Tona On Rap, Race and Scarborough's Legacy

Tona On Rap, Race and Scarborough's Legacy
The artist formerly known as Daetona has come a long way from spitting in a Kris Kross-styled kiddie rap crew in Toronto's Chester Le housing projects, or from the battle rapper who slaughtered us with punch lines of a looped telephone dial tone. Soon after he nearly quit the rap game entirely, Tona hit the studio with fellow Toronto stalwart Rich Kidd and cranked out his most versatile work to date. Silverspring Crescent is the sound of an MC flexing his conceptual and sonic range. Over Long Island iced teas on the eve of his album release, Tona details his growth as an artist, his epic (rigged?) cross-town battle with Blake Carrington, and what the hell it means to "Jay Electronica a hoe." Scarborough, stand up.

Why go with just one producer, Rich Kidd, for Silverspring Crescent?
The chemistry works. I've been working with Rich Kidd for a very long time. He has so many different directions he can take his sound, and it sounds so polished. He's one of the best producers, period, not even talking Canada. His sounds fits my format so well, we started clicking. There's not many people that would've selected half the joints I choose to rhyme over on Silverspring Crescent. But those are the ones I'm drawn to. And he's consistent with his shit. As long as dudes like Rich Kidd and others are elevating their game to that level, I'll always be able to put out quality music.

What is the working relationship like?
Now that he's getting his artistry together, he doesn't have as much time as he used to. He's always been an artist as long as I've known him, but now, due to schedules clashing, he might send me a batch of joints and I'll send them back to him. He'll add to it, finish it up and we'll put it out. That's the way it's been working lately.

Any worry that, since he raps as well, he might hog the best beats for his own project?
If I were him, I'd be doing that. I wouldn't give rappers my best shit. [Laughs] But all of his shit sounds crazy, so how can you separate?

Does he ever give you guidance on the vocals?
You know what happens? He'll give his ideas through beat titles; they'll already have a concept sometimes. Especially with Silverspring Crescent, he'll name the beat something crazy like, "She Can Get It," and the way the beat moves, sometimes the title is perfect — this is what I'm-a call the track. That's not a formula I'd recommend for anybody, but it works for me.

You decided to put this album out just a couple months ago. Why so sudden?
The project has been done for almost a year, but I just got this situation with Sony/RED in the States through Billy Danze of M.O.P. Once we solidified that, I already had a due date on the album and get ready to push it. We had to select a June date because there's going to be a lot of stuff happening in the fall. I don't want this project to interfere with all that's going on in the fall. I wanted to get this out as early as possible — and a lot of people have been waiting on it because I was dropping singles off it last year.

What's coming in the fall, then?
A new project I'm working on. It'll be different. I reached for producers I've been wanting to work with for a while. I got Paperboy Fabe [who has produced for Ledisi, Game, Jay Rock and Cyhi Da Prynce] in the U.S.; he's a Grammy Award-winning producer, and he's real dope. I got to sit down with him and work. As well as some other producers I've been waiting to work with. Their schedules freed up, so this album coming in the fall is going to sound well-rounded, completely different than Silverspring Crescent. Sonically, it's going to take it to another level.

What kind of memories does the street Silverspring Crescent evoke for you?
Scarborough is our neighbourhood. When people think of Canada, they think of Toronto, but Scarborough has been established as its own [borough] since 1967. Now we're all amalgamated, but if we were to section Toronto off, it'd be like Brooklyn — they have their own style, flavour, their own brand. That's what Silverspring Crescent represents. We started the creative process over there in a preproduction studio, and I lived ten minutes away from Silverspring Crescent. My man Richie Henessey, who's the executive producer for this project, he's formerly S-Roc from BrassMunk. We wrote the album together. He lives right on Silver Springs Boulevard, actually, and we combined that with the crescent I grew up on. We've always been working together since day one, since Agile brought me in the studio with BrassMunk to just watch them work. Silverspring is a reflection of that, of Scarborough, of all of us. In my jacket on the album cover, it has everything Scarborough is about, even the Scarborough flag. I want people to understand, it's not just Toronto but where I come from — Scarborough — it's about that when they have an interaction with me. Scarborough's in my heart.

Who was the first artist you felt really represented for Scarborough?
Maestro, hands down. He makes that clear over his career. I think he said something about putting the scar in Scarborough. He'd come by the crib to work with my brothers; my brother and his cousin had this group Freaks of Reality. They had that "Chi-Litchi Latchi-Low" song. We always had our own shit, our own style, and we wanted to separate it. Maestro was part of that. BrassMunk, Kardinal, Choclair — all those guys are Scarborough. Same thing with Monolith — I don't think there's anyone more Scarborough than those guys. Even down to Julian de Guzman — he plays [soccer] on TFC right now. We embody it. We make sure it reflects in our personalities.

