book excerpt

Rick Rubin and the Early Days of Hip-hop in New York City

Photo: Josh Cheuse/Shutterstock

Geoff Edgers is a journalist and author. He is the national arts reporter for the Washington Post, hosts the Edge of Fame podcast, and his work has appeared in GQSpin, and the Boston Globe, among others. He also produced and starred in the 2010 documentary Do It Again, and he is the author of multiple children’s books about the Beatles, Elvis Presley, Stan Lee, and Julia Child. He lives in Concord, Massachusetts, with his family. The excerpt below is from Walk This Way: Run DMC, Aerosmith, and the Song That Changed American Music Forever, out now.

Trashy or cool or ironic or just plain undecipherable. The beauty of those days and that place was how you could really be anyone. Like the cartoon grapplers on WWF Championship Wrestling, you could adopt whatever persona the moment called for. Gather around Robin Byrd’s nasty soft-porn cable show or discuss the merits of French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville. Bikini contests, prank calls, record label meetings in your dorm room, all of them sloshing around in the greatest cocktail party of your mind.

“There was a security guard, but we had kegs at our parties,” remembered Denise Capuozzo, who arrived at NYU’s Weinstein Hall in the fall of 1983. “The drinking age had just gone to twenty-one, but nobody seemed to care. People were throwing statues off the roof. It kind of felt like the inmates were running the asylum.”

Weinstein became famous, mainly for the students who moved through it in the 1980s, including actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, future MTV VJ Martha Quinn, and future New York mayor Bill de Blasio. But nobody embodied the spirit of the dorm more than a coddled Jewish kid from Lido Beach who had once had dreams of being a professional magician.

By the time Rick Rubin got to Weinstein, in the fall of 1981, music wasn’t just a radio station in the background during study sessions. It was at the center of his life. Rubin had massive Cerwin-Vega speakers that boomed through the dorm walls. Some called him Rick Rock. Some used other names.

“When he first moved in, I thought, ‘This guy’s a jerk,’” remembered Bob Giordano, who was entering his senior year when he met Rubin. “I was way more Catholic in those days, and I was afraid of people who were a little weird or something. But the greatest thing I found out is that sometimes people you think are going to be jerks end up being the best people. Because they have nothing to hide.”

Mike Espindle, who had come to NYU as a premed student but ended up majoring in journalism, remembered a friend bringing Rubin to his room. He had a nice Gibson guitar and he liked to play power chords loud. Later, Espindle would become the lead singer—or screamer—in Rubin’s punk rock band, Hose.

“He had already been in a band called the Pricks in Long Island that had played in the city,” said Espindle. “And when I met him he had three very cool things he had done. He had been in the Pricks. I think he worked for some of the wrestling magazines doing photography. Really before wrestling broke out. And he had some relationship with the Plasmatics. I don’t remember what it was exactly. Those were the things that sort of impressed me.”

The beard came later. The sunglasses, too.

“We went and saw the Dirty Harry movie Sudden Impact,” said Espindle. “Harry’s wearing a specific kind of sunglasses. Rick went out and got those when it happened. He was developing the persona that we know.”

In the world of hip-hop, where outsiders could be booed offstage for living two blocks outside the neighborhood, Rubin seemed utterly unconcerned about street cred. He did nothing to hide that he had grown up in comfort in suburbia.

He was an only child. Mickey worked as a shoe wholesaler. Linda stayed home. They always supported Ricky. As a boy, he had become obsessed with magic. In high school, he’d been encouraged by a teacher to play music and his parents bought him a Gibson.

When Espindle visited the house, he saw that Rubin had done up his room to resemble the Danceteria. There was stage seating along the walls, club-style bleachers.

“You know, you went over there and Mickey would make you matzo brie and Linda would pour love all over Rick,” said Espindle. “The one thing his parents did that others didn’t is that he was just very secure in that upbringing.”

