Of course Chris Schwartz, co-founder of Philadelphia’s famed Ruffhouse Records, would enlist Beanie Sigel to resurrect one of Hip Hop’s most storied imprints. The Rap gods wouldn’t have it any other way. Ruffhouse dominated the Golden Era, dropping multiplatinum releases by Nas, Kris Kross, Cypress Hill, The Fugees, Lauryn Hill, among others. Schwartz and co-founder Joe “The Butcher” Nicolo sold hundreds of millions of records while maintaing the trust and respect of their world class lineup. Thirteen years after the label’s initial breakup, now sporting a fresh EMI partnership, Ruffhouse is back and Beanie’s up first with his latest full length, This Time.
In separate interviews with HipHopDX, Chris Schwartz and Beanie Sigel discuss pushing This Time before Sigel does time for tax evasion. Schwartz also clarifies why Ruffhouse actually folded in 1999 and details how The Fugees were nearly dropped by Sony, while Sigel talks Stevie Williams and Skate Property, and being Rap’s unluckiest lucky emcee.
HipHopDX: Beanie, the first time I saw you was during the Hard Knock Life Tour in 1998 at the then brand-new Bi-Lo Center in Greenville, South Carolina. Your legendary acapella is still one of the most memorable moments of that tour. Then the next four years in college, your music defined the sound coming out of everybody’s whip. When you look back, and maybe you don’t as often anymore, did you realize you were embarking on one of the most respected careers in Hip Hop? Or were you just doing what you were doing?
Beanie Sigel: I had no idea. I was just doing what I was doing. No idea. For a lot of people, that’s probably their most memorable times of – not just my performing career – but Roc-A-Fella [Records], period. Doing the Hard Knock Life Tour with me coming out; doing the acapella thing and having the whole stadium just erupt with no music, no nothing. I get that a lot. That speaks to everybody. They’re like, “Yo, I remember the first time I saw you. Hard Knock Life Tour. You came out on stage and kicked your acapella and after that, the show was over.” [Laughs]
DX: [Laughs] Right! And the reason it resonates with me is because, I don’t think there is any other genre or element that is as captivating as an emcee at his most competitive, most raw, most visceral, connecting with people in real way with a lot of showmanship.
Beanie Sigel: I mean, can you imagine me doing that with nobody knowing who I was? Nobody knew who Beanie Sigel was until that night? Then they were like, “Yo, that cat, what’s his name? The one that came out with Jay-Z?” That was hot. That was hot.
Beanie Sigel Explains Where This Time Fits In His Discography
DX: I think it’s difficult to put together a career that holsters quality, dare I say classic, albums. I don’t know if the album is valued the same way as it once was in any genre. But looking at your catalog, you’re sitting on arguably two classics, possibly three. The Truth and B. Coming are both super special projects. With B. Coming, you didn’t get to really push that record. But that’s the one that highlighted you as an artist. What are your thoughts going into This Time and when you were putting it together? How do you feel about it now that it’s ready to go?
Beanie Sigel: I wish I had more time to record on this project than I did. This is one of the first albums that I really went back and listen to my old music, the sequencing and how I put it together. I just wanted to make an album that was nothing like any other music on a Hip Hop album that’s coming out today. There’s a lot of albums out that if you pull one record from the album, you heard the entire album. I always wanted to make an album that had a variety of music and emotion that’s in my music. That’s what I tend to do. I won’t record anything that I don’t feel if I can’t feel it. It starts with the music first. The lyrics, I have no idea where they come from. I’d be lying if I told you there was a certain ritual or structure that I do when it comes to writing music because I just let it come. I don’t rap everyday. I’m not a studio rat. I just go in and record. If I like the music and I feel the music and lyrics start coming to me as I’m listening to the music, that’s how it comes out. I’m always real meticulous with the music that I pick because I don’t want one song to sound like another song.
DX: Chris, you must be excited that This Time is nearing its release date.
Chris Schwartz: You know, I wish I literally had another month. Obviously I wish Beanie [Sigel] wasn’t going [to prison]. It would’ve suited me better to put this record out in October. I’m very enthused about what we have going on so far.
DX: I’m a fan of “The Reunion.” It’s a progressive sound for Beans.
Chris Schwartz: You know, it’s funny. The record was going to be called The Classic. We had this concept about making something that sounded like a classic Hip Hop record. Not a record that would be such a great record that it would be a classic. But classic more like retro. Have you heard the album yet?
DX: I’ve only heard [“The Reunion.”]
