Alice Meets… Rick Ross of Delicious Vinyl
Delicious Vinyl Feels Mighty Fine
Have you ever been so overwhelmingly attracted to somebody that, grabbing and groping not being enough, you feel the primal urge to bite into their beautiful, enticing flesh? Well, that same impulse can arise from hearing music with the power to send your hormones into overdrive, making you want to caress, lick and consume the very wax that it’s pressed on…
My take is that is exactly what’s going down in the emblematic Delicious Vinyl logo – which is pretty understandable when you consider the amount of classic material that the label has released in its twenty five year history. From early Tone Loc and Young MC releases in the late eighties, to the nineties golden-era of Masta Ace and The Pharcyde, to the next hip hop generation with Illa J and The Zzyzzx – Delicious Vinyl has a seriously inviting and influential archive.
So, being in Los Angeles, I visited the Delicious Vinyl offices on Sunset Boulevard earlier in 2011 to dig under the label’s fresh surface and discover more about the dynamics of the distinctively dope label.
Listening to the label’s curator and general manager Rick Ross opens up your mind to thinking about the music in new ways, illuminating how, whilst being steeped in its own history, Delicious Vinyl is a label that inherently looks towards the future. It becomes clear how this forward-thinking approach led to putting out such innovative and classic records, carving out DV’s identity as an undeniably unique and significant label.
Also, from hearing about the label’s history you realise that seminal music is so much more than just the music itself. A classic record, such as The Pharcyde’s ‘Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde’ or Masta Ace’s ‘Slaughtahouse’, is composed of various elements, from timing and location to the people involved, that all come together in perfect synchronicity. So, whilst the music is always central, it is by no means singular in creating moments of cultural and artistic significance.
So, when did you join Delicious Vinyl?
I started in 88, right when I finished Berkeley, and I was really the general manager from the get-go. I kind of got my masters in the record business, because the label exploded and we were doing almost all of the promotion, marketing and tours. I actually took all the artists to England when we launched the label in the UK, as Matt and Mike were here making records. I was maybe twenty at that time, so it was a crash course in music 101.
And you’re from LA originally – whereabouts?
Me and my brother Mike grew up in Long Beach, and moved up to LA when I was fourteen and Mike was seventeen – and we were always really into music. We were really into funk: Earth Wind & Fire, Michael Jackson, Rick James, Lakeside, Cameo, Ohio Players and Fifth Dimension – they were all huge influences. Then we started djing, really in college, when hip hop was starting around 1980, and Mike was in a West Coast record pool called ‘Impact Record Pool’ in LA. That’s where he met his partner for the label, Matt Dike, and they were the only two white deejays in this record pool down on Crenshaw in 1982. They kind of gravitated towards each other because they had the same tastes; they were both looking for the hottest hip hop beats out of New York. Matt was running a night at that time called ‘Rhythm Lounge’ at the Nairobi Room on Melrose, which was an amazing, really cool, early place where Ice T, Remmellzee and all these guys would come down and free-style. Then after Rhythm Lounge Matt started a club called ‘Power Tools’, and from 85-87 Power Tools was the best club in LA. Everybody from Run DMC and The Beastie Boys to The Inglewood High Marching Band all played there, it was a real cross-section. It was a very beautiful era in LA music, and I remember every Saturday night there would be a theme – it was more like a performance or an art installation. It was really inspiring. Matt was from New York and just had all the great rock and funk and late disco break-beat records – we were all twenty and losing our minds on this music.
So how did the label first get started?
Mike and Matt decided they wanted to start making beats – and Mario C, who was helping with the sound at Power Tools, helped them set up a studio in Matt’s apartment on Santa Monica Boulevard. Some of the first beats they made were ‘On Fire’ and ‘Cheeba Cheeba’ for Tone Loc – the ‘Wild Thing’ beat, ‘Bust A Move’ beat. And they just started asking around for different artists: my brother found Tone Loc and through another friend he found Young MC. They met a Latin rapper named Mellow Man Ace, the New York born Def Jef, and then the girl group called Body and Soul. So, those were the first few artists on the label. When we launched the label we started putting out twelve inch singles and there was a radio station in LA called ‘KDAY’ – they started playing these records, making Tone Loc and Young MC local stars.
What do you think it was about those first records that made them so special?
