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‘It was fun until it wasn’t’: hip-hop A&R Dante Ross on De La Soul, ODB – and punches with P Diddy | Rap


AFirst, “the Forrest Gump of hip-hop” sounds like an incongruous nickname. Surely there are few characters who embody the spirit of this genre less than Tom Hanks’ slow-witted sprinter? But Dante Ross is delighted with the title. “Gump is the connector,” he explains during a Zoom call from his home in Los Angeles. “He is connected to all these things. But you don’t really know who he is.

The moniker, given to Ross by Black Thought, the Roots’ lead rapper, is one of many mentions that adorn the cover of Ross’s new memoir, Son of the City, which details his career as one of the most hip industry boomers of the 90s. -hops. The list of rap royalty that fills the rest of the cover speaks to Ross’ status: from Chuck D and Mike D to Questlove and Queen Latifah.

Like Gump, Ross charted his rise from inauspicious beginnings. As a white child growing up on the pre-gentrified streets of New York, he seemed an unlikely candidate to help usher in the golden age of hip-hop. But when Run-DMC hit the scene in 1983, he was immediately captivated. He transitioned from punk to hip-hop and started hanging out in rap-friendly clubs, where he formed relationships that opened doors for him in the industry. “I don’t think I’ve ever gone out with an agenda and hung out with people who would help me get up the ladder,” Ross says. “But I had aspirations to work in the music industry, for sure.”

Old school… with Pete Rock (left) and Diamond D.
Old school… with Pete Rock (left) and Diamond D. Photography: (wait for credit)

Ross started at the bottom when a friend got him a delivery job at Rush Productions, a subsidiary of Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin’s Def Jam. Soon after, he was scouted as an A&R executive for Tommy Boy Records. His tenure started well with his first assignment – ​​overseeing the production of De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising. The album became an instant classic, with Ross referenced on a few tracks as “Dante the Scrub”. The first act signed by Ross was a teenage Queen Latifah. “My first impression of her was that she was a complete superstar,” he recalled. “She walked into the room with a million dollar smile. When we heard the demos, they jumped out of the speakers. (Her debut album, recorded under Ross’ tenure, was recently selected for preservation at the Library of Congress.)

Despite this strong start, it was Ross’ five-year stint at Elektra Records that defined his career. In his memoir, Ross describes this time, perhaps shamelessly, as “one of the most incredible runs by any A&R person I’ve ever known.” Albums by Ross acts during this period include One for All by Brand Nubian, Return to the 36 Chambers by Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Mecca and the Soul Brother by Pete Rock & CL Smooth – all listed on the 200 Greatest Albums Rolling Stone hip-hop of all time. Still, says Ross, “There were a lot of idiot scholars. We didn’t know what we were doing. During his Elektra run, Ross also discovered several future stars. By signing Leaders of the New School, he launched the career of Busta Rhymes, who was so young he had to take his mother to sign the contract. And, by signing KMD, he introduced the world to the late MF Doom, an artist whose reputation as the “rapper’s rapper” seems to grow stronger with each passing year.

Along the way, Ross also enjoyed the wild lifestyle that came with working in the music industry. He smoked a joint on Warner’s jet to see James Brown after his release from prison. He dated a string of underage celebrities. At times, the way of life seemed to get the better of him. “I drank like a fish, smoked levels of Cypress Hill pot, and fought constantly,” Ross writes. One of those fights culminated when Ross traded blows with P Diddy at a nightclub. A week later, Ross bumped into Diddy again in the Armani store. “Thank goodness we had made peace, otherwise I might have worn this costume at my own funeral,” he wrote.

Defining the genre… with Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys.
Defining the genre… with Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys. Photography: (wait for credit)

In the second half of the 90s, Ross made a rare transition. “A lot of producers become A&R guys,” he says. “But few A&R guys become producers.” His move to the other side of the office brought new levels of business success. With House of Pain lead rapper Everlast, he created a radio-friendly hybrid of soft rock and hip-hop that spawned the double-platinum album Whitey Ford Sings the Blues and inspired thousands of imitators. . New opportunities opened up, including a Grammy-winning collaboration on Santana’s Supernatural album and two production credits on Eminem’s 8 Mile soundtrack. “It was great fun for a good five years,” Ross says. “And then it wasn’t fun anymore.”

Ross returned to A&R work in the decades that followed, but he admits his enjoyment waned. “Nobody signs an artist because they heard their song on an underground mix or saw a band live or was in a club and heard their record,” he says. “It doesn’t really work that way anymore.” Instead, artists are increasingly signed based on streaming numbers and social media engagement.

He admits to being just as guilty. “I can’t tell you I was proud of everything I signed,” he says of his recent A&R work. “They will not be part of my inheritance.” In the book, he writes about signing rapper Ugly God to Asylum Records. “I don’t think Ugly God is talented. I think he had a successful record. But it’s not the same level of artistry for me,” he says, making a negative comparison with De La Soul, who he considers “one of the greatest bands that ever made music.” .

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'It was fun until it wasn't': hip-hop A&R Dante Ross on De La Soul, ODB – and punches with P Diddy | Rap
“There are always young people replacing the previous iteration”… Ross in 2018. Photography: Johnny Nunez/WireImage

Ross suggests it’s part of a broader decline in hip-hop. “When sampling got too expensive, hip-hop lost some of its funk and soul,” he wrote. And he is even less complimentary on the lyrics. “Instead of rapping about Breonna Taylor or George Floyd, we’re subjected to verses about pussy, skimpy, materialistic bullshit,” he wrote, criticizing a diminished political consciousness he perceives among rappers today. today.

When I point out that old-school hip-hop had its share of “materialistic bullshit,” Ross pushes back. “There was always something materialistic about it, but it was also kind of fun,” he says, quoting Busy Bee’s 1982 single Making Cash Money. “It evolved into something very, very different. It’s leveled up to a grand and often unrealistic scale of abject materialism that didn’t exist at the core of the core aspects of hip-hop.

Either way, Ross is right to note that music has changed – like all genres. So maybe he doesn’t align as well with Forrest Gump, a character who seems oblivious to the changing world around him. Perhaps it better suits another nickname on his book cover – that of Chuck D, who calls him “the Ralph Bass of hip-hop.” The superficial parallels between Ross and Bass are obvious: “Ralph Bass was a white man who worked on black music,” says Ross. But the similarity is deeper. Bass started in the 1940s, specializing in R&B and working with artists like Etta James, Sam Cooke and James Brown. By the end of his career in the 90s, R&B had also changed beyond recognition.

Ross recognizes the cyclical nature of change. “It’s perpetual in hip-hop,” he says. “There are always the youngsters who replace the previous iteration.” And he still finds inspiration in indie hip-hop: He recently started new A&R work at Plus One Records, a small label with a philosophy more aligned with his own. “I feel like there’s still a lot of art left in music.”

Son of the City is published by Rare Bird Books on May 23.

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