Acts with no track record are risky, but Ruffhouse is looking at 20 new artists, songwriters and producers that Schwartz calls his “Made in Philly” brand. None of those productions, though, will be Ruffhouse 2.0’s first release. That honor falls to veterans of the business.
A raw soul album from Glenn Lewis (“a true R&B singer’s singer,” says Schwartz) set for 2013 is one to watch. So is a track with Lauryn Hill, an as-yet-unnamed single due out soon. “I promise you what Ms. Hill has planned is more amazing that you can know.”
Then there’s Beanie Sigel’s This Time, an album that the rapper and the label owner believe is a game-changer, musically and lyrically, in that it doesn’t stick to his usual streets-are-hard gangsta lean.
“It was change or stop,” says Sigel, decked in black from cap to toe when he steps into Ruffhouse’s offices early one sunny morning. “I’m a different guy than when I started.” The MC that Jay-Z once called friend, collaborator and asset — Sigel made four Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam albums between 1999 and 2007 — had considered getting out of the game in 2011.
His run with rap’s biggest label having ended and occasional legal hassles taking hold (in 2004, he was found guilty of federal drug and weapons charges and spent 11 months in prison), Sigel just didn’t feel it anymore. “I wanted to concentrate on real life, my children. I can cook, too. I’m nice with it. I considered going to restaurant school and opening a place. Paula Deen, look out.”
Sigel wasn’t looking forward to the prospect of hunting down another label and crew. He also grew tired of the hardass Beanie persona and the music that went with it. In reality, the 38-year-old born Dwight Grant is a religious man with kids and a world-weary outlook. “The hard songs on my albums get your attention, but it’s always been the softer songs that got me.”
He found himself writing lyrics that were ruminative, filled with resignation and regret but also joy for the good that can happen. The music he was producing for himself was slower with slippery jazzy interludes. “I couldn’t stand that rap was becoming strictly for the club. It’s too much the same sound. I wanted to do something different or just end it.”
Schwartz called the rapper last year to hear what Sigel had burned onto a hard drive, a bold new record he had considered giving away before his ongoing tax troubles were set to plague him. The pair had never met, but Schwartz knew Sigel’s legend. Sigel knew Schwartz’s business largesse. “Fugees and how he came to sell them,” says Sigel with a grin. “That’s what I found fascinating about Chris.”
Ruffhouse’s boss loved what he heard, signed Sigel and put him into the studio to slick up the tracks and record additional material. Schwartz and Sciarra knew they had a hit on their hands, even as the rapper’s legal troubles loomed.
“What people don’t understand about a label is that it’s like steering a bus with no brakes,” says Sciarra. “Once you start, you can’t stop. You just have to make sure you adjust immediately to everything that pops up.”
What popped up next was no surprise. The rapper had warned Schwartz about the tax-evasion problems and signaled that perhaps this was not the time to invest in Beanie Sigel.
“We hoped for the best and it didn’t work out,” says Schwartz of Sigel’s July 2012 conviction. “Could’ve been worse. They wanted him for seven years. He’s paying for past sins.”
Like his label boss, Sigel was intent on making lemonade from lemons. “Chris opened the door and facilitated whatever I chose to do. I wanted a State Property thing first, but Chris suggested a solo album to start.” Their bargain was “The Reunion,” a track featuring State Property membership. “I just wanted to let people know there’s more to me than hard stuff. People think there’s only respect if there’s violence involved. I wanted to prove them wrong. It’s like the movies. People like action, but me, I love a good drama,” he laughs, mentioning The Godfather’s mix of family, rage and loyalty.
The loyalty that Sigel craves in his business dealings is the basis of what comes next. He’s working his ass off to make these last weeks count. He wants EMI and Ruffhouse to recoup the money they put into him. During his prison stretch, Sigel will do a lot of soul searching and planning. He’s already been away in jail when one of his albums was released.
“The B. Coming went gold while I was away.” He smiles, but this prison stay is no laughing matter and no badge of honor. When people ask Sigel if he’s having a going-away party, he cringes. “There ain’t nothing celebratory about this. I’m tired of living the cliché. This isn’t fun. I’m getting older and want to make music that my kids can listen to. I don’t want them to hear nothing but profanity. I don’t want them to think jail is cool.”
The loyalty that Sigel feels for his family and his music is comparable to the vibe he gets from Schwartz.
“I like Chris because when I didn’t want to do this, he pushed. I knew I had to leave the situation. I wasn’t up to this a lot of the time, but he kept telling me how much people love me and how our next album will be even better.”
As the two of them sit in front of a laptop with Schwartz reeling off the morning’s valued radio adds for “The Reunion,” Sigel laughs. “I guess he’s right,” he says, pointing to Schwartz. “I guess he knows what he’s doing after all. They believe in me. He holds weight. I’m in good hands.”