Interview With Tony The Scribe
Tony The Scribe is a Minneapolis based rapper and organizer. He describes his music as "colored by a sense of impending consequences—be they social decay or just a really bad hangover" and alongside MPD150 works to abolish the police and raise awareness about the racist and harmful history/present of the policing system, as well as actively discovering and enacting alternatives to the police.
Tony Williams, Tony The Scribe
Q: You released your debut solo rap album, "Mixed Blood" a little over a year ago, can you talk a little about that process and how you feel like your music and your experience have changed or grown since that release?
A: Yeah absolutely, Mixed blood was a real lane change for me in some ways. I made music on my own for a long time in high school, then got really, really got deep into working with KILLSTREAK and ICETEP and so at that point it had been a while since I had released solo work and wanted to think really intentionally about what it meant to me and what I was hoping to cultivate. I moved back to Minneapolis after I finished school and Mixed Blood was really sort of me picking back up the pieces of my own creativity and figuring out where I wanted to go with it next and what this new part of my life was going to look like aesthetically! So yeah, it came about naturally. A lot of the songs were songs that had either come about in KILLSTREAK sessions or that I had been working on by myself, I had been playing with a band called World Out in California, and some of the material came out of sessions with them and it all just felt like it came together pretty naturally. It was a time when I was experiencing a lot of really, really big changes in my life -- it was moving states, going from having a direction set in front of me for pretty much my whole life to having to establish that on my own, getting into organizing more as a long term way of life thing and the process of putting that album together really helped me consolidate a lot of that into a particular frame.
Q: You are best known for your role as the rapping half of KILLSTREAK, an independent rap/production group based out of Minneapolis, MN. Can you talk more about KILLSTREAK's origins, music, and the inspiration for your album "JANUS"?
A: Yeah, ICETEP and I have known each other for a long time. We met each other in high school originally, and I guess were sort of thrown into creative collaboration together largely by a mutual friend of ours, who's my roommate right now actually, And he was basically like "look ICETEP is making a bunch of music and you're writing a bunch of raps so you should get together". I feel like a lot of young creatives often have like a bunch of different like loose collaboration offers thrown at them, you know a lot of people are like "let's get together, let's build, let's make some things", but people are so rarely serious about it and people are so rarely willing to take actual time and energy to do so, but (KILLSTREAK) was like putting together something that actually reflects more accurately.
Something we focused really hard on the JANUS record which came out in 2013, is the genesis of doorways, like in the Roman Pantheon. I think a lot about doorways and about liminal transitional spaces; spaces between spaces where everything is surreal and nothing quite normal -- and I think that's what transition give us, is a sort of different clarity. It's kind of like if you go to an airport, nobody who's in the airport stays in the airport, right, It's a transitional space right there, a completely different flavor than others.
Q: You've been a part of the local rap scene since high school, how have you seen it grow and change since then?
A: Yeah I really love the way the rap scene has grown, actually, since I started getting involved in it. You know I feel like that the biggest thing about it has grown closer together, which I feel like is emblematic of a lot of larger changes that have happened in in the last 10 years. You know, in the early 2000s it was either you're an underground hip-hop head or you're into mainstream rap, right, you're one or the other you can't be both. I mean it's the same genre, you know people are talking about the same stuff. I think of Run The Jewels when I'm thinking about this -- so you have a rapper who was on Outkast albums with a rapper who headed up potentially one of the most influential rap labels in the country.
I think that's a lot of what's happened in the Twin Cities too, people started to realize it wasn't all that different. I think we had a reputation -- probably justly -- of being a city full of backpackers and boom bap rappers you know in the early 2000s, really really heavy and verbose and divorced in some ways from other elements that are really important in hip-hop. I think there's a lot wrong with that, I think there's some right about that, but I think one of the things that we've done in the last couple of years is figuring out how to sort of unify those things and recreate a different sound. You have The Standard, GRRRL PRTY, all these these groups that came out that really sort of flip that on its head. Right. I think also the scene is a lot more diverse than it's ever been before -- both musically and lyrically. I still think there's something that's identifiably Minneapolis about it, but I feel like in general we have a better mosaic of different things happening here than we ever have.
Q: You've listed successful local artists like Doomtree and Guante as sources of inspiration, can you expand a little on music that inspires you and the ways it impacts your work?
A: There's something really accessible to me about Minneapolis rap, and I keep going back and forth trying to figure out what exactly that is. I mean part of it is just like landmarks, part of it is I feel like Minneapolis has a certain sort of rhythm to it that other cities don't have, probably as a result of the climate or the weather more than anything else. You know it's got this vibrant, verdant joy to it in the summertime and then this like slow melancholy to it during the winter, and I feel like that combination creates something that just works.
I was a total underground rap purist in High School, which held all kinds of problems. You know, there's an element of classism in there for sure, it's internalized white supremacy, all kinds of different stuff there. But I think as I've gotten older I've gained a much broader appreciation of music and I guess that's something that I've not only discovered, but something that I rediscovered. I grew up with with a family who was singing and making music and stuff all the time, whether it was soul, hip-hop, rock, and I started with more local hip-hop inspirations then from there my interests grew to midwest hip-hop inspirations, to more further afield hip-hop, like everything from Lil' Wayne to A$AP Rocky. And now...I don't even know what I listen to now *laughter*, like sometimes it's Bob Dylan, sometimes it's, I was listening to Radiohead all day yesterday, I went on a huge the Beatles kick like a month or two ago. I feel like there's just a lot out there right now, and increasingly I'm not interested in listening to one genre over the other as much as I am in songs and what makes songs tick as a medium and how different genres work within three minutes, four minutes, five minutes, to tell a story.
