From Fantasy to Reality: Tonedeff Talks About His Long-Awaited 'Chico and The Man' Album with Kno

From Fantasy to Reality: Tonedeff Talks About His Long-Awaited ‘Chico and The Man’ Album with Kno

You’ve heard that Tonedeff is the fastest rapper to ever grace the mic. You’ve heard he’s got the best flow, and if you’ve heard him rap you probably agree. However, there’s a lot more to Tonedeff than just incredibly-fast rapping. He’s also a singer, writer, producer, designer, label-head, and the all-around renaissance man of hip hop. Tonedeff had DIY mastered before it was cool, and, in fact, there seems to be little he can’t do. Although he hasn’t released a proper album since 2005’s Archetype, he has certainly been keeping busy, and he has a new album with Cunninlynguist producer, Kno — that hardcore QN5 fans (aka “blue schoolers”) have been clamoring for since word leaked about the project a few years ago — dropping on December 13 (Editor’s note: The album has since been delayed. Kno has said, “Chico & The Man will not be dropping in December and from this point forward won’t even be discussed or have questions about it entertained until I hold a finished product in my hand that I am 100% happy with.”) We chatted with Tone to catch up on what’s happened since Archetype, and what’s the deal with this Chico and the Man project everyone’s talking about.

What do you think sets you apart from other rappers?

Tonedeff: To really pinpoint it is difficult because I’ve always felt different from the general consensus on what rappers should be. I don’t know how to approach music the traditional way that I feel like most rappers do. I feel like most rappers especially nowadays are more concerned with their image and their Facebook followers than they are with the actual music. I know for a fact that as a producer, and as a designer and a writer, to put all this stuff together I have a different view on music, and how emceeing in itself as an art form should be approached than most other rappers do.

Do you think being independent and maintaining the DIY ethic that you’ve established for yourself helps in maintaining a purer sound?

Yeah I definitely do, I’ve had a lot of opportunities to phone it in and do what everybody else is doing, and it does take a lot of artistic integrity and belief in what you’re doing, and the feeling that what you’re doing is right, to wave off some opportunities. To do what I do, it takes a lot of commitment, and I will tell you it’s definitely difficult. It’s ten times harder to stick to your guns than it is to follow somebody else’s. So in terms of the music, yeah, you’ve got the full range of creative freedom, but I feel like nowadays, and I really need to stop saying nowadays, but in the modern blog era of rap, it’s real easy to set up shop and put out your own zipfile album and push it on people through social networks, but to what end. With QN5, it was a movement that was set out so that other people could follow along with us and put out this new hip hop, opening doors to the things we could do. It allowed us to stay on one path, and really push ourselves in order to keep generating as opposed to jackin’ instrumentals from whatever’s poppin’ right now, instead of playing fucking johnny-come-lately on every trend that comes about. So in terms of purity, yeah, for sure, the indie grind definitely helps with that, but it’s also very difficult to maintain when you do have a goal with what you’re doing.

Do you have any advice for new artists trying to make it independently?

Yeah, move out of New York, go to the Midwest, go to the Northwest, you’ll be fine. There’s just nothing here anymore, the East Coast is done, it’s like a plague of locusts has just eaten all the fuckin’ natural materials, all the natural resources have been consumed, there’s nothing left here, the fields are barren. Go to the Midwest and go to the Northwest and you will sell records.

You’ve been independently releasing your music for almost fifteen years and rapping for twenty; do you have any highlights that stick out?

I haven’t quite done the math but it’s been a really long fucking time. Longer than I care to admit. Growing up it was just such a different climate, hip hop hadn’t really been accepted into the mainstream yet. I remember getting suspended for fuckin’ freestyling in the cafeteria, pounding on the tables and wearing a fucking baseball cap or wearing baggy jeans, that was like a problem. Real hip hop heads have been around forever, we all kind of went through that same experience which is why I feel like a lot of us have a hard time letting go of that era, the golden era and all that kind of music, because it was such an integral part of their childhood, and their development as men, and into their own personal outlook on life, and it’s so difficult to let go, that soundtrack of their lives. That’s definitely tied into my experience, just being young and any time that there was anything with hip hop, a dude rhyming on a song, it was just so fuckin’ incredible and inspiring. There was a radio station in Chicago that would play hip hop joints but it was only after midnight, so I had to stay up late, I had to get the headphones jacked in the old speakers and shit and the old stereo trying to listen to rap music. It was so seldom, they would never play it on the radio. When I moved to Miami it was the same sort of deal, in Miami there was no boom bap hip hop, it was all Miami bass and all that kind of shit, which is cool, and I have a lot of respect for it now that I’ve lived there, but I had to really dig for it. There was a station called WDNA that used to play something called the Saturday Night Funk Box with a dude named Rhythm Rocker and he used to play all these East Coast and West Coast hip hop joints that nobody ever heard before, and he broke a lot of records down there in Miami. He was really responsible for the first surge of underground hip hop in Miami during that time period. I just remember how fresh it was, hell, going to see Beat Street in the movie theatre as a kid, and when the movie Juice came out there was a whole fuckin’ Miami hip hop convention in the movie theatre, everybody went to the same theatre at the same time and battled up front. There was just an energy to it that is long, long gone. In terms of my career, yeah, the Arsenio Hall Show was amazing, playing Lollapalooza was amazing, touring Europe a couple times, the QN5 Megashows, I’ve been very fortunate, playing Rock Steady for eight thousand people, I’ve been fortunate enough to be in this music and to have made it as far as I have, but there’s still plenty to go, so I don’t want to get too nostalgic.

