Hip-Hop Label 101: Delicious Vinyl
By Stereo Williams
Sir Mix-A-Lot was the one.
It was 1986 and Mike Ross was an emerging DJ and had gotten a copy of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Square Dance Rap.” Also an intern at MCA Records in Los Angeles, Ross loved the song and lobbied MCA to sign Sir Mix-A-Lot. But Ross’ bosses dismissed him, an indication that he wasn’t going to have it his way at MCA.
At this point, Ross and his friend and fellow DJ Matt Dike had significant record collections, hoarding as much funk, R&B, punk rock, rock, dance music, and rap as possible. Samplers were also hitting the market and independent rap labels such as Def Jam, Tommy Boy, and Next Plateau were starting to make their mark with LL Cool J, Stetsasonic, and Salt-N-Pepa, respectively. That inspired Ross and Dike.
“Let's put out our own shit,” Ross recalls saying to Dike. “[Rick] Rubin's doing it with Def Jam. Tommy Boy's putting out this dope shit. These labels are successful and they're indie labels. Some of them are run by guys that are just doing their own thing."
"It kind of gave us the idea that we could do it ourselves, basically. With some arrogance and with some ideas, that's how we started.”
As amateur beatmakers with an SP-1200 drum machine and a sampler, Ross and Dike honed their craft. But they were missing a key ingredient for having a rap record label: a rapper. It was 1987 and despite rap’s increasingly popularity, it wasn’t easy to find a rapper in Los Angeles.
Looking for talent, Ross called a friend of his from a Los Angeles record pool, which serviced product to DJs. Eric B. & Rakim and EPMD had recently come out and were popularizing a cool, laid-back delivery. Ross was interesting in finding someone similar. Through his friend at the record pool, Ross eventually got the phone number for a rapper.
“I literally cold called Tone Loc out of the blue,” Ross says with a laugh. “He answered the phone with this dope-ass, cool, smokey, Barry White-sounding voice. I started kicking game to him and he starts talking to me. He lived at Olympic and Fairfax. I literally went over, picked him up, and took him to our studio.”
Tone Loc started writing to one of Ross and Dike’s instrumentals. It became “On Fire.” Soon thereafter, Tone Loc recorded “Cheeba Cheeba,” an ode to marijuana. Smoking weed was one of Tone Loc and Ross’s favorite hobbies at the time. Tone Loc’s “On Fire” single with “Cheeba Cheeba” on the b-side became Delicious Vinyl’s first release, which arrived in stores in 1987.
As Ross, Dike and their upstart company started calling record stores, one of their contacts in New York said they had a friend who was a rapper who was going to school at USC. The friend’s name was Marvin Young, soon to be known to the world as Young MC. As he’d done with Tone Loc, Ross cold-called Young MC. While on the phone from his dorm room, Young MC started rapping for Ross over the phone.
“He had these clever, funny kind of Dana Dane, Fresh Prince style raps with clever pop culture references,” Ross says. “He had tons of lyrics, funny as hell. He's rapping to me over the phone, just trying to impress me. I was just like, ‘Dude. I got to come get you.’”
Delicious Vinyl was now in business with Young MC, whose “I Let ‘Em Know” was another early Delicious Vinyl single. It started getting some play on groundbreaking Los Angeles radio station KDAY. That exposure had Delicious Vinyl’s name buzzing in the streets. More and more people started coming by Ross and Dike’s homemade studio.
One of them was Mellow Man Ace. Ross and Dike loved Ace’s style and lyrics, but were particularly excited that he was Cuban and could rap in Spanish. Delicious Vinyl envisioned him as their bilingual LL Cool J, making him record all of his songs in both English and Spanish. Mellow Man Ace’s “Do This” single caught the ear of Kenny Ortiz, then an A&R at Capitol Records.
But Ortiz was more interested in working with Mellow Man Ace than giving Delicious Vinyl a label deal, so Delicious Vinyl did a deal with Capitol that made Mellow Man Ace a Capitol Records artist. Ross and Dike still produced some of what would become Mellow Man Ace’s debut album, 1989’s Escape From Havana, which spawned the gold single “Mentirosa.”
Now with some money, Delicious Vinyl continued expanding its roster, signing rapper-producer Def Jef. The company didn’t have any hits yet, but after only a year in business, it signed a production deal with Chris Blackwell and Island Records subsidiary 4th & Broadway Records, which had recently lost Eric B. & Rakim after releasing Paid In Full.
Soon thereafter, Delicious Vinyl became a hit factory.
Produced by Ross and Dike, Tone Loc’s “Wild Thing” single arrived in stores in October 1988, which was followed by his debut LP, Loc’ed After Dark, which was primarily produced by Ross and Dike.
The LP hit record store shelves in January 1989. By February 1989, “Wild Thing” was one of the biggest songs in the country and had sold more than 2 million copies. Loc’ed After Dark was equally successful, moving more than 2 million units by May 1989. Tone Loc’s next single, “Funky Cold Medina,” also hit platinum, moving more than 1 million units by May 1989.
