Son of the City: An Interview with Dante Ross

Will Hagle connects with Dante Ross to talk his new memoir 'Son of the City,' his unforgiving self-reflection, love of the Cool Kids and Fishbone and more.
By    June 21, 2023

Image via David Corio/Redferns

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Will Hagle‘s major 2023 pivot: doing nothing.

Dante Ross writes how he talks. Blunt, straightforward, and honest. Full of stories about artists and albums from across the vast spectrum of recorded music history. Wild tales from growing up on the Lower East Side when punk and hip-hop were both emerging. Plenty of good times on the West Coast, too. In Son of the City, Ross transmutes his mind to the page. Unleashes its best memories in one definitive, chronological, cohesive burst.

On social media and in interviews elsewhere over the past few years, Ross has dropped consistent gems contextualizing his incredible career. He can spout words for days about working with legendary artists from De La Soul to ODB to Everlast and a host of names too long for one sentence. In his memoir, insights into the making of several classic albums abound. But the format of a book allows Dante to go deeper into his emotional arc, documenting the complexities of his internal feelings as he fostered musical greatness. In addition to the blunt honesty of his writing, Ross brings another element that both anchors and elevates his words, like a precisely-mixed drum break: vulnerability.

Written on-and-off over the course of almost fifteen years, Son of the City started as a collaborative manuscript with Dante’s dad, John Ross. A prolific writer and activist whose complicated but beautiful relationship with Dante comprises a throughline of the book, John Ross—passed in 2011. In 2020, too many friends followed. Amidst an onset of loss, confronting his own mortality, Dante felt compelled to get these stories—some legend in their own right for liner note scourers, scrub appreciators, and savvy fans—down on paper.

The book is a chronicle of Dante’s life, but in his mid-50s the eternal A&R guy remains as tapped into modern music as ever. He bemoans the lack of popular political rap these days, calling for a “trap Public Enemy.” In the next breath, he acknowledges that the youth runs music. He can listen to his Chuck D records as the wrinkles set in. But everything is cyclical, and he’s been around for a few cycles. He not only understands artistry and industry—and the way those often diametric concepts intersect—but he can break down how it all works in transparent, understandable form. In an age when “A&R” might be an unrecognizable abbreviation to kids who make and release music on iPads, Ross is the last real bastion of artist & repertoire. He gets it, and always has. 

In the below interview, I didn’t ask Dante too many questions about De La Soul, Brand Nubian, KMD, Queen Latifah, Pete Rock & CL Smooth, ODB, Leaders of the New School, Everlast, or any of the other names I promised earlier I wouldn’t squeeze into one sentence. It’s better to read them in the book. Those stories are entertaining in their own right, but Ross’s unforgiving self-reflection in his writing is what makes them so impactful. Instead I wanted to ask him about the Cool Kids and Fishbone.

Early in the book, Ross writes that he’s never been comfortable with his greatest successes, which tend to leave him feeling hollow. He also includes a paragraph billed as his “hip-hop braggadocio” moment, acknowledging the remarkable nature of his A&R credits list. Ross tells me, “If nothing else I’m a complicated person.” He then references an old 12-step adage: “We’re egomaniacs with self-esteem issues,” adding, “That is pretty apropos when I think about myself.” It’s also apropos when it comes to the book, which again is a transmutation of his mind’s best memories. He should be proud of Son of the City, like his dad would be.  

For people who have read Son of the City or are at all intrigued by Dante’s memoir, he drops a hefty dose of music and life wisdom in a blunt, straightforward, and, most importantly, vulnerable manner.

You’ve been involved with the making of so many classic albums. How does the process of writing and publishing a book compare to making an album? Are there any sort of parallels in the industries?

Dante Ross: There is. Writing a book, your aspirations are lower. People don’t read books like they listen to music. So, you’re gonna get a more niche audience to say the least. So that’s one thing. The other thing is, it’s super time consuming. If time is money, it’s a terrible career pursuit unless you’re Stephen King. So that’s another thing.

