“Wow, the In Control Vol. 1 photo shoot — that was incredible.”
In 2013, legendary producer Marley Marl sat down with music journalist Frannie Kelley and A Tribe Called Quest member Ali Shaheed Muhummad to talk about one of the most exciting periods in hip hop history. Kelley had just asked about the iconic photoshoot for Marley’s debut, 1988’s In Control, Volume 1. “My ex-wife — at the time, she had a great idea, I got to give her the credit. I don't want to take her credit away. She said, ‘You guys are on the rise. You need to take a photo in front of a Lear jet to make it seem like you're bigger than life.’”
Though Marl would charitably claim that “we became stars after that photo shoot,” the Juice Crew were already fixtures in NYC’s hip hop scene. Largely spearheaded by the efforts of MC Shan and Roxanne Shante, who fought for recognition in both The Bridge Wars and The Roxanne Wars, the once-small assemblage had exploded to include a number of talented newcomers. Big names such as Biz Markie, Big Daddy Kane, Masta Ace, Kool G Rap and Tragedy Khadafi (then Tragedy the Intelligent Hoodlum) had come together under the banner of inner-city radio DJ Mr. Magic. Though Magic, sometimes known as “the juice,” had given the group its name, it was his protege Marley Marl that united the aspiring emcees.
In pioneering the art of the sample - lifting elements from vinyl records and repurposing them for his own recordings - Marl helped change the path of hip hop forever. Sampling is one of the most important innovations in hip hop history, and the explosion of the practice in the mid-to-late-’80s ushered in a new era of hip hop. Helping usher in the era was an achievement in itself, but Marl wasn’t content with the accolade: he wanted to dominate the rapidly-changing scene.
In Control, Volume 1 was evidence of this desire. One of the earliest albums credited to a producer instead of a single act, it found Marl playing both producer and curator, making a full record comprised of his talented inner circle. He was tastemaker and record breaker: as Mr. Magic’s assistant, he had a direct line to the airwaves. Back in ‘88, a connection at a prominent radio station was even more invaluable than it is today.
That’s how Marl - who was still living in the Queensbridge Housing Projects - came to be in front of a Lear Jet. “I was paying like $110 a month for my rent, free electricity,” he joked. “So New York City Housing Authority kind of co-produced some of my earlier hits." He’d invited the bulk of his Juice Crew roster - MC Shan, Kane, Kool G & DJ Polo, Masta Ace, Craig G and the Biz - along for the shoot, but ultimately, it wouldn’t be the most important part of his day. He’d decided that his record needed another track and so, after the photos were done, he headed back to his studio and lay another track. Unbeknownst to all involved, it would turn out one of the greatest hip hop songs of all time: “The Symphony.”
The Juice Crew Series
Somehow, Masta Ace recalls, fellow novice Craig G “weaseled his way to be a part of it too.” Craig’s cunning proved to be life-changing for Ace: as one of the few Juice Crew members with a car, he was often driving members around town. He was Craig’s ride home from the photoshoot and, as such, ended up in the room where it happened.
Standing in the room and readying for the take, the four emcees - Kane, Kool G, Craig and Ace - believed they were waiting on a legend and mentor. MC Shan, the most senior member of the Juice Crew, ultimately refused to turn up to the session. “I found out later he had no intentions of coming,” recalled Masta Ace in a remarkably soft-spoken fashion. “Marley told us later what went down,” reminisced Ace in a different 2014 interview. “He felt like he’s playing himself to be on a record with all these new jacks.” For what it’s worth, Shan has since disputed this interpretation.
Indeed, Shan had one thing that none of the other emcees did: an LP. Whilst “The Symphony” would drop just three months after Big Daddy Kane’s classic debut, Here Comes The Kane, it was recorded long before that album was slated for released. Both Kool G Rap and Craig G wouldn’t turn in a project until ‘89, and Ace - undoubtedly the most junior member on the cut - released Take A Look Around in ‘90. In one of hip hop’s great happenstances, it would be Shan’s absence that kickstarted Ace’s legendary career.