Well, that was Matt and Mike’s record collection and their love of music all coming out in that first creative outburst. We listened to a lot of DC Go-Go music – Trouble Funk, Chuck Brown & The Soul Searchers – and American Funk records -Tom Brown’s Jamaican Funk, Lakeside, The Ohio Players and The Gap Band – and then there were Rock records that were really important to us too, like Led Zeppelin and Van Halen. So, Matt and Mike fused their love of DC live Go-Go with Jamaican and American Funk, plus 70s era rock records to create a sound – an audio experience – that hadn’t really been heard before in hip hop, up to that point.
The Delicious Vinyl sound ended up being a melding of those three distinct sounds, with a lot of break-beats from the New York underground hip hop scene. ‘Wild Thing’, ‘Funky Cold Medina’ and ‘Bust A Move’ – all those records have an element of Rock, Funk and Go-Go in them. Not so much Go-Go in the big songs, but more on the albums – there’s a song called ‘I Got It Going On’ which is very Go-Go oriented, lots of cowbells.
And that was the labels first sound right?
Yes. ‘Bust A Move’ has all these different musical elements – a girl singing a vocal line, Flea’s playing bass on it, cool drum loops. Part of Delicious Vinyl was also a live sound, as they would bring in people to play guitar and bass to give it more of that Funk sound. Melding those guitar hits with break-beats really made for this unique Delicious Vinyl sound. Even though Run DMC used Aerosmith and Rick Rubin used some big guitar hits, they were more of a certain metal sound. Rick Rubin ended up producing heavier bands like Slayer, whereas Matt’s rock tastes were of a different tone – Van Halen, Foreigner – and that comes through on the early Delicious Vinyl songs. There’s also a big love for this guy Lee Michaels, who was heavily sampled on the Young MC record – his piano playing is all over ‘Principal’s Office’ and ‘Roll With the Punches’, which gives them a real earthy, funky swing sound. There’s some great jazz stuff in there too. That was the fun thing – putting break-beats with jazz loops or with funky lost records from soundtracks, just discovering long lost grooves and giving them new drum loops – that was the art of being a producer in that time.
A very creative and experimental time in music?
Yeah. Sound collage work but ultimately serving a song. Mike and Matt were also into story-telling, really into Slick Rick and Doug E Fresh. Young MC followed those storylines pretty well; he was a story-telling rapper. Whereas Tone Loc had that cool voice and would do more of a boast rap about something specific – it was just heavy and Barry White-ish. We were all big Barry White fans too.
What do you think it is about the way that they pulled in all those different influences that made it your own? What was the signature?
Well, you follow an aesthetic line based on something that you did in the clubs – from a break-beat or something like that. If you can stay true to that, then you can trace the lineage of everything that comes out of the label. The deejay experience really led to this next level in producing; a lot of it has to do with curating a set as a deejay and being inspired by certain drum loops or tones, bell patterns or guitar hits – you extracted those things and melded them into a new kind of track.
So the first single Delicious Vinyl released was ‘Wild Thing’ right?
Yes, ‘Wild Thing’ in ‘88 – we shot the video for 400 dollars with friends, and Tamra Davis directed it. It was this really creative, fertile time – a lot of our friends were coming out of art school and I always describe the label at that stage as this arts and crafts hub for our friends. Tamra Davis ended up mentoring Spike Jonze, and Spike ended up doing The Pharcyde video for ‘Drop’, the Fatlip documentary and the ‘What’s Up Fatlip?’ video for us. Tamra did a few videos for us – ‘Wild Thing’, ‘Funky Cold Medina’ and ‘Bust A Move’ – they all had this look and feel, this really fresh West Coast, fun storytelling version of hip hop, which was different to what was coming out of NWA and Ruthless at that time. Delicious was always about a more fun side of hip hop.
And then what did the nineties bring?
Well, soon after that we heard the UK import of an English Funk group, the Brand New Heavies. We had signed N’Dea Davenport to Delicious – so we put N’Dea with them, which was really natural and organic, and worked perfectly. They were a very big catalyst for that early live hip hop/ band crossover that Nu-Soul kind of ended up being. For one of the first records we made with the Heavies we got ten rappers from New York to feature: Masta Ace, Edo G, Grand Puba, Large Professor, Main Source, Guru…all these guys loved the Heavies because their beats were like James Brown funky soul. They came in and were on ‘Heavy Rhyme Experience Vol. 1’, and that was a really seminal record for the label. It’s not really well known, but hip hop heads know about it. It’s really dope. That’s how we were introduced to Masta Ace, and that was the first record that The Pharcyde were ever on.
How did you first get The Pharcyde on Delicious?
