Interviews: Justin Briggs
Images courtesy of De La Soul
De La Soul will release the new album And the Anonymous Nobody on August 26, the first full-length from the Long Island trio in 12 years. In anticipation of this new music, we are publishing articles and artifacts from Frank151‘s Chapter 37, the print edition that was curated by the group. The goal is to introduce new listeners to De La Soul as well as offer new insights for longtime fans of these hip-hop legends.
Here are insights from Tommy Boy founder Tom Silverman and former Tommy Boy president Monica Lynch about the long-running record label and its relationship with De La Soul.
On the dawn of Tommy Boy…
Tom Silverman: I moved to New York in ’78 after graduate school to start a newsletter for DJs called Disco News. We used to get reports from DJs, record stores, and radio stations, all about what was happening with disco. But by the end of ’79, people were saying that disco was dead, so we changed the name from Disco News to Dance Music Report. There was a big disco backlash, although the biggest records of the year were all basically disco records, from Michael Jackson to whatever—they’re still big club records today. The record business had a big slump, not quite as big as we’re having now, but in 1979 record sales dropped off and people blamed disco and video games. Pac Man was responsible.
So in 1980 I was writing an article for Dance Music Report and one of our reporters was a store called Downstairs Records, which was in the 6th Avenue subway off 42nd Street. They used to be a place that sold doo-wop records and also carried disco records—very small, hole in the wall, low ceilings, fluorescent lights, but the people who went there were mad about music. I used to buy doo-wop records there when I was in college. So I was talking to this girl who worked there who used to give us the reports on what was selling, and she was talking about this b-boy room that they had just opened.
I said, “What’s that?” And she said, “It’s this new thing, these guys, they call them b-boys and they buy breaks.” They didn’t call them breakbeats yet. Nobody’d called it hip-hop yet. It hadn’t been written, at this point. So, I said, “How do these guys know what to buy? There’s no radio for any of this.” And there was a guy, Elroy, who was in charge of the b-boy room. He said, “There’s this guy in the Bronx called Afrika Bambaataa who plays this music.”
So, I went to see Afrika Bambaataa play the Tea Connection. Bambaataa was up on the balcony where the mixer and turntable was, and there was Red Alert and Jazzy Jay with him. He played most of the time, but then he’d let those guys play a little bit, but he’d pick the music. He was always selecting the records for them to play. Kids were dancing…sort of. It wasn’t like they were breakdancing, but they were just dancing around downstairs. Nobody was drinking alcohol, everybody was drinking soda or whatever. But the place was packed. I was the only white guy, probably that had ever been there. It was a revelation, because the music he was playing was Billy Squier and Kraftwerk, James Brown and Sly Stone…current records, old records. Basically, the records I heard him playing that night are 90% of the same records that are still sampled and used in hip-hop today.
I said, “You wanna make a record?” And he said, “Sure, but I wanna make something that sounds like this, with all these different things.” So, I kept going to see him, and eventually we went to a studio and cut an eight-track—a demo of “Planet Rock.”
At some point, I had taken a class on entrepreneurship, a two-week course, and we had to create a business plan for a new business, and mine was Tommy Boy Records. I came up with the name from the side of a box of grapes that was in my grandfather’s basement.
Monica Lynch: I moved to New York in 1978 and found work as a go-go dancer—really, a topless dancer. I was living in the Chelsea Hotel, alternating my nightlife between the Mudd Club and Studio 54. It was that punk-meets-disco axis of New York in the late ’70s. Eventually, I quit dancing and started working as a waitress, but music always remained a central part of my life. I collected 45s and records —I was always the kid who monopolized the car stereo with my family.
I saw an ad for a guy or gal Friday for a music publication, and it turned out to be Tom Silverman. Tommy Boy was just barely starting up. It took a few interviews, but I think I got the job because he asked me to accompany him to the pressing plant out in Long Island, a place called Apexton. We’re out there, and there’s all these records, and I just started slinging boxes in the back of the hatchback. Tom viewed that as a good sign, I think. I wasn’t afraid to get my nails dirty.
We were all very young and scrappy independent labels, without much money, and this was a very new genre of music that was marginalized, even within the Black music industry. Hip-hop was considered, in many quarters, a disgrace to the race—something that was a fad and wasn’t gonna be around long. There was a good number of people who found it to be rather offensive, or else kiddy stuff.
On first hearing De La Soul…
Lynch: Stetsasonic came to Tommy Boy around ’85 or ’86. They were the winners of a talent contest organized and run by Mr. Magic, and we always had a good relationship with him. When he shopped the group to us, we signed them. The first person to talk to me about De La Soul was Daddy-O from Stetsasonic. He told me that Prince Paul was working with this group from Long Island and that it sounded very…I forget what word he used, I think he said it sounded “ill,” to use the parlance of the time.
