In a year filled with landmark anniversaries, Loud Records has creeped back into the public consciousness. The label, founded by Steve Rifkind in 1991, enjoyed what many rap fans would point to as their most impactful years in twenty-five years ago, with albums from influential rap acts Mobb Deep (The Infamous…) and Raekwon (Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…) having recently been celebrated by fans.
However, nostalgia isn’t the only reason Loud has been making noise this year. The label recently relaunched as Loud Music Group, with Rifkind teaming up with recently appointed CEO Stanley “Citi” Atwater and COO Dana Biondi to help recapture its past glory while keeping its eyes on the future. In an age where inclusivity and representation are hot-button topics, Atwater reveals that Loud’s mission isn’t only to usher in a new generation of talent but help empower African-Americans in the boardroom.
“Me and Steve had the same lawyer, Joel Katz,” Atwater said during a phone call with Okayplayer. “And I was talking to Joel about how I was a little upset about a lot of things that were happening in the music industry in regards to there not being any African-American representation on the executive side. And I was saying to myself, ‘why don’t they just take it back to the old-school and have an African-American head it up and see what they can do?”
Those conversations led Katz to introduce Atwater to Rifkind, who quickly found common ground through their love of the culture and the grind of it all. Rifkind enlisted Atwater as the label’s new chief in command. And with acts like Loui and Baby Fendi and Rifkind’s own son, Ryrif leading the charge with new music, Loud is hoping to make an ample amount of noise in 2021. However, to know where you’re headed, you must know where you come from, and in the case of Loud, Steve Rifkind has seen the whole ride, from discovering the Wu-Tang Clan to turning the brand into a national powerhouse, with a mix of regional acts and east coasts stalwarts on its roster.
We spoke to Loud Records founder and CEO Steve Rifkind about his fondest memories of the label’s heyday, as well as the artists and records that defined it’s dominant run.
Wu-Tang Clan’s “Protect Ya Neck” was the first big single released on Loud. What are your recollections of the first time you heard that record?
The first time I heard it, I was in my car. My A&R of Promotions at College Radio gave me the tape. This is when there were still tapes. And I was like, “Wow, this record’s really hard. It’s amazing. But there’s no hook.” The more I listened to it, the more I fell in love with it. Me and RZA was playing phone tag; he was Prince Rakeem at the time. We spoke once or twice. And then I was in New York for my 33rd birthday, and I was working out of the RCA building and the receptionist says, “Are you Steve Rifkind?… Prince Rakeem is here.” We start talking. He’s like, ‘The guys are downstairs.” I’m in a small guest office — picture the smallest office — and I’m with E-Swift from Tha Alkaholiks. And RZA brings up the group, they start playing the record on vinyl, and they’re performing the record in an office where you couldn’t move. Then someone comes barging through the door and says, ‘That’s that shit” and storms out again. Never saw ’em again. I signed ’em on the spot.
“C.R.E.A.M.” is another Wu-Tang record that solidified Loud as a force. How would you describe the impact of that record and were you surprised that it grew into such a big hit?
I wasn’t surprised. My dad was in the music business. And he had a company called Spring Records and he was the first one to put out a rap record, ever, with the Fatback Band and King Tim III. Russell [Simmmons] gave him this record. The artist was Jimmy Spicer and the record was called “Money (Dollar Bill Y’all).” So the hook that Method [Man] sang, “Dollar dollar bill, y’all,” that meant a lot to us. That was one of the first records I ever promoted, so to me, it comes full circle. And closing in on 29 years, that record still holds a special place in my heart.
In 1997, Wu-Tang released Wu-Tang Forever, which was led by “Triumph,” which had a video budget upwards of $1 million, the most in history at that time. Would you say you were trying to make a statement with that video?
It debuted No. 1 around the world, in every country. It was Raekwon’s idea for the video. He said, “We need a million dollars for the video,” and I said, ”You got it.” And it was the first million-dollar hip-hop video.
To me, what solidified Loud was in ’95 when we came with Mobb Deep, the follow-up to Wu-Tang and Raekwon’s album. Mobb Deep came out in April and [Raekwon] came out in August. To me, that’s what really took everything to a whole different place. And then on the West Coast we still had Xzibit and Tha Alkaholiks, so we were constant and we constantly kept a steady flow of music.”
What spurred you to sign Mobb Deep initially?
When I first met them, Prodigy was sick. It was just Havoc and the crew, and they came up to the office, and it was just something about them. Just like Wu, they just had this energy that was ridiculous. I remember they went into the bathroom — either to smoke a blunt or a cigarette or something — and the fire alarm went off and they were just rebels. I was like, ‘This is the perfect follow-up to Wu-Tang.” They didn’t have “Shook Ones” or “Shook Ones, Pt. II” yet. They had a record called “Patty Shack” that was really amazing. And I had just started putting my A&R team together in New York [City]. [I had] just hired Schott Free, and he was extremely close to Matty C… He brought Matty in and the rest is history. ‘Til this day, I feel the two of them were the best A&R duo in hip-hop [history].
What are your favorite memories of Prodigy?
Musically, I thought he was an absolute genius. And in person, Prodigy had a heart of gold. He was passionate about his music, and he was like a sponge, all he wanted to do was learn. He would come to the office just to sit so he could learn all day so he could educate himself. There would be weeks at a time [where] he would be in my office before I would and would leave when I would leave, just so he could learn.