Chris Schwartz: The [Sly & The Family Stone] hook and everything, the beat – it’s a fun party track. It’s infectious. We did really well our first week at radio. It exceeded all of our expectations. I think it’s just going to keep going.
DX: I know that the title has changed, is the overall sound of This Time still in that classic mold?
Chris Schwartz: Pretty much, yeah. Here’s how I would put it: Beanie’s first album [The Truth] was an incredible album. [The Reason] was a great record. [The B. Coming and The Solution], I kind of think they were what they were. [This Time], I think is really like the first record he’s ever made that a lot of consideration and thought went into it. The last two records, I know he’s just been locked up in the studio for two weeks and just threw it down and that was it. This record was more about ideas and different things and different people and concepts and everything. It’s more of a record that was tailor made for who he is and what he’s about.
Beanie Sigel: This album is a great album. When you listen to the album you’re going to be able to hear a variety of music; a variety of emotion. It’s a real feel good album. It’s an album for everybody. It has a little bit of everything. Going into recording this album, the title was going to be The Classic. I was gearing towards, as far as production, a classic Hip Hop album – one of those albums that you put in back in the day and the album would only have ten songs on it but you didn’t have to skip it. Like a Nas Illmatic. Not having the time that I had to record the album the way I wanted to and really gear in on the production, I switched the title to This Time because I didn’t feel as though I was comfortable enough with the recordings that I had to do The Classic. The Classic is yet to come. When I do record that album, I think it’s going to be a double CD. That’ll be The Classic right there.
DX: That’s interesting to hear you say. You’ve done slews of interviews since 2009. I feel like there was a new Beanie Sigel interview every month for at least a year and a half straight.
Beanie Sigel: I know, right?
DX: One of the things you talk about consistently is how many tracks you have recorded. It’s surprising to hear you say how you didn’t get to record this the way you wanted.
Beanie Sigel: When I go in and I make an album, I will record 10 records. And out of those 10 records, I might keep four. Then go ahead and record again. I’ll just start chopping down until I feel it’s the best body of work and I’ll put it together like that. I have a slew of music still sitting in the hard drive. [When I first met Chris Schwartz], I played music for him. He was looking at the hard drive and see saw the dates, he was like, “You’ve got music in here from 2007.” I probably got over 200 records in the hard drive. I’m really finicky with my music. That’s why I’m going to name the album The Classic. I really wanted to deliver an undeniable classic for me because I believe I’m my own worst critic. I get in the studio all the time and before I record something I’m like, “Nah, I don’t like that.” People in the studio be like, “That’s crazy!” I’m like, “It’s aight.”
DX: Maybe that’s part of the reason why you’ve been able to maintain such an emphatic fan base. Your fans really really ride for you. You seem to be one of the last symbols of Hip Hop from a time when you had to be 100% official; when you couldn’t have any chinks in your armor.
Beanie Sigel: Not at all. Today, you can be anybody in music. You can be anybody, man. You can go in the studio and you can make the most hardcore raunchiest lyrics, and you can be a paper-boy. You can be the biggest drug dealer in America and the most drugs you ever sold was to the pharmaceutical technician at Walgreen’s. You can be anybody nowadays, especially with social media. There’s Twitter gangsters out there. It’s crazy. There’s no background checks anymore. I’m not saying that you gotta have an extensive record. That’s not cool. I’m not advocating that. To me, I’ve got a problem when people make music and they talk about certain things that they haven’t experienced themselves or been in contact with and you advocate that and you’re not giving the pros and the cons of it. It’s crazy. You go and advocate all that stuff, but you’re not going to make a record like “What Your Life Like.” There’s an end result to that. You might die.
The thing about my music is that I always give you a different emotion. People are gonna connect to that. I’m gonna make a record like “Lord Have Mercy On Me.” I’m gonna make the record “This Can’t Be Life.” I’m gonna give you those records [“Dear Self (Can I Talk To You)”]. Sometimes you’ve gotta check yourself. Even in that record on The Solution, that’s me talking to myself, checking myself like, “Yo, slow down a little bit.” Every album that I record, there’s always a record that people feel like I’m talking directly to them. Most people can’t fathom what it’s like to have a Maybach or a Bugatti or popping bottles every night, throwing 50,000 ones in the strip club. We’re in a recession right now that’s about to turn into a depression. They’re about to clip Medicaid. People aren’t even gonna be able to go to the dentist and get their teeth fixed. Everything isn’t about glorifying this persona of being street millionaires. I think that washed up in the late 1980s, early 1990s.
DX: Which record on This Time is tapping into that same vein as “What Your Life Like” or “This Can’t Be Life?”
