Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Return To The Rock House: A Phone Conversation With Tony M.F. Rock (Part 1)

By Scott Tre

At a time when Atlanta hip-hop was mostly known for "booty shake", Tony M.F. Rock was perfecting an entirely different template for his fellow ATLiens to follow.  His 1990 debut Let Me Take You To The Rock House had the requisite amount of uptempo club bangers, but also showed considerable artistic range.  Its influence begot super lyricists like Andre 3000.  Tony also exerted a certain level of influence on the emerging Miami bass scene, having contributed verses to the 2 Live Crew's infamous classic As Nasty As They Wanna Be.

After a brief sabbatical from the music biz, Tony reemerged as Woodchuck, bassist for The Rap/Rock outfit El Pus.  These days, he is regarded as a southern rap legend.  He takes that designation in stride, being fully aware of his accomplishments while retaining a down to earth demeanor.  He was not only there to witness the inception of southern hip-hop, but unwittingly helped to dictate its course of development.  His position as an elder statesman of ATL Hip-Hop makes him a bastion of invaluable insight.  He also has more than few behind-the-scenes stories that are sure to shock and amuse.  Welcome to the Rock House.

Planet Ill: Tell my readers a little bit about yourself Tony.

Tony M.F. Rock: Tony M.F. Rock/Woodchuck.  I'll tell you both names.  First of all, I'm what some people would allege to be a southern hip-hop legend, their words not mine.  I started out as a rapper, was on Skyywalker's Effect label, actually wrote a couple of verses for the 2 Live Crew on As Nasty As They Wanna Be.  I had my own album out, the hit of course being "I'm That Type Of Nigga."  It was a comical answer to L.L. Cool J's record "I'm That Type of Guy".  Sadly to me, it took off, because I didn't like that record but I'm glad a lot of people did.

After I got soured on the music business, I jumped into the corporate world and taught myself to play bass guitar.  We did jokes around the office.  Every time I completed a practical joke I would say "Woodchuck The Great Squirrel" from the In Living Color Series and the name stuck.  Next thing you know, the band El Pus came sniffing around because Speech from Arrested Development told them that they needed to put a band together and they needed a bass player that would serve them well.  After I signed up with El Pus as bass player I ended up back in the music business and signing a record deal with Virgin records and the rest is history.   

Scott Tre: That's quite a history.

Tony M.F. Rock: Yeah it's interesting.  With dabbles of having my own radio show on Atlanta's first Sports talk station 680 The Fan where I went under another moniker which a lot of people know me here as: "The Voice of Reason."  So all of my success was in the entertainment business and they've all involved nick names.  Go figure (laughs).

Scott Tre: You went to Cedar Grove High School right?

Tony M.F. Rock: Yeah, went from Cedar Grove from 1980 to 1984, where I ended up becoming best friends with another "southern hip-hop legend," MC Shy-D.  We graduated together, we were in the same home room.  At the time he was the only one in the school that could rap and me being the type of person that I am I figured how hard could it be?  I eventually taught myself to rap and he and I became fast friends.  We've been cool ever since.

The legendary MC Shy-D, Shown Here On The Cover of His Gold-Selling 1987 Debut LP "Got To Be Tough."

Scott Tre: How did it feel to be a representative of hip-hop culture at such an early stage, when it still wasn't widely known outside of New York City?  What was that like?

Tony M.F. Rock: It was really cool because, at the time, like you said, it really wasn't known outside of New York.  Not only was I a rapper... me and Shy-D were both rappers.  He was an amazing DJ and he still is.  We were also break dancers and that too was not really known outside of New York except what you saw on TV.  So we were kind of in an envious situation, to sound kind of silly being in high school, girls wanted to hang with us and guys wanted to be us because not a lot of people were able to do what we were doing at the time.  Shy-D was Afrika Bambaataa's cousin and from the Bronx, he knew how to break dance when he got here (Georgia).  Me, again, because of the mindset I have, I saw it on TV and thought "how hard could it be?" (laughs).  I ended up being the number two rated break dancer in the state behind this guy Tony-O who I could never beat.

