Interview: Hip Hop Great Large Professor
Chairman Mao talks with the producer about his early days.
“Out in Queens, Flushing to be exact”: As one of Harlem’s most style-defining hip hop producers and lyricists, Large Professor has shaped an era of NYC rap like few others. Starting out under the wings of the late, great Ultramagnetic producer Paul C, young Extra P went from crafting pause tapes in his bedroom to professional studio production in no time.
Main Source, the band he rose through the ranks with, scored a label deal with Wild Pitch Records and released a classic debut album, Breaking Atoms. In ’92, the same year that saw Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson shoot hoops to Main Source’s “Fakin’ the Funk,” Large Pro hipped his long-time digging partner Pete Rock to the Tom Scott sax sample that became the all-time classic “T.R.O.Y..”
Besides his solo works and guest productions for the likes of Slick Rick, Rakim, Akinyele and many more, Large Pro played a crucial role in the career of one Nasir Jones. After formulating a first, awe-inspiring claim to fame as a teenager on Main Source’s “Live At The BBQ,” Nas and Large Professor continued to work on Illmatic, and maintained a collaborative friendship throughout their respective careers. In this edited and condensed excerpt from his recent interview with RBMA Radio, Extra P talks at length about those early days. - Red Bull Music Academy
Who was your production mentor?
My production mentor was a guy by the name of Paul C. McKasty. The group I was with at the time, Main Source, was trying to make a demo. Paul C. at that time was just a tremendous energy at a studio named 12/12 in Jamaica Queens, off Archer Avenue. Everyone was looking for Paul C. to do their demo, and Paul was very busy.
He saw and heard some of the ideas I had. Coming up in hip-hop and just having that competitive spirit, it was like, “Alright, everyone is using James Brown, I’m going to use something else.” And so Paul kind of took to that. Like I was coming with Young-Holt [Unlimited] records and jazz funk records, and I guess he didn’t have a lot of those. So I would come with this other angle and he was like, “This is kind of nice right here. You mind if I hold onto this record for a while?” “Go ahead, man. This is just an honor…” We kind of started building like that.
We would play records from the top producers at that time, and he would listen to it and he’d be cringing.
He took me out of that tape deck era. He was like, “This is the SP-1200, this is the machine you want to rock with.” He had one at his disposal at his home. One day I went over to his home and he sat me down and he was like, “What you want to do?” I’m like, “I want to take this record and I want to hook this up and I want to hook that up.” “Alright you do this, this, and that. I’m going to sleep, give it a try.” I sat there and just went crazy with that SP-1200. I was like, “I hope he doesn’t wake up, because I want to hook another beat and I want to make mad discs to fill and everything.” That SP-1200, once Paul C. introduced me to it, that was it.
He also introduced me to his technique. He was advanced on it. He had all kinds of double time things that he would do that would make sure the beat was tighter than the average. I’m not saying any names, but we would play records from the top producers at that time, and he would listen to it and he’d be cringing. Things that I wasn’t even noticing, he’d point out and say, “That’s not tight right there. This is cool, but I could have got that nice.” Once I started to learn that, I started hearing it.
Obviously when Paul C. passed it must have been difficult.
Yeah, it was crazy, because as a child I wasn’t even accustomed to anyone dying. Around my way, we had one fatality and that was my little man Jamal. He got hit by a car, but other than that I hadn’t even known anyone dying.
One time I went… Paul and I were both Meters addicts, so he had already had all of the Meters albums. I didn’t. He kind of put me up, he gave me a little CD starter kit like, “You never heard of the Meters, take this CD. This has all of the songs on it. Check it out and see if you can get the original albums.” That was another thing too. He was big into originals, like, “No, that’s a reprint man. You can’t...” It was almost like you couldn’t sample the reprint.
Paul was a real cool, witty, funny dude. When he died, it just stopped me in my tracks. It was just like, “You know shit ain’t all good out here.” Everybody is not going to wish you well. Everybody is not going to be with you. For something like that to happen to a dude like that, I just felt like it’s some sucker shit out here. I was like, “Who would do that?” That was my thing, “Who would do that?” It shocked me.
How did “Large Professor” come into being? You started with a different name (“Paul Juice”).
When you were on the mic, especially in those days, you couldn’t be like, “I’m just Regular P.” It had to be something extravagant. I was also coming from the Nation Of Islam, where we always kind of exalted ourselves. You have guys named Supreme, Wonderful, all of those kind of things.
