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Interview: Ton3x – Singer, Songwriter and Producer

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If Prince sung gospel music, then you'd have a general idea of the artist formerly known as "Tonex." Like Prince, Ton3x is a singer, songwriter, producer, and multi-instrumentalist. He is also an unconventional "bad boy" who won't let the media or his fans stand in the way of artistic integrity.

After the massive success of Out the Box, Ton3x could have easily found a home amongst mainstream audiences. But as quickly as he rose to the top, the trappings of new found success were set to bring him down. And sure enough, shortly after the receipt of his sixth Stellar Award and first GRAMMY nomination, Ton3x became a "whipping boy" within the gospel music industry.

Even with Jesus as his guide, Ton3x style was deemed too flamboyant. Too unconventional. Too abrasive. And after much contemplation, Ton3x made an abrupt retirement announcement in 2006 and split from Jive Records, which received a vocal, public response from his industry peer, Kirk Franklin, who supported and respected his musical talents.

On March 17, 2009, Ton3x released Unspoken, his first release under Battery Records, a Sony BMG imprint. Upon review of the album, he managed to squeeze some time out of his busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry — reflecting on Walter Hawkins, Out the Box, and "the naked truth."


Over the past few years you've experienced a great deal in your personal and professional life: the three D's – death, divorce, and defamation. After listening to Unspoken, I am curious to know if any of these experiences shaped or influenced the album's messages.

None of the tracks on Unspoken are in any way contingent upon the subjects, situations or life events between '04 and '09. For that reason, I decided to call the album Unspoken. I wanted to make sure that this wasn't the record that the public will be expecting to address everything that has happened. It's already been addressed – just go to Google and Wikipedia and have a field day, you know?

It's all about the music now. It's all about getting back to my heart. I like the way you framed my past situation with the three D's: death, divorce, defamation – all three of which have their on way of making you that much more of a commodity. I just try to use those things to catapult and further exacerbate, if you will, many of the myths about me because it's the myths that make it all legendary.

You hear people talking and wondering what is that about, what am I going to do next, where is my head at. All of those things, believe it or not – even though they hurt me many times – they do help substantiate you as someone that everyone keeps talking about –whether they like your work or not. You can't pay for that. 

On a personal level, a lot of people view you as the bad boy of Gospel. How you do feel about that characterization?

I think they're right. I think I'm the James Dean of Gospel… the Eminem of Gospel… the Pink of Gospel. Whoever can speak their voice and hold on to their soul and not have it diluted or feel that they have to change who they are to sell records, that's who I represent. All I'm doing is living my life out loud. The artist who puts it out there and delighting in everything and is cool in the Scripture is not realistic.

I'm not saying they're wrong for doing it. That's just not the type of artist I am. That's not what I want to be doing. Of course, salvation through Jesus Christ but also the realization that there is something going on after the benediction, the stuff that goes on that nobody knows about. I want to be able to live that life so freely that when that person feels that they have no one to talk to or relate to, they know that Ton3x is number one. He's not going to judge but he understands and will do everything in his power to get that person to see that God loves him.

There's always another chapter coming. He does not know how the story is going to end. I'm an example of that. I had to come back out and show that I'm still alive, still breathing, and that I'm okay. It was so public, everything that happened to me, that it also needs to be a public rebound. As much as America loves to see you crash-and-burn, America loves to see a comeback.

So far, the reception has been beautiful. I can't even lie, man. It's been the most welcome, warm, receptive feeling, period. First of all, I gained a certain amount of respect because I'm still here. Regardless of whether they like you or not, people will respect that you're still going. 

There is no topic that is taboo for you in your quest for artistic truth. Why do you think your realness or frankness offends traditionalists?

I think some may think that means I'm bastardizing truth. I think for some reason they feel that it isn't a perfect example. I guess an example to them means a law-abiding citizen with global qualities that are intact at all times. I'm not President Obama. I'm not Michelle. I'm not a politician. With those positions you really do have to keep your nose clean.

To some degree, I guess, as an artist in front of people there is a certain level of responsibility that you have to your public to, as I say, "be a good example." But to me being a good example is being real. A true example is a human with a higher call that God has given with a platform to reach a lot of people.