But it was just really weird being on the cusp of something where it's something that you will never ever get back again because you had songs like "Cosmic Car" by Cybotron.  "It's Like That" was out.  This hip-hop thing it was like, almost there and it just had this feeling about it.  You can call it innocence if you want.  It's like when I think about it now you just get this giddy feeling like "Man, I wish I was back there again."  It was just a cool thing.  At the time I didn't know that we were on the cusp of putting Atlanta on the map.  We just wanted to do the cool stuff we saw on TV and the cool things we heard on the record.  We really thought no further than that.  But Looking back on it, it was really a great feeling.    

Scott Tre: From there, you went to get signed with Luther Campbell and his label?

Tony M.F. Rock: Well, after graduation I went off and I joined the military.  Shy-D, even though he was from Bronx, he adopted this real fast, what would later become known as southern hip-hop.  Let's be honest about one thing as far as Shy-D's place in southern hip-hop history:  Earlier most of us rappers...well, not most of us...I was heavily influenced by New York rappers.  To this day I pledge allegiance to The Fearless Four and Cold Crush Brothers, and people like that.  Those were my main influences.

For some reason, no one knows why, we were at this place called The Showcase and they put on the instrumental to this song called "Planet Rock" which I thought was too fast and Shy-D was like "No, it's perfect!"  I was like "What?!"  He started rapping in the way that early people in the south rapped.  No one else was doing that except for him and I'm thinking "What the hell?"  He laid the groundwork for southern style rap.  This cat from New York.  So if people from New York hate people down here, hey, somebody from New York established the style so get over it (laughs).

But it was just really weird that he chose to go that route and it ended up being the "southern style" of rap.  So he kept rapping while I was doing my military thing and he got signed first to 4 Sight records were he did his first couple of songs.  The Pink Panther thing and the Fred Sanford song.  He got too big for 4Sight.  He started selling a lot of records and his contract was up.  That's when he ended up signing with Luke Skyywalker.

One day I was in my apartment in Denver, and he called me to see how things were going and he was like "you still rap?" and I was like "Yeah, I'm killing guys up here."  Everybody from New York, D.C. or whatever.  I was stationed out in Colorado.  I was blowing them out the water.  So he was like "You still want to rap?"  I was like "Sure, why not?"  Then he put Luther Campbell on three way.  Luke got on the phone and he was like "Hey, you still rap?"  I say "Yeah."  He says "Shy-D told me a lot about you.  When do you get out of the army?"  At this time it was May.  I got out of the army in June.  He was like "You want to make a record?"  I was like "Sure."  I didn't think anything else about it, and I got out the army and came back to Atlanta.  Like a month later, there were plane tickets to Miami for me to go record and I signed that day.  It was basically a simple as that.  I owe a lot of that to Shy-D because he put the word out.

Scott Tre: So you signed with Luther Campbell and you released an album called Let Me Take You To The Rock House.  That made you one of the only Atlanta rappers at the time to be getting exposure outside of Atlanta.  How did that feel and what was it like working with Luke?

The Cover Art For "Let Me Take You To The Rock House."

Tony M.F. Rock: Actually I was the second rapper to get exposure outside of Atlanta.  Shy D was first and he was doing his thing.  He was actually getting a little play overseas, the whole nine yards.  The thing was, and again, it wasn't anything I was looking into and cognizant of at the time.  After signing with Luke and coming in with my influence and how I was, my album was the first southern hip-hop album period that incorporated more melodic samples, and I told more stories.  My album wasn't the typical boom, boom, boom, boom, boom.  At the time I knew it sounded different, but I didn't think it would be regarded as the album that made people begin to take southern hip-hop serious.  At the time I had no clue, and to be honest with you neither did anyone else.

