‘Hip-Hop Is History’: Tommy Boy Records Unloads Rap Acts

Label's catalog, rap roster go to WEA as it changes focus to dance.

Rumors of Tommy Boy’s demise, it seems, have been exaggerated.

“We just opened the new doors at Tommy Boy on Monday,” label founder Tom Silverman said on Thursday. However, the company — which was built largely on the strength of hip-hop acts such as De La Soul, Naughty By Nature, Digital Underground and Coolio — has sold most of its sonic assets and is shifting its focus to its other strength, dance music.

Warner Music Group, Tommy Boy’s longtime partner, acquired the 21-year-old label’s recorded music and music publishing catalogs for a little over $10 million, along with the majority of its hip-hop roster: De La Soul and Prince Paul are going to Elektra, while Tony Touch, Coo Coo Cal and Everlast are headed to Warner Bros.

“It was either buy or sell for either party,” Silverman explained. “Based on the economy and where we were and where Warner was and where the contract was, it worked out best for us if we sell. When I did that, they bought the company, but they left me the name and some of the artists. We’re taking all the dance acts and [Memphis MC] Indo.”

Amber, Thunderpuss and Masters at Work are among the dance artists who’ll stay under the Tommy Boy banner, while Silverman will remain Tommy Boy’s CEO. Despite the multimillion-dollar payoff, he couldn’t retire from the music biz — it’s in his blood.

“I love it too much,” he explained. “That’s what I’m into. It’s what I’ve been doing for 22 years. It’s what I really like to do. The hip-hop business really changed and became very expensive and risky and not as profitable. I saw that coming a while back, so I created a company that’s much smaller, under 20 people. We can make money selling 125,000 records or less. We can make money selling 50,000 records if we’re real careful about our spending. With a small company, we can be more creative and have more fun and not be caught up in bureaucracy.”

Although he’s frustrated at what he calls a stale time in rap, he’s hoping to once again break a superstar act but is going to be “very selective” in his search.

“I’m still interested in hip-hop, but I want the next sh–,” he said. “I want something that’s gonna take it somewhere fresh if I’m gonna get behind it. I can’t compete with Def Jam, it doesn’t make sense. That’s a no-win game.”

At one point, Silverman could not lose, putting out records by acts such as hip-hop godfather Afrika Bambaataa and Stetsasonic in the mid ’80s. But it was his late 80′s and early 90′s run that put Tommy Boy in the annals: Naughty By Nature, Queen Latifah, Coolio, House of Pain and Digital Undergound were all introduced to the world by Silverman.

“I think Tommy Boy is a hip-hop icon in itself,” Naughty’s Vinnie said of the label. “They were groundbreaking and one of the first labels to step up for hip-hop like that. Coolio, Digital Underground, all of them, it was all love [between us]. It wasn’t a cutthroat kind of thing. We were fighting for each other, because it was an intimate situation.”

“We were hip-hop history, and unfortunately a lot of hip-hop is history at this point,” Silverman said. “I’m interested in hip-hop only if it can reinvent the future, not if it’s a reflection of the past. Much of the hip-hop that’s out there right now is closer to what mainstream R&B was in 1981 — when we started — than the true essence of hip-hop.”