I’ll tell you a funny story. I forget which album it was, but they were on the road and we had an argument like two days before. Nothing crazy, but an argument. The bus driver got sick, so my Head of Promotions took the bus and started driving the bus. And Prodigy calls me from the bus, he goes, “Man, are you still mad at me?” I’m like, “Nah.” He goes, “Well, then why is Gaby [Acevedo] driving the bus?” I’m like, “What are you talking about?” He goes, “The bus driver’s sick so Gaby decided to drive the bus.” So I apologized — “Please don’t have him drive the bus, have him just pull over until we figure it out.” He was laughing.
He was like [a] little bro to me. His birthday and my real brother’s birthday were the same day. And he cared for the other artists, too. Like Xzibit was in New York and he got really fucked up one night and they didn’t know what hotel Xzibit was staying at so he called me. He was like, “I don’t wanna leave him alone, what hotel is he at so we can drop him and make sure he’s straight.” That’s the type of cat he was.
One of the biggest accomplishments of Loud’s run was signing Big Pun. What were your first impressions of Pun?
I had a meeting with [Fat] Joe and I fell in love — like, the second Joe walked in. Me and Joe had a heart to heart, spoke about a few things, he said he’s gonna bring Pun up tomorrow. [The next day] I’m meeting him early ’cause I have to fly back to L.A. to see my wife and kids. The meeting is around 11 [AM] and I signed Pun on the spot. I said, “Who’s your lawyer?” He said Tim Mandelbaum. I called up Tim, who was Wu-Tang’s lawyer at the time, I said, “Come to my office,” and we structured the deal immediately.
What’s your memories of the making of Capital Punishment? Are there any songs that stand out that resonate with you?
“Still Not A Player” was a remix to “I’m Not A Player.” I remember Pun called and said, “I have an idea for a song, here’s the treatment.” And I said, “Pun, if this record comes out nearly as good as what you’re saying, you have the video.” And then, before I even hung up the phone, I said, “You know what, do the video. Finish the record, have Matty start working with Joe.” And that was it. Everything with Pun was pure instinct and transparency.”
One of the bittersweet moments was the Yeeeah Baby album, which had “100%” and “It’s So Hard” and was another platinum smash for the label, as well as uplifting Pun’s legacy and preserving it. What are your memories from that time?
Yeeeah Baby was a heartbreak album. You can tell when he was healthy ’cause he went to a camp to lose weight and the records that he did then, you can see how clear he was. Lyrically, the records weren’t dark. And then when he started gaining weight again, you can tell he was having problems and you can hear it, sonically. His lyrics were getting dark, too. But I’d rather not have gone platinum to have him alive.
Loud also had Xzibit on the west, who blew up with songs like Paparazzi” and “X,” but I wanna talk about “What U See Is What U Get,” which is one of the most iconic music videos of that time. Can you talk about putting that together?
So, every video that Xzibit ever did, these are all of his concepts. And “What U See Is What U Get,” to me, is one of the most slept on records, not video ’cause the video — at the end of the year — was No. 1 on BET. When I’m driving and I’m cruising on the freeway, that’s one record I still play. That hook is ridiculous.
dead prez’s debut album, Let’s Get Free, caused quite a stir in rap circles, but is considered a classic and produced the sleeper hit “Hip-Hop.” Speak on what it was like releasing such a controversial album?
“Hip-Hop,” to me, is one of my Top five singles of all-time. Not just on my label, just in music in general. If I had handled the situation right with dead prez… there wasn’t a trust there. And I took offense to that because I had such great relationships with my other artists and I think they could’ve been one of the biggest groups I ever had in my life — like a Wu, like a Pun, like a Mobb. I was forcing them to try and trust me and I should’ve just taken a backstep and just let it happen organically. And I think that was one of the reasons that album didn’t do what it should of done. That was my own insecurity and my own ego. The more I was trying to have them respect me or trust me, the more they ran and now, 20 years later, we’re closer than we’ve ever been before and that happened organically. So looking back, I wish there was trust on their side, but I could’ve handled it better and not taken it so personally.”
Can you talk about M.O.P. joining Loud in 2000 and “Ante Up” blowing up?
I was so excited when M.O.P. came to Loud ’cause I had tried signing them years before that. And then we had a record before “Ante Up” called “G-Building,” which was one of my favorite records, and then when I just heard “Ante Up,” it was crazy. I remember being in Boston, I had an Xzibit show. Xzibit was on tour with Eminem and Limp Bizkit and there was a moshpit in between acts. They played the record in Boston and the whole Boston Garden turned into one big mosh-pit. I remember calling my Head of Promotions and saying, “Meet me in Philadelphia tomorrow, I’m gonna have the DJ play the record so you can see with your own eyes what’s going on with this record.” So we’re in Philadelphia the next day, I have my DJ put the record I’m with my Head of Promotions and the place went fucking nuts.
Tha Alkaholiks was one of the most underrated Loud acts. The trio is best remembered for their 2001 single “Best U Can” which was produced by The Neptunes. How did it feel seeing the group get their just due with that particular record?
I’m a basketball guy, but I’ll use baseball terminology on them: they were my No. 2 hitter. So, we knew every time we came with an album they were gonna get on base and set it up for whatever artist is gonna follow and get them [home]. They were consistent, so we did about 300,000 every time. Not 320,000, not 280,000, always around 300,000. And they kept their credibility and kept us visible on the West Coast.
A New York City-based reporter and writer, filling the empty spaces within street and urban culture. A product of the School of Hard Knocks, Magna Cum Laude. The Crooklyn Dodger. Got Blunt?
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