Tommy Boy Music's 20th Anniversary

In 1981, Tom Silverman took Afrika Bambaataa into a New York 8-track recording studio called In The Red. His plan was to recreate the feel of Bambaataa's legendary live DJ sessions in the Bronx. Though he has since mislaid the tape, Tom remembers recording a demo of one song. "It included Kraftwerk's 'Numbers', Babe Ruth's 'The Mexican', 'I Like It' by B.T. Express," he says, "A lot of the songs with breakbeats that Bambaataa used to use. We used a Rick James song, as many songs as we could but just the bass lines, whatever the hooks were, and we tried to string 'em all together in some way using Oberheim synthesisers. It didn't have any rapping on it."

These were early days in hip-hop history. 1981 was the year in which the New Jersey based Sugarhill Records released "The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash On the Wheels of Steel", Grandmaster Flash's amazing quickfire collage of cuts and scratches. In that era, there were two stories to hip-hop. The story you knew depended on how and where you were listening to the music. Rap vinyl had existed since 1979, yet already a recording studio sound had developed that bore little relation to the live experimentation of pioneer Djs like Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa. Not all of the top old-school crews were securing recording contracts. Those who had the mixed fortune to sign deals found themselves in a compromise situation. Instead of rapping over breaks cut up between two turntables by a DJ, they were being presented with slick backing tracks, played by musicians. The results often made great party music but their connection to the reality of hip-hop was slim.

A graduate student, studying environmental geology in Kalamazoo, Michigan, Tom Silverman's real passion was music. Before graduate school he had hosted oldies shows and disco party live-links on college radio in Waterville, Maine. In 1978, an old room mate suggested they work together on a disco magazine. Disco then running at boiling point, he left his thesis unfinished to plunge into the unstable world of dance clubs, record stores, bootleggers, tipsters and 12inch singles.

Running a paper called Disco News, Silverman started to make contact with the underworld characters who ran with the beats. He recalls a dance promotor, a woman who had worked for Downstairs Records in Manhattan. In 1979 she told him about the Zulu Nation, Afrika Bambaataa's Bronx DJ sessions and the secret breakbeats that were being collaged into a revolutionary form of music.

"She said there was this place in Downstairs Records," says Tom, "which at the time was on 6th Avenue, in the subway. You had to go down a step right before you got into the subway, down off of 6th Avenue near 42nd Street. There was this record shop and they used to be an oldies record store. They had current records but they had an enormous oldies section and they knew about all the doo-wops and everything. I used to go down there when I was in high school to buy doo-wops, so I knew the place. But she said they had an annex right next to them where you could go and buy these b-boy records. I'd never heard the term before in 1979. I said, 'Well what's that?' And she said, 'They're paying a lot of money and they're buying these records just for like 10 seconds of the record. Then they mix 'em together and make that beat go on for like five minutes or so'.

"I went down to the place and I saw this little annex. Maybe it was a room that was about 8 feet by 10 feet, if that big, or maybe even 6 by 8. It had a three