What are your thoughts on the state of hip hop in 2011?

I think it’s real fertile right now, I feel like there’s a younger generation of kids that are just getting into it now that are just figuring out who they are and what the voice is. Unfortunately I feel like the majority, I’d say a good ninety percent of them are just pulling from whatever’s on the radio because that’s all they know. They’re not being presented with all the options in terms of what you can do, ten percent are digging deep and really doing their history on hip hop and really looking at the people that set the watermarks over the years, presented so many different styles. When the new kids start looking at that and seeing oh shit, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel, which is what I feel like a lot of people are doing right now, we can build on this and go forward with it. I feel like there’s a lot of regurgitation right now, even some of the younger kids, they’re dope, but you can tell they can rap, they just rap like I’ve heard already. There’s not a lot of people doing a lot of new shit, and that’s a little disconcerting, but again they’re young, they’ll figure it out, it’s just gonna take a little bit of time, and I hope motherfuckers can pull their pants up.

Have there been any new developments for QN5 lately, or any plans for the future?

Yeah, I’m refocusing the label, limiting the scale of it. We got a little over-ambitious in 2010, we were trying to do ten albums in a year. Things happen and we ended up doing six, and it was so strenuous and financially draining, and it got to a point where I was just like okay, I started this label to release my own records and here I am, it’s been this long and I’ve only really released one. I had to take a step back and really look at what I was doing for my own career. When I started out and started releasing records I really felt like I had a good strong buzz going, I was getting a lot of coverage from magazines and media and radio and all that. I put out my record and I was like all right, well I don’t have eighty g’s to promote this record so I’ll have to find another way to get a movement going, so I started putting out my friend’s records, and now it’s seven years later. All this time has passed and I hadn’t been able to focus on myself, so now that everybody’s records are out I feel free to work on my own music again. This past year I’ve been focusing on my own work and writing a lot more, and I feel energized, and I have so many great projects that I can’t wait to tell folks about, and I’m getting all that shit done. So the label QN5 itself, I’m refocusing it on Tonedeff right now. Don’t be surprised if you see a couple more records come out, definitely gonna do Asterisk 5, waiting to see what the deal is with Pack’s new record, I know he’s just starting to work on that now. Definitely refocusing the label on myself.

Is it difficult to balance all the stuff that you do, as multi-talented as you are?

Yeah it’s a nightmare, an absolute nightmare. It’s the stupidest thing I probably could have done. In all honesty it was worth it in the sense where we were able to put our foot in the ass of a lot of bullshit music that was coming out and a lot of people trying to discredit us, and we proved everybody wrong, but at the same time it’s extremely stressful. I’ve had some horrible horrible nights, some horrible weeks and months I wouldn’t wish on anybody. If there are any artists out there who are looking to do the whole collective joint, come out with nine people and there’s usually a focal guy doing all the work in the background, don’t do it. You’re gonna end up as the workhorse and you’re gonna trot your fuckin’ hooves off, they’re gonna be bloody stumps and you’re not gonna be able to move. Definitely wouldn’t do it again, but I’m glad I did it.

What have been some roadblocks or triumphs of the process?

In terms of roadblocks, we’ve been wanting to put the record together for years, and time, space, and life get in the way. When Kno and I first decided to work on the record it was 2004, and it was just an idea, it was literally just an idea, like hey we should do a project together like an EP. Over time I started working on my own record and they started working on their stuff, and as you know Cunninlyguists have like five albums and four mixtapes, they’re extremely productive. Meanwhile I was working on my own record and putting out everyone else’s stuff so there was a few years there where literally nothing got done for the record. It wasn’t until about ’07 that I had an epiphany and it finally came to me as to what the record was gonna be and what it should be, and we turned it into a concept record, and the word really began then. For all the shit that people have given us, my favorite euphemism for it is “the underground Detox”, the work really only began a few years ago. I feel like the time passed made it a better record, and I’m super-duper excited about it.

What does the name “Chico and the Man” mean? Is it part of the concept?

