A decade of adventure and innovation from New York’s pioneering hip-hop and electro-funk label.
Founded in New York in 1981 by dance music trade-magazine publisher Tom Silverman, Tommy Boy Records brought funk into the electronic age, pioneered alt hip-hop, and split the soul world down the middle. The label’s early adoption of the Roland TR-808 drum machine, vocoders and synthesisers over “real” instruments outraged traditionalists. When Silverman visited Britain in 1982, and made a promo stop at a Caister Soul Weekender, his car was pelted with stones by a group of DJs and dancers as he drove away. But Tommy Boy had the mojo and history marched on.
There are three distinct, though not entirely discrete, phases in Tommy Boy’s 1980s trajectory. Late 1981 through early 1983 was defined by Afrika Bambaataa and producers/arrangers Arthur Baker and John Robie. With ‘Planet Rock,’ the trio created electro-funk’s founding template, and shaped the sonic language of dance music in the decades to follow. But in 1983, Baker’s mainstream success, which began the year before with Rockers Revenge’s massive chart hit ‘Walking On Sunshine,’ took him beyond Tommy Boy’s orbit.
The label’s second phase kicked off with the Keith LeBlanc/Malcolm X single ‘No Sell Out’ in late 1983, after which LeBlanc became Tom Silverman’s de facto in-house producer, maintaining electro-funk’s original template but giving it a harder, more percussive edge.
The third phase began in 1986 with alt hip-hop/conscious-rap pioneers Stetsasonic, followed by fellow travellers Queen Latifah and De La Soul.
After a period in the 1990s when Tommy Boy was owned by Warner Brothers, Silverman regained control in 2002, but struggled to re-focus Tommy Boy’s artistic direction.
Here is the story of the label during its 1980s heyday, told through 10 essential records. Some are included on the 1985 double LP Tommy Boy: Greatest Beats, but the album contains only one mix of each track. It is the original 12” singles that you want, most of them containing at least three alternative mixes and, with 33 1⁄3 rpm playing speeds, the finest audio.
Afrika Bambaataa & Soul Sonic Force
(12” single, 1982)
Afrika Bambaataa and Arthur Baker first worked together at Tommy Boy on the single ‘Jazzy Sensation,’ a fun but by no means radical jam on Gwen McRae’s R&B hit ‘Funky Sensation.’ The real sensation came a year later with ‘Planet Rock,’ for which Baker brought in synthesiser player and co-arranger John Robie. The duo’s revolutionary masterstroke was to place Bambaataa’s fascination with the work of Kraftwerk and other electronic pioneers at the centre of a wholly synthesised and computerised new style, and they did it without reducing the funk quotient in the process.
Follow-up singles ‘Looking For The Perfect Beat’ and ‘Renegades Of Funk’ were nearly as great. It is, of course, impossible to listen to these records today without thinking of the allegations of historical sexual abuse made against Bambaataa in 2016, by onetime members of his Bronx-based Zulu Nation movement. It is equally impossible to overestimate the transformative impact of ‘Planet Rock.’ As Def Jam co-founder Rick Rubin said in a recent interview, the record “changed the world.”
Play At Your Own Risk
(12” single, 1982)
If ‘Planet Rock’ was electro-funk, you might call ‘Play At Your Own Risk’ electro-soul. Baker and Robie took the rough mix of ‘Planet Rock,’ retained the TR-808 beats, added some new synthesiser lines, and replaced Soul Sonic Force’s emceeing with a sung-vocal featuring the Temptations’ bass singer, Melvin Franklin, and members of fellow soul vocal-group the Energetics. Deep magic, whatever name you give to it.
(12” single, 1982)
With vocoders entirely replacing acoustic vocals, and an Aladdin’s cave of synthesisers, the Jonzun Crew’s debut sounds intensely machine driven, yet there is a human touch to the performance – unlike most electro-funk groups, the Jonzuns used a live drummer alongside the TR-808 and played their synthesisers in real time rather than sequencing them through a Roland DCB or MIDI. Brothers Michael Jonzun and Maurice Starr, the joint leaders of the quartet, soon crossed into the mainstream, producing and writing for boy band New Kids On The Block and Bobby Brown’s alma mater, New Edition.
