Tommy Boy's Greatest Beats: The First Fifteen Years, 1981-1996 is a thoroughly enjoyable four-volume collection recently issued by Tommy Boy, arguably the independent label most responsible for bringing hip-hop into the musical mainstream. From "Planet Rock," a genre-defining opus by Afrika Bambaataa + Soul Sonic Force, to "Gangsta's Paradise," a commercial bonanza for Coolio, Greatest Beats' finest tracks define a very specific brand of New York urban cool. So it's rather surprising to learn that the set was compiled and co-executive-produced by Steve Knutson, a Caucasian from Colorado who once fronted one of Denver's most successful new-wave bands. Or maybe it's not--because Knutson, who's been in charge of sales at Tommy Boy for over a decade, has never let imagined boundaries keep him away from great music. "I started out as a fan," he says. "And that's still what I am."
Knutson arrived in the Denver area when he was three months old (he was born in Minnesota), and by the time he'd reached age seven, he was already a record fiend--the kind who still recalls the precise moment when he fell in love with rock and roll. "These friends of my parents who lived across the street had a teenage son, and he'd bought Are You Experienced?, by Jimi Hendrix, right when it came out," he says. "I remember going up to his room and him playing this album for me--and it blew me away so much that I took my father upstairs to listen to it, too. He said it was the worst thing he'd ever heard."
In the years that followed, Knutson became a familiar figure at Peaches and other Denver-area music stores--and when local outlets didn't have the stuff he wanted in stock, this self-described Anglophile went to the source to get it. "I corresponded with a fellow in London who I used to buy Who and Kinks singles from. He'd tell me all about going to places like the 100 Club, which was associated with the whole punk movement; the Sex Pistols and the Buzzcocks would always play there. So I was hip to that stuff immediately. To me, it was just the most exciting noise."
Along with several neighborhood buddies, Knutson subsequently formed a cover band that made plenty of racket as well. ("We'd play New York Dolls songs at high-school parties," he says. "We played at Cherry Creek High one time and got booed off the stage.") But an equally important outlet for his musical passion was Wax Trax, a record store opened in the fall of 1975 by Jim Nash and Dannie Flesher. According to Knutson, "I got a flier about it in the mail, and it listed all my favorite bands: New York Dolls, Bowie, and a lot of groups that I thought no one but me knew anything about. It was like a letter from heaven, because Denver didn't have anything like it then."
Wax Trax (which opened in an Ogden Street storefront before moving to its current location at 638 East 13th Avenue) turned out to be a dream come true for Knutson; he describes it as "a club with these passionate members who met each other by accident and realized they weren't crazy." He spent so much time there that Nash and Flesher hired him to work for them in late 1976. Two years later the owners decided to move the business to Chicago, selling the Denver outlet to regular customers Duane Davis and Dave Stidman. Knutson traveled to Chicago to help Nash and Flesher get the new operation up on its feet, but he left long before it mutated into the Wax Trax! imprint, which introduced the world to Ministry and many other singular acts. "They didn't really have a place for me," he says. Instead, he returned to Denver to aid Davis and Stidman in their hour of need. As Stidman said in a recent column commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the second Wax Trax regime (Feedback, December 3, 1998), the inventory initially consisted of LPs picked up at thrift stores. When those were sold, Knutson was put in charge of determining what to stock in their place. "Dave and Duane would give me an allowance of about $100 a week to go buy whatever cool imports were around at the time," Knutson says. "And when those sold, I'd have $200 to work with--and it snowballed from there. The business grew very quickly, because Wax Trax had such a loyal following of record nuts. They sort of willed it to be successful.
"There was something in the air back then--a purely aesthetic thing that we were all really excited about," he goes on. "And we knew how far we could impose our own tastes on other people. I remember one time buying 200 copies of The Modern Dance, by Pere Ubu, directly from David Thomas [the band's lead singer], and I sold them all in about six months, because I made just about every single person who came in buy one. And Dave and Duane would do the same thing. We were arbiters of taste in a certain sense--we even had a radio show that we inherited from the Jim and Dannie days--and it made everyone else want to be a part of what was going on."
Along with Marilyn Megenity's Mercury Cafe and a handful of other hipster hangouts, Wax Trax helped give birth to Denver's late-Seventies underground music scene. The Jonny 3, an outfit that starred guitarist Kenny Vaughan (now a successful Nashville session player), was the first of the bands in this movement to attract a sizable audience, rising to prominence in 1977. But within a few years, other acts were beginning to follow this path, including the Aviators, the Metrotones, Crank Call Love Affair and the Young Weasels, which consisted of drummer Kevin Meilinger, bassist Cooper Brougher, guitarist Jeff Froyd and a vocalist named Steve Knutson.
