Commonwealth Records founder was relentless advocate for artists
The fucking guy would call me every week. Sometimes twice a week.
Sometimes twice a day.
Plus there would be emails. And then the emails from the publicists he hired.
He was relentless.
“You gotta hear this new artist I’m working with. Do you think we can get something going in the Herald? How about the Dig?”
The distinctly jovial Mass accent on those calls belonged to one Dru Garrity, who passed away during a complicated surgery last week, leaving behind a wife and two daughters, as well as an army of New England artists he boosted. The founder and owner of Commonwealth Records, which dropped releases from a range of Boston hip-hop acts from 1998 through 2013, he was the kind of advocate rappers absolutely needed in their corner before social media drove press coverage, and that sadly seems to exist less and less as the game gets more fragmented and perpetrators land big-label deals without paying legitimate dues. As Slaine wrote to his fans about the awful news:
Dru… put out my first vinyl 12” … Needless to say, he believed in me early on. Today he passed away after having open heart surgery. He leaves behind a wife and two daughters who he loved dearly. I spoke to him the day before his surgery and hoped and prayed he’d make it through it but unfortunately he did not. I’ll remember him as a good guy who took me to Christmas dinner at the McCarthy’s house in Roslindale at a time when I was down and out. He always believed in me. Thanks man. Rest easy my friend.
Many others have wept similarly about Dru, and as the journalist on the receiving end of his perpetual championing of the Commonwealth roster, I can attest that they are hardly being hyperbolic. Dru was unlike almost every other indie label owner I ever interviewed, in that he had no aspirations to become a mogul. He was all about the job at hand—getting promo for his artists to feed show and album sales—even if that meant having to work a backbreaking job himself. Whereas most people in hip-hop, including those who have yet to sell any albums whatsoever, tend to front like music is their full-time gig, Dru was the rare exception who wore his real story on the sleeve extending from his true-blue collar. As he told me for a profile that I wrote about him for the Herald many years ago titled “Label boss whips up hip-hop success”:
I’ve been working in kitchens since I was 15 and I got in trouble. Instead of hanging out, my father put me to work at his friend’s restaurant. I eventually became a chef. … I started [Commonwealth] with money I made as a chef. My first [Bawston] Strangla single, which was a cassette, only cost me $250 to put out. When my projects make money, I just flip it over to the next one. … Most labels are preoccupied trying to recoup their investments in the short term. … Me, I’d rather wait and get my maximum profit. I don’t need the money right now. I’ll always have a job waiting for me. No matter what, people need to eat.
Perhaps it was that mix of prudence and pragmatism, plus the way Dru trafficked in enthusiasm without bombast, that spurred Commonwealth to become an imprint that will always be enshrined in the annals of regional rap music, if not solidified with alt hip-hop as a whole in its seminal era. Without selling dreams to artists, Dru, who was physically quite massive but far from intimidating, helped countless acts achieve their goal of getting heard. Dru didn’t care much about props; still, Commonwealth racked up some accolades. Among them: the 1999 single “Mental Flux,” by the Rhode Island duo Clockworx, landing on a Rolling Stone editor’s year-end list in 1999—that kind of nod actually meant something back then—as well as noms from the Boston Music Awards and the short-lived MIC Awards, and regular appearances on college charts. It’s also critical to note that he was among the first label owners to pursue the MP3 game with significant vigor, both on his own and at Amalgam Digital, where Dru served as a guiding A&R during the final leg of his entertainment career.
Though Dru moved overseas a couple of years ago, he kept a steady online presence, even if only to bust chops over politics and share old Commonwealth material. News about his passing came as a horrendous shock and nightmare, and brought tears to the eyes of tough guys who don’t cry too often, but hopefully it serves as a reminder that while end users and music fans don’t always realize how sounds get from their favorite artists to their ears, it takes a whole lot more than skill or money, or at least it used to. It takes undying support and a love for the people you’re working with. And while the muscle underneath his ribs stopped ticking on that operating table, figuratively speaking, Dru had one of the most gracious and tremendous hearts of anyone I’ve ever known in hip-hop.
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.