Download: TVT Records, 1985-2008

Download: TVT Records, 1985-2008

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1. Lalo Schifrin: "Mission: Impossible Theme" Preview/Buy from iTunes

TVT Records started in 1985 when Steve Gottlieb, a recent Harvard Law graduate, got together with a bunch of his friends, raised $125,000, and put out Television's Greatest Hits, a compilation of sixty-five old TV-show themes. The label's original name was Tee Vee Toons, Inc., which is sort of hilarious. This TV-show theme idea was pretty great from a business standpoint. These days, any compilation of sixty-five discrete pieces of music would probably cost a whole lot more than $125,000 to compile and release, and anyone who wants those themes could just download them anyway. Back then, though, Television's Greatest Hits and its various sequels were basically the only way that interested parties could own some legitimately badass pieces of music like this one. So Gottlieb made life a whole lot easier for people putting together nostalgic theme-parties and motivational office-workshop sketches, and he was rewarded for his efforts with a functional and profitable independent record label, never an easy thing to start. After all, media empires have sprung from ideas a lot dumber than that original one.

2. Nine Inch Nails: "Something I Can Never Have" Preview/Buy from iTunes

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In 1989, when TVT was still figuring out how to become a real record label, it lucked into a deal with Trent Reznor's synthpop/metal one-man-band thing. Years ago, Spin ran an article about Nine Inch Nails where the writer (I forget who) described Trent Reznor showing up to the pre-CMJ indie-centric New Music Seminar in New York that year and getting totally ignored because he was making suburban tantrum-rock rather than sophisticated, urbane post-punk. But someone at TVT recognized that Reznor was making absolutely transcendent suburban tantrum-rock, and they snapped him right up, which is how TVT came to release Pretty Hate Machine, one of my favorite albums. The situation there isn't altogether unlike Priority lucking into N.W.A after first scoring with California Raisins albums. Pretty Hate Machine is an album of ridiculous scope and specificity and accessibility, one that felt intensely personal and powerful to the bajillion suburban teenagers and preteens who bought it, including me. It balanced scrape-scream pseudo-industrial sonics with completely polished and assured Human League hooks, and it captured a moment. By 1991, TVT was an honest-to-God record label, whether it actually intended to be one or not. For some totally incomprehensible reason, Pretty Hate Machine isn't up for sale in iTunes, so for the purposes of this playlist we'll have to make do with the abridged version from the Natural Born Killers soundtrack. Catalog sales are no joke, and the absence of Pretty Hate Machine on iTunes is just one example of a really dumb TVT business decision. We'll get to more of those soon. For similar reasons, we're going to have to skip the KLF's Chill Out, another early TVT release, since none of those tracks are up on iTunes.

3. My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult: "Sex On Wheelz" Preview/Buy from iTunes

Reznor didn't stick around TVT for long, but the label recognized that there was money to be made from industrial music, so it bought Wax Trax records, the Chicago indie that had been ground zero for that trenchcoats-and-megaphones racket before Reznor swooped in and commercialized the hell out of it. TVT is thus responsible for the KMFDM and Revolting Cocks tapes that found their way into my collection. My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult were far and away my favorite group from that whole scene because they were more about sexed-up sleaze-funk and B-52s garage-pop hooks than jackhammer grunting. I haven't actually thought about TKK in years, but their 13 Above the Night got major Walkman burn on the walk to school in 1993.

4. Mic Geronimo: "Time to Build" Preview/Buy from iTunes

TVT formed Blunt Records, its first rap subsidiary, in 1993, hiring Irv Gotti as its chief A&R the next year. So long before Lil Jon entered the mix, TVT released at least one slept-on minor NY rap classic in The Natural, Mic Geronimo's 1995 debut. "Time to Build" featured Jay-Z, DMX, and Ja Rule long before any of them would release a solo album; it's a pretty great song that's worth a listen on time-capsule novelty appeal alone. (DMX raps exactly like Onyx! Except, like, more horrorcore!) In some parallel universe, TVT probably signed all three of those guys. (The label did snap up the Cash Money Clik, Ja Rule's old crew, but that would only result in a whole bunch of lawsuit headaches down the line.)

5. Gravity Kills: "Guilty" Preview/Buy from iTunes

In a fairly bald move to recapture that Pretty Hate Machine industrial-pop money, TVT introduced the world to Gravity Kills, a St. Louis band of blatant Reznor-biters who I somehow saw live like three separate times when I was in high school. (Fun fact: they opened the 1997 Sex Pistols reunion tour! With Goldfinger!) Best thing about Gravity Kills: onstage, their keyboard player had his instrument mounted on a sort of swivel, so he could thrash all around while he was playing. It looked awesome. As blatant Reznor-biters go, these guys were at least better than Stabbing Westward, and this song still kind of rules.

