How Two White Guys Hit It Big in Rap : With $3,000 and ‘Wild Thing,’ Delicious Vinyl stunned record industry
“What a dump, man,” scoffed Matt Dike, surveying the tiny, cluttered Hollywood office of the independent label Delicious Vinyl Records.
“It’s hard to tell what’s debris and what’s not,” said his partner Mike Ross, pushing some papers off a chair so he could sit down.
“Who cares?,” said Dike, 27, plopping down on a chair and putting his feet on the desk. “It’s funky--it’s home.”
Lanky and long-haired, wearing rumpled, mismatched clothes, Dike had that walking-disaster-area look of a ‘60s hippie. Ross, 26, dressed Saturday-afternoon casual, was eager for the interview to be over so he could go play basketball.
Who would figure that these two disheveled novices would be responsible for the biggest-selling single since “We Are the World” in 1985: Tone Loc’s “Wild Thing”?
If that’s not unlikely enough, there is the added surprise that Ross and Dike are white players in a game usually identified with black music and tied to the ghetto experience.
“Hey, we’re happening, dude,” said Dike, doodling on a piece of scrap paper. “We’re just two soulful white guys, hanging out, being cool.”
Soon, they may be a couple of rich , soulful white guys. Their little label, which has only five artists, has only released a handful of singles and one album--by Tone Loc.
Tone Loc’s new single, “Funky Cold Medina,” is off to a fast start and has definite Top 10 potential. The L.A. rapper’s album, “Loc-ed After Dark,” was just released, but is already in the national pop Top 20. (See Record Rack, Page 84)
At first, Dike and Ross said putting together the 2-million-selling single, “Wild Thing,” was no real feat. It cost less than $3,000--dirt cheap these days.
“You can’t call it novel or different,” said Ross. “We used stuff that other people have used. Matt came up with the beat and the guitar groove. It’s simple and nothing new.”
But something about it is turning on all those fans.
“That good, kickin’ dance beat is one of the things that makes it work,” Ross said.
Another is the amusingly risque lyrics, mostly written by Young MC, one of the other rappers on the label.
“Tone came up with lyrics too,” Dike said with a laugh. “They were ridiculous. He wrote this X-rated thing. It was a mess. It was a one-joke thing. It’s like it was written in a drunken stupor. The only thing right about it was the spirit. We had to go with what Young MC wrote.”
Ross added, “We wanted the song to be tongue-in-cheek and risque--as risque as we could get away with and still get air play. The concept of the song was these funny scenarios of this guy trying to do the wild thing.”
Dike was first struck by the phrase wild thing --street slang for sex --in Spike Lee’s 1986 comedy “She’s Gotta Have It.”
“A friend of mine--Fab Five Freddie--said it in the movie,” Dike said. “At one point we had it in mind for him to do the record. That’s when we were having problems with Tone and things were up in the air for a while.”
One problem was that Ross and Dike wanted the record at a slow speed, while Loc insisted on rapping fast. “It took a lot of coaxing to get him to do it slow,” Ross said. “It’s not the style he likes. But we knew that style is well suited to his voice, which is very deep. With a half-speed rap, the record sounds sexier.”
Added Dike, “That half-speed rap fits the song. Anyway, Tone doesn’t sound good when he raps fast. He slurs his words. He sounds like he’s eating chili dogs or something.”
It’s often been said that the rap-music world is like the rock scene back in the ‘50s--a maze of tiny, under-financed independent labels putting out records that were sold from the trunks of cars. With a little capital and a good idea, you could be a record-company mogul overnight. In rap, you still can.
The field is full of little companies like Delicious Vinyl, operated by young entrepreneurs who have a good music sense and are learning the business as they go along.
“Do we look like moguls?” Ross asked, looking over at Dike, who was cracking up at the thought of being confused with the kind of dapper, high-powered businessmen who run the record industry. “We’re just guys who like rap who saw other small companies starting up. We figured we could do it too.”
Of the label’s five rap artists, only Tone Loc and Def Jef have relased records. But more product is due soon. They said Body-n-Soul, a female group, will have a single out this month. The other artists are Young MC and G-Love-E.
According to Dike and Ross, they get along well--for the most part--with the artists. Is there any of the friction you might expect in a situation where two whites are working with young blacks--some who undoubtedly were raised to resent whites?
Dike said that, in some cases, there was a racial barrier initially.
“We had to get past negative feelings and distrust at first with some people,” he said. “Once they trust you and see you’re not out to rip them off, things are cool. Anyway, they get over any racial barriers real quick because it’s to their advantage. They want what we have to offer. It’s surprising how a chance to make money can overcome prejudice real fast.”
Originally from upstate New York, the self-described hustler Dike is a disco fan who was turned onto rap by one of the music’s pioneers, Grandmaster Flash. “I was hanging out with Flash in New York,” he said. “I got established in New York as a club deejay before I came to L.A.”
He met Ross, a Long Beach native, in 1984, when both were deejaying local parties and clubs. Their friendship developed when they were part of the same deejay record pool--a place to pick up promo copies of the latest dance records. “We were the only white guys in the pool,” Dike said. “We used to go down there together. It was a rough neighborhood (the Crenshaw District). Two guys together were less likely to get beat up.”
Dike and Ross eventually decided they could make rap records as good as most on the market. “These small rap companies put out a lot of product--most of it bad,” said Ross. “But then one record hits and they’re making money. It didn’t take much to get started. So why not give it a shot?”
They started Delicious Vinyl with a $5,000 loan obtained by Ross. Dike had a little studio in his house and some technical savvy, while Ross, who interned at MCA Records while going to UCLA, knew something about the inner workings of the industry.
“We floated along on little money, scraping by,” Dike recalled. “We put a lot of money into pressing our first record (Tone Loc’s ‘On Fire’), which got some local attention. But then we ran out of money. We had to make some kind of a distribution deal with a big company to get records on the market.”
After working briefly with Fantasy Records, they signed a distribution deal with Island Records, home over the years to such diverse attractions as Bob Marley, Traffic, U2 and Grace Jones.
“The big companies out there are looking for little labels like ours,” Ross said. “We’re close to the streets and the rap world. Those record-company guys sit in their luxurious offices and don’t have a clue about rap. They need us. They see there’s a lot of money to be made in rap.”
The small size of their label, Ross noted, is its biggest asset. “We don’t have to answer to all these department heads. We know what we like and we just do it.”
How big will their company get?
“Not too big,” Dike said. “I like this funky little office. I like things casual. I don’t want to be one of those stuck-up corporate dudes. I want to stay close to the streets. I want to hang out with real people.”