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."
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.
Amazingly, Tone emerged legally unscathed. "When you're supporting artists, and everyone has a dream but no one has any money, you get a lot of colorful characters there," he says. "All I can say about that is, whatever was going on there shouldn't have been going on there. And I wasn't there." He smiles. "And that's why I'm here today."
Jokes aside, the rapper is uneasy about rumors that he's a criminal. For one thing, he has worked at Washburn High School and Hopkins North Junior High Schools, and says those kids still e-mail him--in other words, he's a role model. "Supposedly I have a Benz, this big house out in the suburbs: I'm this rich drug dealer. It's not like that," he says. "If it was, I wouldn't be here still. I would buy my way into the music business, because you can do that with enough money."
Tone's faith in himself as a gambler in the house of capitalism seems doomed by the sort of luck that would suggest Job got off easy. Yet he still perseveres with a strange kind of existential optimism--exactly the ideology that pervades today's top-shelf rap music. Hence Tone remains as close to credibility as he is to failure. And both qualities mingle in his tragicomic passion.
There is the sentimentalist who wept the first time KMOJ-FM (89.9) played one of his songs. And if love boils down to buying somebody's bullshit, there is the rapper who loves himself more than anyone else could. Others do love him, though: His cousin DMG--the first local MC to make the national rap charts (in 1993, after signing to Rap-a-Lot)--even rose from obscurity to appear on the latest Top Tone album. You can imagine Tone's daughters nodding their forgiveness at this liner-note dedication to them: "Your daddy loves you...it may not show much timewise right now, but if anybody tells you different, just say he's busy right now changing the world."
Tone's never-ending sales pitch to the universe is as deeply felt as his antipathy toward, say, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis for not giving him a hand up. Doesn't the local rock royalty realize that we're all equal under luck? "Everyone's human," Tone says. "The cast of Friends could be dead tomorrow."
But there is always the faint chance that Tone doesn't have endless faith in the possibilities of himself--a submerged insecurity that surfaces as jealousy. "I don't watch videos," he admits. "I don't listen to the radio. Because I have a major complex about 'That should be me.' When my baby's mama come in, she'll say, 'We don't have any money to do this or do that,' and there's a freshly unwrapped Jay-Z or Snoop Dogg CD. She'll say, 'Can you buy me a drink?' I'll say, 'Well, you just bought Snoop two!'
"I'm hungry," he concludes, slipping into his most disarming mode: pleading. "I want my just due. If anything, it should be for perseverance. Because people do know I exist. If you say 'hip-hop Minnesota,' you know I exist--whether you like me or not."