Take away the words Tommy Boy and the famous record label’s logo is still instantly recognizable: three silhouetted figures frozen in motion, one of them completely inverted. Coincidentally, the label has lived through three distinct eras.
Tommy Boy came into this world as a 12-inch singles-only dance music label. Founder Tom Silverman, after years of running Dance Music Report, borrowed $5,000 from his parents to launch his own New York City-based label that would go on to become a pioneer in mashing electro up against hip-hop and soul, and launched the careers of Prince Paul and De La Soul. After Tommy Boy agreed to partner with Warner Bros. Records, the label grew into a home for hip-hop smashes like Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” along with electronic (808 State), synth-pop (Information Society) and lots of other pop, rock and dance artists.
Today, a post-Warner Bros. Tommy Boy Entertainment still pumps out releases but the label remains best known for the albums it helped launch during its first three decades of existence. The label’s dance music ethos instilled a sense of joy within so many of its essential releases and ensured that nearly any album from the Tommy Boy discography is a guaranteed party starter.
Electro pioneers Soulsonic Force may have eclipsed Planet Patrol in terms of stature and wardrobe absurdity, but Planet Patrol endures on the strength of its 1983 self-titled debut. The Planet pulled dance, soul, R&B and hip-hop influences into its orbit and spun up extended jams like “Play at Your Own Risk,” a shining monument to nimble synths, drum machines and samples. If there is a standard-bearer for electro soul, Planet Patrol may as well be it. The group used five different vocalists to give songs like “Cheap Thrills” a vibrant range and emotional depth, which is useful for lending heavy-handed social commentary like “Danger Zone” the lift it needs to not sink down into melodrama.
Stetsasonic is a hard word to say out loud — a pitfall of having to update a cowboy hat-themed name to fit a new image. The Brooklyn hip-hop band even acknowledged potential pronunciation issues on its debut single, “Just Say Stet.” Less a pure hip-hop band like The Roots would eventually become, Stetsasonic blended live instruments, beat-boxing, scratching and sampling to provide MCs Daddy-O, Delite and Frukwan with a colorful palette on which to sketch out social and political commentary. All these aspects coalesced perfectly on “Talkin’ All That Jazz,” a triumphant deep groove refute of anyone who tried to argue that hip-hop was more menace to society than legitimate art form. Stetsasonic’s second album, In Full Gear, has more political statements like “Freedom or Death” slotted alongside party jams like “Sally” and “DBC Let the Music Play.” “In Full Gear” is a 77-minute double album but it never feels overstuffed; it’s a lean, dynamic showcase of a band finding its sound.
Queen Latifah received some always-deserved love late last year when actress Rebel Wilson seemingly skipped over Latifah’s film contributions while praising herself. But Latifah doesn’t need to be appreciated as a historical footnote because she’s out here still and has been a fixture of music, film and television since her 1989 debut All Hail the Queen. With a producer core featuring Prince Paul, KRS-One, Daddy-O and the 45 King behind her, Latifah was supremely cool and confident while tackling topics like gender inequality, domestic violence and harassment. “Mama Gave Birth to the Soul Children” finds Latifah trading lines with De La Soul above a manic, funky beat by Paul. “Ladies First” with Monie Love is a proper anthem fit inside a tight horn loop and “Come into My House” is a highly infectious hip-hop house track.
You can buy Vinyl Me, Please’s reissue of this album right over here.
Lines can easily be traced back from hip-hop Mt. Rushmore head Tupac Shakur and any drunken uncle’s wedding reception karaoke master class performance of “The Humpty Dance” to Digital Underground. But the Oakland rap group and its classic debut Sex Packets deserves to be on a pillar separate from those accomplishments. Sex Packets drew up the P-Funk rewiring blueprints that would later be used by G-Funk era Death Row acolytes to build a witty, weird world full of hip-hop characters. Leader Shock G — who doubles as Humpty Hump — guides his revolving cast through magical adventures (“Underwater Rimes”), raunch fests (“Freaks of the Industry,” “Gutfest ’89”) and club anthems (“Doowutchyalike”) with uncommon smoothness. After all that, Digital Underground still finds time for a mini-concept album about sex packets, a hallucinogenic pill that conjures realistic sexual experiences.
