“Tommy Boy Is a Girl: Monica Lynch Says Rap, Despite Its Image, Has Been Good To Women“

By Martin Kihn
5 July 1992
The New York Times
 

IN A WINDOWLESS OFFICE at Time Warner’s hip-hop embassy in Yorkville, beneath a collage titled “Ambitious With Attitude,” you can find Monica (Mo’ Love) Lynch, president of Tommy Boy Records, the rap and street-fashion label.

 

“I don’t like daylight,” she says. “It always made me mad.”

 

With straight, bottle-copper hair held down by a purple Colorado Rcokies baseball cap, she is the high priestess of hip-hop, the milieu that surrounds rap music. She joined Tommy Boy as its first employee in the fat-gold-chain era a decade ago, and alon gthe way signed some of rap’s most progressive acts, including De La Soul, Queen Latifah and Naughty By Nature. A woman of wild contrasts – a former stripper, now a Time Warner vice-president – Ms. Lynch, a 35-year-old white woman, thrives in a business built around 17-year-old black men.

 

“There’s nobody out there who’s such an amalgam of so many different things,” said the fashion designer Todd Oldham, one of Ms. Lynch’s closest friends. “She is the dictionary of street fashion.”

 

The record business is like a manic-depressive who medicates only depressions, and the hip-hop market, more than most, demands deft feet. Last week, Tommy Boy came under fire when a photograph of an Uzi-wielding man waiting in ambush for George Bush was leaked to the press. It was said to be a cover of a fall release by San Francisco rapper Paris, a Tommy Boy artist.

 

Robert J. Morgado, head of music at Time Warner, immediately issued a statement saying that he had not and would not approve such a cover. Lynch has not commented publicly on the controversy, except to say: “The landscape’s always changing here. Eight weeks is an eternity.”

 

So goes rap time. A sociological as much as a musical force, hip-hop is a net of fashion, dance, rhythmic and lyrical styles that become obsolete before they leave the Bronx. Few people would care except that in one decade, rap exploded into a $1 billion business. The only $1 billion business nobody seems to understand. Except Monica Lynch.

 

As someone who has followed this world since its inception, she has a better idea than most of the peculiar chemistry of hip-hop. Take the Carhardt jacket, a rugged brown canvas item worn for decades by Midwestern farmers. Ms. Lynch and her young right-hand man, Albee Ragusa, began seeing it on hip-hop kids, slapped the Tommy Boy logo on it and revolutionized the record business’s tour wardrobe. Thus began Tommy Boy’s fashion line. Now, hardy work clothes are a hip-hop staple.

 

“She treats music like fashion,” says Tom Silverman, Tommy Boy’s founder and chairman. “The kind of music this is, it’s just like hemlines. It comes and it goes. She knows – she’s out there on the streets with the kids, with the people who buy the records.”

 

The hip-hop nation is built on quicksand and whimsy. To keep her balance, Ms. Lynch regularly explored such “main transverses” as Lower Broadway, 125th Street, 34th Street and the Coliseum Mall in Nassau County. She photographs kids as they enter and leave Madison Square Garden. Lately she has been seeing a lot of wide-striped jail suits by Boiu Krazi; Phillies Blunt caps from GFS (Blunt cigars can be laced with marijuana), and Nike Air Huaraches. She and Mr. Ragusa have also noticed a retro feel on the street – Kangols, Pumas and warmup shells dusted off after a 10-year vacation.

 

Another item Tommy Boy will soon add to its line – sold around the country in about 25 specialty stores, like Funky Essentials in Los Angeles – is an oversize windbreaker in black and blue. And Ms. Lynch is high on a certain cotton porkpie hat she’s been seeing.

 

The clothing line is barely profitable, but by keeping items hard to find Ms. Lynch enhances her label’s cachet. Tommy Boy is also known for its limited-edition hip-hop tchotchkes: Naughty By Nature boxer shorts, Queen Latifah leather beeper cases.

 

“People come along and say, “Hey, let’s get in on this new hip-hop thing,’” she said with undisguised contempt. “But they don’t know the music. They don’t know the culture. They don’t respect it. And they usually fail.”

 

Mo’ Love Lynch grew up in Oak Park, Ill., a Chicago suburb that Hemingway called the land of wide lawns and narrow minds. She used to help her father empty quarters from the washers and dryers in his small laundromat chain. Like other rebels, she wrote graffiti on her Catholic-girls’-school saddle shoes. Then she discovered hockey and black music. She sat behind the net at Black Hawks games, gazing dreamily at Keith Magnuson, one of the more violent players in the national Hockey League. “I was attracted to blood lust and aggressiveness,” she said.

 

Excelling only in French, she left home and high school after graduating. She hit Chicago, as she says, to “explore the social horizon.” Which she did. “There was absolutely no plan whatsoever.”

 

At that time, night life was discos, and Ms. Lynch began her career as an habitué of an go-go dancer at the Bistro, a gay club. For $50 a week and open bar, she became the first female member of a lip-synching, cross-dressing crew whose members fought savagely over who would dance to Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You, Baby.”

