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'Disco' Is Too Long; 'Beats' Showcases Tommy Boy

July 09, 1999|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

So did disco really suck--or was that battle cry against the dance-happy music merely the nervous rant of rock fans against a rival sound and lifestyle challenging the pop culture dominance of rock in the '70s?

Rhino Records' impressively designed "The Disco Box" won't end the debate, but the four-disc set does bring together some of disco's most celebrated moments. Unfortunately, those highlights could have been easily contained in a single disc (maybe you could have stretched it to two discs, if Rhino had been able to get the rights to some of the Bee Gees' hits).

Similarly, Tommy Boy Records' "Greatest Beats" is another nicely designed package that runs a bit too long, though maybe by only one disc in this case. The four-disc affair, which concentrates on the label's innovative artists, picks up the beat in the post-disco world.

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** Various artists, "The Disco Box," Rhino. The question raised by this set doesn't just involve the quality of disco, but the whole issue of what exactly constitutes disco. There are lots of hard-core disco efforts spread over the four discs, but some tracks are simply dance-minded efforts by pop-rock acts (from the Jackson 5 to Blondie) who tapped into the commercial groove--and those records seem out of place here.

Whatever your definition, however, some records go beyond the narrow, beats-per-minute disco formula to express the yearning, commentary and sheer sparkle of the best pop music. Among them: Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive," Donna Summer's "I Feel Love," Indeep's "Last Night a D.J. Saved My Live," Candi Staton's "Young Hearts Run Free" and Chic's "Good Times."

But there is a seemingly endless supply of music in "The Disco Box" that is more routine than inspired, from A Taste of Honey's "Boogie Oogie Oogie" to KC & the Sunshine Band's "Get Down Tonight."

Listening to much of the mediocre stuff reminds you of the heartless, calculated Top 40 sounds of today--music largely designed by producers trying to stay within the day's commercial boundaries instead of stretching them.

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*** 1/2 Various artists, "Tommy Boy Greatest Beats," Tommy Boy. You begin to see the wide gap in quality between the disco era and the hip-hop era when a four-disc boxed set featuring a single hip-hop label's product is more rewarding than a four-disc package devoted to the highlights of the entire disco era.

Indeed, this seminal New York label's first big record, Afrika Bambaataa & the Soul Sonic Force's 1982 landmark "Planet Rock," was a bold declaration that it was time for the dance world to move beyond disco . . . toward what eventually became hip-hop.

Bambaataa has often been called the godfather of hip-hop, thanks to his revolutionary studio approach. As David Toop points out in the set's liner notes, "With 'Planet Rock,' Afrika Bambaataa and Tommy Boy introduced a futuristic new sound, a black science-fiction music that exploited cutting-edge technology in a way that was totally accessible to young street kids."

Remarkably, the team, which included producer Arthur Baker, came up with an even more spectacular record later the same year with "Looking for a Perfect Beat."

With Sugar Hill Records giving us Grandmaster Flash's socially conscious "The Message" the same year, hip-hop was thrust into the pop scene with captivating force.

Though other labels, including Russell Simmons' Def Jam, would eventually do more to popularize hip-hop and rap, Tommy Boy remained a center of innovation, thanks to a roster that over the years has included such artists as De La Soul, House of Pain, Naughty by Nature, Coolio, Digital Underground and Queen Latifah. On these tracks, you'll even find early contributions by such stars as Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur.

Not everything is essential, but the highlights demonstrate that Tommy Boy was as vital to the development of hip-hop as such early indie labels as Chess, Atlantic and Sun were to the growth of rock 'n' roll.

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Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).

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