Trenton Where We Live: Tony D interview

Hip-hop heroes seem to be dropping like flies recently. I prefer them when they’re droppin’ funky verses. I spoke to Trenton, New Jersey producer and rapper Tony D not very long before he died, in an interview for Hip-Hop Connection. I spoke to YZ and Wise Intelligent in the same week and it was nice to join the dots between the three, even after a lot of not always smooth history.

Tony D reading a newspaper

Tony is known to many as a producer, a solo artist, but for me he was a lynchpin of a certain style and sound. He was always being mistaken for that other Tony D (have a look at Tony Depula’s Discogs credits and it’s full of stuff he definitely didn’t work on) but his sound, especially early on, is distinctive. His production for PRT, Shawn Lov, Blvd. Mosse, King Sun, Scott Lark, Blaque Spurm and his own crew Crusaders for Real Hip-Hop adds up to a fine body of work, and I was moved by his early death in a car crash to write this piece for The Guardian.

Anyway, without further ado, here’s my full interview with Tony D, a much-missed character, and a bit of audio, including the cassette-only track ‘Shoe Polish’ which must constitute about the 7th diss record about 3rd Bass on the Droppin’ Funky Verses album.

AE: Do you remember the first time you heard hip-hop?

Tony D: Yeah, it was 1979 or 1980. I was just getting out of high school I think. So I was 16, growing up in Trenton.

AE: Did you want to be an artist straight away?

Tony D: Well, I started DJ’ing first. I was into punk as a teenager, pretty much until I discovered hip-hop. Being from Trenton I was listening to dance and punk rock, The Clash and all that. I had a lot of black friends, so when I was exposed to hip-hop, I started DJ’ing that, but I didn’t know anything about being an artist at that point.

AE: When did you actually start producing?

Tony D: In the mid 80’s. I used to help set up sound equipment for a sound system out here that did all the block parties and the dances. One day the DJ didn’t turn up and I told the sound guy that I had turntables and records at my house. He was like, ‘Go get it,’ so I went and got it, and ever since that day I was the DJ for the sound system, Duke Productions. I shout them out on every thing I do, they were the biggest sound system in Trenton.

AE: Where would the system set up?

Tony D: In gymnasiums, the boys clubs. These were like small outside parties, so they would do carnivals. Nearly every other weekend they would hire out a big gym and I would DJ it. There’d be hundreds of kids coming to dance and once we got ’87 they were getting into Ultramagnetic and Big Daddy Kane.

AE: What were the Trenton music spots in the mid 80’s where people hung out?

Tony D: There were just a couple of spots. There was a roller rink where people like LL and Mikey D and a lot of the good battle rhymers would come to perform at. That was the main place to see something like that. The Capital Roller Rink was the place to go see shows, but then it moved on to the Trenton War Memorial, which is the infamous place where Trenton dissed Rakim.

AE: When New York artists came to Trenton to perform, did any Trenton guys battle them?

Tony D: Well. Trenton was big in the righteous area, in the 5% stuff. When Rakim came to perform, he only had ‘Eric B is President’ out, it was right after that came out. Trenton was always very ignorant and thought whatever it did was better than what New York did. They just weren’t having it, and if someone didn’t put on a show they would diss you. I think it was the BDP / Marley Marl clash and they were touring together, with MC Shan. They performed and then Rakim came out and was standing there going, ‘Check out my melody’ and for some reason the Trenton crowd weren’t having it. They started throwing pennies and quarters and batteries from Walkmans at Eric B & Rakim. Rakim had on his Gucci suit and pulled out his knot of money and said, ‘I don’t need your money,’ and they dissed him. I was back on the side of the stage when it happened, because I also performed.

“They started throwing pennies and quarters and batteries from Walkmans at Eric B & Rakim”

AE: What was your first time in the studio?