Beanie Sigel: The title track “This Time,” if you listen to that record, it’s a great great record for motivation. It’s motivational in doing anything that you want to do. That’s the try and you fail record right there. That’s that get up and keep going record right there. This time you gonna make it. Never give up, man. Keep going.
Chris Schwartz Clarifies The First Ruffhouse Records Split
DX: It’s amazing how Beanie’s interest remains so high, Chris. He has one of Rap’s most solid reputations.
Chris Schwartz: He’s got an incredible reservoir of good will amongst his fans.
DX: What inspired you to relaunch Ruffhouse Records 12 years after its breakup?
Chris Schwartz: I’ve been doing a lot of interviews. One guy just asked me, “Why would you want to start a record label in 2012?” I’m like, “Why not?” It’s never been a more exciting time to be in music. First off, look at the majors. It’s a level playing field. The majors bring radio to the table and that’s undeniable. This day and age, you have some anomalies – records that just blow up off of the Internet. But they’re very far and few. We made and mixed these records the way kids are going to listen to them in the car because that’s the way records are broken. Records are broken on the radio and in the car. That hasn’t changed. It’s just the delivery of it has changed. It’s about how you monetize it and collect on it. All that’s a whole new game, but it’s still the same business that I knew and loved in the 1990s through the beginning of the last decade.
What happened with me was that I started making movies and I made a bunch of them. I did Snipes. I did Money Power Respect. I did all these films. The problem with the film business for me was that it was too labor intensive for something that took too long to make and too expensive. Yeah, you can go and make films for $200,000, but the reality is that I wanted to build up the distribution company. But in order to do it, you need a lot of product to make the profit margins work and everything. Then I went to work for Sony [Records] as an A&R consultant for like five years. I brought them Estelle, Jazmine Sullivan, Flo Rida, Rick Ross and they passed on all of them. They passed on all those artists. I was helping out [Lauryn] Hill do a lot of stuff; helping her to get her thing going back. I got invited to come start this urban Hip Hop franchise at EMI [Records] and it just made sense. I felt like, “Okay, now, if I do this, I can actually have a real outlet for artists that I get involved with.
DX: If I’m not mistaken, European regulators are still waiting to finalize approval of Sony/ATV and Universal’s acquisition of EMI. Is their ruling later this month going to have a baring at all on Ruffhouse’s relationship, or is the decision pretty much a done deal?
Chris Schwartz: It’s a done deal. It’s happening. I know that they had to sell Parlophone Records, which is the crown jewels of the EMI empire over in Europe. I know that EMI is pretty much being left in tact. The reality is that it’s all about the records. Whether it’s EMI, EMI/Universal, or whatever, it’s still Ruffhouse. It’s what I do. I’m not too overly concerned at this point. I figured that as long as I make the type of records, things will be okay.
DX: Beans, you told a story to AllHipHop.com in April when you were describing your upcoming book. You talked about how when you were locked down you would get a bunch of letters from fans. You talked about how your cell mate didn’t get as many letters and would ask you to read to him. It clicked for you that a number of people in prison can’t read and write [well enough to function]. You just mentioned that people are in dire situations right now. What’s the solution, in your mind?
Beanie Sigel: I think they’re closing 63 public schools in Philadelphia and they’re about to build four more prisons in Philadelphia alone. The prison system is a money maker and they’re proud of the prison system. If you really look at it, it’s concentration camps. It’s modern day slavery of a sort. Whereas you got jobs in the prison system where people out here might make $13 to $20-something an hour and in the prison system they’re doing that same job for 14 cents an hour; sometimes 14 cents a day. Look at the commissary in the jail system and what they feed you. It’s a money maker. It’s about war and slavery in the world today. “War Pigs” – if you listen to that, that’s what I was talking about. That song that I did, “Judgement Day.” The “Roc The Mics” and the party records, they’re big. But listen to the records that got meaning to them. “Children Are The Future” and things like that. You’ve got to really listen to the records because I’m in tune with my current events.
To combat that, the first thing we’ve got to do is start in the home because the mother is the first teacher of the child. It begins with parenting. The parenting of today is not the parenting of yesterday and the parenting of yesterday is not the parenting of the days that were before that. So when you have a child that’s brought up in a broken home who’s mother is on drugs or welfare, the father’s in jail. That person – son or daughter – is going to gravitate to the next thing that they’ll see in the streets that they feel is half way more decent than they’re seeing as a role model in the home. Especially for the young male. The young male’s father is not around so when goes out and roams the street and there’s a drug dealer on the corner that’s got a nice car and a pocket full of money, who do you think he wants to be like? Who do you think he’s gonna grow to be like when he’s in the house with a single mother? Then if the daughter sees the mother with different males and is in and out of the house, what do you think she’s gonna accept from a man when her role model has different men coming in and out the house? And with the male, too. How’s he going to treat women.