The aftermath of 3 Feet High and Rising could have ended De La Soul. The group’s brilliant debut was hammered by a high-profile lawsuit over samples. Demoralization like that might have broken a lesser crew. But De La Soul regrouped with producer Prince Paul and went even further down the rabbit hole to make De La Soul is Dead. In an interview with Gino Sorcinelli, Paul credits Tommy Boy with being much more vigilant about sample clearing and giving De La Soul a lot more creative control the second time around. Thus, the world was gifted with dazzling collages like “A Roller Skating Jam Named ‘Saturdays,’” packed with samples ranging from Chicago to Chic to Frankie Valli in “Grease.” With no inescapable hits like “Me, Myself and I” to jar the listener out of the experience, De La Soul is Dead is free to build an immersive world, weaving read-along story book skits in with shimmering boom-bap like “Pass the Plugs” and mini epics like “Bitties in the BK Lounge.”
You can grab the Vinyl Me, Please edition of this album over here.
House of Pain were by no means misrepresented by “Jump Around,” the group’s stadium-shaking hardcore rap blast that continues to rattle college parties to this day. Some one-hit wonders might resent missing out on a chance to convey the full spectrum of their artistic vision after being indelibly tied to one song. But House of Pain was perfectly embodied by its debut single and spent the rest of their self-titled debut album reliving the same economical, ribcage-cracking approach to hip-hop. Besides leader Everlast and his assured gravel-grinding delivery, House of Pain’s debut is highlighted by production from Cypress Hill’s DJ Muggs. Criticism can rightly be leveled at Everlast’s later incarnation as a folksy blues rapper and DJ Lethal’s eventual association with Limp Bizkit. But on House of Pain’s debut, all the pieces clicked into place and made bangers like “Put Your Head Out” and “Put on Your Shit Kickers” land like a punch to the face.
Prince Paul’s fingerprints are on so much of what made Tommy Boy an essential hip-hop label, from Stetsasonic to De La Soul and more. But he didn’t have a record of his own out on the label in the 1997 re-release of his instrumental brain smusher Psychoanalysis: What Is It? But it wasn’t long after the label dropped Paul’s magnum opus “A Prince Among Thieves,” a sprawling hip-hop soap opera about an aspiring rapper led down the wrong path. Paul recruited relative unknowns in Breeze and Sha to play the leads but called in cameo spots from Kool Keith, Big Daddy Kane, Chubb Rock, Biz Markie, De La Soul, Everlast, Sadat X, Xzibit, Kid Creole, Special Ed, Chris Rock, RZA and Buckshot to populate his epic poem. The resulting album is a funny, corny, complex, sad record that unreels like a film.
It’s entirely possible that pre-eminent hip-hop weirdo Prince Paul’s early antics helped give rise to Dan the Automator, the producer behind absurdist avant-garde masterpieces Dr. Octagonecologyst and Deltron 3030. But whatever cosmic energy brought them together is a blessing because their mind meld created Handsome Boy Modeling School and the group’s debut, “So…How’s Your Girl?” Sharing co-producing credits on nearly all the tracks, Paul and Automator use an episode of Chris Elliott’s sitcom “Get a Life” as a jumping off point for a loose concept album featuring Mike D, El-P, Cibo Matto’s Miho Hatori, Del tha Funkee Homosapien, DJ Shadow and fictional chain-smoking priest Father Guido Sarducci. It sounds weird because it is weird… and wonderful.
You can grab the Vinyl Me, Please edition of this album over here.
Ben Munson is a writer and editor based in Madison, Wisconsin. He awaits the day he can pass his Beatnuts albums down to his daughter.