Glenn Manko Talks 90’s Philly Hip-Hop, Ruffhouse Records, John Legend, & American Idol
By Tyler Asay
During the month of October, The Philadelphia Globe is celebrating the history of hip-hop that has come from our city. Globe contributor Tyler Asay spoke with music manager and former Ruffhouse records publicist Glenn Manko about how he got started in the industry, working with acts such as The Fugees and Cypress Hill, and his current work managing American Idol finalist Louis Knight. Read our interview below.
Glenn, thank you so much for talking with The Philadelphia Globe. I wanted to start with your background, where are you from and how did you get started in the music industry?
Glenn Manko: I’m a Philly native, I grew up right outside of the city but spent a lot of time in the city. I started at Albright College, transferred to Temple, and during the first semester of my senior year at Temple as a journalism major, I met the person running Studio 4 Recording, which was down the hall from Ruffhouse Records. My background had been in PR, publicity, and marketing. They brought me into the studio to do all the PR, and over time I saw a wonderful opportunity at this label (Ruffhouse) that had just put out Cypress Hill and The Fugees first albums.
That was the beginning of my tenure with Ruffhouse, watching it go from a two-room and twenty people operation in a basement on 444 N. 3rd Street, and the rest is history. We moved out to Conshohocken, built the studios and the label, and went on to make some incredible records. The Fugees’ The Score. Cypress Hill’s Black Sunday. On the other side of it, Joe and Phil Nicolo, aka The Butcher Brothers, world-class producers, we got to see a lot of great records get made in that building.
I’ll never forget walking into the B Room, which was Joe Nicolo’s room, and he was mixing for DJ Muggs from Cypress Hill. This was when they had a little bit of a tiff with Ice Cube, and I watched him mix the next single. Well, at least I think it was because the room was a little cloudy, if you remember Cypress Hill they were very pro-cannabis and I may or may not have gotten a contact high. I spent almost 10 years working with their principles, Chris Schwartz, Joe and Phil Nicolo.
It’s pretty cool that Rolling Stone just revised their top 500 albums of all time list, and in that top 10 sits The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, which was released on Ruffhouse in ‘98.
Which years were you working with them?
Glenn: I was with Ruffhouse from 1992 to 2000. I was at Temple and was working part-time for them. I met a kid at Temple who was in a band, I was in this 200 person lecture hall and this guy was just tearing down the professor. I kept thinking, “Who is this wise-ass?” All I could see were his Doc Martin’s and dyed black hair. But basically, he was my first foray into management. I used to take a cassette demo, a bio, and a picture to the local clubs like JC Dobb’s, and that’s how I started.
I was managing one or two bands, and needed to understand the record business better, so I took a part-time job at a record store in Center City until a guy named Mark Schultz, who was managing this recording studio, brought me in to do PR and marketing for the studio. They were working with a lot of hip-hop, Boyz To Men, The Hooters, The Rolling Stones, all kinds of music. That was my first job that I parlayed over to Ruffhouse as well.
What were some of your favorite records and what were you listening to at the time?
Glenn Manko: What’s interesting is I only knew hip-hop on a very superficial level before I joined the company. But I think it was Cypress Hill’s first album that made me say, “Holy shit, what is this and how do I get more of it?” The songs on that album are timeless. They set a precedent for certain styles of hip-hop. Muggs’s ability to put the most unbelievable music together, that got me into it. And The Fugees’ first album, Blunted On Reality, had some amazing songs, but no one really knew. You know, “Mona Lisa” and “Boof Baf,” and all they did was tour and tour for years.
There was also some rock stuff that was coming through the studio, a Philly band called Dandelion, who were to Philly what Nirvana and Soundgarden were to Seattle. To me, I’m a Rolling Stones guy, I love Al Green and Miles Davis, so I run the gamut. Dandelion was the first rock band to come out of Ruffhouse that blew my mind. I remember when The Fugees started working on The Score, we got to hear music before it was released, so we were totally jazzed on that. We were part of Columbia, so we were getting early records from Oasis, who I remember saying sounded too much like The Beatles, I don’t know if they’re going to make it. Boy, was I wrong [laughs].
Chris, Phil, and Joe were the perfect trifecta. Phil knew how to make a record, Joe knew how to make it sound above and get it ready for radio, and Chris just had this ear. Ranging from Schooley D, who was his first project, to the Fugees and Lauryn. I think Chris is the only person she really talks to anymore. And I have to bring up The Goats. Rolling Stone gave that record 5 stars in the early 90s saying they were doing something that hadn’t been done before. There’s a song called “Typical American”, Chuck Trees was in the group. They were all pivotal influences not on just local music, but music as a whole.