I guess they just have a problem with Ton3x because there's a piece of Ton3x inside of them that they're afraid to deal with. Everybody has a little Ton3x. Some people live out their frustrations, the things they wish they could say and wear and do and sing and dance. They live it out vicariously through me whether they say it publicly or not. I can't see people just wanting to hate what I do because it's really good music. It's really good music. It's real music and it's good music. If they're hating on it, it's because it's popular to hate on it in public. Like Britney Spears and Michael Jackson and Prince – people always talk trash about them. 

Whenever an artist attains a certain level of success, they lose a great deal of privacy. Do you ever become fearful about letting everyone about the intimate details of your life – the "naked truth"?

Sometimes I wonder if I'm too much to digest at one time, so I've learned how to portion out the meals and not just like, you know, stuff down the entire smorgasbord of information. I think The Naked Truth came out the way it did as a subject matter. It's just some people can't chew that fast, you know what I mean?

You don't want people to throw it up. It came out that way because it's been held up so long that finally it had been molested one too many times. It blew up. It went off. You do that to the nicest animal, you keep messing with that puppy, you keep messing with that sweet little puppy that's licking your ankle and you back that little puppy into a corner and you kept on poking it and teasing it, the little dog will go off and it will bite you and tear your skin. That's all that happened.

I hadn't done anything any other human being wouldn't do. Now I've learned how to space it out so that I can keep current and relevant as far as the amount of information. I can space it out and use it to my advantage. The advantage for me works both ways. It's cathartic for me as a person. It helps me to disseminate between fact and reality. It keeps me objective about my own press and comments so some of the negative things that I see are not necessarily negative; it's just another perspective for me to use to better present my artistry.

I'm not in a bubble. I'm very aware of the different comments that people make about the choices I made or how I should do it this way or, "Maybe he should start trying to do this" – I read all of those things. I take all of those into consideration. So I see the good and the bad literally as a shaping tool to make me a more accessible artist. If I keep it open and have all my ducks in a row, I think I'll be around for a long time. 

Unspoken is a very powerful album and I was very intrigued by the cover, which finds you muzzled. What was the inspiration behind the artwork?

I knew that that album was going to have me with my mouth taped. I had that vision long before the selection of songs was done. Basically, it's all the things that happened to me: being down spiritually, being down artistically, and being down corporately. I have a black eye on my right eye. My arms are bound up. I'm in a warehouse that doubles as a freezer, left to die. It represents more of where I was than where I am.

My eyes are blue because it's basically saying you've done your worst but I can still feel the life within me. Blue represents truth. Blue represents justice in the Bible for judgment. So basically, those who look at that cover and can't look at my eyes, they know why because they know what they did. I am that testament that no matter what you do to me, I'm going to love you.

I'm still going to see through you and I'm still going to keep going because I'm bionic. That's all it is; it's strength and determination. If that was the world's best trying to destroy a person, I'm still here and I'm unstoppable. I'm unstoppable because I love what I do and I do it from my heart. 

My favorite track on the album is "Cool With U." What insight can you give on the songwriting process? Is there a particular misstep that you're addressing where you wish you had more counsel with God?

I thought that that song really represented the fullness of where I was on going back into the commercial industry. I'd say the time has come for me to take my place in this industry. At times it's hard to balance my relationship with You and my celebrity.

People are always texting me and I'm always texting them back. "There's MySpace, my devotional, my Apple TV. Your love runs deeper than the sea but I know you want to spend some time with me." Some people thought it was a regular R&B song. It can be taken that way; it can be taken vertically in a divine way or horizontally in human relationship. Both of those things happen.

What I like most about that song is the vocal arrangements. I've never spent so much time being meticulous about every line counting and every arrangement of the line making sense, particularly on a ballad. You can hear that. Each line meant something. Each lyric of those lines meant something. I wanted to give each of those lines their own personality. As far as being "if it isn't cool with u, I don't want to do it, I don't want to hear it, I don't want to edify it, I don't want to say it" – that's honestly my heart's desire as a Christian, a believer.

After everything that's happened, I'm trying to make all of those things come to fruition. It manifests the best me for Him while yet still trying to make a career out of this thing. It can be very difficult so whatever it is that I do, I really want it to be cool with Him.

You close the album with "F@ce Down." Did the song's placement have a special artistic meaning?

