After a perfunctory foreword by Lauryn Hill and an equally perfunctory introduction by Questlove (both of whose names grace the front cover, their contributions little more than an obvious marketing strategy) Chris Schwartz’s memoir of his rise to CEO of the influential hip-hop label Ruffhouse Records opens with a rousing prologue. Schwartz jumps from a dressing room window to escape angry club bouncers bashing at his door, then runs through the streets of Jersey in search of a Lincoln Continental owned by Schoolly D., the party-rocking MC now frequently recognized as the godfather of gangster rap. It’s a brief but effective way to open in media res, one that prepares readers for further misadventures and developed scenes that the book fails to deliver.
Ruffhouse: From the Streets of Philly to the Top of the 90’s Hip-Hip Charts, tracks Chris Schwartz’s journey from an abusive childhood to releasing hit records by acts like Cypress Hill, the Fugees, and those adorable kiddos in backwards jeans who landed an eternal radio hit by yelling “Jump!” approximately 50,000 times in three minutes. The book attempts to be many things – an uplifting story about surviving trauma and bettering your life, a series of lessons on how to run a record label, a tale of overcoming addiction, a collection of interactions with celebrities – but doesn’t fully deliver on any of them, making for a conventionally-structured memoir that often reads as slapdash and dry.
The book’s first chapter, which details Schwartz’s childhood, is perhaps its most affecting. Schwartz, just eight years old, ends up in a body cast after one of his brothers kicks him so hard that he tears a tendon in one knee, rips a hipbone from its socket and snaps his foot “totally flat in the wrong direction.” He screams and crawls to the front door, which his mother opens and, after looking down on him splayed in agony across the ground, quickly slams, leaving him there until his father eventually pulls in the driveway.
Indeed, the details of the abuse inflicted on Schwartz by his brothers in the opening chapter are brutal, sometimes cringe-inducing. Once Schwartz heads off to the Navy in the second chapter, his family life is mostly relegated to the occasional mention, but only as something he works hard to evade. His parents and abusive brothers never develop past the static characters they’re presented as in the first chapter, and Schwartz neglects the opportunity to reflect on his childhood throughout the book. His mother is described early on as a depressive alcoholic and then effectively vanishes from the story, whereas his father, who timidly ignores the beatings Schwartz’s brothers inflict on him as a child, gets an affectionate mention in a later chapter, though readers are left to guess at how their relationship evolved over decades.
After Schwartz has established himself as a successful businessman, his brothers reappear (for a paragraph) as married, family-oriented adults with “eyes on their futures” and who “willingly swept the ugliness of their past under the rug.” Schwartz claims that family reunions drive him to “mask [his] anxiety with alcohol”, but the writing doesn’t delve any further than this. The decision to open his memoir with a revealing account of his traumatic family life and then effectively abandon this thread after the first chapter leaves a major gap in the book, one that doesn’t provide readers with any true understanding of those opening scenes other than a troubling reason for Schwartz to venture away from home.
Instead, the story switches its focus to Schwartz’s career in music, which takes off when he becomes the manager for Schoolly D., which eventually leads him to co-founding Ruffhouse. From there, the story transitions into a straightforward account of business decisions that lead to massive record sales. Schwartz offers lessons on record-business jargon like “cross collateralization” and “co-venturing”, including a couple-page overview of music publishing. These interludes might prove enlightening to anyone with an entry-level interest in the intricacies of the music business, but those reading simply for fun anecdotes of hanging out with popular 90’s-era rappers will probably do some skimming here.
The prologue, in which Schwartz dashes through the streets of New Jersey looking for Schoolly D. is eventually resolved in Chapter Four: he finds him, and they drive away. That’s it. The scene is both an anti-climax and the only fleshed-out scene Schwartz offers from a point in his career which he describes as “like following an elephant with a broom.” He claims that Schoolly had a knack for pissing people off (which anyone who listens to Saturday Night! – The Album can deduce), and the reader can glean that Schoolly is a colorful character, but gleaning is all the reader is urged to do.
Schwartz is specific with the physical details of the early Ruffhouse office building, the issues between start-up independent labels and record distributors circa the mid-80’s and Schoolly’s eventual signing to Jive Records. However, he merely implies that Schoolly is an interesting dude, replacing specifics with a well-worn elephant/broom cliché. The book offers Schoolly fans a few interesting tidbits but doesn’t work to convince unacquainted readers to listen to his music. The same goes for the other musicians mentioned in the book. Aside from an extended section describing a Fugees tour in Haiti, Schwartz’s prose suffers from the old “too much telling, not enough showing” shortfall when it comes to recalling life on the road with major rap stars.
For serious fans of 1990s hip-hop music and for those interested in the lives of music-industry veterans, Ruffhouse is a quick read with enough record-biz insight to justify its publication. As memoir, however, it’s lacking vibrancy, settling into the typical rags-to-riches framework without injecting the flash and energy of the music that inspired it.