Inside of Delicious Pizza, a restaurant located in West Adams, L.A., you see a picture of Biz Markie using a huge cell phone, a “Born To Roll” Masta Ace promo poster, and various gold records. On the menu is “The Wild Thing:” a pepperoni, soppressata and mushroom pizza named after Tone Lōc’s hit song of the same name.
Michael Ross founded Delicious Pizza with his brother Rick and father-son duo Fred and Travis Sutherland in 2015. It was never meant to just be a place where a person could come and grab a slice. Delicious Pizza, which regularly holds galleries and events, was always meant to be a communal hub, a center where music lovers gather and reminisce on the Golden Age of hip-hop. In a LA Times profile earlier in the year, Rick said he wanted Delicious Pizza to be a “French salon for hip-hop.”
Music, more specifically hip-hop, is vital to the Ross brothers, especially Michael who, in his day job, runs Delicious Vinyl, the independent label responsible for birthing iconic hip-hop artists like Tone Lōc, The Pharcyde, and Young MC. The label recently celebrated its 30 year anniversary, making it one of the longest running indie-labels in history.
Michael Ross, alongside partner Matt Dike, founded the label as young Hollywood DJs with a shared interest in James Brown, The Time, and early LL Cool J.
“We really just wanted to do what cool labels in New York were doing at the time,” Michael Ross said.
And like Def Jam — which famously started in Rick Rubin’s New York University dorm — Delicious Vinyl had humble beginnings. The label launched with only a $5,000 loan and a makeshift studio in Mike’s apartment.
“When we started, Matt and I wanted to go beyond DJing and transition towards putting out our own records,” said Michael, who met Dike in 1983 and formed the label in 1987. “This was a long time ago and lots of things were changing in music…rap was starting its second phase with Rakim busting out with a completely different style. We wanted to throw our hat in the ring and see if we can do it too. It was a little bit of enthusiasm, arrogance, and D.I.Y. attitude.”
The first record Delicious Vinyl put out was Tone Lōc’s sparse jam “On Fire” (the B-Side was “Cheeba Cheeba,” one of the earliest weed-inspired rap songs.) The record, which was produced by Michael and Dike, was an introduction to the raspy-voiced 21-year-old, who, before he was a rapper, was a Rolling 60 Crip named Antonio Loco.
“We were literally looking for rappers to rap over beats we were just coming up with. We wanted guys with cool voices,” Michael said. “So I asked one of the dudes in the record pool to see if anyone knows anyone who raps and one of my buddies knew a guy who had a cousin who did. He gave me Tone’s number and I just cold called him.”
It was a tumultuous time in the city, especially for a fledgling rap label. It was something that Delicious Vinyl had to learn the hard way. In 1987 the label put out a single from a L.A. duo named Romeo & Master Rhyme. On the record, called “Cracker Jack,” the group sent shots at a little Compton-based clique you might have heard of: NWA.
“It was just a one-off record which I guess Ruthless [Records] heard and wasn’t too thrilled about,” Michael said.
The beef between Romeo & Master Rhyme and NWA stemmed back to high school days (Master Rhyme and Eazy-E both went to Manual Arts Senior High in L.A.) Things escalated when NWA responded with the original version of “Compton’s N Tha House/100% Diss.”
On the track Eazy rapped:
They got a wacky wack record for the wacky wack crew/Yo what about the lyrics? That shit’s wacky wack too
With a fucked-up style and a fucked-up show/Yo Ren, what about the scratchin’? Is it def?
Fuck no! The mothafuckin’ record is a mothafuckin’ wack/the mothafuckin’ Crackerjack needs to step the fuck back.
All of this pretty much escaped Delicious Vinyl’s brass since they were simply too busy cobbling together their vision.
“We weren’t beefing with Dre or Eazy at all. Ruthless actually started at the same time we did. A lot of people thought we were from New York and it was some sort of coastal beef. But we were just so involved with the label itself we didn’t pay attention,” Michael said.
Romeo & Master Rhyme would release a response record, “Nothin But A Fan.” The cover featured the duo standing over a marked gravestone with “Eazy-E and NWA” written across it.
Delicious Vinyl did not release that record.
That same year the label started working with Mellow Man Ace, a Cuban-American rapper who delivered verses in both English and Spanish, making him one of the first to ever do so. He released his debut single “Do This” in 1987. That song got so much interest that Delicious Vinyl would be able to sell his debut album to Capitol Records.
This lead to a partnership with Island Records. And within a couple of months they would record and release the record that would forever put the label on the map: Tone Lōc’s “Wild Thing.”
The song featured a grainy $500 video shot by Tamra Davis (who would go on to direct classic movies like CB4 and Billy Madison.) “Wild Thing” was a genuine crossover record. During a time where rap songs didn’t crossover to the pop charts, “Wild Thing” would peak at number two on the Billboard Hot 100.
Part of the reason why the song was so successful was due to Lōc’s sultry flow. Speaking about the song to the LA Times in 1989, Michael Ross said:
“It took a lot of coaxing to get him to do it slow..It’s not the style he likes. But we knew that style is well suited to his voice, which is very deep. With a half-speed rap, the record sounds sexier.”
Another important element to the song: the sample. The track uses the recognizable guitar riff from Van Halen’s “Jamie’s Cryin’.” Ironically, the elements that caused the song to reach number two on the Billboard Hot 100s — the catchy chorus, the cheesy guitar riff, the easy punchlines — would hurt Tone Lōc in the long run.
