Tuff City Records (Part 1): Interview with Aaron Fuchs
Meeting Aaron Fuchs on his home turf is like walking into a hip-hop museum. For any serious observer of rap history it’s quite simply what dreams are made of. We’re talking goosebumps as soon as you enter the building. As Aaron told us “one of the DJ’s from Jurassic 5 spent hours in here”. This, however, wasn’t our inaugural visit to hip-hop Mecca. Any followers of Fat Lace will remember Aaron’s appreciation of Spoonie Gee back in Issue 4. He opened the doors to us when their office was located further uptown nearly ten years ago. So here we are again and they’re still going strong.
Tuff City has to be one of the only original rap labels still in business and remaining true to its mission. It’s fascinating that the label who introduced many to the Cold Crush Brothers, Spoonie Gee, The 45 King, Grandmaster Caz, Lakim Shabazz can be in business to this day selling reissues of those original 80’s gems. The first thing that is thrust into our hands as we enter the office is a vinyl reissue of Priority One’s seminal album. As you’ll read in the interview with its founder, a lot of foresight as well as some damn good luck have also played a part in the label’s modest success. As for Aaron Fuchs, he’s like a hip-hop time machine, able to recount endless tales of rap’s origins placed eloquently in the context of musical history. Speaking to him is also a fascinating insight into the rise and fall of the music industry as we once knew it, particularly from the stand point of a staunchly independent and musically passionate stable. Hopefully this won’t be the last time we let you into the Tuff City vaults but there just isn’t enough time or space to tell all the stories in one go. Enjoy the experience through our eyes.
FL: What made you start the label?
AF: Everything I did was post-modern. I formed my own label because all my favourite doo- wop entrepreneurs were forming hip-hop labels, Bobby Robinson is suddenly doing Grandmaster Flash, Paul Winley who did the Paragons and the Jesters is doing Afrika Bambaataa so it was like here comes the second coming of the Harlem renaissance or at least the second coming of doo-wop. There was a point in 1984 where hip-hop was attractive as a business and if you got into it you got into it for the money but the period prior to that all bets were off as to peoples motives. It was a different breed of cat. There were some people with spectacular ideas.
FL: When did Tuff City first start to develop a brand identity?
AF: When I formed the label I asked myself what labels looked good? Ace Records had the dice, Atlantic had a swirling ball. The first few releases had a basic print label. I’m happy that every permutation is of interest to historians like yourselves. I get calls from Freddy Fresh all the time. We started with just the black and yellow print labels with a record by Beach Boy called ‘Verticle Lines’.
FL: Wasn’t that produced by Barry Michael Cooper?
AF: Yes, it was a down tempo techno hip-hop track produced by Barry Michael Cooper who went on to write New Jack City. He also produced the Micronauts, our second release. He did early production for me; he did a Spoonie Gee record called ‘What Is This’. For the beginning of the record he recreated a street scene, he went out into the street with a microphone and did this skit with him and Spoonie as if there were a drug deal going on and then four years later, bang, he’s a screen writer. He did New Jack City and Sugar Hill. He let a couple of street habits get the better of him though and he came back to the East Coast.
FL: When did you first start to acquire the masters for old records?
AF: In rock ‘n’ roll there was an oldies but goodies phenomenon so I thought let me do that with hip-hop, let me create an old school catalogue. I picked up a bunch of tracks whether it was the funky stuff that was being sampled or just the hip-hop break beats like the Honeydrippers or old rap records. I bought a few tracks for an album called Old School Classics. It was amazing because what happened was when Black music is too innovative for white ears you have to go to the street for money. If you look at the early rhythm and blues artists, they were all funded by reasonably criminal elements. So I’d go to these guys and pick up the rights. They had already sold there huge street numbers and by the time these records had emerged as true copyrights, these guys were no longer around.
FL: The Ultimate Breaks & Beats series was surely the first to do that right?
AF: You are absolutely right. The Ultimate Beats and Breaks phenomenon had already existed but what I’m proud to say was that I put out and reissued records which created the addition to that series. He was sleeping on a few things. The guy Paul, he was a chauffeur during the day if I recall. That was 1980/1981. There was a demand in midtown Manhattan, Bronx and Harlem for these kinds of records at retail. As I got deeper into this, once the hip-hop DJ’s schooled me as to how rhythm propels a record, all roads lead to salsa. It was interesting because as I was picking up old New York salsa and boogaloo records I noticed the same artists were on the Ultimate Beats and Breaks series’.
