by Cesca Janece Waterfield
Gangstagrass Rapper Takes Over TV
Last Saturday, Bronx-based rapper T.O.N.E.z. was in Los Angeles at a gala Emmy ceremony. His song, the theme for FX network series “Justified” was up for Outstanding Original Main Title Theme. The nomination had made a splash by placing a Hip Hop song in a category typically dominated by instrumentals. But perhaps most amazing, T.O.N.E.z. and his band, Gangstagrass, held the number one spot on the Billboard Bluegrass chart – yes, you read that right – with a CD comprised almost completely of rap by T.O.N.E.z. At the end of the night, Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman, the pair most known for their work with Prince, took home the honor for the song they wrote for Showtime series Nurse Jackie. But Gangstagrass, who mix bluegrass and country music with rap, continues to experiment, and attract listeners with an unlikely but successful musical fusion. T.O.N.E.z. talked to Urban Views Weekly from New York about the nomination, the diverse success of the band’s current CD, as well as his forthcoming solo release. What follows are T.O.N.E.z. own words.
Born and raised in the Bronx, New York, I’m still here. My older brothers were part of the architects of Hip Hop. One of my brothers is Special K from Treacherous Three. My other brother is T La Rock, the first rapper to be signed to Def Jam. That’s where I come from, and same mother, same father, not stepbrother or homie brother or ‘what’s happening, brother,’ but the real deal, flesh and blood. They were the ones who laid it down. I was just a little guy running around, listening to them.
I been rapping since I was 15 and got a record deal when I was 15. I put out some records and videos through a company called Select Records back in the early 90s. I was part of that golden era of Hip Hop back then. Then I kind of went underground selling tapes with artists like Tech N9ne and Kottonmouth Kings. But now! Ever since I got that “Justified” theme song, that thing has taken me places I thought I never would think about going, like the Emmys.
The Emmy Nod
The Emmy nomination utterly came out of left field because the TV show had only been out 13 weeks. My boy Rench, who formed Gangstagrass, we had a song called “On the Run” and they used it for the commercial to promote the TV show and then they asked us to do the theme song. I guess every song that’s a theme song, it automatically gets sent there. So we had no idea. It blew us away.
The way rap music is going now, I know there are a lot of complaints about it, about the lack of passion and the lack of Hip Hop culture in it. But you can’t blame these young guys. They’re 15 or even 20 and they’re making songs based on what they heard five years ago. Maybe they don’t know about Grandmaster Flash or Kurtis Blow. What I’m doing is still keeping that essence of Hip Hop alive and I’m not taking that same path that everyone else is. Everyone else is just making albums and trying to get a radio hit. We took bluegrass country and mixed it with authentic Bronx, New York Hip Hop and we’re winning that way. I think I’m keeping that passion of Hip Hop alive. There are no limits and no boundaries to what can happen with this.
Gangstagrass is a combination of the two most, I think, passionate and meaningful genres of music. I know bluegrass and country aren’t the same music, but they [share a history]. There’s a lot of deepness to country music as well as rap, as well as Hip Hop. You take away all the glitz and glamour of rap, and it’s a lot similar. I’m getting bluegrass and country fans saying, ‘I don’t like rap, but I like this.’ I have Hip Hop heads coming and saying, ‘Man, I never heard a bluegrass song in my life, but I dig this.’ The gap that was there just got connected and it’s working. It’s like when Aerosmith and Run DMC got together, it was something so crazy that they never thought it could happen. This is definitely something real powerful.
Working with Rench
I was working with a DJ named DJ JS-1. I was recording some songs with him and he took me to a studio in Queens. Rench just happened to be recording there. We switched numbers. So I was laying down tracks with him for a couple years. It just turned out that the lyrics I laid down in 2005 ended up being in the commercial song for Justified. He said, ‘You mind if I take your lyrics and mix some country beats and chop ‘em up and put some Hip Hop over it and we release a thing called Ganstagrass? Me and Rench are cool. That’s my homie, it’s not just a working thing. I go out and play with his son.
Coming up I would say I was into of course Michael Jackson. That’s probably even the reason I’m in music. But I listened to everything from the Spinners, DeBarge, The Commodores. My brothers and my mom used to play that stuff, Al Green and all of that. As far as Hip Hop is concerned, the early architects Grandmaster Flash, Furious Five, Kurtis Blow, Fearless 4. Coming into the 90s, I have choice favorites like Public Enemy and 3rd Bass. Currently I’m into everything: Oasis, Alanis Morrisette, Alice in Chains, Dixie Chicks. I’m a fan of music. Jay-Z, Nas, Fifty. Queen too, Jim Morrison, the Doors. I’m into everything.
Whoever wrote this, if this was John Singleton, I’ll pat him on the back. Janet Jackson and ‘Pac were talking and ‘Pac says, ‘What are you trying to say, my cousin’s music isn’t poetry?’ because his cousin was a rapper. And she said this line, ‘Well, it isn’t if he doesn’t have anything to say.’ That’s powerful stuff. You can make a million songs but if you’re not saying anything, what’s the point? Certain songs just stick with me. Obviously the earlier music had more meaning to it than it does now unfortunately.