Imagine for a moment that you are the Master P. of Minnesota. You write catchy, commercial rap songs about an unseemly criminal past. You put out your own CDs, promote your own concerts, throw some work to your mama and your cousin. At various points you have run your own
studio. You've even launched your own music magazine, the better to spill some ink in your own direction as you extend the tentacles of a media octopus.
Only trouble is, if you are Minnesota's Master P, no one has ever heard of you. Your new rap CD languishes in storage, sold only when restocked on the shelves at the Electric Fetus record store. That album's mention of the "1-9-9-9" is by now as ancient as "Vivrant Thing." Your monthly zine struggles to sell ads. And your promotion company, which brings local and national acts to area stages, suffers under the boom-bust cycle of the boom-bap industry--for which your reputation pays dearly.
In other words, you are Top Tone, the Minnesota Master P--which is a little like saying he's the Louisiana Frosty the Snowman. Tone shouldn't exist--the talent base is too small, the media too white, the market just too damn minor league--and yet there he is. He may be the most tenacious, ambitious, and staggeringly unlucky hip-hop capitalist ever to emerge from the upper Midwest. Just the fact that he is now putting out an eclectic periodical about pop culture, titled Anonymous, represents news. Who else would have the energy, the self-confidence, the foolhardiness to try?
Before reporting this article, I hadn't seen Top Tone since 1999, when he was pleading his case to local fans of the legendary rapper Rakim.
"You wanted him, you got him," Tone boomed across a cavernous room in the Minneapolis Convention Center. "Be grateful there was a show at all. He was going to walk after three songs, but I talked him out of it."
Built with the mountainous physique of the Thing, and speaking in the supple tenor of Ice Cube with a cold, Tone can seem at once commanding and vulnerable. But the complaining audience members he was addressing had already turned their backs, filing out into the night. Rakim had just finished a brief, clock-punching set before a small crowd, remaining seated throughout his performance. Perhaps he was unhappy with the turnout, or the trebly sound, or some purely contractual beef.
Whatever the case, this was supposed to have been his make-up gig for the previous year's last-second cancellation at First Avenue (see "The No Show," July 15, 1998)--and Top Tone's comeback, as well. On that earlier date, around midnight, Tone found himself with the unenviable task of telling a thousand anxious fans that Rakim had already left the area code. Tone financed the show and booked himself as one of the rap openers. So to appease outraged patrons, he forked out refunds from his own wallet.
Since then, rumors have circulated that Tone simply didn't have the cash to pay the headliner in the first place--a charge he flatly denies. "Twelve thousand dollars?" he says. "I shit that out on a bad day." But the second booking hardly alleviated our Master P's karmic "ugh." Onstage, Rakim behaved like a guy who had left the car running in the parking lot. Fans felt taken, again, and Tone made a big, easy target for their ire.
To understand why Top Tone remains unabashed and unbowed two years later, you have to imagine believing not only in the American dream, but in the most iced-out, pumped-up, Hype Williams-directed version of same. You also have to imagine believing in a God who created luck, but who also withholds it, hence demanding worship and respect all the more. Tone's God is a gangsta god.
On an October weeknight at the Red Dragon bar, the 28-year-old rap veteran extends his left arm and rolls up his sleeve to display his favored signifiers of fate and chance. One tattoo shows the grim reaper holding a crystal ball. Dice are inked nearby. His other arm bears the universal faces of comedy and tragedy, alongside the title of his record label, 2 Da Top. Talking to this struggling MC, you get the impression that he views every blessing as potentially spiked with loss, every gift paid for. "God usually takes away," he says without rancor.
By way of example, Tone recalls the time he won the state lottery and got shot the next day. It was May of 1997, a week before his first CD, What Part of the Game Is This?, was to be released. He had been putting down a hundred bucks a day when he cashed in, taking 14 grand. But within 24 hours, masked robbers confronted him outside his Columbia Heights apartment. Though the winnings were safely secreted away, Tone received a bullet to the gut. That year was a bad one all around: His studio was robbed, his car was stolen. His father passed away. Comparatively speaking, a hole in the abdomen wasn't
"I got really lucky," he says. "I got shot in my stomach, and it came out my butt. If I wasn't fat, I probably wouldn't be here today."