Filed under: Features,Hydra Ent. Special,Interviews,Steady Bootleggin'
Written by: Robbie Ettelson
The next couple of weeks here at Unkut Dot Com are dedicated to the mighty Hydra Entertainment label, the Queens-based indy that brought us Screwball, Godfather Don and Gab Gotcha – street-loved underground records that delivered everything that Rawkus wanted to be but never really achieved (but more on that later). To set it off, here’s an old interview I did with label founder Jerry Famolari over a year ago. Look out for a conversation with his original label partner and producer Mike Heron to follow, as well as in-depth features on Screwball and Godfather Don’s releases on Hydra.
Robbie: So how did you get your start in the music industry?
Jerry: In ’88, I used to live in this place called Lefrak City where a lot of kids used to rap, so I would finance their sessions. From ’88 till about ’90 I was financing different people, like V.I.C. from The Beatnuts and some other guys that he was doing, and then in ’90 I opened up my own label – which was predominantly a House label – called Sneak Tip Records. So we started with that in August of ’90, and then in ’94 we opened up Hydra. Mike [Heron] and I go back since Junior High school. He used to just do beats, and he told me there was a location where he used to live that was for rent – I used to work out of my apartment back then – so we took the space and he came in as my partner. He started doing promotion actually, and he didn’t know anything about it, so he got some lists and used to make the calls, and little by little we started building our mailing list and stuff like that. I used to do the retail and the distribution, and I used to handle all the House stuff. We started mixing everything together somehow, we started employing friends of ours, and little by little it just got bigger. We reached out to Godfather Don, and started with Don, then we were looking for Poet – who was from right there in Queensbridge, because the office was in Long Island City which is about ten blocks from the actual projects. When we found Poet he was working Kamakazee and Hostyle, and they had a group called Screwball. So we ended up signing them in ’94 or ’95.
Had Kamakazee done that song “On The Real” at that stage?
They had done that with Marley before that, because that originally had Nas and there was a little bit of a situation where Nas wanted a certain amount of money, so they took him off and they put Havoc and Mega on there.
There was a song on the second Screwball album where they’re talking about someone, was KL talking about Nas on that?
He was actually talking about Hostyle.
Yeah. When we were on Tommy Boy, there were situations that created an uneasiness within the group. Tommy Boy was basically trying to divide and conquer. We had a Screwball package and our thing was we’re gonna do Screwball as the group, then there would be Poet‘s solo album, Hostyle’s solo album, Kamakazee – which was KL and Kyron – and then there would be Kyron’s solo album and KL’s solo album. We were looking to get the most out of the group.
Like a Wu-Tang type of situation.
Right. The first guy we started working on was Hostyle. So we had about four records and we were trying to get additional money so we went and started showing Hostyle’s demo. Tommy Boy had the first look, so it was like “anything you guys do, let us see it before you guys shop it around”. We played them “H.O.S.T.Y.L.E.” and they went crazy for that record, so they wanted to make it the single for the Screwball album. There was another record that we didn’t put on there because of that, so we took that off and it started creating a little uneasiness within the group. Every group has a front-runner, but it was tough because we put him up front for our first video. Tommy Boy saw what we saw in Hostyle. They were trying to talk to him behind our backs, certain things weren’t working out…Kyron got arrested, and things were falling apart so they were really trying to get Hostyle behind our back. He went and did some management deal with some girl, and KL and the group and I went crazy, and that’s where that song came about. Those rhymes were held-in for a while.
Last year you released Hostyle’s One-Eyed Maniac album. Was that just old songs?
It was certain old songs and a lot of stuff I flew in. I created 75 percent of that. Same thing with the Screwed Up. There was a lot of songs that would not have ever come out. I just took pieces from different things and cuts, whatever I could do to make the album as strong as possible. We had so much money already invested and so much stuff sitting there, I’m like “Before I sit on it and have to put out a song here, a song there, a song here, a song there, I might as well just get rid of it”. There was no marketing behind it because there was no group. I don’t even know where Hostyle is. I haven’t spoken to Hostyle in a good eight months.
