Larry Smith, a record producer who in the early and mid-1980s helped give hip-hop arena ambitions through his work with the pioneering group Run-DMC, died Friday in Queens. He was 63.
His death was confirmed by his son, Lawrence Jr., who said his father had been in poor health since suffering a stroke in 2007 that left him partly paralyzed and unable to speak.
Since its beginning in the late 1970s, recorded hip-hop had largely been a stepchild of disco, but a more aggressive sound was coming to dominate clubs in the New York area. What hip-hop needed to stand on its own was a sonic jolt, a sound that would give it escape velocity out of disco’s orbit.
Smith provided that with his production work on the first two albums by Run-DMC, “Run-DMC” and “King of Rock,” on the Profile label. Those albums were spare, abrasive, sharp-edged documents that gave hip-hop a signature recorded sound and also helped move it closer to the mainstream. They were produced largely with Russell Simmons, whose younger brother Joseph was the Run of Run-DMC. Russell Simmons went on to found Def Jam Records.
Songs like “It’s Like That,” with its hard-slap minimalism, were a repudiation of the disco-driven hip-hop that had previously dominated the market. Smith was also immortalized in the song “Sucker MCs,” on which Run rapped: “Larry put me inside his Cadillac/The chauffeur drove off and we never came back.”
Lawrence Michael Smith was born June 11, 1951, in Queens. He taught himself to play bass by listening to James Brown records, and by the time he met Simmons and began working with Run-DMC, Smith had a band of his own, Orange Krush. He also had been a session musician for some time; he had played bass on Kurtis Blow’s “Christmas Rappin'” and “The Breaks,” two early rap hits, and contributed to hits by Jimmy Spicer and the Fat Boys.
But his approach for Run-DMC was sui generis. In addition to emulating hip-hop’s scrappier street sound on record, Smith cooked up the idea to make a hybrid of hard rock and hip-hop, inviting Eddie Martinez, a touring guitarist, to record some riffs, which he then multitracked. The result was “Rock Box,” a song that set the table for later crossover success, including “King of Rock,” another Smith-Martinez collaboration, and the 1986 remake of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way,” on which Aerosmith itself teamed with Run-DMC.
By the time “Walk This Way” was recorded, Smith was no longer producing Run-DMC, although he was still making records with Whodini, a much slicker group, which, like Run-DMC, had platinum success. But improvements in technology soon gave hip-hop producers the ability to sample records freely – the opposite of Smith’s approach. By 1988, hip-hop’s sound had changed once again and moved past Smith, although his productions were often sampled by later producers.
In addition to his son, Smith is survived by three daughters, Danielle, Larissa and Lauren, and two granddaughters.