Very few white boys in hip-hop could make the Black heads say, “Damn!”
Rick Rubin did it. Eminem could too. And so could the producer Tony D.
I still have clear memories of that day, 20 years ago, when my roommate Paul incessantly imitated a song he heard on Red Alert’s radio show, a song that mashed-up lyrics from Rakim and Chuck D. for the chorus:
Back to the lab/Know what I mean?
Back to the lab/Bazooka, the scheme!
That was Tony D.
There were two Tony D’s back in the day, actually. It was very confusing. One Tony D. was MC Serch’s partner in the record label Idlers (as in “Tony Dick gets the gas face”). Idlers, of course, was the record label that brought us the Jungle Brothers.
The other Tony D. was Anthony Depula, of Trenton, New Jersey. This was the Tony D. over whom my roommate Paul gushed; the Tony D. I would soon meet when I started working for Profile Records, the home of Run-D.M.C., Rob Base, Special Ed; the Tony D. who brought the world YZ and Poor Righteous Teachers; and the Tony D. who died this past weekend when his car rolled off a roadside in New Jersey. Tony wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, and he broke his neck. He was 42, and had a wife and two daughters.
I was, 20 years ago, a very serious little man about hip-hop when Profile Records’ president Cory Robbins plucked me out of the mailroom to do radio promotion and write artist bios. Poor Righteous Teachers, three young Five Percenters from Trenton, were the first group I promoted. I took all of this so seriously that I created a glossary of all the terms they used — some from the Five Percent Nation, some Trentonian, others from outer space — and distributed it to national media. Their records were incredible: Red Alert had been running their first record, “Time To Say Peace,”; and their new single, “Rock Dis Funky Joint,” was bananas.
So it came as a surprise to me when their producer walked into my office for the first time: 200 pounds of beefy Italian-American, with a stringy mustache, pointy goatee and greasy long hair topped with a baseball cap. Tony was gregarious, in constant motion for a heavy guy, always with a huge smirk on his face. How did a bona-fide, self-admitted greaseball become the producer of Afrocentric, militant Muslim hip-hop artists like PRT and YZ? The way Tony put it was that since he was Sicilian, he was “33 1/3 percent Original Man” anyway. That, he claimed, was his hip-hop pass.
But the real reason was that Tony D. was dope. His beats were always crisp and clean in a way that he himself wasn’t. Tony D. achieved something that most hip-hop producers never do: His beats sounded like he made them. It’s hard to describe his signature sound. Maybe it was the little after-bounce he gave to his kick drums. Or perhaps it was his collage-art choruses pieced together from two, three, or more different sources:
“Rock dat!” “Funky…” “Joint, joint, joint”
We hung out during the video shoot for “Rock Dis Funky Joint,” and I got that record played across the country, from Kiss FM in New York to KDAY in L.A. The hit record made Tony D.’s personal plans possible, and Tony D. landed a solo deal with 4th & Broadway. Yeah, Tony D., a/k/a Harvee Wallbanger, was a rapper, too — sort of a cross between Kool Keith and Dom DeLuise. He was naturally funny guy, so entertaining that Cory Robbins took a throwaway Poor Righteous Teachers song on which Tony made a cameo, and placed it at the beginning of their album. Wise Intelligent, the group’s leader, may not have thought much of Tony’s lyrical abilities (“rock some of that rubbish you be writing”). But the white devil could sure make a beat.
Tony D. handled being the devil with great aplomb. He was a ball-buster himself, so he didn’t get too bent out of shape when you busted his. I once told Tony, always rapping even when nobody invited him to, that I “wanted to sign his breath.” Tony took it like a champ.
An amusing truth about white boys in hip-hop is that, often, we tried to outdo each other in games of “Blacker than Thou .” That’s probably why Tony D. and Serch never got along, despite my failed attempt once, at Irving Plaza, to get them to talk. They ended up fighting.
After I left Profile and went to work for Rick Rubin at Def American, I tried to involve Tony D. in anything major that I did. I signed one of his groups, the seriously misnamed Blaque Spurm, for its seriously talented MC, Bobbie Fine. When I retreated from hip-hop for a while, resuming the writing career I started many years back at The Source, I lost touch with Tony.
We got re-acquainted when I began writing my book on the history of the hip-hop business. Tony D. was still living in Trenton, still making beats, still managed by Kevon Glickman, the former counsel for Ruffhouse Records. Just over a year ago, I made plans to interview them both for the book. I was supposed to drive down from New York, pick Tony up in Trenton, and then drive us both to Philly to meet Kevon. Tony had to cancel at the last minute.
“I have to watch my daughter,” he said. That was the last time we spoke.
Perhaps Tony D. could have been bigger if he had left Trenton behind. But then again, Tony D. knew who he was. Italian, Sicilian, American, Jersey boy, white boy, DJ, rapper, beat-maker, husband, father. How many of us are that secure? Tony D. may have been a devil to some, but I’m pretty sure Black Jesus is enjoying better beats courtesy of his rotund new archangel. Trenton makes, God takes.
Tony, at last, has gone back to the Lab.
Know what I mean?
For eulogy and funeral information on Tony D. please CLICK HERE