The Dilla Standard: A conversation with Big Tone
Taking a rare break from his busy studio schedule, Anthony Jackson, known on record as Big Tone, is meeting me to talk about his 2nd album, The Art of Ink, available April 21 on Tres records (available now on iTunes). He insists we meet at Downtown Coney Island, apparently one of the regular spots for those in the Detriot hip-hop scene. Although not initially the type of place I would frequent, walking through the doors the smell of that chili and fries hit and a little voice inside me just sang out, “well”. Note to self: add Downtown Coney Island to list of guilty culinary pleasures. I will most definitely be back next time I’m in town.
Tone enters and immediately makes an impression; it's as if the air has changed. A scent of confidence lingers around him, not over-confidence, just enough to exude that he knows he has to get back into the studio soon to continue doing what he does best. At 6'2" and built like a line backer, Tone is hard to miss but at the same time he has a tremendous warmth to him. Nodding, waving and greeting several people in the restaurant by name as he approaches, it's this warmth more than anything that one can image has solidified his relationships with such diverse artists as Dwele, Davina, Slum Village and more. Sporting a T-shit and brand new pair of matching sneakers, custom designed Greedy Genius (a brand that is simultaneously throwback and futuristic and ironically for Tone boasts the slogan “the root of all evil”), the second thing I notice is what's missing.
Tone, so it's been a minute since I've seen you... What happen to the locs, man?
"Yeah, I cut them last fall. I’ve experienced a lot of growth since I started growing them. I looked up one day and found myself in route to being in a good place, so I cut them. They had served their purpose, I guess."
Now a lot of people say it's a spiritual thing to cut your locs off... like cutting away any of the bad energy that's built up in your system over time. Did you experience that?
"Definitely. Actually, I started growing them after going through some rough times. They were symbolic of a journey, you know? I wasn’t necessarily cutting away any bad energy, because I was past that point when I grew them. I think it was time to make room for the future."
It's been 4 years since your last record. Is this sort of a rebirth for you, musically or otherwise? I say that because I feel like a lot of the subject matter on this record is distinctly different to 2005's The Drought.
"I think it’s just about growth. The music I create documents that time in my life. The Drought captures a time when things were harsh. I hadn’t ever really left the city of Detroit. The D is a hard town. My immediate family was all in the midst of the struggle during that time. Songs like “Turn My World”, “It’s So Hard”, “Come My Way”, and even “Peace” all reflect that. That album opened a lot of doors for me to travel and broaden my perspective. I’ve lived in New York for a couple years, and had the chance to tour. I see how my music has touched other people. Being exposed to other music, communities, artists, and fans helped shaped the new album. I’m in a much better place."
How has your approach to writing changed since your last record?
"It’s more fun for me now. I don’t over think it. I’m more connected. More open. I’m a work in progress, but I definitely am better about allowing myself to open up. Someone once told me that my ability to touch people stems from not being scared to be vulnerable. Being vulnerable is actually a strength, when before I looked at it more like a weakness. I’m having fun with that. I write everything down, when before I didn’t write anything. I try to just let it spill out until a song takes shape."
Is it safe to say this is a more thought out record then?
"Not at all. More focused, maybe. Spending more time just connecting with the music. I dabbled in more live instrumentation on this one. Different sampling processes. Just being a lot more curious about what would happen if I did “this or that”. I try not to think at all and just feel."
Hip-hop has become one of the most broad ranging and successful musical genres of all time. A distinctly American art form that can be heard in every corner of the globe, any contemporary music writer that ignores it is not listening closely to the world around them. Often compared to Be-Bop in it's heyday for it's improvisational and ground-breaking sonic aspects, as well as it's commercial appeal, it is like Jazz evolving before our eyes (and ears). Tone is a clear and present example of that.
It seems like you have taken an interesting conceptual approach with this record. A 'tattoo based theme', your press release says. But it's not literal like those 70's or 80's concept records... so how does the tattoo inspiration manifest itself in the music?
"I started designing a tattoo around the same time I was working on the album. I realized that my approach for selecting that design was really similar to the approach for creating the album. The symbolism is spiritually based. It’s an angel, layered with all these symbols. Love, Balance, Peace, Music. It definitely documents where I’m at right now, just like the album. The opening song, for instance, “Skin Deep” is pretty much the theme song for the whole concept. It explains what the tattoo represents for me. The opening line goes, “My Angels are saying ‘life is a sport so go on and play/just try to walk a righteous walk in strong faith”…which is the mission statement for me right now. The final song “Peace, Progress, God Bless” is also a reflection on the symbolism in the tattoo. Peace, is represented by 2 doves. Progress, for me at this time is attributed to being able to create balance in my life, and balance is represented by the yin yang symbol. The angel appears to be meditating as the energy develops above it. The overall picture for me is about accepting the role of co-creator of my life, while being in the presence of God. That’s the tattoo."
You've also got a lot of guest spots on the record... Monica Blaire, Ta'raach, Blu, of course Dwele. Why did you choose these particular folks? How do you choose collaborators in general?
"Most of the appearances I choose either are artists that inspire me the most, or really close friends. This time around I was able to have my cake and eat it too. I’m fortunate to call some of music’s most talented people, my homies. When I’m working on a track, if I hear somebody on it, I just reach out to them with the idea. These were the people that were inspiring me the most during the time. Blu, Breeze Brewin, Dwele, Guilty Simpson…everybody. I love sharing creative space with brilliant folks."