The Pharcyde were this young group of performers in LA and Paul Stewart, who had worked at the label, brought them in. Paul was managing them at the time and played us the demo for ‘Ya Mama’ and ‘Passin Me By’ – and we just immediately loved it. It was fun, it was hilarious, it was a group – everything about it was perfection for us. They really wanted to be on the ‘Heavy Rhyme Experience’ record, because they were into the Heavies as well, so they did ‘Soul Flower’ which was amazing. Then, they brought in a producer named J Swift and he made ‘Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde’. We’re going to release this really dope box-set with all the 7” singles from Bizarre Ride with the artwork, and a 150 piece puzzle of the cover.
When did Bizarre Ride come out?
Well, the single came out in ‘92 and the record came out in ‘93.
So it’s a twenty year marker?
Yeah. Twenty years for that. So there’s seven 7” singles for the box-set, plus a bunch of CDs that have remixes and things like that.
Are you planning on doing that for other albums?
Yeah, we’re going to do something like that for Masta Ace as well. Bizarre Ride is a seminal record – it’s almost a rite of passage for hip hop fans; they have to hear that record. It’s a moment in time in hip hop, so to speak.
For sure. When bands first come in, like when you first heard the Pharcyde, do you know straightaway when something’s going to be a classic?
No, you don’t know that. But, I mean these four kids came here with these demos, you just know when the tracks are bumping. You don’t know what the whole album’s going to be like; you don’t know that the guy who’s going to do the art is going to do this great album cover. A lot of things came together at that moment in time though, and that was really beautiful. When things are organic it’s so much easier. Even nowadays – projects we stumble onto, they work out because they’re organic. Just like Illa J’s ‘Yancey Boys’ – that was a project where J Dilla left these beats that we hadn’t used, as he had been producing for the Pharcyde and doing remixes for the label, and they were J Dilla beats so they were dope. My brother met Illa J, Jay’s younger brother John, and said ‘why don’t you get on these beats? They’re your brother’s…’ And Illa J remembers sitting on a porch in Detroit and hearing his brother making these beats. So, that was a really organic, family project that we put out about two years ago. Again, it was a thing that made a lot of sense for us.
I feel that. Are those the kind of projects that you prefer being involved with?
Yes – we don’t try to just sign big artists and things like that. Fatlip ended up leaving The Pharcyde, but we were really into him as a solo artist and, even though he didn’t end up making the record for five years, the first single he ended up making after leaving The Pharcyde was ‘What’s Up Fatlip?’ which was an amazing, self-reflective song. I played it for Spike Jonze and he was like ‘I gotta do the video.’ It was a really natural thing and it was so awesome that the first time people saw Fatlip after five years was in Spike’s video. Spike ended up doing this really amazing, raw video – Fatlip’s pretty much still in between being a recovering alcoholic, dealing with some substance abuse issues probably. But, during that period when they were shooting it, Spike shot a whole documentary and edited it together into a thirty minute piece on Fatlip.
Was Fatlip pleased with that piece?
I think at first he was probably not so sure, but he’s never really complained about it. Fatlip’s a very honest person and that’s what makes his album ‘The Loneliest Punk’ such an amazing record, because he calls it like it is for himself. He’s fucked up at times, he’s taken two steps back when he should’ve taken two steps forward. But, he’s really smart and he’s very sensitive. I think he didn’t have a problem with a lot of stories that came out there, because a lot of that stuff is already on record anyways. I also think it was one of the great hip hop documentaries, because it really shows what can actually happen. If you let your ego down a little bit you can really show that part of yourself and make people more interested in you, because you’re more open. Fatlip’s one of my favourites.
One of your favourite DV artists or one of your favourite emcees of all time?
He’s one of my favourite emcees, because I always related so much to his lyrical content. Specifically on ‘The Loneliest Punk’, as it’s the story of a young adult dealing with a relationship, marriage and family life. In the song ‘The Story of Us’ he talks about when the relationship doesn’t work – how do you keep it cool with your ex so that you can be there for your kids? That’s an art into itself to do that, and it’s something that I think he was struggling with as he was maturing into that stage of his life – one where he wasn’t going to be with the mother, but they were going to raise their children together. I think a lot of people go through that.
Do you relate as much to his earlier work, or is it more so his solo stuff?
More his solo stuff. I think the greatest part of his career is actually ahead of him, I really feel that. His audience will broaden as people start seeing him for what he is, which is a classic, unique and gifted emcee. The records he’s done for us are core Delicious Vinyl: story-telling, fun, self-deprecating hip hop, but also really arty and independent.