You know what? This is a very interesting album in the sense that I've never sequenced a record with ballads in the middle. If you listen to it sonically, the whole album in sequential order forms the shape of a smiley face. It starts up high, it's down low to mid-tempo then it goes down to the low part in the valley with the ballads and then it starts making its way back up. By the time you end, you should end with a smiley face. So sonically, I tried to make a virtual smile.

With "F@ce Down" being the last song, I never thought about ending with such a hard, trashy song. It just sounds like an industrial funk factory mixed with some elements of rock. I thought that for the next era of my life, the last thing I need to put on that record is something that reflected what it's going to take for me to remain at the top and to acknowledge what it took to get me to rock bottom. So if you look at the lyrics of that song, it explains what happened over the past five years.

I didn't want it to be a ballad like "Make Me Over." I wanted to say, "Not only do I realize the mistakes, not only do I realize I've stepped out of place but I'm on my way back. I'm coming back. This is it. I'm seeing what I need to do to go higher, it's to get low. I was trying to get high when I really needed to get low." I just love that song. "Open confession is good for the soul, my discretion is heated control, watch it – don't take your eyes off the goal, I think in September you'll be back in your pole." I'm basically saying I'm starting again, but give me till September, I should be right back not to just where I was but the Godly, divine, the whole alignment of the structure of what has to happen – kneeling, prostrate.

The Bible says, "If my people will call My name and humble themselves and pray." I say the key to your success is to ask for forgiveness. I say that in the song. Face down seems like the last thing you think you need to do to go higher. It took five years for me to realize that staying on my face before God is really what brings me success. So I want my fans to learn from my mistakes. Stay low. Anybody who walks around with pride is going to get hit with the bullet in the dark first. Those who stay down low, those same bullets will go over the top of their heads.

The lead single off of Unspoken was "Blend." It's a gorgeous song. And you have two mixes: one is remix, which can be found on your MySpace page, and another is the album version. Why didn't you put both versions on the album? 

Several remixes will be available on iTunes soon. I didn't put multiple versions on that album because I didn't feel the album needed any more songs. I just felt "Leave it alone and make 'Blend' its own album." Five to six mixes will be available on iTunes on June 2, 2009.

The video hasn't even been shot yet, so I have handled things completely backwards of what I normally do, when it comes to the marketing campaign because I didn't want to make a big deal. I really underplayed the record. I told the label, "Don't press out 185,000 copies, just 25,000. Press no more than 30,000. Don't even do too much, just let it grow organically." If it's really going to be a bona fide hit, organically it will evolve into what it needs to be. I'm not going to force-feed this record and set myself up for a great commercial failure by trying to launch it like Out the Box, when some of the consumers' confidence has been damaged by the media or even the choices that I've made that they may not agree with.

So for some of them, they need to see and hear why they loved me to begin with. "Blend," to me, was the best side-door entryway to say, "I'm attending this party. You don't have to announce my name. I'm just here chillin'. If you want to have a conversation, you can come over and we can chat it up, but it's just really the overall plan is in God's hands." There's a lot of music out there. I don't want to compete with anybody. I'm in my own lane. If you dig it, you dig it. So far, the reception has been great.

Since you don't want to compete with other artists, do you find yourself competing with yourself? What does success mean to you?

Actually, I'm very competitive with myself but there are so many directions I can go within a record. For me, it wasn't about making my best album. It was about making sure I had the best collection. In the future, my main goal is to make sure I drop records in a successive way, like boom, boom, boom, consistent, no-nonsense, this-is-what-it-is, great and keep it moving. More than competing with having a better record, I just want to put forth the most consistent string of albums that any artist has ever put out back-to-back.

Kind of like the same run that Stevie Wonder had with Talking Book, Innervisions, Fulfillingness' First Finale to Songs in the Key of Life – I mean, back-to-back-to-back-to-back consistently great albums. Something is to be said about records that you're a part of that are that consistently good. That's what I want. I don't want those five-year gaps when you come out with some big announcement. That's not the industry anymore anyway. People's attention won't last that long. I just want to make four records, complete my contract, have a real good four-record run and just set myself up to be the biggest free agent of all time.

The only way you can do that is by staying consistent with your work. That's really my goal. The only thing I'm competing for is competing against the old way I used to approach or made assessments of my artistry and just really set myself up making good business situations that I'll have the kind of respect and control that is needed to become a multi-media conglomerate. That's the ultimate goal.

