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‘Dante the Scrub’ … Ross in 1993.
‘Dante the Scrub’ … Ross in 1993. Photograph: David Corio/Redferns
‘Dante the Scrub’ … Ross in 1993. Photograph: David Corio/Redferns

‘It was fun until it wasn’t’: hip-hop A&R Dante Ross on De La Soul, ODB – and punchups with P Diddy

Christian Kriticos

Hailed as the genre’s Forrest Gump for his time with artists from Busta Rhymes to Santana, today Ross contends that streaming, sampling and materialism have changed the genre beyond recognition

At first, “the Forrest Gump of hip-hop” sounds like an incongruous nickname. Surely there are few characters who embody the spirit of that genre less than Tom Hanks’s slow-witted sprinter? But Dante Ross is thrilled with the title. “Gump is the connector,” he explains on a Zoom call from his home in Los Angeles. “He’s connected to all these things. But you don’t really know who he is.”

This sobriquet, given to Ross by Black Thought, lead rapper of the Roots, is one of many endorsements that grace the cover of Ross’s new memoir, Son of the City, which details his career as one of the most successful industry executives of 90s hip-hop. The roster of rap royalty that fill the rest of the cover is a testament to Ross’s status: from Chuck D and Mike D to Questlove and Queen Latifah.

Like Gump, Ross charted his ascent from inauspicious beginnings. As a white kid growing up on the pre-gentrified streets of New York, he seemed an unlikely candidate to help usher in the golden age of hip-hop. But when Run-DMC hit the scene in 1983 he was immediately captivated. He made the switch from punk to hip-hop and began hanging out in rap-friendly clubs, where he made connections that opened doors into the industry. “I don’t think I ever went out with an agenda and hung out with people who would help me ascend the ladder,” says Ross. “But I had aspirations to work in the music business, for sure.”

Old school … with Pete Rock (left) and Diamond D.
Old school … with Pete Rock (left) and Diamond D. Photograph: (await credit)

Ross started at the bottom when a friend got him a delivery job at Rush Productions, an affiliate of Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin’s Def Jam. Soon after, he was scouted as an A&R executive for Tommy Boy Records. His tenure got off to a propitious start with his first assignment – supervising production for De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising. The album became an instant classic, with Ross referenced on a couple of tracks as “Dante the Scrub”. The first act Ross signed was a teenage Queen Latifah. “My first impression of her was she was a complete superstar,” he recalls. “She walked in the room with a million-dollar smile. When we heard the demos, they jumped out of the speakers.” (Her debut album, recorded under Ross’s tenure, was recently selected for preservation in the Library of Congress.)

Despite this strong start, it was Ross’s five-year stint at Elektra Records that defined his career. In his memoir, Ross describes this time, perhaps immodestly, as “one of the most incredible runs of any A&R person I have ever known”. Albums by Ross’s acts during that period include Brand Nubian’s One for All, Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s Return to the 36 Chambers and Pete Rock & CL Smooth’s Mecca and the Soul Brother – all listed on Rolling Stone’s 200 greatest hip-hop albums of all time. Still, says Ross: “There was a lot of idiot savant going on. We didn’t know what the fuck we were doing.” During his Elektra run, Ross also discovered several future stars. By signing Leaders of the New School, he launched the career of Busta Rhymes, who was so young he had to bring his mother along to sign the contract. And, by signing KMD, he introduced the world to the late MF Doom, an artist whose reputation as “the rapper’s rapper” seems to grow stronger with each passing year.

Along the way, Ross also enjoyed the wild lifestyle that came with working in the music industry. He smoked a joint on Warner’s jet to see James Brown after he was released from prison. He dated a string of minor celebrities. At certain points the lifestyle seemed to get the better of him. “I drank like a fish, smoked Cypress Hill-levels of pot, and got into fights constantly,” Ross writes. One of these fights culminated in Ross trading punches with P Diddy in a nightclub. A week later, Ross bumped into Diddy again in the Armani store. “Thank God we had made peace or I might have been wearing that suit at my own funeral,” he writes.

Genre defining … with Beastie Boys’ Adam Yauch.
Genre defining … with Beastie Boys’ Adam Yauch. Photograph: (await credit)

In the latter half of the 90s, Ross made a rare transition. “A lot of producers become A&R guys,” he says. “But not a lot of A&R guys become producers.” His move to the other side of the desk brought new levels of commercial success. With Everlast, lead rapper for House of Pain, he crafted a radio-friendly hybrid of soft rock and hip-hop that spawned the double-platinum album Whitey Ford Sings the Blues and inspired thousands of imitators. New opportunities opened, including a Grammy-winning collaboration on Santana’s all-star Supernatural album, and two production credits on Eminem’s 8 Mile soundtrack. “It was a lot of fun for a solid five years,” Ross says. “And then it wasn’t fun any more.”

Ross has returned to A&R work in the decades since, but he admits that his enjoyment has diminished. “No one’s signing an artist because they heard their song on an underground mix or saw a group live or were in a club and heard their record,” he says. “It doesn’t really work like that anymore.” Instead, artists are increasingly signed based on streaming figures and social media engagement.

He admits to being just as guilty of it. “I can’t tell you I was proud of everything I signed,” he says of his recent A&R work. “They will not be part of my legacy.” In the book, he writes about signing rapper Ugly God to Asylum Records. “I don’t think Ugly God’s talented. I think he had a hit record. But it’s not the same level of art to me,” he says, making a negative comparison with De La Soul, whom he considers “one of the greatest groups who ever made music”.

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‘There’s always the youth replacing the prior iteration’ … Ross in 2018.
‘There’s always the youth replacing the prior iteration’ … Ross in 2018. Photograph: Johnny Nunez/WireImage

Ross suggests that this is part of a broader decline within hip-hop. “When sampling became too cost-prohibitive, hip-hop lost some of its funk and soul,” he writes. And he is even less complimentary about the lyrics. “Instead of rapping about Breonna Taylor or George Floyd, we are subjected to verse after verse about pussy, lean, and materialistic bullshit,” he writes, criticising a decreased political awareness he perceives among today’s rappers.

When I point out that old-school hip-hop had its share of “materialistic bullshit”, Ross pushes back. “There was always a materialistic thing, but it was also kind of fun,” he says, citing Busy Bee’s 1982 single Making Cash Money. “It evolved into something that is very, very different. It’s levelled up to a grandiose and often unrealistic scale of abject materialism that did not exist at the core of the foundational aspects of hip-hop.”

Either way, Ross is correct in noting that the music has changed – as all genres do. So maybe he doesn’t align so neatly with Forrest Gump, a character who seems oblivious to the changing world around him. Perhaps he is better suited to another nickname from the cover of his book – this one from Chuck D, who calls him “the Ralph Bass of hip-hop”. The surface parallels between Ross and Bass are obvious: “Ralph Bass was a white guy who worked on Black music,” Ross says. But the similarity runs deeper. Bass started out in the 1940s, specialising in R&B and working with artists including Etta James, Sam Cooke and James Brown. By the end of his career in the 90s, R&B had also changed beyond recognition.

Ross acknowledges the cyclical nature of change. “It’s perpetual in hip-hop,” he says. “There’s always the youth replacing the prior iteration.” And he still finds much to be inspired by in indie hip-hop: he recently started a new A&R job at Plus One Records, a smaller label with an ethos more aligned to his own. “I feel like there is a lot of art in music still to be found.”

Son of the City is published by Rare Bird Books on 23 May.

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