Why don't you live there now?
Back when we were living there, the standard of living isn't the greatest. I always visit, but we come from those conditions. You love the community, but as things improve, it's about progression. At some point you switch lifestyles. It's always in our hearts, though.

Do you really consider this your debut? I saw that in a press release.
Nah. Before this I had a collaborative project with [producer] Lyve [Direct Deposit in 2009), and before that I had Don't Holla [an EP released in 2007]. "Dial Tone" was on that. I think that was more my debut than anything else. But because of the scale it's on now and the fact I'm more seasoned, you can see the growth, the transition to where I'm at now. This is the rebirth. I went about two years where I just dropped singles, no [lengthy] projects. So this year is a rebirth. More projects are coming out. I wasn't inspired in 2011, going into '12. I wasn't feeling it. And Rich Kidd — I don't think he understands the depth of it — but he's responsible for keeping me motivated. I was so stagnant musically, but once I started clicking with his beats? New inspiration, new life.

On "Where the Love Go" it sounds like you are ready to throw in the towel.
That's when it was written. I wasn't passionate about what I was doing. I always told myself that if I wasn't having fun doing this anymore — getting in the studio, being creative — then I'm done. Because there wasn't money coming in; I wasn't touring. The game was stagnant; nobody was being creative. It's like they were looking to see what the next thing would be. I was like, "Fuck it. I don't want to do it anymore." Then life situations happened as well. You know what? Fuck it. But you get over it. I'm sure every artist has gone through that. Doesn't matter the career, you reach a point where things feel stagnant and you think maybe it's time for a change. That song came when I was done with it. I've been doing this for a while…

When did you write your first rhyme?
I was 13, 14 — the peak of high school. Grade 9, we started performing, but it wasn't us writing the rhymes. Back then I had a mentor for hip-hop. We were in a group called Young N.A.P.P.S., and our mentor would write all our shit, got us comfortable onstage. We were performing at age nine, ten.

So you were Kris Kross, and you had a Jermaine Dupri.
Yep. [Laughs] Exactly. But our shit was much more 'hood. We were much more grimy, bro.

Who was your mentor?
My boy P Crucial. He was somebody that grew up with us in the projects. He had a vision. He put five of us together. None of us had any experience rapping but we were involved in hip-hop. He was my older brother's friend, so he had been in hip-hop way before us. He was just training us. We'd be in the basement for long days, rhyming for hours. He'd make us close our eyes and had us envision being on Arsenio Hall. All types of shit, bro. He really put the dream in our heads. He was Morpheus. He gave us all pills. Some of us unplugged; I stuck with it. I'm here now, and everything I do is a tribute to him. He got me started.

So you wanted to do this since then? You never wavered?
Until Don't Holla. Me doing mixtapes and battling, I didn't want to do it professionally. I was just spittin'. It was cool being part of it. But once I started putting records together I felt, OK, I can do this. I can compete with the best of them — even though I couldn't back then, that's how I felt.

Do you still need a day job?
I still do things here and there. Before this I was job-hopping; it wasn't career-oriented. I've been a system analyst. I've worked the background of an online gaming casino, doing IT networking, just jumping from job to job. But any part-time stuff I pick up now, the music is on the forefront. So I can sustain myself through part-time work and the music.

Do you go into the studio every day, write every day?
More writing every day. It's been a while since I sat in a studio and vibed out. I like to go in with ideas and have the people there — my team, build on that. I like going in with an idea sketched out and then building on that impulsively.

"Get Away," featuring Melanie Durant, is a strong tune. Tell me about that song.
It's about getting away from a relationship I didn't want to have, a one-night stand that became something more attached. You didn't really want it but at the same time you can't fight it. I wanted to get away but at the same time I didn't. I was fighting that emotion on that song.

A lot of guys can relate to that.
They can. And I hope they catch what it's about. That's why I made that song a little more melodic.

What's been the hardest song for you write?
It's going to be on the new project [tentatively titled Carpe Diem). It's called "My Struggle." I'm bearing it all on that. As vulnerable as rappers don't like to sound, I don't give a fuck. I needed to get everything out on that, and I got everything out. So much shit between family and lifestyle. It was a crazy year for me [in 2012], and I put it all on that song. It's not formatted for radio, but it'll be pushed out first. I want to bring people into how I feel. I don't care how it makes me look. There's a lot of emotion. When people hear it, especially family members, they're not gonna like it. They're not going to understand where it's coming from, but it's coming from a place that was real. It was tough to write because I was already thinking about how people are going to react to it. Rich Kidd did that beat.

Explain this line to me: "Swimmin' in the coochie, introduce her to the backstroke/ Jay Electronica hoes who think it's a damn joke." What's the Jay Electronica reference there?
Did you catch Jay Electronica at Manifesto [in 2010]? He was talking to the crowd and was saying how he liked to choke girls during sex. He went off about it. I was like, "Yo, as raw as he is right now, I kinda like that shit too." I don't want to choke them till they pass out obviously, but when you're got up in the moment, a little choking gets involved. Shit happens. That's what I was referring to, and I wrote that a week after that concert. People felt weird about it, but I could relate to it. It was fuckin' horrible timing for him to talk about that at Manifesto, where you're not supposed to be cursing onstage. Kids out there (for a free show). Horrible timing… but I related to it.