6. Buck-O-Nine: "My Town" Preview/Buy from iTunes

TVT was basically a label without a clear identity for its entire lifespan. They sure rode the whole industrial thing pretty hard for as long as they could, and they released a whole lot of soundtrack albums, but the incomplete list of former TVT artists on the label's Wikipedia page is a dizzying study in incoherence: the Connells, Autechre, Snoop Dogg's Doggy's Angels thing, Full Force, Southern Culture on the Skids, Vision of Disorder. To put it incredibly lightly, there was never a TVT Records sound. The label operated as a mini-major, signing anything that looked like it might sell. And it worked for a while; some bands, like Sevendust, actually sold. For a time, TVT was the country's most successful indie label. But, like any major label, they released a whole lot of random bullshit. Buck-O-Nine was TVT's attempt to tap into the late-90s ska-punk trend. It basically didn't work, but I still like this song.

7. Guided By Voices: "Glad Girls" Preview/Buy from iTunes

In 2001, Guided By Voices tried to sell out by leaving Matador for TVT and recording an album with Ric Ocasek. It didn't work.

8. Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz: "Bia' Bia'" Preview/Buy from iTunes It's pretty funny that TVT, a label that had first scored big with industrial music, finally broke into rap in a big way with this track, which is about as aesthetically close as rap ever came to industrial. I can just imagine, like, Pigface kicking themselves for not coming up with this one first. Around 2002, the cresting crunk trend gave TVT a new lease on life. Tracks like this one and "Get Low" effectively changed the way club-rap sounded at the beginning of the decade and made TVT a whole lot of money. And in the wake of Lil Jon, TVT released some solid and occasionally great dance-rap long-players like Pitbull's M.I.A.M.I.: Money Is a Major Issue and the Ying Yang Twins' Me & My Brother. Over the next few years, Lil Jon essentially became the first major star the label had held under contract since Reznor. But TVT apparently didn't realize how quickly trends change in rap, and the label seemed entirely unprepared for crunk's decline in popularity.

9. Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz: "Lovers and Friends" Preview/Buy from iTunes

Early in 2004, Lil Jon scored a monster hit with "Yeah," a song he produced for Usher. But "Yeah" wasn't on TVT. So when Lil Jon got around to releasing his first TVT album after "Yeah," TVT tried to recreate that success by bringing Lil Jon back together with Usher and Ludacris and attempting to recreate that first collaboration's power. But for whatever reason, that followup was a godawful emaciated slow-jam where everyone managed to come off sounding like ass. Honestly, I have no idea why anyone would've thought that a for-the-ladies slow-jam from Lil Jon was a good idea. His verse here stands as about the lamest, grisliest, most uncomfortable attempt at love-rap ever put to tape. I can't imagine how much money TVT put into recording this song. Crunk Juice featured big-name guests on almost every song. It went double-platinum, but I get the feeling that it wasn't the blockbuster TVT had anticipated. It's also a terrible mess of an album, a perfect example of a label running a grassroots trend into the ground by throwing as much money at it as possible. In the last couple of years, TVT figured out all sorts of ways to waste money. The label's offices are (or, I guess, were) only a couple of blocks away from the Voice, and for a while I used to see a custom-painted promotional SUV advertising the album from Da Muzicianz everyday on the walk from the subway. Da Muzicianz were a Ying Yang Twins side-project who had a song about camera-phones back when camera-phones were pretty new. And I always wondered how the hell TVT justified having that thing out on the corner every day. Even if the only expenses involved were the custom paint-job and the parking-meter change, I can't imagine that they sold a single record by having this thing parked out on the street in New York, of all places. Gottlieb also made a pretty amazing blunder when he refused to clear guys like Lil Jon and Pitbull to make guest appearances on other rappers' albums, thus powerfully alienating both of them. Just a few months ago, Pitbull gave an interview where he laid into Gottlieb and exhorted fans to boycott The Boatlift, his not-great 2007 album. Given decisions of this caliber, it's amazing that TVT stayed in business for as long as it did. 10. Dude 'N Nem: "Watch My Feet" Preview/Buy from iTunes

Last night, TVT fired most of its staff. The company is expected to declare bankruptcy soon. Gottlieb is saying that the label isn't going out of business and that the mass firing will actually make it stronger, but, I mean, come on. Now that nobody's selling any records, companies like TVT, companies without corporate backing or dedicated niches, are going to be in a whole lot of trouble. Given that the label had long ago exhausted any remaining goodwill for putting Pretty Hate Machine out into the world, I can't bring myself to shed too many tears for TVT. And I don't particularly care what might become of current TVT artists like the Bacon Brothers and Just Jack and the Polyphonic Spree. But I'm a little worried about Dude 'N Nem, the Chicago juke-rap group who released one of my favorite singles of last year. Hopefully they'll get a chance to release an album sooner or later, but it doesn't look like it'll be on TVT.

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