The Story of Tommy Boy Records: from the clubs to the charts

The story of Tommy Boy Records is marked by both fame and obscurity. Thanks in part to being the first record label to produce their own merchandising, and the fact that when they began as a 12” singles-only label the center sticker was all the artwork that adorned the format, and it did so on a landmark hip hop release, Tommy Boy has one of the most instantly recognisable logos in record company history. However, legal and financial woes soon beset the business, leading to their partnership with Warner Bros. Records in 1985, a decision that, in the era of strong brand name identification within hip hop, Tommy Boy’s image, ethos and sound became hard to define, integrated as they were within the major label system.

Hip hop’s golden age during the ‘80s had seen many independent labels appear out of the necessity of releasing works by certain artists: Rick Rubin and Russel Simmons’ Def Jam had LL Cool J, Run DMC and The Beastie Boys; Cold Chillin’ Records had The Juice Crew; and Jive Records had KRS-One, A Tribe Called Quest and DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. Each label strove for a unique sonic identity and their own visual style, presenting their roster as a complete and complementary package.

Though Tommy Boy is often overlooked among such lists of pioneering labels, from spearheading the combination of hip hop and electro with Afrika Bambaataa and Soulsonic Force’s ‘Planet Rock’, getting political with the Malcom X/Keith LeBlanc single ‘No Sell Out’ or releasing the debut albums of RuPaul, Queen Latifah and De La Soul, Tommy Boy’s legacy deserves a closer look.

It was the late ‘70s and Tom Silverman felt that his years of running the DJ trade paper Dance Music Report meant that his ear was significantly close to the ground when it came to the new music that was erupting in the clubs and on the streets. When Sugar Hill Records had a monster hit with ‘Rapper’s Delight’ in 1979, Silverman knew he wanted to be in the record making business, but first he needed an artist.

In 1980 while researching an article he visited New York’s legendary Downstairs Records — which would later be immortalised with the line “When the Downstairs funky, five days a week, searching and seeking for the Baby Bam beat” from the Jungle Brothers’ ‘The Promo’ on the Straight Out the Jungle album — Silverman noticed that the store was filled with young customers buying seemingly disparate selections from the ‘breakbeat’ section. Upon questioning them he was told, “We buy what Afrika Bambaataa plays.”

Silverman went to see Bambaataa DJ at a local club and was impressed with the way that he mixed records by James Brown and Sly and the Family Stone with Kraftwerk, Cerrone and The Monkees. After cutting a demo of Bambaataa’s set, Silverman enlisted arranger John Robie and DJ/producer Arthur Baker, who had recently found moderate success with the rap novelty single ‘Rap-O-Clap-O’ for Joe Bataan. Utilising some session musicians he had used on a session for Northend’s ‘Happy Days’, Baker, Bambaataa and the rap crew the Jazzy Five cut a version of Gwen McRae’s ‘Funky Sensation’, which they dubbed ‘Jazzy Sensation’. McRae’s record had peaked at number 22 on the Billboard Club Chart that year and its popularity immediately helped Tommy Boy’s version shift an estimated 35,000 units.

Its follow up, ‘Planet Rock’, pushed the envelope of what was considered possible for hip hop production by integrating a Kraftwerk-influenced synthesiser melody and an electro beat the radically replaced a traditional snare sound with a ‘clap’. It was also one of the first recorded uses of the Roland TR-808 drum machine (Yellow Magic Orchestra, who were sampled on ‘Planet Rock’, released ‘1000 Knives’ the same year, though it was recorded in 1980). The song was a big hit, equalling 620,000 12” sales, more than enough to repay the $5,000 that Silverman had borrowed from his parents to start the label, although a subsequent lawsuit from Kraftwerk, whose songs ‘Numbers’ and ‘Trans-Euro Express’ were interpolated on ‘Planet Rock’, did not help finances.

Silverman had intended Tommy Boy to be a 12”-only label, with the then-new format seeming a unique corner of the market to concentrate on, especially considering the way it had been embraced by club DJs thanks to the extra space it afforded for extended ‘dance’ versions of disco singles. However, now that he had a hit single on his hands, he realised that an Afrika Bambaataa album would be the logical follow-up. Unfortunately his contract with Bambaataa was strictly for singles and re-negotiating it with his lawyer proved to be an arduous process. By the time Planet Rock: The Album was eventually released in 1986, any momentum behind the artist’s career had stalled.

The woozy mix of electro synths, breakbeats and rap heard on ‘Planet Rock’, along and Silverman’s own interest in club culture, dominated the label’s releases over the early years and saw them make pioneering moves in dance music, issuing underground classics such as Jonzun Crew’s ‘Pack Jam’ or ex-Sugar Hill Records drummer Keith LeBlanc’s Malcolm X-sampling ‘No Sell Out’.

However, by 1985 the label was badly in debt and signed what was not only the first major label distribution deal with Warner, but also sold them 50% of the company itself. Silverman, who as part of the deal became a senior executive at the major, would eventually buy Tommy Boy back and re-launch it in 2002, but for the time being the label both benefited and suffered from its incorporation into the major label system.

“One of the problems with being first is that the people who are first never make the money,” complained Silverman in an interview with Genius. “The first 10 years of hip-hop, the DJ of the group ended up being the producer. That’s why every artist had its unique sound. But then there became these super-producers that produced everybody’s records, and the majors brought that in. And it drove the cost of making an promoting a hip-hop album up by probably about ten times.”

The late ‘80s to mid-‘90s saw Tommy Boy re-focus with a run of commercial and innovative hits, including the debut albums from Queen Latifah (All Hail the Queen) and De La Soul (3 Feet High and Rising) in 1989; House of Pain’s ‘Jump Around’ in 1992; RuPaul’s debut Supermodel of the World (1993) and Coolio’s world-conquering single ‘Gangster’s Paradise’ in 1995, which sold over six million copies worldwide.

Today, the label survives as Tommy Boy Entertainment, issuing releases in both the dance and hip hop worlds and counts Wu-Tang Clan members Method Man and Ghostface Killah amongst its roster.

Originally published on Red Bull.

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