But also, I think the similarities are both are cathartic in nature. And for me, it’s very challenging. I’m mildly dyslexic. My father was a pretty accomplished writer. So that made it intimidating on some level. And I love to read. I’m a huge reader and always have been. So to try my hand at a different kind of medium was really fucking cool, exciting and interesting and intimidating – and took forever.

How long did you work on it?

Dante Ross: On and off, like if I added all the time up in one block of time, I would say five years. But it was spread over almost a 15-year period. I started the notion of writing the book with my dad in 2009. My dad was staying with me in New York. He had gone through a round of chemo. He was physically in remission. And he was saying, “Yeah, we should write a book together, and kind of tell our parallel stories and how we meet in the middle of it.” That was a really cool idea. We were going to go by chapter, chapter, chapter. He wrote about 30 pages. I wrote about 40 pages. We were going back and forth. Life being life, he had his stuff to do and I had my stuff to do. We were in different cities, often in different countries, and he got sick again.

He was dealing with cancer and going through chemo and the book became less important, I guess. It was not the focus. Trying to get him healthy was. He ended up passing away in early 2011, after a year of being really sick. I couldn’t write. I don’t want to say I got writer’s block. But I got something. It was too painful to pick it up. I’d just look at my manuscript, and I’d be like, “Oh, this is too fucking much.” So I put it down for a bunch of years.

Life being life, it took its own course. I picked it back up a couple years ago, right before the pandemic, and started rewriting it. I thought there was some good stuff in there and some trash in there. I got a lit agent and I moved to LA.

I’d gotten turned down by a bunch of lit agents who told me that I didn’t have what it took. They’re like A&R guys. So whatever. I finally got a lit agent, and he turned out to be a fucking asshole. He really ruined the process of me even wanting to write the book. He tried to bring in another writer, Jim Ruland, who’s written a bunch of punk rock books and rock books, like he wrote an SST book. He’s not a bad writer, but he was obtrusive. He tried to change the title of my book to “Beat Boss.” He rewrote a chapter or so and I fucking thought it sucked. I realized that he was also my lit agent’s client. My lit agent had told me, “This will make it a big book.” I realized he was gonna get paid twice, kind of like an agent does on the film side of things. And I realized he was a complete, unethical fucktard. And I fired both of them.

As we headed into the pandemic, I picked it back up. I fired my lit agent, and rekindled my relationship with the guy who had had a standing publishing offer to me. Nothing you’ll get rich on, but he had an offer there. I had two offers and one of the ladies kind of disappeared. This guy, Tyson Cornell at Rare Bird, hung in there.

I had to figure out the business and extricate myself from my situation with my former lit agent, who was in the midst of a humongous lawsuit at the time, because he had done all this other corny shit to people. So this guy named Kirby Kim helped me clean up everything and fix my deal at Rare Bird.

I wrote it and rewrote it and rewrote it and rewrote it during the pandemic, which was a good thing to do. I had a lot of time to do it. I got it to a place where I liked it. Working with an editor on and off. There were some editing faux pas. I’ve caught a bunch of typos since I’ve read the hardcover book, which is super annoying, especially for a guy like me who has to work really hard to not make typos.

So I figured it out. I finally learned how to spell “there/they’re/theirs” properly. And “you, yours and you’re.” So I figured some tricks out that had evaded me. I didn’t really go to school very much as a kid. I don’t want to say I’m an idiot savant. I’m a relatively intellectual cat who has read a billion books, but I probably stopped going to school around 10th grade. So it’s just part of my process.

So I got it to where it is. I guess that tells you how I did it. I say the pandemic was a gift in the sense that it really put a battery in my back. My godfather, I went to see him during the pandemic in 2020 before he passed away. I had sent him a copy of the manuscript at that point. He told me, I had to finish this motherfucker.

I lost a whole bunch of people in 2020. My two former Simulated Dummy partners. DOOM, my dear friend Gabby, and a bunch of other cats. I had to get my story down. Because mortality seemed like a real fucking thing. It still does sometimes. I’m pretty healthy, but I was like, let me get this fucking thing done done done done done. And I got it done done done done. So that’s what it is.