(12” single, 1983)
Special Request was New York DJs Jose “Animal” Diaz, who produced the spectral, Latin-flecked ‘Salsa Smurph,’ and Carlos DeJesus, who wrote it and who in 1983 was the host of the weekly TV programme New York Hot Tracks, the first nationally syndicated show to champion hip-hop. The synthesised bassline is a straight lift from ‘Dog Was A Donut,’ a track on the electronically infused 1977 album, Izitso, by British singer-songwriter Cat Stevens. Who would have thunk it?
Malcolm X/Keith LeBlanc
No Sell Out
(12” single, 1983)
Drummer Keith LeBlanc’s involvement with hip-hop began in 1979, when he joined the studio band at Sugar Hill Records, playing on the breakthrough releases of Sugar Hill Gang and Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five. LeBlanc next joined Tommy Boy’s studio band, where he usually swapped his drum kit for a TR-808 or Oberheim DMX. For ‘No Sell Out,’ LeBlanc sampled passages from speeches by Malcolm X, added to their gravitas by setting them over a crunching 105 BPM groove (an unusually slow speed for electro-funk) and, like Nigeria’s Fela Kuti and others before him, demonstrated that uncompromising political content can be compatible with dancefloor success. Starting in 1984, LeBlanc worked extensively with Adrian Sherwood’s Tackhead and hip-hop/dub collective, On-U Sound.
(12” single, 1984)
Another tough DMX-driven cookie put together by LeBlanc, this time with keyboard players Chris Lord and Robert Kilgore, both of whom were regular remixers at Tommy Boy (Lord mixed the original version of ‘No Sell Out’). There is no political dimension this time out – ‘Lipservice’ is a simple, hard-rocking floor filler.
James Brown/Afrika Bambaataa
(12” single, 1984)
A stonking, intergenerational funk summit with both its feet firmly planted in the Minister of Super Heavy Funk’s 1970s’ groove. The blessedly ubiquitous LeBlanc is here again, this time on acoustic drums rather than drum machines, as part of an old school rhythm section which also includes guitarist Skip McDonald and bass guitarist Doug Wimbish, LeBlanc’s one-time colleagues in the Sugar Hill studio band. And, for the ultimate retro touch, there is even a horn section. The lyrics, co-written by and shared between Brown and Bambaataa, plead for humanity to come together and work for world peace.
During the first half of the 1980s, Tommy Boy focused on turntablism and instrumentally orientated electro-funk rather than rap. The emphasis started to shift in 1986 with the release of alt hip-hop scene-setters Stetsasonic’s debut album, On Fire. The single-only release ‘A.F.R.I.C.A.’ resonates with ‘No Sell Out,’ sampling speeches by Reverend Jesse Jackson about apartheid South Africa but, unlike the earlier disc, interspersing these with rap passages. Samples of Nigerian-born percussionist Babatunde Olatunji and his Drums of Passion add further interest.
All Hail The Queen
Queen Latifah’s glorious debut album was part old school rap and part alt-hip hop. Among the guest rappers is Britain’s Monie Love, who co-stars on ‘Ladies First,’ an inspirational track which asserts women’s importance in freedom struggles across the world. ‘Princess Of The Possee’ and ‘Evil That Men Do’ ram home the feminist message. The album was a necessary counter-blast to those subsections of rap culture that by the close of the 1980s had become disturbingly misogynistic.
De La Soul
3 Feet High And Rising
Like Stetsasonic, De La Soul recorded and performed with a live band, drew on a rainbow of musical genres and helped create alt hip-hop, territory in which they were soon joined by A Tribe Called Quest and The Roots. De La Soul’s breathtakingly inventive debut, 3 Feet High And Rising, produced by Stetsasonic’s Prince Paul, was a runaway critical and commercial success and stands as one of hip-hop’s greatest ever releases. The perfect way for Tommy Boy to end a decade of unstinting adventure and innovation.