Tony D: I actually sat in on someone else’s session in 1986. I used to go to Newark a lot and there was this studio where a lot of guys were making small-time records and that’s where we ended up making a lot stuff, at Epsilon Studios. I sat in and checked out these guys as they were cutting some songs, using the old style reel-to-reel. The first track I did was Too Def ‘I Am Who I Am’, that was YZ’s group before he went solo on Tuff City. I made that with a sequential drum machine, and an 808 on the other one. Back then, everyone had a 4 track, then I bought a drum machine, and someone brought YZ over to my house. I put on a beat and he rhymed for 7 minutes in that LL battle style. I was like, ‘this is dope’. Eventually he hooked up with a radio DJ from Philly called Jeff Mills who fronted us some studio time so we could go in and record those two songs.

AE: Did you get paid?

Tony D: Nah. Not then. It was still learning and fun and no-one knew anything about getting paid yet.

AE: What kind of reaction were you getting, being a white guy in hip-hop at the time?

Tony D: Throughout my career in Trenton there were times when they might be a beef there or a misunderstanding about me. But I was already hanging with cats from the projects and the ghetto, that’s how I learned to DJ. One of my mentors was a guy named Rocksteady and I learned to DJ from him. These guys were drug dealers in the projects so because I was with them I already had respect. So when I started making beats it wasn’t really no big deal. A lot of people thought I was Spanish. It only became controversial that I was Caucasian when I started producing PRT and King Sun and all that stuff. The first couple of years it was just fun to do music and no-one questioned my authenticity or trueness to hip-hop.

AE: In the late 80’s it almost seemed like a whole Trenton scene started to emerge.

Tony D: Well, we were sandwiched between New York and Philly, so any of the good music and clothing and fashion trends came to us before it got to Philly, so were kind of hip to what was going on in New York before Philly was. You know, all the dis records they did in the early days – they were kind of country to us. We were just like New York – we would get everything first.

“No one questioned my authenticity or trueness to hip-hop”

AE: How did you hook up with Cool Gino G?

Tony D: Again, through Rocksteady. Trenton is broken up into sides – North Trenton, South Trenton, and so on. I was hanging in the North Trenton area and I’d be over at Rock Steady’s house DJ’ing, hanging out, smoking and all of that . He came through and Rock Steady was like, ‘this is my boy Gino, he can rhyme a little bit’. I heard him rhyme and he had the LL thing going on at that time. We actually started rhyming together first and then I started making the beats for him. He was already going up to New York, because even though there was a music scene here, there were no record labels. These guys would do anything to get put on back in the day and they would constantly go to New York. Gino was friends with Dr Shock, who produced Mikey D and the Symbolic Three. We’d go up to the Bronx, to his projects, cutting demo’s and trying to get put on through Dr Shock and Mikey D.

AE: You were billed as Grand Poobah Tony D on that record, right?

Tony D: Right. I was Grand Poobah Tony D and he was Cool Gino G and we actually did two separate songs. I just picked that name, and I dropped it immediately when Grand Puba Maxwell came out. Everybody was Grand something then, so I’d just picked Grand Poobah. I ran into those guys a year later when I was working with Jazzy Jay, and I dropped it. I mean, I didn’t consider myself a great rhymer, we were doing it just to do it. I think Gino also knew Vandy C who hooked that up – he took the demo to Monica Lynch and she loved it and we signed a little deal. We actually recorded that song at Fresh Gordon’s house.

AE: How did you get your tracks on the Jazzy Jay compilation?

Tony D: That came about through Lady B, the female Philly DJ. She was kind of managing me at the time, around 1988, I guess. I was already doing independent things, like Too Kool Posse, that got picked up by Profile, we were pressing indie records, then YZ did ‘In Control of Things’ on Diversity. One time she heard one of my songs and took it to Jazzy Jay and Rocky and they loved that. That was ‘Back to the lab’. I hooked up with Jazzy Jay and started hanging out in his studio in the Bronx. There was Diamond D before he blew up, and Fat Joe who was just a little kid. It was amazing to be exposed to the true pioneers in the Bronx. So in a two year span I went from being a local DJ to rubbing elbows with Jazzy Jay and Afrika Bambaataa.

AE: Did that give you a bigger profile back in Trenton?

Tony D: Yeah, as soon as they knew I was making records, all of a sudden there were a million rappers in Trenton. But at the time I was only doing Too Kool Posse, YZ and my own stuff.

AE: You made a lot of music with YZ, what was your working relationship like?