Do you think there’s any chance of him getting back with the other three?
Well, they did do a reunion tour with Rock The Bells two years ago, and we were really excited about that. It’s been real hard for them to figure out how to all get back together. But, I don’t know, seems like they just don’t get along, you know? You should see the Tribe Called Quest documentary ‘Beats, Rhymes & Life’. My friend Michael Rapaport directed it and it’s really an impressive piece about hip hop and a group, about Q Tip and about friends. It’s deep, Shakespearean – really an important piece. It’s a love letter just like with the Pharcyde/ Fatlip documentary, the same vibe but even deeper. It’s really powerful. For me, being at the label for twenty years and knowing a lot of artists, I’ve seen a lot, but, it’s hard to be a band – to be with each other, hang out with each other for five, ten, fifteen years. Those are huge milestones.
I can imagine. It’s coming up to Delicious Vinyl’s 25 year anniversary – are you doing anything to celebrate?
Yeah, there’s this really cool thing called DV101 that we’re putting together to come out next year, and it’s going to be a comprehensive deejay tool. It will have the history of the label inside, thirty page liner notes about the first 101 twelve inches that we put out with all the remixes and all these beautiful pictures and liner notes. Then, there will be a USB stick or something with all the music in it as well, and we’ll have three DVDs of videos. When you look at the videos you really see the different styles and the whole evolution of the label. So, that is one of the comprehensive things we’ve been working on in line with that. Then, the writer Peter Relic is doing a book on the label and that will come out next Fall. It’s really cool and will probably be a coffee table style book. So, we’re trying to mix it up. We’ve been doing a lot with clothes – the brand is always fun to play with because the logo’s so great.
Yeah, it’s so iconic.
One of the things I did two years ago was the Rmxxology project – I put together various artists and producers like Peaches, Diplo, Hot Chip and some guys from France and had them all remix DV tracks. I was very specific about the kind of mixes too – I don’t take it lightly to try to remix ‘Wild Thing’ or ‘Passin’ Me By’ or anything like that. Hot Chip did a very solemn, almost classical version of ‘Passin’ Me By’ – it sounded like a Mass. It brought out the sadness to ‘Passin’ Me By’ – an emotional sadness that I thought was really interesting. I’m not really big on remixes, I’m more interested in alternative versions. So, Rmxxology was a really fun project because it was a way for me to freshen up the label, and reintroduce it to this new school of deejays. A couple of the French guys like Don Rimini and Breakbot are kind of big now – Breakbot’s a really funky French guy that I love and he’s been doing a lot of work with the Ed Bangers crew, and Mr Flash is also like my brother in France, and he just produced the Sebastien Tellier album. So, I work with people I know understand the hip hop history of the label, but are doing really cool avant-garde work.
How would you say that the label has changed over the years – from when it started out to now?
Well, the first five years of the label were like a sonic boom, and then we transitioned into a golden era of hip hop. We started putting out records with The Pharcyde and Masta Ace, like ‘Born To Roll’ and these anthemic, low-rider things. We were really into Jamaican music also and signed a group called ‘Born Jamericans’, we just used to find fresh stuff that we really loved. Then, there were a couple of Brand New Heavies records, and Mr Vegas dropped some Jamaican club anthems. Nowadays we’ll put out a single here or there, or an album like the Illa J album, or, we’ll hear an EP and help release it. The young LA rapper Casey Veggies – he’s eighteen years old, and I started hearing about him around a year ago. I thought the name was incredible and his tracks were slamming, so it was a cool opportunity – I offered to Casey that we would put out a double vinyl of his record, and he was really down for that. He’s got guest-stars on his record from Tyler, The Creator from Odd Future, Dom Kennedy and Mac Miller – and so that’s the new generation. He just finished high school and it’s fun to work with a young artist and help them in any way we can. They know how to market themselves too, which is exciting – they don’t need the star factory; they know what’s cool and find the right friends, they bring the right music, make their own videos. It’s a new era, which is much cooler – much less artificial. You have artists who know how to visually present themselves, and that helps a lot.
It does feel like it’s the next generation for DV, with J Dilla’s younger brother Illa J and the father/son dynamic of The Zzyzzx.
