Ruffhouse Records founder Chris Schwartz on relaunching his revered label in a new era
Beanie Sigel dropped his much-anticipated sixth album today, and it’s a boisterous return to form for the South Philly-bred rapper and actor – and another Philadelphia hip-hop institution as well.
This Time is the first release on a newly-relaunched Ruffhouse Records, the locally-based / Columbia-distributed label that put out an impressive string of albums between 1989 and 1999 – The Goats’ Tricks of the Shade, Cypress Hill’s Black Sunday, both Fugees full-lengths as well as and the modern soul classic The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. It also ventured into the local alternative rock scene, releasing records by popsters Trip 66 and the still-active Ben Arnold.
Label founder Chris Schwartz says he didn’t think twice when deciding would usher in the new era of Ruffhouse – Sigel is, in his words, “a cornerstone artist.”
“At the end of the day, the guy made an incredible record. It’s unfortunate he won’t be here to do some of the things he needs to do behind it,” Schwartz says, referencing Beanie’s looming two-year prison sentence for tax evasion. “But in our humble estimation, it’s the best record he’s made since The Truth. We have an artist – we have a credible, real artist – and making records is what we do.”
The business of making records is vastly different today than it was during Ruffhouse’s first incarnation. It’s different even further from when Schwartz started in the music industry 28 years ago and played in the electronic band Tangent (regularly featured on WXPN’s Echoes once upon a time). But where old school industry heads might find the decline of physical product dismaying and streaming services like Spotify threatening, Schwartz takes a more progressive view.
“I started back in a place where you’d sell thousands of millions of CDs,” he says. “The Internet has become a challenge to that whole methodology, but at the same time, if you were never around in that era – if you’re just coming into the business now – you have to kind of keep yourself in front of it, and all the opportunities it brings up. Look at Spotify, at all these digital venues for music. Does it impact CD sales? Yes. But it also helps create a market for artists.”
After the label folded in 1999, Schwartz went on to work in the movie industry through his offshoot company RuffNation Films. Returning to music almost a decade later as an A&R rep for Sony, he immediately saw how much things had changed. Label scouts weren’t out at clubs looking for up-and-coming talent – they were at their computers, trolling YouTube for the biggest viral video smashes. A body of work became less important than a single big hit.
“I realized – you know what, man, there’s a lot of artists that have an established market where the sales might not mean enough to impact multinationals,” Schwartz says. “But for an independent, it would have an impact.”
So when EMI’s Colin Finkelstein floated the idea last year of Schwartz launching an urban pop franchise backed by their distribution, he knew what to do: don’t reinvent the wheel, bring back a brand that’s established and trusted.
In addition to reviving Ruffhouse with Beanie’s This Time, Schwartz also had a release in store from Canadian R&B singer and songwriter Glenn Lewis, whose Moment of Truth full-length is due out in the winter. Schwartz says he’s seeking “self-contained artists” in building his new roster, acts with a strong concept of how they want to sound, how they would like to be perceived by the record-buying public. This was the case with the artists in Ruffhouse’s first incarnation – “Cypress Hill, The Fugees, they came to the table with everything,” Schwartz says. This is also the case with Beanie, who has a half-dozen solo records under his belt, not to mention records with his revered hip-hop crew State Property.
Schwartz concedes that Lewis, who only released one full-length in 2002, has yet to really break in the same way. But he’s far enough along the path as a songwriter, an arranger and vocalist – one who was recognized with a Juno award for his single “The Thing to Do” – that the label is not starting from scratch in working with him. In the studio, Lewis was paired up with Philly production collective Made in Philly, featuring Jill Scott collaborators Carvin & Ivan, and Philadelphia International Records studio vets Vance DeBose and Khan Jamal. Schwartz says the crew gave Moment of Truth a broad spectrum of appeal akin to Musiq Soulchild – something that clicks with both adult contemporary and hip-hop audiences.
Like its roster, the new Ruffhouse staff is starting off modest. Right now, it’s just Schwartz as CEO and partner Kevin Glickman in business affairs working with Philly production luminary Phil Nicolo, a Grammy award winner and sibling of Schwartz’s old Ruffhouse partner Joe Nicolo (they were the Butcher Brothers back in the day). For now, Schwartz says, that’s where it will stay.
“It’s different when you’re roster-driven and overhead-driven,” he says. “I don’t want to be overhead driven. I will never have more employees than meets the needs of the roster, that way everyone gets taken care of.”
It’s a philosophy Schwartz has applied to the artists he’s worked with over the years – and one he plans to continue. Show up at Ruffhouse with a mixtape of 27 songs, 25 of which are filler? You’ll probably get shown to the door. Bring in three songs that are all potential hits? Now you’ve got his ear.
“There’s sort of an art to it that people don’t realize,” Schwartz says. “People think volume counts. But I’ll take somebody who has one hit song that’s a hit and I know he can come up with other stuff than somebody with 30 tracks. Volume means nothing to me, it’s all about quality.”