Chris Rivers & The BTLP Days

Born 1968 in Oakland, California, Chris was caught up in the hip hop movement as a young teen. While studying at UC Davis he launched his own label Bigger Than Life Productions with his high school friends Ontario Haynes and John Rhone, aka DJ Macaroni. The crew expanded to feature several Davis locals at the start of their careers, such as Paris and a young DJ Shadow. Upon leaving the production scene, Chris has dedicated his life to mentoring young men as they navigate their basketball careers. Building on that experience, in 2018 he founded Tribute Sports Management to advise athletes as they embark on the difficult and often overwhelming journey from the NCAA to the Pros.


Chris Rivers (with the cap), John Rhone (far right) and the BTLP crew wearing custom jackets in San Francisco, 1990

Jon

I heard the last time you met Josh was around 94 or 95.


Chris

Yeah. I'm 53 now, and when I graduated from college at UC Davis I was 22.


Jon

And that's how you met Josh?


Chris

Yes. Davis is a small university town, most of us students, and that's where Josh is from. I can’t recall exactly how we first met, but I had been rapping, writing, recording at that point, probably over four or five years when I met Josh. I thought I wanted to be a rapper, so I DJed and wrote rhymes.


John Rhone was my DJ, aka DJ Macaroni, who went to high school with me. Ontario Haynes also went to high school with me. I've known Ontario since I was 13 years old, and what's ironic about this conversation, I reached out to both of them about three months ago. I haven't talked to John for a long time, so I reached out and we exchanged messages.


Those aren’t just musicians, they are high school buddies, true friends. I spent three summers together with John. I taught him how to DJ and then, because of my rapping and his DJing, he started buying music equipment. He got a 909 drum machine, then he got a four-track recorder and a sampler, and he just got better and better. Then he started learning how to record and how to engineer. Ontario already knew how to play the piano. He could play the piano since I met him at 13 and when we were in our high school band together, he played the oboe, and I played the bass clarinet.


So you have these people who grew up in Oakland, California, which is an American urban city. We all had great families, went to a really nice high school and besides being just teenagers, we collaborated on a love for music. When rap music started, we were like "Wow! This is incredible! This is the greatest thing ever!" Rap music had only been around for three or four years, when we got to high school, so when Run DMC became popular, we were right on the forefront. We heard it. I mean, that's what we wanted to be. We wanted to be LL Cool J. We wanted to have that impact.


John "DJ Macaroni" Rhone in Davis Studio, 1990

Jon

Can you tell me more about your background and growing up in Oakland at that time?


Chris

Growing up in Oakland, there was a lot of great things, and also a lot of bad things. I'm sure that you're familiar with a rapper named Too Short? Too Short's from Oakland and he put Oakland on the map from a rapping standpoint. He used to rap about things that they could never put on a radio, money, cars, women and drugs. But that's what Oakland was about from his viewpoint.


I didn't grow up in that type of Oakland. I was fortunate to have a great upbringing, great parents. I had everything I needed.


Music was always a part of my life. I played the piano and, as I mentioned, I played the bass clarinet in a band in high school. We used to always try to make stuff and then I started rapping. I think I wrote my first rap in sixth grade. I didn't know what I was doing really, but I really got into it in ninth grade. I used to write stuff for my girlfriend and write jokes too. I rapped in front of my high school. I was a part of this Student Government's body and I rapped my nomination speech!


I used to have a gift to put words together and now that I don't do it, it’s really disheartening for me. From age 16 to 23, writing and rapping was a huge part of my life. It probably kept me out of trouble, kept me motivated, like giving me another identity. I never wrote about stuff I didn't know, and for me growing up in Oakland was great. Music culture was very popular. For example, Digital Underground, they're from Oakland and Tupac was in that group! Between Oakland and San Francisco there was a huge amount of people trying to rise up in music. Too Short was the top, he had made it, but we were all trying to find our space.


Jon

When did you get into hip hop?


Chris

In 1979, I was introduced to "Rapper's Delight" [Sugar Hill Records, 1979]. When I first heard that, that was it!


Chris "Ice C" Rivers on the mic at Davis Studio, 1990

Jon

And the clarinet went out of the window?


Chris

No, I still played, but once rap music came that changed my life. That's back when the radio didn't play it, or you might get one song a day. So there was a radio station in San Francisco, which I could only listen to on Sundays at 2pm, called KPOO. They only played rap on Sundays, and that's when rap was only from New York. There was no Oakland rap in 1979 when Sugar Hill Gang came in, it did not exist. I thought it was so cool that people could do that.

So there was music that just changed my life. I used to practice downstairs by myself when I was 11. Then I started to be able to put lines and rhymes together at 13 or 14. When I got to high school, it was kind of one of the things I could do.


Jon

Was hip hop music popular in your high school, at Bishop O'Dowd?