I’ve always been a big believer in the name of the artist making a first impression, and I was very intrigued by the name De La Soul. It was just such a different-sounding name, a very intelligent-sounding name, a creative-sounding name.
I got the cassette of the De La Soul demo from Paul. It was this crazy demo. I remember the cassette, it had this orange label. The demo had “Plug Tunin’” on it, and it was one of those things that, the first time you heard it, it was just completely different. It had a very dusted sound to it, and it just flew in the face of the dominant musical style of the moment, which was the Run-D.M.C. sound—Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons. In New York, you couldn’t really hear any other sound. Tommy Boy had been successful in the early ’80s with electro hip-hop, like Soul Sonic Force, but at this point, it was a little cold, and Def Jam was really taking off.
I played the tape for a few people around the office, and we were just like, immediately, “Yes. We need to do this.” So, I arranged to meet with the group post-haste.
Silverman: Mr. Magic brought us Stetsasonic and Force M.D.’s after the success of “Planet Rock.” I was busy doing promotion, business affairs, so it was Monica who was really dealing with the artists more directly. But after Prince Paul brought us the [De La Soul] demo, I remember Monica playing it, and it was so wacky and so different. We said, “This is gonna do absolutely nothing…or it’s gonna be really, really big.”
It was one of those records that had no in-between, because that’s how records were in those times. Either they got looked over, because they didn’t really connect, or they connected in a big way. This record was so wildly different than anything else people had heard.
Lynch: I could see they’d appeal to a broader audience right away. I hate to use the word, but there was just something “magical” about them. Tommy Boy has always been best when it took chances, doing something different than what’s out there. All the labels are reflections of the people who ran them. What we’ve done best has been what we’ve done with artists who brought something totally new and totally different to the table. In that sense, De La Soul signified a new era at the label.
On the arrival of De La Soul…
Lynch: I remember when De La Soul walked in. I was sitting at my desk, and all three of them just walked in. They were very quiet, shy. It was a new experience for both of us; they had never met with a record executive, and I had never met with a group like them. Generally speaking, you think of artists as being more outgoing, extroverted. These guys were introverted. But it was quite evident from how they looked and how they talked that they were something completely new.
They were devoid of the trappings of hip-hop style. No gold chains or black leather jackets, no fresh kicks or the things that might be immediate signifiers of a b-boy. Instead, they looked a little bohemian, a little artsy, a little Afrocentric. Pos kind of looked like he could be studying in the library.
They looked cool and different and very unaffected by the reigning style. And that was appealing. They seemed to exist independent of the dominant sonic and visual style of hip-hop at that point in time. Plus, they were from Long Island. They just seemed like they were kids, hanging out in the basement, not necessarily hugely connected with what was happening in Brooklyn and the Bronx and Harlem. They were refreshing.
Posdnuos, Trugoy, Mase—those were odd names for a hip-hop group. I was usually hearing names like Davy DMX, and here was Pos, telling me that his name was “Sound Sop” backwards, and Trugoy was “Yogurt” backwards. It was enough to make me say, “What the hell? Whatever they’re smoking, I’ll have some of that.”
Not that that’s what they were about. They weren’t potheads, but I did immediately think that their music would have tremendous appeal to that particular community.
Silverman: They were quiet, pensive. They weren’t braggadocios, like other rappers. They were different. They didn’t seem like bullshitters. They were intelligent, smart. They knew what they wanted, and they did what they wanted. This wasn’t a group where we had to do much in terms of A&R.
On releasing 3 Feet High and Rising…
Silverman: The main A&R was clearing samples. 3 Feet High and Rising had, like, 30 samples, at least that we knew of, that we had to clear on the record side and on the publishing side, so it was 60 contracts we had to create. To this day, most of De La’s stuff isn’t available digitally, for downloads or ringtones, because the samples were cleared at a penny-rate, based on selling them on 12-inches or albums, which would be too expensive—and plus, nobody could find the contracts, so they didn’t know what the legality was, to go back to re-clear,which is crazy.
Lynch: When we put out “Plug Tunin’,” it was a record that was either gonna do all or nothing. I don’t necessarily mean sales. It was just going to establish a beachhead for them and create this whole other wave of hip-hop style—which they found with Native Tongues—or it would be a big flop. It was a record that crept up pretty quickly in the NY area. I remember Red Alert playing it pretty frequently, then these other DJs. Then there was this buzz about them, and it was all this big mystery: “Who was De La? And what the hell were they talking about?” The lyrics were a bit obtuse. And that beat… They have that one really slowed-down sample of “Written on the Wall” by the Invitations. It’s just so weird and dusted and so different—this druggy, slowed-down beat. It was like ear candy, an ear worm. In fact, we even ran a contest to see if anybody could name the sample.
