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Dante Ross on W21st St, New York City on 31 March 1993. (Photo by David Corio/Redferns)

Dante Ross on W21st St, New York City on 31 March 1993.

Photo by David Corio/Redferns.

Dante Ross Gets Pensive on Hip-Hop’s Golden Era in New Memoir 'Son of the City'

We spoke with veteran A&R Dante Ross about his memoir Son of the City, executive producing Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s 1995 solo debut, and how he would’ve changed his book’s epilogue to honor Trugoy the Dove.

Legendary record man Dante Ross has seen it all. Working as an A&R in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Ross has helped break legendary rap acts like Brand Nubian, De La Soul, KMD, and Leaders of the New School, amongst others.

This week, the Lower East Side native will release his memoir, Son of the City via Rare Bird Lit, which retells Ross’ turbulent upbringing and his decades-spanning impact on the music business. Although Ross’ career contained many highs, he also faced occasional hurdles that are covered in the book: He witnessed former KMD member Zev Love X (later MF DOOM) get dropped from Elektra Records months after the tragic passing of his brother, DJ Subroc; had a near-altercation with Diddy at a New York City nightclub in the 1990s; and was shot at during a night out with hip-hop group Hieroglyphics in Oakland. Now, almost 40 years since becoming an A&R, Ross muses on the lessons of his journey while looking towards hip-hop’s constant evolution.

“I come from another era and I decided that I only want to work with art, I don’t want to work with music,” Ross tells Okayplayer. “I did that at my last job as a survival tactic, but I only want to work with art that I love. Analytics play a small part in that, but that's not everything.”

Okayplayer spoke with Ross about Son of the City, executive producing Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s 1995 solo debut, and how he would’ve changed his book’s epilogue to honor Trugoy the Dove.

Cover of Song of the City, the Dante Ross memoir.

The interview below has been lightly edited and condensed for charity.

In Son of the City, you talked about how the book was supposed to be co-authored with your father [John Ross] before his passing. How much did the storyline deviate from the original plan?

A lot. Me and my dad only got about 60-something, maybe 70 pages in, and it was a totally different book because it was like a back-and-forth narrative. So it was a dual narrative, kind of like I would write a chapter, he would write a chapter. I used some of it, but the plan of attack, the plot changed entirely.

My dad was a much better writer than I am. He published like 12 books in his life, he wrote for, like, every newspaper in the world. So it was very different, I had to rethink the whole thing. I haven't looked at that manuscript in a long time, but there is a manuscript and I have it in my house. I kind of threw it all in the garbage and started it again.

I think that would be a good B-side to accompany this book.

You know, I had this other book that I wanted to do, which is totally bizarre – it’s like a kids’ book. My dad's a really good cartoonist. Somehow, it skipped me, but both my parents could paint and all this shit. My dad wrote these really elaborate letters to me as a child with all these crazy cartoons. I have about a hundred of them and they're really intricate and they're really fucking cool.

I didn't put any of them in the book, but at some point I want to publish them as a book. I'm gonna put it together in the next maybe six months to see if I can get it published. They're really cool letters though. They focus a lot on basketball and a dad talking to their son.

In the FX docuseries Dear Mama, there's archival footage of 2Pac in the early ‘90s where he talks about not being interested in signing to Tommy Boy Records. I know that you worked with Digital Underground, but I’m wondering if you ever encountered 2Pac.

I encountered ‘Pac when he was younger, but not necessarily in a trying-to-sign-him fashion. I encountered him when he was already kind of semi-famous and running around New York and then also in LA, but I didn't encounter him necessarily as a member of Digital Underground. But I will say this: I had left Tommy Boy by the time “Same Song” came out. When we first heard that song, Grand Puba of all people [was] like “Yo, that kid right there, he’s the one.” I always remember that because I was like, “Yeah, he's pretty dope.” He ended up being 2Pac. That’s his first time on wax and in the video he’s pretty charismatic. But I remember it clearly, I'd always have Yo! MTV Raps on in my office.

Trugoy the Dove of De La Soul died earlier this year after you finished Son of the City. If given more time to write your book, How would you memorialize him?

It’s funny you say that, because after I went to the De La thing in New York, I said to myself, ‘If I could rewrite my book, this would be the final chapter.’ I would have written about the records [being re-released] because that was, to me, a culmination of a lot of stuff. I didn't go to college, that was like my college reunion. I always say “I didn't go to college, I went to hip hop,” and that night was like a celebration of that moment in time.

I got to see all those people hadn't seen for a million zillion years. It was all very emotive and all kind of basked in this love for Trugoy, and for De La’s music being shared with the world. So if I had more time on my book, I would probably rewrite the end of the book and that would be the epilogue.