Chris

We probably didn't refer to it as hip hop then, until probably 1987-88 when KRS One and Boogie Down Productions started calling it that. I would say we referred to it as rap music. For us Run DMC, LL Cool J, were the best rappers out there. We loved listening and dancing to them. We loved feeling good.


Jon

How did you come up with the idea of starting your record label Bigger Than Life Productions?


Chris

I met Swee D in 1988 and he used to just rap and he could rap fast. He impressed me so much with his skills that I said "Oh my gosh, I need to learn how to become a producer, because he raps better than I do." So I became more infatuated with trying to organize his career and I said "You know, what? If I can organize Swee D's career, maybe I can find other artists as well."


With John around 1986, I formed BFC, Brothers For Change, and that's what this tape is [he waves a demo tape]. Then when I met Swee D, I said "Okay, this has to be bigger than Brothers For Change," so I wrote a song called “Bigger Than Life”. It was just me rapping about all these pretend things I see is bigger than life. [He starts rapping] "Life itself is from people like you that I obtained my wealth, because you buy all my records, spend all your money, while I rock around town with playboy bunnies, I see you as bigger than life."


My thought was, "I'm going to have multiple artists, this is what I'm going to do for my whole life," so that's where Bigger Than Life Productions’ name came from.


Flyer advertising for BTLP and Paris live performances in 1989. It was also the first event ever thrown by DJ Dave Paul.

Jon

You have mentioned Swee D a lot, however I haven’t found his name anywhere, can you tell me more about him?


Chris

His first name is Darryl. He's from a town called San Luis Obispo, and we both used to work at a club called The Graduate in Davis. It was a huge college hang out in town with good food, big screen TV and a dance club 4 nights per week. He was not attending school, he was just there working. I was a DJ and Darryl, was a bouncer / bartender assistant aka barback. And we did a mini tape for him.


I remember putting them together in my apartment, and paid for everything but we couldn't afford color prints so we had to do it in black and white. The goal was to get records but we never got there.


We actually gave a shout out to The Grad club on Swee D's first single "So Party” and at the end of "Don't Stop".


Jon

Do you remember how many copies of the tape were made?


Swee D's tape was the one and only BTLP release, 1989

Chris

Probably 500. We sold some, we gave a lot away, and 500 would have been a good number to save cost.


Jon

Forge "Dollarman" Hamermann designed it, right?


Chris

Exactly. Forge was a young kid from San Diego who loved music.


Jon

Do you remember the first time you met Paris, was it 89, or earlier?


Chris

It was probably around 89, because I worked at KDVS for a little bit. I know it was before his single “Break the Grip of Shame” [Tommy Boy, 1990] came out. I remember when I first heard it, all the anger, power and the passion in his voice, I was like, "Oh my gosh, he's really good!"


Like many other artists, what he presented as an artist was not what he was like. So when I heard those lyrics, I wrote a little stuff like that, but not THAT! He was in the music and I can still hear that track [Chris starts singing] "Doom, doom, doom, doom, doom, doom. Chicka, chicka, chicka" and that Chuck D. sample.


Jon

Did you meet Josh around the same time?


Chris

So whether it was Josh or Paris who I met first at Davis, I don't recall. When I first met Paris, I was trying to rap and I didn't know he was so far ahead. I was like "Oh my gosh, he's really doing it!"


My rapping name was Tice, or Ice C then I became Tice. I wasn't gangster, I wasn't violent, I wasn't against women. But some of the things I saw in the world I articulated differently.


Jon

Your nickname on Swee D's tape is Ice "C" Tice, where did that come from?


Chris

Ice "C" was my name in high school, my first name is Chris and at that time everyone wanted to be Ice Something. So not original, and that was before Ice Cube. So we all want to be Ice Something like the famous Ice-T, and now everyone is Lil Something. Then in 1989, I met a girl in college who said I look like Mike Tyson and at that point, I got tired of Ice "C", so I changed my name from Ice to Tice, and I was really proud of the way I could write and spit rhymes, at least I thought I could. So it became Tice the Vocal Pimp.


I didn't want to pimp women, I didn't want to pimp money, I wanted to pimp the English language, so Tice the Vocal Pimp, a more mature rapper.


Jon

Paris is featured on Swee D’s tape, on “Runnin' Off At The Mouth”. Can you tell me how he came on board?


Chris

There's two different versions on that tape. We had a Paris mixed version, and we had a regular mix.


I remember we went to a studio in Davis and Paris was on the engineering board. He knew more than me so he co-produced one Swee D's song. One has a baseline all the way through that I played on a keyboard, and then there's one that he looped in with a Prince sample.

Chris "Ice C" Rivers, John "DJ Macaroni" Rhone - Darryl "Swee D", Theo "The Bus Driver" Benson - Dancers: Cornel "Nasty Groove" Wade, Mario "M-Dig" Hill, Elvert "Cool Whip" Shannon

Jon

Who else was involved with Better Than Life?


