Interview: Tuff City’s Aaron Fuchs

The outspoken and controversial label owner talks about the early days of hip hop

Aaron Fuchs spent his early years as a New York music critic specializing in covering funk and soul records for publications such as the Village Voice and Rolling Stone while his colleagues clamored over themselves to review the new Bob Dylan LP. Witnessing the emergence of hip hop as an exciting new form of recorded music, Fuchs decided to try his hand at the indie record label game in 1982.

During those formative years Tuff City Records played David to Def Jam’s Goliath, persevering against the odds to deliver pivotal records by the Cold Crush Brothers, Spoonie Gee and Lakim Shabazz, thanks to Fuchs’ finely tuned ear. I sat down with Aaron in his latest office in 2013 and we spoke extensively about how to keep your head above water in the record game; working with influential producers such as Marley Marl, Teddy Riley, The 45 King and Pumpkin; and the possibility of where hip hop music might have evolved if the early record labels hadn’t gotten involved when they did.

What’s the longest that you’ve been in one location?

Five, six years. In New York City, no matter what business you’re in, you also have to be in the real estate business. It’s just chaotic keeping an office address for more than a few years at a time.

What are your proudest achievements as a record label so far?

I was very proud to be on the scene around 1982, when the electronic drum machines came on the scene. I described it as “a thousand flowers bloomed.” You previously had all your DJs just looping or sampling beats from the same body of records, and when the electronic drum machines came in, all of a sudden it seemed like the unique sub-rhythms of the DJs’ ethnic backgrounds – because hip hop is a very Pan-Carribean music – came to the forefront. It was wonderful to be working with Charlie Chase and Master OC, who were Puerto-Rican; Pumpkin, who was Costa Rican; and Davy-D, who was American black. It was really reflected in their different approaches to rhythms. What a wonderful time to be making music.

How had you met all these guys?

Hip hop was incredibly small when I got into hip hop, circa ‘78. The communications medium for hip hop was a 7 x 5 sheet of paper called the Phillip Edwards Report. He was the guy who had the bright idea to list all the stores in the metropolitan area and create a list of records that they were selling and distribute them around the boroughs. When I told Bambaataa, I wanted to sign an MC crew, I didn’t know he’d bring me the greatest of all-time, the Cold Crush Brothers. When I befriended Barry Michael Cooper, because we were both music critics for the Village Voice, I had no idea that he had cultivated a friendship with Spoonie Gee, who was the most influential of hip hop artist of the old school era.

What can you tell me about your experiences as a music critic?

Criticism started because of Dylan and John Lennon. All of a sudden, lit[erature] majors had something to write about with rock & roll. I always had a niche because I was one of the very few guys writing about black music, so while the review of the new Beatles or Dylan album was always taken, the review of the Wilson Pickett album or the Aretha Franklin album was always available.

And you were more than happy to take that on board.

Yeah. Happy to be able to hang out in Atlantic Records, happy to be able to fill my kind of junkie’s need for music.

Do you feel like it was an obsession for you at that stage?

No. It was an addiction. I interviewed Bob Marley once and he pulled out an ice cream cone of a blunt. I had only been smoking skinny jays at the point and I never pressed the on button of the tape recorder for the interview! But even when I was not stoned I had a need to be listening to music either live or on record every day of the week.

How did you make the transformation from critic to label owner?

Al Green - Let's Stay Together

Beyond merely reviewing albums, I was making predictions in print that were like A&R calls. I reviewed Al Green’s first album for Rolling Stone and spoke very, very highly about it. “Watch this guy, he’s gonna happen.” Six or seven months later he put out “Let’s Stay Together” and the record company used my quotes as part of their campaign. That really wasn’t happening with critics, and I saw it happening with me a few times. There was also the luck of being early and ahead of the pack. When I decided I wanted to make it my business in 1980 it wasn’t competitive. There were very few, if any, companies that saw it as something that would have long-range potential. Because I was a journalist, and also historically minded, I saw hip hop as part of the continuum of American black music tradition. I thought it was here to stay. I was betting very long, so it enabled me to hang in there through mistake after mistake, which might have sunk me had I gotten in later on when it was more competitive or if I was less inclined to stay with it.

It was still regarded as a fad at that time?

