Growing up in the Philly area, there is a constant underlying feeling of inferiority, like a little brother, in regards to New York City, particularly within the realm of hip-hop.
The culture was born and bred in NYC and while our city has had its share of stars, including Schoolly D, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, Beanie Sigel, and, of course, the Roots, the feeling of being overshadowed never fully went away.
Gamble and Huff created the sound of Philadelphia soul in the ’70s, but by the ’90s the game’s biggest labels, like Def Jam, Bad Boy, Ruthless, and Death Row were based in either New York or Los Angeles, giving those two cities even more attention. Fortunately, there was one that was born closer to home.
That label, the one that gave the world Kris Kross, Cypress Hill, the Fugees, and more, was ours. It wasn’t in Manhattan or LA. It was in Old City and then Conshohocken.
It was a small outfit that made a big impact, and Ruffhouse: From the Streets of Philly to the Top of the ’90s Hip-Hop Charts (Diversion Books, 2019) tells the story of that record label that organically grew from production and artist management to one of the most successful independent hip-hop houses of the 1990s.
Penned by the label’s co-founder and CEO, Chris Schwartz, it is a memoir of the rise of Ruffhouse and the changing economics and environment of the music business over that time.
Coming in at a slim 207 pages, it is a quick read that doesn’t delve too deeply into any one topic, but touches on all of the noteworthy points of Schwartz’s career, from the early days of managing rap pioneer Schoolly D, to the highs reached by the Fugees, both collectively and as solo artists, while also devoting time to the disappointment of once-promising artists like the Goats.
Drummer of the Roots — and former Ruffhouse intern Questlove — pens the introduction and Lauryn Hill provides the foreword, but the strength of the book is the author’s honesty.
While far from a tell-all — don’t expect to get the inside dirt on the breakup of Wyclef, Hill, and Pras or any salacious details about behind-the-scenes artist behavior — it is still a candid piece of work, one that avoids the great man theory that plagues far too many biographies. Schwartz tells the harrowing story of his Lord of the Flies-esque upbringing in a house with nine siblings, including older brothers that routinely abused him and an alcoholic mother, as well as his prolonged battle with substance abuse that often complicated his personal life.
Professionally, he also avoids dwelling only on his successes, devoting just as much time to mistakes or missed opportunities, artists that seemed like they were destined to stardom but fell short for one reason or another.
The book does have some interesting music industry tidbits like House of Pain claiming Kris Kross, in the form of Jermaine Dupri, had stolen the idea of “Jump” after sending a demo of a song with the same title to Ruffhouse (the song, of course, was eventually retitled “Jump Around”) or Sony executive Tommy Mottola listening to a rough cut of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and finding it “very, very, very mediocre.”
There’s also the story of Schwartz’s biggest professional loss: signing a young MC named Nasty Nas to the label and releasing his single “Halftime” on the soundtrack to the film Zebrahead. “But the talk in the hip-hop community about Nas far exceeded any awareness created from the single and soundtrack release,” particularly after Schwartz gave Jonathan Shecter of The Source a rough mix of Illmatic, so Columbia, with which Ruffhouse had a partnership, decided it would add Nas to their roster and release the highly anticipated LP.
Somewhat surprisingly, the book’s biggest strength aside from its raw honesty is the amount of information and education Schwartz gives in terms of the way the music industry operates and how the large labels conduct their businesses. Most music fans have probably heard about royalties, publishing, distribution, and points, but rarely has it been so cogently articulated, especially from someone that was there and had first-hand knowledge of how it all works.
While Ruffhouse is a fun trip down rap memory lane, throughout the book I found myself often wanting more. It would have benefited from Schwartz going far deeper into a few topics or divulging some of the crazy stories he has no doubt accumulated.
Still, as a whole, the book is an enjoyable journey to the top of the hip-hop game as told through the eyes of a kid from Devon on the Upper Main Line that had dreamed of being a musician but, in some ways, became so much more and, for a time, was in the center of it all.
I was provided a free copy in exchange for an honest review.
Christopher Pierznik is the author of nine books. Check out more of his writing at Medium. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Medium, Fatherly, Hip Hop Golden Age, and many more. Subscribe to his monthly newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.