By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
A recent prison stint left rapper Tony Bones with a new perspective on life. "I had some marijuana on me," the representative of Southside Minneapolis's street-rap label Long Doe Records recalls. "It was a little bit too much, just enough for a felony. I had to do a year and a day in the workhouse. This was a totally life-changing experience."
Upon release, the feeling of freedom inspired the title and the mentality that permeates his new record, We Only Live Once. Brushing off associations with Drake's trending hashtag #YOLO, Bones says the phrase came to him far earlier and helped shape the direction of his new work. "I'm happy I went away, in a way," he says. "I lost a lot of things, but it changed me for the better. Things were going down with my health, my life choices.... You can't always make the right choices. It's not easy out here like people think it is. At the same time, I've just bettered myself ever since."
The album retains and hones the sound Tony Bones has been cultivating since his 2007 debut, When Hunger Strikes: a compelling mix of '90s East Coast concrete-stomping hardcore boasting and smooth, rhyme-heavy fast-raps. Flow is clearly a big concern for Bones, who gradually evolved his writing to try to match the melodic slick talk that marked his early years as a freestyle rapper.
"That's the Midwest style, the tounge-twist," he explains. "That's always been ours first. That was Tech 9, Bone Thugs, Twista, and their surrounding people that made that popping. I want people to know that I'm one of the best at doing that." Songs effortlessly string together internal rhyming and chopping with sung sections where Bones makes specific effort to melodically switch up his voice. "I'm meshing them both together. I finally feel like I'm reaching my peak right now. It's better than it's ever been."
Bones's lyrical content is better than ever as well. As his awareness of audience increased, he took a fresh outlook to writing, and gun talk and other rough subject matter moved to the background. "I still got that in me, but I hid it all in the back on purpose," he says. "I still wanted that edge. It's hard to get away, because it's planted in there. I'm going to keep it, because it is me sometimes, but I gotta do it a little more witty-like."
Several tracks still include signature nods to violence and utilize gunshots as percussion elements, but the lyricism is more subtle and sharp than previous efforts. Every bit as menacing as it's ever been, the music here focuses on tight rhyme schemes, tricky rhythms, and painting verbal pictures. The duo Double Helix produced the bulk of the beats, maintaining an old-school sampling sensibility that belies their young ages, and the style fits Bones's vibe well. There's a range of gritty funk that allows Bones to explore a variety of vocal methods, and he considers it just as much their album as it is his. Guest appearances from long-time local supporters Slug and Prof — as well as fellow Long Doe members Mike the Martyr, Big Wiz, and Aquafresh — show up alongside national artists from other scenes, such as Chicago's Twista and New York's A.G. of D.I.T.C.
After Tony Bones began with Long Doe Records, the offshoot Long Doe Entertainment was soon born to help bring respected rappers outside Minnesota to do shows and build creative relationships. Building outside his own scene has been helpful and has created lasting ties to other artists, but the artists of Long Doe have always had their feet firmly planted in the streets of south Minneapolis. Since the beginning they've drawn a significant crowd on the strength of word of mouth and hand-to-hand CD sales, elevating their passion for the music to the level of a strong business.
A dearth of local media coverage of the Long Doe movement doesn't phase Bones, though he is attempting with this album to make more of a push in that direction. Comparing his crew to Doomtree, as Big Zach does in his book on Twin Cities hip-hop history, or Rhymesayers seems to be a distraction from the larger movement Long Doe has in mind. Even with a full decade already under his belt, Tony Bones plans to continue building with his crew indefinitely, working with people in the scene but maintaining their own hard-earned lane.
"I've been to other scenes, and it's different," he says. "We've got our own flavor here. Key players that have been doing things for a while showed a lot people things because they took risks."