Even after he started getting a name, when no less than the Village Voice slapped him on the cover and declared him “The King of Rap,” Rubin never tried to hide Lido Beach. When the Voice wanted to photograph him, he didn’t force Jim Harrison to catch him at the Fever during a late-night jam or cruising down Broadway in a lowrider. He invited him to meet the parents. The images Harrison captured are stunningly unpretentious. There he lay, the “King” in tube socks and black jeans, splayed on his side across his parents’ bed. Mickey has his hand resting on his son’s elbow. Linda, under the covers, puts her right hand on his wrist. That position, a reflex not a pose, tells you everything you need to know. This was a special boy.

Mickey even boasts, in that same cover story, that Rick used to sleep between them until after his twelfth birthday.

“He thought a green boogie man lived in the closet,” Linda said.

“When he comes home without a girl,” Mickey confided, “sometimes he still sleeps with us.”

Rick Rubin had arrived at Weinstein without a whisker, a freshman surrounded by books and papers. But he was already impossible to miss.

“In the middle of the night, you would see him walking across the lobby getting some food, and he would be wearing a wool hat, sunglasses, and leg warmers,” said Tim Sommer, a fellow NYU student and a radio DJ who would play an important role in pushing rap at MTV. “We always thought he was a weird figure, but when you began talking to him, you saw he had this encyclopedic knowledge of music and film.”

By the fall of 1982, Rubin had transformed his surroundings. That September, Adam Dubin arrived at Weinstein, ready to move in and start his freshman year. An older kid met him and helped load everything onto a cart. They rolled down the hallway, the upperclassman looking back.

Room 712?

“Your roommate is some kind of musician or something,” the older kid said with a shrug.

He did not sound impressed.

At the door, Dubin paused. He can regenerate that mental snapshot even decades later.

The shades were drawn. The room was completely dark, except for one light, which was muted by a red do-rag draped over it. The desks were in the center of the room, pushed together and covered by two turntables, a mixer, and a tangle of wires. The dressers and every other surface in the room were covered with boxes of records and speakers. Sitting on the bed was a pudgy kid all in black. He wore sunglasses.

Dubin looked around.

“Where are you supposed to do homework?”

“Homework is to be done in the library,” the older kid said in a thick Long Island baritone that may have been a put on.

Okay. They got to talking. Rubin studied film. That was also Dubin’s plan. A wave of relief washed over the freshman. They would have something in common, particularly that neither of them would be getting up at seven a.m. for a civil engineering class.

Dubin asked about the turntables. He had never seen that kind of rig. Rubin told him that he DJ’d a lot and then asked Dubin what bands he liked.

“I don’t know,” Dubin stumbled. “The Rolling Stones?”

Rubin looked down. “Ugh.” Before long, Rubin began to offer the younger kid his version of a musical education. He picked through his vinyl, sharing the hard rock and punk, including AC/DC, Aerosmith, and Motörhead. Then Rubin got into the hip-hop records. Kurtis Blow, the Sugar Hill Gang, and, his favorite, the Treacherous Three. Rubin explained why he had two copies of AC/DC’s Back in Black. To mix the beat. He also showed him a record of his sloppy slash band, Hose.

Rubin loved hardcore, especially Flipper, the punk rock pranksters whose sludgy, bass-heavy music would influence everyone from Jane’s Addiction to Nirvana. He had arrived at NYU with the Pricks, a group he proudly let everyone know had played Max’s Kansas City and been thrown out for breaking furniture, remembered Giordano.

But even as he continued with Hose, Rubin seemed to be moving on from punk. He could see a hardcore ceiling, a limit to that music’s reach. Hip-hop was where he saw the future. It was, as his friend and later producing partner George Drakoulias described it, “black punk rock.”

