Early Talks-Legends Edition: Rob Stone

One of my favorite people in the entire music industry is a man named Rob Stone. A lot of you should know the name, but if you don’t, then just think of The Fader Magazine. For the last few decades, Fader has been on top of everything when it comes to music and culture, which is thanks to none other than the Co-Founder, Rob Stone. Admittedly, The Fader has been a huge source of inspiration when it comes to the way we conduct our brand, which is why it is only right for us to recognize a man who has truly laid the foundation for platforms like ours. The world was a much different place when the Fader got its start and the way in which they haven’t missed a beat is truly inspiring. Rob’s leadership and talent have been a huge reason for their success, but most importantly, his character and the person he is has played an even larger role! If you want to gain some valuable insight and wisdom as to how he got to where he is today, keep scrolling to read the latest installment of the Early Talks Interview series, with Legend, Rob Stone.

Sam: So Rob, the first thing I want to know is, where are you from, what was your upbringing like and what was a young Rob in to before all of this music stuff?

Rob: Wow, that’s a great question. Yeah, I grew up in Brooklyn. I was born in Brooklyn. I was only there for a very short period of time until I was one, but Brooklyn holds a very special place in my heart because my dads’ business was there. My dad had a warehousing and trucking company in East NY Brooklyn, so I spent my summers there when I was old enough. Once I was old enough, I use to go to his warehouse and spend a lot of time there and I’d look up to my dad as he was running this company and then when I turned around fourteen, I started working in his warehouse and it jus taught me so much about life. I grew up in a middle class neighborhood in Long Island, but I was always attracted to Hip-Hop; It grabbed me when I was twelve-years-old, and it got inside of me. Hip-Hop was different back then. You had to seek it out, and if you did, you became a part of this special club in a way and race played a part in it. It was a much different time than it is now. It wasn’t like white kids were listening to it. I played basketball in Junior High & High School and I was one of two white guys on the team. I was always close with the other guys on the team, but I was always in awe of how close they were with each other. They were more family  than I was with my friends. There was a kind of warmth to their friendships and a deepness that I didn’t have with my friends. I developed it though with them. I was a point guard and my two guard, we developed it. I was invited in and it’s an amazing culture where if you listen to the things that you’re told, it’s different than when you experience it. So, growing up in Long Island, I was always interested in hip-hop, but I was the typical kid except for that. I did all of the regular stuff. I got into Hip-hop early and I remember, I would recite and memorize all of LL Cool J’s records, all of DMC records, The Beatsie Boys, Rakim…Rakim was a god to me. I grew up knowing very lyric to “my melody” and “I ain’t no joke”. Til this day, I still listen to him.

Sam: So, with that, did you ever try to take up rapping yourself? Did you ever try to launch your own career or were you content with just being a fan?

Rob: I was always a fan and embarrassingly enough, I had a group, I rhymed…I actually wrote some good rhymes. Later on obviously, I retired from rhyming, but there was this guy, Bobbito Garcia who you may or may not know, he wrote for Vibe Magazine for years…He had a radio show as well and I became very good friends with him from playing basketball and one day we were all goofing around and I freestyled. Next thing you know, he’s like “man thats really dope”, but other than that, I really never came close to breaking through. I had d demo tape; But, the great thing about doing it is that it gave me an appreciation of being in front of an audience, because I performed at least three or four times in front of a crowd and it was an uncomfortable feeling for me, but when I see artists who I’ve gotten close with and you see their ability to just turn on this switch that they have, and the ability to capture a crowd. I know how hard it is because of how bad I was at it and how intimidating that can be. It has really helped me appreciate what true talent is.

Sam: Obviously you said that you spent a lot of time with your dad, so what were his thoughts on your musical interests and endeavors?