So when they did the Loyalty album, was Hostyle on the outs with the other guys at that stage? Or had they patched things up?
Yeah, and I was kind of holding it together. A lot of that stuff was flown-in as well. A lot of verses were flown-in, and I convinced the guys to come in and do certain things, but it was tough. That album was like pulling teeth. Poet was the most bitter at him, and KL took the stab. KL just said “You know what? I’m just gonna unleash this, after I say this – then we’re cool”.
I’ve been trying to track down Godfather Don. Are you still in contact?
I’m actually working on a Don album right now. An unreleased album. I just put together a Hydra single – a white label – that I’m going to release next month. This is gonna be like a “Best of”. There’ll be about fifteen unreleased records on there, so there’ll be about twenty, twenty two cuts.
You’ve got me hyped on that!
I’m walking around with the work DAT today, actually, just looking for songs to pull, songs to mix. It’s tough because after Diabolique, him and I worked on about fifteen, twenty songs – but we never released anything. I wanted Don to concentrate on production, because if you notice he did a ton of tracks for Loyalty, he’s done a ton of tracks for things like the Mobb Deep “The Get Back” remix…everything I that can get him on. He’s my left hand.
Is he still rapping?
He hasn’t rapped in two or three years, but he stays producing, which is something I wanted him to focus a little more on. For his era, he was one of the greatest MC’s for that generation, and I definitely feel that Don has something. He’s a mysterious guy. The stuff that I have that I’m mixing now is crazy, because some of it is from ’99, 2000 and 2001, and a lot of the stuff is still hot! It’s weird when you get stuff like that. I’m definitely a fan of Don too. I took over his project when Mike left for Rawkus. It was kind of tough because that’s when there was a whole gap with Screwball. Don and I just kept working, and I was putting out 12″s and other stuff in the meantime, so we just kept working and trying to record and build other records.
In his earlier stuff he was more abstract with his lyrics, and he got more street around when he dropped Diabolique. I liked it, it was a bit of a Biggie influence but it was still his own flavor.
Right. I found some stuff that he did with McGruff, because he did all of McGruff’s first demos, and it’s sad that McGruff never showed him any love. There’s a song with him and McGruff that I’m gonna put on that album as well. There are some good little records. The only thing is, sound quality on a lot of these things is gonna be tough because I don’t have the reels of some of these records. Anything I find the reel on, I’m bringing up and remixing. There’s stuff that we didn’t use for Diabolique, which is about another dozen songs that we had as well.
That record “Stuck Off The Realness”, I have a test-pressing of that. Did that ever come out officially?
Oh, that has “Status” on the other side?
Haha, what’s funny is, I had a hundred of them.
Is that all that exists of that record?
Yeah. We only made a hundred pieces of that, and I sold them to Unique Distributors. She’s a good friend of mine, the buyer there, so I sold them to her and left it out there like that, so that it would be a collector’s item. “Status” will probably be on that new album as well.
I noticed with a lot of the records you’ve put out, I never saw ads in magazines or anything. Was that a case keeping it underground, putting the records out and letting them speak for themselves?
[laughing] No, it’s actually a finance issue! Certain things you try to market a little harder than others, but now the wave is a bit stronger. I don’t know if Mike spoke of this artist he’s working with called Joell Ortiz? We have a great single coming out called “Humble”, and the guy who I work the most with now is Lakey The Kid. He just did a record called “Why”, which is a little freestyle over Jadakiss beat, and he kind of took a stab at Nas. Just a friendly stab, it’s pretty good. He’s not signed to Hydra, but he’s the guy that I’m working the most with right now.
Nas seems to have burnt a lot of bridges over his career. A lot of people that he used to work with seem to be pretty mad at him.
He could have created his own G-Unit. I would say all the MC;s from Queensbridge could have came out under him, and then he could have had guys like Shyne, like 50…there were a lot of guys that were ready to work under him. I don’t know what happened.
