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Rap Draft with Dante Ross

Words by Daniel Isenberg (@StanIpcus)

If you read the liner notes of some of the most cherished albums in rap history, you will find that famed A&R Dante Ross had a great deal to do with the making of them. Whether he was the one who actually signed the artists, or was putting in work behind the scenes (De La Soul, Brand Nubian, Pete Rock & CL Smooth, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, and Del the Funky Homosapien are just a few of the legendary acts he’s worked with), Dante’s ear for talent and industry instincts have played a heavy role in our beloved culture’s recording history. And in 2013, Dante’s still doing it, holding down a position as the Vice President of A&R for Warner Bros. Records, helping to break new talent and groom future stars. Which is why we thought he would be the perfect person to set off our new feature, Rap Draft.

Being that it is the height of fantasy sports season, with the NFL and NBA both in full swing, we thought it would be dope to have Dante Ross—who’s currently participating in his first ever fantasy hoops league—draft his fantasy rap team, almost as if he was creating his own hip-hop record label from scratch using a fantasy sports roster format. So we gave Dante positions to fill on his roster—from rappers to producers to DJs to front office folk—and then asked him to break down his selections. We also asked him to take a look at his team overall, and dissect how his picks could be utilized. And when filling his roster, we encouraged Dante to focus on new talent, rather than come up with a team of trusty veterans. That’s too easy, right? Since he’s an incredible A&R mind, we wanted to know who he thinks has next, therefore who he would want on his fantasy rap team right now if he was building a dynasty for the future. Check out Dante Ross’ squad below.

1. East Coast Rapper – Flatbush Zombies (Group)

Dante Ross: “I like the Flatbush Zombies because they’re psychedelic. I think that’s missing in rap music. They’re super dusted, they have a great live show, they make good music, they’re original and unique, they’re cool as fuck, and they make me laugh. I think that they have a real shot at being something big, like an A$AP [crew].

“They follow their own voice. That’s a poetic notion. They turned down several major labels, I thought that was cool. They’re visuals are really great. They have a very cohesive imagery. Everyone who knows what’s up likes them. They have all the right affiliations and connections. And they’re fun, and exciting. [They’re from Brooklyn], and I’m from Manhattan but I lived in Brooklyn for a long time, so I think that’s cool as well. Plus my grandparents are from Flatbush. Their whole schtick works. They’re good kids, and I’m a fan.”

2. West Coast Rapper – Problem

“He’s a throwback to the gangbang, shoot ‘em up kind of rap I like. Stuff like MC Eiht, Da Lench Mob, Ice Cube, King Tee, that kind of music. He’s kind of a throwback to that, with a modern twist to it, almost like a DJ Quik or something, and I appreciate that kind of rap. I’ve always really liked West Coast gangster rap when it was done well, and he does it very well. ‘Like Whaaat’ is a great song, he’s a very good live performer, and a super charismatic kid. And he’s a star when he walks in the room.

“He’s got some danger to him too. It’s kind of menacing, some of his stuff. I think rap music should be dangerous, and rap music isn’t dangerous enough. It’s can be corny nowadays. Fake dangerous. And you get that vibe from him where you can tell he’s a street cat that’s [really been] out there in the streets. It’s a different thing, the way dudes on the West Coast relate to his music. It feels very gang affiliated, whether it is or not, I don’t know. But I think he makes good music. He’s a very good rapper, and he’s got a big presence. I think the guy’s a star.”

3. South Rapper – Scotty

“I like what he does. There’s a million and one trap rappers, and he’s not a trap rapper. He’s from Atlanta, and his music is a throwback to UGK, Outkast, Eightball & MJG, and things of that nature. I’ve always been a big fan of that stuff, and the Rap-A-Lot type stuff. He has a very soulful, funky sound to him. He’s a very good rapper. He has something to say. His music isn’t mindless or ignorant. It’s really soulful, and at times spiritual, in a way Outkast could be, and at times Scarface was.

“He’s kind of a Southern version of what Joey Bada$$ and Action [Bronson] do, where they kind of look backwards for inspiration, but they do it in a new way. He’s an Atlanta version of that. I think that’s unique. And him and [producer] Burn One have a chemistry together that’s really special. I enjoy listening to his music. He makes the kind of music that I can listen to the whole record. Just dope-ass cruising music, the way I would listen to a whole Outkast or UGK record. I can listen to every song, because he’s got some cool stuff to say, he’s very melodic, with a cool-ass voice.”

*Editor’s note. Dante Ross manages Scotty.

4. Midwest Rapper – Chance The Rapper

“This is obvious. He’s everyone’s favorite guy right now, right? He’s a great rapper, great performer. He’s extraordinary. He’s a rapper in the realm of a Kendrick [Lamar], Eminem, or someone like that. He’s an amazing, amazing rapper. Super melodic, charismatic, hilarious, has a huge presence. He’s an absolute complete star, and I’d be very surprised if the guy isn’t a superstar in a year or two.

