||The first time I heard "Planet Rock," it was bumping out the windows of a passing Camaro full of Latin b-boys, and it stopped me in my tracks. A synthesized mating of earth and ice, Afrika Bambaataa's proto-electro statement was dead smoove and so rudely new my mouth fell open. Next day, punk rock me bought his first 12-inch disco single.
Monica Lynch, along with co-owner Tom Silverman, has headed up Tommy Boy Records since the label dropped "Planet Rock" on an unsuspecting world in 1982. The tale of a green-eyed, red-headed Irish girl from the midwest getting all up into New York hip-hop history is a fascinating and, trust me, action-packed one. But to me it's more about the savvy way she kicked up the careers of scads of musicians I've loved: Queen Latifah, Coolio, De La Soul, Stetsasonic, 808 State, Naughty By Nature, Prince Paul, House of Pain, Soul Sonic Force, the Jonzun Crew, Digital Undergound, and one RuPaul Andrˇ Charles among them.
These days, Monica finds the music-biz battle scenes of the past an emphatically tiresome subject. Not to worry. While making our way through a lardly Mexican meal at Stanton Street's finest with the essential tequila "slushies" our conversation veered to a range of other subjects. That she has expertise in all of them was just the bonus beats.
STEVE: The problem with drinking Margaritas at The Hat is that when you go to a bar afterward, they're never as strong.
MONICA: True. But I'm afraid to switch to anything else.
STEVE: Do you have to get up tomorrow?
MONICA: Not early.
STEVE: Then you can sleep your way to a tequila-absorbent brunch.
MONICA: Actually, one of the primary relationships I have is with the guy who answers the phone at the Elite Cafe. I call the Elite and order the same thing every morning two coffees, light with skim, a diet Coke, a cup of ice, oatmeal, and ten Sweet 'n Lows.
MONICA: Then I call the doorman, Joe. "Hi, this is Miss Lynch in 1290." "Hi, Miss Lynch. You got a delivery comin' up?" "Yep." "We'll get it right to you." Those are my husbands.
STEVE: Better. They bring you food.
MONICA: And, most importantly, my newspapers.
STEVE: Which do you read?
MONICA: The papers of the people. The Daily News and The Post. The News is the only paper that gives substantial coverage to New York radio. So first I always read the radio column by David Hinkley. And then I start at the front.
STEVE: Every time I'm near a radio it's playing "If You Could Read My Mind." So, congrats, and by-the-by, you and your team did a stellar job on the entire 54 soundtrack. When you first moved to New York, did you go to Studio?
MONICA: I always stretch the truth a little and say I went straight from LaGuardia. But it was really a couple of nights later.
STEVE: And you'd gain entree?
MONICA: Sure. I remember I'd ride the subway up there, walk to the corner of 54th and 8th, and take a cab to the entrance, which was a few doors away. You couldn't just walk up you had a split second to catch the eye of Marc Benecke, the doorman. If you didn't catch his eye in that second, you were history. So it was 15 minutes in the subway and 45 in the cab, because the street was so clogged, to go five doors down to make an exit. In order to make an entrance. He'd be looking for Dianne Von Furstenberg, and he'd get me.
STEVE: Oh, you were way more of a looker than her. I recently saw a picture from back then you with Antonio Lopez.
MONICA: Yeah, that would have been the late '70s. I was pretty starry-eyed when I got to New York. I came from Chicago to work in a fashion show in '78 and it was one of those impetuous things I just didn't go back. I had no money, so a make-up artist I knew let me crash on her floor. She lived on St. Mark's between Second and Third, right in the middle of everything.
STEVE: Wow, a fantastic year. 1978 was the 1968 of the '70s.
MONICA: Exactly. You had the disco scene going hot and heavy, but you also had the Mudd Club. It was this sort of new wave/punk/disco era, a golden moment for New York, the unifying factor being a pervasive glamour. It was all dress-up culture, and the truth of the matter is that I was a non-stop glamourpuss.
STEVE: I know that in Chicago, you and Steve Miglio had been holding court at LaMere Vipere, which was the first punk disco in the country.
MONICA: Steve Maas came to town with Anya Phillips and Diego Cortez to check it out. Subsequent to that visit he went back to New York and opened the Mudd Club.
STEVE: You certainly retain your disco history.
MONICA: I don't know as much as a lot of people more deeply steeped in it. There was a whole different scene going on before I got here, more underground and gay. But I know a lot of the records, and I'm very interested in the era and the DJs then who were really tying ears back ones who were more unheralded, such as DJ Francis from The Sanctuary.
STEVE: Did you ever meet him?
