A Hot Rap Master Named Silverman?

The voice of Tommy Boy Music Inc. is a boom-box voice. It's tough, angry, and violent. The New York record label is a revered messenger on the streets of America's ghettos. To millions of poor kids who yearn to hear their stories told, Tommy Boy delivers--in the gunfire staccato of rap.

But Tommy Boy isn't exactly who you'd think he is. Meet Thomas A. Silverman, who was an aspiring geologist before a stint as a college deejay led him into the music business. His loyal sidekick is President Monica Lynch, 36, a rebel from the Chicago suburbs who joined Silverman after her career as a topless dancer had, well, topped out. The duo's approach to marketing rap acts such as Queen Latifah, Naughty by Nature, and House of Pain is decidedly businesslike. "We're in the lifestyle accoutrements business," says Silverman, 39. "We help kids differentiate themselves from their parents."

GRASS ROOTS. In fact, Tommy Boy is helping giant Time Warner Inc. differentiate itself from its competitors. When it came to rap, Time Warner knew it needed some help. After watching Silverman's company grow during the 1980s, Time Warner's Warner Music unit bought it in 1990 for a mere $1 million. Since then, the label has grown from less than $3 million to $40 million in sales. More important, Silverman has turned Tommy Boy into a brand name with an ultrahip image. What it lacks in size, it makes up for in cachet.

Tommy Boy gives Warner a window to the street. Rap is fueled by an inner-city sensibility that has tended to stump the major record labels. Silverman is a master at finding rap talent and shaping it to meet the demands of fastidious Generation-X music buyers. He has also developed a pipeline of grass-roots specialty record stores, the kind that lure rap loyalists. "Warner needs Tommy Boy because it has a youthful vibe from staying close to the streets," says Danyel Smith, R&B editor of Billboard magazine. "If you're not in touch with the streets, you're lost."

Rap may hail from the streets, but it has become much more than just a fringe market. The music is finding most of its sales these days in the suburbs. Thanks to cable shows such as Yo! MTV Raps, the music and its hip-hop subculture have filtered into America's mainstream--from ads for Pepsi and The Gap to Hollywood films and network sitcoms. Suburban males are buying rap records and dressing like their inner-city role models. And these "voyeurs," as Lynch calls them, are in large part responsible for rap's growth since the early 1980s into a highly fragmented $700 million category.

Problem is, rap's fickle customers make the product uniquely perishable. Few artists record more than a couple of albums, and older disks rate modest sales. As Lynch puts it: "Rap eats its young. Where are the Tony Bennetts of rap?" Small, independent labels have been the most adroit at keeping up, which is why Warner has let Silverman run his own show. The result: four platinum records since 1990.

NEW QUEEN. If Silverman is Tommy Boy's brains, Lynch is its soul. Years of hanging out at nightclubs and underground parties enable her to tap a vast network of connections that link her to undiscovered acts. When she's not in her office watching rap videos and poring through stacks of hip-hop magazines, she's judging rap contests or visiting clubs. In the late 1980s, one of her friends, MTV deejay Fab 5 Freddy, handed Lynch a rap tape by a young woman named Dana Owens. Lynch liked the tape, signed Owens, and took her shopping for African-inspired apparel and jewelry. Today, Owens is Queen Latifah, the world's most popular female rapper.

Tommy Boy's experience with the queen of rap, however, demonstrates how sober the label can be. Despite reams of media coverage and a new situation comedy on Fox Network, neither of Latifah's two albums has sold a million copies. Silverman tried to get her to branch into a softer, more commercial style, but Latifah refused to change. Tommy Boy is now negotiating to sell her contract to Motown Record Corp. Says Silverman: "Her sales just weren't commensurate with her image."

Silverman launched his label in 1981 with $10,000 he borrowed from his parents. A native New Yorker with a passion for pop music, he had worked as a deejay while studying geology at Maine's Colby College. But after a year in graduate school at Western Michigan University, he traded rocks for rock. He spent four years publishing Dance Music Report, an industry newsletter that chronicled the hottest trends in disco.

Silverman used his Dance Music Report contacts to sign a couple of acts that were pioneering a genre known as "electro hip-hop." As his fledgling company began to grow (his headquarters was in his apartment on New York's Upper East Side), he placed an ad in the Village Voice for a support staffer. One respondent was Monica Lynch.

A music junkie, Lynch had grown up in a middle-class Irish Catholic family in Oak Park, Ill. Bright, rebellious, and outspoken, she graduated from her all-girl private school a year early and moved to downtown Chicago. She hung out in the city's gay nightclubs, transfixed by the throbbing disco scene. Before long, she was living in New York, working as a topless dancer by day and partying at Studio 54 by night.

Through the '80s, Tommy Boy's sales fluctuated, but Lynch's reputation for finding original acts grew steadily. But it was Silverman who determined which acts Tommy Boy would back. Says Warner Senior Vice-President Ray Harris: "Our attraction to Tommy Boy was primarily Tom Silverman."

ICED T. These days, Silverman is pushing the company into Tommy Boy branded clothing, while searching for a new superstar. The rap market, he says, has become too saturated: "I'm getting sick of all the violence, not because of the violence itself, but because the theme is getting old and tired." That's probably fine with Warner. It was only last year that the company became embroiled in controversy when Ice T--an artist on one of its other labels--created a national uproar with his violent tune Cop Killer. Warner let Ice T's contract lapse.

The next star may have to come from another universe. Silverman and Lynch are now targeting "dance music," a club genre characterized by disembodied computer-generated sounds. They've been getting lots of ink for a new star named RuPaul, a seven-foot cross-dresser whose album Supermodel Of The World is hot on the charts. This Christmas, they'll release RuPaul's smoky remake of The Little Drummer Boy to show off the singer's vocal talents. "We've got to get people to see RuPaul as more than just a seven-foot blond black drag queen," Silverman gripes. Warner will gladly leave that to Tommy Boy.