Uncle Luke

It was good recording with Luke.  Being that he was in Miami he liked the Miami boom, boom, boom, boom.  I had twelve songs on that album and he said "Hey, give me for or five songs like that (Miami Bass) and you can do whatever the hell you want with the rest of the album" and I thought that was really cool.  To be honest with you, he gave me a lot of artistic freedom.  I didn't know I'd pay for it on the back end (laughs), but he gave me a lot of artistic freedom and it was cool working with him at the time.

Scott Tre: You also worked with Poison Clan.

The Cover of Poison Clan's 1990 Debut LP "2 Low Life Muthas"

Tony M.F. Rock:  Oh yeah, those guys.  Walter and Jeff.  Good Lord.  I think it's kind of sad that the world has heard what they put on record.  No one will truly understand how talented and gifted those guys were.  I was with Dave, Mr. Mixx, who was 2 Lives DJ and he had seen them before.  So we was working on the Let Me Take You To The Rock House Album and we just had finished recording "Freak That Girl" from the album and I was staying at a hotel at the time.  He was like "You wanna go back to the hotel or you wanna hang out?"  I was like "No, I'll Hang out."  So he said "I want you to meet these kids."  There was this club called Big Daddy 147 that was on 147th street.  They had open mic nights there and Walter and Jeff were just killing all comers.  So he (Mr. Mixx) was like "Hey, I want you to see these kids.  I think I'm gonna get Luke to sign them."  I was like "Ok, cool."  I go, and it's the Poison Clan, and they are rapping over the instrumental to "Jack of Spades" by KRS-1.

I'm not going to lie to you.  At that brief moment I really truly thought about if this was what I wanted to do for a living.  There's an old story about Eric Clapton inviting Pete Townsend to a movie.  They get into the movie and they sitting there for a while and finally Pete Townsend turns to Eric Clapton and he goes "What the hell was this about, why did you ask me to the movie?"  and Eric Clapton goes "I just saw the guy that's gonna put us out of work" and he had just seen Jimi Hendrix at a small club earlier that night.  That's literally how I felt when I saw the Poison Clan rap.  Those guys were truly, truly amazing and on the weird end they friggin' idolized me which I thought was kind of funny.  It was a pleasure working with them when we did the "Poisonous Freestyle."  That was one of their things.  It was a deal breaker for their contract.  They was like "Yeah, we will sign but we want to do a record with Tony Rock and I guess (Brother) Marquis could get in on it if he want to."  I was an idol of theirs and I'm looking at them like "You guys on crack" because they were truly some of the most amazing rappers I had ever seen in my life.

Scott Tre: The Poison Clan referenced the kung-fu film "The Five Deadly Venoms" in their music long before there was ever a such thing as the Wu-Tang Clan (the rap group).  When The Wu-Tang Clan finally came out, did The Poison Clan find that odd?  Did they have anything to say about it?

Tony M.F. Rock: No.  He did what people from Miami usually do which is basically "Yeah, we been on this for a long time."  I'm gonna tell you something a lot of people don't know.  You know the big dookie gold ropes that people in New York became famous for?

The Aforementioned "Dookie Gold Rope"

Scott Tre: Yeah

Tony M.F. Rock: And you know Run-D.M.C were given credit as being some of the first to start doing that?

Run-D.M.C Rocking The Aforementioned "Dookie Gold Ropes" That They Popularized.

Scott Tre: Yeah

Tony M.F. Rock: Well, Run D.M.C did a show in Miami, and Luke was taking them around in a van and they went to beach...they just went out.  They just took in Miami and Run said "What the hell is all this iron that people are wearing around their necks?"  and Luke goes "Nah, these are the ropes and blah, blah, blah".  True story.  Luke took them, Run-D.M.C to U.S.A flea market and Run D.M.C and Jam Master Jay bought their first gold rope from a flea market in Miami.  The went back, and they realized it could be all customized and everything.  And they went back to New York and got more customized items.  But Run D.M.C's first gold rope came from Miami.  Because they were like what the hell is this crap people are wearing around their necks?  A lot of people don't know that.