MONICA: No. Only a series of missed connections, perhaps as it was meant to be. [laughs] But I did recently recreate a famous mix of his on ProTools with Steinski. Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love" with the break from "I'm A Man" by Chicago, and then I mixed in the ‡ capella version of The Peech Boys' "Don't Make Me Wait" with a record that sounds like ...
STEVE: ... "The Stripper!" I heard that. It broke the house.
MONICA: Yep, DJ Francis was someone who had a tremendous amount of influence in the early days, yet never really got the glory or the bucks of DJs who came in later eras. I mean, he invented slip-cueing. And the thing about a DJ like that that I find so remarkable is that they worked with crude equipment and not such mix-friendly music configurations. They were finding weird B-sides of 7-inches, or album cuts, all at different volume levels. The grooves then weren't cut for DJ use. These were guys who created the demand for changes on the technological end of the business. They were explorers who created a whole new musical milieu from these seemingly disparate elements, although that's the unnatural way it's viewed today. Back then it was okay to spin Led Zeppelin and the Stones next to Baba Olatunji and Aretha Franklin. Fifteen years ago a hip-hop DJ would play a straight-up hip-hop record, but he might also be playing some funky new wave cut like "The Dominatrix Sleeps Tonight," or a European import by Peter Godwin, or "Stone Fox Chase" by Area Code 615, and then mix it into the Jackson 5 or "Woman" by Barrabas. There aren't enough bucking the trend nowadays, taking a more freestyle approach to their club appearances.
STEVE: A fine thing in New York now, though, is the rise of the al fresco DJ the casual, two-turntables-on-the-end-of-the-bar style. Segueing from Cal Tjader to 4 Hero to ... Cinnecitta film scores.
MONICA: As it should be!
STEVE: And, my god different tempos.
MONICA: Well, in the '80s there was this tyranny of the BPM's.
STEVE: The beats-per-minute.
MONICA: The promoters that we employed would often say that the reason a DJ wasn't playing a record was because, "Well, he can't mix in and out of it. The BPM's aren't 120 and there's not a house mix on it." It got to the point where they wanted it presented to them like Lego.
STEVE: How does hip-hop fit into the meta-nostalgia we're witnessing? Every recording of the 20th century is getting a dust-off and CD re-issue with liner notes by someone with a long nose.
MONICA: Well, hip-hop begat an interest in the records it sampled, which begat the acid-jazz scene, classic disco, latin, etcetera, which begat this very intense and extensive re-issue market and DJ/bedroom producer culture that was enthralled with all things that preceded it. And that I don't remember happening before in the scene. I mean, '70s DJs were really not that interested in what Dizzy Gillespie had been doing in the '50s.
STEVE: Samples make good commercials for the past. But too much music now seems predicated on a connoisseurship of the last three decades' minutiae.
MONICA: Right, that kind of smarty-pants culture wasn't as prevalent ten years ago. I remember when Double-Dee and Steinski came out with "Lesson One." And I still hear, ad nauseum, records that are essentially tributes to that, with overly-clever spoken-word samples. It's like, okay, I have The Groupies soundtrack too!
STEVE: But I think that just says how associated New York dance music is with bawdiness. A little like Time Square was.
MONICA: Y'know, I was just reading an article about all the displaced strippers and dancers. Some of them trannies, some of them regular chicks, some gay males, all trying to plan their next moves.
STEVE: And as a retired go-go girl, Monica, surely you can empathize with their plight. [laughs] In your case, was it economics that got you into it?
MONICA: Actually, it was Anya Phillips, who sold me my first G-string. I was sitting in a cafˇ and she came over and said, "You should be a go-go girl. I make G-strings. I'll sell them to you." I think she was interested in my being a go-go girl more as a source of revenue for her than anything else. But she said, "Go to the Go-Go Agency." So I did go and a guy named Angel booked me around all five boroughs working the topless clubs. And I worked on 42nd Street for a time.
STEVE: Show World?
MONICA: Among others, but it was definitely one of my longer-standing engagements. [laughing] In an extended run as Miss Monique. Look, it's a rather popular refrain these days, but I too am saddened by the loss of the seedy elements of New York. And it's strange to take a cab down Disney-Second Street. And I like to remember it as it was portrayed in films like Midnight Cowboy. But those days are gone. Manhattan's a different place now.
STEVE: You've been spinning from time to time on WFMU, the free-form station. Another jump.
MONICA: Well, I do deem it a rather vainglorious pursuit, in some respects. And a luxury, the opportunity to be on the radio in New York and play whatever you want. But I've basically been a fill-in DJ there for the past year, and it's been a very rewarding experience.
STEVE: The cultivated tastes of FMU DJs are pretty legendary.