“I think the difference is that there was a closed-mindedness in the white community toward punk,” Rubin said, looking back. “Punk was a very niche thing, and hip-hop started as a very niche thing, but it was able to grow. It’s got possibilities, not commercial possibilities, but momentum possibilities. A feeling of seeing something you love shared and having more people to talk about it with was exciting. The punk rock world was a small world and getting smaller. And the hip-hop world was a small world growing and getting bigger, and that felt good. It felt like an energetic pull.”

There was one thing that bugged him about hip-hop, and it was no small thing. Rubin would go to a live gig and be blown away by the energy. Then he would hear those same groups on record and they’d be soft, flatted by the production. Call it the curse of “Rapper’s Delight.”

What made those records so dull wasn’t that the early rap producers were amateurs. It was that they were actually too professional. They understood how to work in a studio, they knew what a hit record was supposed to sound like. A hit record should be slick, radio-friendly, produced.

“When they applied that experience to what they thought rap music was supposed to sound like, they missed the point,” Rubin said. “Because that’s not what it was supposed to sound like. To us, anyway. We thought very much of a DJ culture, sample-oriented, drum machine–based music, and that’s what it would sound like if you went to a club. You would hear drum machines. You would hear breaks from rock records and funk records. And MC’ing over that. That was the most exciting energy.”

This problem wasn’t exclusive to hip-hop. And in a way, it became the guiding principle that would make Rubin the greatest record producer of his time. He didn’t worry about the sound of the moment or chasing what the older and more conservative record and radio executives thought might maintain their fiefdoms. He cared about the sound in his head. This extended beyond hip-hop. It’s also how he stripped down the music of Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond to help them revive their careers. That vision governed everything, whether Rubin was working with metal heads Slayer, hard-core rappers the Geto Boys, or the Dixie Chicks.

As a music lover first, Rubin cared deeply about getting the sound right. It still bothers Rubin that nobody could capture his favorite go-go band on vinyl.

“If you listen to Trouble Funk live, it was the most incredible thing,” said Rubin. “If you hear the album they made after they got signed to Island Records, it’s like everything that was great about Trouble Funk got taken away.”

So much early rap, the stuff on Sugar Hill, Tuff City, everything reminded him of Evelyn “Champagne” King, best known for her 1978 disco hit “Shame.”

“But instead of having Evelyn ‘Champagne’ King sing on it, they would have someone rap on it, and they would think that it was the same,” Rubin said. “Because they didn’t understand.”

He understood. He just had to figure out how to get that sound onto a record and then get that record to the world.

There would be two mentors, each of them invaluable.

One would be a kind of philosophical guru, a guide for understanding how to nurture and understand the creative process and maintain artistic integrity.

The other would be more nuts-and-bolts, the one who would teach him how to take his art and turn it into a salable product. A record.

Ric Menello and Ed Bahlman also, without intending to, showed Rubin something else. The limits of misfitdom. You could be brilliant, iconoclastic, uncompromising, but if you could not function in mainstream society, you’d eventually disappear.

Start with Menello. He was the first guy anybody entering Weinstein would meet. He ran the front desk. Menello seemed much older than his years, what with his beard, bald pate, and extra pounds. But he was only in his early thirties when he and Rubin met. Menello had graduated in 1974 from Washington Square College, a branch of NYU created for commuter students, before settling in at the overnight shift.

Crazy in a good way, is how he would often be described.

“He had the best, cackling voice, a real maniacal kind of like—heh heh heh—giggle to him,” said Gretchen Viehmann, who arrived at NYU in 1983. “Not only did he know everything, but Mr. Ric went kind of beyond that.”

“The day kind of moved toward midnight, and at midnight this great thing happened,” said Dubin. “Menello took over the front desk, and at Menello’s front desk, we all learned how films were made and why films were good. He was like an Orson Welles–type character.”

“He loved movies,” said Giordano. “He was short and fat and you could irritate him very easily and he would yell and scream at you. I loved the guy and learned so much from him, but he was kind of like a big baby because he was an only child. But he was an invaluable resource for us.”