Let's talk Dilla (aka Jay Dee), you know we have to. I have noticed on your records and particularly on Art of Ink, how much you have going on in the tracks as apposed to Jay Dee, who I normally think of as being more stripped down. I know Dilla was a major influence on you. How would you say that influence manifests itself in your music?
"I think of Jay as a dominant gene in my musical bloodline. I definitely have my own approach going on, but his influence is all over the music of modern times that has inspired me the most. He’s shown me mix tricks and things in the studio that I’ve implemented in my formula…I just flip those things my way. I choose samples that speak to me. Synths, drums, and instruments that put me in a certain place. I view Dilla as the standard…not with the objective to sound similar, but to be competitive. I try to come with what would get his nod of approval."
The way you layer samples creates a heavy polyrhythmic sound that to me references Fela Kuti and other post James Brown inspired afro-funk artists. Is this deliberate, I mean is there a conscious effort to create a dense sound?
"Yeah. Layers can be hypnotic almost. I try to accent the different rhythms and melodic elements in samples. Simply adding a filter to an existing loop can create a new dimension to create in. A pan effect, or a level effect, or anything that can contribute to the pulse. If you can make everything mesh and sit in the right place in a mix, it starts to breathe. That dense pocket is where it works for me. Even a continuous loop should feel like it’s breathing. I think that’s what James Brown And Fela were able to master. That’s definitely my comfort zone."
A lot of the tracks on The Art of Ink are funky as hell. 'Business' stands out in my mind cause right off the bat it moves in all kinds of unexpected ways. Were there records were you listening to when you while working on this album that may have influenced that?
"A lot of funk stuff. Detroit is way on the funky side these days. More funk is working on the dj scene than anything right now. I was listening to a lot of New Birth, Ohio Players, JB, Bootsie. Mad Dog And The Pups, which is a funk group from the city that my cousin sang lead in in the 70’s…I was able to flip one of their records for Business. Funk makes you move. I just wanna make folks move."
What records or artists did you first connect with that pushed you toward making music, not just hip-hop, anything?
"Love Changes by Mother’s Finest was the first song that I remember being touched by. It’s weird to think a little ass kid with no life experience would be getting all teary eyed over some song about how love will put you through changes. All I know is Joyce Kennedy is the first voice that touched me like that. James Brown, Zapp and Roger, and Run DMC would round out the list of people who changed the game for me."
I focus a lot on discovering music in this column, so just to stay on task, point our readers and me at one of the more interesting things you've come across that the average reader may not.
"Suite for Ma Dukes! Carlos Nino and Miguel Atwood Ferguson put together an EP of interpretations of some of Dilla’s work, with a 40 piece orchestra. I hadn’t been hip to any of their previous work prior to this, but it’s some remarkable music."
Amazing record! It’s been on constant rotation in my car and iTunes when I am working. There is a beautiful vinyl version of it available too… perfect, Sunday afternoon listening. My only complaint is that it’s just an EP, I hope they do a whole record at somepoint.
I know films and tattoos are something you have drawn inspiration from on both albums... what other unlikely sources inspire you?
"Comedy. Dave Chappelle, Eddie Murphy, Richard Prior, Redd Foxx, Bill Cosby. Stand-up comedy as a whole. But the rhythm of it. The messages. The bluntness. I love it."
Yeah, I can actually see a lot of similarities in hip-hop and comedy. Rapid delivery messages and stories, in some respects they’re both forms of poetry. An emcee or comedian at the top of their game, is not someone you want to try and match wits with.
Alright, I know you’re a busy cat, so I'll just throw one more question at you... actually a comment into a question, then I'll let you go. A lot of hip-hop artists and even pop folks and r&b folks feel the need to fill that whole CD, but often times 50% of the material is segues, thowaways or just redundant. One of the things I love about this record is how thought out it is. It feels like how records used to feel, a statement not just a 70 min mix tape. One interview with you I read recently referred to the album as short at 40 mins. I really don't see it that way, Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" clocks in at 35 mins and 38 secs and I don't think anyone has ever referred to that album as "short". Can you share with our readers what lead you this quote/unquote shorter record? And is this way of working something you think you will continue on the next project?
"Actually, I didn’t feel like it was short. What I meant was that it was short by the label’s requirement of 40-45 minutes. I believe the album is right around 38 and some change. I don’t keep track of time when I’m recording. I know what feels right by listening to it. And from start to end, the album felt right to me. It wasn’t until I got the master back and popped it in, that I saw it was I.D.’d at just around 39 minutes. The label didn’t trip about it, because all and all, it works. As for the future, I don’t know. When it’s done, it’s done."
If hip-hop is analogical to Jazz, who then are it's John Coltranes, Miles Davis', and Ella Fitzgeralds? Certainly no self-respecting hip-hop fan would argue that if there are only a few creative "masters" of hip-hop, Detriot's own Jay Dee was one of them. As something of a protege of Jay Dee's, Anthony "Big Tone" Jackson is one to be watched. But like Jazz, in Hip-Hop the traditions passed from a mentor to a mentee are about technique, philosophy and experience. Herbie Hancock doesn't sound like Freddie Hubbard and Big Tone's music certainly doesn't sound like Jay Dee's but the spirit of experimentation, creativity and quality are all there, in no short supply. Big Tone has a distinct and unique voice that is, for the moment, just under the radar. So before you go spend your money on another mainstream big production/low substance record, don't be afraid to dig for something a little deeper and always remember to...
Live Well & Listen Closely,