By David Browne
Updated December 11, 1998 at 05:00 AM EST
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Tommy Boy's Greatest Beats: The First Fifteen Years 1981-1996

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  • Music

Samples, drum machines, and hip-hop beats are now the stuff of mainstream pop, but imagine a time when they weren’t, when they still connoted a mysterious and mystifying sonic underground. The four-disc set Tommy Boy’s Greatest Beats: The First Fifteen Years 1981-1996 traces the history of the New York rap/dance label Tommy Boy and conjures up that precise moment in the early ’80s when singles by Afrika Bambaataa and the Jonzun Crew, among others, introduced urban musicheads to gritty space-funk odysseys. And once the chintzy drum machines and electronic hand claps of those hits wore out their welcome, Tommy Boy kept evolving. De La Soul and Stetsasonic added head-spinning sampling and clever wordplay to the roster; their singles are some of this box’s highlights.

Unlike its prime competitor, Def Jam Records, Tommy Boy had multiple personalities; the wan balladry of Force M.D.’s and the Duran Duranisms of the Information Society now seem to come from another, blander universe. But like Def Jam, Tommy Boy fought its way through creative droughts to blast back in the ’90s with hits by Coolio and Naughty by Nature, which were harder and deeper than anything the label had offered before. 808 State’s 1990 ”Pacific” now sounds like a precursor of the current turntableist movement, and the label also introduced the world to many future stars (Lisa Stansfield, Queen Latifah, Tupac Shakur). From ”Planet Rock” through ”Gangsta’s Paradise,” these 56 tracks still feel deliciously sooty. The four volumes are available separately, but if you can, splurge on the box, which houses the discs in the illest packaging of the season: a miniature replica of a plastic DJ crate. A-

Tommy Boy's Greatest Beats: The First Fifteen Years 1981-1996

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  • Music
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