Never Leave LA

Author Ben Merlis On His New Book, Cold Chillin’ Records & More

As hip-hop first exploded throughout New York City’s boroughs and surrounding towns, a new generation was emerging: the first to be raised on the genre. At the center of it all was a collective known as The Juice Crew, as led by the charismatic radio personality Mr. Magic, whose Rap Attack was the first program of its kind on a commercial station; that show was, of course, name-checked within the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Juicy.” His DJ/engineer Marley Marl — also name-checked in “Juicy” — pioneered production techniques that defined the golden era of Hip-Hop and formed the basis of Cold Chillin’ Records, as founded in 1986 by Len Fichtelberg and Tyrone Williams.

Goin’ Off: The Story Of The Juice Crew & Cold Chillin’ Records chronicles the rise and fall of Cold Chillin’ and its partnership with Warner Bros. Records. It follows the careers of the label’s recording artists through first-hand accounts of industry players, producers, MCs, and DJs, including Roxanne Shanté, MC Shan, Kool G Rap, and The Genius (a.k.a. Wu-Tang Clan’s GZA). Author Ben Merlis — a top music industry publicist — gets to the bottom of the Cold Chillin’ story with plenty of interviews, research and insider insight; Peanut Butter Wolf wrote the book’s foreword.

Q&A with Ben Merlis:

What was your first exposure to Cold Chillin’ Records? Through your father working at Warner Bros.

Ben Merlis: Yes, my dad worked in the publicity department at Warner Bros. Records from the mid-‘70s to the early ‘00s, so he was there during the short 1987-1993 partnership between Warner and Cold Chillin’. Me and my older brother were already rap fanatics, so our dad would bring home records from the office before they even hit the stores. The first one I remember is a 12” single by Roxanne Shanté called “Have A Nice Day.” We must have played that thing 50 times the day we got our hands on it.

How long did you spend writing your new book?

Ben Merlis: It took about six months to do the interviews and transcribe them, and another six months to actually write the book. Then I got notes back from an editor a few months later and I spent a few weeks tweaking the manuscript. From the point I signed the contract to the release date of the book was just over two years.

What was the most challenging part of the creative experience?

Ben Merlis: Convincing people to let me interview them, and actually nailing down interviews. The second most challenging part was convincing myself to actually write every day. Once I’m in front of a computer writing, it’s easy for me.

What sort of process was it in order to write it? A few hours a day for a few months? I’d have to imagine the story kept unfolding as you did more interviews and research…

Ben Merlis: I had an outline written out well before I finished the interviews because I already knew the basic timeline. So I knew it would be 13 chapters plus an epilogue. I learned a lot of details by doing the interviews, but I had the structure nailed down already. So I set a personal deadline for getting the interviews finished and transcribed, and I forced myself to complete one chapter every two weeks for 26 weeks.

Are there any labels you feel as strongly about as you do Cold Chillin’?

Ben Merlis: Yes. In terms of hip-hop, I’d say Def Jam Recordings is equal to Cold Chillin’ in terms of quality, but there are already at least two books on Def Jam. The good thing about Cold Chillin’, and this is me being cynical, is it went out of business right around the time I think hip-hop started to decline quality-wise.

I am also a straight-edge hardcore punk rocker, so Dischord Records and Revelation Records are very close to my heart. I think those two labels have their legacies covered pretty well. I don’t know what I could contribute to their legacies. Another great, short-lived punk label was Dangerhouse. Again, there’s poetry about shutting down before you have the chance to put out any bad records.

Do you hope to write another book?

Ben Merlis: Sure! I have a few ideas.

Book promotion aside, what are you currently working on?

Ben Merlis: My day job is being a publicist for ZZ Top, Experience Hendrix, Roy’s Boys which is Roy Orbison’s estate, ABKCO Records, Carlene Carter and a singer-songwriter named Stoll Vaughan. I also sing and play guitar in a punk band called Surprise Vacation.

What was the last concert you attended for fun?

Ben Merlis: I saw The Rolling Stones at the Rose Bowl. While I do publicity for ABKCO, which owns the Stones’ recorded output from 1963 to 1969, I didn’t actually need to be there. I went because I simply wanted to see the Stones.

As a side note, one of their background singers who has been with them for many decades is Bernard Fowler, and he’s from Queensbridge Houses, which is the project where many of the Juice Crew/Cold Chillin’ artists are also from. Like Marley Marl, Roxanne Shanté, MC Shan, Craig G, and Tragedy. He knows some of them personally.

Finally, Ben, any last words for the kids?

Ben Merlis: Keep listening to mumble rap and pissing off your parents. If I was your parent, I’d be pissed too. Thanks again, Darren.

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