It definitely comes across that you were wanting to get your story down because of the different people you mentioned that’ve passed, especially obviously your parents. I think it works too because it’s written in a very conversational tone. I know your voice, so I was kind of reading it in your voice. So I don’t think it would have worked with a different writer.

Dante Ross: And that’s the point, right? Like all my favorite writers, I assume they kind of write the way they talk. Whether they’re Charles Bukowski or Raymond Carver or John Fante. Or Flannery O’Connor, Paul Beatty. These writers who I really like to read. I wanted it to be conversational. Particularly like Charles Bukowski. I think he’s incredibly conversational. Lucien Price as well.

I’m a pretty well-read guy and I’m a good storyteller. I didn’t want to lose that. I wanted it to sound like me fucking telling you one of my fucking dysfunctional stories. That’s kind of what it is.

You talked about writing being cathartic. What were the emotions during the process of writing the book in relation to your dad, since you started writing with him and then obviously it changed course?

Dante Ross: It was great. Because it made me feel closer to my dad. There were some times when it opened some wounds up. I’ve never considered my childhood traumatic or incredibly fucked up or super dysfunctional. I didn’t really ever talk about it to my friends. But when I read the book back, I was like, “Wow, my childhood was kind of fucked up.” Maybe I do have some trauma I need to deal with.

But I also felt like it helped me commune with my father’s spirit. I believe he would be proud of me. I tried to be really honest. Because my father was really fucking honest when it came to his shortcomings. And I tried not to cater to my ego. I am a bit of an egomaniac. We all are. It’s part of the post-modern condition. But I try not to be too egomaniacal.

I have a friend, Seth Rosenfeld, who’s a pretty accomplished playwright and writer. We had another friend who wrote a book, a memoir music thing. I’m not gonna name him, but he told me “Don’t write your book like old boy cuz that shit wasn’t too good.” He’s like, “Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable.” I thought that was invaluable insight. I kind of tried to follow that.

Look, man, I didn’t win every fight. I didn’t get every girl. I didn’t fucking win every battle at work and blah, blah, blah. But I also did get to live one hell of a life and I wanted to share that. My life has been a life well-lived. And I wanted to get that across on paper.

I also liked that you didn’t hold back about some things—and we don’t need to go into it—but about Serch being asked to leave Subroc’s funeral, for instance.

Dante Ross: You know, we don’t need to rewrite the truth. That guy tends to do that. I have to love him from a distance because it’s the best way for me to achieve some form of serenity. I’ll leave it at that.

But I also wanted to celebrate some people. As an A&R person, you’re never the center of the story. You’re additive if you’re lucky. You’re a paperweight if you suck. I wanted to just be an additive if I could. My great talent is finding talent in others, and that was something I wanted to get across.

What is an A&R person exactly? And is it still relevant today, or needed in the music industry?

Dante Ross: Well, look man, a real A&R guy who’s really in it, is always needed. It’s like getting great notes from an editor. It’s a great valued opinion. Whether you follow it to a tee or not, it’s always appreciated. Or it will at least make you look at things differently. You’ll have a different perspective. So I think that a good A&R person is always needed.

But it’s come to mean “Analytics and Research,” not “Artists and Repertoire.” There are not that many great A&R guys out there that I see these days. I worked in a major label system for nine years on my last run. I left in 2019. I saw a bunch of kids who could read numbers.

But then there’s kids who really get it, like my friend Cody Verdecias who works at Atlantic, or Orlando Wharton. Those guys get it. They’re really good fucking A&R guys. They may not deal with music that speaks to me. But the music they’re dealing with—what speaks to their generation—they really understand it.

So there are great A&R people still out there. There’s also a bunch of people who are much better at gossiping, social media, finessing and ordering lunch. Those guys don’t need to be in the studio. Me, I’m at every session. I know how to make music. So from my perspective, there’s still great A&R people. And there still are lots of terrible A&R people. There are more terrible A&R people now than probably ever before. There’s a lot of clout chasing going on.