Rob: So my dad was the most amazing person in the world. He passed about six years ago but I was extremely close with him and he grew up in Brooklyn. He had an identical twin brother. They played football and my dad played the violin and my uncle taught himself how to play the piano. He played by ear. So they were both really talented musicians. My dad at the age of thirteen, was playing in philharmonics and if he would’ve continued, he could’ve been an incredible violinist. When I was older, he could still pick up a violin and play which was crazy, because he was such a tough, Brooklyn guy. His musical taste was straight classical. He loved all things classical. Since he’s passed, it’s one of my favorite things to do now. I have a playlist and it’s all classical music and it makes me feel so close to him. When I got into hip-hop though, I was living with my dad, since my parents got divorced and I was in 10th grade and I was listening in my bedroom and he got aggravated. The classic parent not understanding Rock n’ Roll. He couldn’t rap his head around it, but I didn’t fold and I stood my ground! I stood up for it and we had a blow out, probably the worst fight we ever had. The next day, I went to school with that sick feeling and he came home that day and I was ready to keep fighting and he walks in the door and he throws a Run DMC Cassette at me. I asked him where he got it and he said, “If you were telling me how great it was, I had to hear it for myself, so I went and bought it”. 

Sam: I love that. So, tell me about your first time working in the music industry. When was the moment you went from a fan, to then being able to work in it?

Rob: Yeah, I started working for free for the head of black music at SBK records for this guy named Virgil Sims and he was incredible. I learned so much from him. I worked for free for about six weeks. I was selling jewelry on the beach on the weekends. It was my hustle. This was semi illegal. I was selling property on state beaches. I knew the rules, but I still did it. It afforded me the opportunity to work in the city throughout the week at SBK records. But yeah, I knew right away I loved the energy of it. I think the moment I knew that it was getting big time was when I started working at Arista for Clive Davis. Bad Boy had just started up under Sean Combs and I got to work with Biggie in a bunch of ways. That was life changing being that close to Puff. And it’s one thing to look back at moments and say, “wow that was life changing”, but this moment was one of those moments where while you were doing it, you were like, “Oh my God, this is unbelievable.” It’s still so vivid. I remember waiting outside of Puff’s office on 19th street for him to play me the Biggie album off of cassette, which I still have to this day. I remember the things he said about each record. It was important enough for him to spend more than an hour with me, going through every cut of the album. That’s the part that made Puff so great. I left that room understanding how important that album was. That wasn’t just another hip-hop album…It would go on to be one of the great hip-hop albums of all time because that’s how he was treating it. That’s when I realized how big my career could be. 

Sam: Wow, I really don’t want to pass over this. Especially in my generation, we hear names like Biggie and Puff and they almost sound like fairytales…But, no one in my generation has had a real encounter with them like you have, so I don’t want to pass this. From your perspective, what was that like? How would you describe the importance of getting to be around men like that who are undeniable legends? How do you wrap your mind around that?

Rob: Probably the greatest 20 minutes in the music business for me was when I was working at a place called SBK Records before Arista and Puffy had just gotten fired. I was twenty-four and he was two years younger than me. He had just gotten fired by Andre Harrell at Uptown. He was the young intern who ended up doing these amazing things. He was an arrogant 20 year old, driving Andre crazy, but Puff started his career there. So, when Puff was looking for a job, I’m working at SBK Records and they had just merged with EMI Records. The head of the company was a guy named Daniel Glass and Fred Davis, who was Clive Davis’s son. So the two of them were going to a meeting and asked me to go and I was like the young guy who understood hip-hop and culture, but hip-hop was still underground then. We get to a hotel with Puffy and we’re meeting with him and Daniel and Fred are in suits and I’m all causal. WE sit down and meet with him and it was an incredible 20 minutes. He listened to them and they talked about music. The meeting went where they basically said to him, “so what do you want to do?” And he said that he wanted to bring Biggie and some of the other artists over to the label. And they were like, “so what do you want to do with them?” And he said, “I have the blueprint to this shit. I can show it to anyone, because no one can do it like Puff. I speak on records because when they hear my voice, they’re going to know the shit is hot. They won’t even need to hear the music.” He said all of that and they’re like okay, “what do we have to do?” And this was just such a lesson in carrying yourself with confidence. He sat there and he said, “When you get in a room with all of the suits and you decide what you’re going to pay Puff, when you get to a number that you think is going to make Puff happy, double it…and then, when you double it, I want you to put whipped cream and a cherry on top.” And obviously, I’m not doing it justice when it comes to the intensity, but it was so powerful. He had the guts and determination to truly put it all out on the line and I never saw anything like it. He was a force of nature. You just can’t explain it. That was Puffy. He was that special. I remember in front of my boss, Puff walked in and he looks at me and my boss is like, yeah Rob is going to be working your records and he looks at me and first thing he says is, “Are they paying you enough?” and I said “yeah” and he said, “If you’re going to be working my records, they better be treating you right.” his presence was big and powerful and then getting to work with him was unbelievable. 