Another song that grabbed me was "Blue Shield." What's the worst experience you've had with the cops?
So many. It's just a continuous cycle with these cops. I understand somebody has to uphold the law; shit would be crazy without cops there. But it's how they do it. They'll never get cooperation from the community with how they harass, how they follow you home. They'll see you in a nice car and start asking questions. Constant harassment. I don't get it.

Do you feel that now, or was this just growing up in a lower-income area in Scarborough?
Now. As legitimate as I'm keeping it right now, there's never a time I feel like they're not pinpointing me because of my complexion. It's negligent racism; they neglect to see that I'm just regular people on my way home. You don't need to follow me because of quotas or because I "fit a description." It's stupid shit. Nonstop harassment. Until they smash that stigma… There's even times when I'm driving and wearing my hat and I might feel the need to take it off because it might alleviate some of the pressure off the situation. I shouldn't even want to feel like that. There's times I don't [take it off]; you want to harass me, do it. My shit is legit. They try to put us in all one category.

Do you find the harassment the same in other cities?
New York's the worst. They pulled us over saying we fit the description of a stabbing that happened hours ago. Meanwhile we just drove in with Ontario plates. How can we possibly fit that description? Are you saying we all look the same? What are you saying? Until that bullshit ceases, which it probably never will, you have to write songs like "Blue Shield" to get the message out there.

You have a naturally strong, deep voice, which gives you an advantage as an MC. Where does that come from? Did you father have a heavy voice?
That's just puberty, man. Shit. The name Tona comes from my distinctive tone of voice. I've learned how to project it. When I first started, it used to be super-low tone. I wasn't projecting it well. Now I know how to find a nice mid-tone, not too low or too high, and I can throw it and create moods with it by controlling it.

What is your most memorable battle?
Blake Carrington. I still have the VHS tape and everything. I want to convert it and put it online one day for people to see. I didn't know this cat; I just brought me and my cousin out to Mississauga for a battle. It was pretty big, like $1,000, and back then to me, that was some money. I was 17 — $1,000 to spit some rhymes and shit? I'm going for it. So the battle started. I think I was the first or second person up, and I killed this guy. But while I was battling (in the first round) I saw Blake. The reason I noticed him is because I knew, this is the only competition I'm gonna have all day. I knew I had to start prepping lines for him right away. Mind you, I had to go through like four or five opponents first. The finals come down to me and him. I feel like I got the first round. Second round, he definitely got that. Third round comes, and he says a line he had said before — in the same battle. He was like, "Yo, stop the beat!" This is where I started getting mad.

The judges were from Mississauga, and they were like, "Yo, should we give him another shot?" Usually, you repeatin' the same shit from the same battle, no one's giving you another shot. You're getting kicked out of there. So after three rounds, they give him another shot. We go a fourth round, and I feel I won that too. So now in my mind it's like 3-1. They wouldn't give it to me; they went another round, and then another round. It was supposed to be three rounds and it went six. The a cappella, though, he killed me on that. I gotta give him that; it was the very last round. Killed me. I probably did one more battle after that and left it. It's not even a sport no more. I just remember leaving pissed off. In my mind I had already spent that $1,000. Mississauga cats, they were hating. Me and Blake were going at it. I want people to see that. I kept all that stuff. This was like 2001 or '02. It's important to keep all that.

What's the biggest challenge for you now?
Getting the world to hear the music. I want my reach to extend beyond the Canadian boundaries. I want the U.K., Africa… there are so many lanes. Everyone is focused on across the border, but I think Europe could be a big market for me. My challenge now is bridging the gap between here and there. Sony in the U.S. is helping me do that. They asked me where I wanted to target my music, and I said there's so many places, let's not just focus on one. Germany, Amsterdam, anywhere. Once the world tunes in, they'll understand it's universal music.

What's the best compliment you've received?
Comparing me to Jay-Z, because that's one of my favourite artists that I used to get compared to. I even heard somebody say, "Why does Ludacris sound like Jay-Z on this song?" And it was my song. It sounded like Luda and like Jay. I'm not imitating somebody's sound, but I think it's a compliment that some people couldn't separate my music from their wavelength.

Anything else you want to let people know?
I want people to see the growth. There are songs that are hard, but there are songs that are light as well. I'm not one MC; I'm not just going to give you bars all the time. I want to make music people can party too, music that is thought-provoking like "Blue Shield" or "Darkest Dayz," that'll make you think about your life. It can't always be negative. And have fun. I'm well-rounded. I'm not gonna just bar you to death. I want people to enjoy the music. It's about versatility, not adhering to one style and sticking with it your whole career. I need them to see the vision.