Back in 2017, Chris Schwartz and his Ruffhouse Records cofounder, Joe Nicolo, got a plaque with their names on it put in the ground on Broad Street when they were inducted into the Philadelphia Music Alliance Walk of Fame.
It was a just reward for one of the most successful record labels in Philadelphia — and hip-hop — history. In its 1990s heyday, Ruffhouse was a mighty force that took on the world from its home base in Conshohocken.
Schwartz and Nicolo scored million-selling successes with the blunt-smoking rappers Cypress Hill, the backwards-pants-wearing duo Kriss Kross and, most impressive, the acclaimed trio The Fugees, as well as solo albums from the band’s leaders, Wyclef Jean and Lauryn Hill.
Now, Schwartz’s new book tells the tale. It’s called Ruffhouse: From the Streets of Philly to the Top of the ‘90s Hip-Hop Charts (Diversion, $24.99).
Friends had been suggesting that Schwartz write a book for years, but until now it felt like too soon.
“Everything felt like it just happened,” he said, sitting for an interview in the control room of a Cherry Hill studio where guitarist Vince Andrews, a.k.a. Whey Cooler of the dance-music duo Pretty Poison, was producing the hip-hop group called No Fa$ade.
The South Jersey rap collective is signed to RuffNation, the “artist media marketing partnership” company that is Shwartz’s current venture.
“Five years ago [the book] would have been too early,” says Schwartz, 55. “But now I did it, and then suddenly there’s the Wu-Tang [documentary]. There’s a Puffy documentary. Everything from the ‘90s is coming around again.”
The book chronicles Ruffhouse’s rise in the pre-Napster era when the music industry was making money hand over fist selling overpriced CDs. Schwartz indulged his taste in luxury cars with a Rolls-Royce — he currently drives a Maserati — and it seemed almost reasonable to spend $2.4 million and rent two helicopters for the video for “Ready or Not,” from the Fugees’ 1996 album, The Score.
Ruffhouse tells tales of those mega-selling acts, and many compelling characters. Key players include West Philly original gangsta Schoolly D., whom Schwartz managed though his influential mid-1980s “P.S.K. What Does It Mean?” and “Gucci Time” period.
But Ruffhouse also has a different, intensely personal story to tell. Schwartz grew up in Devon in the Main Line suburbs of Philadelphia — less than a mile from Nicolo and his fellow producer/engineer brother Phil. He was the seventh of 10 children of a mostly absent furniture-salesman father and a mother who became an alcoholic.
The working title of Ruffhouse was Smashed, to highlight the brutality of the violence that Schwartz says was regularly visited upon him by his bigger, more athletic older brothers, who targeted him in what he calls “a Lord of the Flies situation,” leaving him with black eyes and a broken nose he told teachers he got “playing football.”
Growing up listening to Top 40 Philly radio on WFIL-AM (610) and album rock on WMMR-FM (93.3), Schwartz used music as a refuge, learning to play a used Silvertone Sears guitar he bought at a church fair in St. Davids and later immersing himself in Frank Zappa and jazz fusion.
Days before he turned 17, Schwartz went to a recruitment office on Broad Street and enlisted in the Navy because it was the division of the armed forces he could most quickly join. “Nothing could be as bad as it was at home,” he writes.
Writing about his family — both of Schwartz’s parents are deceased —– “was hard because what’s in the book is really the tip of the iceberg." He says his publisher discouraged too much detail, “and I had read in doing my research that if you endured something horrific or terrible you have to talk about it. But you can’t torture your readers about it.”
The Navy built back Schwartz’s self-esteem.
“I was a 17-year-old kid, a shattered human being. Scared of people. I didn’t know how to talk. I had a horrible lisp. Suddenly I’m thrust in a room with 79 other guys, mainly from the South, predominantly African American. And I’m starting to realize not everyone in the world is [messed] up.