The name of the project is definitely integral to a part of the concept, I really tried to make this record as multi-layered as possible so you can read into things more than one way, so when people finally hear the record they’ll understand why it’s called that. The original idea was that Tonedeff is the Latin dude and Kno is the white guy so it’s Chico and the Man, that was the original joke. Then when the concept for the record finally hit it was like wait a minute, we really really need to revisit that because this could be something entirely different and nobody would ever see it coming, that’s what we’re doing.

Has the record been intentionally mystified, with the scavenger hunt and everything?

Oh I thought it was pretty obvious. No I’m just kidding. I wouldn’t necessarily say that it’s shrouded in mystique; the clues are to help bring our fans into the world of the record. It is a concept album, and the clues are all there to give the album some context, I do know that most people are gonna hear it blind for the first time, they’re gonna be completely ignorant to any of the clues, they’re not gonnna have any context, they’re gonna hear it fresh for the first time and the record has to speak for itself. But for the hardcore Blue Schoolers, the Auralarians, and QN5 fans in general that really want the finite, granular details, that’s who the clues are for. The clues aren’t our way of promoting the record; the clues are our way of giving the hardcores the level of detail and context that they want, without giving too much away.

How is the studio chemistry between you and Kno? Is it like the sitcom?

We work really similarly on our own, Kno is in Atlanta right now, he was in Kentucky, I’m in New York, so we really only ever see each other on tour. Normally he makes something on his own and he sends it to me, I write with a very slow process because I’m extremely meticulous and I have a really high attention to detail just like he does, so we’re constantly just tweaking things down to the wire until the very moment something gets released. We’ve been in situations where songs are being remastered four times over, half an hour before we drop them. We work very similarly, he’s a perfectionist, he’s been known and he’s done this to me where you write to a beat, you send him your stuff, you mix down all your vocals, you send it to him, and it comes back with a completely different beat that’s ten times better than what the original was. You just gotta trust him. In terms of working on this particular project when we first discussed it he said “Tone, you’re an instrument here and I just need you to trust me. No matter what, I just need you to trust me.” And I’m fine with that because I have full faith and confidence in Kno as a musician, I personally believe that he is the best hip hop producer making music right now. Whatever direction he points me in, I trust that we’re gonna get there. My job is basically to bring levity to the lyricism and to push it as far as I can to the best of my ability on a writing level while he just handles the music, and I really think people are going to be extremely floored when they hear what we have done.

What do you want listeners to take away from the new album?

When people are finished listening to the record, I want people to hit rewind, listen to it again in its entirety in full, and when they’re done with it again to hit rewind and listen to its entirety in full, and when they’re done with that, hit rewind, listen to it in its entirety in full, and then form an opinion and then discuss it. What they’ll be able to take away from it is that we can do things with hip hop that maybe they didn’t see coming, on all levels, from a written level, from a musical level, you can make art through this music. All they’ll take away from it is fuck, there’s so many opportunities.

You and the rest of QN5 are known for being unique and pushing boundaries, are there new experiments and directions that you have in mind for the future?

Yeah definitely, like I said earlier I’ve refocused on my career again, kind of fell off the map for a bit there. I just released Cold Killed Collected, it’s a collection of everything I did from 2005 to 2010, singles, radio interviews, collabs, I collected it all into a 45 track collection and that’s available now. That was the first step for me to remind folks that Archetype was 2005, this is where I am now. I’m already working on the follow-up to Archetype, and I have some more music that I’m working on as well. I guess I can break it here; I’m working on an all-sung album. For anybody reading this who hasn’t been following my career over the years, it is not a surprise and it is not a shock, every album that I’ve ever done I’ve sung all over it and I’ve always included a fully-sung song on every release I’ve ever done. This is me expressing myself in this format, and a lot of these songs I’ve had written since I was right out of high school, and I’ve just been sitting on them and marinating with them, but I think it’s time to put ‘em out and show people that I’m more than just the fast rapping guy.

What other QN5 releases can we look forward to coming up?

The next thing and the only thing people need to pay attention to is Chico and the Man. Tonedeff and Kno, Chico and the Man, if they wanna follow along and get more context on the record, check out the Chico and the Man Twitter, or QN5.com, there’ll be all the details, behind the scenes, all that kind of mess happening. But right now that’s pretty much it; QN5.com is the base of everything, if you haven’t been to our website, it is hands-down the best label website ever, everything’s there, music, lyrics, videos, you can talk to the artists, so that’s pretty much it. December 13, Chico and the Man.

Any last thoughts or shout outs?

Shout out to the whole QN5 collective, shout out to all the Blue Schoolers, shout out to my mom, shout out to my dad because without them fucking I wouldn’t exist. Shout out to all the artists out there that are pushing the music forward.

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