There’s a section in the book where you said Del was open to some arrangement suggestions you had [for No Need for Alarm], and he made changes. Was he someone who, at that time, wanted to make hits? Or was he someone who just wanted to just rap, like the rest of Hieroglyphics?

Dante Ross: He just wanted to rap. I think he felt constrained by what happened with Ice Cube on the first record. I think that some of that didn’t feel like it was him. It felt like he was Ice Cube’s puppet. I think he resented that. He was a young kid, coming into his own as a man. I think he wanted to make music that was akin to his crew, not akin to Ice Cube’s rule of thumb. So that’s what it was.

Del and I had a stunning relationship and still do. He’s like my little brother. Much like a couple of the guys that I’ve worked with. Busta too. We have a fraternal relationship of sorts. Ironically, I’m going to work on a Del record. This year, we’re planning to start. We’re going to try and make a statement album: me, him and Domino. That is, you know, like the landmark record he hasn’t made in a long time, we’re gearing up to do it. So it’s ironic, you mentioned Del now.

I think that my relationship with him then, and now, enabled me to get some things out of him that maybe he couldn’t see himself. That’s really what being an A&R person is.

When we made No Need for Alarm, I was a little disappointed. I say disappointed because I had commercial aspirations for Del. You know, this guy made “Dr. Bombay” and “Mistadobalina,” which is a fucking genius commercial record. He’s fucking really talented. He can make hits. But Del followed his inner voice, and I fine tuned it a little bit with Domino’s help. And we made a record that is one of the testaments to West Coast MCing. There’s a few of them that came down the pipe at that time period, but I put this one up against all of them. He’s rapping his ass off, and it’s a pretty good record. The beats are pretty good. It’s a good album.

You say that Oakland is one of the most underrated cities in music history, which I agree with. Is there anything you can pin that on, aside from the obvious stuff, of why that’s such a great city for hip-hop in particular.

Dante Ross: It’s beyond hip-hop.

Much like the rest of America, the culture of Oakland is getting greatly altered, right? We know this. It’s being changed dramatically all the time by gentrification, commodification, blah, blah, blah. We have the age-old quandary of community versus commodity. Community versus money.

But Oakland is a special place. It’s not an accident that the Hells Angels and the Black Panthers both come from Oakland. It’s a rough place. It’s not a joke. It has an amazing history of Black consciousness and art. I always found Oakland to be an amazing place. It’s exciting. The Bay Area in general is a special place. The Mission is like The Lower East Side and Oakland is Brooklyn. That’s what it kind of feels like to me. I always loved it, and I always felt very comfortable there.

I know a lot of people there. I spent a lot of time in The Town. I am, though originally from San Francisco, pretty pretty Bay Area name brand. Mistah F.A.B. always claimed me as being from the Bay and things like that. It’s my second home and I love the music that came from there, whether it’s hearing Too $hort in 1985 or 1986, or 40—when A-plus played me Federal—or RBL posse “Bammer Weed,” or any of these records. That stuff to me was always cool as hell.

I’m really identifiably connected to the boom-bap thing in New York. But I’m a pretty open-minded dude when it comes to music. I always felt like there was a misconception that underground music meant like, boom-bap type beats. Underground music always meant, like, Murder Dog Magazine to me. I always thought it was people like Devin the Dude, or 8 Ball and MJG or Short or RBL Posse or JT the Bigga Figga or Spice-1. Things like this. I always liked that shit.

So to me, you just have to listen with a different lens. I salute Oakland. It’s an amazing place. I’ve seen some wild ass shit go down in Oakland and San Francisco. But I love them. I love the Bay Area. I’m going up there in a couple of weeks and I look forward to being there. It’s a fantastic place.

A lot of your book is about music being a universal language. But also, you talk about there being different identities and a cultural exchange that goes on in music. In your case, punk and hip-hop around the same time when they were first emerging. How do you think that’s changed? Did genre ever matter?

