Eighteen year-old rapper Antonio “Tone Tone” Henderson has a lot to be thankful for. If the magic formula for hip-hop stardom these days is part talent, part connection and lots of timing, he might make American kids scream.
That is, if he doesn’t wind up a victim of hateritis, that hood-born disease that strikes Motor City artists, causing extreme jealousy and reluctance to support one’s peers.
Lord knows he’s got a well-oiled machine behind him. The small Wide Open Records team that released his debut album, Skool’z in Session, in May, and his management team, Urban Artists, have promoted the baby-faced rapper well. Skool’z sold more than 5,000 copies in Detroit so far. What’s more, the album’s single, “I Ain’t Playin’ Withcha,” is in heavy rotation. According to industry bible Billboard Radio Monitor, Tone is currently receiving 55 to 77 spins per week on local urban stations.
That means listeners will hear Tone’s record played on WJLB-FM and WDTJ-FM almost as often as New Orleans duo Wacko & Skip’s “Nolia Clap.”
Bin divers at local mom-and-pop record stores may have seen Tone’s poster, the green and yellow one that shows him in front of a school bus, gawked at by two fetching older women.
The marketing is paying off. Tone’s now a budding sex symbol — he got mobbed at a charity event last month, chased straight out of Northland Mall by a throng of screaming teenage girls.
“Aw man, that was fun,” he says, rubbing what could be, age permitting, the beginnings of a goatee.
Considering that national artists have to claw, scrape, bend over and play business/money politics to get radio rotation, Tone’s airplay is impressive. The question is, how did a Smurf-short young-un from Finney High School’s class of ’03 do it?
Tone says he simply had to make the proverbial “radio record.” He did. “I Ain’t Playin’ Witcha” packs a New Orleans-style bounce, but the vocal feel of a Goon Squad song. It’s the type of record that might surprise sufferers of hateritis simply because it was made by a local cat.
But there’s more to getting on the radio than just having the right song. Charles “Spudd” Spence, program director of WDTJ, says that Tone Tone’s manager, L. “Doc” Goodwin, gave the young rapper a yeoman’s effort. That and Urban Artists and Wide Open conducted the most meticulous independent local radio campaign since Detroit native Kem’s indie march (which ultimately led to the gold-selling Kemistry, and a deal with Motown Records).
The airplay has certainly legitimized Tone. And the rapper is currently enjoying being in the company of Detroit’s current hip-hop brat pack, alongside B.R. Gunna, Black Lagoon and Marquis Porter.
“I’m glad to be in line with them,” says Tone, sitting at the console in Ferndale’s Studio 8. He’s wearing a tan button-up shirt, jeans baggy enough to fit his 6-foot-plus manager, and a huge bejeweled belt buckle that reads New Skool, the label he is starting.
The popularity means he’s come a long way from Finney High, where he rapped secretly, skipped school frequently and danced publicly as a member of the Drop Squad. The troupe was a “jit crew,” he says. (Jitting is a subcultural dance unique to Detroit that involves lightning fast footwork. Old schoolers: Think lindyhopping to booty music.)
Tone scribbled his first rhymes in 1993 when he was 9 years old. He rapped about things he knew. You know, Mom, Dad. Dad doesn’t live with him. They have a “cool” relationship, he says.
Raps about the Henderson family, however, could be rather substantive. His cousin Gov, who goes by the name Squeak, is a former member of 7 Mile, the R&B group once signed to Mariah Carey’s defunct label, Crave. And his aunt, Sheryl Henderson, is a nascent gospel artist.
Early on the family expected Tone to be musical. He started out playing drums at Detroit’s God’s Universal House of Prayer. Hip hop was his calling, though. His secret raps improved and at the tender age of 14 he began catching the bus to Squeak’s downtown Detroit studio to record.
Tone’s influences are the typical rap star juggernauts: Jay-Z, 50 Cent, T.I., Tupac. But you wouldn’t know listening to his music — there ain’t a cuss to be heard. No swear words? Is this kid, who already has pubescent girls fluttering, a goody two-shoes? No, the clean-mouthed shtick is a device meant to service his route to fame.
“I don’t curse,” he says. “Not because of any political reason. It gives me a bigger audience. I had to sit down and think, ‘How can I sell records without cursing?’ I don’t say the ‘N’ word, either. By not using it, I get to perform any song off my record anywhere.”
Tone’s idol, Jay-Z, might say you can’t knock this kid’s hustle. Tone wants to be a star. And so far he’s spread himself out pretty well. Regional promotional efforts have taken him throughout the Midwest. Last week, he completed a short promo tour through Kentucky, Cincinnati and Cleveland.
Manager Goodwin also has the young rapper supporting various causes. Shoes for Shorties last month, Coats for Kids last week. Many of those benefiting from said causes are from East Side neighborhoods, Tone’s side of town. He even turned up at P. Diddy’s “Vote or Die” rally — which saw Mary J. Blige and Leonardo DiCaprio in attendance — a few days before the presidential election.
Tone voted for Kerry proudly, but he doesn’t think voters his age connected with Diddy’s crusade. Is the filthy rich Diddy too culturally elite for the streets?
“Diddy is rich,” Tone says flatly. “What does he need the president for? The president should be for the people in need. Only 17 percent of people my age voted. Man, I was so hurt. Four more years of the evil dude.”
Tone Tone — who leaves for a tour this week supporting T.I. — claims he won’t fail to connect with those people the way Diddy did. His method, he says, is to handle his business with Detroit as home base. He’s already begun recording his second, as-yet-untitled, album here. It’ll be released on his New Skool label, and live music is the theme. He’s playing the drums himself.
Staying here, he says, is also how he’ll avoid the hateritis. “People feel like the D is a hatin’ city, but they ain’t hatin’ on me. I’m mean, you gon’ run across a hater every now and then, but I haven’t run across haters.”
Appears Friday, Dec. 3, at the State Theater (2115 Woodward, Detroit; 313-961-5450) with Nas. Khary Kimani Turner is a Metro Times staff writer. Send comments to [email protected]