Sam: I’m getting goosebumps just hearing that. Let’s keep going. Take me to the Fader days. Take me to the beginning of all of it!

Rob: Alright, before I get to that…Probably one of my proudest moments at Arista for sure was during my second year. The Biggie album was going into its second year. We came with “Juicy”, “Unbelievable” was a B-Side then we came with “Big Poppa”, then it was time to come with another single. So I’m in a marketing meeting an they’re talking about what the next single is going to be and they’re pretty much landing on “Machine Gun funk”. I remember going home that night and listening to the album again for the 100th time and the next morning I go into work and I tell Rick that it was a mistake coming with “Machine Gun Funk” next. I felt like there was a better single. It was like 10:30am…He didn’t really want to hear it, so I leave and I go to my office and an hour later, I get a call from Stacy, his assistant and she’s like quick, get into Rick’s office. he needs you. So, I run down the hall in to his office and he’s on the phone with someone and he’s like “I hear you, I hear you” and then he says, “Well Rob Stone actually has an idea” and it was Puff…he then hands me the phone and I had no idea. I didn’t think through how to present the next single to Puffy. My job was to do promotion, so I get on the phone and I’m looking at rick and rick is like, “tell him”. At that moment, I didn’t know how I was going to present this idea to him, so I just jump in and say, “hey Puff, I think you’re making a mistake by making the next single “Machine Gun Funk”.”  And it’s silent for a second an then he just launches into a tirade. He undressed me. Puff going off was not fun. I was getting sick. I was like, wow I just built this relationship with this guy for the last year and a half and now it’s over. He’s flipping on me and I look at Rick and God bless Rick because he looks at me and he’s like, “Fucking tell him what you told me” and I’m sitting there waiting for him to stop screaming and the second he stops, I’m like “are you going to stop screaming at me and let me tell you my idea?” I got my thoughts together and I said, “look, the first single you came with was Juicy, which was a rags to riches story and anybody can appreciate going from nothing to something. Everyone can relate to that. Then you went to Big Poppa where he’s the guy in the club and girls are loving him and he’s being accepted now…You’re telling a great story, then you want to come with Machine Gun Funk, which is one of my favorite records, but it doesn’t tell the story. I feel like so many other groups can make that record.” and he’s like, “So what should it be?” and I said, “It should be one more chance”. and the first reaction, he was so confused. He was like, “Theres nothing but cursing on that record. thats not a radio record”. And he was right, the original record, if you go and listen to the original, it was crazy filthy. So I tell Puff, “you just made a remix with LL, and busta rhymes, why can’t you make a remix of one more chance?” and he’s silent. Rick’s looking at me and I’m getting ready for him to scream at me again and he goes, “oh shit, I got that good love girl you didn’t know”. and he keeps saying it! That’s the hook! And all of a sudden he says, “Imma call you right back”, and he hangs up. So Rick is like, “What just happened?” and I sat down and I told Rick that he got what I was talking about. And to Puff’s genius, he came back 10 days later with the the remix of “one More Chance” and the record tied Janet Jackson for the highest debut on the billboard top 100. And the punchline to the whole thing which was pretty funny; I’m walking with a friend in the city one night to this place called the hit factory on the west side and as we’re walking by the block of the hit factory, Puff is out there with 20 people and I hear him go, “Yo, Rob Stone, come here!” and as I walk over, I don’t know what to expect and he says, “I told you one more chance was the next single” and I’m like, you told me? I told you! And he started cracking up and he gave me a pound and it was the coolest moment. 

Sam: That is a movie! That is unbelievable truly! As you’re saying this, I’m watching it unfold. That’s amazing! Okay so yeah, lets switch back to cornerstone and fader. I’d love to hear even how you were able to take lessons from that to what you’re doing now. I’d love to hear the inception of what you’ve built with Jon.

