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.