If you were a historian as I was, you were hearing the same things you heard about rock & roll. “It’s black! It’s jungle music! It’ll never last!” I had other notions. There’s that Bob Marley expression, “Who feels it, knows it.” It was the reverse for me – I knew it, and then later I felt it! It was strange to me in the beginning, but I knew it was gonna happen and then I grew to love it.

What was the first record you released?

Verticle Lines ‎– Beach Boy

It was a record called “Beach Boy” by Verticle Lines. I had put my trust in Barry Michael Cooper. He’s known for writing the script to New Jack City, but what he was doing earlier – around 1980 – is still not sufficiently heralded. He was talking to Jamaican-born Harlem record label owners to put out his hip hop productions. These guys started out making Jamaican music in the first place, so to be convinced to get into into hip hop was a big leap. He was into the Kraftwerk-like techno style of it, so it was amazing both for the artistic leap it represented for him but also for the leap of faith he was making these shopkeepers take for him. I’m very proud to have worked with him and having picked up some of his earlier recordings.

I trusted him to make this record. Unfortunately, he made this downtempo electro record with a little doo-wop vocal, and nobody wanted to know. I remember there was this iconic record man in the Bronx named Brad, he had put out “Catch the Beat” by T-Ski Valley, and he kept saying to me, “There’s no foot, man! There’s no foot in that record!” All these years later it’s gone on to have some kind of cult status, but then nobody wanted to really hear a record like “Verticle Lines.”

You weren’t selling many copies at the time?

The Micronawts - Smurph Across The Surf (Dub Version)

That’s right. But it wasn’t sinking me. At that time the economies of scale were smaller. Even if you didn’t make money you weren’t really bleeding money because you weren’t embarking on some sort of national campaign with a $100,000 video and a $100,000 promotion budget. You had a somewhat receptive local radio market and you had a local sales market. It was a good way for a small businessman to sustain. I had my first success with the follow up, “Smurf Across the Surf” we were much more in the groove. That could be deemed to be a classic “electro” record. It was released on the heels of “Planet Rock,” so it was uptempo that way, but the beautiful thing was Afrika Bambaataa did the mix. He stripped it down and dubbed it up and then, on the heels of further criticism by Brad, I overdubbed the live kick drum and it was off to the races. We made some noise locally.

What was the record that really put you in business, sales-wise?

I had a CBS deal, and all the records I did with them sold because there was this incredible sales machine over there. There was an expression in the music business called “losing records,” which meant you could sell a lot of records and not really know how to explain it. They just knew how to put records everywhere so you can get impulse purchases.

But even though I had records that got on the radio and sold records for them, it wasn’t until I left them and went indie that I had a record that really secured me, to make me feel, “Okay, rent’s gonna be paid for a while.” That was “The Godfather” by Spoonie Gee, which was a Marley Marl production. That got into daily rotation. There were two kinds of plays that hip hop got at that time – a kind of lesser rotation in the evenings, and hip hop shows and dance shows on the weekend – and then there were the hits, which were integrated into daily rotation by these stations which were really still R&B stations. They were playing hip hop to boost ratings. So it was a cross-over in that way. Cross-over has traditionally been from R&B to pop, but in those days with hip hop you had to cross-over over to R&B! That secured my existence as a company.

Spoonie Gee - The Godfather

The Godfather album was a comeback of sorts for Spoonie Gee, wasn’t it?

How well I know, because when we put the 12-inch out we weren’t getting orders for it. I finally went to one of the important retailers – Music Factory – and said, “This record is getting all kinds of rotation, why aren’t I getting any orders for it?” They said, “Oh, we thought it was the new Rakim record!” Spoonie had been quiet for so long, and Rakim had become very popular, having been influenced by Spoonie.

Did you recruit Teddy Riley for that project specifically?

There’s a big story about Teddy Riley in those days, he was almost like the property of a big drug dealer – in a manner of speaking.

I don’t even know if he was 18. He was a young, brilliant kid. We made those records in his mother’s living room. You didn’t have to be a genius to know how important Teddy Riley was at that time. I think it was an iconic piece on Teddy Riley in the Village Voice that got Barry Michael Cooper his entree to Hollywood. Teddy was tied, if you will, to a “gangsta.” I’m fairly ambivalent about this; but you don’t look a gift-horse in the mouth.

