Dante Ross Wanted To Make O.D.B. & Method Man “The Next Run-D.M.C.”
In the canon of Hip-Hop music, Dante Ross may be what we now know as “the plug.” From De La Soul to Missy Elliott, MF DOOM to Digital Underground, Lil Dicky to Brand Nubian, Dante has discovered some of Hip-Hop’s most respected artists. Beyond simply the exploration, Ross has thrived in helping these oft-incredible Hip-Hop artists maintain their authenticity, harness their potential, and capture it all on revealing singles and cohesive albums. The Lower East Side native became an A&R extraordinaire before the term ever applied to Rap music. Additionally, he is also an (often under-credited) producer, label runner, and sometimes musician-songwriter. It is not hyperbole to say that without Dante, Rap would look and sound vastly different over the last 30 years.
Ross is the latest guest on Questlove’s “Questlove Supreme” show on Pandora. Airing on Wednesdays at 1pm EST (10am PST), these constantly streaming shows feature The Roots’ band-leader, Phonte and others in an intimate studio setting, discussing the things that matter most to Hip-Hop Heads and audiophiles. These programs also feature music, often rarities, that pertains to the discussion. Each show is available for 48 hours, after which the content is moved to a Questlove mixtape on Pandora.
In Episode 3, Dante revisits his extensive past, revealing some incredible facts, financial figures, and imagery. While there are many jewels, one highlight comes in the form of Ross’ reflections on Ol’ Dirty Bastard. In the mid-1990s, shortly after moving to Elektra Records following a Tommy Boy tenure, Ross signed the most animated member of Wu-Tang Clan. O.D.B. and released his two biggest albums at Elektra, with the first, 1995’s Return To The 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version being his most acclaimed.
Having started with Rushtown Management (and its partner company Def Jam Records) in the ’80s, Ross was around Run-D.M.C. during the decade. He and longtime friends Beastie Boys admired the Queens, New York trio with whom they would later work. Dante’s love and respect for Run and D was so high, he wanted to pattern Method Man and Ol’ Dirty after them.
“Yo, when I signed [Ol’ Dirty Bastard to Elektra Records], I was lovin’ Wu-Tang [Clan and] ‘Protect Ya Neck’. Matty C., my man who [was A&R] at Loud [Records] told me that they weren’t all signed [individually].” Matty C was the one who had previously penned the “Unsigned Hype” column for The Source, and worked closely with The Notorious B.I.G. and Mobb Deep. “He was almost like, ‘Go and grab one of ’em while you can.’ He threw me the rock,” The Elektra A&R who had signed Brand Nubian, Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth, and KMD to the label hurriedly rushed to get in the ground floor of the Clan. “I heard them up on [The Stretch Armstrong show live] and I went and jumped in the cab. I went up there. When I walked in, RZA was there.” RZA had previously been a fledgling artist at Tommy Boy while Ross worked there in the late ’80s and early ’90s. He recalls the Staten Island, New York MC/producer instantly greeting him with, “You remember me from when I was wack.” Remembering that nugget with a laugh, Ross says he was able to talk business with the collective. “I was talking to those dudes for a while. I was like, ‘Yo, I love Dirty. I love [Method Man]. Come see me.’ It was Thursday; they were supposed to come see me Friday. They came Monday. I remember they came to my office. I told RZA, ‘I want to sign Dirty and Meth’ as the new Run-D.M.C.'” Dante compared the raw, streetwise chemistry of the two Hollis, Queens MCs with the booming vocals he heard from perhaps the two most exciting Wu-Tang swordsmen, at least in 1992.
RZA was not cold on the idea of two of his band-mates as a duo. “He said, ‘Yo, that’s an ill thought. But no; I’m gonna put Meth’ over there with Russell [Simmons at Def Jam Records], but I’m gonna give you Dirty ’cause he fits in with the Gods.” Elektra Records then had a talent roster of Five Percent Nation MCs like Brand Nubian and Busta Rhymes. Method Man would be the first Wu act to sign with Def Jam, where he found tremendous 1990s and 2000s success.Notably, tandems within the group would later take place, beginning with Ghostface Killah’s feature role on 1995 Raekwon debut Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… The Shaolin duo reversed those role’s on G.F.K.’s 1996 jump-off, Ironman.
O.D.B. would be the lone Clansman to ink with Elektra, care of Dante. “[RZA] had it mapped out, straight up,” says Dante, who left Elektra after Dirty’s acclaimed debut. As Ross explains that resulting album, it may be easy to understand his fatigue. “They came to me with anywhere between six-to-eight songs, done. The rest of the music was basically on two-inch reels. A lot of the vocals were already done—not all of them. RZA was like, ‘Peace.’ RZA wasn’t gonna babysit Dirty; he had money to go get. He went and got his money, and he left Dirty in my lap.”