“I don't care who's first and who last,” opened Marl as Otis’ piano kicks in. “I don't care who start, I don't care what y'all do, but you got to be finished before the music is through. Now, who's first up to bat?” According to Ace, there weren’t any takers. “When it came time to get on the mic, everyone was deciding who’d go first,” Ace told Passionweiss in November. “They were going round and round so Marley looked at me and asked if I had a rhyme ready, just to loosen the room up. I really had no intention of even keeping my verse. Back then it was about being the anchor leg and going last.”
Though the “Symphony” session was apparently organised “to record one more song for [Marl’s] release,” it represented Ace’s first time rocking the mic. Ace must have laid his verses on both “Keep Your Eyes on The Prize” and “Simon Says,” also included on Marl’s In Control, Volume 1, after his strong showing on the posse cut, which only stresses just how important a moment it was for the young emcee. He found himself surrounded by peers and called upon for the first time. If ever there was a time to show and prove, it was then.
“Listen closely, so your attention's undivided
Many in the past have tried to do what I did…”
Ace was followed by another newcomer, Craig G. “Kane and Marley were like, ‘we have to do one more song,’” he told WatchLoud. “Kane made up the hook,” maintained G, responding to allegations that BDK wrote all four emcees’ verses. “We were all sitting in the living room writing, and everybody was taking their time, and no one wanted to go first… Ace got on and bodied it.” Kane left soon after penning the hook, leaving G Rap to his own devices: “his verse goes until the spool comes off the tape,” marvelled Craig as he reminisced. “There’s like another 20 bars of G Rap spitting like charcoal flames that you may have never heard.”
Kool G’s experience is inconsistent with Ace’s recollection, which attests to the fickle nature of memory. He recalls being called to the studio by his manager - a fact that seems unlikely, given that Marl, Ace and Craig G have said the session immediately followed the Learjet photoshoot - and laying his verse solo. “Craig G and Ace had laid verses. Marley was like, 'Yo G, I need a strong verse on this.' So I do a long ass verse,” mused G Rap. “The tape ran off the rail so I had to shorten it.”
At that pre-record point of G’s career, he spent a good deal of time crafting uncommonly long verses just in case he’d need them for a cypher: “I always kept an arsenal for when I needed it. Like one time, me, Kane, and L.L. Cool J were in a hotel room in Los Angeles spitting rhymes in a cypher. We must have spit like five verses apiece. I would just have the beat in my head when I wrote, and then when it came time to record I would see what verse fit the track the best.”
Last but certainly not least was Big Daddy Kane, the most senior emcee to rock the mic that day. Whilst he’d yet to put out an album, he was a few singles down and - given when “The Symphony” was recorded - presumably deep into writing for Biz Markie’s debut, Goin’ Off, and recording his own project. He’s said remarkably little about his experience in the studio that day, but it seems that he pushed for the track, gathered the posse, laid the segue between each emcee and left before the recording started. Kane presumably laid his own verse after the fact, seeing as G Rap used up all the tape (and then some).
Let’s take a brief look at the two instrumental samples used on Marl’s “The Symphony” beat.
Otis Redding’s “Hard To Handle,” released just six months after his sudden death, was recorded in his final studio sessions.
Prior to appearing on “The Symphony,” Redding’s track had been sampled just once, but not in the way you’d think: it was interpolated by reggae outfit The Upsetters on 1969’s “Heat Proof.” The same sample later underpinned Masta Ace’s 1990 cut “Four Minus Three,” also produced by Marl.
The break sampled from Rory-O & Chuck Colbert’s “Do It Your Way” is an impressively obscure find.
It seems as though it could only be the product of some serendipitous crate digging: the 45 single had never before been sampled, and was only issued by the City of Milwaukee to promote their Summerfest concert series in 1973. The track was later sampled by Kool G Rap & DJ Polo on “Money in the Bank,” produced by Large Professor.
Naturally, “The Symphony” left people wanting more. When Marley finally got around to delivering another LP, he revisited the concept with a slightly expanded roster. Kane brought along his younger brother Little Daddy Shane, who proved a far less successful artist than Kane’s subsequent mentee Jay-Z.
