Veteran producer and MC Big Tone still remembers the first time he linked with fellow Detroit native and Street Corner Music founder House Shoes in 1995. A member of a group called University at the time, Tone walked into an iconic Detroit hip-hop landmark with a beat tape in his pocket and some music to share. “I met Shoes by playing him a batch of beats that I made outside of Hip Hop Shop,” he says. “I gave him a tape, he went and popped it in his car. We sat there and vibed with it for a minute and then he took it to some of the other homies and turned the volume up.”
Known more now for microphone mastery than his production, Tone still fondly remembers the early bare bones ensemble that he made the beat tape with — his 4-track, a battery-powered sampler provided by Dwele, and a Boss DR-5 drum machine.
Though the setup wasn’t top tier, Tone demonstrated his creativity by using the DR-5 to play out chord combinations and basslines. He would then make entire compositions in the drum machine or combine his DR-5 beats with other samples in the 4-track.
“We sat there and vibed with it for a minute and then he took it to some of the other homies and turned the volume up.” — Big Tone
When Tone later turned his focus towards honing his skills on the mic, he relied on production from his friend and early collaborator Ta’Raach and mentor Swing Lo. During his continued artistic progression, however, he found himself wanting to control his own sound. With Shoes’ blessing, Tone borrowed his MPC 3000 and used it in tandem with his DR-5 to produce the entirety of 1998 debut Earcandy — an underground Detroit classic that he put out under his alias Hodge Podge.
Shoes and Tone have experienced a multitude of personal and professional highs and lows in the two-plus decades since the release of Earcandy, losing Detroit legends and good friends Bugz, J Dilla, and Proof in the process. Creative paths have crossed many times during their respective journeys, but it was the collaboration on “Time” from Shoes’ 2012 Let It Go album that birthed the idea of a full length project together. In fact, Shoes first started sending beats to Tone while he was still finalizing his own album.
Now, 7 years after they first started swapping beats and verses, Shoes and Tone get to see the fruits of their labor through the release of Big Shoes — which dropped on June 7th, 2019 on Street Corner Music. Entirely produced by Shoes with impressive lyricism provided in spades by Tone, they’re both very happy with the final outcome. “It’s a very human record,” says House Shoes. “Very honest, very transparent. It’s great to bring some honesty and some real human interest to the table.”
“That’s the original two-track bounced to a CDR when I made the beat initially. Slum [Village] actually wanted to fuck with that.” — House Shoes
Honesty through lyricism is something big Tone prides himself on — a skill he has honed ever since his early days spent studying The D.O.C.’s 1989 LP No One Can Do It Better. Further immersion in the music of rappers like Del, KRS-One, Redman, and Slick Rick over the years played a critical role in helping Tone further develop his songwriting, storytelling, and vocabulary.
Then, by the mid 2000s, he started to make the transition from student to teacher as other notable MCs turned to his recordings for inspiration. “When I met Blu the first time, probably 14 years ago in Detroit, one of the first things he told me was that Big Tone’s his favorite rapper,” says House Shoes.
This level of respect and reverence continued when Shoes and Tone approached Blu about doing a verse on Big Shoes. When they sent him an initial track to rap on, Blu was so impressed with Tone’s verses that he politely declined and asked to do his feature on a different track. “I can’t remember the first song that I sent him to get on, but he was like, ‘I can’t go on after that,’” Shoes remembers with a laugh. “So then I sent him the other joint [“Beautiful Mind”] and he got on it.”
“I would put a joint in Serato and I would cue point the spots. Then I would press record internally on Serato and just play the chops live.” — House Shoes
Like “Beautiful Mind,” many other tracks on the project have interesting backstories and an almost serendipitous quality. The instrumental for “Fly Away,” for example, is the original recording of a beat that almost wound up in the hands of another notable Detroit act before making its way to Tone. “That’s the original two-track bounced to a CDR when I made the beat initially,” says Shoes. “Slum [Village] actually wanted to fuck with that, but I never saved the sequence. I loaded the disk back up and all the sounds were on there, the program was on there, but I never saved the sequence.”