Once I got my name, it was like I had a mission. I’m still on that mission.
[When I came up with “Large Professor], my father told me, “That’s a powerful name, you’re going to have some big shoes to fill, but I know you have the energy and you have the heart to do it. Go and do your thing.” Once I got my mother’s and father’s approval, it kind of took away anyone else’s doubt. My father told me some spiritual things about it too. He was a very spiritual man. He was like, “That’s a good name. You would have to live up to that name. It’s not going to be immediate. You’ll have to live.” Once I got that, it was like I had a mission. I’m still on that mission.
Breaking Atoms remains one of the most sophisticated pieces of productions in hip-hop history. What was the process of constructing it like?
In the studio, we had some heavy duty equipment. We had a synclavier, which was powerful at that time. Quincy Jones and the big dogs was using that. There is a part in “Snake Eyes” where we threw Jesse Anderson’s “Mighty, Mighty” in there, and that was all because of the synclavier. It wasn’t even us blending the record, it was us going to Tony P [at Libra Digital] and saying, “We want to use this whole part right here.” He was like, “Well, just play it.” He would press a few buttons on that synclavier, and it was just synced up, like magic. This was before time stretching and everything. That synclavier was heavy – a big, big tool for that Breaking Atoms album.
What are your recollections of making “Looking at the Front Door”?
“Front Door” was great, because it just came together. It was just that young, high school energy. The young high school dude, confused about relationship issues. It was just a high school time, but it was serious though. My father, he would say, “Men, you putting a record out. Wow, so you speaking out to the world.” He would always kind of give me these broad things. Not telling me what to do, but getting me in the right mindframe. I knew that it was serious, whatever it was that I was doing.
“Just Hanging Out” features a Gwen McCrae sample, and there’s a seamless quality to how it’s placed in that song that’s still really impressive – especially if you’re familiar with that particular record.
Gwen McCrae is funny, because I held my little tradition of when I was growing up, going to school, having homework. A lot of times I would come home and go outside. The street was calling, so I would go outside and all night, all day, and then it’s like, “Oh man, I got to do my homework.” The homework would normally get done the next day in the morning.
I kind of held on to that. Whenever I would go the studio, I would always try the morning before I came in to have something crazy. I tried the “90% [of Me Is You]” and just stood there with it for a little while. It was like, “I got to get this loop, I got to get this loop. Studio is almost half an hour away.” I got the loop out of there and went to the studio, I was late. I was like, “Watch this; we’re going to use this.” Pop the disc in there and just had the loop. That was it. It was like, “No one even know to use this to begin with, and you got the loop out of it. We’re going to get them.” It was that kind of energy.
From there, it was just on. It was just like kids in a candy store, just listening to that come together. K Cut, I remember, had a lot of reggae. Coming from Canada, their mother and grandfather had all these ill records, and it was just like, “Put this in there.” It was like chemistry.
What stands out to you about those early days working with Nas?
That dude was… I knew where I was going and he knew where he wanted to go. He knew where he was going. We bugged out, but we knew where we wanted to go, we knew where we wanted to get to. We could go out in the hallway at the studio and play, but when it was like, “All right fellas, the mix is done.” All of that shit would stop, and dudes would get focused. That serious attitude, that responsibility, I always liked about him. Even when I was offered studio time from an Eric B. and Rakim no-show session, I knew that I could rely on Nas because he was no nonsense with it.
You were kind of the unsung guru of Illmatic. People are more aware of it now, from the interviews that took place in the last year, but you facilitated a lot of these…
The producers, the beats, the feels, the edges, yeah, definitely.
I wonder if you could elaborate a bit about the process of Illmatic coming together, you bringing him to Pete, saying to Q-Tip, “Hey, this guy wants to work with you…”
That was because Nas and I were so alike, we are a lot alike. It was easy, it wasn’t like rocket science. We had already came out with “Barbeque,” so I didn’t have to sell him. I didn’t have to say, “My man is ill. Can you play the tape?” Funkmaster Flex is playing the tape, Red Alert is playing the tape, so you were already hearing him. All of that energy at that time was just like... It was over us and it was good. I’m glad we all organize to do that. More than anything, just organize for the world to see. When that energy is over you, just rock with that energy. That’s beautiful, that was a beautiful thing.
