Stevie Rachelle was 21 years old when he arrived on the Sunset Strip in 1987. “I got here a few weeks before the first Guns N Roses record was released,” he remembers. “Everybody was talking about them.”
The heavy metal scene was on fire, and with a thin, athletic build and long blonde hair, Rachelle fit right in. The vocalist joined Tuff, a band of his own that wouldn’t look out of place next to Poison, Ratt or Warrant. They played around L.A. and quickly drew attention.
“We did some showcases and met with record label people,” says Rachelle. “But a lot of it was ‘we don’t hear a hit’… ‘there’s already a Poison’… ‘there’s just too many of the blonde-haired singer guys’… ‘maybe you should get another guitarist’… ‘did you ever think of changing your name?’… ‘tone down the makeup’… ‘add makeup.’ So we went through all of that.”
Tuff signed with Atlantic Records and were flown to New York to do press. They were put up at the Novotel in Times Square for about $150 a night. “This was almost 30 years ago,” says Rachelle. “That was a lot of money.”
The singer freaked out when he learned two of his bandmates spent $900 on Champagne, steaks and shrimp cocktail. Then he rushed back to his room and looked up his own tab. “It was higher,” he laughs.
It was a long way from Wisconsin, where the man originally known as Steven Hanseter was born and raised. He realized he wanted to be a rockstar in 1984 after seeing bands like Van Halen and Motley Crue in concert.
“I saw David Lee Roth and Vince Neil and said I’m gonna do that,” he remembers. “I didn’t say I want to do it. I didn’t say I wonder what it would be like to do that. I said I’m going to do that.”
He never sang a note or touched a guitar before, but Rachelle was determined. He loved the music and even better, he loved the lifestyle. “I said I’m going to be a fucking singer. I’m going to join a band, get signed, go on MTV, be in Hit Parader magazine, go on a tour bus and fuck girls.”
But it wasn’t going to happen in Wisconsin. All of his heroes built their reputations in L.A., playing infamous rock n’ roll clubs like the Roxy, Whiskey a Go Go and Gazzari’s. If Rachelle was going to make it, he had to move west.
After bands like Guns n’ Roses and Poison followed up on the success of Van Halen and Quiet Riot, Tuff was part of what Rachelle calls the “third tier of the wave” on the Sunset Strip.
Industry people told the frontman exactly what he told himself back in the Midwest — that he was going to be the next David Lee Roth. “I never bought into it wholeheartedly — ‘well, they said I’m going to be famous, so I’m going to be famous’ — but I was confident in what I did.”
Atlantic Records released the album “What Comes Around Goes Around” in 1991. It failed to do much on the charts, but a video for the single “I Hate Kissing You Goodbye” reached #3 on Dial MTV.
“We were in tons of magazines,” says Rachelle. “And not just the big ones. At that point, there was Rock Beat and Rip and Teen Machine and Rock Hunks and Rock Scene and Teen Machine and Faces and Powerline and Metallix and Metal Forces. We were part of that hair band wave.”
However, an overdose of glam metal acts with feminine looks and pop hooks tested the limits of supply and demand. If Tuff was “third tier,” then forgettable bands like Sleeze Beez, Roxx Gang and Tigertailz were sixth or seventh tier. It was 1991 and the clock was ticking. “Grunge came around and even the biggest bands got squashed,” says Rachelle.
Hair metal was over. Atlantic dropped the band and Tuff signed a deal with a smaller label, IRS/Grand Slamm, which went out of business in 1993. (“I’m not 100 percent sure, but I think they went bankrupt.”) Tuff kept the advance, and earned back the rights to the album. So Rachelle released it on his own label RLS Records, which stands for both “Rachelle’s Lyrics & Songs” and “Record Labels Suck.” Tuff kept working and releasing new music throughout the 90s, but on a much smaller scale.
Then — “this thing called the internet started happening.” On September 1, 1998, Stevie Rachelle launched Metal Sludge.
“Metal Sludge was my idea with a partner, basically picking up where the magazines stopped,” says Rachelle. “We created this website to talk about that era of music.”
The name and image of the site was a parody of Metal Edge, one of the most photo-centric heavy metal magazines of the 80s. Metal Sludge featured daily news updates, interviews, tell-all stories by readers who claimed to be groupies and a Gossip Board, or message forum, where no topic was off limits.
“At the time the term wasn’t used, but we created a social network for people who were fans of this whole genre,” says Rachelle.
20 Questions became a regular Q&A feature with some of the biggest names in hair metal. “We’d pitch softball questions but then add a Howard Stern-style twist,” says Rachelle. “‘What was the biggest set of nipples you ever saw on a groupie?’… ‘What’s the most amount of girls you fucked in one night?'”
