The best-selling pop single of all time is “We Are the World,” the 1985 charity song that solicits aid for Africa’s starving masses. The single that comes closest to matching that success, ironically, is about casual sex—a song that celebrates, in the words of its now-famous refrain, “doin’ the wild thing.”
“Wild Thing” is intoned by one Tone-Lōc, a young Los Angeles rap singer who has etched his name in pop-music history without really trying. (His name is a story in itself: “Tone-Lōc” is short for his “homeboy handle” Tony Loco, meaning “crazy” in Spanish; his real name is Tony Smith.) “Wild Thing” was recorded on a shoestring budget, on an eight-track tape machine in his coproducer’s Hollywood apartment. With a drum machine supplying rap’s characteristic boom, and sampled guitar riffs providing instrumentation, all Lōc had to do was lay down a simple rap in his inimitably sexy drawl. Largely through heavy exposure on MTV of the song’s video, which was made for a mere $419.77, “Wild Thing” hit the bull’s-eye, going multi-platinum within months of its late-1988 release. Suddenly Tone-Lōc was a star. With the subsequent release of his debut album, Lōc-ed after Dark, he became the first black rapper to hit the number-one spot on Billboard’s pop-album charts—no small feat.
Smith was a preteen when the tuneless, rhyming, and intensely rhythmic music known as rap, or hip-hop, emerged in mid-seventies urban America. Born and raised in West Los Angeles, he was the youngest of three sons in a single-parent household—his father died when he was six—and, not surprisingly, took to hanging out on the streets, where the music was evolving. Too impatient for guitar lessons, he found the do-it-yourself immediacy of rap appealing.
At the age of thirteen he began rapping himself, over instrumental passages on records by the Ohio Players, Funkadelic, and other funk groups he admired. He also formed a rap trio called Triple A, which soon dissolved, but inspired him to continue inventing lyrics. Meanwhile, the L.A. street youth culture was fostering more than musical creativity for Smith: at one point, he began dipping into gang life, prompting his mother to enroll him at the exclusive Hollywood Professional School. After graduating from high school he formed a rap duo with a local record-scratcher named M-Walk. He enrolled in junior college, but soon dropped out to try his hand at real estate, buying houses that had been foreclosed by banks and repairing and reselling them at a good profit. All the while, he continued to rap.
For Tone-Lōc, rapping comes easily. “Some days you get out of bed and things go through your mind,” he told Time. “Most people don’t write these down, but I do.” Of course, most people also don’t have Smith’s distinctive
Full name, Anthony Terrell Smith; born 1966 in Los Angeles, Calif.; father, James Smith, died in 1972, leaving Tony and his three older brothers to be raised by mother, Margaret, a retirement-home manager. Education: Hollywood Professional School, an exclusive private high school; attended junior college briefly.
In early teens, began rapping over instrumental passages of records; sang in Triple A, a short-lived rap trio. After high school, teamed up with L.A. scratcher M-Walk to form a local rap duo. Enrolled in junior college, but soon dropped out to work in real estate. Last day job: computer systems programming for Northrup Aerospace.
Awards: Named “Best Rap Artist of the Year” at the 1989 Black Radio Exclusive convention.
Addresses: Home —Los Angeles, Calif. Record company— Delicious Vinyl, 7471 Melrose Avenue, Suite 25, Los Angeles, Calif. 90046.
vocal huskiness, a sound he acquired during a bout with strep throat when he was thirteen. His mother gave him hot tea with brandy; instead of soothing his throat, the mixture burned him. “The low-riding rasp Smith was left with gave the teenager a romantic edge and brought him one step closer to becoming Tone-Lōc,” commented Rolling Stone.Years later, in August of 1987, Smith was heard by Matt Dike and Mike Ross, two entrepreneurs trying to establish a label called Delicious Vinyl. “Once [Ross and Dike] heard the voice, it was like, ‘Oh, we gotta get that voice on wax, ’” Smith related in Rolling Stone. “By scorching my throat, Mom gave me a career.”
Before his rapping career took off, Smith worked as a computer systems programmer, a job that he recalls with fondness for its generous pay and minimal work. “I used to go in the corners underneath people’s desks and go to sleep on the floor and shit,” he bragged to Musician. “Yeah man. I used to kick it and get paid!” In a sense, this is the attitude he has brought to his latest career: despite the millions he’s made so far from his debut album and national tour, he’s far from single-minded about music. “Lōc doesn’t have the passion, never mind the messianism, that is characteristic of other rappers,” wrote Rolling Stone. “He doesn’t write his music, and the lyrics to his two best-known raps”—“Wild Thing” and “Funky Cold Medina”—were largely written by someone else.”
