Tom Silverman & Jazzy Jay: Give It Up or Turn It Loose

My, how times have changed. On the famous Tommy Boy label, Stetsasonic’s “Talkin’ All That Jazz” addressed controversy within sampling, and became an anthem for any producer getting served by Barry White or The Turtles. However, Tommy Boy’s music has always showed a higher appreciation for the records used to create their own classics. 45 […]

My, how times have changed. On the famous Tommy Boy label, Stetsasonic’s “Talkin’ All That Jazz” addressed controversy within sampling, and became an anthem for any producer getting served by Barry White or The Turtles. However, Tommy Boy’s music has always showed a higher appreciation for the records used to create their own classics. 45 King, Prince Paul, and Steinski all brought ‘em out, time and time again.

Tom Silverman wants to share that education. The same euphoria he felt as a young man watching Grandmaster Flash, Grandwizard Theodore, and Jazzy Jay spin Hip-Hop parties in the late 70’s, has been made available in the form of Tommy Boy Presents: Hip-Hop Roots. Rather than leave the records as they lie, Tom sought out Jazzy Jay to put his own special touches on the sacred crates. celebrates this outstanding compilation in reliving some of the great records of the 70’s. While we were talking, we discuss how Hip-Hop’s original Indie is staying relevant. Jazzy Jay also provides us insights to his legendary home studio, and the legendary Chevy Caprice that had everybody in the Bronx talking, and helped Def Jam come to form. The twelve tracks on Hip-Hop Roots were hand selected by you, correct?

Tom Silverman: Yup.

Jazzy Jay: Tom picked the records based off of what me and [Afrika Bambaataa] used to play back in the day. There’s so many songs in the sacred crates of Hip-Hop. Does one in particular have a special place in your heart today, in terms of maintaining a special feeling?

Tom Silverman: They all make me happy, but the one that resonates the most, and stands out today without being cliché is “It’s Just Begun” by Jimmy Castor Bunch. It just seems more contemporary than some of the others. James Brown is so trademark. It is what it is. They’re all great. “It’s Just Begun” has so many sections that are great, different samples. Probably my one of my favorite records ever made is “Bra” by Cymande. For years, I always had the lyrics different in my ears than they actually are. As a DJ and a man who can explain things better, what does that record specifically mean to a Hip-Hop party?

Jazzy Jay: Records like that I are what I call catalog records – they stand the test of time. I’ve been playin’ “Bra” for over 20 years. I can play that for any crowd and get a reaction. Depending on the way I play it, I can move the crowd. Those are records I always keep in my repertoire. I got thousands of records that made millions of dollars, and six months later, they’ll clear a dance-floor. “Bra” always holds its own. It always takes me back to my original essence. This is one of the first times that Hip-Hop’s founding records have been officially licensed together. As a businessman, why do you think that is?

Tom Silverman: The major labels are mostly concerned with hitting homeruns and grand slams. This is something that doesn’t have that big of an audience. I think it’s very important, historically. There’s a lot of people in Hip-Hop today who want to know where the sounds came from, and where artists were influenced. Without a record like this, I think it’s very difficult for a younger generation to know how it all evolved. You can read about it, but you’ve got to hear it. It could be Rock or Pop like The Monkees, David Bowie, or Billy Squier. Or, it could be a downtown scene-ish record like ESG. Or, it could be Funk like James Brown or Lynn Collins. Or, Jazz like [Bob James’] “Take Me To The Mardis Gras.” There was no restriction on what was cool. There was freedom. Hip-Hop today has become a lot more regimented. This is the mortar of Hip-Hop. Jazzy Jay wanted to use some other records. Well, if this does well, let’s do more volumes. Yeah, because this is Tommy Boy – the label defined by “Planet Rock.” I gotta tell you, I was shocked not to see “Trans Europe Express” by Kraftwerk missing in action…

Tom Silverman: I could’ve licensed Kraftwerk. That’s something I’d love to use on a future record. I picked from 20-25 tracks here. I wanted to represent the widest variety of genres. I didn’t want it to be all Funk, or one thing. It’s really interesting that Jay edited the tracks without scratching. Some of the mixes are extended, and it kept me on my toes.

Tom Silverman: I told Jay that he couldn’t scratch on it. I wanted him to do what he always did – and prolong the records. This also helps DJ’s. There’s extended breaks, long instrumental intro’s. We wanted it easy for DJ’s to get in. When I saw Jazzy Jay spin in 1980, that’s what he was doing – long before Protools.

Jazzy Jay: We wanted to preserve the integrity of the cuts themselves – keeping them in their natural form. In the same track, records like “Take Me To The Mardis Gras” only have a 22 second break. I cut it back it back and forth for them, so it’s [longer]. Did you mix it at your studio?

Jazzy Jay: Yes, I did. Hip-Hop’s legendary studio is D&D Studios. But Diggin’ In The Crates fans and Strong City Records fans know that your studio is just as historic. How’s the lab holdin’ up?