RZA eventually got all nine MCs signed individually, taking a minimalist role in the LP by his former All In Together Now partner. “I had to figure out, with an engineer, how to mix those records—and if you’ve ever had a multi [track session] from RZA, his science is not my science. His period table is very Staten Island. And I’m from Manhattan, I had trouble understanding it. He would literally take the bass tone from the two-inch reel on the two-inch machine and play basslines out of that. I didn’t know what the hell he was doing. I did struggle, but I got the mixes done eventually. [RZA] OK’d them all. It took a year to get the record made. But in that year, the Wu-Tang Clan—’cause I signed them before [Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)] came out had grown in leaps and bounds. I knew I had to get to the finish line.”
Dante expounds on some of the studio antics at Chung King Studios during 1994 and 1995. After recalling a studio orgy one night, he confirms another popular account from the Lower Manhattan recording studio. “He took the fuckin’ LL [Cool J album] plaque off the wall and pissed on it. I’m savin’ that for my book, but needless to say, I was between him and [LL Cool J’s manager] Chris Lighty [in] a Mexican standoff.” Dante remembers O.D.B. treating fans at Hollywood’s Palladium to an encore performance hanging onto a street lamp outside the venue. “He was so wild, and his diet—he’d eat a box of donuts every day for breakfast—chocolate donuts, and then he’d drink Cisco [wine]. He would fart and laugh. Everything he did was larger than life. He got kicked out of so many hotels.” In a different tone, Dante continues, “I will say this though, I knew I had to get it to the finish line because there are times in life when you know you only have that moment in time, and you gotta get there. Right? I had to get there, ’cause I strongly suspected that would not happen again. ‘Let me get it while I can.’ I dedicated a large part of that year to getting that record made, and we got it made.” That album remains the jewel in Dirt McGirt’s limited solo discography.
Even after the vocals and mixing were completed, Dante says the antics continued. O.D.B. would scrap with some of his own producers. “True Master and Dirty got into a fistfight during the mastering session. If you look at the record, it says ‘Mastered by Tom “The Referee” Coyne,’ ’cause Tom got up and broke up the fight. He ended the mastering session and told them to come back the next day.”
Dante adds that while RZA approved the album’s contents, Ross secretly added small production to details (care of the drums) to one of the album’s hits, “Brooklyn Zoo,” as well as begged O.D.B. for the second verse on “Shimmy Shimmy Ya.” That backwards verse was added later. “You can hear punches on all the Wu-Tang stuff,” Dante says of the raw quality to the nine-man New York City collective.
Return To The 36 Chambers would be nominated for a 1996 Grammy Award for “Best Rap Album” as well as sell more than 500,000 units within two months of its release. O.D.B. would die in November of 2004 from a drug overdose. Just before his death, he had signed with Roc-A-Fella Records.
Other gems from this discussion include Q-Tip nearly executive producing an early Busta Rhymes solo album for Elektra. Ross also chronicles the difficulty of working with Leaders Of The New School as a group, given their hostility towards each other in the early 1990s. He goes into great depth surrounding the evolution of MF DOOM and K.M.D. on Black Bastards. Shelved at Elektra due to the group’s album title and hanged Sambo character portrayed on the artwork, Ross reveals that DOOM would leave the Warner Bros.-distributed label with his masters and a check for approximately $20,000. As Dante tells it, “DOOM said, ‘You know I should get dropped more often. I’ve never got a $20,000 check in my life.'” That album, which was heavily drug-induced, was recorded before DOOM’s brother DJ Subroc was killed as a pedestrian on the Long Island Expressway. Ross, who still Skypes with the Metal Face villain (asking him to remove the mask for the calls), credits him deeply. “He invented Underground Hip-Hop, more or less, after catching the biggest L of his life—losing his brother [and his record contract].”
Of Pete Rock, Dante calls him, “The easiest guy to work with, of all time.” He continues, “Pete never beefed about anything, ever. Never…He was quiet back then.” He also reveals that Brand Nubian’s Grand Puba wrote Pete’s verses on “The Creator” and “Soul Brother #1” in exchange for beats.
From De La Soul having 3 Feet High and Rising ready to release in late 1988 to Big Daddy Kane’s days as a DJ at Latin Quarter, fights with The Bomb Squad and other Elektra execs wanting Del The Funkee Homosapien to work with Jermaine Dupri, this is worth the full listen.