Tone-Loc soared from obscurity into pop stardom in 1989 when his hoarse voice and unmistakable delivery made the song “Wild Thing” (using a sample from Van Halen‘s “Jamie’s Cryin'”) a massive hit. The song was co-written by Marvin Young, better known asYoung MC, as was the second single smash, “Funky Cold Medina.” The album Loc-ed After Dark became the second rap release ever to top the pop charts. Tone-Loc expanded his horizons into acting in 1992 and 1993, appearing a few times on the Fox sitcom Roc. He was also in the films Posse and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, and in 1991 returned to recording with Cool Hand Loc.
Anthony Terrell Smith, better known by his stage name Tone Lōc, is an American rapper and actor.”Wild Thing” is intoned by Tone-Loc, a young Los Angeles rap singer who has etched his name in pop-music history. (His name is a story in itself: “Tone-Loc” is short for his “homeboy handle” Tony Loco, meaning “crazy” in Spanish; his real name is Tony Smith.) “Wild Thing” was recorded on a shoestring budget, on an eight-track tape machine in his co producer’s Hollywood apartment. With a drum machine supplying rap’s characteristic boom, and sampled guitar riffs providing instrumentation, all Loc had to do was lay down a simple rap in his inimitably sexy drawl. Largely through heavy exposure on MTV of the song’s video, which was made for a mere $419.77, “Wild Thing” hit the bull’s-eye, going multi-platinum within months of its late-1988 release. Suddenly Tone-Loc was a star. With the subsequent release of his debut album, Loc-ed after Dark, he became the first black rapper to hit the number-one spot on Billboard’s pop-album charts–no small feat.
Smith was a preteen when the tuneless, rhyming, and intensely rhythmic music known as rap, or hip-hop, emerged in mid-seventies urban America. Born and raised in West Los Angeles, he was the youngest of three sons in a single-parent household–his father died when he was six–and, not surprisingly, took to hanging out on the streets, where the music was evolving. Too impatient for guitar lessons, he found the do-it-yourself immediacy of rap appealing.
At the age of thirteen he began rapping himself, over instrumental passages on records by the Ohio Players, Funkadelic, and other funk groups he admired. He also formed a rap trio called Triple A, which soon dissolved, but inspired him to continue inventing lyrics. Meanwhile, the L.A. street youth culture was fostering more than musical creativity for Smith: at one point, he began dipping into gang life, prompting his mother to enroll him at the exclusive Hollywood Professional School. After graduating from high school he formed a rap duo with a local record-scratcher named M-Walk. He enrolled in junior college, but soon dropped out to try his hand at real estate, buying houses that had been foreclosed by banks and repairing and reselling them at a good profit. All the while, he continued to rap.
For Tone-Loc, rapping comes easily. “Some days you get out of bed and things go through your mind,” he told Time. “Most people don’t write these down, but I do.” Of course, most people also don’t have Smith’s distinctive vocal huskiness, a sound he acquired during a bout with strep throat when he was thirteen. His mother gave him hot tea with brandy; instead of soothing his throat, the mixture burned him. “The low-riding rasp Smith was left with gave the teenager a romantic edge and brought him one step closer to becoming Tone-Loc,” commented Rolling Stone. Years later, in August of 1987, Smith was heard by Matt Dike and Mike Ross, two entrepreneurs trying to establish a label called Delicious Vinyl. “Once [Ross and Dike] heard the voice, it was like, ‘Oh, we gotta get that voice on wax,'” Smith related in Rolling Stone. “By scorching my throat, Mom gave me a career.”
Upon its release, Loc-ed after Dark was described by Spin as being “full of bass whomp that soothingly rumbles the chest at high volumes.” The music, though, was only part of the rumble. “Funky Cold Medina,” is about “a drink that gets you in the mood for the Wild Thing.” Still, those who find his lyrics offensive are in the minority: rather than alienating listeners, Loc has broadened the rap audience. His success has helped both to weaken the New York monopoly on rap and to establish the West Coast school, long regarded as inferior, as a force to be reckoned with.
The key to Tone-Loc’s popularity seems to be accessibility. Since its birth, rap has spoken primarily to the black urban lower class, often drumming up nationalist pride or venting frustration over racial injustices. Loc’s fare, on the other hand, bypasses social commentary. Laid-back and downright funny, his raps are pure entertainment, and the subjects of his songs–himself and his pursuit of pleasure–appeal as readily to middle-class suburbanites as to inner-city street kids. In addition, the music itself–a catchy blend of rap, pop, and metal–strikes a more accessible chord than the stark, hard-hitting groove of straight rap, which tends to alienate mainstream listeners. As Rolling Stone commented, Tone-Loc has gone far in “making rap safe for pop radio.”