I think it's great the way it is, but that would have been just as strong.

It would, because it's full circle, right? I have to be honest, it was bittersweet a little bit because Dave’s not there. De La to me is a lot like the Beastie Boys; they’re a sum of their parts. They're obviously individually great MCs, with Maseo included as a DJ, but they’re not “Posdnuos the MC” or “Trugoy the MC” – they are De La Soul. Just like the Beastie Boys aren’t Ad-Rock or MCA. They have always been one of those groups that exists as a plural. So for one of the key members of the band not to be there when we’re celebrating their legacy it was obviously bittersweet for all of us.

Early in your career, when you were with De La Soul, did you predict they would have longevity? Because you talk about them versus Leaders of the New School, who had tension.

I can't say that I knew they would have longevity, but they always finish each other's sentences. They tolerate each other. They give each other enough space to be who they are. That's one of the keys to a band existing, it’s like a marriage. They always had a very familial vibe to them. You could tell they were always good friends and brothers.

You have other groups like Leaders of the New School where the tension is there from day one. I never thought 3rd Bass would last as a group, either. They're like a group that just wasn't built to last because they weren’t a band forever before they got signed. Similarly, there’s Leaders of the New School. Chuck D and Hank Shocklee did tryouts, had all these kids try out like a boy band, almost. That’s how [Leaders of the New School] were formed as a band.

There was always so much tension between Charlie Brown and Busta [Rhymes]. It was actually more like Charlie Brown was just really envious of Busta a lot. There was always a very competitive thing going on and Busta did his best not to play into it. I just knew it wouldn’t work. De La on the other hand, I never saw them be competitive. If they were competitive, they were competitive as a unit against others.

Another group that you worked with was KMD, which a young MF DOOM was a part of. What were your thoughts when he made a resurgence post-KMD?

It was wonderful to see and I remained friends with him. It's funny, that whole era, the backpack thing that happened, I always felt like him and Kool Keith kind of started it. They were like refugees from the major labels and then they went and created this netherworld of rap. When I looked at backpack rap with a few exceptions like DOOM, Kool Keith, and maybe Company Flow, I never really liked that kind of music too much but I loved MF DOOM and I thought his version of that was amazing. I was proud of him.

When he reemerged, his reinvention made him more powerful. It's kind of like a Faust, or the Phantom of the Opera, which is the same thing – he rose from the dead to become a much bigger artist. It was almost Christ-like, he's like rising from the ashes of this tragedy to become the most important person in this rap netherworld. I love DOOM, he was a very special person, completely unique in his artistry and his behavior. There’s no one like him who ever walked the Earth. He was also one of the funniest people I've ever known. Watching his evolution was tremendous, and obviously [hearing about] his passing was tragic. It’s super sad and shrouded in mystery.

Do you have a favorite album by him?

I would say Madvillainy. It’s my favorite for two reasons: DOOM’s in top shape as an emcee. He’s destroying it. But I feel like Madlib’s showing out, he’s like “look what I can do,” and showing the whole world how incredible he was. I feel like working with DOOM made him really bring his best. That record to me is endlessly enjoyable. I listened to it a lot when it came out, then when DOOM passed I just listened to it nonstop for months after that.

I like Danger DOOM’s [The Mouse and the Mask] a lot, too. I guess I kind of slept on it when it came out, but in DOOM’s passing I listened to that again, too. I think Danger Mouse is a great producer and obviously [enjoyed] Operation: Doomsday, but I was kind of around when that got made. I think you have to step back from things and not be so involved to really appreciate them. Sometimes when you're up close, it's like it's microscopic so you don't enjoy it as much.

Someone else that you worked closely with was Ol’ Dirty Bastard. Did you watch the episode from the last season of Wu-Tang: An American Saga where Divine talks to him about Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy” remix? Would you have changed it?

None of that really happened. I got the call from Steve Rifkin that Mariah Carey [was] looking for [ODB]. I just tracked Dirty down, was like “Yo, they got the bag for you,” and they took it from there. I wouldn’t have changed [the episode] because of dramatic licenses. I think that story was the story they wanted to tell.

Mariah was changing her sound, right? Wu-Tang was hot and Tommy… I think they were doing a deal with Wu-Tang. I think the way it came down was, Rifkind got the call from Tommy or somebody, then [Rifkind] called me. I found [ODB] and Divine was [involved] somewhere. But to be honest, I had very little interaction with Divine in my entire working with Dirty. Almost none. I knew RZA, and the guy who was around back then pre-Power was Mookie, but Dirty was a free agent.

