QUESTLOVE: During high school, whenever I invented band names, record titles, album art, I always put my group on Def Jam Recordings, because they had a mystique about them. They had signed only six acts, including Slick Rick, LL Cool J, and Public Enemy, and they stood pat on that original set. Breaking in at Def Jam was like climbing the mountain. And just like that, they were the first label to come calling. Russell Simmons and Lyor Cohen, who ran the label, paid for a Roots showcase in New York City. It was across the street from their old offices on Varick Street, and we went to New York in style: Flintstones style. With the “profits” from Organix, Rich bought a station wagon for three hundred bucks. It was great—except for the fact that the backseat had no floor. You had to lift your legs up so they didn’t hit the pavement rushing by beneath. He put a rug down for cosmetics and safety. Even with the rug, I couldn’t sit there. I was too big. But we all packed in, three people in front, four of the skinniest in the center, and the rest of us Middle Passaging it in the back, lying across the top of our equipment.
I wish I could be there for every band’s label audition. I wish I could serve as a kind of fairy godperson. What I’d tell them is that all those tricks you’re thinking about using, all the razzle-dazzle—set it aside. Leave your innovations at the door. All a label wants are songs they can sell. Our calling card at the time was a kind of freestyle exercise where Tariq would scat to different topics, and that was a showstopper. And Def Jam loved our musicianship and our vision and our energy. Still, they passed. As much as they loved the idea of us, they said, they didn’t know how they were going to market that idea.
In a sense, we fell into a crack in the history of hip-hop. Had the showcase occurred in 1991, or early in 1992, we would have been signed instantly. But something had happened in the interim that changed the face of hip-hop, and that was the release of Dr. Dre’s album The Chronic in December 1992—and, more to the point, the way that The Chronic dominated hip-hop sales and radio play and video play through 1993. The Chronic gave a credible artist a taste of massive, multiplatinum success. And while I have nothing bad to say about the Young MCs, Tone Locs, and MC Hammers of the world, Dr. Dre had an obvious cultural pedigree as a pioneering gangsta rapper and top-flight producer. None of that changed the fact that I felt as mixed about The Chronic as I had about Arrested Development. I was as freethinking as the next man, but I liked my hip-hop a certain way, and this was obviously different. I treat important hip-hop events like they’re War of the Worlds, and there have been many times when I have stood there open-mouthed before a turntable or a CD player, asking myself if I can be trusted to believe what I have just heard. Usually, if I have to ask, those albums end up being masterpieces, but at the time I never know how to feel. That was definitely the case with The Chronic. That album sounded so clean and pristine, so anti-hip-hop.I just wasn’t sure if anyone was allowed to do that or not. I was so conflicted. And add to that the fact that I had a strange connection to the record: My father, my mother, and my aunt had recorded an album under the name Congress Alley in 1973, and there was a song on that record called “Are You Looking?” that was sampled in The Chronic’s first single, “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang.”
Within about six months, I had come around, and I recognized the genius of the record. But it caused a problem for me as an artist, or at least as a potential label signing. Because The Chronic had so much success, labels were focused on getting comparable acts, credible artists who could also sell huge numbers of records. We weren’t that act, and Def Jam recognized that, and when they passed, that dream vanished. Then the parade started. We had dealings with Tommy Boy, the home of De La Soul and Digital Underground; with East/West, home of Das EFX and Snow. Ruffhouse, ironically, never gave us an offer—though even if they had, I probably would have passed. I felt like I knew them too well, and I didn’t want to stay in the neighborhood, so to speak.
Then Mercury Records surfaced. One of their flagship hip-hop bands was Black Sheep, a Queens group that was the unofficial fourth member of Native Tongues. They were the first hip-hop artists to appear on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno after Johnny Carson gave up his host chair, and their debut album, A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing, remains a classic. (The opening track, “U Mean I’m Not,” is a parody of gangsta rap in which one of the Black Sheep rappers, Dres, narrates a killing spree only to wake up and realize that it was all a fantasy.) We met Ed Eckstine, the label president (and son of legendary jazz vocalist Billy Eckstein) who was very interested in us. We met the man who would be our A&R guy, Kenyatta Bell. Yes, another Kenyatta. He seemed extremely excited, too. They took us to the video shoot of “Jingle Jangle,” by the Legion, which featured a verse by Dres. We left the Mercury meeting with a strong sense that we had found a home.
The following week, they sent contracts down, and somehow all of our names were misspelled: mine and Tariq’s and Malik’s. I don’t know the technicalities of what contracts require, but I was told that had there been one mistake, we could have just initialed it and corrected it. With three, though, we had to return the documents to the label and wait for them to supply new contracts. It was on a Friday, and Kenyatta’s assistant didn’t turn the paperwork around quickly enough. Then that Saturday, Brad Rubens, our lawyer, called, and asked us what we thought about Geffen. Wendy Goldstein, the woman who signed Snow to East/West, had just left for a head position at Geffen, and she was still interested in us.
We laughed. We were virtually on Mercury, the deal as good as done. But we knew this might be our last chance to be courted by a label, and so we entertained them by letting them entertain us. Wendy took us to dinner, which meant steak and lobster and friends tagging along and ordering extra food to go. We really took advantage. Then Rich and I had a radical idea. Ever since Michael Jackson’s Bad came out in August of 1987, I had been obsessively reading Billboard, and in early 1992 I read about this alternative metal band named Helmet that had released a single and an album independently and then attracted the attention of Interscope Records. They got caught up in the grunge craze, and it was rumored that when Interscope signed them, each member of the band got more than $1 million.
“Rich,” I said, “why don’t we pull a Helmet?”
“What?” he said. “What do you mean?”
“You know,” I said. “We should ask Geffen for huge money and studio equipment and whatever else. If Wendy says no, we just go to Mercury.”
“It’s never going to happen,” he said.
I conceded. Never going to happen, never going to happen, never going to happen. And then the call came in. It happened. Geffen wanted in. They were prepared to give us everything we asked for. I had thought the parade was over, but it was still going. It was November 1993, and all of a sudden Mercury was gone, and we were signed to DGC, a subsidiary of Geffen that was better known for alternative-rock acts like Sonic Youth, Weezer, and Beck.
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