Shy D and Tony MF Rock: Original ATLiens 

MC Shy D sowed hip-hop seeds into Georgia red clay

The first Atlanta rapper to score anything resembling national, or even regional, success was MC Shy D. He was Atlanta's original b-boy – the guy who likely had more to do with bringing hip-hop to Atlanta, and then spreading it, than any other individual. Born Peter Jones, Shy D grew up in the Bronx River Projects of the 1970s. He lived a couple of buildings down from his cousin Afrika Bambaataa and was witness to hip-hop's seminal moments. When Bam set up a sound system in his ground-floor apartment and stuck his speakers out the window – or DJed across the way in the Bronx River Center – Jones was one of the kids who'd gather around. In 1978, when Jones' family moved to Ellenwood, Ga., near Decatur, he brought with him the knowledge of a subculture that was still forming back home. With his older brother as DJ, and Peter break-dancing, they took their novel act to school playgrounds and talent shows.

"They were looking at us like, 'Man, these cats, where are they from?'" Shy D recalls. "No one ever heard of it then."

Within a year of Shy D's arrival in Georgia, "Rapper's Delight" had introduced hip-hop nationally. At Cedar Grove High School, Shy D formed his first rap group, with his best friend Anthony Durham (aka Tony Rock) and two recent arrivals from Philadelphia. "Whenever the teacher would leave, he'd just beat on the desk and be rapping, and everyone'd be clapping," Tony Rock recalls of Shy D. "That was his thing."

Later in high school, Shy D and Tony formed a group – the Ultimate Krush MCs – with two rappers also originally from the Bronx. By graduation in 1984, the popularity of the movie Beat Street made all things Bronx must-haves on the streets of Atlanta – and Shy D was the real deal. His big sister even dated Cowboy from the Furious Five.

Shy and Tony earned their biggest success not as rappers, but as dancers in a group called the Break Kings, which performed as an opening act at concerts and competed in talent shows with other dance crews such as the New Rock City Breakers. Tony Rock recalls hanging out backstage at a show, and seeing the video for Gladys Knight and the Pips' "Save the Overtime (For Me)" on TV. The clip showcases the popular New York City Breakers, which fascinated an 11-year-old kid hanging backstage with them.

"He was watching the video, like, 'How do they do this?' And I'm showing him all these moves. And he's asking, 'How do they do this?' And I'm thinking, 'God, this kid asks a lot of questions.'"

Just a year later, Tony recalls seeing the new video for Whodini's "Freaks Come Out at Night" and spying that same little kid he'd tutored backstage, Jermaine (Dupri) Mauldin, busting a move in the video. "I see this little kid with a Jheri curl break-dancing, doing all the moves that I taught him. I'm like, 'Oh my god, that's that kid!'" (After years away from music, Tony Rock reinvented himself as Woodchuck, the bass player in the Atlanta live rap-rock group El Pus. In 2005, El Pus released its major-label debut on Virgin Records, where Jermaine Dupri served as president of urban music.)

When Tony joined the Army after graduation, Shy D became a solo rapper. Soon after, Shy won a contest that enabled him to open up for Run-D.M.C. and Roxanne Shanté at the Omni Arena. There he met Miami rapper Gigolo Tony, who'd made a "Roxanne, Roxanne" answer record called "Parents of Roxanne," and Gigolo Tony's manager. They invited Shy to Miami to record for the seminal bass-music label, 4Sight.

Though Shy D had been thoroughly oriented toward Bronx-style rap, his two 1985 singles for 4Sight – "Rapp Will Never Die" and "Shy D Is Back" – took on some of the characteristics that defined early Miami hip-hop: 808 beat, novelty hook ("Rapp" sampled "The Pink Panther Theme"; "Back" used the "Sanford and Son" theme). At first, this was no great contradiction – early bass music, after all, took its cues from the Rick Rubin/Def Jam sound. But within two years, as Shy D started spending time in Florida, his music transformed with Miami bass as a whole. Shy fell in with 2 Live Crew's Fresh Kid Ice, who enticed Shy to sign with Luke Records. With Shy's 1987 Luke debut, Gotta Be Tough, the music got faster and the bottom heavier. As he became a full-fledged bass artist, Atlanta began looking to Florida for that original Southern hip-hop flavor. And in 1988, Shy D made Atlanta hip-hop official by repping his city on the track "Atlanta – That's Where I Stay."

While away in the Army, Tony Rock kept up with his friend Shy D's growing success. When Tony got out in 1988, Shy hooked him up with Luke Records, which released Tony's debut single, "She Put Me in a Trance" backed with "Still Doing It." The single did well enough that 2 Live Crew's Mr. Mixx brought Tony to Miami to make a full record, which Luke released in 1989 as Let Me Take You to the Rock House (the album cover credited "Tony MF Rock," which thereafter became his rap name).

Rock House not only introduced Atlanta's second bass artist on the national stage, it also marked an ambitious leap in Mr. Mixx's bass production. With samples that ranged from Queen to Average White Band to Yellow Magic Orchestra, the record (along with other Mixx tracks of that period) pointed to bass music's potential to be more than simplistic booty shakers. By Rock House's release, though, Shy D has already broken from Luke Records in a royalty dispute, and Tony would soon follow as [label owner] Luther Campbell slipped deeper into his legal morass.

As other rappers – Raheem the Dream, Kizzy Rock, Kilo – followed Shy and Tony into the world of Miami bass music in the late '80s, Atlanta became a sort of colonial outpost of Miami hip-hop. While the Atlanta act Success-N-Effect earned some national notoriety after signing with Miami's On Top Records, acts that stuck with local labels usually remained local. Raheem, for example, was a star in Atlanta clubs such as My Brother's Keeper and Sharan's Showcase, but his records – put out on his own Arvis label beginning around 1988 – never reached very far outside Atlanta.

More than a decade later, after Tony Rock left music, worked in the accounting department at Georgia Pacific, then took up playing bass and renamed himself Woodchuck, his band, El Pus, performed on a bill with Atlanta soul singer Joi. OutKast's Andre Benjamin had shown up to lend support to his friend Joi and, after watching El Pus' set, approached Woodchuck to ask him for bass lessons.

"'You look familiar. I know you from somewhere, I can't figure it out,'" Tony recalls Andre said.

"I said, 'Maybe you know the person I used to be: Tony Rock.'"

"He was like, 'Oh, shit, Tony MF Rock! You and Shy D made it possible for us. We wouldn't be here without you. You're a legend.'"

Excerpted from the forthcoming Da Capo Press book Third Coast: OutKast, Timbaland, & How Hip-Hop Became a Southern Thing by Roni Sarig. Copyright © 2007. All rights reserved.

Editor's note: Both MC Shy D and Tony Rock remain active in Atlanta's music scene. Shy D DJs every Tuesday night at Bigelow's on 2564 Gresham Road in Atlanta (404-241-5777). And Tony Rock, aka Woodchuck, continues to do production work and frequently collaborates with hometown soulster Anthony David. To hear classic Tony MF Rock tracks from his 1989 release Let Me Take You to the Rock House, visit atlanta.creativeloafing.com.


Music Issue 2007


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