entertainment

These guys turned their Conshohocken record company into one of the biggest hip-hop labels in the world

Dan DeLuca, Music Critic

Updated: Wednesday, October 4, 2017, 6:14 AM

Joe Nicolo (right) and Chris Schwartz, founders of Ruffhouse Records, in Studio 4 in Conshohocken.

Hey, Joe Nicolo and Chris Schwartz, what would you say was the craziest part of the 1990s, when Ruffhouse Records was one of the biggest hip-hop labels in the world, based in Conshohocken, of all places?

The music-business movers and shakers were reminiscing this week at Studio 4, the Conshy subterranean recording facility owned by Nicolo, his fraternal twin, Phil, and their partner Will Yip, and they had many moments to choose from.

Nicolo and Schwartz have an excuse to be nostalgic. They are getting ready to be inducted in the Philly Music Walk of Fame, along with Jill Scott, Sister Sledge, LaBelle, McFadden & Whitehead, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the Soul Survivors, and deejay Bob Pantano.

Their Avenue of the Arts plaques will be unveiled Wednesday morning, and they’ll be feted at a gala at the Fillmore later that evening, with an intro by the artist who brought them together in the first place: West Philly gangster rapper Schoolly D.

The nuttiest Ruffhouse moment could have been when the Fugees’ 1996 album The Score blew up so big that along with their corporate partners at Sony, they thought nothing of spending $2.4 million on the video for “Ready or Not,” or throwing a party on an aircraft carrier in New York.

“That’s still on the list of the most expensive videos ever made,” says producer Nicolo, 62, laughing and remembering when he and Schwartz, 56, were “drunk with power.” “I don’t regret any of it. It’s rock and roll!”

His partner chimes in: “That was when Puffy and Mariah and everybody all decided they had to have helicopters and Jet Skis in their videos, too.”

Before the Fugees — and Lauryn Hill, whose 2008 Grammy-winning, 19 million-selling The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill also came out on Ruffhouse — the label the two Devon natives formed had had plenty of other extravagant successes.

There was Kriss Kross, the Atlanta preadolescent duo who wore their clothes backwards and hit big with “Jump,” from 1992’s megahit Totally Krossed Out. “I remember when we were shipping a half a million copies a week,” says Nicolo. He’s particularly proud of an old T-shirt showing Warner Bros. cartoon characters dressed like Kriss Kross. “Bugs Bunny and the Tasmanian Devil, affected by something I did? That’s big.”

Ruffhouse first broke out with Cypress Hill, the weed-loving Los Angeles rappers who mixed all their ’90s albums at Studio 4, both in its original location at Fourth and Callowhill, and, after 1995, in Montgomery County. Another early hip-hop success was with Tim Dog, the Bronx rapper who attacked N.W.A. in 1991 with “F- Compton,” whose video the label sold more than 100,000 VHS copies of for $9.95 each in pre-YouTube days.

But it all started with Schoolly D. The rapper was managed by Schwartz, a high school dropout and son of a furniture salesman who did an active tour of duty in the Navy and played in local bands before getting his music-business hustle on.

Schwartz was working for West Philly label Nicetown Records, which released a Bill Cosby album recorded live at Graterford Prison — Nicolo jokes that the Bill Cosby in Graterford Prison sequel is on the way — when he brought the rapper born Jesse Weaver to Studio 4.

Schwartz knew that if he wanted Schoolly’s record to sound good, he needed to have it mixed by Nicolo, dubbed along with his twin “The Butcher Brothers” because their father owned a Conshohocken butcher shop, and the siblings excelled at physically cutting tape. Nicolo was credited as Joe “The Butcher” Nicolo, giving him instant cred in the hip-hop community.

Schoolly’s influential mid-1980s hits “P.S.K. What Does It Mean?” and “Gucci Time” earned him a reputation as the father of gangsta rap.

“Schoolly had the essence of cool,” says Nicolo, who honed his hip-hop skills working with ’80s rappers like Spoonie Gee and Roxanne Shante. “That’s the gas that makes the engine run.”

Of all the projects Nicolo’s ever worked on — from producing Billy Joel to rock records by Urge Overkill and Anthrax with his brother — Schoolly fascinates the most. “The first Grammy I ever got was for a DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince record,” he says. “Nobody ever asks me about that. They want to know about Schoolly D. Without Schoolly, there would be no Ruffhouse Records.”

In 1989, Ruffhouse’s first release was “The Piper,” by West Coast rapper Cheba.

Between that time and 1999, when Nicolo left to form his own Judgment label and break into the film business — “I thought, I conquered this world and I want to do something else” — the label had a remarkable track record in the decade before the advent of Napster.

“In the ’90s, the CD was the most profitable configuration in the history of the music business,” says Schwartz, who started his own Ruff Nation label with Warner Bros. in the aughts. “It was 85 cents to make a CD, and we were retailing them for $19.99.”

Not everything caught fire. There were standouts like still-productive Philly rocker Ben Arnold’s 1995 debut, Almost Speechless, that didn’t break through, and albums by the interracial Philly hip-hop band the Goats, which failed to meet Sony’s expectation of being the next Rage Against the Machine.

But the success rate was high.

“We had so many perfect storms it was ridiculous,” says Nicolo. The key to success, adds Schwartz, is “you have to make yourself available when it happens.”

Schwartz, who’s now a partner in a music-distribution company, and Nicolo, who works with young bands on his Blackbird label, are cautiously optimistic about the business. “I think it is coming back,” Nicolo says. “Streaming doubled last year. There’s a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel.”

And how do they feel about their names going into concrete in front of the Kimmel Center?

“Finally, people can walk all over you,” quips Nicolo.

“It’s tons of fun,” says Schwartz.

But seriously, Nicolo says, “Everyone wants to be loved and appreciated. And the fact that Philly is honoring us this way … We’re not artists. We’re that asterisk. We’re not Mario Lanza or Hall & Oates.

“We were just a couple of hungry kids from Devon. We loved music. It was our passion. And we got lucky. I’ll never forget, Billy Joel’s the one who said to me: ‘Dude, we’re good at what we do. We’re really good at what we do. But you and I both know it’s dumb … luck.’ We hit the right place at the right time.”

MUSIC The Philadelphia Music Alliance Walk Of Fame Gala 6 p.m. Wednesday, Fillmore Philadelphia, 29 E. Allen St. Tickets: $200-$3,000 Information: 215-309-0150. philadelphiamusicalliance.org/walk-of-fame.

Dan DeLuca, Music Critic

Read full story: These guys turned their Conshohocken record company into one of the biggest hip-hop labels in the world