MONICA: One does get the sense of sitting amidst Talmudic scholars, yes. [laughs] Because you've got people who are serious musicologists, some of whom specialize in particular things, whether it's music recorded on 78s and cylinders, or ethnomusicologists, or people who know a hell of a lot about country or jazz. Then there are these incredible free-form DJs who mix a lot of different styles, and cohesively. That, to me, is the most interesting aspect of the station. It can be pretty intimidating, but anyone who's a DJ has to have a certain amount of a hot dog quality. Because, let's face it, deep down inside you must think, "I got some shit that's gonna blow their wigs off," or why bother? And if you're doing a two or three-hour show, you're revealing a lot about yourself.
STEVE: Would you say their listeners are as discerning as the jocks?
MONICA: It's a station that attracts an intelligent, adventurous and loyal listening base. And yes, they're a passionate lot.
STEVE: Your shows come on strong. Emotionally eclectic and real charged.
MONICA: Thanks. Actually, I used to be somewhat inhibited about playing anything too pop or emotionally revealing.
STEVE: Like the music you clean the house to in your underwear.
MONICA: Right. I was afraid to open the show with a psychedelic mix of the overture from Jesus Christ Superstar. [laughs]
STEVE: Okay, let's grind gears a little. Latifah to RuPaul to Coolio they've all got that ooomph factor. It's gotta be fun to groom a pop star.
MONICA: That's why I was happy to see someone like Marilyn Manson become popular a few years ago.
MONICA: Just because he's so unabashedly theatrical. I thought that was a welcome respite from all this ... naturalism. But yeah, I did take Puff Daddy to his first fashion show. A story I'll be able to tell someone's grandkids some day.
STEVE: The hip-hop rite of passage. Who was it?
MONICA: It was Todd Oldham. But now Puffy has his own fashion shows. You know, one of the interesting facts about rap is that, of all the other black music movements in history, it's created the most entrepreneurs. A whole generation of artists, executives, producers, managers, attorneys, you name it, who are basically doing their own thing. That's a significant difference from what you saw prior to this. Over the last twenty years, hip-hop's been this musical revolution, and it's been a revolution in marketing, promotion, and equity. Having your own TV shows, owning your own label, your own management company, getting your own film deal ...
STEVE: So many rappers are making movies, a friend asked me recently which hip-hop group Bokeem Woodbine had been in. She just assumed!
MONICA: Right. And another thing that's significant about the emergence of the rap business is that it's provided great opportunities for women as executives. There wasn't a pre-existing hierarchy like there was in rock culture. It started out as such an underground thing that a lot of the major labels didn't know if it was coming or going. They weren't investing yet, weren't out to own it all. So a lot of women came up through the ranks. However, as artists it's always been a tougher row to hoe. First there was The Sequence. But it wasn't until Salt 'n' Pepa, Roxanne Shante, and J.J. Fad in the mid-'80s ... and then in the late '80s you had MC Lyte, Latifah, Mony Love, Yo-Yo, although none of them sold as many records as their male counterparts. And the last few years it's been pretty rugged. Either pretty rugged or pretty explicit. But then you've got someone like Missy Elliot doing it on her own terms, and, obviously, the biggest star out there doing it on her own, Lauryn Hill.
STEVE: How do you rank her?
MONICA: I have a lot of respect for Lauryn Hill. First of all, she's amazingly talented and she's beautiful. But she's a person who also gives a lot back to her community. I remember getting phone calls from her trying to get us enlisted in supporting fund-raising efforts for this thing, that thing and the other thing. She's really on it. To me she's got the whole package. [glancing at some industry sheets] I'm looking at the Top 50 rap records on urban radio right now, and out of that fifty, the females that appear on the list are ... Lauryn Hill, who has five records playing at once.
STEVE: Five cuts off one album?
MONICA: Yeah. Which is enormous for any artist, male or female.
STEVE: So what've you been listening to around the house?
MONICA: I've been listening to this album of Terry Callier demos called First Flight. A lot of songs that would go on to be produced by Charles Stepney. I should definitely lend it to you. I also just got a Tom Browne compilation, which made me happy because it's got "Fungi Mama," "Thighs High," and of course "Funkin' for Jamaica." He was this funky jazz trumpet player who was mentored by Roy Eldridge. I listened to a three-CD set of Earth, Wind and Fire over the weekend, and it was just so revealing, especially the early things. And then I just got two Rotary Connection albums that have been re-issued ...
STEVE: Oh, which ones?
MONICA: Songs, and Hey Love.
STEVE: Finally those are out. Probably because of the Nuyorican Soul version of "Black Gold of the Sun."
MONICA: I'm hearing Solid Air by John Martyn for the first time. That's amazing. You know, I don't think a lot of music today has much mystique to it, a lot of it's literal and not as reliant on interpretive power as music from other eras. There isn't as much metaphor. Or as much of a connection to nature like the great standards. But I've always liked the old stuff. I bought Noel Coward Live at The Sands when I was in high school. [laughs] Musicals too. When I worked at this gay disco way back when, I was part of a lip-syncing troupe called Bobby & Company. We used to get up on this postage-stamp-size stage and lip-sync to stuff from Company and, like, "Here's to the Ladies Who Lunch."