Rob Stone: Jon and I have been best friends since 7th grade. We went to Junior High together and High School, then we had two totally different journeys. Jon was into rock music while I was into hip-hop, but Jon was a college rep for Sony and the second he graduated, he started working at SBK and I credit him; He was the one who got me into SBK. He told me that there was a job opening if I wanted it; But, totally different backgrounds. I loved music, but music was his life and his career since he went to college. He just knew he wanted to do that. I knew when I was at Arista for two years that it was time for me to leave. So long story short, I was taking interviews and I was meeting with people and Clive wanted to keep me. He brought in someone who would take Rick’s place and become my boss. But I told Clive that if he wanted to keep me, he needed to give me that job, which was an overreach. I was a 24 year old kid. He didn’t reward me with the position so he understood why I needed to leave. I ended up meeting Steve Rifkind who had Big Pun and Mob Deep on his label called Loud Records and Steve, not a man of many words, he asked me what I was going to do and I said, “Maybe I’m going to start my own business.” It just made sense to me, so I left Arista and went over to Loud Records where I started Cornerstone with Steve and he had SRC, which was his marketing company and I was a VP at Loud, I was a VP at SRC and I was president of Cornerstone and Steve and I crushed it together for a couple of years, but we weren’t aligned 100%; at the same time, Jon was getting ready to leave Columbia and he had offers to go everywhere but he would always talk about wanting to do something with me. So, I brought him in and left Rifkind and Jon and I went 50/50 on the business and started fader in 99.

Sam: What was one of the coolest parts about growing the company with Jon? Was there a moment where it began to exceed your expectations?

Rob: I mean, I hit the ground running when I started Cornerstone with Steve. All of the labels needed support in promoting their albums; especially their hip-hop stuff since I was the one who really understood it, so I priced myself at the high end of the indie market and I would say no to projects. If I didn’t believe in your project, I said no and that meant something. I think the moment we knew though that we were breaking through was after we did the first issue of the fader and it was funk master flex on the cover and it got a great response and I remember getting a call from Nike’s Agency and we had photocopied an ad out of source for a nike sneaker and put it in the Fader and they were like, “where did you get the ad?”, and I was like, “I just photocopied it” and they were like, “you can’t do that”…And I was like, “why not?”  and they were like, “it’s just not how it works”. We ended up starting a great relationship with them, but the real moment was when we had our second issue which was featuring the three kings. Run from Run DMC, DJ Premiere who I worked with at EMI and Zack De La Rocha from Rage against the machine and we ended up doing a cover shoot with them and that day in the studio while we were getting started, there was another shoot on the same floor with Mariah Carey for some big magazine and I remember she stuck her head in and was like, “What’s going on in here?” and the photographer was like, “We’re shooting the cover for Fader Magazine” and that was when I knew it was a real thing. And now, one of the coolest things that I get to do is this podcast! I’m having a blast getting to be the executive producer of the Fader Uncovered Podcast that’s hosted by Mark Ronson. It’s now the number one global trending music podcast, so it’s exciting times.

Sam: I always love asking the question and I’m just curious since I want to one day become a great leader…What’s a leadership lesson that you have learned throughout this journey so far?

Rob: That’s a phenomenal question. I’ve been very fortunate to be close to some amazing leaders and I can honestly say that every one of them has made a mistake. From the perspective of others, no one knows how challenging it is to be a leader until you’re in that seat, so sometimes, the decisions you thought were wrong when I was not in that seat and then, you realize that they were right once you get in that seat…It’s really challenging to lead people, but I would say the biggest thing is being curious. You need to be curious. You need to want to hear what your team has to say. You need to be open to it. Also, some of the best things that ever happened to our company, happened after the worst thing. You have to just get up. Most people don’t get up. Most people quit before they get to the good stuff, because you just don’t know it’s right there. Sometimes it can happen the next day. How many people quit too soon? And then I think you also need a dose of reality. I think the  mistakes that we make are due to doing things for too long because we believed in them rather than reading the signs. You want to focus on what’s going to make you great! I think those really hard decisions are what leaders have to make. 

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