Tone Tank anointed himself the King of Surf Guitar Rap back in 2009. It’s a title the rapper, who resides in Brooklyn, admits he didn’t have much in the way of competition for, but it’s one that brought him to the attention of Geoff Barrow, the producer for Brit trip-hop troupe Portishead. Barrow was tickled by Tone’s video for “King of Surf Guitar Rap,” which is a freaky mix of masked sea mutants and Tone behind the wheel of a papier-mâché Cadillac rapping about swimming in the water off Throgs Neck and warning foes “I’ll destroy your sandcastle.” (Earlier this year, Barrow described the video to me as “amazing.”) It was an appreciation that resulted in Tone laying down guest vocals on “What Chew Want” by Barrow’s project Quakers.
While Tone’s King of Surf Guitar Rap detour has undoubtedly helped boost his profile, he’s quick to point out that the plaudit was active for just one four-track EP. Since then, he’s settled into a zone that combines a love of New York hip-hop history with his own brand of humor and one-upmanship; his latest release, “Shake Your Rump-ah,” is a tribute to the Beastie Boys that brilliantly includes brags about his Fila tracksuit and rhymes “shenanigans” with Raymour and Flanigan’s. Sound of the City met up with him outside Brancaccio’s to talk surf rap, Brooklyn pizza, and the enduring impact of the Beasties.
How did the collaboration with Geoff Barrow come about?
It was really out of the blue. Back in 1999, Portishead was the only non-rap thing I would listen to. You’d listen to it when you were by yourself, you wanted to chill out, smoke a skinny joint in the bathtub, you know, just have a chill day. I got an email under the pseudonym FuzzFace, and I didn’t know what it was and it was over MySpace so I didn’t pay much mind to it. Then he emailed someone from my small humble label and was like, “Yo, I’m trying to get in touch with Tone.” My boy was like to me, “Yo, it’s the dude from Portishead. What the fuck are you not responding to him for?” That was one of those magical moments. When does that happen? This group I listen to reached out to me and I’m someone who’s underground.
Why do you recommend listening to Portishead in the bath?
I don’t know! It’s ’cause when you’re a 19-year-old knucklehead, with the people I was around, you’re not trying to be open-minded but [Portishead] was hip-hop enough so you can listen to it without people breaking your balls or something.
Barrow mentioned he found out about you through the surf rap project.
Yeah, I think it was all the King of Surf Guitar Rap stuff, but that was just like a four song, eight minute long experiment. I don’t normally rap like that.
Was there much competition for the title of King of Surf Guitar Rap?
Ha ha, nah, but that’s what you do! The best way to get a job is to create the job, create the position! It’s basically ’cause my ex-girl had this Dick Dale surf guitar compilation and she had it on in the car and I was like, “I bet I can rap over this.” So I typed all the lyrics up on the typewriter to be on some Hunter S. Thompson mind-set. Dick Dale was the king of surf guitar, so I decided I’d be the king of surf guitar rap.
Do you write all your lyrics on a typewriter?
I’ve only done that for the King of Surf Guitar Rap one. I only performed it once, too: I came on with the whole Hunter S. Thompson poker vizor and everything, but I didn’t want it to become a gimmicky thing so I deaded it.
Where did you get the car in the video?
For some reason I just started building a life-size Cadillac out of papier-mâché. I didn’t take a tape measure to it once. I looked at a picture of an old Cadillac and was this angle here on the front fin is twice as long, so I did it by scale and measuring with my hand and going by eye.
You also make limited run bootleg toys, right?
Yeah, I started that when I started looking for all the He-Man figures my mom threw out but swears she didn’t throw them out. I looked last time I was there but they ain’t there. So I started buying them off eBay and finding bootleg versions and thought they were cooler. So I first got the idea for the non-racist black skinhead Panthro. There’s also the 18th Avenue Panthro, he got a guido suit, steroids, a Fila suit—18th Avenue is like where generations of my family are from. But the first one was skinhead Panthro. I just like the culture. It’s just like digging for records and clothes, it’s all the same thing. I like the lesser known culture. As a kid I was a fan of the abandoned buildings and train tracks. My dad would be like, “You think you have it so bad? We’ll go drive to the abandoned buildings and then you’ll really see how bad some people have it. I was like, “Can we?”
