the reputation as a hip-hop legend and one of the greatest producers of all time.