After Main Source split, you signed with Geffen for a solo project. What sort of obstacles did you encounter, and what sort of adjustments did you have to make creatively?
I had already been working with Wild Pitch Records, which was what Main Source was on, and had accumulated a certain amount of songs and was ready to go. One day I got a call like, “P, we’re going to make some moves and we’re going to pitch you on to a bigger platform with some bigger guys.”
Well, I do what I do. I wouldn’t care if it was Monopoly Records or whatever, I do what I do. If you all are rocking with me, you know what it is. So I get to Geffen Records and cool. “Mad Scientist,” “Ijuswannachill.” It was kind of crazy because a lot of people around me were like… It was a nicer budget, it was great, it was kind of all me, so it was like, “Well P, you can kind of change your campaign now.” I was like, “Nah, nah, that’s not …” The struggle, I had to go through that struggle. I have to get this stuff out there.
At the time that Mad Scientist was coming out, a lot of people were kind of getting a little bit more lofty with it. It was like, Don’t forget the struggle.
I remember going to the office and “Mad Scientist” was the song I had, and one of the execs was there and was like, “‘Mad Scientist.’ Wow. This is… You’re doing better now. Why are you putting this record out?” One of the execs said, “Oh, because he is backwards.” I was like, “Wow, this something different.” It’s funny now because when I listen to the record, I think I was speaking for hip hop in general. “Never had a basement, never had an attic.” At the time that “Mad Scientist” was coming out, a lot of people were kind of getting a little bit more lofty with it. It was like, “Don’t forget the struggle.” It wasn’t all bad. But, you know, that’s where I was at, and it didn’t pan out because people wanted to hear about Versace and things like that. Even I did. After a while, I was like, “This is cool.”
You were also quite prolific throughout this period with remixes. Is there any one that stands out to you in particular?
My favorite one was the Slick Rick “It’s a Boy” remix. At that time Slick Rick was living in Flushing. His son’s mother, I grew up with her. They were about to have the baby, and everything was happening. I think he had just got locked up or something like that. It was just a lot... When I got that call, it was like, “Def Jam wants you to do some Slick Rick remixes.” It was like, “My man.” That kind of thing. Pete Rock had found the Lonnie Smith drums. He threw me the drums on disc. Rashad Smith was the one who put me on to the Cal Tjader album. And when it came together, it was just like, “This is dope right here.” It was just sit back and play it again. That was just crazy. [laughs]
One thing that I think is so essential to that era was just this great energy and sense of discovery based around uncovering all these beats and samples. That’s what I remember. Just seeing you guys at the record shops, seeing all of these collaborations between the likes of you, Pete Rock, Tip, Diamond D and everyone else taking place.
Definitely, that was the thing at that time… Like with “T.R.O.Y.,” the Tom Scott record, a lot of those records… Pete [Rock] was really [into] funk and jazz. His father had a lot of records, and he was uptown, so he had that style of record right there. I would go out to the Village a lot, I would go to Jamaica where they had a lot of funky records, but I was more in the Village and Bleecker Records, the one around the corner from House of Oldies. Down there they had the pristine jazz joints.
I remember seeing that Tom Scott [record] and taking a chance on it, and getting it home. I was stuck on that horn loop, though. I would loop that up and be stuck, just listen to that alone and try to filter it. There’s evidence. In the Slick Rick remix, which came out before. There is a little clip of the horn. That horn is from the Tom Scott [record].
It was just that “Troy” blew up so much! Pete just went in on Tom Scott, and I didn’t have any problem with it or anything like that. People knew that I was looping that up, so that’s where it probably came from – a peripheral kind of thing. People were like, “He bit this and that and that.” Pete did everything, he did all the programing, everything.
That’s how we were all doing it. Diamond would put me up on a record. I would be like, “Yo, you got this?” He would get the record, hook it up. I think it was the fact that stuff was blowing up. I didn’t think it was going to blow up like that, but God knows and we good. I’m just glad everybody got their little slot in this.
I mean there was a time when Rashad Smith had hooked up the “Woo Hah!!” for Bus[ta Rhymes] and he was playing me the record. I was like, “I’m going to hook that up.” I had originally did my “Mad Scientist” over that and Bus came to me and was like, “Yo P! I can’t believe that you would…” The record game is just crazy. We somewhere else with it, but at that time it was, “You can’t use that loop in this and all that kind of stuff.” But we good. Everybody is good.