FL: To acquire those records showed a degree of foresight as it’s allowed your label to survive to this day has it not?
AF: I was guided by history. It was very post modern. If I can digress. The one area where history failed me was my understanding of how the internet would give co-equality to someone who could scrawl something in a toilet to a scholarly historian. To this day I have to contend with this clown Davey D’s assertion that I bought records with break beats so that I could sue people. Everything I did was based on the notion that hip-hop would last and it would follow certain parallels with music that had come before it. As soon as I heard “it’s too noisy, too offensive, too black” that was the same thing that was said about rock ‘n’ roll.
FL: Do you believe it lasted the test for the same reasons you outlined?
AF: I gotta give props to Rick Rubin. I thought I had the biggest idea that hip-hop was the second coming of doo-wop and again to be fair to the record company owners who are besmirched by these mediocre historians, Tom Silverman had this big idea that hip-hop was a tribute to dance which proved to be untrue. My big idea was that hip-hop was going to be an ongoing but sub cultural form of Black music much the same way doo-wop paralleled rock ‘n’ roll. What Rick Rubin actually knew was that hip-hop could fit in rock’s back pocket and his stuff just broke like gangbusters, his rappers had more ferocity, his scratches sounded like guitar chords and he’s never looked back.
“I gotta give props to Rick Rubin. What he knew was that hip-hop could fit in rock’s back pocket” Aaron Fuchs
FL: What kind of relationship did Tuff City have with music retail back then?
AF: It was an era that was democratic and in which an indie label could compete. What if I told you that during that era the most powerful communications medium was a piece of paper called the Philip Edwards Sheet. It was circulated around the Music Factory in midtown, Harmony records in the Bronx. It was a multi genre tip sheet. The remains of disco, emerging hip-hop, a Jamaican component. It was lists of records and lists of retailers. It was a communications medium. Almost as if it were a guide to stocking records. The network was so small though.
FL: How did radio receive Tuff City releases?
AF: As long as I can remember there was a concurrent network of radio shows that bought their own time on stations. WHBI existed to service the fifty or sixty ethnic communities. There was more distribution than content. As soon as there was more content than distribution you had to start doing all these things like promotion. My forte was never being more aggressively competitive than the next guy, I just always wanted to make records. I serviced the records myself. If you had a Spoonie Gee record it sold itself, Russell Simmons made his bones and was very artful as using his artists as currency. I couldn’t pay DJ’s. When it was on a buy your time station, I bought time, I had a show for a time with Dr. Dre (Ed Lovers partner). I used to trawl through lists of cut out dealers, they were selling returns or cut outs of Impeach The President for a quarter so I bought myself 50 of them and instead of giving cash I’d give them the new record and two copies of ‘Impeach’ to the DJ’s. That bode very well with them. If you did that to Afrika Islam at the Roxy you made a friend. I was the zelig in a number of points in hip-hop history that I wasn’t credited for. Two of those copies of ‘Impreach’ were given to Marley Marl for example, in turn he made The Bridge with MC Shan out of that. I would identify certain records I’d hear these DJ’s play on the radio and use them as currency.
(Editors Note: Interesting article here from a 1992 edition of The New York Times addressing the sampling issue in hip-hop. We’re certain Marley wouldn’t have been out of pocket as a result of this legal action, in fact we’d hazard a guess there was a wry smile on his face knowing who gave him the record. We’d also hazard a guess that Def Jam could afford to take the financial hit and what serious business wouldn’t be opportunistic in this situation, especially when you compare the size of Tuff City to Def Jam. Either way, if Aaron gave the record to Marley in ’86, inadvertently contributing to a landmark rap record, there was no way of knowing that a disgruntled artists’ actions in the following decade would have such repercussions on hip-hop. Boy, did Gilbert O’Sullivan open the floodgates back then)
FL: Tell us about a few lesser known artists on the label, Priority One for example
AF: When you’re not paying jocks for every record, only the sure things become hits. In music there are a tiny number of great records that can’t be held back and there are a lot of good records that are as good as your ability to promote and hype them. I remember with Priority One, it was a duo with Ron Delight and Louie Vega. I didn’t have them under contract but as soon as the record broke they began to get a lot of work so that group didn’t last long. There was a professional process. I’d listen to demos, if I signed a group they’d go to Power Play studios and have photos taken with Yvette Roberts. They were well regarded but nothing broke. Louie went on to with Latifah and Nice n Smooth.