Scott Tre: Wow.  So Run-D.M.C would admit to this if asked?

Tony M.F. Rock: I know Run would.  If Run denies it, you can ask Luke! (laughs)  Because I'll never forget the quote.  Run was like "What the hell is all this iron people are wearing around their necks?"  That's what he called it at the time.  because they look like rebar cables when you think about it.  He was like "What the hell is this?" and he did.  He (Luke) took them to U.S.A Flea Market right off Biscayne Boulevard and they bought their first ropes there.  Then they went to New York and they had that customization and got the Adidas shoe, the whole nine yards.  But their first dookie rope?  Came from Miami.  They can deny it if they want to, I've got four or five people that can back my story.

Let's be honest, Wu-Tang took The Five Deadly Venoms and they took it to heart.  Whereas, you had JT Money, and you had Walter and Jeff, they took the name (Poison Clan).  But then you look at their specialties: You had the scorpion, the frog, blah, blah, blah.  Well JT Money and them, you had the pimp, you had the drug dealer, you had the hit man.  So they took The Five Deadly Venoms, they flipped and used the illegal part of it.  Which I thought was still kind of cool.

Scott Tre: So your saying that two totally different things were done with the same influence?

Tony M.F. Rock: Pretty much yeah.  Like I said, The Poison Clan took The Five Deadly Venoms and they wasn't on no kung-fu thing.  They just thought it (The Poison Clan) was a great name and everybody had their own specialty.  Uzi, Madball, Drugz, Debonaire, and JT Money.  Like I said you had the pimp, or the "bitchizer" as he calls himself.  You had debonair the gambler who was also the devil's dad.  You had the hitman, the dopeman.  It was basically...I guess The Five Deadly Venoms of the RICO act (laughs).

Scott Tre: Would you say relations between New York rappers and have gotten better or worse since that time?  Have those changes come about willingly or grudgingly?

Tony M.F. Rock: It's kind of weird.  The thing is, even back then there was strife between us and the New York rappers.  Once we got past the Mason Dixon line it was all that on tours, but it was so funny because you would have people come down south like the Heavy D's and like the Salt N Pepas and like the Big Daddy Kanes and what not and they would always tell you "Yeah, my relatives are from Tennessee!  My relatives are from down south, Blah, blah blah!"  Then when you went back up north, it was like "Yeah! Blah, blah, blah (aggressively)!" It was like "What the Hell?!"

So they didn't spit daggers or sell wolf tickets out in the open, or in the press.  But it was always that underneath thing and I don't know if you remember Carol Walters, the big time promoter back in the days?  She never ever booked southern rappers because she had that New York bias.  And then overtime I would say that moment, I would say the mid 90's to late 90's, everything was beautiful.  Everyone realized "Hey, New York started this.  This is a New York Thing.  We're just eating on it.  Blah, blah, blah, blah.  Then, when other regions started to take off, it kind of went bad again.

I won't say the relationship happened begrudgingly, I just think it's one of those things where....It's like you go to the party, your the man in school.  You've always been the man in school.  You wanna meet a girl?  Go see dude.  You need money?  Go see dude.  Then, all of a sudden, fucking Usher transfers to your school.  You on the bench now.  And I think that's kind of what happened.  I think New York rappers and New York hip-hop scene in general, instead of going "Yeah, this is what we birthed.  This is what we created."  They kind of took a "That's not real hip-hop.  That's garbage."  And naturally, southern people and west coast people respond in kind.  On one hand, if it's not what you like and it's not what you represent, I can kind of understand it.