Tony D: YZ was just a real person. He wasn’t all smoked out – he was straight and he was focussed but there was always something about him. I’m not gonna talk bad about him, but there was always something up his sleeve. I was just at a backyard barbecue and met him through a friend. I kind of stole YZ from his DJ, you know, because his DJ wasn’t making beats. Back in the days everyone just had a DJ instead of a producer. Our relationship was okay considering that we formed a production company a year later, but I was the one doing all the production, so it didn’t make much sense.

AE: When you met Poor Righteous Teachers, had YZ already signed them to Diversity?

Tony D: I met Wise Intelligent through Rocksteady again. He kept telling me about this kid who could rhyme and I never could find him in the projects. Then one day I saw him and went over to him and asked him to rhyme. He didn’t want to rhyme for me, but eventually he did and he blew me away. So he started coming to my crib and cutting demos, and they were so dope I said let’s go to Epsilon studios and record them. We did the two songs, ‘Time to Say Peace’ and ‘Butt Naked Booty Bless’. PRT were trying to give it to Diversity, which was owned by YZ and this guy Tim Baylor. Apparently the story is that they signed a deal to put the single out on Diversity but YZ and this guy Tim wanted to wait until YZ’s record had run its course. PRT were poor and from the projects, so they didn’t want to wait – they wanted to get the record out.

AE: Is is true they were so poor that they sold their own recording equipment to pay for the studio time?

Tony D: I don’t know, I don’t remember that story. I know that I was paying for some of the studio time and one of these drug dealing cats was paying for some of the studio time. But I knew they were poor.

AE: And then you got caught in the crossfire between PRT and YZ.

Tony D: Yeah, I was in the middle. One day I’d be in the studio doing a song with PRT and they’re dissing YZ and the next day back in the same studio YZ and he’s doing a song dissing them. YZ was from an area outside of Trenton called Heightstown, and these two boroughs didn’t get along. Trenton was always known for jumping people. I would say it was more than just Diversity not wanting to put the PRT stuff out, I’d say it was also PRT wanted me to produce them solely. There were other things that went along with it, but it was very weird being part of that at the time.

“I’d be in the studio doing a song with PRT and they’re dissing YZ and the next day back in the same studio YZ and he’s doing a song dissing them”

AE: Did you have to deal with Aaron Fuchs at all when YZ signed to Tuff City?

Tony D: Yeah, and that wasn’t fun neither. I actually still talk to Aaron every once in a while. I was just learning the business by that point, and we were aware that if you pressed up something independently some of the NY labels would want to pick it up. I was just learning the contracts and I was really having trouble trying to get paid for my tracks from Aaron. I did all of YZ’s first album and his EP and I wanted a certain amount per track and it was almost impossible to get it. So I ended up signing some of my publishing away just to get upfront money for the beats. To this day I have never seen a royalty cheque from Tuff City. I still talk to him. He bled me for a lot of information when he was putting out the best of YZ a year or two ago. I went there with a couple of unreleased YZ tracks to see if he’d be interested in putting them on there, and still he didn’t want to pay me for them. I’m like, ‘I’m not gonna give ’em to you for free, man!’ He was still up to his old tricks. He’s doing pretty good there throwing out all the breaks and New Orleans stuff.

AE: How did the solo album on 4th & Broadway album come about?

Tony D: Well, I finished the first PRT album in 1989. The buzz from ‘Rock Dis Funky Joint’ was tremendous and I was getting a lot of requests to do beats. Jazzy Jay’s partner, Rocky,  had his own management, and I signed with him. He’d heard ‘Can I Start This’ where I rhyme on the PRT song, and he took that to one of the A & R’s at 4th & Broadway. I suppose my verse is very different from whatever else is on there. I was just buggin’ on Kool Keith – that was my favourite rapper –  and these guys asked me if I could do something like that for a whole album. They showed me the album budget and I was like, ‘Yeah, sure!’.

AE: And then you did the Crusaders for Real Hip-Hop LP.

Tony D: At the time I was using up a lot of my beats for PRT and then I did that LP. Profile and PWL were in a little war over that group. The thing was Profile took more of the raw songs off the LP and put more of the commercial songs on there. There were 6 songs that never made it to that LP that explained the group more.