Despite the lack of a clean recording and the original sequencing, something about the beat just felt right. Meanwhile, the nearly 20-year-old instrumental for “King Shit” featuring Denmark Vessey and MosEL is another piece of production that somehow worked perfectly for the project despite a technical mishap. “It was two floppy discs, but one of the discs corrupted and there was so much other shit in that beat,” says Shoes. “It was a bunch of crazy vocal chops. That was probably 2002 or 3. That was a Detroit beat.”
For Shoes, despite the occasional headaches caused by technology malfunctions, using old two-track beats and working around corrupted discs is all part of the magic of making music. And despite what the audiophiles might say, the roughshod beats often sounds better to him. “Listen, I’ll tell you some real shit,” says Shoes. “I have never had a beat — after being tracked, mixed, and mastered in the studio — that sounded as good as that original two-track. Never.”
“It just got to point where it was like, ‘I don’t know where to begin to tell you this story from because I’ve held it in for so long.’” — Big Tone
Not all of the beats from Big Shoes come from as far back in Shoes’ archives as the aforementioned songs. The instrumental for the intensely personal “Bio (Timeline Part 1)” is from a stash of 2011, Roc Marciano-inspired Serato productions that Shoes dubs “looper” beats. Created in the time after his children were born when he had to adjust his home studio setup, Shoes found the simple process of making beats in Serato liberating. “I would put a joint in Serato and I would cue point the spots,” he says. “Then I would press record internally on Serato and just play the chops live. Then I would go in the studio and clean it up a little bit.”
As Tone recalls, the beat was one of the first one Shoes sent him to rock over. Impressed by the energy and simplicity of it but unsure of how to approach the music at first, he wrote a song without a special message to see how it fit. When he went back and listened to his recording, something about the instrumental begged him to come back with some lyrics that spoke to his life and the hip-hop history of his city. He did that and then some, capturing the energy, resilience, and innovation of an under-documented slice of Detroit music history from the mid to late-1990s.
Much as “Bio (Timeline Part 1)” was born out of Tone’s desire to document what he and his peers accomplished during that time, the song was also inspired by the lack support his family showed him during his efforts to become an MC. Their apathy towards his passion made him close off his relations from his experiences as a rapper. “At one point I made a decision to never really share any developments or any of that stuff with my parents, my cousins, and aunts and uncles,” he says.
“My dude spinning like it’s the livest event/Showing us all how a captain goes down with the ship” — Big Tone
But when Tone and his peers started making noise in and outside of Detroit after several years, some family members were intrigued. Not sure how to bring them up to speed, he decided to write a song showing people a hidden piece of hip-hop history with him as one of the central figures. Merging the ideas, landmarks, and important figures from Detroit into one song turned out to be a therapeutic form of release. “It just got to point where it was like, ‘I don’t know where to begin to tell you this story from because I’ve held it in for so long,’” he says.
On “Homage” Tone makes the history lesson even more personal, rapping about his admiration for and relationship with Shoes. Over a hauntingly nostalgic sample, he paints a picture of the bubble bursting in the Motor City’s vibrant hip-hop scene towards the turn of the century. Explaining how Shoes went from spinning for up to 600 people at the famed Saint Andrew’s venue to rocking for an “audience of one” Tone raps:
“My dude spinning like it’s the livest event/Showing us all how a captain goes down with the ship/So them stripes on them shoulders I salute you for/On the strength of the local records you introduced on tours”
“It’s a very human record. Very honest, very transparent. It’s great to bring some honesty and some real human interest to the table.” — House Shoes
Now, after starting the record in 2012 and recording most of the song by the end of 2014, finalizing Big Shoes has been an exercise in continued patience. “Shoes mixed this record at least three time,” says Tone.
Having said that, both Tone and his collaborator feel like the record is much improved because of the time they gave themselves to perfect it. “The songs are better, the mixes are better, the song order, the transitions,” says Tone. “I think that’s one of the reasons I never tripped. Because when a decision would be made, at any point in time, the result would be for the better.”
With an emotional shout-out to Tone’s daughter Lyric and Shoes’ children James and Eliana bringing things to a close on “True Story (Timeline Pt.2),” the album ends on a cathartic note.
Two weary veterans — having both said what they needed to with music and words — seem to pass the torch on to the next generation. It’s a fitting end for an album seven years in the making.
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