 

A runway modeling gig for a Chicago designer brought her to New York in April 1978. She never left.

 

Living on St. Mark’s Place, she felt directionless. “In Chicago people knew me,” she said. “In New York I was a total nobody, knew nobody and had no money.”

 

She started working for an outfit called the Go-Go Agency, dancing topless by day and partying at night. “It was the type of experience that can sort of make or break a person,” she said.

 

After two years and other odd jobs, she talked herself into a job at Tommy Boy after seeing an ad in The Village Voice.

 

“I couldn’t afford anybody with music-industry experience,” said Tom Silverman, who ran the fledgling label out of his apartment. “She had the right spirit, and she was such a media hob. She used to buy every magazine and newspaper and read them from cover to cover.”

 

Four months after Ms. Lynch signed on, Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” went into orbit, ushering in the genre known as electro hip-hop. With acts like Soul Sonic Force and the Jonzun Crew, Tommy Boy was its epicenter. Around this time, early 1982, rap meant Kangol bell caps, Lee jeans, Pumas, big gold chains with nameplates, and Playboy logos. And it started to attract what Ms. Lynch calls voyeurs – an arty white downtown crowd. It was also then that Ms. Lynch acquired the nickname Mo’ Love from the legendary rap deejay Mista Magick.

 

“In the mid-1980’s Tommy Boy went through a cold period,” said Ms. Lynch, who became the label’s president in 1985. “But I think that was good for us. It forced us to rethink how we were doing business.”

 

Elsewhere there was a rapquake. “From being a very unsophisticated, ground-level business for so long,” Ms. Lynch said, “suddenly the stakes got a lot higher.”

 

And whiter.

 

The show “Yo! MTV Raps” introduced the form to a suburban audience, now thought to comprise at least half of rap listeners. Big money swallowed little money. After losing Def Jam to Sony, Time Warner bought Tommy Boy in 1989 for what Mr. Silverman, who owned the label, called an “embarrassingly small” amount of money; he would not say how much.

 

By 1989, Tommy Boy was ready for its second spontaneous combustion. Ms. Lynch was alerted to a demo song called “Plug Tunin’” by a group of teen-age neo-hippie rappers, De La Soul. “It was the weirdest, most dusted-out type of song,” she said, but she found its flowery, soft-edged spirit a welcome antidote to big fists and mouths. A less aggressive rap era, the natives tongues movement, had begun. It would eventually include the platinum-selling Digital Underground and Queen Latifah on Tommy Boy, as well as A Tribe Called Quest and the Jungle Brothers on other labels.

 

It’s been quite a ride, and even Ms. Lynch is exhibiting signs of settling down. She doesn’t club-hop as much, and a year and a half ago she bought a large studio apartment on the Upper East Side. Her headboard lights up in neon. On a table are a dozen Buddha statuettes. Propped up against a mirrored wall are hundreds of disco and jazz records in frayed cases. The furniture is what she called “Vegas in the 50’s.”

 

But the night won’t leave her life easily. Wanting to make pancakes a couple of mornings ago, she had to buy not only the mix but also pans and measuring cups.

 

“I don’t drive,” she said proudly, “and I don’t cook. Those pancakes were the first things I’d cooked since leaving Chicago.”

 

Later that night, in a tent erected on the lawn of Tavern on the Green, a pushy re-head with a screeching long Island accent shoved her hand into Ms. Lynch’s. “Monica Lynch! I’ve always wanted to meet you! I’m Rosie O’Donnell!” It was the preview party for “A League of Their Own,” a movie about an all-woman baseball team, and Ms. O’Donnell stars in it with Madonna and others.

 

Ms. Lynch was recognized with some frequency at this party, because of either her recent magazine ad for the Gap or her reputation. And she was often told that she’s a role model. “I always think,” she said, “’Honey, if you knew enough about me, you’d know better than to say that.’”

 

She wore a lime-green ensemble she bought off the rack at A&S Plaza and a green sequined A’s baseball cap. At her table was the actress Ann Magnuson, whose leopard-spotted silk organza outfit matched her purse and whose series, “Anything But Love,” was just canceled. The drag queen Lipsynka ate macrobiotic food while everyone else ate ribs and chicken.

 

Women ruled this night. An all-female big band played standards, and Ms. Magnuson dreamed out loud about a television series set at a corporation headed by women. Skeptically, Ms. Lynch assayed the dance floor, on which some of the un-hip were taking tentative steps. “It’s awful when people try to dance at these things,” she said.

 

Contrary to its thuggish image, Ms. Lynch said, rap has been good to women: “It’s an industry where a lot of women have been given opportunities to get in on the ground level and grow. That didn’t happen in the rock industry or the radio industry.”

 

Even the much-hyped misogyny of some rap lyrics doesn’t bother her: “It’s not the message so much as who’s saying it that disturbs people. Rap gets a bad rap – so to speak – because it’s a black music form.”

 

The night called. “There’s a ‘Deee-Lite party at the Roxy,” she said, winking conspiratorially at Ms. Magnuson. Singing her arms like a rapper, she said: “O.K., posse. Let’s roll!”

 

ILLUSTRATION: photograph