Students would come downstairs to pick up mail, leave notes, or use a pay phone. Menello, at his perch, was less a security guard than an intellectual gatekeeper. The TV would be on at all hours, with black-and-white films and Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart, and always Abbott and Costello. They debated art, music, ordered take-out Chinese or from Sarge’s Deli, if they really wanted to splurge.

During the day, Rubin might go to one of William K. Everson’s film classes. They’d talk Hitchcock or horror films. Everson showed Curse of the Demon and Targets, the latter an early Bogdanovich classic that’s more suspense than gore. There was also Seconds, the John Frankenheimer mystery starring Rock Hudson.

“Everson was terrific in that he was profound and erudite,” remembered Dubin. “When we would see these things, we would come back to the front desk and Menello would kind of give us the full background.”

Make no mistake. Menello wasn’t just an oddball. He had a stunning knowledge of film history. Later, he and Dubin would codirect the classic Beastie Boys video for “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!),” presenting the asshole rap classic as a clear homage to Blake Edwards’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. He directed the stunning black-and-white video for LL Cool J’s “Going Back to Cali.” Even after Rubin got famous and moved out to California, he would keep Menello in circulation. It did not matter that the mentor was increasingly a victim of his own eccentricities, his apartment littered with food containers and books. Menello took calls from friends of Rubin looking to bounce film ideas off him.

Director James Gray picked Menello’s brain, and he and Rubin began paying his rent. Menello received a writing credit on two of Gray’s films, 2008’s Two Lovers and 2013’s The Immigrant. That same year, director Wes Anderson, another Rubin friend, contributed to an appreciation written in the New Yorker after Menello’s death at just sixty.

“He knew every movie, I can tell you that,” Anderson offered. “He was the only person I’ve met who you just couldn’t stump and so you didn’t try—he was instead a resource and was very overtly thought of that way by a large circle.”

Rubin, whose NYU degree would be in film and television, drew on Menello’s photographic memory and encyclopedic knowledge of movie history.

“I probably learned more from him than I did in film school,” he said.

Ed Bahlman, Rubin’s other mentor, was everything Menello was not. Mysterious. Quiet. Awkward. Almost unhealthily thin.

“He looked a bit like a heron,” said Vivien Goldman, the British-born writer and musician who met Bahlman in 1980 while searching for somebody to put out a record.

She had heard the guy who ran the shop at 99 MacDougal Street didn’t just sell music, he put it out on his small label. She headed to the Village and played Bahlman “Launderette,” a dub pop song she had recorded with the help of P.I.L. front man and former Sex Pistol John Lydon.

“He had something of the sort of, almost an academic vibe or being very intense, intelligent, inward,” she said. “Ed, I perceived him as more of a retiring type. An introvert. One sensed he was quite a complicated person. I don’t think I really socialized with him. I felt he was an honest, honorable type. As to whether I got any money, I don’t really think I did. I think he gave me some money, he gave me an advance. I’m guessing it was a couple of hundred. Maybe five hundred dollars. Some sum. It wasn’t completely nothing.”

As a boy, Ed Bahlman certainly did not seem destined to work in a record store, never mind start an influential label.

He grew up in Brooklyn, sharing a room with his younger brother, Bill. His father was a postal clerk. His mother raised her boys. And in those cramped quarters, it was Bill who remembered being the music kid.

Bill was just fifteen when he began writing a column called “The World of Rock” for the local weekly paper. He imported speakers from London. He even became a DJ. This seemed a natural step for him after discovering he was gay and living in New York in the early ’70s. The Gay Activists Alliance held Saturday night dances at a firehouse in SoHo.

It was like two dollars at the door and all the soda and beer you could drink, and there were really great DJs there, and somehow I got into doing some DJ’ing there as well. This was in the early days of club disco. Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters came out at the time. This was going on every Saturday night. We started doing some rock dances on Friday night, playing some glam rock or David Bowie or the Stones.”