Also in May 1989, Delicious Vinyl released Young M.C.’s “Bust A Move” single, which was produced by Ross and Dike and sold more than 1 million units by the end of the year. Released in September 1989, Stone Cold Rhymin’, Young M.C.’s debut LP, also sold more than 1 million by the end of 1989. Eleven of its 13 tracks had been produced by Ross and Dike.
With monster hits from Tone Loc and Young M.C., Delicious Vinyl was now one of the hottest rap labels in the world. It was making its mark by being an alternative to the Los Angeles gangster rap from Ice-T, Eazy-E, and N.W.A that was becoming the music industry’s latest fixation. Delicious Vinyl was releasing lyric and story-driven material with commercial-sounding beats. Def Jef’s Just A Poet With Soul LP also arrived in 1989, as did “Dance To The Drummer’s Beat,” a single from female rap duo Body And Soul.
But tough times were on the horizon. Both Tone Loc and Young M.C. had changed their process and making their second LPs became problematic. Getting either one of them in the studio had become a chore.
“Tone Loc, he was enjoying success tremendously,” Ross says. “He all of a sudden had a huger entourage than he already had. Everybody was a producer all of a sudden, and everybody wanted to be part of the raking of the second record. I mean, me and Matt made the first record. It was just us in the studio with Tone and we didn't want to give up creative control, but we were kind of losing control of it.”
Young M.C. had other issues. “Young M.C. became unmanageable in a different way,” Ross says. “He felt like we gave too much preference to Tone. All of a sudden he had beef with us. I thought we made a great record on him. We had all this success and he wanted to produce the second record. And it was like, ‘No. Are you're crazy? Maybe you can produce a track, but we have a winning formula here.’”
With the Young M.C. situation becoming increasingly stressful, Delicious Vinyl made another deal with Capitol Records. Young M.C. would release his second LP on Capitol Records, not Delicious Vinyl.
In 1990, Delicious Vinyl expanded to rock with Masters Of Reality, R&B with Kenyatta, British Soul with The Brand New Heavies and released the Marked For Death soundtrack. Even though the label’s initial success came through rap, Ross and Dike were music fans first.
“The goal was really just to put out music that we really felt was dope,” Ross says. “I know that sounds cliché and it sounds primitive, but that was our goal.”
The Brand New Heavies’ Heavy Rhyme Experience: Vol. 1 album arrived in 1992 and featured the band collaborating with a host of established rap acts, including Main Source, Gang Starr, and Grand Puba. The LP also introduced Delicious Vinyl’s new act, The Pharcyde.
“They were young kids, irreverent, kind of anti-gangsters,” Ross says of the quarter of Fatlip, Slimkid3, Imani, and Bootie Brown. “They were just talking about their feelings, being funny. They had funny voices. They had all the ingredients.”
Like the company’s initial acts, The Pharcyde also represented something other than the gangster rap that had been dominating Los Angeles rap since the late-1980s.
“I had already been having issues with Tone and his whole gangster past and bringing that energy into the studio,” Ross says. “That's not what I'm about, obviously, and that's not what Matt was about. That wasn't the music that I wanted to be putting out with the label. I just didn't want to be getting into that world. That really wasn't my thing. So they were kind of the anti-gangster rap group.”
Released in November 1992, The Pharcyde’s Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde LP gave Delicious Vinyl its next gold LP. It spawned the hits “Passin Me By” and “Ya Mama” and showed that non-gangster rap from Los Angeles had an audience.
Delicious Vinyl also signed Juice Crew alumni Masta Ace, who as the leader of Masta Ace Incorporated, released the acclaimed SlaughtaHouse and Sittin’ On Chrome LPs through Delicious Vinyl in 1993 and 1995, respectively. Ace enjoyed the biggest radio and commercial singles of his career with “The I.N.C. Ride,” “Sittin’ On Chrome” and “Born To Roll.”
Dike left the label in the early 1990s, with Ross buying out his stake and taking control of the company. It enjoyed success throughout the rest of the 1990s with The Whoridas and others. In the 2000s, Delicious Vinyl released material from Fatlip, J Dilla, and others, and expanded into two Delicious Pizza shops in Los Angeles, and to the offshoot Delicious Island Records. Dike passed away after battling salivary gland cancer in 2018.
Today, Ross works with his brother Rick Ross and others on a variety of businesses. He says he’s pleased with Delicious Vinyl’s legacy.
“It was exactly what I wanted it to be,” Ross says. “It was a boutique label that started with two DJs who had some ideas of cool music that they wanted to make and put out. We were trying to uplift people with great music. That pretty much always was the idea: just make the party rock, make people feel good. Music is a powerful thing. It's a drug. It's the best drug in the world. If you can make it, help develop it, work with great artists and put out great music in the world, I think that's kind of a noble endeavor. I feel like the label has been able to do that to some extent. It never really stops. It’s about trying to put good vibes into the world through music. That's ultimately what it's always been about.”