Tommy Boy Music's 20th Anniversary
Tommy Boy hit a similar balance of street credibility and mass market success with Coolio. Born in Compton and a former member of WC and the Madd Circle, Coolio signed to Tommy Boy after a series of attempts to build a career in music. Clever in his use of samples, Coolio's first hit for the label was "Fantastic Voyage", based around Lakeside's 1980 track of the same name. For "1-2-3-4", he sampled a UK novelty record by The Evasions called "Wikka Rap", a track that had been broken in New York by Frankie Crocker despite the fact that the subject of the parody - TV personality Alan Whicker - was largely unknown in the USA. The biggest hit for Coolio, however, was "Gangster's Paradise", based around Stevie Wonder's "Past Time Paradise". Included in the soundtrack of Dangerous Minds, "Gangster's Paradise" was the biggest single in the world in 1995.
"It was one of the more heartfelt songs to come out of rap," says Monica. "It was a time when things were heating up quite a bit more in terms of a lot of the gang activity that was going on. In many communities, violent death was a fact of life, but it was coming much more to the forefront in terms of a lot of the lyrics in rap. 'Gangster's Paradise' was kind of an antidote. For people outside of the gang culture, that song was a camera, a picture of what was going on."
Tommy Boy's long involvement with film soundtracks continued with Total's "Can't You See", featuring The Notorious B.I.G. The track actually came from Puffy Combs. "When we were putting together the soundtrack to New Jersey Drive," says Monica, "Puffy was just starting to make some real noise with his own label, Bad Boy. He had the Craig Mack record out. I called him up and asked him if he would do a record for New Jersey Drive and I gave him carte blanche to use any of his new developing acts, to put them on the soundtrack and gee, wouldn't it be nice to get Biggie to do a cameo, 'cause Biggie was really exploding right then too."
Although hip-hop has been Tommy Boy's mainstay since 1981, there have been forays into garage, R&B, house, techno, rock and reggae. The release of Coldcut's "People Hold On", featuring Lisa Stansfield, along with 808 State's "Pacific 202" tapped into two of the most innovative and long-lasting bands at the forefront of the UK house and techno scene.
Club Nouveau, a spin-off from Jay King's Timex Social Club, were another example of Warner Brothers turning to Tommy Boy for their expertise in the club-oriented 12inch single market. "I think a lot of the appeal for those records," says Monica, discussing Club Nouveau's "Why You Treat Me So Bad", "Jealousy" and their cover of Bill Withers' "Lean On Me", "was that they cut right to the core of issues that people were interested in: jealousy, love triangles, gossip. Jay had a very astute understanding for the kind of negative things that kept people yakking around the water cooler. They weren't high-minded by a long shot. They were very real about some of the most driving emotions for mankind."
Of all the extraordinary artists who have featured in the Tommy Boy story, Ru Paul must be considered unique. Having recorded obscure records like "Ping Ting Ting", "Sex Freak" and the 1986 Star Booty album for Atlanta's FunTone USA label, Ru Paul Andre Charles was introduced to Tommy Boy by Billboard dance columnist Bill Coleman. "Drag culture in New York was coming up as a really hot scene at that time," says Monica, "via Wigstock and some other clubs. Ru was obviously hellbent on becoming a star, which is not an unimportant trait in the music world."
Driven by a smart video directed by Ru Paul's managers, Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, "Supermodel", was broken during New York's fashion week. "It was a bit of a risky move, I gotta tell ya," Monica continues, "because homophobia is a fact of hip-hop life. To this day, there cannot be a black male hip-hop artist who comes out. They would be stoned. I heard some grumbling from some of our artists but it was pretty minor. It's not like they were competing in the same arena. 'Supermodel' was the launching pad for RuPaul to go on and become a very successful radio and television host, a star at large. Ru's had an opportunity to meet every star he wanted to meet. So that's certainly one of the more colourful chapters in our history."