Silverman: We did the first three-groove record with them. Remember when Prince Paul says on 3 Feet High and Rising, “How many grooves are there on a record?” I had been encouraging them to push the envelope on what was possible, so they did that whole gameshow thing with Prince Paul. So there’s 18 tracks and bug out pieces in between, and that was a whole invention that nobody’s ever done before we did it with De La Soul. I was pushing them to experiment with the medium, to go further. We thought that stuff was great, and it also made it look like there were over 20 songs on the album, so it changed the perceived value. When we went into 12-inchess, we tried to do cool things, whether it was colored vinyl or clear vinyl, but the best thing was this 12-inch where we cut parallel grooves on one side.
Most people don’t even know how records are made, but when you cut a master, you actually cut an acetate, and that acetate becomes the father, and they make a mother by dipping it in something that makes a metal plate, which is the opposite. Then from that you make the opposite of that, which becomes the stamper, and the stamper stamps out the records. Every x-thousands of records you have to create a new stamper, because they wear out. So the first records off the stamper are the best. That’s why the test pressings are considered better quality than others, because it’s like virgin olive oil.
Anyway, Prince Paul says, “How many grooves are there on a record?” There’s only really one, it goes around and around to the center, but people say thousands because they look and see all these grooves. People don’t think about it. So we did a record that had two grooves on one side. We ran the grooves wide, so the second groove ran in between the others, and also went to the center, inside the other groove. So, depending on where you put the needle down, it would be a different song.
Now DJs complained about this, because when their records skipped, it wasn’t just skipping forward a beat, it would go into a different song altogether. But it was the first three-groove phonograph record, ever.
De La Soul and that record were some of Tommy Boy’s most creative moments. It was disruptive technology. Disruptive technology is how you take technology: take it out of context and use it in a way it’s not designed to be used and create something new. All of this shit, we were saying, “How can we do something that’s different?” But we had to do it on the cheap. We had $28,000 to make the album and all the singles.
The first singles got us critical acclaim, but the streets weren’t really feeling them that much. We couldn’t get much radio play out of those. It wasn’t until “Me Myself and I” that we really got a lot of radio. Prince Paul didn’t even want “Me Myself and I” on the album, but Maseo told Prince Paul, “You have to do this, because the sample on here is a great funk sample and that’s gonna really work.” So he fought to have it on there.
I think Prince Paul wanted everything to be clever and obscure. There were other people who were doing records that sampled funk stuff, so it wasn’t as original. But when “Me Myself and I” became such a big hit, they resented doing it live, because that’s all people wanted to hear. They used to change the words to “We hate this song, we hate this song, we hate this song.” They liked all their records, and they couldn’t understand why people didn’t want to hear things off of Buhloone Mindstate and De La Soul is Dead. Their stuff requires a lot of careful listening and thought. “Me Myself and I” was a casual listen. Maybe “Saturdays” was a casual listen. Those were records we picked as radio records, because those were their most accessible, one-listen records. But De La Soul don’t do one-listen records, they do ten-listen-with-a-magnifying-glass records.
They were the last of our groups to go platinum. It took 3 Feet High and Rising until 1999, and the record came out ten years before that. De La Soul is a long-term commitment.
On De La’s work ethic…
Silverman: I remember 3 Feet High and Rising was doing fine. It was selling and selling, and we were trying to get De La Soul to be on the Fresh Fest, which was Russell [Simmons]’s big, arena hip-hop tour with Run-D.M.C. As soon as they went on that tour, within two weeks, the record stopped selling, which was really weird. You’d think it would’ve been the other way around, but they were getting so panned because their live show was really, really shitty on that first tour. I mean, first of all, they’re a different kind of music, but their show was misinterpreted, and the stuff they were competing against was more dumbed down, so the audience wasn’t really patient for what they were trying to do. The show wasn’t really bangin’ like it needed to be.
But, after that, they learned their lesson really fast. They went back, they worked on their show, and now their show is the best show in hip-hop. And it didn’t take that long, maybe a year. You realize, they’re not like any other hip-hop group. They’re more like the Grateful Dead. They play long sets, you never know what they’re gonna play, and every night is different. In the middle of a song, Dave might go back and whisper something in Maseo’s ear and so in the middle of a song, they might move to a different song, or to a break—he might just create a break, and they start doing something else. They’ll go into the audience, they’ll bring people up on stage. They’ll play two hours, three hours, and nobody else can do that. I remember we were meeting with Mike D from the Beastie Boys and he was jealous because they could only play for an hour, because of union issues, and here these guys could play like a jam band.
De La Soul are the jam band of hip-hop. Nobody can do what they do.