Dante Ross: As a child, especially in my time period, like as an adolescent, the genre your sub-culture was connected to was very important. This is why being an adolescent is endlessly romantic to a middle-aged person. Because this is when you establish your being. This is when you identify with your tribe. And a sub-culture’s usually attached to that.

But for me and my friends, we were eclectic. Our sub-culture certainly started with punk rock, but incorporated graffiti. Hip-hop was always side by side with punk rock for us. And then punk rock became everything we didn’t like: MTV, new wave, tough guys with bald heads. We’re fucking out. The next best thing in line was hip-hop.

So for us, that cross-pollination was very natural. We were not the first. There was a generation before us. The Fab 5 Freddy’s, the Patti Astor’s, the Keith Haring’s. These are the guys who did it first. But we saw them and we followed suit. Everything had gotten more commercial by that time when hip-hop becomes a real thing. So we’re pretty early on in this cultural cross-connect.

Nowadays kids have everything a click away. It’s not unusual for kids to listen to lots of stuff. Like Turnstile and JPEGMAFIA or Danny Brown or things that are even more trap-driven, more genre obscure. It’s really common nowadays for kids to listen to everything.

This morning alone I listened to Teen Mortgage, Wire, Pink Siifu. So I listen to a lot of different things, and I do all with a click: boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. A lot of kids are pretty eclectic.

Now we have a band like 100 Gecs, who I don’t really like, but they are the cross-culmination of a lot of things at once. Trap beats and some hyper-pop thing underneath it. Kids are — if they’re not aware of it — they are cross pollinating, genre-hopping all the time.

Maybe they’re not as identifiable as one specific sub-culture. And that’s cool, man. You don’t have to be. We can decry the kids all day. But man, there’s a lot of cool fucking kids out there. Man. I was in New York this last weekend. And I was inspired. I was around all these fucking funky kids doing cool ass shit. Rapping, into cool shit, knew about shit. I was like, “Y’all motherfuckers are just like me. You’re just fucking fantastic.” To be genre-agnostic is common and cool right now. And God bless, man. I was just like that. So fucking rock on.

Today I saw Paul Wall posted a picture of him dressed as MF DOOM—

Dante Ross: Wow.

Because he said it’s his son’s favorite rapper. So I’m curious from your perspective, what it’s been like seeing younger people coming from DOOM back to KMD?

Dante Ross: I love it. I’m wearing a KMD sweatshirt right now. I love it. I love the fact that my friend’s 16-year-old son’s favorite rapper is MF DOOM. He wanted to ask me about Doom and Del. One of my best friends in the whole world—I was best man at his wedding, my friend Paul Moore, he’s a Black cat from Brooklyn, Jamaican and his son is 16—and he just wants to know about DOOM, and can I take him to see Souls of Mischief when they come to New York? I thought it was so cool that he loves MF DOOM, and he knew about KMD because his dad made him listen to it.

It’s cool, man. I like how he became your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper. Whether it’s disingenuous or not—not for me to say—they’re upholding the legacy of my friend who I love. I love how this younger generation has super keyed in on MF DOOM. I don’t know if it’s because of Odd Future, because he’s your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper, because of his cryptic death, and his entire mythical character, but I think it’s fucking cool. These guys are gonna keep his name alive.

I work with the estate. We have a lot of really cool shit coming out that we’re going to do with DOOM for his family to celebrate his legacy. And look, I love my man. I’d much rather have him be alive today, Skyping like we used to Skype. Zooming with me with the mask on and making me laugh. But, you know, we are where we are. And I think it’s awesome that the kids have really championed DOOM. God bless.

You talk a lot in the book about mixing. There are certain records you mention that weren’t mixed right or could have been mixed better. So what is the ideal mix to you? Do you have a philosophy around mixing?

Dante Ross: The Chronic 2001. Man, it sounds fucking perfect. It’s fucking beautiful. It’s crispy and slapping. It sounds so fucking sonic. It’s not dirty. My records are a little dirtier. Well, a lot dirtier. We come from a kind of different aesthetic, but I thought that that record is mixed tremendously.

