Ralph Tashjian, a former radio promoter, has seen some shit – good shit, bad shit – well, just all of it. He’s seen, and done, Scarface-esque amounts of cocaine. He has worked with icons like Prince and Madonna. He’s had notable Bay Area rappers lay their guns down on his desk.
In 1989, he pleaded guilty to bribing radio stations with cash and cocaine – making him the first person ever to be convicted under a decades-old payola law. As a promoter, he’s “broken” enough hits on the radio to certify him as a legend.
“He always got your attention, one way or another,” said former KFRC DJ Dave “Your Duke” Sholin.
But that’s so far in the past that Tashjian can comfortably brag about it all, which is exactly what he did on a recent Monday from his Mission Street corner office. (He wants to keep his location hidden so artists don’t show up at his door to ask him for help.)
He also talked about his new company, Intercept Music, a platform where new musicians can market themselves on social media. The business opened a series-A funding round on June 1, and is seeking $2.5 million, according to Tashjian’s business partner Todd Turner, the owner of Live Chime, which is using its technology for the new product.
The company will be based in the neighborhood, and with the flurry of tech activity here in San Francisco, it all comes full circle for Tashjian.
The former promoter, now 70, got his start here. “This neighborhood defined my character,” he said. “It defined my confidence, it defined my ability to talk and communicate with people.”
For most of his early life, Tashjian’s Armenian-Italian family sold flowers from various spaces along Mission Street. It did business out of the New Mission Market now occupied by Foreign Cinema, and later moved to the corner of 21st and Mission.
In the Mission Street of his childhood, beat cops would sit down and have a drink with the merchants, and a man — a “character,” as Tashjian said — would sell the Call Bulletin on the corner.
“It just was a different world,” he said.
Working for his parents, Tashjian cleaned flowers, displayed flowers and, most of all, he knew how to sell the flowers. “You learn the hustle of living on the street — all was always about making a buck,” he said. “That’s how I was raised.”
Members of his family remain part of the neighborhood’s history. His uncle, Dr. Ralph Mancuso, bought a bar in the mid-’60s called The Clock. Yep, Mancuso is the Doc in Doc’s Clock, Tashjian said.
“He was a painful dentist, a really painful dentist,” Tashjian said. “That has defined me — the bad side.”
Tashjian also learned how to do drugs on Mission Street. “There were some kids who taught me how to smoke weed,” he said. “That wasn’t happening in the Avenues at that point.”
With a chuckle, Tashjian remembered he and a kid named Russell Salinas would often light up above his uncle’s namesake, Doc’s Clock. “We would go and smoke weed and deliver funeral flowers,” he said.
Then the late ‘60s happened, and Tashjian — after spending enough time in the Haight-Ashbury — got married and fled to Tahoe. He worked ski patrol and even worked at a flower shop. But after fours years, he moved back to the Mission in 1972 to sell flowers with his family.
That’s when he started hanging out with record promoters. He would trade the flowers for albums, and in 1972, one of the promoters asked Tashjian and his family to provide the flowers for a float Elton John needed for a concert. They did, and “I wound up becoming really close with everyone at MCA records,” he said.
The next thing he knew, he was working for MCA Records. He had no experience, but he said they saw something in him. “They could detect in my personality that there wasn’t anything I wouldn’t do to be successful,” he said.
They turned out to be right. In the following years, Tashjian successfully promoted, or “broke,” chart-toppers like Golden Earring’s “Radar Love” and Carl Douglas’ “Kung Fu Fighting.”
“We put that song on the air, and within an hour, our phones were ringing,” Sholin, the radio DJ remembers about “Kung Fu Fighting.”
Sholin, who was the last person to interview John Lennon and is now a radio DJ in Bend, Oregon, said that Tashjian’s eccentricities were one of his best assets. “He was one of those people who would be fun to call and let him know we were going to put his song on the air,” he said, noting that Ralph always became excited whenever Sholin agreed to play a record.
