A lot of Top Tone's statements begin with "If" and end with "I wouldn't be here today." In a way, he's the ultimate motivational speaker, a perennially struggling businessman who peppers his spiels with the phrase "I shouldn't be telling you this for free," and faces his demons with a determined enthusiasm that is part Zig Ziglar, part Suge Knight. If all the pitches to major labels come to naught, he says he'll "go butt naked and sit in front of Russell [Simmons]'s office with a picket sign." He's serious.
"I don't think I could live with myself if I don't see at least ghetto platinum." Tone puts that sales figure at about 300,000 units without major-label backing.
Tony Mogul (he prefers we not print his birth name) has tried to make his own luck since he was a kid. His mother, Betty Murry, says he has always been good with numbers. And she should know: Murry has worked the door for nearly every concert her son has promoted. "I always got my nose in what my boys are doing," she explains. "I don't want him in jail or hell."
Young Tony was always bright, she says, but bored with high school. In his freshman year at Roosevelt High School, he began skipping class, and Mom soon tracked him down at the McDonald's on Lake Street, where he was working as an assistant manager. To please her, Tone earned his GED, studying up and passing the necessary tests in a week's time.
Somewhere along the way, hip hop became the local denomination of Tony's true religion: success. He could rap, and Top Tone simply turned out to be the most reliable employee Tony could find. The specific sound of the music is of secondary importance to its currency in making Top Tone a star. "I'd record Christmas songs if I thought they'd sell," he explains.
Having started out organizing a talent show at the Sabathani Community Center, Tone eventually branched out as a promoter into whatever genre would draw. (Beyond the high-profile Rakim debacle, Top Tone has booked such acts as Adina Howard and Montell Jordan.) Still, Tone seems far from mercenary. He regards the Alexander O'Neal concert he booked this year at the Quest as a triumph, though he lost two grand. Mom was happy, at least: The soul singer had known Tone's father. And, as Murry put it, she was just glad that O'Neal showed up.
How close, then, has Top Tone come to achieving his blinged-out dreams? Well, let's start with his most concrete accomplishment, the recent debut of an eclectic local music and culture monthly, Anonymous, produced by a staff of alternative rock and hip-hop fans, and published under Tone's preferred business name, Tony Mogul. Scouring such odd nooks as vintage video games and cell-phone addiction, the newsprint rag is also a handy means of raising Tone's profile.
"Everything I've done, even the Rakim fiasco, was all to promote Top Tone in the sense of, 'I can do more than what other people can, because I have more money,'" the publisher explains. "Which is what City Pages does every day. So how can I be heard? How can I get on the cover of a magazine? Well, I can own it."
Tone points out that he has long asked for the cover of City Pages, then hands me the second issue of Anonymous. The June cover's headline reads "Top Tone's Dead!" The article, written by Andrew Dick, narrates the rapper's rechristening as a would-be king of all media. Indeed, Tone/Mogul has recently bought into a free TV bi-weekly, Twin Cities TV & Entertainment, and will be launching a new adult-entertainment ad supplement titled Kitten in December.
"I've got to be Puffy one way or the other," he says. "So even if I never get to grab the fucking mic, I'm gonna try to be Larry Flynt."
So how does he finance these ventures? Before answering, Tone jokes, "Is your tape recorder still running?"
He'll forgive my uneasy laughter: Top Tone's latest CD, Caught Up in the Middle describes the MC as an "ex-dope chef" who "turned little white bags into cold hard cash." And the concert-promotion business is a notorious laundromat for drug money.
"I won't say what I haven't done," he says, "just what I'm not doing anymore." Today, Tone claims to be a legitimate member of the propertied class, renovating houses in the Phillips neighborhood, which has been ravaged by the illicit drug trade. "Everyone else saw a crack house," he says. "I saw a cash cow."
Top Tone has already mastered the rap impresario's gift for not taking the fall. He reports that he was in Chicago for Thanksgiving on the 1995 day that police raided his Lucky Tone Recording Studios on Nicollet Avenue South, responding to a complaint of marijuana smoke. The cops subsequently found three bombs, shrapnel, and black gunpowder, a manual on how to make bombs, plus a bunch of loaded firearms, including a MAC-10 machine pistol, a TEC-9 semiautomatic pistol, a 12-gauge shotgun, and three handguns. "They hauled enough guns out of there to start a war," his landlord told the Star Tribune.