Q: You spent 5 months studying in Japan, can you talk a little about that experience, the culture, and how it's impacted you?
A: Yeah it was wild. I think the biggest part about it for me was I was sort of expecting to go. I've been studying Japanese for like eight years at that point and I was expecting to go and come back with a renewed appreciation of what humanity is and how we're all the same and we're all unified and that concept that people really aren't that different no matter where you are. And I came back with exactly the opposite. I was like, wow I was so naive to think that to think that people aren't that different, or that cultures aren't that different, because they're incredibly different.
I think that's one of the reasons that theory of if we just learned how to communicate better we would all be on the same side and the world would be rainbows and ponies is bullshit, because people are really different. it was very very difficult very rich and very rewarding too.
Interfacing with hip-hop there was one of the most fascinating things I've ever done, because there's all this street fashion that's so glamorized in America right now, and lot of them are basically modeling black American clothing. It's fascinating that the diaspora has projected such a cultural image through America onto Asian culture. When they think about blackness in a global context, they think about American blackness. Like I was in a hip hop dance crew and witnessed just like a really fascinating deep and abiding love of hip hop culture, but also some misunderstandings.
Q: Along with rapping, you're also very active in the Minneapolis activism scene, can you talk about how the two scenes overlap and intersect within the city?
A: So, I let's see, I came back to Minneapolis after school, at sort of the same time period that I was working on "Mixed Blood". I'd been doing some organizing in California. I became way more radical throughout college. I mean, I was pretty progressive before college too, but I think something about the tension of being, in a lot of ways, like one of the least radical people in the room when I was in Minneapolis, because I was friends with a bunch of anarchists, and at that point I was a pretty well-meaning liberal, and then I went out to California and all of a sudden I was like the most radical person and pretty much the only black person in almost any room I was in, at this privileged class, you know, rich California school. That was that was a really, really wild experience. I think that had a lot to do with me getting more interested in organizing, just being like "no actually, like people who are dying out here, like we all can't just like go to keggers every Friday night, drink until our faces fall off, and ignore what's actually happening in the real world", you know.
Coming back to Minneapolis I knew that I was looking for a day job obviously, and I was like "all right, organizing seems like sort of the thing to do and attended an organizing training and I never really looked back, or at least not until relatively recently.
Using Watchman as an example, humanity works better when we have an enemy to fight against. Whether it's a giant squid or Dr. Manhattan, take your pick, when people have something to look at as a villain they band together, and work together better. I feel like in a lot of cities the villains are just other people right, in Minneapolis like the landscape itself is trying to kill you. So we've got to figure out how to take care of ourselves and each other, both in the physical landscape and the systematic one.
Q: MPD150 is hosting a fundraiser to assist their work in abolishing the police, can you speak a little more on what MPD150 is and the fundraiser, which is currently live?
A: MPD150 is a really awesome organizing collective that I'm a part of. Basically we're seeking to create a police free Minneapolis. So we're really interested in investigating alternatives to the police and trying to see what it would look like to live in a city without them. We're doing that primarily by looking back at the history of the Minneapolis Police Department, looking at the present of it, and then trying to come up with ideas for what what an actual transition to a police free city would look like. I feel like when people hear police abolition a lot of the time they think it's just a pipe dream, but police abolition is like really, really possible. I mean if you think about like what cops are actually doing on a day to day basis, the vast majority of it is not chasing down bank robbers or whatever, It's harassing brown people, it's traffic tickets, it's criminalizing sex workers and drug users. It's even just like, directing traffic and going to mental health calls, stuff like that. So what we're really interested in investigating is what would it take for us to transfer a lot of those duties over to people who are better equipped to handle them. What if instead of having a cop responding to a black mother's mental health call on the north side, we had a social worker do that, or a psychologist, or community healer? What if we resourced and paid those folks to do that work?
So not only are (police) not helpful, they're actively harmful. I think like the perfect antidote for this is when those white supremacist came and shot black people at the (4th) precinct. At a police precinct, right at the protest, and people immediately ran to the officers and were like "hey call an ambulance", and the officers said "this is what you wanted, isn't it?", and walk back inside. 15 minutes later they finally did show up on the scene and they pepper sprayed all the witnesses to "try to control them" -- can you hear my air quotes, podcast listeners? -- to try to control the narrative, or control the situation. When in reality the only reason the dude got caught, the dude who shot those five protesters, is because he was an idiot and went and told somebody who reported him to a different police department. So, they were not at all helpful in that situation. What was actually helpful in that situation is the community members who showed up in the next couple of days to be really, really, vigilant about watching for possible more white supremacist incursions into the camp. It was the people who grabbed (the injured) people from the ground and got them in their cars to drove them to the hospital. It was the community emotional support workers and counselors who reached out to a lot of the folks protesting in the coming days and started to talk them through the trauma of all that was happening.
And do you know who didn't fucking help? The cops. The cops did not help at all. the cops were completely useless in that whole situation. So for me, when people are like "Oh but you know if we don't have cops, will things descend into chaos?" I'm like, well the only people who can even moderately expect the cops to help support them are middle-class white folks and rich white folks anyway.
Donate to MPD150's fundraiser to fund the work of abolishing and finding alternatives to police here.