Gene Griffith – Teddy’s “mentor” – and I were peas in a pod. We both had Associated Label deals at CBS, and there was a uniformity of bad experience to people who had that deal. They were a division of Epic, and at that time Michael Jackson was having his hugest success with Epic with the Thriller album, so that everybody else who was there was secondary, but even at that strata they were able to break Boy George and Cyndi Lauper. We were a strata lower beneath them. Fast forward a few years, and word was Gene had been locked up or something, when I stuck my deal for Spoonie with Teddy. Word got out that Gene was set to return, so Teddy put all outstanding deals – including ours – on hold and we feared we the deal wasn’t going to happen. But God bless him, when he returned Gene green lighted the deal.

Spoonie Gee - Take It Off

The go-go sound of Spoonie Gee’s “Take It Off” was a big deal at the time. What was your involvement with making that happen?

That go-go sound paralleled the rise of Teddy Riley’s swing beat, and my A&R chops for hip hop were as sharp as they ever were and were ever going to be. I was breathing it. I had this deal with Marley where I would pay him part cash and part vinyl, because I had a deeper command of vintage funk and crate digging stuff. He was a brilliant guy, but he wasn’t really a crate digger.

I always saw him as more of technical guy, which is why he called himself “The Engineer All-Star.”

But not to the exclusion of having serious ears. I don’t know when the Queensbridge projects were built, but it didn’t have the “old bones” of some of the other black neighborhoods in metro New York – Brooklyn, The Bronx, Harlem. I was schooling him as far as the deeper crate digging, funk type things. Though I got some good productions from him for a low price, he was a sponge and quickly integrated what I gave him into his on-air set pieces. If I gave him the Ohio Players “Funky Worm”? Boom, Marley had a “Granny” persona like Junie Morrison. I gave him “Impeach the President” and boom! It became MC Shan’s “The Bridge.” The opening, “Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve got MC Shan in the house!” It’s a take-off of The Honeydrippers’ “Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve got the Honeydrippers in the house!”

It was unforgettable hanging with Marley. In those days there were fewer beat makers – guys with studio chops – than there were rappers, and what I saw first with Pumpkin and then with Marley was artist after artist would come around them. Starting first with just grabbing who ever he could in Queensbridge, then evolving to people seeking him out from all over metro New York.

Grandmaster Caz’s style was so literate it would pass muster with your English professor.

The PHD album was a favorite of mine. There was no shortage of heavy artillery on the back cover.

We had a video that was directed by Demian Lichtenstein, who went on to make movies. He made that Kurt Russell movie about the ten guys in Elvis outfits who robbed Vega [3000 Miles To Graceland]. It was very good, but we had to edit it and edit it and edit it until we met MTV’s standards.

But you could never go wrong working out of Queensbridge, it was a real hotbed of talent. The reason I was working in Queensbridge was I was living in Long Island City. Which was just on the other side of the Queensboro bridge. Even though it was the sticks, I was near a studio – Power Play, I was near a pressing plant and I was near the Tri-Borough bridge. You could go into the studio on Tuesday, have your records pressed by Friday and hit the street. Just run around New York on payday, when there were record stores in every borough. It was like being in the baked good business! You’d come into the pressing plant in the morning and the smell of vinyl would just fill your nostrils. Everything about the hip hop business was smaller then, and it increased your chances of just making something happen.

How did some of those early Hot Day singles come about? They sounded like they were recorded live.

That “Hot Day Mastermix” record was pretty lo-fi. On the flip he recorded Tragedy over my “Take It Off” track. I was like, “Dude, that record is now mine.” We ended up working together though on a bunch of records.

That record really captured that live park jam feeling. What are some of the more vivid memories from back then?

The instances that rock your world tend to happen when you’re younger. When I was taken to the Apollo Theater by the black caretaker of my father’s synagogue in ‘64 and saw Jackie Wilson – that just rocked my world. What really surprised me is that the same thing happened so much later in life when Bambaataa invited me to the T-Connection in 1980. The electricity was so palpable, the vibe was so ferocious. Just to see Bambaataa arrive, to see the his procession of posse members coming to the club, carrying crates of records and setting up, was very post-gang. When Bambaataa came to the gig, there were four men carrying crates behind him. It had that quality of gang members coming to rumble. Being at a time in life when you’re in your 30s already and you believe you’re past the point of having something so exciting happen to you – to have that still happen was wonderful.

What can you tell me about working with the Cold Crush Brothers?