Despite the quality of Tone Lōc’s debut album (and his underrated sophomore album, Cool Hand Lōc) the rapper would go down in history as a novelty act.
“Wild Thing” would not exist how we know if it wasn’t for the contributions of talented Queens rapper Young M.C., who, at age 22, wrote the naughty track in 35 minutes.
In 1990 Young MC got his chance at stardom, releasing his juggernaut single “Bust A Move,” which sold over a million copies and went on to earn a Grammy for Best Rap Performance in 1990, beating out Public Enemy.
From there the hits kept on coming. East Coast stalwart Masta Ace — from the legendary Juice Crew— left the Cold Chillin’ and found a new home at Delicious Vinyl as Masta Ace Incorporated, releasing the biggest single of his career, “Born To Roll,” a certified West Coast classic.
In the spring of 1993, Delicious Vinyl released “Passin’ Me By,” off Pharcyde’s immensely beloved, wholly exuberant debut Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde.
The record came about after Michael Ross heard a demo and his immediate instinct was to sign Imani, Slimkid3, Bootie Brown, and Fatlip.
“I thought they were hilarious. This was like 1992 so Death Row was just starting to do gangsta stuff and I just didn’t feel like it was my lifestyle or what I represented. We were young and very much into being true to ourselves. Pharcyde were the antithesis of gangsta. They were making fun of themselves, they were funny, and we loved them,” Michael said. “I wanted to work with them right away. My friend Paul Stewart and Leslie [Cooney] got the demo to me.”
Leslie Cooney is a longtime A&R whose first professional credit was on Bizarre Ride. She got the job by answering an ad she saw on the back of The Hollywood Reporter.
“I was an intern in ‘91 started doing stuff in the promotion department, organizing and what not. I was able to organize some of the analogue masters onto DAT. We would bring huge ¼ inch tapes from one end of town to the next,” Cooney said. “It was cumbersome and super unorganized. I was in the studio for that Pharcyde record and helped put it together with the rest of the team.”
Cooney always had an affinity for Caribbean music which came into play when she introduced to the label, and subsequently signed, Born Jamericans.
“Caribbean stuff was always hard to get through in meetings because no one understood the angles. But when I played Born Jamericans I think it made sense to people because it was a mixture of genres.”
Cooney would go on to sign Caribbean acts Machel Montano, Mr. Vegas and Jovi Rockwell to the label.
However, it should be noted that Delicious Vinyl almost had another monstrous hit on its hands.
“There was a trip where I went to Greensleeves Records and got twenty 45s and one of them was Shaggy’s ‘Oh Carolina,'” Cooney said. “I definitely played it for Mike and we had a real shot at putting it out. But I guess there already was some joint venture deal in place. But these days I’m still the Caribbean contact for the label. I just never went away.”
Despite never signing Shaggy, Born Jamericans’ releases did quite well on the R&B, rap, and dance charts, respectively. “Oh Carolina” went on to peak at number one worldwide in several countries.
Delicious Vinyl jumped backed into the cultural consciousness earlier this year when Matt Dike passed away at age fifty-six after complications with salivary gland cancer.
The death was a time to remember how vital Matt was to early hip-hop. It was Dike’s ear and natural acumen that brought the Beastie Boys to L.A. in 1990 where they worked with the Dust Brothers — E.Z. Mike and King Gizmo — on the group’s magnum opus Paul’s Boutique.
“He had a relationship with Mike D and after License to Ill the Beasties had a falling out with Def Jam,” Michael said. “Matt played him some beats and hooked them up with the Dust Brothers who were radio DJs at the time who always really supported our releases.”
After the release of Paul’s Boutique, which was not a commercial success, Dike became a recluse. And he stopped working with Delicious Vinyl for reasons that aren’t very clear.
In the NYTimes obituary, they describe Matt as someone who was “living in seclusion in his mansion in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles.”
Both Leslie and Mike have seen the industry flat-line and resuscitate through the years but things are now on a tangible upswing. “I’m really excited about where the music business is right now. It’s really coming back from the desert,” Michael said. “No one was buying music for the longest time. Business is frothy again right now and there are ways to monetize streaming much better than ever before. Having Leslie at the helm of that and working with all the contacts we have through the years, I think we can do some really cool stuff.”
“There used to be a lot of more bodies in motion but now there’s much less staff onsite. You’re doing what the artist has already been doing and you just quarterback what they’ve already established. There used to be an artist development department, a marketing department, a promo department, and more. Now you do that all yourself.”
Delicious Vinyl is one of the longest independent music labels in history and this year is focusing on a new venture, Delicious Vinyl Island, an imprint centered around Caribbean music. Over the last month alone they’ve put out new songs from up-and-coming acts like Lila Ike, Sevana, and Yaadcore.
Leslie, with a locked gaze on the label’s constant evolution, continues: “I’ve always seen good records come and go and now I’d like to put out a huge Caribbean record soon. I feel like there’s room for it in this new era. People are ready to do business with the independents again.”
David Ma is a veteran music journalist whose work has appeared in The Source, Wax Poetics, The Guardian, Red Bull Music Academy, Passion of the Weiss, Nerdtorious and others. You can follow him at @_davidma.
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