Over the last couple of years, between the 2004 release of Out the Box and 2009's Unspoken, you have released several albums from your independent label, Nureau Ink. For those who have not had the opportunity to listen to the independent albums (and distinctly remember Out The Box), in what ways are you the same and in what ways are you different?

I'm the same in the sense that you're going to get a smorgasbord of different genres. I'm different in the sense that I don't present the fact that I can do these genres with a chip on my shoulder, with the expectancy of something negative to be said. It's one thing to say to yourself you're being different and another to walk in it and give off the energy of defense because you're so used to people, for no reason, bashing because of a few misunderstandings and ignorance. So that's the main difference.

I'm not bitter, I'm better as a person. I've grown up a bit. Having a child has a way of growing you up a great deal. The messages are very clear and plain. I think a lot of people thought I'm going to put out a bunch of random things about me but throughout the album, there is nothing but consistent messages about my belief structure in Jesus Christ, the resurrection, urban lifestyle living, relationships but all from a Christian perspective. I'm really happy about that.

A lot of people are saying, "Wow, I didn't think it would be lyrically this sound because you were starting to go in a more mainstream direction." Yeah, mainstream to expose what I believe and express it in the way that is accessible to those who believe in God but can't stand religion or organized religion, I should say. 

You have cited Walter Hawkins as your biggest musical influence, at least on the Gospel side of things. What about his ministry did you admire the most?

First of all, his album cover from 1975, there were no Gospel records that even looked like that. That was very, very pop. They were doing covers like that for Donny Hathaway or someone like that. Even with the fonts, you didn't see those type of fonts used on Gospel records. Of course, we can't acknowledge Walter without acknowledging Edwin and we can't acknowledge Edwin without acknowledging Andre. We're all innovative pioneers and trailblazers, particularly their fashion choices.

At that time, they were not wearing robes. They had their butterfly collars with the chest hair showing with jewelry, straight-up perms, platforms – things that were just considered taboo for a pastor, let alone a Gospel artist. I think that's where I got a lot of my courage, just by looking back on the things that they pulled off on television. I just couldn't believe they got away with it. It wasn't that we were trying to make a big deal; we weren't just confined to the restraints of the bubbled mentality of fundamentalists.

Obviously, people like it because "Love Alive" stayed on the charts 54 weeks at #1. So it changed the sonic choices and chord structures for me. I had never heard anything like that before. Before there were some basic triads or 1-3-5 type chords, you know 3 basic movements in Gospel that happen. They opened it up to a whole new perspective – we didn't know we can think that way. At least, when I was listening to it as a kid, it was brand-new to me.

"I Won't Be Satisfied" was a song that changed me forever – "Wait a minute! 'La la?' You're not saying Jesus? You're not saying the blood of Jesus? You're not saying hallelujah? You're saying 'la?' Who says you can say la at the beginning of a Gospel song?" At that time, if every word or every other word wasn't about Jesus or God or Noah, that would get you in trouble. For them to just say this sounds good and this melody is so poignant that I'm training the listener's ear for the hook ahead of time and then to end it the same way they started it, for a young kid that just blew my mind.

I could just tell that they listen to more than just Gospel. There were a lot of just Burt Bacharach and Barbra Streisand — whoever produced her record, you could tell that they've listened to way more than just James Cleveland or something. That's just what gave me the courage to start fusing elements of music and yet, stay true to my message about Christ or urban Christian living. I think Mr. Hawkins was a very inclusive artist. He doesn't assume anything about anyone. He just accepts people for what they are and not try to make them what he wants them to be. That's why I appreciate Mr. Hawkins.

Interesting. So how would you complete this sentence: Gospel music is…?

Gospel music is anointed. That's what I'll say. I can't really go by what it should be. 

Recently, you modified the spelling of your name. Is there a significance behind the 3 that has replaced the E?

Oh, yeah absolutely. It's still pronounced the same. The 3 is a backwards E. Basically, 3 means completion. It's like triumph, 3 points of a triangle. You don't call it point A, point B, point C; you call it a triangle, complete, focused, triple threat to some because I'm finally revealing the acting side, not just the singing and the dancing side. It represents resurrection, just completion. It just means more powerful, kind of like iTunes have updates every so often, a new and improved model.

For more information on Tone3x, visit his official MySpace page.

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About Clayton Perry