Q&A: Tone Tank On Making Bootleg Toys, The Beastie Boys, And Why L&B Spumoni Gardens Has The Best Sicilian Slice
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 suit18th 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.