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Willing To Be Lucky: Dante Ross and the Golden Age of Hip-Hop in New York

Greg Berman

June 06, 2023

In a new memoir, a decorated record producer chronicles the turbulent early days of the rap industry

In a new memoir, a decorated record producer chronicles the turbulent early days of the rap industry

You may never have heard of Dante Ross, but you have almost certainly heard his work. As a friend, producer and music executive, he played a behind-the-scenes role in helping launch the Beastie Boys, De La Soul, Queen Latifah, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Busta Rhymes, 3rd Bass, MF Doom and numerous other rap stars. 

In his new memoir, ”Son of the City,” Ross steps out of the shadows to detail his unlikely career. Raised on the Lower East Side by an alcoholic mother, Ross struggled academically, barely making it out of high school. A club kid and part-time drug dealer, he might easily have been lost to the streets were it not for two unique attributes: his ear and his charm. 

In the days before Facebook and Twitter, Ross’ gift of gab made him a consummate IRL social networker. Frequenting clubs like the infamous Latin Quarter, he established friendships with a host of hip-hop heavy hitters, including Def Jam founder Russell Simmons, Tommy Boy executive Monica Lynch, and pioneering artists like DJ Mark the 45 King, Eric B., and DJ Red Alert. Ross, who describes himself as “half Ukrainian Jew/half Italian,” believes that his blue-collar upbringing on the Lower East Side gave him a particular ability to connect with the Black and Latino rappers and entrepreneurs who dominated the emerging hip-hop industry.

Partying with the great and the good might have gotten Ross in the door, but what ultimately made him a success was his ability to recognize, and mold, talent. Ross wasn’t the best or most important talent scout from the early days of rap, but he did have a unique ability to sift through demo tapes and locate gold among the dross. He spotted the potential of Queen Latifah at first listen: “When [DJ Mark the 45 King] played me Latifah’s stuff, I went crazy. She could sing, she could rap, she had dancehall elements going on in her music.” Ross’ decision to sign Latifah to a recording contract jump-started a storied career that has thus far seen Latifah win a Grammy, an Emmy and an Academy Award nomination.

As a writer, Ross isn’t much of a stylist — the book is littered with clunkers like “My ego had a lot to do with my want to succeed as a producer” — but he does possess a distinctive authorial voice. Ross is a wised-up, street-level raconteur equally capable of making fun of himself and the characters around him.

Ross once received this piece of business advice from Russell Simmons: “Make a hit record and you can beat up anyone you want.”

For the hip-hop nostalgic,Son of the City” is full of stories of drunken fights and shady business deals, often with a celebrity cameo thrown in for good measure. As Ross explains, the rap business was “mostly lawless” when it started. Many executives and artists were in their late teens or early 20s and one step removed (if that) from careers as street hustlers or drug dealers. Everyone was making it up as they went along. Ross was mostly comfortable swimming in these treacherous waters, although his temper and his penchant for drugs and alcohol sometimes translated into run-ins with his colleagues. Ross recounts one piece of business advice from Russell Simmons that stuck with him: “Make a hit record and you can beat up anyone you want.” (The list of people who participated in violent encounters with Ross is lengthy and includes such luminaries as Puff Daddy and DMC.)

“Son of the City” is the story of Dante Ross, but it is also the story of New York City in the 1980s and early 1990s. If there were a Mount Rushmore of music books chronicling “the bad old days” of New York, “Son of the City” would be a worthy contender alongside books like “Please Kill Me”by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain, “Love Goes to Buildings on Fire” by Will Hermes, and “Beastie Boys Book” by Michael Diamond and Adam Horovitz. (A similar canon could be created for London during the punk years.)

As Ross describes, “New York was a tough place back then. This was before Giuliani, when AIDS and crack were taking out thousands of people every year. The city was filthy, and the clubs were rough. This was before people filmed fights with their phones and posted it on Worldstar. I don’t want to make excuses, but I was a product of my environment.”

It is a cliché that hard times produce great art — there is little evidence, for instance, that the COVID-19 pandemic has sparked any kind of artistic renaissance. But it was definitely the case for New York City in the hip-hop era. Perhaps the general lawlessness of these years helped unlock the creativity of city dwellers. It certainly gave would-be artists plenty of fodder. Some of the finest songs from the golden age of hip-hop (roughly 1988-1994) — think “Night of the Living Baseheads” by Public Enemy or “Slow Down” by Brand Nubian (a band signed by Dante Ross) — are about the crack epidemic.

In an age of identity politics and increasing loneliness, New York needs as many Dante Rosses as it can get.

But “Son of the City” suggests that something more benign was also at work in New York during those formative years. What the city brought to the table was not just crime and disorder (and the cheap rents that typically go along with them) — it was a capacity for admixture and an openness to serendipity. The clubs, record shops and basketball courts that Ross frequented in the 1980s provided multiple opportunities for real-life cultural cross-pollination, as kids from different backgrounds shared new slang, new dance moves and new ways of thinking about the world. Thriving cities are blessed with lots of this kind of connective tissue. (Perhaps this also helps explain why great cities so often make great music, and vice versa.)

As a young man, Ross embodied the old E.B. White maxim: “No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.” Ross was plenty lucky. He was on the scene at a crucial juncture in the history of hip-hop: the moment when downtown (read: white) hipsters were introduced to a new musical genre that had been birthed uptown. This was one of the first steps on a path that ultimately led to global domination. Ross and his cohort of early adopters might have been dismissed as “cultural appropriators” if they came along these days. But back then, they played an important role in the development of rap, helping to disseminate and translate this new musical form for new audiences. Without them, who knows what the trajectory of rap would have been? 

As he reveals throughout his memoir, Dante Ross is a flawed man — temperamental, ego-driven, quick to fall out with friends and foes alike. But he is also a boundary spanner who has proven capable of bridging cultural and neighborhood divides. In an age of identity politics and increasing loneliness, New York needs as many Dante Rosses as it can get.