“I don’t care who’s first or who last, but I know that y’all just better rock this at the drop of a dime baby.”
Is “The Symphony” the greatest posse rap song in hip-hop history? It’s very hard to imagine a top ten that doesn’t include it, and if you were of a certain age in the 1980’s, nostalgia for the Juice Crew could easily make it #1. The four back to back emcees who rap on it were the cream of the crop for the era — Master Ace, Craig G, Kool G. Rap and Big Daddy Kane. Even now 30+ years later the idea of that much talent on the same track, every one at the peak of their lyrical game, is a little bit hard to fathom. It would have all been for naught if not for Marley Marl’s track being the glue to hold them together. The funky pianos and crisp drums don’t age with time, and samples of every emcee’s bars have been recycled in hundreds of tracks.
The same can be said for Craig G’s “Droppin’ Science,” the opening track of Marley Marl’s “In Control, Volume 1.” It may be one of the most apt album titles of all time. As the producer whose signature sound controlled a large part of the 1980’s in rap’s “golden era,” saying Marley Marl was on the mix was almost a guarantee of your success. The strength of the Juice Crew as a collective relied on Marl’s signature sound. His ability to find, loop and layer up the right samples was well met by his skill on the mixing boards, meaning the emcee’s vocals were clear and their backing tracks were always fresh. His beats seemed to inspire the members to always do their best, so even when a non-Juice Crew rapper like Heavy D showed up to do a duet with Biz Markie on “We Write the Songs,” The Biz didn’t lose stature in comparison to the guest star.
Even lesser known Juice Crew members rose to prominence with Marl’s magic touch. “I confuse your conscience, and boggle your brain/You may think that I’m sick, but I’m perfectly sane.” Those words defined Tragedy the Intelligent Hoodlum long before he was better known as Tragedy Khadafi. That’s just how “In Control” Marley Marl was. If you didn’t know a rapper under his wing before his compilation, you’d never forget them after it. It’s telling just how many of these songs wound up being scratched for hooks by DJ Premier. “Check the technique, see if you can follow it.” You may think of it as Gang Starr, but that’s Master Ace’s “Keep Your Eyes On the Prize.”
At first it might seem like Roxanne Shante is getting the short end of the stick despite being one of Marley Marl’s earliest and biggest successes as a producer, but her ode to shitty rap songs “Wack Itt” gets in before the album’s end. “When it comes to being wacky, J.J. Fad yo they’re the most.” She actually gets nastier than that on the track. Marley Marl purposefully mocks the minimalistic sound that made “Supersonic” a super hit.
“Now if you want a example, let me tell you what makes me mad
Did you ever hear Supersonic that was by J.J. Fad?
Listen close to what I’m sayin, cause it went somethin like this
Or you can say I missed, I really can’t resist
To come to someone up to their face and then give them a diss”
For most people “In Control, Volume 1” is defined by the outsized legend of “The Symphony,” a song that has been imitated and iterated on multiple times in the decade to come. That doesn’t make songs like the old school M.C. Shan throwback “Freedom” or Master Ace’s uptempo dance anthem “Simon Says” any lesser in quality, but it does mean they get overlooked when people drop the needle on the one song they want and pull it right off again. There isn’t a single track out of these ten that doesn’t deserve better.
Marley Marl has noted in interviews since that despite how the album sounds and the image he portrayed on its cover, he was barely making ends meet as a producer. Cold Chillin’ and Warner Bros. Records shortchanged him on royalties for years, and I’m sure if it weren’t for the fact he produced some of L.L. Cool J’s most legendary and best selling albums for Def Jam, his situation might have been even more dire. The Juice Crew’s rappers were equally dismayed by their fame relative to their paychecks, and the once rock solid posse began to slowly drift apart, a fact made obvious by this album’s sequel “Volume 2” — but that’s a story for another day. In the meantime treat yourself to “In Control, Volume 1” to hear a producer and his proteges at the height of their prowess.