I miss the days the good ol’ days when Tommy Boy wasn’t so pretentious and uptight. Coolio, De La Soul, House of Pain, Naughty by Nature, Queen Latifah and Stetsasonic. I yearn for the days when the breaking b-boy logo of Tommy Boy Records on a record or tape indicated “quality rap music within.” Even in the late 1990’s the label’s name still meant something to me – after all this was the label that put Afrika Bambaataa on the map in 1982 by releasing “Planet Rock.” In a sense Tommy Boy and hip-hop music grew up together – they were like family. Unfortunately after 20 years together Tommy Boy came of age. He legally changed his name to Tommy Boy Entertainment and left his family behind, trading in the baggy pants and gold chains for a metrosexual haircut and a suit. I realize even through a nostalgic haze that Tom Silverman was probably not going to be able to keep his independent spirit forever, and in truth it’s amazing that he did for so long given that Warner Bros. owned half or more of the label for more than half of it’s two decade run. Nonetheless when nearly the entire hip-hop roster got wiped off the map in 2002 with the name change and split from WB it just seemed like they weren’t down any more, and even the occasional rap release like Canibus’ “Mind Control” didn’t seem to put any marketing or promotional muscle behind it – Tommy had other interests now.
Digging through my personal crates of records and CD’s I was shocked to find a copy of “Tommy Boy Presents: Hip Hop Roots.” First I was amazed that this CD came out in 2005, long after the Tommy Boy era of being closely tied to hip-hop music and culture had come and gone. Second I was amazed that for some reason this CD had never been reviewed. Third and most important of all I was amazed by the content found on this disc. Tommy Boy’s quarter century of history could be argued to include some of the most important rap songs ever released on wax but NONE are included here. Not a ONE. Confused? Dismayed? I certainly was for about five seconds until I realized what their definition of “Hip Hop Roots” meant. My own myopic perception of the phrase meant classic rap songs – their expansive definition of the phrase meant CLASSIC RAP BREAKS. The opening track “It’s Just Begun” will be a revelation for anybody who never stopped to consider where those funky beats and sax breaks came from on 2 Live Crew’s “Get Loose Now,” Ice-T’s “Power” or my personal favorite to sample The Jimmy Castor Bunch – Ultramagnetic M.C.’s “Watch Me Now.” Needless to say if I tried to list every hip-hop song that ever snatched a sample or rapped to a break from this track, we’d all be here a really long fucking time.
The amazing thing about “Hip Hop Roots” is that you can say almost the same thing for each of the 12 songs featured here. Just hearing the opening of Billy Squier’s “The Big Beat” should put a Kool-Aid smile on the face of any hip-hop head who came of age in the same era Tommy Boy was releasing so many classic rap records. BOOM, ba-CLAP, ba-boom, CLAP. BOOM, ba-CLAP, ba-boom, CLAP. That signature drum has helped A Tribe Called Quest “Get Down,” enabled Big Daddy Kane to lay down verbal law on “Ain’t No Half Steppin’,” allowed King Tee to “Diss You” and most of all when Run-D.M.C. said “Here We Go” it was Billy Squier’s “Big Beat” they went to. Even the signature Squier scream at the beginning is a delight. Many have never realized it was part of the phrase “I…. got the big beat” – they’ve only heard the elongated I (which in truth sounds like he’s saying “AHHHHHHHHHH!”) slapped into countless rap tunes, as well as the signature phrase that follows shortly after of “GET ON DOWWWWN!” You can repeat this smile and this trip down memory lane over and over again on “Hip Hop Roots.” I fancied myself a break junkie and yet I never could have told you where the signature “WHOA-OAHHHHHHHHHH” from Chubb Rock’s “Ya Bad Chubbs” came from before “Hip Hop Roots” – quite honetly I had never even thought about it. Lyn Collins and The JB’s shamed me – from this day on I will “Think (About It)” each time I play that classic song. I will think of Cymande’s “Bra” each time I play De La Soul’s “Change of Speak” or DJ Kool’s “Let Me Clear My Throat.” Most of all, I will never be able to hear 2Pac’s “If My Homie Calls” again without remembering Dyke & The Blazers “Let a Woman Be a Woman (Let a Man Be a Man).”
“Hip Hop Roots” redeemed Tommy Boy Entertainment for me. Clearly despite what I had previously thought about Tommy Boy eschewing hip-hop music and culture and going in a whole new direction they have not forgotten where they come from. In fact I think it’s safe to say they may remember where hip-hop comes from better on this disc than a lot of people do. Any number of old school rap compilations can pick out the greatest rap songs from hip-hop’s history and many have to varying degrees of success, but “Tommy Boy Presents: Hip Hop Roots” goes a step beyond and selects the songs whose breaks made those songs great. If you love hip-hop history, if you love good music, or if you love dope breaks you owe it to yourself to own this album. Speaking of breaks, special thanks to the-breaks.com for their verstalie and highly searchable database, as it really made a difference when doing research for this review. It’s not often you can recommend a website and an album for being both fun AND highly educational but rap fans and hip-hop historians alike should check out both without delay.