Cold Crush Brothers - Fresh, Wild, Fly And Bold

I had the good fortune to work with Grandmaster Caz, and because his style was so literate it would pass muster with your English professor. But the early records by the Cold Crush, like “Fresh, Fly, Wild and Bold” and “Punk Rock Rap” were styles unto themselves. They say video killed the radio star and film killed vaudeville – I believe that I have precious examples of hip hop’s vaudevillian phase, something that was forged through live performance, even though it was still in the studio. Something whose form had yet to be codified.

The Bronx and Harlem were worlds apart culturally by the time the ’70s happened, because Harlem’s a long-standing community and The Bronx was burnt-out, but they were geographically very close to each other. You had hip hop evolve like a weed, like topsy, like Marlboro country, and bang! The Harlem record guys take over because it’s spatially a short trip. You had Spoonie Gee, who was really an R&B guy who was rapping instead of singing. You had this formalizing of what hip hop was into the constraints of the Harlem record business.

These couple of [Cold Crush Brother] records actually reflect what hip hop was before it was a record business. This crazy, formless, sprawling kind of music. You wonder sometimes what would have happened to hip hop had the Bronx had not been so close to Harlem and was so quickly engulfed by the vastly deeper traditions of Harlem. In the Bronx it was something that was being invented as it was going along, and that’s what opened the door to that younger generation. Sugar Hill had its reign ended because it reflected the imposition of an older sensibility, it was run by record people of an earlier generation.

Did that give you the edge?

What was specific to me was that I had nothing to lose. Around the turn of the ’70s into the ’80s, New York was tanking, it was in its nadir. I had lost a series of jobs as a journalist. Hip hop was exciting to me, it was an absolute leap into a cosmic mosh pit for me. I completely invested in it. When I was able to work with the tremendous, iconic early beat maker Pumpkin he was extremely frustrated by the A&R demands that Corey Robins of Profile had put on him. So for me it was, “Great! Do whatever you want for me.”

Grandmaster Caz - You Need Stitches

Later I developed very firm notions, and sometime in the mid-’80s I went through my auteurist phase for about a year, in which I believe that I reflected a certain noir sensibility that dovetailed what was going on in hip hop. Making these real dark records that had almost no commercial [appeal]. “Street Girl” by Spoonie Gee and “You Need Stitches” by Grandmaster Caz. But in the beginning there was almost an anti-A&R sensibility that helped me through.

How did you meet Ced-Gee?

I was keeping myself open to possibility. I had heard that Ced-Gee was the uncredited producer of the Boogie Down Productions album and his work with Ultramagnetic spoke for itself. While there were some artists and producers that I discovered from scratch, you didn’t have to be prescient to know that you wanted to get Teddy Riley or Ced-Gee for a gig, or Marley or Pumpkin or Master OC. I hope is how I’ll be judged on a mix of respecting existing reputations and making A&R calls on unknowns. Hip hop has not developed the best possible A&R-driven biographers or historians. I believe that I’m one [Francois] Truffaut away from being deemed an auteur and it just hasn’t happened yet. [laughs]

Meanwhile, it feels like there have been one hundred books written about Def Jam.

You make a very good point, because back then you couldn’t describe what you were doing as competing with them – you were left in the dust by them! You survived the assault of everything that surrounded them. You hope that once 25 years have passed, as with the French deeming something to be “noir,” the British deeming certain types of soul to be “Northern,” you say, “Okay, I didn’t get my propers the first time around cos I didn’t want to pay Mr. Magic payola.” I could have tripled my chances of getting records played. I did what I could. And I left a top notch, distinctive body of work.

The 45 King had a big impact on the Tuff City discography. How did that relationship begin?

He was R&B driven, which I loved. Red Alert was a DJ of rare honesty, he played a record if he liked it. You didn’t have to pay him. He was partial to The 45 King, so making records with The 45 King wasn’t rocket science. Where I made my contribution was my role in the creation of the Lakim Shabazz persona. Listening to hip hop shows, so many dedications came from prison – people with Islamic names – so it was like, “Let’s get a rapper like this.” So MC La Kim became Lakim Shabazz, with all due respect to his legitimate involvement with his Islamic faith. But we played it up.

How successful was Lakim Shabazz’s Pure Righteousness album?