Midnight Marauders is fucking mixed impeccably, like it sounds so fucking good. You want to just hear the whole spectrum of sound, from the lowest lows to the highest highs. You want the whole spectrum of frequency and I think those records obtained that.

I don’t know how you feel about Kanye, but My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is mixed wonderfully. It sounds beautiful. It’s a wonderful sounding record. Even Kids See Ghosts by Cudi. Kanye with Mike Dean, man those mixes are fucking spot on. They sound great.

I’ll tell you a rock record that’s mixed great: Nevermind the Bollocks by the fucking Sex Pistols. That thing cranks. Sounds so good.

David Axelrod records, those records all sound tremendous. Those are all examples of records that sound great. I used Jamie Staub on Whitey Ford Sings the Blues because I thought that Pete Rock record sounded spectacular. And I think he made Whitey Ford Sings the Blues sound amazing. He’s a great, great, great mix engineer. Mike Dean’s a great one too.

So part of it is whoever you’re mixing with, because I don’t have the skill to mix it to get what I want by myself. You want somebody who’s likeminded.

I’ll even listen to classic rock records like Dark Side of the Moon. Jesus fucking Christ, like that record is mixed so good. And Wish You Were Here. Those Pink Floyd records are mixed so trippy.

Then you have things like the Beatles, George Martin. Gang Starr records are mixed pretty fucking cool. There’s no rhyme or reason to who did what, but those are all examples of records I think were mixed fantastically.

It was cool to read what you found wasn’t mixed right or was mixed right, and having the mix be something extra to think about when listening to an album.

Dante Ross: Look, I love that first De La record, but it ain’t mixed that great. Play it next to Low End Theory, you’ll find out what I’m talking about.

De La changed that, as you listen to every record after the first record, they’re mixed much better. Because they were aware of their contemporaries.

Lo-fi mixing can be great. Cypress Hill’s first record. That record sounds fantastic. I don’t know if it’s lo-fi, but it sounds great.

There’s no rhyme or reason to why things are mixed well. There’s no one litmus test, I just have the things I like, and those are all examples of records I like.

Now everyone’s using the same presets. It’s all done in the box, which means it’s none of it’s analog. It all sounds very compressed. Everyone can hit really hot. The art of mixing, because dynamics don’t exist as much in music, is kind of lost. Though, Mike Dean, that motherfucker still got shit cracking. He’s still a magician with that shit.

A couple more artists I want to ask you about that aren’t directly related to you but that came up a couple times in the book… The first one is one of my favorite groups… The Cool Kids.

Dante Ross: I love them.

What was it about them that you liked so much?

Dante Ross: The Cool Kids, they followed their own voice. They dressed fucking cool. They were doing this kind of old school drum machine beats. “Gold and a Pager,” “Black Mags,” “88.” Those records are so cool, because they had everything. Everything was in its box, geared towards radio.

Jay-Z was poppin, right? Like, I love Jay. But you know, those Just Blaze records and all that. It’s just the polar opposite. It was like its own musical vocabulary. And they looked like they sounded, if that makes any sense.

I tried to sign them. I flew them to California. Their manager had already done a stupid ass deal. We couldn’t get the deal done. They should have been on SRC Records.

I was around them. And I was around the Fool’s Gold guys a lot. I was working at SRC. They were the forerunners of the whole Blog Era, right? The Blog Era was demystifying something that had once again got mystified and they kind of pulled the fucking curtain back and became all bets are off and from them we got like, Cudi. Drake comes from that world, and all this other cool ass shit.

But The Cool Kids were first. What often happens when you’re first is you catch a bullet and the next guy gets a check. They were seminal. They should be legendary. I feel like if they had gotten to SRC—and, look, Interscope wanted to sign them too and a bunch of other people—but if we could have signed them that would have been another feather in my cap and I believe they would have been incredibly successful.

Yeah, well, they are influential but not as big as they could have been—

Dante Ross: They’re like Brand Nubian of the Blog Era. Great group. You want your name next to them. But they didn’t get the riches that some others got. But they were just as good if not better.