Ed led a far less glamorous life. He worked as a building superintendent during the 1970s. He got the record business because of a girl. In 1978, he walked into Gina Franklyn’s punk rock clothing shop on MacDougal Street.

Franklyn, born in London, had come to the States and partnered with sisters Tish and Snook to open Manic Panic, a boutique store that would become famous for its hair dye. But the sisters weren’t really punk, she felt, and Franklyn decided to leave. She rented a space at 99 MacDougal in the Village for her own shop. It featured mainly punk rock fashions, but on her trips back to England, she would stop in to see Geoff Travis. He had started Rough Trade Records, first as a store, later as a label that put out Stiff Little Fingers, Scritti Politti and, eventually, the Smiths.

I would go over there and buy as many independent singles as I could cram into my suitcase and I would sell them,” said Franklyn. “Ed read about me owning the store and he came down the first or second day I opened. We talked and he asked me out to dinner and that’s how the relationship started.”

They expanded that relationship when Franklyn suggested Bahlman take over half of the store to sell records. Bahlman needed help. He found it in Terry Tolkin, who, years later, when Bahlman would all but disappear, would become a kind of de facto spokesman.

“He had to work a second job, busting his ass,” said Tolkin, who never regretted the pay cut ($313 to $125 a week) he took by quitting his job as a file clerk at a law firm to work at 99. “He’s come straight from his maintenance job in his work overalls, all filthy, to open the store.”

Bahlman also recruited his younger brother. He dropped a bunch of records off to Bill to entice him.

“It was kind of like, okay, it was a way of teasing me to whet my appetite to get involved in 99,” said Bill Bahlman. “I listened to them and I was like, ‘Wow, this is really amazing.’ One of them was a group called Sham 69. He understood my passion for music and trusted me and all that stuff. Almost immediately, I said, ‘Sure, I’d love to work with you.’”

Today, when everything is a click away, it’s hard to understate the importance of 99 Records, but consider this. This was before Amazon, Discogs, eBay, Spotify, Pandora, or even the spread of Tower and Sam Goody. If you wanted something special—Augustus Pablo, Joy Division, the Buzzcocks—you needed to find somebody who traveled straight to the source and brought it back.

“It was impossible to locate any records,” said Richard McGuire, a New Jersey kid who had moved to New York in the summer of 1979 and started the band that would become Liquid Liquid. “You’d just go through bins and look everywhere. It was a real treasure hunt. And sometimes, it’s amazing the way things come to you, almost magical. I got the first Fela record I ever heard. A record called ‘Zombie,’ which became one of the first touchstones for the band. I was listening to the Contortions. I’m listening to James Brown. We’d buy crazy things like Augustus Pablo instrumentals. We were listening to the Curtis Mayfield soundtrack that we may have bought for a dollar. And we were all living in the same place, this cheap place on Eightieth Street.”

Well before Rubin got to NYU, Bahlman was helping him with his musical education—even if he didn’t know it. Back in Long Island, Rubin was a loyal listener to Tim Sommer’s radio show on WNYC, and he wrote Sommer a letter letting him know he was coming to the city for college. Bahlman sponsored that show.

He didn’t strike you as being a music fan, but he really was on top of everything,” said Sommer. “Every week, he’d say, ‘You have to hear this and this and this.’ We tried to play the newest in music that nobody had played yet, and we were getting that stuff mainly from Ed and Terry.”

99 was not the only store with imports.

Bleecker Bob’s, just around the corner, was famous. Bob’s was where Patti Smith met Lenny Kaye, Village Voice critic Robert Christgau scrambled to grab the Clash’s debut in 1977, and the Beastie Boys were famously thrown out, an incident they immortalized on 2004’s “An Open Letter to NYC.” But Bleecker Bob’s was not for everyone.

“He had a reputation for being very confrontational,” said Tolkin, who back then was working as a clerk at a law firm, but scouring record shelves in his free time. “He had the big, trained German shepherd behind the counter. And if he got mad at you, it’s like, ‘No soup for you.’ Here’s the record Nazi.”