I think that that was the first hip hop album that ever came out without a hit single. At that time, the wall of a record store called Music Factory in Times Square was an international communications medium. I had first seen that wall’s responsibility for the transition of West Coast hip hop from being years behind the East Coast to catching up. In ‘84 they came to the New Music Seminar and they were just ripping records off that wall, and it caught them up with the East stylistically. I knew that was happening, and that European tourists shopped there too, so I made the Lakim Shabazz album just so I could put him in a picture with a kufi and a dashiki. It broke the album internationally.

Davy DMX - One for the Treble

How did those early 45 King compilation albums together?

I’m a bottom feeder, I just love the idea of making DJ records. When I say “bottom feeder,” I mean nobody was making DJ records with the intention of only having modest success. Having been marginalised by that time, with a number of major-driven hip hop labels dominating the play, some of the hip hop labels themselves had become very huge, I was just making DJ records out of humility. When I made “One for the Treble” by Davy DMX that record was meant to celebrate the “DJ record.” The concept of scratch DJing was new and exciting, that record is an exciting, dark terrain of music. When I made the 45 King records, it was with the intention of staking out – like in baseball, everyone around you is hitting home runs and you believe that you can endure as a professional by hitting singles – that’s what I was doing.

The 45 King - The 900 Number

Was “The 900 Number” your home run?

It’s had a long, successful life. Even though I gave Mark the sample for it, I didn’t see truly it coming. It started out as something called “Beat Suite,” the fourth movement of a four beat concerto, and slowly but surely a couple of versions later it became “The 900 Number.” Less became more. It was used for The Ed Lover dance on Yo! MTV Raps, it became part of DJ Kool’s “Let Me Clear My Throat.” I went to New Orleans in 1988 to get away from it all and I heard a brass band playing it. I said, “Has this thing risen to the level of ‘When The Saints Go Marching In’”? There’s a sports expression called “instant offense,” or in clubs when you’ll use a popper to get the crowd high. That’s what this was, something that really grooves a crowd, gets them excited.

The whole Flavor Unit thing was something that grew hugely because of the politics of radio in New York City. Mr. Magic was a silent partner in Cold Chillin’, he had a share of the records that he played, Marley was his DJ. They were able to make the record that they had a share in and promote it on the airwaves that they had a share of. So they were killing! Combine that with Marley’s excellence – you could see this evolution from MC Shan to Rakim, coming around him from whatever greater swath of territory. Red Alert had to fight back! So Red Alert developed his team that he could get exclusives with. The 45 King was one such artist, Boogie Down Productions was another, The Violators were another. If you made a record with The 45 King, I couldn’t be happier! The Flavor Unit was a petri dish of creativity, these guys stood on each other’s necks to make sure their rhymes were as good as could be. You knew you had a good record, you knew you had a chance of it being played, you didn’t have to pay the DJ to play it if that was distasteful to you.

Tuff City released the only Flavor Unit album of that original line-up. Was that a planned project or a collection of spare songs?

1990 Tuff City

First of all, I planned the fruit salad cover because I wanted The Source magazine to call it, “One of the worst covers in hip hop history.” So that was intentional! [laughs] Nah, I had a great artist named Skipper Stockman, and this guy was giving me paintings! I couldn’t be happier. Hip hop was artistry to me. The Joey Vega covers, the DJ records. “Flavor Unit Assassination Squad” was an opportunity to make a record with Queen Latifah, who was the best selling of the artists in that posse.

Were Chill Rob G and Latee not involved because they were signed to Wild Pitch?

I don’t remember. I didn’t quite work something out with Stu [Fine] for Chill Rob G.

Why was there such a gap between the first and second Lakim Shabazz albums?

The period between the first Lakim album and the second Lakim album was marked by contractual dispute. If you talk to Mark you’ll see that after the success of Queen Latifah, there’s a pattern of every Flavor Unit member on every label. They went on strike – it was like a work stoppage until they got better deals. That’s what was happening. We never recovered from the loss of momentum.

What happened with Lord Ali Ba-Ski? Was he meant to do an album with you?

He was pretty good but he didn’t want to give up his day job! When you’re running an indie label and you’re in New York – you always heard expressions related to New York, “the rat race,” “what makes Sammy run” – the notion of this pace. In hip hop, when you ran any indie label, all it was about was getting the next record out. You had to have a product flow.

“Whoever’s ready? Let’s go!”

Nature abhors a vacuum – and so did distributors. There’s this classic notion with distributors that you don’t get paid on your first record until you make your third, so you were always in this condition of mildly indentured servitude. You had to keep making records if you wanted to pay your old bills.