Must be an ego thing. I was wondering what happened to some of the people that you’ve put records out for, like K-Fanat?
K-Fanat was signed to A Kid Called Roots and he moved to Baltimore, so he just stopped doing hip-hop I guess.
The Triflicts and Gab Gotcha. I heard he’s incarcerated?
Actually he was just released. He did ten years.
Damn! I liked his record.
I’m considering working with him again, because we have a mutual friend besides Ju Ju.
What about Slade Savage?
Slade Savage was another guy who moved. These were all neighbourhood guys, basically, who were good. Slade went to school with us, he was just another guy who stopped rhyming and started working.
Was it the same thing with Big Meal?
Big Meal‘s still doing his thing. He’s still trying to make records. We haven’t done anything with him, but he’s doing production as well.
There were also a few singles that you’ve done with people that have already come out on other stuff, like Royal Flush, High and Mighty, Prince Poetry. How have those come about?
We have a recording studio as well, so it’s either guys that come through or…a lot of those guys are from Queens. Anybody that’s in Queens, we always know somebody that knows somebody. I have a relationship with those guys, as far as Prince Po goes, Royal Flush and guys like that – same thing with Mobb Deep – anybody who I can get records out of. Now you’re gonna see a whole bunch of 12 inches in the next six months, we’re gonna do a whole bunch of records now. There’ll be a lot of good stuff coming. We’re doing a compilation right now called Home of the Streets Volume One, which is our little tag for Hydra – Home of the Streets – and it’ll have everybody who you’ve seen us deal with. M.O.P, obviously Screwball, Hostyle, Mobb Deep, Cormega, Lake and Nas – provided they amend this little situation they have – NORE, Jon Doe, Joell Ortiz….there’ll be a few guys who are unknowns, like Joell Ortiz and guys of that calibre, maybe three or four guys like that. Everyday we keep changing and altering, but I’m like six songs shy of finishing.
Man, that’s a good line-up. That Royal Flush record that Godfather Don produced was really hot.
That was actually a Screwball beat, and we never used it, so one day Flush came and I played it for him and he’s like “You think I could rhyme on it?”, and I was like “Yeah, go ahead man”. And it sat for a year and a half, and I said “You know what? I’m gonna mix it, I’m gonna polish it up a little bit and I’m gonna put it out”, and he said “Alright” so I put it out.
I’m big fan of the Hydrabeats series. Did you do 14 volumes of that?
Did you get the new one with Don? I started a new series, doing them with picture jackets. The next volume was going to be Ayatollah, then I was gonna do one with the Beatnuts, Mike, Don – like a various artist one – but the problem is, break-beats don’t sell the way they used to. It’s real tough, and though I want to put them out, financially it’s not always the right move.
Volume 3 is just incredible – the first Godfather Don one – I could listen to that all day.
[chuckling] Let me tell you, I have at least a hundred unreleased beats of Don. I’m not even exaggerating. We made a pact that he would come every week with at least ten to twelve beats, and he’s the type of guy that can knock out five beats in a day. He’d say “Get a producer who you think is a real good producer, and I’ll let him pick his records and then let him give me the ones that he doesn’t want, and I’ll show you what I can do”.
He’s very talented at chopping records, he’s just a really talented guy.
Is he still using the MPC-60?
He uses the 60, and Don also plays bass, he plays guitar… he’s just multi-talented, this guy.
The beats that he did on One-Eyed Maniac was a different sound than some of his older stuff, is that more the direction that he’s in at the moment?
It’s just all different things. With the One-Eyed Maniac, a lot of the beats is what I picked. He would come with ten beats, and then I’m like “Wait a minute, I have this song I wanna remix”. Or with “Return of the Hoo-Ha”, which was originally called “Brown Paper Bag”, Mike had done the beat originally, but when I heard the beat that Don had, it gave it a totally different vibe. So I flew the vocals on it to see how what it would sound, and to me, that’s one of my favorite records.