“Bleecker Bob’s was the place where if you wanted to get sexually harassed as a young girl, that is where you would go,” said Kate Schellenbach, who was the Beastie Boys drummer from 1981 to 1984, until they abandoned punk for hip-hop. “He was like an insult comic and not funny. I never bought records there.”

“Bob was so nuts and paranoid,” said Franklyn. “I had maybe twenty singles in the store that I brought from England, and he came over one day, yelling and screaming, that what I was doing was trying to put him out of business. It was funny, because he was so nuts. I guess you could say, in a way, that Ed was everything Bleecker Bob wasn’t.”

“I hated going there,” said McGuire. “Then I heard about 99. And Ed was a totally mellow guy and you could go there and he’d be happy to play records for you. He had a little turntable in the corner.”

Rubin made his first trip to 99 when he was in high school. He ended up going by almost every day once he started at NYU. He would see Sommer there, who would eventually drop out of NYU and get a job at the newly founded MTV.

Around February 1980, Bahlman launched his label.

In one of the only interviews recorded of Bahlman, he tells Australian radio journalist Keri Phillips about meeting Richard Boon, who was managing the British punk band the Buzzcocks.

“I had just seen Glenn Branca at TF3, which is a small club where almost any band can play in and try new forms of music out, and I was really excited by what he was doing, but I had no formal plans to start a label and Richard Boon said, ‘Why don’t you just do it? Stop thinking about it. It only takes a couple of thousands of dollars to get going.’”

Branca, the cantankerous composer whose creative palette stretched from alternative theater to guitar symphonies, recorded his solo debut, Lesson No. 1, for Bahlman in 1980. Bahlman followed with a series of singles. He signed ESG, made up of the four Scoggins sisters and a friend. Their music would eventually be sampled by everyone from the Beastie Boys to TLC and the Wu-Tang Clan. Goldman’s Dirty Washing was the fifth release, coming out in 1981.

Then there was McGuire’s band, Liquid Liquid, who would sit at the center of the label’s greatest success and the mythology surrounding its demise. McGuire had met Branca at a gig and learned about Bahlman’s plans to put out his music. He was also dating one of the members of the three-girl band Ut. She told him 99 was going to release their record.

“I was like, ‘Holy, fucking shit,’” said McGuire. “That turned out not to be true, but it spurred me to give Ed a tape. He liked it, and he just said he’d like to see us play live. And we couldn’t get a gig to save our souls. And we got us a gig at Pier 2. But Ed, once he saw us, he really got it. I remember him saying, ‘Let’s do a record.’ And I was like, ‘Holy Crap, this really is happening.’”

Of the so-called “no wave” bands that arrived in the late ’70s in New York, Liquid Liquid may have been the best. It wasn’t their technique. In fact, the collective lack of command over their instruments is what may have led to their best work. They could jam for hours, settle on a groove and let it swim through an entire single. McGuire’s bass lines were at the center of that sound and singer Sal Principato would moan and twist his vocal lines, often mumbling with a patter that was melodic, rhythmic, but unintelligible.

Their crowning moment came with “Caravan,” a twisting dance track that 99 released in 1983.

The song became a huge club hit, so huge that Sugar Hill Records, never one to leave an easy theft on the table, grabbed its central groove for what would become one of hip-hop’s signature songs, Grandmaster Melle Mel’s “White Lines (Don’t Do It).”

Rubin heard “Caravan” and came up with his own idea. He didn’t have a record label yet, but he was developing his philosophy. He believed that different kinds of music could coexist, that you could love the Monkees and Kool Moe Dee. Rubin promoted a triple bill at the Hotel Diplomat with a hardcore band called Heart Attack, the Moe’s Treacherous Three, and Liquid Liquid.