How did Ron Delite and Louie Vega fit into everything, since they weren’t actually part of the Flavor Unit?

He called himself alternatively Louie Vega, Louie ‘Bud’ Vega and Louie ‘Phat Kat’ Vega, all to distinguish himself from the popular dance music producer ‘Little’ Louie Vega. They were a few enough degrees of separation to make it all worthwhile, and there was that sound that Mark had developed that Louie had picked up on, albeit with some Latin flavor so there was a sense that you were in the ballpark with a record like that.

Did you realise how influential The 45 King’s style was at the time, particularly his use of horns, which laid the foundation for people like Pete Rock?

Even though hip hop was the most radical departure from what preceded it – certainly in the last hundred years of American music – there was still continuity. The guys that used R&B samples on their tracks spoke my language. I could have never seen a J. Dilla coming. Or the guys doing electro tracks – at that time the Linn Drum was kinda giving me a headache. There was continuity that I was able to hear, to the point that when I was actually getting involved in some production, and I was finding my own samples and loops.

Spoonie Gee - (You Ain't Just A Fool) You's An Old Fool

I simply recorded Spoonie over the entire rhythm track to “Impeach The President.” I made a track with him called, “You Ain’t Just A Fool (You’s An Old Fool).” It took Red Alert three seconds to tell me, “Man, I can’t play that – that’s not a hip hop record, that’s a funk record!” But we loved making it and I love listening to it. If you look at the value of “Impeach” as a breakbeat, you could almost call it the first hip hop breakbeat. Listen to that next to “Funky Drummer” by James Brown, which was the most popular drum beat prior to that, and you’ll almost hear the difference between a funk drum beat and a hip hop drum beat.

Why do you think that the original Flavor Unit fell apart?

As Luther Vandross would say, [sings] “Everything must change...” The LA “gangsta” thing was happening, the Hammer dance thing was happening, and the momentum we built up with the first Lakim album? We lost it in the time that it took to work things out with him for the next album. Mark told me every artist in the Flavor Unit contributed to this collective work stoppage when Latifah became successful and wanted their contracts renegotiated.

Apparently the whole crew was involved in making that first Latifah album work as well as it did.

The seeds of Latifah’s success was her ability to negotiate both a woman’s world and a man’s world. The Flavor Unit members applied rigorous standards that they relaxed for her because she was kinda the queen bee. Everybody had to work on their rhymes as if they were homework and come prepared, and she came with the sketchiest of ideas and Apache and the rest snapped to attention and wrote her rhymes for her, or certainly helped. She was less self-contained than the rest of them.

What was the climate like in the record business at the time?

I would love any kind of retrospective to show that I did it with A&R and not because I could buy the best talent.

I had to start everything from scratch, I had a bad experience with a major [label]. I had the misfortune of being with Epic at the time they had the Michael Jackson Thriller album. There were substantial periods of time – that overlapped with when I was there – that they worked on no artist but Michael Jackson, so I got out of there. I didn’t want to gamble that maybe they’d fund me. What the world must know is that Tuff City was with the Epic Records half of CBS and Def Jam was with the Columbia Records half, and Def Jam had a $750,000 budget for that first year and I had a $20,000 budget for that first year. When you’re growing up and you’re a sports fan, before there was a salary cap, you don’t realise why the teams in the major markets are doing so much better than the teams in the minor markets. You had no idea that your team was doing better because your team was better funded.

When you’re running a record company, it’s easy to fit you into a negative stereotype, you do business this way or way that way. What I am very proud to point out is that 90% of Tuff City’s records in the ’80s, the ten year period it was putting out contemporary music, were records that I generated from scratch. Nobody was bringing me finished albums. People were bringing finished albums to Def Jam because of the bigger budgets, or even after that maybe Cold Chillin’. I couldn’t compete that way. Every record that I made – with the exception of some, I picked up some masters and did a little bit of bidding here and there – but, for the most part, necessity bred invention. I would love any kind of retrospective to show that I did it with A&R and not because I could buy the best talent.

Another interesting character you signed was Funkmaster Wizard Wiz. That whole “Crack It Up” record was pretty crazy.

