Writer-producer, hip-hop pioneer and former Billboard reporter Robert “Rocky” Ford Jr. died on May 19 of undisclosed causes, his wife Linda Medley confirmed to Billboard. He was 70.
As a Billboard writer in the late 1970s, Ford penned what has come to be regarded as the first article about the-then budding hip-hop genre in a mainstream publication: “B-Beats Bombarding Bronx: Mobile DJ Starts Something With Oldie R&B Disks,” published on July 1, 1978. After befriending future mogul Russell Simmons — then a young music promoter for his younger brother Joseph Simmons, also known as Run of the seminal hip-hop group Run-DMC — Ford left the magazine to pursue a career as a songwriter and producer.
In 1979, Ford partnered with former Billboard colleague J.B. Moore to collaborate on the holiday single “Christmas Rappin’” for Kurtis Blow, which was released by Mercury Records and became a sleeper hit. He later co-wrote and co-produced Blow’s landmark single “The Breaks,” which would peak at No. 87 on the Billboard Hot 100 and become the first rap song to be certified gold by the RIAA.
Nelson George, the music journalist and filmmaker who got his start writing for Billboard in the late 1970s after Ford helped secure him an internship at the magazine (he was later named R&B editor), tells Billboard that Ford and his collaborators helped “create the template for radio friendly hip-hop” before such a thing existed.
Arguably Ford’s most important association during his early career was Blow. The two met while Ford was interviewing Blow for a story about rapping New York DJs — a group that also included DJ Hollywood, Eddie Cheeba and Lovebug Starski. Just 19 at the time, Blow tells Billboard that Ford had an outsized influence on his life and career. “He traveled with me for the first year or so, doing shows, live performances,” Blow says. “I remember having many conversations with him, either on a plane or riding in a car somewhere or waiting backstage. He taught me how to become a man.”
In addition to co-writing and producing much of Blow’s early music, Ford took the young rapper under his wing, teaching the shy teenager how to talk to press and offering tips on performing.
“During that time, I was jamming with Grandmaster Flash and I had my back to the audience, but I was looking at Flash. As an MC, that’s how we used to rock,” says Blow. “He said, ‘No — never turn your back to the audience.’ That was the first of many pointers that he gave me. He really changed my life, and became a really good, positive force [for me] at that time.” He adds that Ford’s insistence that he hire Russell Simmons as his manager — despite Blow’s reluctance to do so after a previous falling out with the future Def Jam co-founder — was the push he needed to propel his career to the next level.
Moore — who notes Ford was “the only guy in the ’80s in the R&B business who regularly wore saddle shoes” — believes Ford’s special gift lay in his ability to zero in on the qualities that made a song work.
“It was very important to have somebody with really good ears who really knew what they were listening to,” Moore says. “In his brain there was probably a minimum of 10 years solid of every R&B hit there was. He was the ears who passed judgment.”
Ford and Moore parted way with Blow after producing his first five albums and went on to produce three albums for the Brooklyn-based writer-producer collective Full Force, co-write and co-produce Rodney Dangerfield’s Grammy-nominated comedy album Rappin’ Rodney, and co-produce “City of Crime,” a rap song performed by Tom Hanks and Dan Aykroyd for the 1987 movie Dragnet.
Ford subsequently became a vp at Simmons’ Rush Communications, which launched artists including LL Cool J, Public Enemy, Beastie Boys and DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince. He later founded his own management company, where he became a key force in developing the career of R&B group Hi-Five, who hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 with their 1991 single “I Like the Way (The Kissing Game).” But it was his earlier work with Blow that would continue to pay dividends. In 1997, the R&B group Next sampled “Christmas Rappin'” on their single “Too Close,” which shot to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 and won Top R&B Song at the 1999 ASCAP Rhythm & Soul Awards.
Born June 30, 1949, to Robert and Addie Ford in Harlem, Ford developed a love of music early with help from the jazz, R&B and blues records his parents played in their home. While attending Andrew Jackson High School in St. Albans, Queens, in the mid 1960s, he formed friendships with fellow students and other young men who hung out at nearby Clark’s Deli, including late music producer Larry Smith, whom Ford would recruit to play bass on several singles for Blow. After high school, he briefly enrolled at Queensborough Community College, before trying his hand at acting and stand-up comedy.
Ford kickstarted his journalism career as a production manager at Forbes magazine before decamping for Billboard, where he served in the same role. He later switched to writing and penned an R&B column for the magazine, along with chronicling New York’s hip-hop culture as a reporter.
“He took me to press parties and concerts during the week when his girlfriend couldn’t make it,” says George of his time interning at the magazine. “I got a first hand education in how to cover music and handle myself as an industry journalist from Rocky and the rest of the staff. It was an invaluable experience that would set up my career.”
Ford has been noted for his mentorship of several figures who would go on to make a mark in the industry, including George, Blow, late music manager and promoter Steve Salem and Simmons, who in a recent Instagram tribute referred to Ford as his “guru” and said, “In a world where ripping off artists or overreaching on deals was commonplace he stressed the importance of making your partner or artist successful and having deals that when they look back they know you were fair.”
Ford would continue serving as an informal mentor throughout his life, offering advice to at-risk youth and other young people who expressed interest in a music career.
“He would impart to them that he didn’t do anything so unusual,” says Medley. “He wasn’t such an unusual person that you couldn’t do the same thing. He had to sort of work his way up. He did certain things to make sure he was in a place where he could take advantage of certain situations, but it wasn’t something that was impossible. I mean, anybody could do that if you just understood how the world works, how business works, how people work, and use that.”
Ford and Medley began dating in 1984, after she wrote a letter to Essence magazine about his humorous article on being a single black man. Though the two quickly went their separate ways, they reconnected years later after running into each other on the subway. They eventually married in 1998, remaining together until his death.
Ford is survived by Medley; his son Robert Ford III; daughter Raque; sister Barbara Burwell; and a granddaughter.