I think that’s how we combat that, with parenting first. And by giving the children something to do. They have nothing to do. Like you said, they’re tearing up the schools. No after school programs. There’s no real advocates that’s gonna give the kids something positive to do. The message that we’re giving them is tear down these schools, tear up all the libraries, and build new prisons.
DX: The cycle continues.
Beanie Sigel: There’s no jobs! I remember when I was young, you used to be able to bag up people’s bags at the supermarket and take them to the people’s cars and you might get two or three dollars. Now when you go to the supermarket, the people who work at the register, they’re taking their jobs because now you can bag your own stuff up. You swipe, bag it, and keep it moving.
Beanie Sigels Reveals That Skate Property Will Still Happen
DX: I don’t know if you get enough credit for your entrepreneurial ideas. I know the money hasn’t always been right with endeavors like Pro Keds and State Property, for example. The one that’s most intriguing to me was Skate Property with Stevie Williams at the beginning of the last decade before the onset of skateboarding and Hip Hop. Do you ever think about what might’ve been had Skate Property launched the way it was supposed to?
Beanie Sigel: I brought Stevie Williams up to Roc-A-Fella and to the studio. I had a meeting with Dame [Dash]. There was a cat that was in Love Park and was skating. There was a black kid skating and doing the tricks. You know skating back then was primarily inner city White youth that was doing it. Then you had this Black kid that was doing it that was better than them. I just saw a vision that this guy right here is just different. To me, I felt there was no limit to what we can do, so I’m telling Dame that I wanted to do this thing called Skate Property. Dame couldn’t see the vision. Then a year later, Reebok picked him up and he became the biggest thing in skateboarding at the time. That’s around the time the X Games was blowing up big. I was looking at that money, trying to get into the X Games. But everything happens for a reason because I just got with Stevie again and Stevie never forgot me. I remember I had to go away for that year he got his Reebok deal. His first ad with Reebok, I was sitting on my bunk flipping through a magazine and I saw his name, Stevie Williams. When I looked through, his first ad was him in Tower Records – when there was still a Tower Records. He bought every last B. Coming CD that was in the store. He had on his RBK hat and that was the only thing remotely close to Reebok. We recently hooked back up and Skate Property will be in effect.
DX: That’s good.
Beanie Sigel: Yeah, he never forgot the kid. He reached out. We contacted each other and he was like, “Yo, man, when nobody believed in me, you believed in me. Anything I can do to help you in any situation, let me know.” I’m like, “Yo, when you wanna do something, let’s complete our vision. Let’s do that Skate Property thing.” So, it’s on and popping.
DX: Congratulations, sir.
Beanie Sigel: Congratulations to Stevie. That’s what you call a true friend right there: Somebody who will never forget.
DX: Chris, you said something interesting in your press release regarding Beans upcoming album. What you said was that you’re working with “self-established marquee artists…”
Chris Schwartz: Actually, that quote got garbled a little bit. It’s “established, self-contained marquee name artists.” I really want to deal with an artist who created their own market; who basically have an idea how they want to be perceived. It’s all the difference in the world. Historically, that’s what I’ve been successful with.
DX: I grew up on Ruffhouse Records throughout the 1990s. Is it fair to say that Cypress Hill and The Fugees were established? It felt like you guys ushered them in.
Chris Schwartz: Yeah, but they had their own ideas. They had ideas. That was the thing. Wyclef [Jean] and Ms. Hill and Pras, for that matter – they had a whole concept. They had a whole thing. It was obvious from the minute we saw them that they had their own entire thing going, especially Cypress Hill. They did something that I thought was interesting. At that point, there was this incredible East Coast/West Coast thing going. They were completely different from everybody. You couldn’t really tell if it was East Coast or West Coast. That was something they created on their own, totally self-contained. They had their own vibe. It wasn’t just a Rap group. That set the criteria for us.
DX: What were those two years like between The Fugees’ Blunted On Reality and The Score? I’m under the impression that Sony wanted to drop The Fugees and you guys had to fight to keep them signed. How close were The Fugees to actually getting dropped?