Chris

There was another DJ, another white kid in town, a couple years older than Josh named Todd. Todd's MC name was T.O, like Totally One. I'm on a song with him.


There was also another young white kid from Davis whose name was Small J. His dad had a studio in Davis, and I'm sure Shadow probably came there. Small J was producing music, engineering. I have a song with Small J.


Then there's Swee D, his dancers, The Living Large Dancers, and The Bus Driver, his hype man. He was my roommate.


Jon

You said you don't remember how you met with Josh in the first place.


Chris

Because I didn't spend a lot of time with Josh since I was at the end of my college career, and he was still in high school. So for that little time period we met, I was phasing out of the music and he was just ascending to his greatness.


Jon

He still sees you as one of his earliest mentors, that is really something.


Chris

Well, when you told me that, it touched my heart because I was young then too. But I like to think that's just who I am as a person and I'm glad that I haven't changed. We didn't care if he was white or black. He was talented. Like that's not how we were brought up, so we didn't care anyway. But in a lot of places, people treat people differently. But he was talented and he was hungry and he could do stuff that none of us could do. So I'm glad that he says those nice things about me knowing that we all have people in our lives that open up doors. I'm glad I was able to do that for him.


Jon

Do you know his first LP called Endtroducing [Mo Wax, 1996]?


Chris

I probably remember his first one vaguely, I remember I followed him early until probably mid 90s when he was getting started, but once I got older and started working, I got away from music. I can just remember seeing his name pop up, like "Oh my gosh, that's Shadow," or someone talking about him and I'm like, "I know who that is!"


Jon

So your record label came to an end because you graduated?


Chris

My mother was sick at that time, and I promised her that I would graduate. So it got to the point where I just couldn't do both well and I started losing my love. Also, I started realizing that there were a lot more talented people out there, and that's when John Rhone started making connections. When we stopped doing BTLP, John Rhone and Ontario Haynes formed The Whole 9. They produced a song ["Slow Wine" - Mercury, 1994] for the group Tony! Toni! Toné! who were hugely popular at the time.


Jon

What's your best memory about the BTLP days?


Chris

I used to spend a lot of my DJ money, and I bought everyone some great jackets. Because when you had a crew or a posse, and it was like 10 of us, we all had these beautiful puffy jackets with Bigger Than Life on the back. That just made me feel like I had created something. It's the most prideful thing.


Jon

Would you say this period of time helped you to grow as a man?


Chris

It was an important part of my life. So all I have to say is when I hear music, like current rap, I'm glad it's out there but I don't connect to it. But when I hear stuff from the 80s or 90s my whole energy changes! I'm still a good MC now, I don't rap but I’m still very comfortable holding a microphone.


There's a lot of things that rapping gave me. For example the courage and energy and confidence to do things that I still portray now as an adult, as a father, as a husband, as a professional. I know it goes back to those days of sitting in a studio at one o'clock in the morning trying to get that one sample to loop. Or someone like Shadow hearing something that none of us heard going "This would be cool if you put this here" and I'd go, "How did you hear that?" So no different than Pharrell and all these other guys who are great at it and switch beats. Shadow was one of those guys, man, he has a gift!


Chris "Ice C" Rivers and John "DJ Macaroni" Rhone at Davis Studio, 1990

Jon

Do you remember Josh at that age when he was working with you, how he was as a young man and what kind of equipment he was using?


Chris

I don't remember equipment, I just remember records! Records upon records upon records! He was digging in the crates more than anyone I knew. We used to always say, "How does this little white kid from Davis, California, dig into crates? How do you know about this stuff?" And we were always so impressed with what he would find. That was his passion, that was his energy. I knew he had something about him. Josh was so comfortable being in this space and his personality wasn't overwhelming, but when spoken to and given the opportunity to present, he stepped up and he presented and he smashed it! He was always just waiting his turn. Like he knew that he could do it.


I would love to just send him a note as I get older, saying "Hey, great to be a part of your story. Glad you're doing well. We may never cross paths directly, but thank you for touching my life!". I would love to just send him that.


So anything you got that takes me back to this part of my life that no one knows, or no one remembers, or no one finds important besides me, I would love to see it.

You have already done so much more than you're ever going to know. This is fun, It's overwhelming, it's sad, I mean it's a lot but that's how life goes. And you've already given me more memories than I ever would have collected. So being able to connect with someone, for you finding passion in something that I never would have thought 30 years ago, that touches my heart. So thank you.


Jon

Thank you for this, Chris.


All photos used with permission

Chris can be contacted through his TSM website and LinkedIn

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Conducted by Jon (eikimono) on May 16, 2021

Transcription Mariella Petralia, editing by James Gaunt


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