Artist Spotlight: Tonedeff

Artist Spotlight courtesy of The Prighlofone

So it’s unlikely I’m the best person to do a full-on biography of Tonedeff. I have this anxiety that all I’ll do is basically rehash his Wikipedia page, although I have used it as a helpful source whenever I forgot something important (see below) and not be able to shed light on who he is – after all, I’m not his biographer, merely a fan. And it’s been a long time since I wrote about music like this, so I have some rust to get rid of.

Tonedeff is a rapper/singer/producer/pianist who has been making his own music for over two decades. His recorded material can be traced back to the mid-1990s, and he performed on “The Arsenio Hall Show”, mentioning this on “Morethanthis”, a sung song about the fear that he didn’t live up to his potential and his hope to do so in the future, and in the more recent song “And They Watched Him,” where he alludes to past success and decisions. One of the things he said he originally swore to never move to New York City, which he eventually did. The underground, entrepreneurial hip-hop scene roped him in and whenever he was not working to make a living, he participated in the expansive setting and made a name for himself. While he had record deal options and a buzz from winning a prize on the aforementioned show he performed on when still only a teenager, he walked away for the time being and went to college prior to his move to NYC.

After the release of the “Monotone” EP and 2001’s compilation “Hyphen,” he, PackFM, Substantial and Session, under the group name Extended Famm, released their first album as a group, entitled “Happy F*ck You Songs”. Some of it is relatively traditional braggadocio rap and some of it is both fun and conceptual. In 2003, he released “Underscore,” which was not a full album, but mainly B-sides that included solo songs and a few collaborations, a prelude to his solo debut.

His first official solo album “Archetype” included songs about unrequited love, deception and betrayal, the evolution of a person’s thinking from child to teenager to adult, self-destructive habits, and more. It was forward-thinking and original, the title track being his own thesis statement to the unfamiliar. Having had the album for over a decade now, I can still say it’s one of the finest albums of the 2000s and that it is unfortunately overlooked. “Porcelain” is widely considered the album’s most popular song, as in two mesmerizing verses, Tone swoons over a girl in the midst of unreturned affections, how he coped with it and how it all played out in the end.

Soon after “Archetype” was released in 2005, it was announced he would be teaming up with Kno (producer of rap group Cunninlynguists who Tone has often worked with, to the point where Kno has recently stated that Tone is the “unofficial 4th member” of the group on Twitter) for a collaborative album called “Chico & the Man”. This album has occupied a special place in the hearts and minds of fans since it was announced a decade ago, and after several years in limbo was finally given a release date in December 2011. A few months beforehand, though, Kno posted on the official forum that the album, while not dead in the water, would remain shelved for the time being, among such reasons as the necessity of finding proper promotion. Since then, while the occasional detail is thrown out in the form of enigmatic puzzles, both artists have focused on other projects and are particularly elusive when asked about the progress, completion or tentative release date on “Chico & the Man” (I myself was hesitant to bring it up to Tone when I met him a few years ago, and I stepped very tentatively into mentioning it when on the subject of his future projects – it’s a well-known pet peeve of his to be interrogated about it. To his credit, he chuckled when I brought it up and assured me it would happen, although more work was needed to be done.) Sadly, it’s difficult to extract information about it. Us fans hope we will be rewarded eventually.

During 2011, he released “Cold.Killed.Collected,” a compilation with several dozen tracks on it to satiate fans who had never heard them released before, in between the release of “Archetype” and the official planning and recording of his next album, “Polymer”. Earlier in the 2000s, between the work he’s done for his label and the artists on it, he’s put out compilation albums with the whole QN5 collective, as well as other artists, under the name “Asterisk”. One of his best solo songs ever came from the fourth edition.

Genius claims itself as the Wikipedia of rap – or perhaps lyrics or poetry in general, considering the site’s expansion and its deletion of “rap” from its name – but it’s still got a long way to go. Wikipedia itself is often lacking when it comes to important and reliable information about hip-hop (just look at how the article on the Jay-Z vs. Nas beef was heartlessly deleted by some a*shole last year.) But the Wikipedia page for Tonedeff is actually fairly and surprisingly thorough, perhaps because of his individuality and uniqueness as a three-dimensional artist or because of his cult following.

“Cult following” seems like kind of an unkind term, or at the very least, a blanket statement when you look at it, but it’s not meant as a disparagement here. He often keeps up to date with fans via Facebook and Twitter, and when making a particular artistic announcement, he uses Livestream to do so (often tantalizing his fans with snippets or ambiguous declarations and posts relatively frequently on the QN5 forum – QN5 being the label that he started back in the ‘90s, other artists signed to it include Cunninlynguists, PackFM, and Substantial.) Several years back, he placed QN5 on hold to start a new label, QUINTIC.

He has shown consternation as being pigeonholed as someone who primarily does “fast rap,” emphasizing that he’s far beyond that as an artist (his speed is absolutely incredible, though – fans of he and Missouri rapper Tech N9ne have been hoping to get him on a sequel to Tech’s 2011 song “Worldwide Choppers,” which was an epic featuring some of the most rapid-fire rappers on the planet). Perhaps that’s the reason he released “Crispy (192),” as a “f*ck it”/ end-all-be-all representation of that part of him. Musically, it’s kind of bare-bones in comparison to his other, musically richer work, but it fit perfectly in the “Demon” EP (although it unfortunately didn’t make it onto “Polymer” itself). Take a listen:

As he grew as an artist, he spoke more about his contempt for genre. In 2012, under the pseudonym Peter Anthony Red (a translated version of his government name), he released “The Projectionist,” a short EP in which he sang over instrumental scores of movies such as “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “Inception” and “The Piano”. In 2014, he releases a song entitled “Holograms”, a collaboration with M83, which fit pretty perfectly with that EP (although it, unlike the 5 songs on “The Projectionist,” is an original composition rather than a film theme) and beautifully consolidates his singing and rapping styles. It’s magical.

A proper follow-up called “Hyperrealism” under the name Peter Anthony Red is scheduled for release next year, as is the second album from Extended Famm.

He feels his more recent work is less compromised, and he may very well view “CATM” as a white whale. Then again, it also begs the question of why he wouldn’t want to get it and the expectations for it off his back for good with a release once and for all.

“Polymer,” his second album which was finally released last month, is a bit more jarring than his previous work, but it has many masterpieces that range in duration and theme. Many of the songs that are on “Polymer” were previously released on three separate EPs which he released from 2012 to 2014, entitled “Glutton,” “Demon” and “Hunter”, and that all of those consolidated with one new EP entitled “Phantom” would comprise the entirety of “Polymer”. There were several songs (including the aforementioned “Crispy (192)”) that did not have enough thematic relevance to fit into the album overall which can be found on the EPs, and “Phantom” addressed everything from the lethality of self-destruction to familial relationships. The following song, about his father, isn’t even the best from “Polymer”, but it’s pretty incredible. The succeeding song, “Control”, is the zenith of the album.

He’s executive producing, featuring, headlining and working on many upcoming projects, including EPs and albums from more recent signees Fjer and Lucy Camp, the restart of a very well-regarded podcast with his friend and partner PackFM called “Tacos and Chocolate Milk,” and the multiple albums such as the Extended Famm reunion album and Peter Anthony Red solo debut that I mentioned above.