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Will Hagle‘s major 2023 pivot: doing nothing.

Dante Ross writes how he talks. Blunt, straightforward, and honest. Full of stories about artists and albums from across the vast spectrum of recorded music history. Wild tales from growing up on the Lower East Side when punk and hip-hop were both emerging. Plenty of good times on the West Coast, too. In Son of the City, Ross transmutes his mind to the page. Unleashes its best memories in one definitive, chronological, cohesive burst.

On social media and in interviews elsewhere over the past few years, Ross has dropped consistent gems contextualizing his incredible career. He can spout words for days about working with legendary artists from De La Soul to ODB to Everlast and a host of names too long for one sentence. In his memoir, insights into the making of several classic albums abound. But the format of a book allows Dante to go deeper into his emotional arc, documenting the complexities of his internal feelings as he fostered musical greatness. In addition to the blunt honesty of his writing, Ross brings another element that both anchors and elevates his words, like a precisely-mixed drum break: vulnerability.

Written on-and-off over the course of almost fifteen years, Son of the City started as a collaborative manuscript with Dante’s dad, John Ross. A prolific writer and activist whose complicated but beautiful relationship with Dante comprises a throughline of the book, John Ross—passed in 2011. In 2020, too many friends followed. Amidst an onset of loss, confronting his own mortality, Dante felt compelled to get these stories—some legend in their own right for liner note scourers, scrub appreciators, and savvy fans—down on paper.

The book is a chronicle of Dante’s life, but in his mid-50s the eternal A&R guy remains as tapped into modern music as ever. He bemoans the lack of popular political rap these days, calling for a “trap Public Enemy.” In the next breath, he acknowledges that the youth runs music. He can listen to his Chuck D records as the wrinkles set in. But everything is cyclical, and he’s been around for a few cycles. He not only understands artistry and industry—and the way those often diametric concepts intersect—but he can break down how it all works in transparent, understandable form. In an age when “A&R” might be an unrecognizable abbreviation to kids who make and release music on iPads, Ross is the last real bastion of artist & repertoire. He gets it, and always has. 

In the below interview, I didn’t ask Dante too many questions about De La Soul, Brand Nubian, KMD, Queen Latifah, Pete Rock & CL Smooth, ODB, Leaders of the New School, Everlast, or any of the other names I promised earlier I wouldn’t squeeze into one sentence. It’s better to read them in the book. Those stories are entertaining in their own right, but Ross’s unforgiving self-reflection in his writing is what makes them so impactful. Instead I wanted to ask him about the Cool Kids and Fishbone.

Early in the book, Ross writes that he’s never been comfortable with his greatest successes, which tend to leave him feeling hollow. He also includes a paragraph billed as his “hip-hop braggadocio” moment, acknowledging the remarkable nature of his A&R credits list. Ross tells me, “If nothing else I’m a complicated person.” He then references an old 12-step adage: “We’re egomaniacs with self-esteem issues,” adding, “That is pretty apropos when I think about myself.” It’s also apropos when it comes to the book, which again is a transmutation of his mind’s best memories. He should be proud of Son of the City, like his dad would be.  

For people who have read Son of the City or are at all intrigued by Dante’s memoir, he drops a hefty dose of music and life wisdom in a blunt, straightforward, and, most importantly, vulnerable manner.

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