Jazzy Jay: As Diamond said, “Jay’s studio is the lab, the lab, the session is closed ‘cause I know you got a big nose, tryin’ to sniff out the beats!” [laughs] My studio was an environment, a comfortable couch situation. Guys didn’t come here to watch the clock and [hurry]. No, they came here to hang out. You get one guy on a drum machine, you get me on keyboards, somebody on drums, guitar – it was a building process. Everybody meshed together. That was the vibe. D&D had a good vibe too, it was a place that a lot of people went. Powerplay, Marley’s House of Hits, lotsa stuff – these were studios that had that vibe. They weren’t conventional. It was business with us, but a lot of monkey business – we was into having fun. Now, I really don’t do it as a business anymore. I’m more or less kinda private. But every now and then, I work with some of my fellas or some new talent. That same vibe is there. You come in, we might get down to business – or we might listen to some joints for a few hours til’ we figure it out. We’ve really come full circle. In 1988, Stetsasonic put out “Talkin’ Out that Jazz” on your label, which kind of knocked paying for the rights for these records. Two decades later, you’re doing it. How has your attitude changed?

Tom Silverman: I think that as Hip-Hop has become bigger, more accepted, and wealthier, people are happy to make additional income from it. When I was trying to clear “Planet Rock” and other records in the early days, it was scary. There was no precedence. People thought you were f**king with their masterpiece. Later on, they started to appreciate it, and revive careers, and make catalogs more valuable. It was hurting anything, it was expanding. Economics and social acceptance were key. Tommy Boy is the DJ’s label. I adore your back catalog. This is your project, so I gotta ask – how deep are Tommy’s crates?

Tom Silverman: I just moved, so I just moved it. It was thick enough to hurt my back. It’s not like Bambaataa. I don’t DJ. From the old days, I have a lot of those independent label one-off’s. I always saved that. I used to get every record that came out from ’78 on. I kept all the ones I loved. I filed about eight or ten crates. Alphabetically or by genre?

Tom Silverman: What are you kidding me? [laughs] I gotta hire somebody to do that. They’re in storage. I don’t even have room for them. I just kept my twelve-inches and my Tommy Boy catalog nearby. The rest is in deep storage. We just feature Merlino this week. What else is good with Tommy Boy’s Hip-Hop right now?

Tom Silverman: We’re focused on distribution. We’ve got the Gucci Mane record. That’s doing great – over 50,000 now. We shipped over 100,000. The second single is about to drop. But the first single, “Icy” is just breaking into San Francisco and Chicago and other places. It’s a long and arduous process. Big Kat is doing a lot – Maceo is up next from them. We’re talking to a few other people for distribution, even Sisqo who has a new album. There’s a lot of artists that don’t wanna go major. So for me, helping them with my knowledge of the business, to help these labels – it’s good. There’s a sacrifice – less power, but more control. There’s a concept of equity is finally seen as more important by Black labels and artists. We help them control it, not having to give it up. The question I asked [Big Kat] before they made the deal with me, and they were getting offered a million dollars by Warner Brothers/Asylum, by Universal, I said, “What’s the price of slavery now?” Really, it’s economic slavery – you become a slave to your next advance. You never get royalties. I’m into heavy framed rides. There’s a rumor going around that you had this Chevy Caprice in the 80’s that had the unbeatable sound-system… let’s talk about the heavy Chevy…

Jazzy Jay: My system was the… it was actually the determinant factor behind the song, “It’s Yours” [by T-La Rock]. When me and Rick [Rubin] were doin’ it at Powerplay Studio. This was before they made systems for cars. I had three amplifiers, three-way crossover, equalizer, a EQ tuner. Basically, it was a sound-system on wheels. We had to do a lot of alterations on the trunk in order to turn it into a bass enclosure. It was a rollin’ block-party. What we would do is go up in the studio, make the mix, come downstairs – Rick wouldn’t listen to the studio speakers. Rick always said, “People don’t have studio speakers. If it sounds good in your car, it sounds good everywhere.” We’d go down to the car, “Nope, not enough bass.” For the first few years of Def Jam, we’d sell records out the trunk of that car. We’d park, pump the sounds, and sell twelve-inches. That was the beginning days of Def Jam. I’ve seen footage of Kool Herc rollin’ the ’66 Pontiac with subs in the backseat. Is the sound-system a Bronx thing?

Jazzy Jay: I wouldn’t go as far as sayin’ it was a Bronx thing. But we were real heavy into it in the Bronx. Me and my partner, Superman used to do that. We’d get all cut up in people’s trunks, and takin’ apart interiors and stuff. You actually had to know what you were doing. We couldn’t just do the norm, because we were known to be above that with the technical stuff. People buy the one-piece boxes today, that’s cool – but we used to take cars apart. In the Bronx, we’d take that real serious. Jazzy, every time I see you in the club or someplace, you’re always smiling big.

Jazzy Jay: Hey man, it’s less stressful on the face. It takes a few hundred to smile, a few thousand to frown. Where can people today get live tapes of your work and others from the day? Everything’s out there these days, I want people circulating the true DJ’s…

Jazzy Jay: I’m getting’ ready to get into that right now. The mixtape is not being represented in the right form. A mixtape is supposed to be a DJ mixing. This project right here epitomizes that. That would be more or less what you’d hear me doing on a regular basis. The beat would steadily flow, and a crazy transition. That’s been lost in translation over the years. In the future, we’re gonna put out volumes of real mixes from back in the day.