Yet this is fine for Smith, who is the first to point out his lack of ambition. “I’m having fun,” he told People. “I’m a natural celebrator. I can celebrate anything any day, any time.” Aside from rapping, he’s passionate about sports—he had hoped to make a career of soccer, until he injured an ankle—hunting, gun-collecting, and Yesca, his fourth pet pit bull (whose name is L.A. slang for “weed” in Spanish). “I really don’t care about too many things,” he told Rolling Stone. “People ask me, ‘Do you have any advice?’ Not really. … I got to have access to a vehicle and sunshine and women. Hey, that’s it. That’s life. What’s left?”
Upon its release, Lōc-ed after Dark was described by Spin as being “full of bass whomp that soothingly rumbles the chest at high volumes.” The music, though, was only part of the rumble. While many of the songs stormed the singles charts, the raciness of the lyrics sent a few waves through the industry and the public. At a time when youths are taught to “Just Say No” to drugs, “Cheeba Cheeba,” a paean to marijuana smoking, was almost startling for its blatant pro-drug message. (Notably, there’s no other pro-drug song in hip-hop.) “Funky Cold Medina,” while less risky, is nevertheless in the same vein—as Smith told Time, it’s about “a drink that gets you in the mood for the Wild Thing.” Tone-Lōc’s producers exercised some caution with “Wild Thing,” hiring another rapper to write new lyrics after deeming the original set, written by Tone-Lōc, too filthy for airplay. Nevertheless, many radio programmers regarded the song’s gleefully recounted sexcapades as inappropriate for an AIDS-ridden America. Some forty stations refused to play it, which prevented the record-selling single from rising above the number-two slot on the charts.
Still, those who find his lyrics offensive are in the minority: rather than alienating listeners, Lōc has broadened the rap audience. His success has helped both to weaken the New York monopoly on rap and to establish the West Coast school, long regarded as inferior, as a force to be reckoned with. “There’s a whole other market now other than New York,” Lōc told Music Express. “Sometimes the audience’ll be all black people, and the next night it’s all white. The L.A. rap scene is getting a little more respect now with good quality records.”
The key to Tone-Lōc’s popularity seems to be accessibility. Since its birth, rap has spoken primarily to the black urban lower class, often drumming up nationalist pride or venting frustration over racial injustices. Lōc’s fare, on the other hand, bypasses social commentary. Laid-back and downright funny, his raps are pure entertainment, and the subjects of his songs—himself and his pursuit of pleasure—appeal as readily to middle-class suburbanites as to inner-city street kids. In addition, the music itself—a catchy blend of rap, pop, and metal—strikes a more accessible chord than the stark, hard-hitting groove of straight rap, which tends to alienate mainstream listeners. As Rolling Stone commented, Tone-Lōc has gone far in “making rap safe for pop radio.” The only damper on his widespread appeal has come from critics and rap purists, who generally regard him as a sellout.
Detractors notwithstanding, Tone-Lōc’s rise to the top has been a smooth one. Of course, smoothness is what he’s mostly about. “I feel like I’m in a car full of gas, he told USA Today. “I’ll just ride it through until it runs out. Then maybe I’ll fill it up.” Perhaps, he told Musician, he’ll cut another album. “Then that’s it. Tone’ll go kick it somewhere, be in the house … I’ll probably just get back into my real estate, buying foreclosures, fixin’ ‘em up and selling ’em for an enormous profit.” (According to Rolling Stone, there’s only one concern that’s pressing for him: “to star in a movie about his life, currently being planned, which he hopes will turn out like Scarface or The Godfather, his two favorite flicks.”) Still, a continued career in music may be in the cards for Tone-Lōc after all. As the singer elusively remarked to the people at Delicious Vinyl, “I see the future as holding a lot of promises, all of which I will fulfill.”
Lōc-ed after Dark (includes “On Fire,” “Wild Thing,” “Lōc’ed after Dark,” “I Got It Goin’On,” “Cutting Rhythms,” “Funky Cold Medina,” “Next Episode,” “Cheeba Cheeba,” “Don’t Get Close,” “Lōc’in on the Shaw,” and “The Homies,” Delicious Vinyl, 1989.)
BAM, April 21, 1989.
Details, May, 1989.
Music Express, March, 1989.
Musician, June, 1989.
New York Times, June 11, 1989; August 27, 1989.
People, March 20, 1989; May 8, 1989.
Rolling Stone, June 1, 1989.
Spin, June, 1989.
Time, March 27, 1989.
USA Today, February 13, 1989.
Yo!, August, 1989.
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