Anthony David once told me something that it kind of shook me to my core and all I could do was laugh about it.  He was giving me props and credit and was like "Hey, without you, there would be no Ludacris, there would be no Outkast.  There would be no Goodie M.O.B.  But at the same time, without you there would be no Souljah Boy, there would be no Yin Yang Twins (laughs).

Scott Tre: So basically he's saying if your going to take credit for some of it you've got to take credit for all of it. (laughs)

Tony M.F. Rock: Yeah it's like I was saying, because I actually e-mailed Bow Wow when he was talking about "Hey, I want to kill myself."  I was like "Dude, this shit is not a la carte.  You can't pick the parts of fame you want to enjoy.  You've gotta take credit for it all.  You want the money?  You want the girl?  You want the profile on MTV Cribs?  You gotta take the haters, the gay rumors, the whole nine yards."  Anthony David, he was right about that.  Because you know that crew The Splack Pack?  If you talk to Kid Money today, he'd tell you "Tony Rock is one of my main influences."  So it is what it is.

I think New York, and I'm not knocking them for it because when I realized that me and Shy-D...when you search the tree to the Franchise Boys, to the "Stanky Leg" guys, to the "White T-Shirt" guys....me and Shy-D we are on the roots of that tree.  For better or for worse, we are.  I think guys in New York didn't want to take that on.  But, you guys can take credit for the N.W.A's.  You guys can take credit for the Commons.  You guys can take credit for the Poison Clan.  But at the same time, you gotta take credit for the crap that's out there.  You gotta take credit for the MIMs and the Wocka Flockas.  So I think that's what made things worse.

It's not as bad as people make it out to be.  I think you got some of the wrong people carrying the flag for the message, like Nas. Nas is not the guy to be giving that message.  When Nas can make some shit like Hip-Hop is Dead and make that funny video like, eat that watermelon.  I'm like ain't you the guy that was calling yourself Nas Escobar?  Stop it.

I wouldn't say it begrudgingly, I just think that we all kind of lost sight of the big picture.

Scott Tre: Do you think that the more talented or worthy southern rappers get overlooked by the hip-hop media due to there being an east coast bias or New York bias?

Tony M.F. Rock: Actually I do to a certain extent.  It's like when you have the hot underground rappers because, let's be honest, I would say 90% of talented rappers get overlooked.  Out of those 90% I would say a lot of them are the southern rappers.  You can and you can't blame the people that cover these stories.  Like The Source and their "Unsigned Hype" and people like that because when your looking for unsigned hype and you looking for a certain flavor of hip-hop you like, naturally your gonna go to New York.  You can't fault them for that.

It's like if your looking for a hellatious football player, your gonna come down here (the southeast) or your gonna go to Texas.  If I'm looking for the next great point guard, I'm going to the northeast.  So it's not like they get overlooked on purpose.  It's like your looking for some sick, underground, nice, talented hip-hop, because of the way things are your going to naturally look to New York.  I don't fault them for that because it's just the way things are.

You got Black Milk out of D.C. but they ain't gonna go to much further than D.C. and there's a lot of great underground rappers down here.  People like Effect the Unibomber and Hakeem Deguard, but they're down here.  As long as you got come down here to look for some underground hip-hop, and let's be honest, you've heard a lot of underground Hip-Hop where you are (South Florida), I've heard a lot of underground hip-hop where I am (Atlanta).  For every backpacker, there's a dope dealing white T-shirt person doing their thing.  Whereas up in New York, for every backpacker you find, you'll find a dope dealing wannabe person but they won't sound like Wocka Flocka.  So it's sad that it's like that but at the same time you would be an idiot if you say you didn't understand it.  I totally understand it.                  



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  2. Woodchuck, you need to get the Screenplay done on this one! Hollar, Wayne 424-243-5007 www.linkedin.com/in/Briggswayne (Discovered & Managed El Pus from the beginning with Speech of Arrested Development to the Melisma/Arista then to Virgin deal). Woodchuck, I knew but now I REALLY KNOW!!!

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