Tommy Boy Records, is an American independent record label founded in 1981 by Tom Silverman. The label is credited with helping and launching the music careers of Queen Latifah, Afrika Bambaataa, Stetsasonic, Digital Underground, Coolio, De La Soul, House of Pain, Naughty By Nature, and Force MDs. Tommy Boy is also credited with introducing genres such as EDM, Latin freestyle, and Latin hip hop to mainstream audiences in America.
The story of Tommy Boy Records is marked by both fame and obscurity. Thanks in part to being the first record label to produce their own merchandising, and the fact that when they began as a 12-inch singles-only label the center sticker was all the artwork that adorned the format, and it did so on a landmark hip hop release, Tommy Boy has one of the most instantly recognizable logos in record company history.
However, legal and financial woes soon beset the business, leading to their partnership with Warner Bros. Records in 1985, a decision that, in the era of strong brand name identification within hip-hop, Tommy Boy’s image, ethos and sound became hard to define, integrated as they were within the major label system.
Hip-hop’s golden age during the ‘80s had seen many independent labels appear out of the necessity of releasing works by certain artists: Rick Rubin and Russel Simmons’ Def Jam had LL Cool J, Run DMC and The Beastie Boys; Cold Chillin’ Records had The Juice Crew; and Jive Records had KRS-One, A Tribe Called Quest and DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. Each label strove for a unique sonic identity and their own visual style, presenting their roster as a complete and complementary package.
However, by 1985 the label was badly in debt and signed what was not only the first major label distribution deal with Warner, but also sold them 50 percent of the company. Silverman, who as part of the deal became a senior executive at the major, would eventually buy Tommy Boy back and re-launch it in 2002, but for the time being the label both benefited and suffered from its incorporation into the major label system.
“One of the problems with being first is that the people who are first never make the money,” Silverman stated in an interview with Genius. “The first 10 years of hip-hop, the DJ of the group ended up being the producer. That’s why every artist had its unique sound. But then there became these super-producers that produced everybody’s records, and the majors brought that in. And it drove the cost of making an promoting a hip-hop album up by probably about ten times.”
The late ‘80s to mid-‘90s saw Tommy Boy re-focus with a run of commercial and innovative hits, including the debut albums from Queen Latifah (All Hail the Queen) and De La Soul (3 Feet High and Rising) in 1989; House of Pain’s Jump Around in 1992; RuPaul’s debut Supermodel of the World (1993) and Coolio’s world-conquering single Gangsta’s Paradise in 1995, which sold over six million copies worldwide.- By Alex Watts
Tommy Boy Music also includes the catalogs of Amherst Records, Harlem Music, and Halwill Music, which hold masters and publishing rights for a collection of ‘70s Soul, Disco, and Jazz artists including The Stylistics, Van McCoy, and Glenn Medeiros. Tommy Boy Music's recorded music catalog was purchased by Reservoir Media Management, Inc in 2021.