“I think I pioneered the use of the vocal samples in hip-hop”

AE: All told, you must be sitting on a lot of unreleased material.

Tony D: Oh, I got tons of it. It’s amazing, the stuff that I have, it’s not just that didn’t make it to our LP’s, it’s groups that never made it all that people flip out over: Black Prince and Asiatic. I released the PRT rare and unreleased thing a year ago, and I have hundreds of songs from groups that I’ve transferred from DAT. I’ve got unreleased Blvd. Mosse – they actually got better because they dropped the ragga influence and picked up another rhymer and by ’92, ’93 were doing really dope pure hip-hop stuff. From about ’89-’95 there’s a ton of random stuff no-one has ever heard. I’ve been speaking to Egon at Stones Throw and Bobbito about releasing stuff, but we couldn’t nail it down, so I’m probably going to continue to do it on my own label.

AE: What was the whole story with Naughty by Nature and ‘Music Makes You Move’?

Tony D: Lady B’s partner Fats came to me and said, 45 King is throwing out all these beat records, why don’t you? This was 1989 and YZ was pissed off because every time we came out with fresh sample, somebody else would use it. He really took it to heart. So he started rhyming on that beat and naming names. I don’t know how it got on that breakbeat record, but it did. New Jersey is pretty small, so I know that Naughty By Nature are down with 45 King. I’m pretty sure they heard that track and decided to make ‘O.P.P’. I heard that it was originally going to be about beats, but then Tommy Boy said it wasn’t pop enough, so they changed it.

AE: Did you end up sorting it out amicably with Naughty?

Tony D: Nah, ’cause my lawyer said I didn’t have clean hands. There was no way for me to sue because I never cleared it with the Jackson 5. But it’s quite obvious if you ever listen to it what they did. They ended up making millions of dollars and I’m still scratching and clawing. On the other hand, Eddie F sampled a PRT beat for Heavy D and Supercat and I ended up getting a payment out of that because I used some original creations.

AE: I’m going to name some of the old Trenton crew, I wondered if you could say a few things about them. Let’s start with Blvd. Mosse.

Tony D: The MC, Outstanding, I’m not sure what he does now. The DJ continued to go on to do mixtapes all through the 90’s and Rahzil who was the reggae chanter moved on to do some stuff with me in the Crusaders for Real Hip-Hop project. He’s still doing stuff today. The dude has so much talent I can’t imagine why he hasn’t broken out and been large. We still collaborate and make beats.

AE: Too Kool Posse?

Tony D: This is a bad one, this is unbelievable. The rapper, Marquis, is in Arkansas state prison serving 20 years. Apparently he drowned two babies in a bathtub. I don’t really believe it, and he was not really a drug head, but they say he met a girl in Arkansas and drowned the two babies. He was very talented, a very skilled MC. An MC’s MC. I have really dope unreleased stuff on them. I actually wrote him in jail to see if he’d be interested in me putting it out. He wasn’t a thug or a knucklehead, he was the most mild-mannered person in the world.

AE: Almighty & KD Ranks?

Tony D: I see Almighty every once in a while. He was a hustler on the streets of West Trenton for a long time.

AE: Back in the 80’s, what were the big records you played out in Trenton clubs?

Tony D: ‘The Bridge is Over’ definitely. If you played 10 records, you’d play ‘The Bridge is Over’, Big Daddy Kane ‘Raw’, Eric B & Rakim ‘I Know You Got Soul’. Rob Base, ‘It Takes Two’ would always kill the dancefloor. Ultramagnetic killed it. Even softer stuff like Kid ‘n’ Play, ‘Last Night’.

AE: Wasn’t the original line-up of the Geto Boys (then the ‘Ghetto Boys’) out of Trenton.

Tony D: Yes, the DJ Ready Red and Prince Johnny C. Then they moved down to Houston to form the group.

AE: What’s your legacy in hip-hop?

Tony D: I think I pioneered the use of the vocal samples in hip-hop. Think of the Average White Band for ‘Thinking of a Masterplan’ and the James Brown one for ‘In Control of Things’. No-one was really using samples or loops that had a voice in it until I did that.

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