Rachelle used to watch Nikki Sixx and Tommy Lee from the audience back in the 80s. Now it was the 90s, and the Motley Crue members were answering his goofy questions and essentially creating content for his website — for free. Their private lives were also fodder for fans to discuss on the Gossip Board.
“We would absolutely give people the business if they did something stupid or if somebody got a DUI or beat up their girlfriend. We were the TMZ of rock n’ roll.”
In a precursor to the Instagram model era, attractive girls were often featured as a “Sludgette of the Month.” Yet there was one thing that brought Metal Sludge its greatest notoriety.
“We started the Penis Chart, which today is still on there,” says Rachelle without any hint of regret. “It’s a few hundred entries of girls’ accounts of meeting with famous rock stars. It was featured in Spin and Rolling Stone.”
It’s probably no surprise that in the early years, Rachelle ran the site anonymously. He compares himself to the Masked Magician, who famously gave away the secrets to performing illusions on network television. Metal Sludge was basically doing the same thing for the heavy metal genre online.
While a source of fun, there was also a very specific strategy to monetizing Metal Sludge as a legit business. “When we put the site up, we had 20 people look at it on the first day,” Rachelle remembers. “The second day was 33 and a week later, 159 people clicked on it. Within a couple years, we were getting 30,000 unique visitors per day. That number doesn’t sound big in 2018, but we’re talking 1999 or 2000. There were no smartphones. Tablets weren’t out then.”
Companies paid money to advertise on the site while an in-house store sold everything from shirts and trucker hats to panties and baby dolls. “At some point, it became a six-figure income,” says Rachelle.
However, a push-and-pull battle eventually developed between revenue and authentic content. “Sometimes a label would come to us and say, ‘We want to do an advertising campaign for a certain band,'” recalls Rachelle. “Well, then we can’t completely destroy that band anymore because now the label’s given us a couple thousand dollars.”
Metal Sludge chose to pick its battles. At one point, the site broke the news of Motley Crue’s reunion tour with original singer Vince Neil by posting a leaked promo video. The band’s management demanded it be taken down, but Rachelle refused — although he agreed to replace it with a slightly edited version.
“Sometimes I think… did Motley Crue or their management purposely leak that to Metal Sludge, knowing that we would put it up and then act like it wasn’t supposed to be out there? It just creates a viral buzz.”
Like the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain, Stevie Rachelle eventually revealed himself as the man behind Metal Sludge. He still runs it 20 years later. Along the way, he’s used the site to not only promote Tuff, but also other acts on the RLS label.
During a typical Metal Sludge interview, the subject is usually asked, “How much was your biggest music-related check?” With the tables turned, Rachelle quickly answers the question himself: “$34,950.”
But it wasn’t for Tuff or Metal Sludge. It was for a parody side project called C.W.A. or “Cheeseheads With Attitude” — a three-person rap band in support of the Green Bay Packers in Rachelle’s home state of Wisconsin.
“This was 1996, so the hair band decade was essentially over,” he says. “I wanted to do something musical. Something like the Chicago Bears did with the ‘Super Bowl Shuffle.'”
C.W.A. released an album called “Straight Out Of Wisconsin” and began performing around town. As the act took off, so did the Packers — and Brett Favre led the team to the Super Bowl the following year. Whether in bars or at tailgate parties, Packers fans couldn’t get enough of C.W.A.
“I put together an idea,” says Rachelle. “We recorded it over two days for 900 bucks. And in about 90 days, I made a quarter-of-a-million dollars off this project.”
22 years later, Rachelle still occasionally performs with C.W.A. The act was even recognized by the official Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame.
He also continues play gigs with the latest incarnation of Tuff. During a recent weekend, he took a red-eye and played Detroit and Cleveland before returning home. Casino dates and hair metal festivals tend to be lucrative paydays in the summer and Rachelle says he’s played nearly 30 countries over the course of his career. Residual income from streaming services and YouTube is minimal.
Rachelle is now 52 and remains tight with his old bandmates. Tuff co-founder and bassist Todd “Chase” Chaisson is still in the band and co-owns Smokin’ Rock & Roll Food Trucks in Cleveland. Drummer Michael “Lean” Raimondo owns Old New York Deli, a California franchise with five stores.
He may not have scored a hit on the Billboard charts, but Stevie Rachelle cashed in by finding a niche and knowing his audience, whether it’s ride-or-die hair metal fanatics or loyal Green Bay Packers fans. The strategy has paid off well, making him a rare long-term success in the music business. What comes around, sometimes really does go around.