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).