Being underappreciated commercially arguably leads to being celebrated within the world of underground hip-hop. At the same time, earning accolades from purist acolytes—like being namechecked as one of the top five MCs or having your name thrown around during conversations of the greatest of all time—doesn’t exactly translate to tangible success. It’s hard to pay the bills on props alone. But one enviable boost that comes from being unheralded in the mainstream rap game is the ability to assume complete creative control. To that end, the singer, MC, entrepreneur, and producer known as Tonedeff has taken his vision and constructed a whole new artistic level.
A true one-man band, Tonedeff has manifested and cultivated all aspects of his music. This encompasses production, design, writing, engineering, marketing, and distribution. Since the ‘90s, he’s been challenging not only himself, but his fellow MCs to push further artistically. Over the course of his lengthy career, he’s dropped two full solo albums as Tonedeff—2005’s Archetype and 2016’s Polymer—as well as several EPs and collaborative projects. As a singer/songwriter he’s also released music under the name Peter Anthony Red. Tone also served as the label head for two imprints, QN5 and Quintic, where beyond merely developing artists, he’s created active communities—particularly with the former, which at one point had a very active forum of dedicated fans.
To fully understand why Tonedeff is a hero in a game full of villains, take a look at his craft and the music he’s made.
A Fresh Take
When the 2001 project Hyphen dropped, Tonedeff was only 25. Full of vigor, he was fresh, confident, and ready to put his own mark on what was already being done; moving it forward a few steps. Fully entrenched in the battle rap mind state at the time, he was a New Yorker, ready to take over. “I was trying to be competitive and be cool, and honestly rule the world,” he recalls. “I really thought in my mind that I was gonna be a big deal.”
Although the project was limited in distribution, several of the tracks still serve as milestones in his career, including “Competition Is None” and “Move In/Ride Out.” Other songs, meanwhile, like the obnoxiously catchy “Spanish Song” showed his sense of humor as he broke down his own language barriers while experimental cuts such as “Fast” blurred the lines between hip-hop and electronic music.
Dripping with ego, his early verses showcased a competitive instinct that had him exploring a variety of styles, which was mostly unheard of at the time. “‘Move In/Ride Out’ was probably the first bounce style, chopper track I did,” he says of the track that birthed his first music video. Tonedeff managed to make the tune truly stand out, sounding unlike any other track at the time—mixing in his vocals and unusual inflections with a striking sense of humor.
“I hear a lot of hope and a lot of cockiness very early on,” he muses. “At the end of the day, I hear it a lot from rappers coming up, how you’re supposed to be cocky. But when I hear my shit, I’m like, ‘Just you fucking wait, buddy! Life’s coming for you real fast.’”
“I think my mindset when I was writing the early stuff was seeing what was out there, trying to be competitive,” Tonedeff explains. “My competitive nature drove me to: ‘Oh, you’re doing that? I’m gonna do it times ten’ and ‘Oh, you’re rapping fast? Well, I’m gonna be the fastest fucking rapper on the planet’ to ‘Oh, you’re doing punchlines? I’m gonna have punchlines upon punchlines, all the way’ to ‘Oh, you do rhyme schemes? I’m gonna rhyme every syllable in this sentence with the next sentence and the 52 subsequent sentences.’”
Now that he’s outgrown that era, it’s easier for Tonedeff to look back and reflect. “It was OCD and fucking insecurity that bred that level of competitive nature,” he declares.
It was also during this time that he spits his often-jocked verse on Cunninlynguists’ “616 Rewind.” As he remembers it, “I really started playing with the triplets a lot, and nobody was doing that shit anymore,” he points out. “When I figured out that I was the only one in that space doing that, I went full tilt with it and developed the fuck out of it.”
“Velocity,” a feature on Substantial’s Substantial Evidence, really punctuated Tone’s fast rap intensity, literally setting the stop watch for the style to become a subgenre of its own.
But he had to start somewhere, and his early music still rocks just as hard now as it did then and it serves as the foundation Tone still builds upon today.
Building the Archetype
When you hear Tonedeff spit, it’s his pointed and articulate lyrics and effortless cadence—both normal and double time—that catches the most ears initially. When you sit down and actually listen, though, you see that he did something that no one had done before, especially not in rap. He’s been pushing the envelope of what a rapper is since the beginning of his career, and with his debut studio album Archetype, he showed what unapologetic male emotion sounds like.