“People actually want to hear what I have to say. And I was able to talk about music with anybody. The Navy told me, ‘You’re not as [messed] up as they told you you were."
Stationed in California, Schwartz played in jazz bands. When he returned to Philadelphia in 1981 he formed an electronic-music group called Tangent with childhood friend Jeff Coulter, fed by the Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream records they’d buy at Plastic Fantastic in Ardmore and Third Street Jazz in Old City.
They were thrilled to get airplay on Star’s End, the John Diliberto late-night radio show that still airs on WXPN-FM (88.5) and played Philly venues like the East Side Club, Revival, and the Empire Rock Club.
Schwartz became a behind-the-scenes player in the 1980s. He worked at Virtue Recordings at Broad and Cecil B. Moore, learning from Frank Virtue, the pistol-packing legend whose studio had been among the busiest in Philadelphia before Sigma Sound opened in 1968.
While learning the ropes from Ted Wing — a former Graterford Prison guard who put out a Bill Cosby live album recorded at the prison on Nicetown Records — Schwartz first came across Schoolly D. They met cute: Schoolly came to the door of his mother’s house wearing nothing but a towel and slammed the door in Schwartz’s face.
But Schwartz, who lives in Gladwyne with his wife and daughter, is still working with the charismatic rapper. (There’s a Ruffnation Schoolly album — including a duet with fellow O.G. Ice-T — due next year.)
That association with Schoolly led Schwartz to Studio 4, the former tanning factory in Old City co-run by the Nicolos, known as “the Butcher Brothers.”
From there, Ruffhouse goes on to tell of hits and misses, such as with The Goats, the Philly rap group who were one of the preeminent live hip-hop bands of the era before self-destructing.
The Nas story is a sad one. Ruffhouse, as the primary hip-hop label under the umbrella of Columbia Records, released his first single — as “Nasty Nas” — on the soundtrack to the 1992 movie Zebrahead. But after Schwartz cavalierly gave a writer from The Source an advance cassette of songs from the rapper’s classic Illmatic debut — “My biggest mistake,” Schwartz says — the magazine hyped the album so much that Columbia decided it wanted Nas back.
Roots drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson worked as an (unpaid) Ruffhouse intern, “where I saw how the sausage was made and sometimes how it was unmade,” he writes in the intro to Ruffhouse. (Later, Schwartz handed him $2,000 toward making a Roots video.) The foreword is by Hill, who thanks Schwartz “for having the vision to recognize my talent and the fortitude to believe in it.”
Ruffhouse was founded in 1989 and ended a decade later. Nicolo formed the Judgment label and Schwartz starting an earlier iteration of Ruffnation. Tension between the two principals “is over-exaggerated,” Schwartz says. “I think Joe is very underrated in terms of production and innovation. … If my life depended on a mix on a hip-hop record, he’s the guy I would get. Nobody can make a kick drum sound like Joe Nicolo.”
Throughout the Ruffhouse ride, Schwartz dealt with his past by not dealing with it.
“I went through years of drug addiction,” he says. “I had so many opportunities to address this, but I was a coward. Why is it so hard to convince junkies who run million-dollar businesses that they have a problem? Because they run million-dollar businesses.”
With the new Ruffnation, Schwartz has deals going with No Fa$ade, Schoolly, and the Philadelphia rapper O.T. the Real, a discovery of A&R woman Kara DeCarlo. He’s launching a Ruffnation podcast cohosted by Schoolly, and plans to write another book called Ruffnation: Rebels and Poets, Kingpins and Moguls. A reality TV show is in the works.
His aim is for Ruffnation to follow the ethos that made its predecessor successful.
“I think [Ruffhouse’s] aesthetic was unsurpassed,” he says. “Joe and I were very song-oriented guys." Schwartz says Ruffhouse specialized in finding consummate artists who didn’t need to rely on producers to provide them with an identity.
"That was the thing with Joey and I. We were always looking for musicality.”