The reality is that RZA had the flood, so he had to recreate [GZA’s] Liquid Swords and [Raekwon’s] Strictly Built 4 Cuban Links. So he wasn’t really around a lot when we made the Dirty record [Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version]. He gave me six or seven reels that had 90 percent of Dirty's record on it. Dirty revoiced a couple of things and we fixed a couple of things. We only recorded “Brooklyn Zoo 2,” “The Stomp” and “Drunk Game.” RZA was basically like, “Yo, walk these dogs.” He would check in, but he was busy making those records over. That’s why it took a year, because none of us knew what RZA was doing, we couldn’t figure out how to mix this shit.

I'm wondering what you thought of the “Jiggy Era” when rap started to crossover. Do you feel like hip-hop flourished or that it was becoming watered down?

When that music came out, I [wasn’t] a super backpack dude. I like to go out, I’m in the club dancing with the girls, I’m wearing a gold chain and my diamond earrings and all that shit. I was outside for sure. So for me, I like that music in the context of the club. You’re not gonna pull up on a shorty and hang out if you’re playing super boom bap music. So I appreciated [Jiggy] music for that – it’s like party music. But artistically it wasn't really for me, it was basic. I'm a guy who's like digging for samples and looking for rare shit, and they’re sampling Kool & the Gang. But that said, it had its time and place and it expanded the world of hip-hop.

In the midst of that moment in time, I made an Everlast record [Whitey Ford Sings the Blues] because what I wanted to do was the opposite. For me it was a musical statement, like, “I'm not gonna go sample fucking Kool & the Gang and fucking eighteen records that everyone used already.” It also made me rediscover my love for rock music. I started listening to Massive Attack, Portishead, DJ Shadow, and Radiohead because I wasn't getting what I wanted from hip-hop.

Towards the end of Son of the City, you talk about some white music executives being “Blackperts.” Why do you think rappers learned to trust your expertise despite racial differences?

That’s a phrase that Bill Withers used in his movie [Still Bill] and it just made sense to me. I think because I was authentic. You can't fake it, and I was in the trenches with dudes. I wasn't some guy removed from it, I was in it. I was at every studio session, I made beats, I knew a lot about music. I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth. I’m a pretty blue-collar guy from the city. We related on a lot of topics.

The way I grew up was like tremendous training for my future career, because as a child, I was the only white cat around a bunch of Puerto Rican people. For me to be the only white person in the room was normal, that's the way I grew up. I'm never uncomfortable in those situations, so I think that comes across to my artists. We have a lot of similar points of reference; I grew up [in] a lot of the same environments and situational stuff happening that I think my artists did.

Reflecting on your career, what skills do aspiring A&Rs need to have despite the hip-hop industry now having more of an online presence?

You’ve got to know what good music is. Anyone can read fucking numbers, like analytics is very easy to understand, but I think you have to know what's good. Nowadays to be an A&R, you have to be able to almost look beyond what's good outside of your own personal taste and say, “Is this palatable to me? It's got numbers. Is it built to last? Is this fast food?” I signed some things that I knew at ADA [Music] that were fast food. I was like, “This is microwave music, but this will be successful right now.” So I think you have to be able to differentiate between the two.

When we look at the playing field of hip-hop today, there's about 10 percent of it that is comparable to the golden era of hip-hop. Not sound wise, but talent and quality wise. There's J. Cole, Anderson .Paak, obviously Kendrick [Lamar], Schoolboy Q, Griselda, Chance the Rapper at his apex – they can sit side by side with the great ‘90s music. They're talented enough, and then there's the rest of it, and I can’t tell you that the other 90 percent… it’s not De La Soul. But I do believe that great music finds an audience, it’s just [in] how you present it.

You’ve been involved with hip-hop culture since the ‘80s and now the genre’s in its 50th year. Where do you foresee the industry going?

Wherever the youth takes it. It's up to the kids, so wherever they decide they want to take it is where it's going to go. People my age don't really have any control over that nor should we. Hip-hop moves at hyper speed. From 1982 to 1983, hip-hop grew like 20 years. It went from dudes dressing like Rick James and being melodic, to Run-DMC. Then fast forward after Run-DMC’s apex, to ‘88 then you have De La Soul and Jungle Brothers.

In less than 10 years, the evolution of hip-hop progressed so much. I got to see it in real time, going from the Cold Crush [Brothers] era to the Native Tongues era. I'm curious to see if that will ever happen again, because I don't feel like hip-hop pushes the creative envelope the way it once did. There isn't a complete reworking of the architecture or the art of rhyming that there was back then.