The founders of Profile Records didn’t set out to create an iconic independent hip-hop label. Using borrowed money from their parents, Cory Robbins and Steve Plotnicki started the label as a way to release dance singles, but the label soon evolved into a home for some of the most innovative and ground-breaking rap music of the ’80s and ’90s. Artists like Run-D.M.C., Dana Dane, Rob Base And DJ E-Z Rock, Poor Righteous Teachers, Onyx and DJ Quik helped make Profile a driving force in a musical and cultural revolution. Last week, Sony Legacy released Giant Single: The Profile Records Rap Anthology, an impeccably designed and curated collection of essential Profile singles drawn from the label’s 20-year history and featuring linear notes from hip-hop historian Dan Charnas.
To dig deeper into the history and cultural lineage of Profile, we talked to Charnas, former Profile employee and author of the essential hip-hop tome The Big Payback: The History Of The Business Of Hip-Hop. CMJ spoke to Charnas about his time in the Profile mail room, the lessons to be taken from Profile’s rise and the entrepreneurial ethos of hip-hop.
CMJ: Is it true that you started out in the Profile mail room?
Charnas: I started in the mail room in fall of 1989. I was interning and doing temp work at a number of different record labels to break into the business, but my gambit was to send resumes to all of the rap indie labels. And there weren’t a lot of major labels involved in hip-hop at that time, and Cory Robbins saw my resume, which included being Phi Beta Kappa summa cum laude at Boston University, and offered me a job in his mail room cause that’s how you start at Profile Records. You don’t start with some executive job—you’re stuffing envelopes.
One of the things I did notice when I got there was that [Profile] was responsible for a lot of the rap that was very successful, but they didn’t have any rap junkies working for the label. You had people who liked rap, you know, but the guy who signed Rob Base, he was more of a dance guy. Multimedia people were dance oriented, and rap was sort of treated as a tough set of dance by a lot of the folks there.
Do you think there was a unifying quality between all the early independent rap labels?
They were not evangelists for hip-hop, rather they were evangelists for independent music, and they were usually from outer boroughs or suburbs of New York, many of them Jewish but some Italian and Irish. They were like the little disco kids who wanted to be in the record business and wanted to make dance 12″s because they liked going to clubs and hearing music. But rap really started to rise, and there was no one aside from Joe and Sylvia Robinson who was gonna make a haul for those people. So Cory Robbins, he made a home for rap records.
In your liner notes, you say in the ’90s the major labels learned how to do rap right. What lessons do you think the majors took from companies like Profile?
A lot of these companies couldn’t sell their act. They couldn’t crack Profile. The first thing is it was a 12″ business at first. And these folks in the independent knew how to sell 12″s, they knew the places to sell them, they knew that they sold differently, they were promoted more in clubs and in shows and on the radio. And major labels had an album-oriented business: They didn’t care about 12″ singles. They weren’t going to invest in artists like that. So one thing that majors learned from the indies that you saw later on in the ’90s was taking this second route. Warner bought Alliance, Sony had RED, so there were ways to distribute stuff.
Another innovation that folks learned from indie labels was street marketing. Indie labels put down that tradition. They put together networks of promoters who were in with the producers and the managers. And they had had previous success, so when people were circulating their demo tapes, of course they would rather be on Def Jam than on Columbia or some other parent label because Def Jam was the shit. All your favorite records were on Def Jam.
On the flip-side of that, do you think there were things that the smaller labels could have learned from the majors?
Yeah. I do. I mean obviously, a lot of these independent labels ran very sloppily. Profile actually ran very professionally. Profile was on the verge of becoming a major label at one point, and they started a national distributor by buying up small distributors around the country. The definition of a major label is to have your own manufacturing, your own distribution and an international presence. And Profile had it in Los Angeles and New York and London, Profile had distribution across the entire country. It was a hair away from being a major. The issue was that they weren’t well capitalized, and I don’t think that Cory really wanted to get bigger, and he wanted to keep the releases at a certain amount. Also, Profile’s A&R was not major caliber A&R. A lot of independent labels operated on this cheapo ethos, this club ethos. It serves you in those early years, but if you really wanted to become a major, you’re gonna have to be spending a lot more money. If Columbia is wooing this guitar band for $200,000, and you’re coming with your typical $50,000 album advance, you can forget it. So I don’t think Profile really had that vision.
Next page: Charnas on hip-hop today