Are you running Hydra full-time or are you involved with other things as well?
J: Now I’m becoming a little more involved in other things. It’s tough, because that’s what I love to do, but it’s not paying the bills at times. I like to create, so I’m at the point where I’m looking out for new kids to bring up. But right now, I’m focused with Lake with his project, because I know Lake is about to break through any minute now. Once Lake gets where he has to be, then we can focus on other things. I was A&Ring a Queensbridge compilation for a company called Fast Life, which used to be Landspeed. But as of yesterday, I don’t think that project is gonna happen right now. It’s on hold, so in the meantime I’m doing other things.
When I spoke to Mike, he was saying that in the early days when the market was smaller, you guys would do seven or eight thousand of one title, but as time went on it became over-crowded.
Absolutely. Our first 12 inch, we shipped five thousand – which was Powerule. That was the first Hydra single. The second one was Triflicts, and that did eight or nine thousand – I think it was 8,900. Then “Screwed Up” did in the same range – about five thousand – but then they started sloping, started going into the three’s, 3,500 and 3,200, and little by little the sales went down. I think the problem as being that not only the market got saturated, it was also the problem that radio got saturated, and the majors took over. There was no room. There’s not many independent shows anymore, and the street mix shows that are in New York or whatever, there’s so many good records…when you have a machine like a Def Jam releasing twenty records or ten records a month, they have so many exclusives that they give to deejays that there’s no room for a Screwball or guys who are of a lower caliber. Unless you have great record that you can build-up on your own on the street, and little by little build it up, build it up to the point where they have to play it. It’s also become a finance issue. A lot of these guys get taken care of, or they have relationships with these guys and you can’t get in.
Because they’ve got these huge budgets to play with.
Right, and a lot of these deejays get hired by these companies. They become A&Rs, or they become marketing guys or whatever the case is.
What has been your biggest record, as far as a buzz?
We’ve never had a record that’s sold ten, twenty thousand units. But Screwball got the most play, like “F.A.Y.B.A.N.” on Tommy Boy, we had a lot of spins on that record, it had a lot of hype on it. “Torture”, that we did with M.O.P. on the Loyalty album, they [Landspeed] sold about nine thousand 12″s. In the first two weeks it was up to seven thousand 12″s. Then we have records like “Properties of Steel” that guys like DJ Premier loved, and he put it on his compilation. Then you have records like “Styles By The Gram”, that was a Don record that Flex played. The only other records of ours that Flex played was “F.A.Y.B.A.N.” and Powerule. It’s weird for Flex to play a Don record…then again, that was eight years ago.
Yeah, it doesn’t seem like that long ago to me.
Our deal with Tommy Boy was originally in ’98, and then the [Screwball] album came out in 2000.
I heard that there was a lot of hype on that “Who Shot Rudy” record, but they were a bit slow to act?
Yeah, they pushed us back twice. And when you keep pushing something back, the anticipation level drops unless you have something else that’s right behind it. Definitely I think the “Who Shot Rudy” record was our calling, but they weren’t ready.
You’ve done other releases outside of the Hydra label as well, right?
Absolutely. We’ve also done a lot of white labels that might not have said Hydra or anybody on them. We’ve done singles for Cormega, I’ve done a lot of releases for a mixtape deejay called J-Love. We’ve done a ton of break-beats… Sack of Soul, Jackin’ The Beats, Rare Joints, Soul Drums, we have a huge catalog of sample records. We did a lot of break-beats and a lot of party records, stuff like that. There were a lot of white labels that don’t have the Hydra stamp on them, just to raise awareness, to throw them out there with a mystery. There’s a place called Sound Library – some of Don’s records are there for thirty bucks! It’s weird to see a record that we put out selling for thirty dollars. It’s an honor.
Powerule – Dawn To Dusk
Triflicts – Don’t Make Me Try
Gab Gotcha – Angels
Kamakazee – Snakes
Hostyle – Beat ‘Em On The Head
Royal Flush – It’s Royal Flush
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