“He makes good music on his own terms, and has his own vision. He’s super stoney as well, which I like. He doesn’t take himself that serious, like, he doesn’t have to be Superman on every song he’s very human in his music. The guy dedicates songs to his father. I like that. He’s got a real feeling of soul, almost a gospel feeling in some of his music. And I like the fact that this kid did it his own way. He has the whole world wanting to be in business with him, and he’s nonchalant about it. I think that’s beautiful.

“You’ve got this new breed of kids—Tyler’s one of them and he’s another—who do what they want to do the way they want to do it. If the whole world wants to come to the party, that’s great. But that’s not the reason they do it. And they’re probably not going to change the way they do it. They’re going to keep doing what they do. I think Macklemore’s an example of that, too. A lot of these kids, they don’t even want record deals anymore. They’re like, ‘I’ll take a record deal, but it’s gotta be on my terms.’ And I find great beauty in that. [Chance] is a total example of that kind of kid.

“But beyond that, he’s a very special rapper. Very rarely does someone come along who possesses the pure rapping ability that he has.”

5. Utility Rapper – Lil Herb

“He’s on that gangster ish. And he raps really, really well. I always love it when you get the combination of someone who’s a street rapper who raps very, very well. The kid’s young, but he raps freaking great. His lyrics are nihilistic, and aggressive, and he really speaks about the streets of Chicago, but does it at a high level. He’s like Chief Keef, but with a lot of skills. Imagine Chief Keef with Chance The Rapper’s bag of skills. Lil Herb and Lil Bibby, the both of them are really good I just like Lil Herb’s voice, and the stuff that he says, and the way he says it. He’s a very talented young kid. If the streets don’t swallow him up, he’s going to be on to big things.”

6. Rapper/Producer – IAMSU!

“He does it all. He’s one stop shopping. He’s a total charismatic dude. He’s an amazing performer, one of the best performers I’ve seen out of all the new guys. He makes great music. That song ‘Function’ with E-40 was sick. He’s produced for Wiz [Khalifa], produced for Problem, produced for E-40, and he does his own stuff. He’s a nasty producer. And his music is really fun, too. That’s the best thing about his music, it’s fun. He’s always smiling. It’s cool, you know, everyone doesn’t have to be the trap rapper, street hustler dude, and he’s not that.

“I’m a big fan of Bay Area music. I always loved Too $hort, E-40, and Hieroglyphics, so it’s always good to see someone from The Bay get their hustle on. I was born in the Bay and raised in New York, but I spent a lot of time there in my life. I have family there still so I have an affinity for all things Bay Area, and Bay Area rap music is one of them. I think the guy’s very talented, and I’m very curious to see what’s going to happen to him down the road.”

7. Producer- Illmind

“I love Illmind’s music, and how he combines boom bap and trap for that boom trap sound. It’s signature. I love the way he still uses old breaks, but in a new way. He sends me new music all the time, and I’m always blown away by the shit he sends me. I think he’s like a secret weapon, and it’s only a matter of time before he has a huge song. He’s musical, but also raw and grimy and dirty and funky. He plays keyboards, and doesn’t necessarily need a sample to make good music. And I love the fact that he incorporates classic breaks into a whole new context. He has an element of the stuff I love, the DJ Premier, Large Professor, Q-Tip kind of boom bap classic sound, but he has a whole new take on it, and it’s a very modern one. There’s a reason why Kanye and everyone fucks with him, because the kid’s nasty. Every time he sends me a new batch of beats, I’m always blown away. I’m like, ‘Man, if I was a rapper, I’d use all of these.’ He’s just so good.”

8. Producer – Childish Major

“Everything he does that I hear is bangin’. ‘U.O.E.N.O.’ was ridiculous. And just the way he approaches making music. Everything I hear from him is next level. The kid’s very musical, his drums are super knockin’. He’s the guy that everyone in Atlanta is looking at right now, and he’s probably going to end up being the next Mike Will. But I prefer his music to Mike Will’s. It’s not as formulaic, and it’s a little more adventurous.

“‘U.O.E.N.O.’ was kind of to me like ‘Still Tippin’.’ It was off kilter, left field sounding, but still hood. I first heard it and was like, ‘Why is that record so dope? Why is that a hit? What the fuck?!’ Every once in a while, I’ll hear a beat that just grabs me like that. And more often than not, when there’s a Southern beat that grabs me, he did it. I thought the stuff he did with Curtis Williams was great. The stuff he has on Scotty’s next record is incredible. He’s a super-duper talent, and I think he’s the next guy. I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets the call from Jay Z and dudes like that next, because he’s right there.”

9. DJ – Statik Selektah

“Statik’s my man. I love hearing him DJ, he always plays really well. He kills it. He can play all the new stuff, all the old stuff, and he makes good music [himself]. He doesn’t hate on new stuff, he’s very open-minded, and I think he’s very underrated as a DJ. It’s funny, I was in this club, and I was like, ‘Who’s DJing? They’re killing it!’ And I turned around, and I see it’s Statik. And he’s DJ Premier style [with the scratch choruses on records]. He’s nasty. He’s my guy. He’s a great dude. Someone give him an A&R job already, he’s got great ears.”