“He wore his heart on his sleeve,” Sholin added. “You never had to guess what he’s thinking.”
Over the course of only a couple years, from 1974 to 1976, Tashjian held positions in Seattle, New York and Los Angeles.
He had his tactics to get songs played. Once, Tashjian said, he walked into a radio station with a wheelbarrow full of hundreds of copies of Marvin Hamlisch’s “The Sting” and dumped them on the floor and left. “They wound up playing the record,” he said.
Yet with success came vice: cocaine on the road and in the office — piles of it on coffee tables in penthouse suites. He saw it as part of doing business, but soon, he said, “I was out of control.”
His son, Ralph Tashjian Jr., puts it this way: “He was little unorthodox with the mannerisms in his drinking days.”
Ralph Jr., who speaks with the same nasally rasp as his father and now works in finance, says, “none of that ever affected me.”
But it affected his father. Tashjian lost his job around 1977, and ended up back in the Mission selling flowers at the shop on Mission Street.
On the side, he started Golden Gate Records, though with only marginal success. He spent most of his time soaking in the Mission Street nightlife of the late ’70s.
“I was at parties where we were high as can be, and mayors were coming,” he said, declining to mention specifics. But, he said, “mayors.”
By 1980, Tashjian was working as an independent promoter — then a new breed of promoters who were seen as hired guns who would do anything to get a song on the airwaves. Like others, he said, Tashjian was encouraged to use money, drugs, and women as bribes.
“I put the coke on the record and snuck it off — it’s what was done,” he said. “As long as the record company guys weren’t doing it themselves, they were happy.”
This went on for some six years before Tashjian and several other partners were indicted for that kind of bribery — called payola.
He traces his downfall to one New York night in 1986.
He was at the first-ever Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame dinner, standing in the lobby of the Waldorf Astoria in New York with his wife, Valerie, and rock star Ozzy Osbourne. Most important, he was with his boss, Joe Isgro, the head of a team of independent promoters and a dark prince of the business.
It so happened that John Gotti, Jr., one of the era’s most high-profile mafiosos, was also at the hotel, and at that moment the mobster was making his way through the lobby, followed by a convoy of federal agents and an NBC news crew.
Gotti greeted Isgro. “And then all of a sudden everybody’s asking, ‘What’s the connection?’” Tashjian recalled.
And that, as Tashjian tells it, kicked off a federal investigation that led to him being convicted of bribing radio stations to play records using cash, cocaine, and prostitutes.
The scandal did not necessarily slow Tashjian. He said that he was making deals in the Los Angeles federal courthouse between proceedings. He did, however, end up pleading guilty to tax evasion and obstruction of justice. He was the first person to be convicted under the U.S. Payola Statute.
Tashjian, however, never set foot in prison. He was sentenced to 60 days in a North Beach halfway house and was slapped with a $100,000 fine and 500 hours of community service. “It was a miracle,” he said, laughing at the memory.
Since then, Tashjian says he’s been clean and sober, working in production with clients such as Keak Da Sneak, Mistah F.A.B., and other rappers of the Bay Area Hyphy Movement.
Never one to ignore a trend, he’s now trying to find a niche in tech. Already, his Digital Music Universe — a platform where musicians can distribute and market their own music, and essentially promote themselves — taken off in Latin America, but Tashjian hopes to grow the business globally.
That will be done through Intercept Music, the social media and marketing platform Tashjian is starting with Todd Turner. He and Turner will be merging Turner’s technology from Digital Music Universe and that of Intercept Marking, a product of Live Chime.
Turner said interest in the product has been nearly universal from artists and record companies. “I’m 35 out of 35, and that’s unprecedented,” Turner said, referring to the industry leaders he pitched the idea to before the company’s launch.
Tashjian and Turner speak every day, but when the two first connected several years ago, Turner said, “I knew nothing about him other than he knew the industry.”