Are the toys hard to make?
You guys actually ran a front-page article on my dude Sucklord, who makes all the Star Wars shit. At first, I made one of these Panthros but it was all bumpy, like an old 1800s toy, it didn’t look that hot. I brought it to a kid who was working at a store I was selling my t-shirts in. He was like, “You should meet my boy Sucklord, he does this too.” There was the instant hater thing, where I was like, “Nah, I don’t wanna see someone doing the same thing,” but he was real cool. He showed me like, “Hit that with sandpaper.” He taught me in a real straight-forward way, like telling me I needed to get a compression tank.
On your song “Bazooka Rap,” you claim L&B Spumoni Gardens has the best Sicilian slice in New York. When was the first time you went there?
I can’t front, man, it was only like six years ago! That’s not a part of Brooklyn I went to like that, and my dad hadn’t even heard of it and that’s crazy. One of my boys that lives over there was telling my I was bugging. But it is the best sicilian in Brooklyn.
What makes it the best?
They put the cheese under the sauce. I mean, I don’t know, but they do put the cheese under the sauce. It’s just the best. The sicilian slice is just the best I’ve had.
You also brag about having a Fila tracksuit. Where did the interest in that brand come from?
I just like Fila, man. It’s really representative of my generation and being an Italian kid and into hip-hop, it seemed to be it was something the Italians and the blacks had in common. There’s a lot of links: Fila, Cadillacs, gold chains, and I think that’s a Philly and New York thing with those things too. There’s been problems historically speaking in those communities but the youth definitely rubbed off on each other.
Who’s Crazy Mike, the homeless guy you mention on “Forties”?
Crazy Mike used to live in the woods off of Sunrise Highway. Yo, he said he was a Vietnam vet, kinda like our Johnny Ryall, from Paul’s Boutique. He lived in the words. You’d get high with him and then he’d start talking. But you never smoked out of his pipe—you’d see little bits of crack residue and shit. He was an old white guy, Vietnam vet. You get him high and he started talking about “hellachopters everywhere.” We’d die laughing. We loved him, had respect for him, but he’d buy us beer. We’d give him money and he’d get us stuff. I remember one time cops stopped us like, “What are you doing with him?” We were 16-year-old kids and were like, “Yeah, he’s our boy.”
Do you know if Crazy Mike’s around now?
I don’t know. Those woods became an apartment complex. He had a tent and everything, like with a campfire. I remember before we knew him we lit the woods on fire. We didn’t know he lived there. He was like, “That was you motherfuckers? You almost set my house on fire.”
What do you have coming up, music wise?
I rapped over [Ultramagnetic MCs’] “Poppa Large” beat and I did the lyrics like “Tone Tank, big shot in my own house.” I just released the Beastie Boys tribute. I know a lot of people put out a lot of Beasties shit after MCA passed, but I had it written six months ago and just sitting there. I don’t care what people think, but I would hate for somebody to think I’m using that as a cheap way to promote myself. I think the Beasties taught everybody how to be funky and broke down a lot of barriers. Seriously, a world without the Beastie Boys… that shit is just New York. The kids I was growing up with was a little more knuckled head, but if you could be as cool as them you didn’t need to be knuckle head.
Can you remember the first time you heard the Beastie Boys?
The first song was “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party)” and I was like five, so it wasn’t a rap song, but it was cool, my parents were like, “It’s dirty and all that.” I guess they had a lot of controversy around them and my parents had watched Barbara Walters, but it was the same as was I wasn’t allowed to listen to Suicidal Tendencies in case I played it backwards and started listening to Satan.
But my first rap experience with the Beastie Boys, I remember, I had a 17-year-old Italian babysitter, like a guido girl, and I got a boom box for Christmas. Everybody thought you could just run and slide across the floor on your knees and that was breakdancing, so I’m doing that in my room listening to whatever rap station and she comes in and is like, “What are you doing?” I tell her I’m listening to music. She was like, “Oh, no, you don’t listen to this, this is black people music.” There’s a case of a child is born with no prejudices and than an adult is telling me it’s a rule. So maybe she’s the reason I rap today—I was like, “Fuck that!”
Tone Tank plays the Mercury Lounge tonight.