From lust to longing to understanding, Tonedeff highlights all of the human feeling that we try to hide, especially in our youth. His prophetic wisdom is on full display as he waxes about the music industry and humanity itself. In “Porcelain”—one of the few tracks he says he can still comfortably listen to today—he tosses his ego aside and tells the tale of unrequited love that we’ve all lived at least once in our adolescence. “Masochist,” meanwhile, speaks to the ugly sadism that an artist accepts when giving his all to his craft. “Politics” tackles the music industry with the kind of foretelling insight that has only revealed itself as spot on as the track and industry aged.
Although easy to brush off as a novelty tune, “Pervert” is an aggressive stab at crass humor and it’s served as even more than that. While it’s gross and silly, it also oozes with self-awareness, and in turn, he’s created a pronounced camaraderie with the troves of sex-starved fans who maybe thought they were weird for feeling that way. Of course, as listeners later find out, the lines in that song reveal an addiction that shaped his life.
“In terms of sex addiction, if I had access to the Fort Knox vault of pussy—in terms of the ones they lock away, the ones you can’t get to, aka the supermodels, the singers, the Hollywood starlets—if I had access to that, I mean Jesus Christ, I don’t know if I’d still be alive,” he allows. “So maybe there’s a self-preservation aspect to this fear of mass appeal that I have. Who knows. Even on an underground level, it’s pretty harrowing. I don’t know if I want that. I mean, I do! I’d love that, but I’d love it too much, I think.”
In Between Times
Tone has taken a long time between creating his two full-length projects, yet he didn’t take any time off. In fact, if anything, he broke new ground. “I had a real breakthrough on my writing around ’08 to ’09,” he notes. “Up until that point, I was really playing the game. Everybody was on the punchline wave, and I felt like I mastered that stuff. I was kind of bored after a while.”
“I got into this truth kick,” he adds. “All the stuff I was listening to, singer-songwriter wise, pointed me in that direction.” This is around the time he started writing for the infamous Chico and The Man project and his other collaborations with Cunninlynguists, including “The Distance,” which appeared on their album Strange Journey Volume One.
“I really started to dig into my own psyche,” he says. “I really enjoyed it, and it was way more challenging than talking about how big my dick was in comparison to the Eiffel Tower. I really wanted to say something that only I could say and talk about experiences that only I’ve had—which, in my opinion, makes it the most unique work.”
When Self-Examination Meets Maturity
His second album was initially released as four individual EPs (Glutton, Demon, Hunter, and Phantom). Each was an expression a different part of his personality and each had a distinct sound. The EPs dropped before the release of the opus, Polymer in 2016. Polymer approached things completely differently, not just musically but also with the packaging. The themes in Polymer revisited many of the premises touched in Archetype, but with new insight and with the kind of self-awareness that is rare in hip-hop.
“These are my definitive works,” he asserts. “I can take any song on that album and feel proud that I pushed myself into a new space. It was super challenging and I love it. The best stuff and the masterpieces come from unique places—from the void, out of nowhere—and it hits people like a ton of bricks. Because they were looking one direction for ten years and then something comes and smacks them from the direction they weren’t even looking in.”
Although the psychological exploration Polymer takes had the potential to break him down, instead, the creation and expression helped him work through some of the baggage he’d been carrying around with him. “A song like, ‘More Like You’ is something that I’ve literally carried with me since childhood,” Tone explains, pointing to the relationship he had with his father. “Working through a lot of the aggression issues and the self-esteem issues and things I’ve carried with me my whole life was something I didn’t even want to approach.
“I was dealing with all these other demons and showing all these other scars,” he goes on, “so being able to record that song and even being able to just write it, helped me categorize and organize all these thoughts.”
Tracks like “Glutton” and “Filthy” examine his unhealthy relationship with sex, while “Demon” addresses his battle with anxiety. But some of that unexpected healing came with finally letting go of the egotistical characteristics of a musician. “‘Competitive Nature’ is another one where I felt relief after writing it because I’d been carrying a lot of that shit,” recalls. “Being an MC or a super rapper, you’re supposed to be infallible. You’ve got it all figured out, and the reality is, nobody does.
“Being real in hip-hop is not very common,” he adds. “I wanted to write that out and talk about how that shit leads to more misery and more insecurity and you’re not really being real unless you can let that shit go. It was nice to talk about those feelings of insecurity, watching the Grammys and wishing I was there. These are real fucking things I dealt with in the music, and now I’m ready to move past it.”
Although he says chronicling these darker parts of his personality has served as a healing journey, he knows the potential to revisit these vices is always just around the corner.
“It’s a really dangerous, volatile game,” he says of making the album. “To have to put yourself in those spaces, you could easily relapse and go down the well again. To me, it would be phony if I wasn’t there, in those moments. It’s only in that moment, when I was that low that I could write something that real. And now I get to listen back to it and marvel at it and laugh at it and pick it apart from higher ground. I’m stable now and can see it for what it is and put it into a box and say, ‘Ha ha, that was me! I made it motherfucker!’”