MONICA: What can I say? I saw Cabaret about a million times.
STEVE: But are kids growing up with as wide a variety of music now?
MONICA: On the one hand, it's a great time for people who want to find music of any genre, and from any time and place, because the re-issues that are available now are beyond belief. There's so much out there to be had. That's the good news. The bad news, however, is that we're living in an age where the musical gate-keepers radio and video are more fragmented and tightly formatted than ever. You get a very, very narrow band when you listen to most radio stations, unlike the experience you and I might have had growing up in the golden age of Top 40 radio. Ray Stevens doing "Guitarzan" next to Elvis Presley's "In The Ghetto" next to the Temptations next to Josˇ Feliciano or Creedence. An astonishing mix of music. I don't think a high school kid today is coming up with anything like that.
STEVE: Now, what's the black radio project you're working on?
MONICA: "Soul on the Dial." It's sort of the brainchild of myself and a DJ named Rex Doane, who specializes in R&B from the '40s, '50s and '60s. One day he told me he collected a lot of black radio air-checks, and I said I had a few myself, and one thing led to another. "Wouldn't it be great to put out an album?" So Rex has been doing most of the legwork, and Steinski is doing the post-production. It's going to be released on an imprint called Past Due, through Tommy Boy.
STEVE: Air-checks are the spoken breaks and station IDs between music and commercials, right? I don't think I've actually ever heard anything like that from an earlier era.
MONICA: Because it's such a sorely under-documented area. And yet it's incredibly influential, because a lot of the black radio DJs embodied then what would now be known as personality radio amazing self-invented characters, the ones a lot of the white radio DJs imitated.
STEVE: Who are some of them?
MONICA: We've got an air check from Sly Stone, who used to be a DJ on KSOL in San Francisco. And The Electrifying Mojo, up in Detroit, with his Midnight Funk Association. Oh, and a guy called The Black Pope, who was flamingly gay. We have an infamous air check of him claiming that he is a radio transmitter and none of these other "rooty-poot" DJs can come close to what he does. Just screaming!
STEVE: So it's improvised, on-the-fly ...
MONICA: Oh my god. Like a cross between professors, preachers and pimps. It's bawdy, it's got style, it's got wit. It's ... hellified is the only word for it. And it points up the fact that black radio DJs have had a tremendous influence on radio at large. Recognition of that contribution is long overdue.
STEVE: Radio air-checks seem like such a gossamer thing to accumulate. Have you got the collector gene otherwise?
MONICA: Oh man. I have an embarrassingly well-documented history as a hunter and gatherer. To the point where I deemed it an affliction. For example, I have an extensive collection of costume jewelry from the '40s through the '70s. And I rarely wear jewelry.
STEVE: What do you do with it?
MONICA: It's all sitting in zip-loc sandwich baggies in drawers. I have hundreds and hundreds of sets of jewelry. But it doesn't really reflect the type of life I'm living now.
STEVE: Yeah, it kinda starts to feel like you're keeping some dead guy's stuff.
MONICA: It probably is some dead guy's stuff. I've been getting rid of a lot of personal belongings, and it's like a psychic weight has lifted. Steve, it was so bad that I was collecting three-piece sectionals. And that takes up space. I had an apartment of three-piece sectionals piled to the ceiling that you sort of weaved your way around. It was like living in Manhattan Mini-Storage, but not as spacious. I also have a collection of green glass. Hundreds of pieces of green glass and weird things like foo dogs. A collection of dice. I have an extensive collection of Buddhas. I have all this stuff. And pretty soon the tail starts wagging the dog and you find yourself in the business of stuff management. So I've been giving things away left and right.
STEVE: Now what do you do instead?
MONICA: Right now the only thing I'm voracious about, although I deem it to be a much wiser investment, is music. Where I live is just piles and piles of CDs, vinyl, and cassettes all over the fucking place.
STEVE: Those sectionals got the axe. And all your magazines and clothes?
MONICA: No, I do still check out the fashion magazines. I like to stay abreast of what I'm not going to be wearing this season. Eventually I'd like to get to the point of having a few pairs of jeans and a few T-shirts and call it a day.
STEVE: That's most definitely a 180 from your image, Monica. Where'd you put the style maven who used to hang out at the runway shows?
MONICA: For a long time I was leading this sort of highly ornamental lifestyle, both in the way in which I dressed, and the way I had all this stuff around my house. But it was like living in a set. It wasn't very comfortable. And now I'm much more into comfort.