Larry Smith in the mid-1980s. NEW YORK, NY—Larry Smith, producer of pioneering rap hits by Run-DMC, Kurtis Blow, Whodini and others, died December 19 at the age of 63. Smith had suffered health complications in recent years after a 2007 stroke left him partially paralyzed and unable to speak, but his early, influential work helped transform rap from a novelty offshoot of disco into one of the most prevalent music genres today.
Born in 1951 in St. Albans, Queens, Smith started out as a touring multi-instrumentalist backing other artists, usually as a bass player, before turning to production, co-producing a number of hits for Kurtis Blow including the classic “The Breaks.” Further efforts producing Jimmy Spicer and “Love Bug” Starski ultimately led to working with fledgling rap trio Run-DMC, which he co-produced with the act’s then-manager, Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons.
Run-DMC’s debut s ingl e , “I t ’s Like That”/”Sucker MCs,” ushered in a leaner, meaner sound for hip-hop, eschewing the use of musicians to focus almost exclusively on the lyrics and beat. Smith’s minimalist production gave the tracks an edgy, gritty feel that belied the fact they were made on an equally minimalist budget at the late Greene Street Recording in New York’s SoHo district.
The distinct, aggressive sound was of necessity as they couldn’t afford musicians, though when Smith did add them in, it was to influential effect. Run-DMC’s later work with producer Rick Rubin resulted in the 1986 smash “Walk This Way”—a reworking of Aerosmith’s classic that arguably saved the rock band’s flagging career—but the Rap/Rock template was invented by Smith on the group’s first two albums, Run-DMC and King of Rock. On them, he had session guitarist Eddie Martinez (Mick Jagger, David Lee Roth, Robert Palmer) wail away on “King of Rock” and “Rock Box.” The latter track was particularly of note as its video became the first rap clip to appear on then AOR-oriented MTV. Smith, who wrote the heavy riff, can be seen in the clip playing bass behind Run-DMC and driving his car, first immortalized in “Sucker MCs” with Run’s couplet, “Larry put me inside his Cadillac/The chauffeur drove off and we never came back.”
Smith moved on to work with Whodini, knocking out a string of hits for the trio, including “Five Minutes of Funk” and the group’s trademark “Freaks Come Out At Night.” However, as the Eighties wore on, the musician-less hip-hop sound Smith had helped create went too far for the producer who had come up as a working bass player. As sampling was adopted universally across the genre, Smith found himself uncomfortable with the practice from a moral and creative standpoint, and by the mid-Nineties, had largely dropped out of music production.
Smith’s passing on December 19 came the same day that Run-DMC played its first show in New York City in more than a decade at WBLS’ “Christmas in Brooklyn” concert. From the stage of the Barclays Center arena, Joe “Run” Simmons announced to the crowd, “My man, Larry Smith, he produced these records. It’s sad but fitting he passes away on the day I return to a big stage like this... I love you Larry, I hope you’re watching from Heaven and I’m making you proud.” Darryl McDaniels (“DMC”) opted to pay his respects via social media, tweeting “Rest In Beats, Larry Smith. Music In Your Heart. Hip Hop Was Your Gift to The World! No one does it better!”