Beyond serving as an emotional depository, Polymer is also an incredibly beautiful album. “Phantom” and “Control” both showcase the strides Tonedeff has made as a singer and they push the boundaries of antiquated idea of genre. But that’s kind of what he’s always done—and not just with his music.
Creating A Universe
What Tonedeff has achieved in music has continued to raise bars. When he broke into the music on a more official level, though, he also built an empire along with it. QN5, a label that’s been home to a plethora of other strong, independent acts like Cunninlynguists, Substantial, PackFM, and the indie supergroup Extended Famm was created from the ground up. Tone has helped plenty of other artists build their careers with his production and support.
“Production is what I love to do, first and foremost,” he reveals. “Maybe that’s something people don’t know about me; I’m first and foremost a producer, and I always have been. And the rapping thing was something secondary. I enjoy it, but I get way more enjoyment out of making and creating the music than I do out of writing.”
In 2012, while working as Peter Anthony Red and hanging up the MC title momentarily, he built another label, Quintic. Still in its infancy, however, his new label doesn’t fit neatly into a box. “It’s not hip hop,” he stresses. “It’s whatever the fuck I want it to be.” So far, Quintic’s roster boasts a Danish singer-songwriter named Fjer and a sharp-tongued lyricist named Lucy Camp. Discussing this subsequent community, Tone reflects on some of the moves he made in the past, moves that although not widely acknowledged, broke new ground.
When promotion for the never released (and widely anticipated) Chico and The Man album with Kno of Cunninlynguists arrived in 2011, Tone embarked on the single most impressive, engaging form of (pre-viral) marketing that the internet had ever seen. An intensive, multi-site scavenger hunt emerged on the active forums of QN5.com sending information hungry fans all over the web decoding secret messages, translating Greek and cracking passwords to find out more.
Long before this hunt, Tone had already created a following that was so passionate that fans answer to their own name—two, in fact: Blue Schoolers or Auralarians. Like the one who named them, the fans are intelligent. They dissect every verse, drawing parallels to his other work, and they are always hungry to learn more. This was fostered on the well-done web universe of the QN5 website, which created a sounding board and socialization space in the highly populated forums.
As another example of his instinctual marketing prowess and progressive approach, Tonedeff created one of the first label-based podcasts, WQN5, which tapped into his ability to connect and understand people. Eventually he teamed up with PackFM to create another weekly podcast called “Tacos and Chocolate Milk.” That broadcast showcases the fun and feisty personalities of the friends and labelmates. Beyond these endeavors, Tonedeff also created a cartoon character Squijee, who was equal parts cute and vulgar.
A True Rap Artisan
Tonedeff’s latest innovation will come in the form of a documentary called Polyoptics, which chronicles Polymer. Set to be sent out alongside the physical pre-orders of the album, the film proved to be something of a major undertaking. “I’m not sure people understand what I did here,” he says. “I have not leaked any of it because I don’t want anybody to see it until it’s out. It’s been a lot of work. Jesus Christ, it’s been BRUTAL! All caps.”
He’s in the finishing stages and hopes to have it finished and shipped by the end of the Summer, but since he’s doing all the work himself it’s taking some time. Beyond the full length documentary, the pre-orders will also include other goodies like an art book and who knows what else.
“There’s so much extra shit included, and it’s just me doing it all,” he says. “This is as artisanal as it gets. Truly as artisanal as hip-hop music can ever be. One dude crafting this entire universe in all these different mediums, hand delivered to them by that dude who made it. This is Etsy Rap. I might as well make some Polymer doilies while I’m at it.”
A Gift or a Curse
As a multi-talented hero in a game filled with placid clones, you can understand how not getting his due could be extremely frustrating, especially for a perfectionist like Tone. But as they say, some things happen for a reason. Fame isn’t often kind to the mind of an artist, as he notes.
“There’s an inherent fear that I have of mass appeal, because I know what comes with it,” he concludes. “I’ve experienced fame in a very limited level, and I’ve had moments where the spotlight was on me for a day or a week and it was nice. The way that people react to fame literally disgusts me. It’s revolting to me. On that front, my anxiety would be through the roof because I’d never trust anyone’s motives.”
In a perfect world, the art would be all that matters.
“Imagine if there were artists that were literally doing ideas that they thought were cool and they didn’t have to worry about charting or Spotify,” he poses, before concluding, “Sure, it’s utopian, but it’s really about getting competitive about the audience. And so you’re catering your work to what you think people will like and that completely defeats the purpose of art.”
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