I’m really into the father/son thing with The Zzyzzx because Mellow Man Ace was one of our first artists, and his son Cazal is fifteen and he’s a really talented beat-maker. My brother and I heard it and we were both like: ‘this is really Delicious Vinyl’. I have an eleven year old son and about a year ago I did a showcase at The Roxy with some groups from the West-side and we had Casey Veggies, The Zzyzzx and Frank Nitt – I loved the idea of mixing and matching a little bit of the old-school and the new-school together. For live hip hop anyway it just gives a bigger experience.
There was a J Dilla tribute in London with a live band that Frank Nitt (as Frank & Dank), Illa J and Elzhi all performed at – it was a good show to really display the heritage of the music. I mean, there’s so much love out there for Dilla and that whole movement – Frank Nitt and Illa J are both very connected to that, and it’s always great to hear them dropping those beats and being able to turn people onto it who maybe never saw it or hadn’t heard it yet. Dilla started as Jay Dee, and my brother and he had a very special relationship – because he was Jay Dee then we actually ended up doing a t-shirt that says ‘Jay Dee-licious’.
There’s the Jay-Dee-licious compilation too, right?
Yeah. He ended up doing a lot of mixes for us – did some Heavies mixes, there’s ones with Mos Def and Q Tip, and he remixed and produced a couple of Pharcyde tracks. It’s a cool record.
In terms of the records is there more demand for the older vinyl, or is it half and half with newer releases?
The vinyl never really went away in a weird sense; we were always making twelve inch vinyl and never stopped. But, the last ten years has definitely seen a little bit of a resurgence where people want the out of print stuff, so, we keep all our vinyl in print. We have a really cool vinyl distributor named Traffic that helps us with special packages – they’re bigger music nerds than anybody and really know what the fans want. Me and my brother are always looking forward, looking for cool new things and sometimes it’s hard to figure out what it is you have that people want and how to package it. Traffic actually handle some other really cool, classic labels, like ‘Cold Chillin’’, ‘B-Boy Records’ and ‘Strong City Records’ – obscure labels that would get lost otherwise. Ten inch vinyl’s starting to come back too – I just did a couple of remixes of Peter Tosh’s ‘Legalize It’ with the Dub Club in LA and it’s really cool, we’re going to do a ten inch picture vinyl. Those are the things I like to do, things that Delicious Vinyl can present to keep turning people on to funky, fresh music.
Preserving that music too… Do you have one Delicious Vinyl release that’s a personal favourite?
There’s something about Masta Ace that I’m really partial to, something about ‘Born To Roll’ and the concept of the Slaughterhouse album. The record came out and ‘Born To Roll’ wasn’t even on it – the song that he remixed and turned into ‘Born To Roll’ was called ‘Jeep Ass Nigga’. It was a real rebuttal to all this heavy, gothic gangster rap, and I thought it was a good political piece too. The rapping is so cool and Ace and his crew are so lyrically oriented that there’s something from Masta Ace that I really, really connect to. I mean, I love The Pharcyde and I really love Tone Loc’s first record – I think it’s one of the funkiest hip hop records because the samples are some of the great samples. ‘Loc-ed After Dark’ was Mike and Matt’s showcase – they produced the whole album, and The Dust Brothers produced a few tracks on it as well. It was really a pre-cursor to The Beastie Boys’ ‘Paul’s Boutique’, because after they heard the Tone Loc and Young MC records they were like: ‘we want to work with you guys’ – so, that’s when The Dust Brothers and The Beastie Boys started working together in LA around 1990. ‘Paul’s Boutique’ was their first album after ‘Licensed to Ill’ and it’s this really psych, experimental, sample-heavy record. A lot of the looping and stuff that you hear in that, you’ll also hear on the Tone Loc and Young MC first two records because Matt and Mike were doing that. Matt Dike had the best record collection, so he had all the beats and would just pull out really obscure breaks and stuff. It was a really exciting time in music to hear so many funky beats with new drums on them, and really bumping. You’d never heard anything like it. It’s hard – I can’t really pick one thing. I like funky, groove-oriented beats.
Mike Ross & Matt Dike
Delicious Vinyl has seen some seriously special times in music – times which, like the label itself, have an indelible place in hip hop and its history. The intense love of and devotion to music behind DV rings through in Ross’ vast knowledge of it and his willingness to discuss the various moments in time that surround and stem from the label. With so much musical passion burning at Delicious Vinyl HQ, it’s hardly surprising that the records themselves are imbued with such an enduring allure.
Words by Alice Price-Styles.
Illustrations by Suzi Kemp & Eleanor Wintram