10. R&B Singer – JMSN

“I like soul music. I was raised on Al Green and Bill Withers, and a lot of R&B just doesn’t have that feeling. D’Angelo had that feeling, Anthony Hamilton had that feeling. But a lot of R&B to me is cheesy and corny, with the same stock sounds. I don’t want to listen to Usher, that’s just not for me. To me, that’s soft. I’m sorry, that shit is just moist to me. When I hear Otis Redding, or Sam Cooke, they didn’t sound soft. There was something there, and it comes right out of church. And that’s the kind of music I want to hear. [Soul] is my favorite music of all, period. More than hip-hop, more than anything. So a lot of R&B leaves me cold. It’s a real soft, watered-down version of soul.

“That said, I like some of the new R&B. It’s almost like indie rock posing as R&B. Lyrically, it’s full of real topics. The Weeknd and Frank Ocean speak to me, where most R&B doesn’t. The Weeknd is amazing, and very dark. When I first heard [him], I called it ‘heroin R&B,’ because that’s what it sounded like. It was dysfunctional, and wasn’t all pretty and polished. It was full of pain, and it was great. And the guy I like now is JMSN. He’s a really great singer, and he makes that kind of music. He’s really talented, and I like what he does. I love The Weeknd, but I wanted to [pick] a new cat, and JMSN is kind of in that school of R&B. It’s that same kind of stuff. Dark, dysfunctional, and full of pain. He’s a great live performer, and I totally get where he’s coming from. And I like that fact that it’s not full of the same cliches that modern R&B tends to be full of. He gives me a little hope for the genre, because I’m not fucking with a lot of R&B.”

11. Executive – Riggs Morales

“A lot of us, including me, we’re really ego driven. Like, who are we to tell the world what’s great? A fifteen year old kid probably knows as much about what’s really rockin’ as we do. They may not know the reasons why, and have the ability to articulate it, and pull the analytics, and have access to give that guy a record deal, but the average kid who is really obsessed with music like I was as a kid has the same exact instincts as a good A&R guy. They’re just not as pretentious with it. And for that reason, I say we suck. Because, who are we to tell somebody they’re valid or not?

“There’s a couple labels that turned down Eminem before he signed with Dr. Dre. One label in particular, there was a room full of executives that turned him down that supposedly knew what they were doing. But if they really knew what they were doing, they wouldn’t have turned him down. There are ten other stories like that about great artists that got told they weren’t valid, Justin Bieber for one. I remember when I made Everlast Whitey Ford Sings the Blues. A big publishing executive told me that record didn’t stand a chance in hell, and that he was going to give me a publishing deal because he felt bad for me. The record sold three million copies. So Mr. Big Executive, you can kiss it.

“I think most of the time, perception rules people’s opinions when it comes to doing A&R. I personally try not to get caught up in that, but of course sometimes I do. We all do. We’re human beings. But I think the greatest executives don’t get caught up in that. The reason [I picked Riggs] is because Riggs loves music. I see Riggs at shows. He’s involved, and he has good taste. Me and him usually have the same meeting point for what we like, and why we like it. And I think Riggs, when he worked at The Source, he wasn’t an A&R guy, but he recognized the brilliance of Eminem. Why? Because he wasn’t jaded. And I think on some levels, he still isn’t jaded. The guy really loves music, as do I. They’re are a lot of guys who might be really good at taking you out to lunch, but they might not know what good music is.”

12. Press – Big Ghost

“Big Ghostfase, he’s funny. He’s straight comedy. I just read that stuff and laugh out loud. I think it’s some white kid, I don’t know. But he’s tremendously funny. He’s amazing.”

Team Name – Junkyard Dogs

“We’re a scrappy team. On paper, it probably looks a little weird. We got some gangster dudes, some drugged out, psychedelic dudes. It’s very diverse and eclectic, kind of how Elektra was when I ran it back in the early ’90s. And Junkyard Dog, he was my favorite wrestler when I was a kid. He was scrappy and he had soul, just like my team.”

1st Single Release

“I’d pair Chance The Rapper with Childish Major. They’re very different, but there’s a place that they would meet that would be very interesting. Chance is a traditional, great rapper, right? Childish Major is somewhere else, some might call him a trap producer, though I necessarily wouldn’t. But imagine Chance The Rapper on something that had the commercial viability of ‘U.O.E.N.O.’ That would be incredible. I think they would make a very interesting record, possibly even a hit song.”

Posse Cut Lineup

“I’ll have Illmind as the producer, to keep it diverse. And I’ll have Problem start it off, because he’s gonna come real aggressive. And I’m gonna have Chance end it, because everyone will listen to the song waiting for his verse. Everyone else is in the middle. But Lil Herb is gonna come second, because his gangster rap is going to follow really well after Problem.”

*Dante’s Disclaimer

“In the day and age of technology, analytics, and rap blogs, there are no secrets anymore. I say this to make this one point. The modern A&R guy all has the same basic tools, we all know about the same buzzing artists. Don’t look at this like a holy grail of info, it isn’t. It’s just my opinions. Every rap nerd like myself already knows all this stuff.”

Follow @DanteRoss on Twitter.

All pics via Instagram.

Read all previous NahRight features HERE.