Ralph Rolle says juggling music gigs and running his bakery company can be challenging
When Ralph Rolle was a teenager growing up in the Bronx, it often seemed civilisation itself was collapsing all around. This was the late 70s and the New York borough — home to Yankee Stadium and the city’s largest zoo — was teetering. Each night, flames would lick the horizon — landlords torched tenements rather than let them slowly succumb to rot and indifference.
“The history of the Bronx is positive,” says Rolle, a storied rock and funk drummer turned baking magnate. “But it had been abandoned back then by people who had owned all of those buildings. The most creative way to get their money back was through insurance — by burning their own buildings. People blamed the locals. It was the landlords.”
Rolle had a scrappy childhood. He grew up in Bronx River Houses, a notorious public housing project that is also regarded as the crucible of hip hop culture. Afrika Bambaataa, the pioneering rapper, was a neighbour; the building played regular hosts to the improvised “block parties” from which hip hop would spread.
“That was one of the places where it all started,” says Rolle. “I grew up on the third floor. Afrika Bambaataa lived two storeys down. I always loved hip-hop — the way it was so much about the drumming.”
Rolle is relaxing in a suite at the River Lee Hotel in Cork. He’s in town with Nile Rodgers’ Chic, who in a few hours will play to a sold-out Live at the Marquee audience, with Rolle’s drumming driving the performance. In September, Rolle returns to Ireland in a very different capacity, bringing his Soul Snacks Cookie Company to Electric Picnic’s Theatre of Food.
Soul Snacks, which supplies more than 100 outlets across New York, sprung from his childhood interest in cooking. Though the Bronx was rough, Rolle was raised by strong women, who imbued in him a passion for the simple things in life — including baking.
“My mom was a person bringing up four kids by herself. But she believed in community. She ran the local garden programme, the tennis association, she was crossing guard [i.e. lollipop lady] at the corner. She loved traditional baking — she taught all of her kids how to be reliant, to sew and cook and get ourselves through life. I took the recipes and we now sell to over 100 stores throughout New York.”
Running a bakery and drumming in an esteemed funk ensemble can be a balancing act. Rolle is often up through the night, overseeing deliveries from the other side of the world.
“The different time zones can be a challenge,” he nods. “So maybe I’m in Japan, on the phone to New York calling in orders. You have to keep a lot of balls in the air at once.”
Rolle was not in the first version of Chic, the original disco innovators blazing a trail through the late ‘70s . However, he was sought out byRodgers when the bandleader required a drummer with both flair and technique.
“I remember meeting him for the first time — it was outside a music store on 37th Street. He came into town to buy a car — a Jaguar, I seem to remember. I had heard he was a fast driver and he was looking to get a fast set of wheels.”
They’ve had many adventures since. One that stands out was the time Prince came on stage to jam. “It was at a music festival in New Orleans. Prince and Nile wanted to collaborate. Prince was very kind — not nasty to anyone.
“He and Nile had very different approaches. Nile is a rock ‘n’ roll, let’s-make-it-happen type of guy. Prince was more of a ‘listen, let’s do it this way’ individual. But they respected each other and we all worked very well together.”
Soul Snacks Cookie Company will be at Electric Picnic Theatre of Food.
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