The Weasels weren't Knutson's only group of note; he was also part of Charred Remains, a collective that included Mike Johnson and Bob Drake from Thinking Plague ("The Power of Positive Thinking," January 7) and Lin Esser, who was in both the Metrotones and Crank Call Love Affair. But the Weasels easily topped the others in popularity. Today Knutson is reluctant to make too bold a statement in regard to the band's quality: "We were Faith No More without the hit," he claims. But at its height, the quartet earned critical praise, regularly filled the Mercury and now-defunct venues such as Walabi's, and frequently appeared alongside national touring outfits at the era's premier mid-sized venue, the Rainbow Music Hall. "I think my most frightening moment as a musician was when we took this gig to open up for Loverboy and the audience loved us," Knutson says. "I totally freaked out. And then we opened up for R.E.M., whose audience we felt we had a kinship with, and they threw shit at us and booed. Later, Michael Stipe went on stage and said, 'Thanks to the Young Weasels' and told them they should support their local bands, and they booed him, too."
In the end, frustration, not fickle crowds, killed the Weasels. The group appeared in a play in New York City in 1981 and subsequently toured the Midwest, but a proposed album to be dubbed Stupid Desire never received a proper release, and the bandmates eventually grew restless. Guitarist Froyd (who is married to Westword calendar editor Susan Froyd) left in 1983, and even though the Weasels carried on for a time without him, the momentum was gone. "You can be a big fish in a small pond for only so long," Knutson says. "Besides, I needed to leave Denver. I didn't see that there was anything else for me to do there." To that end, Knutson phoned Monica Lynch, a onetime Chicagoan whom he'd gotten to know partly because of their shared passion for Roxy Music. By then, Lynch was vice president of New York-based Tommy Boy, a fledgling firm started by Tom Silverman that had just made its first real impact via the "Planet Rock" twelve-inch. When Knutson asked her for a job, she offered him one--in the Tommy Boy mail room. That was good enough for Knutson: He left the Weasels, quit Wax Trax and headed to the Big Apple with nary a look back.
Although Denver was hardly hip-hop central during that period (and the Young Weasels had nothing in common with Run D.M.C.), Knutson had supported the genre since "Rapper's Delight," a hit for the Sugarhill Gang in 1979. He was also a booster of electronic music, and since "Planet Rock" and other early Tommy Boy tunes were underpinned by this style, he immediately felt that he'd come to the right place. "I ended up making hardly any money--the first couple of years there were really difficult--but I loved being immersed in hip-hop culture," he says. "And one of the joys of working for a small company like Tommy Boy, which only had five employees when I started, is that you wind up wearing a lot of different hats. I went from being the shipping guy to the messenger guy learning the subway system to doing retail promotion on records to hanging out with groups when they did local performances."
The job that would occupy the majority of his Tommy Boy time came Knutson's way in late 1985. "At one point, one of our major distributors went out of business and stiffed us for a bunch of money. That meant we had to open up accounts direct, and Tom [Silverman] was able to do that. But they still needed a salesperson, so I told Monica, 'I can do it.' She said, 'I don't think you have what it takes. You're not aggressive enough.' But she told Tom what I'd said anyway, and when I came in the next Monday, I was head of sales--and I've been head of sales ever since."
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Since stepping into an executive role, Knutson has overseen the marketing of every Tommy Boy breakthrough: In Full Effect, a well-regarded 1988 album by Stetsonic that drew talent into the fold; 3 Feet High and Rising, a 1989 De La Soul masterpiece that became the company's first gold record; and platinum efforts by Digital Underground, Naughty by Nature, House of Pain and Coolio. There were plenty of left-field successes as well, including the series of "jock rock" compilations issued in conjunction with the ESPN cable franchise. Count Knutson among those dumbfounded by the appeal of this last idea. "Monica had been hanging out at [Madison Square Garden] watching the Knicks play, and she came back to the office and said, 'If we put all these songs together, I bet we could do really well with that.' Well, to be honest, I thought that sounded unbelievably square--but after we'd sold the first million copies, I changed my mind."
Over the years, Knutson has also been involved in his share of creative decisions at Tommy Boy: He worked closely with 808 State and LFO, a pair of electronica precursors, and arranged for former members of Kraftwerk to contribute to a "Planet Rock" remix EP. But his biggest project of this type was Tommy Boy's Greatest Beats, which fell to him in part because of his longevity. "I've turned into the grand old man of Tommy Boy. I'm the only one who can remember all the records, because I had to ship them off--and I still have a huge amount of passion for them." He adds, "When I started putting it together, I did it in the obnoxious, nerdy record-collector way--making everything sequential and putting the influential records alongside the hit records. But when I got done and looked at it, it seemed really cold and boring. I didn't think it would appeal to anyone--not even me. So I went back and thought about it, and I realized that Tommy Boy's always been about upbeat party music that's really inclusive, and that's what I tried to put across. I chose all our biggest records from the charts and the stuff that reflected the legacy and put it together--and even though there are some really disparate things, I think it works really well."
With Greatest Beats completed, Knutson is once again focusing on sales; he's presently riding high with Everlast's "What It's Like," which is Tommy Boy's first-ever modern-rock chart-topper. And while he doesn't see himself ever moving back to Colorado (he's still stinging from the passage of the anti-gay Amendment 2 earlier in the Nineties), he considers himself a product of the state. "I've lived out here for fifteen years, but I'm still proud to be from the West," he says. "That's never going to change. And if the Broncos lose this weekend, it'll kill me.