Robert Ford Jr., an early force in hip-hop, is dead at 70

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Robert Ford Jr., an early force in hip-hop, is dead at 70
A photo provided by Linda Medley-Ford, Robert Ford, Jr., in 1999. Ford, who as a journalist in the late 1970s was an early chronicler of the newly emerging hip-hop scene, and who then became a producer and mentor to a generation of influential figures, including Kurtis Blow and Russell Simmons, died on May 19 in New York. He was 70. Linda Medley-Ford via The New York TImes.

by Jon Caramanica

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Robert Ford Jr., who as a journalist in the late 1970s was an early chronicler of the newly emerging hip-hop scene, and who then became a producer and mentor to a generation of influential figures, including Kurtis Blow and Russell Simmons, died May 19 in Brooklyn. He was 70.

His wife, Linda Medley, who confirmed the death, said Ford had dealt with several chronic illnesses in recent years.

Hip-hop in its pre-commercial days was brought to life by a relatively small network of DJs, MCs and party promoters. It largely developed in parks, rec rooms and hotel ballrooms, far from the eye of the press.

Ford, who was known as Rocky, was writing about black music for the trade magazine Billboard when he received a tip from a co-worker about a curious trend in vinyl sales. He traveled to the Bronx to meet with Kool Herc, the DJ now regarded as one of hip-hop’s fathers, to learn more.

Ford’s article, titled “B-Beats Bombarding Bronx: Mobile DJ Starts Something With Oldie R&B Disks,” ran in the July 1, 1978, issue of Billboard and is considered to be the first coverage of hip-hop’s germinal era in a mainstream publication.

“Herc rose to popularity by playing long sets of assorted rhythm breaks strung together,” Ford wrote. “Since Herc was not completely satisfied with the new disco product coming out at the time, he started looking in cutout bins for tunes with good rhythm breaks.”

Ford’s musical knowledge was vast. “He was out every night reviewing for Billboard, and he had very eclectic tastes,” said music journalist and screenwriter Nelson George, who was then a Billboard intern.

Ford kept an eye on the rapidly developing hip-hop scene. In May 1979 he published an article, “Jive Talking N.Y. DJs Rapping Away in Black Discos,” in which he explored how DJs like DJ Hollywood, Kurtis Blow, Eddie Cheba and Lovebug Starski were beginning to rap to their crowds as they spun records. That fall, the first spate of recorded rap singles was released commercially, and rappers began to distinguish themselves from DJs and take their limelight.

One afternoon, Ford spied a young Joseph Simmons — later known as Run of Run-DMC — on the Q2 bus posting a flyer for an event promoted by his older brother, Russell. Ford gave the young man his card and told him to give it to his brother.

It was the beginning of a propitious, symbiotic relationship. Ford took Russell Simmons to record industry events and conferences, and Simmons served as a liaison between Ford and the scattered but energetic hip-hop scene. Ford urged Simmons to become an artist manager. He also decided to leave Billboard to focus on making music.

“I came to this whole thing as a writer, so my concept was, ‘Oh, I can write some songs for one of these guys,’” Ford said in 2015 in an interview on the podcast “The Cipher.”

Inspired partly by the financial stress brought on by the impending birth of his son, and partly by a Billboard colleague who had written Christmas songs for Perry Como and received annual royalty checks, Ford decided to make a Christmas single. He partnered with J.B. Moore, a co-worker who had also recently left Billboard. Moore wrote many of the song’s lyrics and also invested around $10,000 into recording it.

For the vocalist, Ford chose, at Simmons’ urging, Kurtis Blow. The music was performed by musicians that Ford knew from his teenage years in Queens, including Larry Smith, who would become part of the bedrock of early hip-hop’s sound.

The resulting song, “Christmas Rappin’,” was initially turned down by more than 20 record labels. Ford wasn’t surprised.

“You have to remember that rock ’n’ roll, in its very early days, was rejected by a lot of labels,” he said in an interview for the 2002 book “Yes Yes Y’all: The Experience Music Project Oral History of Hip-Hop’s First Decade.” “But I also knew that it was a record that was going to sell, if it ever got the light of day. Rap was something that any idiot had to know was at some point going to be big.”

Ford eventually found a taker: Mercury Records. Released in December 1979, “Christmas Rappin’” was a fast success, selling tens of thousands of copies. That Christmas Eve, the influential R&B DJ Frankie Crocker played it on WBLS-FM in New York, a huge symbolic victory. Its success helped secure Blow a full deal with Mercury, making him the first rapper to sign to a major label.

Ford and Moore made Blow’s career their focus, and his next single, “The Breaks,” became his true breakthrough.

To make sure Blow wasn’t dismissed as a flash in the pan, Ford — who wrote some of the song’s lyrics on an F train from Queens to Manhattan — promoted him as “the King of Rap” and ensured that his face would be on the cover of the song’s 12-inch single. It became the first rap song to be certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America. (Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” was released before it and almost certainly sold more, but Sugar Hill Records did not submit to the association’s auditing.)

Ford played a crucial role in early commercial hip-hop, but he “didn’t embrace the limelight,” George said. “He still had a curly Afro. He wore saddle shoes. He was very idiosyncratic and was very much not about joining. He sort of created his own satellite system.”

In addition to being Blow’s co-producer, Ford became his road manager. “He actually raised me; he became a father figure,” Blow said in an interview. “He taught me how to be a man. I was very shy; he brought me out of that and turned me into this incredible performer.”

Russell Simmons, in his book “Do You! 12 Laws to Access the Power in You to Achieve Happiness and Success” (2007), described Ford as “my first rabbi.”

“Rob taught me not only how to break into the game, but how to stay in the game by making honesty and integrity the foundation on which you build any sort of marketing or development plan,” Simmons wrote. “In other words, Rob taught me the value of selling the truth.”

Robert Ford Jr. was born June 30, 1949, in Harlem to Robert and Addie Ford. His father was a chef who ran the kitchen at Rikers Island; his mother was a homemaker. He grew up in Harlem and later in Queens, graduating from Andrew Jackson High School and briefly attending Queensborough Community College.

Ford worked as a production manager at Forbes magazine and then in the same capacity at Billboard in 1973 before switching to writing. After he and Moore left Billboard, they produced Blow’s first five albums, parting ways with him in 1984.

They went on to produce the first three albums by the electro-R&B group Full Force. They also produced “Rappin’ Rodney,” Rodney Dangerfield’s 1983 novelty rap single, and “City of Crime,” rapped by Tom Hanks and Dan Aykroyd in the 1987 movie “Dragnet.”

Ford briefly worked with Simmons as a vice president of Rush Productions. He later managed the Texas R&B boy band Hi-Five, whose indelible hit “I Like the Way (The Kissing Game)” went to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1991.

“Christmas Rappin’” was sampled on the R&B group Next’s “Too Close,” which topped Billboard’s pop and R&B singles charts in 1998. Ford “said that record put his son through college,” George said.

Ford married Medley in 1998. In addition to her, he is survived by his son, Robert Ford III; his daughter, Raque; a sister, Barbara Burwell; and a granddaughter.

In his later years Ford, who had lived in Brooklyn since the early 1990s, was a resource for younger people looking to learn about the music business. “He was in awe of how everything worked out, how the people he mentored and influenced took it forward,” Medley said. “Something that happened in New York became a global thing.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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