The problem is I’m not a dictator and can’t decree that all copies of the “ya better not” version be destroyed. [grins] The only chance you had of getting your record played without payola was Red Alert – that said, even then, you didn’t have a good chance! He’s playing this record, and it’s so early. I am on the street! I’m drinking side-by-side with [Mr.] Ness of the Furious Five in Disco Fever, and he’s telling me, “Check out this new drug called crack.” You know how Chuck D called hip hop “the black CNN”? I was the National Enquirer!

I used to sit at the McDonalds at Broadway and 125th with my hood over my head and I used to just listen for phrases that I’d never heard before. That’s how you have records like “Get Off My Tip” and “Put That Head Out.” A record about crack? What could be the big deal? It’s just another drug. Red Alert plays it. I’m thrilled. And I get savaged! [Kiss-FM General Manager] Barry Mayo is getting calls, “How could you play this? This is a scourge! How could you be glorifying this?”

When you’re a label owner and you’re a New York ethnic, you are always going to be in the crosshairs of stereotype.

That said, “Crack It Up” is brilliant! If you’ve listened to it carefully, this was somebody doing the idiot’s dance in the throes of death. I’m not going to sit with Barry Mayo and say, “No, no, no! This is Shakespearian! This is magnificent! This is a jester doing a dance of death!” Wasn’t gonna happen. So I took it back into the studio, we overdubbed, “You better not crack it up” and nobody gave a damn. I sold out for nothing. The two sides of that record – that and “Bellevue Patient” – are the collaboration of two brilliant artists, Wizard Wiz and Pumpkin. Pumpkin was at his zenith, using both live music and synthesizers, and he was going, “OK, I hear Dexter Wansel here, I hear Isaac Hayes.” They just put the record together like that! [clicks fingers]

What was the story with Freddy B and the Mighty Mic Masters?

Red Alert was playing them! [laughs] I bought the master. They had some success with this record “It’s the Hip Hop,” which was a production by Spyder-D – stand up guy – we made the follow-up record “The Main Event” which featured Pumpkin on killer live drums and it was even bigger. What you’re reminding me of is how different life was – how much bigger the world was. On the strength of that record’s success, that group – which was the first ever MC posse from Brooklyn, they’re from Bed-Stuy – and they’re playing the legendary Rooftop in Harlem. You could see they were in strange territory for them. They were a very talented crew, but the modest success of that record broke them up.

What were some of the most memorable live hip hop shows you’ve experienced?

Afrika Bambaataa at T-Connection – you were able to see how post-gang hip hop was. The Cold Crush Brothers at Crotona Park in junior high, productions by Mike & Dave. They were self-contained entities. Debbie Dee, when Wanda Dee was the DJ. Ultramagnetic MC’s live, to see what would Kool Keith do. I’ve touted that there would be a live album, From Brooklyn to Brixton, and there’s a live performance in The Bronx – the traditional thing with rappers was, “Is Harlem here? Is The Bronx here?” Ced-Gee’s doing that and Kool Keith goes, “Is Alpha Centauri here?”

There were a lot of rumors surrounding the Ultramagnetic albums that you released through Tuff City, everything from Kool Keith claiming they were bootlegs to stories that Ced-Gee sold the tapes for crack.

That’s an unfair thing to say about him [Ced Gee]. The guy’s a basketball player and a health bug. He’s the most upright guy, he’s practically middle class. When you have a big posse, you don’t have to have everyone in the group’s consent to use the name. I did the deals I could make, I was happy to do them. There’s no question that you have your ups and downs in business, you have your conflicts, but you can look at being with Spoonie Gee for 30 years. If I was a little tackier I would have a celebration for his 50th straight positive royalty payment. But you can’t please all the people all the time. When you’re a label owner and you’re a New York ethnic, you are always going to be in the crosshairs of stereotype.

Will that live Ultramagnetic album ever be released?

We’ll have to see. There were a number of samples that were hard to clear, and you can’t just put stuff out like that without consequence any more. When the whole scene was more underground, there was an Antexx record with a Bugs Bunny sample that I didn’t have a prayer of clearing. I went to my pressing plant and it’s like, “You got any jackets by accounts that don’t work with you anymore?” “Yeah! We’ve got Hot Mix 5 jackets!” So I put it out in a Hot Mix 5 jacket, and sure enough, 25 years later somebody from England came to me asking for a Hot Mix Five license! You can run, but you can’t hide!

A good deal of this interview was previously published in video form on the Unkut YouTube channel. Check it out here.

By Robbie Ettelson on November 26, 2015

On a different note