True. The other group you mentioned, Fishbone… I don’t even know if there’s much to say about them, I just wanted to bring them up.

Dante Ross: There is, actually. Fish is my friend, too. Philip Fisher. And I saw Norwood recently. He looked like a million bucks too, fucking shout out Norwood Fisher.

Man, Fishbone was one of those bands, like we’re in this bubble post-punk. And we’re not talking English post-punk. We’re talking a couple of years past and alternative music is a term. It’s becoming this thing. And Fishbone is like…They’re everything all at once. They’re like a big gumbo. They’re punk rock but they’re ska but they’re funk but they’re soul and there’s some fucking hard rock and they got it all in in this pot and it’s all really fucking cool.

Like the Bad Brains, they got a swing to their groove. White motherfuckers don’t got that shit. Black Flag didn’t swing the way the Bad Brains did. The Chili Peppers couldn’t hang with Fishbone. They got an extra thing going on.

Fishbone was one of the greatest bands I saw live that never got it on wax. For reasons unknown, they never had the right producer. Rick Rubin probably should have produced them. He didn’t. David Kahne: talented guy, but not the right guy for them.

It never got done right. They never became the band they should’ve become because they never made a record that was as good as they were live. Jane’s Addiction got through the door. The Chili Peppers—who were always second-rate, compared to Fishbone—got through the door. Fishbone didn’t. But goddamn, live…. I must have seen Fishbone 20 times. Unfucking believable.

If there’s one band I wish I could have got…. Our careers were unaligned because of age. They’re older than me. If we had coexisted at the right time in the right place, I think I could have made magic with them. Whether as a producer or an A&R guy, I really loved them. And by the time I was an empowered A&R guy, their ship had kind of started to sail. But I love that band. Anyone who saw them in the early 80s can’t say otherwise. I mean, look, they got taken off the fucking Beastie Boys tour because they made the Beasties work too goddamn hard. And they got replaced by by Public Enemy, who was signed to Rush. But goddamn, they were fucking tearing it up every night. That’s a fucking badass band.

Yeah, it is. I didn’t even think about it but because you mentioned race with Fishbone, ska got kind of co-opted by white people in the 90s.

Dante Ross: That fuckin shit was terrible, Reel Big Fish and Rancid and all that shit. I like Rancid. I don’t put them in that bag. Rancid is good. They have all the right influences. Tim is a fucking great dude. Like, I love that band. Those guys are cool. You know, it’s funny. Tim Armstrong is a friend of mine. He knows about everything we’re talking about right now. Whether it’s fucking hip-hop, or it’s fucking soul music or ska or rock steady, that guy knows everything. That’s probably why Rancid is good. He’s a real student.

You’re right though. I think the world, too—talking about race— they weren’t ready for a Black rock and roll band like them. They weren’t ready for the Bad Brains. Rock and roll is Black music. Little Richard and Chuck Berry, they’re the kings of rock and roll to me. But as we fast forward, it’s co-opted. By the time Fishbone and the Bad Brains are on the scene, white cats ain’t really ready. They’re not ready for that. The Bad Brains are just lightyears ahead of everyone. So is Fishbone. But, you know, you’re right. I never thought about it. I thought about it, but I never vocalized it. All the fucking 90s white ska bands were fucking wack.

And then ska got a bad name even though it’s Jamaican roots music.

Dante Ross: Second wave ska is life changing. The Specials are one of the best bands I ever saw my entire life. My entry drug into punk rock was ska. 1988 I get a flat top and a Fred Perry and next thing you know I’m skateboarding around town, and I become a ska dude to who ends up being more into punk. But Devo and The Specials and The Clash—because they were on the radio—opened the door for me to check all this stuff out. You know when I first heard The Ramones, The Ramones sounded like The Beach Boys to me. I didn’t hear nothing punk rock about it. I was like, that’s a really cool pop band. So I guess I was always fucking weird.

