Chris Schwartz of Ruffhouse Records on the Philly of the 80s, the label's heyday in the 90s, and his new memoir - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart
The Fugees, circa mid-90s | courtesy of Chris Schwartz / Ruffhouse Records

In the summer of 1987, Philly manager/record promoter/jack-of-all-trades Chris Schwartz and his partner engineer and producer Joe “The Butcher” Nicolo founded Ruffhouse Records.

Gaining skill and music-biz experience doing everything from playing guitar in a Kraftwerk-inspired post-punk ensemble to managing Philly hip-hop legend Schoolly D, Schwartz had spent his 20s navigating the wildly eclectic and chaotic wonderland of the city’s music scene in the 1980s. In the 90s, Ruffhouse’s roster swelled, reading like a who’s-who of the decade’s brightest hip-hop stars. With massive multi-million selling acts like Cypress Hill, Kriss Kross, The Fugees, Lauryn Hill and more, Ruffhouse established itself as one of the premier hip-hop labels of all-time.

Over 30 years after Ruffhouse hit the scene, Schartz returns with Ruffhouse: From The Streets of Philly To The Top of The 90s Hip Hop Charts, an exhilarating and detailed autobiographical look into his life and career in music. We recently spoke with him and got a wealth of stories about Philly music history and insights into the events that shaped his book.

The Key: For starters, could you tell me a bit about how you got your start in Philly’s music scene in particular, and what the creative energy of the city was like in the 80s?

CS: Wow! Thank God somebody finally asked a question that I’ve been dying to talk about! [laughs] Philadelphia, live music in the 80s was INCREDIBLE. When I came back here from the Navy, I guess it was 1981, there were a lot of bands. You had this burgeoning live music scene. You could on any night of the week go out and you’d have like 4-5 places with 6 or 7 bands playing. There were more bands than there were places for them to play. It was the post-punk era. If punk rock did anything at all, it got people on stage playing guitar who would not have otherwise. Punk rock gave people who weren’t great musicians a chance to be in a band. It was a really great time for live music, the drawback was that a lot of bands sucked too. [laughs] A lot of crappy bands ruined it for everybody and people just stopped going out.

Chris Schwartz | photo courtesy of the artist

TK: So around like ’86 / ’87 Punk had started to dilute itself a bit. What was it like in the early 80s when it was good?

CS: Maybe I need to go back a little before that. So, when I was growing up there were two things going on. There was WFIL, which was pop radio, and then you had WMMR and WYSP. Then in terms of Black music, my exposure to it was Soul Train. I obviously knew about Philly International, disco and all that throughout high school, but I was guitar player trying to learn and when I went into the service, I wasn’t very good at making friends, and it was just by the fact that I was playing guitar and learning that I fell in with these African American musicians in the Navy. One of these guys was an aspiring songwriter and he kind of schooled me in songwriting.

When I got out, my best friend, a guy named Jeff Coulter, was heavily into electronic music. I had always been a Kraftwerk fan, prior to that because they used to play the song “Autobahn” on WFIL…and I don’t know if you know “Autobahn,” but it’s like 22 minutes long.

TK: [laughs] Absolutely.

CS: So when I got out of the service, my best friend Jeff was playing all electronic music. So, I came home and we started this electronic group and we played music that was pretty much inspired by Kraftwerk. We had actually bought a Roland TR-808 [a pioneering Japanese-produced drum machine that would go on to be the foundation of countless Hip Hop, House and Techno records] when it was still a virtually a prototype on the market. And this was long before it was used in hip-hop and everything. We were using it for our purposes, we needed a programmable drum machine for the stuff that we were doing. Our first live gigs were actually at WXPN, Star’s End, Diaspar

So, we did a gig at The Gallery Mall. We were playing and people were walking up to us, looking at us for three seconds and walking away….except for a group of kids that stayed there the whole time. They were talking amongst themselves and after we were done they walked over to us and were like “Uh…excuse me sir. Can you guys program some beats? We’re a rap act” and I said “sure.” I loved hip-hop. There was nothing about it not to love. I was already doing hip-hop beats before we were involved in it. If you listen to European electronic stuff, it was such a natural thing for me, you know? We did a bunch of rap records, none of them really came of any consequence but I got the production down.

I see an add for a place called Nicetown Records in West Philly and I answer the add, a guy named Ted Wing. So, I got to work on the third floor calling the retail chart and Billboard, I’d call people, send them the free product [promos]…I learned how to chart records.

TK: Gotcha.

CS: And then the same thing, worked at radio.  And this was before the advent of BDS [Broadcast Data Systems or “BDS” was a for tracking radio airplay and Soundscan, the industry standard for tracking record sales]. I’m on the third floor, there’s no heat, no air conditioning, windows nailed shut, one desk and one phone, calling retailers and radio about these records. So, I’m sitting in Ted Wing’s office [located in a daycare center] one day and I see these records, “Gangster Boogie” by Schoolly D. And I asked “What’s up with Schoolly D?” And he said “He came in here and wanted me to help him get distribution but I wasn’t interested.”

I waited until Ted left, I went in his office, got Schoolly’s number and called him up. Basically, I introduced myself and I ended up working with him. We started the Schoolly D Records label, I became his manager and we did the first ever gangster rap record in the history of hip-hop.