“It seemed like inconceivable craziness,” said McGuire. “This was, like, 1982. I remember the energy was very tense. People there for the hardcore stuff were onstage for that. They stepped back when the Treacherous Three came on. It felt uneven and strange. Just the fact that he was thinking to do that, I thought was brilliant.”

When he started coming into 99, Rubin was “painfully shy, one of the shyest people I’ve ever met,” said Tolkin.

That may be true, at least at first, but inside the basement store, Rubin could be at home.

Running a label, for Bahlman, was entirely hands-on. He and McGuire would make the rounds, in Bahlman’s beat-up car, to record stores to deliver singles. The bassist remembered Rubin picking Bahlman’s brain about how to press a record, distribute it, make labels.

“He was able to walk me through the process of this is a recording studio you can work at,” said Rubin. “He would tell me where I could have record labels printed and where I could have sleeves printed, and if I had sleeves printed in Canada, they would be of a higher quality. Just each step of the process he would walk me through how to be able to do it. And the first two punk records I made, he distributed them for me because he had relationships with the different, independent distributors.”

Hose had a dirgy, distorted sound modeled more after the California-based Flipper than traditional hardcore groups. They mixed originals and unlikely covers—“You Sexy Thing” and Rick James’s “Superfreak”—and eventually developed enough of a following to play gigs with the Meat Puppets and Hüsker Dü. When it came to putting out records, Rubin seemed to care as much, or even more, about the band’s packaging as its music. There would be two Hose singles. One came in a sleeve with a color scheme straight out of a Mondrian painting. The other slid into a brown paper bag and had song names scratched out in the vinyl center.

In those days, Rubin charted his album sales by making the rounds with Dubin. They’d stop for a chicken cutlet sandwich at St. Marks Place before scanning the bins at Rat Cage Records on Ninth Street.

“He’d say, ‘I need to check my inventory,’” said Dubin. “He knew if I had dropped off five records and there were three, he would go up and ask for payment for his two records.”

At night, they’d head to the clubs, an activity Dubin describes with a kind of awe. Whatever shyness Tolkin remembered emanating from that kid from Lido Beach, it seemed to be gone.

We would go to the Roxy,” said Dubin. “They actually had a gun check. You could come in and check your guns and knives. And we would go and see the rap acts. We went and saw the Treacherous Three. Rubin got fixated on bringing in Trouble Funk, the go-go band from D.C. It’s a very tough act to bring in. There’s seventeen guys in the band and bringing them all from D.C. There was nothing in it for him personally. He wanted to see them and he wanted to bring them to a New York audience. He was just completely divorced from the idea of making money. The other thing that was significant is that we’d go in, and within a minute, we’d walk through this crowd, and this was a heavily African American audience. If I looked up, within two minutes, Rubin was on the DJ stand with the DJ and they were laughing and talking. Even if Rick didn’t know him, he would introduce himself and they’d start talking records. It was just weird. Sometimes we’d go to the World. Again, a really nasty neighborhood. We would go there, and there’s a line to get in and Jazzy Jay is DJ’ing. We’d say, ‘Rick, how are we going to get in?’ He’d say, ‘Watch this.’ He goes over and finds Jazzy Jay’s car on the street. It’s like an Oldsmobile that’s been pimped out a bit. He rattles a door handle and that would set off the alarm, which triggered a pager that Jazzy Jay had. Jazzy Jay comes out to see if someone is trying to bust into his car. He sees Rick and said, ‘Okay, let’s go in.’”

As Rubin got his bearings, one of his mentors started to lose his.

Things began to go very, very wrong at 99 Records.

By 1985, Ed Bahlman was a ghost, all but vanished, with Tolkin left behind as a kind of unreliable narrator of the label’s brief history. Tolkin’s post-99 career was impressive, as he signed a slew of critically acclaimed groups (Luna, Stereolab, Afghan Whigs) to Elektra Records. When it was over, when he’d moved to New Orleans to deal with his declining health, he would tell the amazing tale of Bahlman’s demise—at least the version he wanted to tell—to zine writers, and watch as that account became adopted as a Wikipedia-stamped truth. On closer inspection, very little of Tolkin’s story adds up.