Marl released “The Symphony Part II” in 1991. It was included on In Control, Volume 2: For Your Steering Pleasure, the quiet sophomore effort from the superproducer.
There’s a number of reasons why this might be the case. Firstly, the late ‘80s breakthrough of the West Coast shifted national focus away from the East, which may have minimised Marl’s public profile.
The release also coincided with the gradual disillusion of the Juice Crew. A look at Marl’s production discography shows just how scattered the crew was in the early ‘90s. Whilst he produced albums for Ace, Intelligent Hoodlum and Craig G in ‘90 and ‘91, he produced just one more Crew-aligned project that decade: Intelligent Hoodlum’s Tragedy: Saga of a Hoodlum.
Then, in 1996, Harlem-based producer Frankie Cutlass reunited a number of Juice Crew emcees for a third and final instalment in the posse trilogy. “The Cypher, Pt. 3” featured verses from Craig G and Big Daddy Kane as well as Biz Markie and Roxanne Shante, who didn’t appear on either of the preceding cuts.
“The Cypher, Pt. 3” actually sampled the original “Symphony,” lifting Marl’s spoken-word opening and Masta Ace’s introduction for Craig G.
It also took vocal samples from Kane’s “Just Rhymin’ With Biz,” included on his debut, and Shante’s “Have a Nice Day,” a standalone single from almost a decade prior. George Duke’s “Reach For It” also served as an instrumental sample.
“The Cypher, Pt. 3” showed the longevity of the Juice Crew as a cultural force: whether it was curiosity or devotion, the track became Cutlass’ highest charting single, peaking at #24 on the Hot Rap Songs chart and #70 on the Hot R*B/Hip-Hop Song chart. The LP on which it featured - ‘97s Politics and Bullshit - also peaked at #127 on the Billboard 200.
No new symphony tracks have been recorded since ‘96, but that certainly wasn’t the last we heard. Marl later recorded “Foundation Symphony,” a 2001 posse cut that featured a new roster of underground talent and sampled the original 1988 track. DJ Jazzy Jeff remixed Marl’s original for his 2009 mixtape, My Faves Vol. 1. Even EPMD got in on the action, recording “Symphony 2000” alongside Method Man, Redman and Lady Luck. It interpolates the distinctive transitions from the original cut.
In the years since “The Symphony” played on WBLS, the posse cut has become a popular song structure. Hip hop history is littered with A-list rosters: some, like Brandy’s “I Wanna Be Down (Remix)” or Kanye’s “Mercy,” are pure distillations of their respective eras; others, such as Wu-Tang’s “Triumph” or Odd Future’s “Oldie,” find huge ensembles at the peak of their collaborative powers. One particularly interesting posse cut, A$AP Rocky’s “1Train,” provides a great snapshot an a generation of then-upcoming talent: Kendrick Lamar, Joey Badass, Yelawolf, Danny Brown, Action Bronson and Big K.R.I.T. all go toe to toe.
The appeal is easy to recognise: without a chorus, the posse cut becomes a bar-for-bar competition between peers and competitors alike. They’re conduits for the kind of compulsive list-making we love: I’ve had more than a handful of conversations about “Monster” (Nicki), “So Appalled” (CyHi), “Christian Dior Denim Flow” (Kanye/Pusha) and “Suspect” (Joey, I guess?). They cater to the competitive spirit of hip hop, juxtaposing flows and rhymes in an ultimate contest.
Sometimes, they help established artists put their friends on the map, as on Master P’s “Make ‘Em Say Uhh!” and Main Source’s “Live At The Barbecue.” One particularly storied use of the posse cut is steeped in activism: tracks such as “Self-Destruction,” “We’re All In The Same Gang” and “Get the Fist” reflected on rap violence, gang violence and the aftermath of the LA Riots, respectively.
Whilst the posses themselves come and go, the cut is an evergreen format, adaptable and ever-exciting. Though it wasn’t the first posse cut - that honour belongs to Run-DMC, Sheila E., Kurtis Blow and The Fat Boys - it helped realise the full potential of the ensemble piece, enshrining it as a classic model for future generations. Each and every time a hot posse cut drops, give a thought to “The Symphony,” a watershed moment in hip hop history.