Tony the Scribe on the Serious Work of Play

Tony Williams, professionally known as Tony the Scribe, makes music that can shift from ethereal to urgent, always with beautifully complex rhythmic lines, and often with layer upon layer of sonic tastiness. His versatility as a composer, lyricist, performer, producer, and vocalist shines in his EP mixed messages, and his deceptively minimalist song titles such as “glass” and “miss me” only hint at the lush, gorgeous sounds waiting for your ears, body, mind, and spirit. Each track invites you into an aural slipstream that moves into oceanic layers of vocals, beats, and echoes. There’s a pleasurable tension between sonic strata, and when one liquid mantle releases you, another is right there to catch you as you transition into a different temperature and color. Lyrics such as, “Here’s to you, and all the walls you’re walking through” are typical of his poetic use of intriguing metaphors that are often an exploration of interpersonal liminality—a dance of distance and intimacy.

Williams, 27, moved back to his hometown of Minneapolis in 2015 after spending four years in California at Santa Clara University out in the South Bay. He is part of the most recent cohort of Minnesota Music Creator Award winners (formerly Minnesota Emerging Composer Awards), a program of American Composers Forum with funds provided by the Jerome Foundation. “One of the things about being a composer here in Minneapolis that is so incredible is that you really do have so many different realities inside one reality of the city, especially seasonally and temporally. You’re able to play with different colors for different seasons and different moods and different cultural shifts. I think it’s one of the really powerful things about being able to engage with art here.”

Hip hop and rap are known for valorizing modes of masculinity that celebrate the performance of dominance(s) in certain ways. William says, “Genre is becoming less and less important to me in what I look to for inspiration,” and cites a number of musical influences including Timbaland, whose studio workflow, technicality, and creative output he admires, as well as his expansive playfulness. He also names Kendrick Lamar, James Blake, Moses Sumney, and Haley Heynderickx as inspiration.

Redefining gender expectations for himself has become an important challenge. “That’s something that I’ve been trying to incorporate a lot into my compositional work for the last couple years, too. I was like a lot of young artists. Right up until about 2015, it was just like rap that was big, powerful, and masculine, and I think at that point I realized that I wanted to paint with more colors. The EP that I put out in 2016 mixed blood was really me, like, switching over to a more yin mode of songwriting and trying to play more with negative space and quiet intensity as opposed to, like, almost overstated brash intensity. That’s something that I’ve been exploring ever since. I’m in the middle of this EP series right now called “mixed;” mixed blood came out in 2016 and mixed messages came out in 2018.”

Williams reflects on some of the thought process behind composing mixed messages. “As a cis dude, thinking about how to navigate emotional pain and intimacy and distance is always complicated, because natural impulses are blended with conditioned gender-based stereotypes and patriarchy to create this complicated little knot of stuff where it’s mixed messages. You don’t even know sometimes whether it’s your own inclination to pull away from something or push closer to something, whether it’s intuition or a message whispering in the back of your head. I really just wanted to explore all of that on [mixed messages].”

There are as many ways to become a contemporary composer as there are composers. For Williams, singing led to acting, which led to rapping, which then led to composing. Writing rap music opened up a new way to step into his wholeness as a performer. “During my preteen and early teen years, I was a pretty serious actor, and when I was 13, I was cast in a show that was written by the actors. As part of it, the director said, ‘We would love it if some people composed some music for this.’ I wrote a rap song for the show and performed it, and was like, ‘Oh man, this is so much closer to my heart than acting is because I can actually be on stage and be myself, and in a really clear part of myself.’ That was the point at which I really really became devoted to music.”

Tony the Scribe--Photo by Trista McGovern

Tony the Scribe–Photo by Trista McGovern

Williams eventually found that he had to learn to produce in order to create the sounds he wanted. Becoming a producer and growing in that role has been central to his development as a composer. “I started rapping before I did anything else in terms of music composition. And that turned into producing as well because I couldn’t find people that made the kind of beats that I was wanting to rap on. From there, I’ve really branched out into a lot of different directions musically. I did a collaboration album in 2013 with a friend of mine who makes electronic music, and since then, I’ve been putting out a series of EPs that all have very different sounds, different songwriting styles, different production styles—trying to get my chops up basically.”

A steady pursuit of skill acquisition is part of Williams’ practice. He has been blessed by being born into a musically accomplished family, immediate and extended. He speaks with pride on this artistic inheritance. “I have a lot of musical force in my ancestors. My mom is a really excellent flute player. My dad’s family has a long history of music; my grandma on that side was actually the cantor at the St. Paul Cathedral for a number of years. Her and my grandpa were some of the earlier members of St. Peter Claver, the Black Catholic Church in St. Paul, and both of them sang there for many, many, many years and my grandpa still does today; my grandma died a few years ago.”

St. Peter Claver, which was incorporated in 1892, was named after a Spanish Jesuit priest and missionary born in Verdú (Catalonia, Spain) who died in 1654 and was canonized in 1888. Due to Pedro Claver’s missionary work on plantations near the slave port of Cartagena, Colombia, the Catholic Church named him the patron saint of those in slavery. This history continues to ground the church’s mission, which states, “Our founding purpose and continuing mission is to reach out to and be a faith home for African-American Catholics. People of all races and ethnic backgrounds are welcome. Grounded in the fullness of the Roman Catholic tradition, we draw particular strength from our rootedness in Africa, which teaches us resilient faith and perseverance, hospitality, and participatory worship.”

Williams continues to grow and branch out from his deep roots. “Despite the fact that I grew up around choirs and stuff like that and I’m ‘classically trained,’ whatever that means, I’ve always found myself more drawn to the improvisational side of music. I played alto sax in a jazz combo in high school, and especially in that sort of golden age of Minneapolis hip hop, I was out beatboxing and freestyling on corners every week. We would all be packed into the basement of Honey watching a set, and then everybody would dip outside to smoke, and somebody was gonna beat box and everybody would lay verses on it. And sometimes, you know, the show would end and we’d be out there until 3:30 in the morning freestyling.”

Tony the Scribe--Photo by Trista McGovern

Tony the Scribe–Photo by Trista McGovern

He’s currently hard at work taking his practice seriously and making the most of his opportunities to feed and sustain his creativity. “I’m taking voice lessons. I’m taking guitar lessons. I’m taking retreats to focus on composition. I’m making new connections and thinking about new types of composition: composition for podcast, compositions for film. It all comes back to learning for me. I think the biggest thing that I’m trying to learn right now is creative discipline. It’s much more process than product. I want to grow up to be the type of creative monk who sits down at the desk every day and makes something, even if it’s not good, even if it’s weird, and invest that deeply in the process of investigating different potential avenues and bringing ideas out of that.”

Exuberance and abundance are two words that come to mind listening to Tony the Scribe talk about his transition to new projects. “mixed blood was very much jazzy boom bap hip hop, and mixed messages was very much modern neo R&B, The Weeknd sounding stuff. This next record is weird; it’s maybe a little more like Radiohead, it’s a little more baroque, and like orchestral. I’m working on a folk record, and I’m working on a record that’s all collaborations, and I’m working on a record that’s a little bit more party rap.”

“I still feel like I’m growing a lot as a composer, as a songwriter, as a producer all the time. I’m 27 right now; not young enough to be a complete spring chicken, but not old enough to feel like I’m boxed into genre conventions or anything like that at this point. Actually, my favorite artists are the ones who keep switching shit up, you know, into their 60s, 70s, 80s. I’m really interested in that concept of just playing with genre; you know, I want to be Björk when I’m old.”

This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.


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