You mentioned The Roots, who were on Geffen, not Ruffhouse, but I read Questlove’s book (Mo’ Meta Blues) a few years back and he talks a lot about the friendly rivalry between The Roots and The Fugees that was happening at that time.
Glenn Manko: I’ll tell you a story. My partner and I, who have a management company called Beta Brothers with, were backstage at the Electric Factory. I was talking to those guys, who are a completely different band then they are now, somebody made a comment like “Hey, tell your Fugees to stop biting after us.” And I said, “I heard your first demo, and I’d be happy to play you the Fugees first demo. Nobody is biting after anybody.” They were both extraordinary bands and they both went on to do great things. It was fun because it was never met with ill intent. They were blowing up, look at what they’ve done!
Let’s pivot to talking about John Legend. Can you talk about how that relationship began?
Glenn Manko: I was working for another Philly label and I met a guy named Mike Jackson who had just moved back to Philly from LA, and we hit it off right away. He called me one night and said “Get your ass down to 20 Main.” I walked in and the restaurant was pretty dark and John Legend, or John Stevens at the time, was there and John sang Accapella (he was in acapella groups at Penn at the age of 16). He opened his mouth and I’ll never forget how the hair on the back of my neck stood up.
Jackson and I started working with John and after he put together some demos, we started to push them out. I got him in Billboard Magazine and started getting him playing in clubs. Was I single-handedly responsible for his success? Absolutely not, he was born with a gift. To be in the room when he was getting his legs, I will always cherish that.
Since then how do you feel the industry has changed?
Glenn Manko: I walked away for quite a long time. While I was gone, digital streaming platforms completely took over when before, it was record sales. I listen to Spotify all the time. Soundscan kind of went the way of the dinosaur, it became more about your social media presence. My partner Cliff, who’s a complete statistical and technological genius, had the foresight to say “these are the numbers we have to hit, this is where we have to tour.” I was always in the front of the room, and he was always the guy behind the curtain making sure everything happened.
It’s a completely different industry, but once you’ve figured out Spotify and Instagram, those kinds of platforms, that has been really helpful. And also working with someone like Louis (Knight), who’s 20 years old, who grew up in this environment. I had to adjust and learn, I read David Byrne’s book (How Music Works), and try to stay as focused as possible on industry news today.
I’m glad you brought Louis up, because that was my next question. I host the open mic night at Dawson Street Pub, and he performed there about a year ago before the American Idol stuff started happening. I remember thinking, “who’s this kid? He’s gotta be supervised, he’s not even 21.” But Russ Eisenlohr (who books music at Dawson) told me someone spoke to him ahead of time and it was fine.
Glenn Manko: Yeah! I spoke to Russ about that.
Yeah! And once I saw him play I thought, “Oh yeah, this kid is the real deal.” Can you talk about how you met Louis and what about his music caught your ear?
Glenn Manko: One of my older daughter’s closest friends, I grew up with her dad. His wife told me, “My son is friendly with this kid who grew up in Great Britain and lives in Narberth. You need to hear him.” Now I thought, “If I had a dollar for every time someone said that I could probably uplevel my car.” But I sent him an email, and we met and I heard him sing. I just knew it. I asked Chris Schwartz a long time ago, “Chris how did you know Lauryn had the gift?” and he just said, “You know when a star walks in a room and you know when a song has a great hook and the hair on your arms stands up. You just know it, and if you don’t you’re in the wrong business.” Hearing Louis, it was obvious.
He got him over to a studio in Haddon Heights called Gradwell House, and he started making music. He’s got a talent that’s way beyond his years, and he wrote this song called “Change” which was about the loss of one of his closest friends. That struck a nerve with a lot of people, we got him involved with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. He has real substance, and you could see it. The older he gets, the better he does, and the greater good will come from it.
After a couple months, American Idol reached out. A woman from Philly discovered these videos of him and reached out asking if he wanted to audition. Louis forwarded me the email asking, “Is this a joke?” I told him, I don’t think so. I think this is the real thing. So we weighed the pros and cons and said, hopefully he won’t win.
Because then you’re an “American Idol Winner” for life.
Glenn Manko: Exactly. So we did it. The first audition was via Skype, then we went down to D.C. and there were 400 people there. He auditioned for the executive producers, made it through, and the rest is history. I always said to him, for most people who go down this path, it takes years. So he was leap-frogging, he had never played a gig really except for Milkboy on South Street and Dawson Open Mic. He realized what he was doing was vital, and now he is going back to what it takes to be a true artist. It was just luck.
My music education was working for Chris Schwartz and Phil and Joe Nicolo. I think I’m pretty good at hearing a well crafted song and I love music. It’s in someone or it’s not. I wanted to get back to something I truly loved, and it’s a great team. Louis and I are both learning a lot, we’re learning from each other. It’s a great combination of working in this industry and we’re willing to do whatever it takes to make it.