Chris Schwartz: Pretty close. Pretty close. Here’s what I didn’t understand: Over two years after The Fugees‘ [Blunted On Reality] came out, they were still selling close to 600 to 800 hundred copies a week Soundscan. Six hundred to 800 copies a week! To me, that was an indicator that they were growing their fans every week because they were literally touring in Europe and everything creating this whole thing. It literally would’ve been the craziest thing in the world to drop that group. I think what spurred the whole idea of dropping them was that one of the heads of Sony – who I won’t name – saw one of their shows and apparently thought it was horrible. Thank goodness cooler heads prevailed and it didn’t happen because we end up having the biggest selling Hip Hop record in history.
DX: There’s a Daily News article from March 1999 describing how Ruffhouse was in discussion with Sony about renegotiating your distribution partnership which was about to expire in July 1999. Then in May 1999, The Hollywood Reporter reported that Ruffhouse Records was going to dissolve; you and Joe “The Butcher” Nicolo were going to split. Was there a primary cause for the riff? Were there creative differences?
Chris Schwartz: Basically, it wasn’t as dramatic that people thought it was. Essentially, to stay together and keep the deal going with Sony, we had built up such a valuation in the company that I don’t think we could’ve recreated it. The company was incredibly…Forbes valued it at $175,000,000 at one point. It was like, “If we cut and run now, we’ll make the most amount of money, rather than…” Because who knows, you can never guarantee that you’re going to have another 10 years of blazing success. It just seemed like a good idea. And I think we both had different ideas on how we wanted to do things at that point. I think Joe [“The Butcher” Nicolo] really, at end of the day, was more comfortable being in the studio and doing his production. I was more comfortable with doing what I did, which was running the label. It wasn’t as dramatic as people made it out to be.
DX: Why do you think there was drama attached to the split?
Chris Schwartz: There were a few conversations that got repeated to a magazine in Philadelphia that maybe shouldn’t have been repeated. But it was nothing more than two partners venting, which is gonna happen. But I’ll tell you the truth: We had an amazing working relationship for 10 years. I don’t even think we had an argument, if you want to know the truth. I can’t think of one time where we disagreed with each other on something that was a nasty fallout. There wasn’t anything like that at all.
DX: How does it feel to be the first release of the newly relaunched Ruffhouse Records, Beanie?
Beanie Sigel: Man, it’s a good thing. I can’t help but thinking what if I had started my career off at Ruffhouse Records.
DX: Chris’ reputation amongst artist is exceptional. I’ve never heard any artist have anything negative to say about Joe or Chris. What made you sign with Ruffhouse/EMI?
Beanie Sigel: Chris wouldn’t leave me alone. [Laughs] He wouldn’t take no for an answer. [He said] “You’re gonna be on Ruffhouse Records and that’s the end of it.”
DX: Are you concerned at all about releasing your record right before going away? Do you feel unlucky at all? To a degree, it could be argued that you’re the unluckiest lucky emcee ever.
Beanie Sigel: [Laughs] I know, right! Yo, you sound like my lawyer. [Laughs] Yeah, to a degree. You’ve got a lot of people like Chris and guys at the office who really put a lot of energy and time and effort into this project. Going in, we kind of new what we were facing. Things didn’t pan out so we’re doing everything we can do. My main goal is to do everything I can do possible to help push this record as far as it can go. That’s why I take my hat off to Chris and Dean [Sciarra]. For them to still want to move forward taking in considering my situation, I have to give them 150 to 200% to help push this project.
But do I feel nervous? You’ve got to look at it. Like you said, B. Coming, is a classic album. That’s an album with no promotion, no radio, no help [Dame Dash Music Group/Def Jam], no interviews, anything. It’s an album in the mix of Roc-A-Fella Records breaking up – Dame going his way, Jay-Z being the President of Def Jam, and just throwing an album out there. For that album to still go gold from the jail cell. The only way that I feel like will really be hurt is not being able to tour and do all the things Chris set up for me overseas and be able to go and make the money that could have made. But I think this time will give me time to think and see where I want to go, come out and do it over again. I think I’ve built my career to the point where if I had to do ten years and came home and wanted to do an album, I think people would want to hear that album. I think they’d want to buy that Beanie Sigel album.
DX: You’ve never shied away from controversy, obviously. You briefly ran through your previous label situation. Is all the conflict with Dame and Jay over? Is all that behind you now? Is it all resolved?
Beanie Sigel: I mean, what do you wanna do? Do you wanna cry over spilled milk or are you gonna let the cats lick it up? It is what it is. I can’t do nothing about it. It’s a done deal. It’s about me and my future right now. The future for my children. I’m not gonna stay on that treadmill. I can run as fast as I want about that, but if you’re on a treadmill, you’re gonna be staying in place. I’m off of that treadmill.