FL: How about more recent groups like Antexx?
AF: They were signed from a demo but he was one of my last few acts. The business had become entirely about promotion. That was the last phase of democracy with MTV then there was a brief period when MTV started ‘Yo!’ You could be competitive but after that it was over. I was never able to negotiate the economics where marketing and promotion overtook the expense of making the record. There are videos for those last few projects but they were Hail Mary’s.
FL: Your relationship with 45 King has been an interesting and fruitful one, tell us about its origins.
AF: Going back to the old days, Red Alert was a beacon of A&R integrity. There was a horizontal monopoly with Cold Chillin’ and Mr Magic’s show on WBLS. There were many times in history I’d use these guys for guidance and Red Alert popularised the 45 King early on his shows. To their credit any number of labels picked from his posse before I did, Tommy Boy got Latifah, Wild Pitch got Chill Rob G , I got Lakim Shabazz but then I had the idea to record the 45 King as an artist. I can say this only because Mark has credited me for it but I gave him the sample. Then I negotiated the copyright purchase and he now owns half the copyright. When you’re under financed I was giving producers records they could integrate into the construction of their records. He made the ‘900 Number’ from it. I also had this yen for an Islamic rapper so I asked Mark to trawl through his roster. You key into an artistic concept, that’s what I did. I signed the Cold Crush Brothers because I had an obsession with signing an MC crew. So I asked Afrika Bambaataa to get me one and of all the acts he got me it was the Cold Crush Brothers. Had he gotten me the Nice and Nasty 3 that would have been as good for me but off of Red Alert playing 45 King or Freddy B and Mighty Mic Masters I signed them.
“I can say this only because Mark has credited me for it but I gave him the sample” Aaron on The 900 Number
FL: Who are some of your personal favourite artists on the roster?
AF: My favourite is Grandmaster Caz and the one I owe the most to is Spoonie Gee. Grandmaster Caz because at the end of the day is not gong to be world renown because Europeans assign stardom to the likes of Terry Callier or Donnie Hathaway but I always thought his command of the English language was equal to that of an English Lit Professor and the evidence supports that. He didn’t really have the voice for the old school and his records suffered but because of his incredible rhyming ability we went to the studio again and again. I had a special appreciation for Spoonie Gee because he was a poor mans friend. If you showed up with Spoonie Gee, anyone would make a record for you. It goes back to the era of people not preceding it as a business. He was completely the man’s man. He made it easier for me to work with Marley Marl and Teddy Riley. They all wanted to work with him.
FL: Which were your favourite one off singles?
AF: Traedonya because I was so enamoured with Pumpkin at that time. He had already been hooked up by Profile Records. They paid for his studio. He had a drum machine an emulator, a DMX and a keyboard. He would bring in girls from the street, girls he wanted to hook up with. I just knew I was capturing a unique period of history. There was also a girl called Puffy Dee, she was white girl living uptown. It was a record called ‘Joe Blow’. She rhymed over Pumpkins beats. I thought her rhymes were brilliant but she predated video unfortunately. My other favourite was ‘Baby Be Mine’ by Eddie Ski White. It was an early example of r ‘n’ b but with the big fat beats of hip-hop.
FL: How have you ensured your survival as a label?
AF: I always saw hip-hop as the continuum of Black music history and there has always been a way to make money if records aren’t selling. What can I tell you about the ‘900 Number’? I was secondary to many entrepreneurs who were better at commodifying themselves but I was not ashamed to do something as modest as put out a break beat record. By doing that I was saying I’m setting smaller goals for myself and that humility served me well. One of the most thrilling moments was to see how the ‘900 Number’ integrated into the culture of America. DJ Kool used it and we made a deal. Brass bands would play it. I don’t think A&R men hold there position long enough to say “it’s now time to sample the 900 Number again”. There was also an album by the Gators called ‘Concentrate’. That was sampled by Puffy Combs and that was my most profitable record. It was used on ‘Do You Know’ from Puff Daddy and the Family’s ‘No Way Out’ album.
to be continued…