TK: Wow. I was going to ask about Schoolly in particular. A lot of his music was gangster rap, hardcore street music, but he also had a white rock following. What was it like working with him and managing him and trying to get his music out to different audiences at the time?

CS: Here’s the thing I found something really interesting about Schoolly, and it was really kinda bizarre because I don’t think anybody was expecting it…but when I met him, he was primarily doing shows in North Philly, West Philly and going to New York a couple times, but that was it. I had given his record to Martin Keown of Philly Metro Record Pool, and Martin sent the record out to his record pool and I was getting phone calls from DJs that worked in these white clubs who were telling me that when they played “P.S.K./Gucci Time” the dance floor would be PACKED.  So, I started booking him in these white clubs, and it was really crazy….like rock clubs.

TK: Fast-forwarding a little bit, when you started Ruffhouse Records. How did you take that step from managing to actually running a label? What made you even want to start a label in the first place?

CS: Well, I already had manufacturing, marketing, and promotion down. I had an artist, I had an active product out there in the market. So when I hooked up with Joe (“The Butcher”) Nicolo, it was the perfect marriage. When they started Studio 4, Phil (Nicolo) was doing all the rock bands that were coming in, paying all the prime hours, and Joe was relegated to the night shift. He was working with the hip-hop acts at 4 a.m. So by proxy, Joe became the go-to guy in Philly for hip-hop production!

Joe realized something early on that a lot of these producers weren’t getting. Back in the 80s, if you have a guy who spends most of his day doing rock and pop and he’s never done hip-hop, what the first thing this guy does? He tries to make the drums sound clean and antiseptic. Joe went completely the opposite, because Joe listened to the client. That’s what they want, that bombastic, dirty sound. Joe got that, as did Arthur Baker (early 80s NYC hip-hop producer), as did Rick Rubin (producer and co-founder of Def Jam).

TK: What was it like during those years after Ruffhouse partnered with Columbia?

CS: Oh, it was amazing. It was really the Cypress Hill record [their 1991 self-titled debut] that just kinda broke everything through. Cypress Hill was blowing up selling 50,000 copies a week, then we had Kriss Kross….it was a pretty amazing thing.

TK: Wow. And when Ruffhouse put out the first Fugees album Blunted on Reality it didn’t do well commercially or amongst critics, but their second album The Score went on to be one of the highest selling rap albums in history. Could you talk about how you signed them and that journey of breaking them as an act?

CS: Well, we signed The Fugees because they were different. I was so bored of live hip-hop shows at that point. When we went to see them, they were a MESS! There were like seven or eight kids performing [on stage] I don’t even remember Lauryn Hill from the audition. Wyclef was like the de facto leader of the group. He had a beat box and an acoustic guitar and that to me is what did it. I had never seen that.

TK: Can you talk about The Score and what it was like working on it and when it came out and blew up like it did?

CS: That’s the thing: The Fugees did not just fall out of the sky. That first record…..we put SO much work into The Fugees, they toured Europe a couple times. It was no secret that Sony [Columbia/Ruffhouse’s parent company] didn’t want to continue with The Fugees. They were hanging by a thread. The fact we even got to The Score was a miracle, an absolute miracle.

TK: What did it feel like once The Score came out and it was so successful? Did that validate the vision you had for them?

CS: Yeah, it definitely validated us, on a big level. And then we did Wyclef’s solo record (1997’s The Carnival); we went to Haiti, and we were going to do a traditional Haitian record with pop elements to it. We started working on it, and it started to become something else. It had become this frontline record. We were going to do this independent, as a special project. I was paying for it personally and now it became something else, so we’re going to put it out on Ruffhouse. Then Wyclef starts adding things to it. He called me up on a Tuesday to tell me that he had an 80-piece orchestra booked for Thursday. I hadn’t even gotten a budget approved, so I went into Donnie’s office [Donnie Ienner, former Chairman of Sony Music] and I played [a demo] for him and he said, “I don’t know. It sounds like vacation music.” But we got it done, which leads me into Miseducation….they [Sony / Columbia] did not want her to do a solo record.

TK: Really?

CS: Yeah….

TK: What were they hesitant about?

CS: They wanted another Fugees record!

TK: What was the conversation like to get them off of that idea of another Fugees record and towards the idea of Lauryn doing a solo record?

CS: They never got off it, but they had no choice [but to let her make the album]. So either they do it or she could go to another label, but they did everything to try…Tone and Poke [90s hip-hop production duo The Trackmasters], to the RZA, Puffy…but she had no interest [in using popular established producers].

And then after the whole production fiasco, then there was the cover art. They wanted a typical 90s, female R&B cover. It was a real fight, a year and a half of just a struggle to get that record done. It’s crazy how they were very vocal about not liking it, they didn’t like the songs and then the record, not only did it blow up, it made an impact that was just incredible.

TK: Yeah, it changed music. Moving ahead to your book Ruffhouse: From The Streets of Philly to the Top of the 90s Hip Hop Charts. What was the process of putting this book together like?

CS: Nothing’s ever easy but I’m a voracious reader and I never knew what went into writing a book, but I found out. [laughs] It wasn’t easy, I have a great memory, but to go back and get dates and piece things together was difficult. It wasn’t easy but it was enjoyable.

Ruffhouse: From The Streets of Philly to the Top of the 90s Hip Hop Charts is available now.

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