So the tale: Bahlman sued Sugar Hill for stealing “Caravan” for “White Lines (Don’t Do It).” As the case dragged on, Bahlman’s life was threatened, the windows of 99 were smashed in, and, in one incident, guys with machetes showed up at the store to scare away customers. As Tolkin told it, Bahlman won in court, but it was a pyrrhic victory. By then, Sugar Hill had declared bankruptcy and refused to pay a dime. Bahlman, emotionally beaten and terrified, shut down his label and retreated.

A few problems with this sad tale.

There are no court records in New York or New Jersey of a case involving 99 and Sugar Hill. In addition, Bahlman dodged interviews about the label for decades.

I spent months trying to track him down. Every phone number listed for him over the years seemed to be disconnected. I found court papers showing he had briefly been married to the artist Lisa Krall in the mid-’90s. She did not take kindly to a call.

“I have no time to talk about this,” Krall said before hanging up. “I hated Ed Bahlman. It was a mistake.”

Bill Bahlman, so helpful when it came to the history of 99, thought Ed had worked at the post office after the record label’s demise. Then he admitted that he and Ed hadn’t talked in years. He wouldn’t tell me why, and after that stopped taking calls. As a last-ditch effort, I tried to trace Bahlman to his only public appearances post-99, a series of articles detailing how he and his partner, Anne-Katrin Titze, worked to protect the swans in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. There was even a 2011 photo of Bahlman in the New York Times, pinched, gray-haired, and unsmiling, as he stood near the water.

Tizte, listed as a German professor and film critic, did not return e-mails or calls. So on a crisp afternoon, I headed to Prospect Park to see if I could get lucky. I asked an older couple taking photos by the water if they had seen Bahlman lately. The woman shook her head.

“Oh, I haven’t seen them for a while,” the woman said.

A few blocks over, I headed to the housing complex that was Bahlman’s last stated address. A weather-beaten plate on the apartment door showed Bahlman’s name. Nobody answered. I left a note but never got a reply.

Glenn Branca, for one, never bought Bahlman’s story. He had a more cynical take, and did buy the Sugar Hill story.

“Here’s the deal about Ed,” said Branca. “He took everybody’s royalties and ran. As well as the master tapes. He was the most charming thief and bastard who ever stabbed anybody in the back. That’s how he got away with it.”

Franklyn had her own account of 99’s demise. It was decidedly unglamorous, and again, wouldn’t necessarily be the sort of story Bahlman could proudly tell to music historians.

“The final straw was that he had propositioned a girl who was working for me, and she didn’t show up on a Saturday,” said Franklyn. “I called her up and she said, ‘Why don’t you talk to Ed.’ I was so infuriated. I don’t think I was in love with Ed, but I was infatuated with him. I was in awe of him, I respected him, I knew he was supersmart, a razor-sharp mind. He could also be hurtful and cruel.”

That day, Franklyn boxed up all her merchandise. She later opened up another store, called 99X.

Rick Rubin? He wouldn’t ever see or talk to Bahlman again.

“He probably had learned everything he needed to learn,” said Sommer. “He was astute enough to assess 99’s limitations, plus realizing, ‘I have a lot of big ideas and I’m not going to be able to accomplish my big ideas with these people.’”

For Rubin, the first of those big ideas would be sparked the spring day in 1983 when he came back to the dorm with a new 12-inch.

“I can remember, he walked in. ‘This is the shit man, this is the shit,’” said Dubin.

The record? Run-DMC’s “It’s Like That” with “Sucker M.C.’s” on the B-side.

Excerpted from Walk This Way: Run DMC, Aerosmith and the Song That Changed American Music Forever by Geoff Edgers, © 2019, published with permission from Blue Rider Press.

Rick Rubin and the Early Days of Hip-hop in New York City