They’re a great pop band. I love the fucking Ramones. I loved them from the first time I heard them. I thought they were fantastic. And I still think they’re fantastic. Another another band I saw 20 times. There’s a couple bands I saw a lot. The Cramps, who I love. Bad Brains, Fishbone, Run DMC, The Beasties. I’ve seen all these bands 20 plus times. I saw The Specials seven or eight times. I saw Prince like 12 times. If I like a band, I’ll see them until they’re in a wheelchair.

You mentioned Public Enemy earlier. In the book, there’s a line that you wish there was a trap Public Enemy these days, or that people were more political. You mention Lil Baby in the book, and there are artists like Kendrick and J. Cole who will do some political stuff. Is it different now because politics is so divided that it’s harder to do that? Or is it because it can be seen as corny and people don’t want to hear that in music? Or do you think it’s all of that?

Dante Ross: I think it’s all of that. There’s no one answer. But I think that people don’t want to hear it. And I think that the artists themselves are not keyed into it. Public Enemy is one of my favorite groups of all time. Talk about a band I’ve seen a lot. They were half the reason I signed the stuff I signed at Elektra. They were everything my parents instilled in me in a rap group, if that makes sense.

To me, Black excellence is activism and art and questioning everything and trying to get to the answers of it. And not scared to put motherfuckers on blast. Confrontational. And I thought that was fucking so cool about Public Enemy. They blew my mind when I heard them. Look, they fucking struck a real chord with white America, right? Like, man, white kids were really affected by Public Enemy. So were Black kids. But in 1988 or ’90, every white kid’s favorite two Black rap groups were Public Enemy and De La Soul. And they’re polar opposites.

I think people are scared to make a point. I think we live in a vapid society. Fast food mentality rules the world. To say something potent about race and politics in the state of America, you can’t be on opiates, drinking lean, and being obsessed with Balenciaga and material goods. They’re diametrically opposed aesthetics. This is where hip-hop culture, the mainstream lives. So from hip-pop culture in the mainstream, I don’t expect to get that messaging. You know, we got Killer Mike. But political messaging in rap music as an afterthought at this point, outside of Kendrick and a few others. Cole.

It bothers me. I don’t want to say it’s irresponsible, it just is what it is. Kids ain’t doing it. But you know what? Kids run rap, not me. I can go listen to my Chuck D records. It’s not about me, It’s about the kids. Youth has always run this shit when it comes to hip-hop. When I was a kid, I didn’t want to see—no disrespect to the old school dudes—but I didn’t want to hear Soul Sonic Force and hear dudes who look like a broke P-Funk. I wanted to see Run DMC because they looked like me and they made the music that really spoke to me. So it’s always been generational. It always will be generational. Kids run this shit. So it doesn’t matter how much I want a new Public Enemy. I ain’t getting the new Public Enemy.

And it’ll probably swing back around too because everything’s just a reaction to whatever came before it.

Dante Ross: Very astute observation. Everything in life is reactive. Everything’s reactionary. So I think you’re 100% correct.

I connected with the part in your book about Santana because my dad is a huge Santana fan too. That’s one of the things he passed down to me. And I remember as a kid I loved “Put Your Lights On.”

Dante Ross: That’s cool to hear. My parents played Santana in the house. I grew up around a lot of Latin music. He was kind of like, in the middle of latin music and my parents. So yeah, I grew up with Abraxas always on in my house. So working with him was cool.

He’s one of the few people I worked with who’s as cool as you thought he would be. Sometimes you meet these cats and they’re not that cool. They got a lot of ego and a lot with them. Santana had none of that. He had no ego. He was super cool. It was a real honor to work with him a couple of times.

He also let us produce him. I work with rappers who couldn’t hold Santana’s fucking water on the best day of their life and they don’t want to listen. And then you’re working with Carlos Santana, a legend and virtuoso, and this guy’s actually listening to what you’re suggesting. He lets you really produce him. To me, that’s a sign of a great artist. He had me and Gamble in the room because we knew something he didn’t know. And he wanted to learn and share his abilities with our abilities. And to me, that was a fucking tremendous honor. And I got a Grammy I’m looking at right now for it. So what can I say.

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