Conshohocken has never looked like a hip-hop hotbed. It’s a sleepy, hilly borough with a quaint town square and several tony restaurants, a place seemingly built for winter wonderlands and Revolutionary War re-enactments.
But today, as it was in the ’90s, Ruffhouse Records is there and in the rap business.
The Ruffhouse office now is a more relaxed environment than the hectic, platinum-plated palace CEO Chris Schwartz first ran with partner/producer Joe Nicolo from 1989 to 1999.
That’s when the label was a Columbia Records imprint, and home to backwards-pants-wearing kids Kris Kross, Latino stoners Cypress Hill and a North Jersey trio known first as Tranzlator Crew — but you can call them the Fugees. Together and solo, Lauryn Hill, Wyclef Jean and Pras scored big for Ruffhouse, while Philly acts like the punk-metal Dandelion and goofball rapping Goats kept the engine purring with respectable sales.
The label’s output netted gold and platinum records galore — more than 120 million albums sold worldwide — and Grammys to go with them. At its peak, around the time of 1998’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Forbes estimated Ruffhouse’s worth at $175 million. The next year, Schwartz sold the label to Sony, Columbia’s parent company, in 1999 for an undisclosed eight-figure sum.
“I’m proud of every act on the first Ruffhouse and wouldn’t change a moment of the fun we had or when we sold it,” says Schwartz, who went on to form the less-successful RuffNation label for Warner Bros., start a film imprint that produced the locally lensed movie Snipes and raise a family before going quiet in the mid-2000s.
How Schwartz managed to reignite Ruffhouse in 2012 through the EMI label — signing nu-soul crooner Glenn Lewis and old friend “Ms. Hill” (as Schwartz calls her), while launching the career rejuvenation of wily Philly MC Beanie Sigel — could one day be the stuff of legend.
If they can just get through the next three and a half weeks. After that, Sigel, Ruffhouse 2.0’s first signing — who initially made his bones with the group State Property — starts a two-year stretch in prison for tax evasion.
Until then, Sigel has a new album, This Time, a quickly building radio hit, “The Reunion” (co-starring his State Property brethren Freeway, Young Chris and Peedi Crakk), and several high-profile gigs including Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.
“We’re cramming to get so much stuff done before Beans goes,” says Schwartz. “I feel terrible for him and his family. I was there at the sentencing.” There is a mournful pause. “But look at these numbers,” exclaims Schwartz, ever the record man, pointing at the plentiful spins at influential hip-hop stations Hot 97 New York, WPWX Chicago and Power 99 in Philadelphia. “Top-ticket tour promoters want him. This album will sell big. If I only had another month.”
Once called a master of “street smarts and corporate savvy” by the New York Daily News for his vision of “commercially viable and consistently good” music, Schwartz knows all about timing.
“Who’s to say how numbers could’ve kept up had we waited to sell the label the first time around?” he says of Ruffhouse 1.0.
Like stocks on a hot streak, it’s a gamble. Since neither the Fugees nor Hill released another album after the label’s sale, save for the latter’s live MTV Unplugged 2.0, it’s safe to say that the label owner who started his professional life managing Schoolly D and promoting records for Delicious Vinyl made a good bet.
Besides, there was no shortage of suitors for Schwartz in 1999. David Geffen asked him to lunch at his Hollywood estate to discuss Dreamworks as a home for a new Ruff label. Virgin offered big bucks. Sony also wanted in. But Warner Bros. was special, the industry gold standard in Schwartz’s eyes, despite being, in 2000, an antiquated California rock label with no street cred and zero black-music presence save for the legacies of Prince and Ice-T.
“That was the challenge,” says Schwartz. “At the risk of sounding like an asshole, I got bored of platinum and gold. Warners was the last great American-owned label; no one in the hierarchy had been there less than 20 years. They had no black music. No kidding, I wanted to be the guy who brought black music back to Warners.”
Schwartz made the RuffNation deal, bought studio space in Culver City and pushed WB to think more quickly than they were used to. “Hip-hop and radio move faster than that,” he says. “Marketing hip-hop is like football. Get down the field, huddle and call plays as necessary.” RuffNation made inroads with Newark’s Outsiderz, R&B sensation Leela James and melodic rappers No Question?, all of whom were moving units when AOL bought Time Warner in 2001.
After that, department heads found themselves facing spending freezes. Several executives who brought Schwartz to WB quit. “The music side fell out,” he says. “It didn’t help that I was distracted by my distribution film deal with TriStar and put cash into Snipes,” he says of the film he produced starring then-newcomers Nelly and Zoe Saldana. “It was all wrong for that moment.”
Schwartz stayed at WB until 2003, then became an A&R consultant for Sony, a position he held until 2011. “It was me signing bands without the mess,” he laughs. “All I had to do was collect checks and go to confabs in Montauk.”
It’s no secret that the record biz is in a blue period; sales, especially for the majors, are at an all-time low. “That’s exactly why it’s a great time,” Schwartz declares with a chuckle. “It’s a level playing field: Everyone’s equally fucked.”
Luckily, he had pals to help him with Ruffhouse’s rebirth.
A&R whiz kids Vance Debose and Khan Jamal, friends from the RuffNation days, are on board. So is producer Phil Nicolo (the “Butcher brother” of ex-Ruffhouse partner Joe), who will serve as president to Schwartz’s CEO.
Serendipitously, Schwartz got a call from EMI, who, like WB in the ’90s, had little urban-music presence save for Tyrese, Anita Baker and Philly’s Chiddy Bang. “They needed us and we needed them,” he says. What Schwartz needed in order to complete Ruffhouse 2.0’s distribution deal with EMI was infrastructure, the money to stay coordinated and acts with constituencies.
“I heard that Chris was putting the band back together, so when he called it was a pleasant surprise but not a shock,” says Dean Sciarra, a senior partner in Ruffhouse with more than a few secondary titles. He’s a producer and the owner/president of ItsAboutMusic.com, which distributes the work of 300-plus classic and progressive rock artists. Schwartz craved the sort of organization that Sciarra (who confesses he’s “not a hip-hop guy”) had long ago mastered. “We were always part of another label’s release schedule,” says Schwartz. “With EMI, they’ll distribute, but we’ll call our own shots.”
“Labels are like plate-spinners,” says Sciarra, who will also help scare up investors. “My job is to keep as many plates spinning as quickly as possible.” Schwartz’s job as CEO is to get acts signed.
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