Gravel-voiced, with the thickest of Baltimore accents,
the six-foot-tall, 350-pound, dress-wearing, bouffant-sporting Miss Tony couldn't help but stand out.
Radio personality Frank Ski recalls his first encounter with the club vocalist, local radio personality, frequent live performer, and man of God who passed away in 2003, then a young club kid named Tony Boston. It happened at famed Baltimore nightclub Odell's in 1989 or 1990.
"I saw this guy kind of like strut and open up the dance floor and vogue down the middle of the dance floor," says Ski, who would go on to work with Tony in clubs, on records, and on the radio. He still sounds a little shocked when he talks about it. "It was this big guy, who was gay at a hip-hop party. Understand what I'm saying?"
Between 1992 and 1994, Miss Tony recorded a handful of provocative club tracks, mostly under Ski's wing, and boosted by the success of the Ski-produced 1991 single "Doo Doo Brown," by 2 Hyped Brothers & A Dog. Two of these post-"Doo Doo" Tony songs, "Tony's Bitch Track," and "Get Ya Guns Out," were ubiquitous local hits that helped birth the sound of Baltimore club.
"Frank and Tony started doing these tracks," says Teddy Douglas of house heroes the Basement Boys, best known for Crystal Waters' "100% Pure Love," and a close friend of Tony's. "That really started the whole thing—that Baltimore club sound."
It is no surprise that Baltimore club, with its origins in house music is deeply tied to gay culture. But the extent to which Miss Tony put his stamp on the city's dance scene is all-encompassing: He was there for the genesis of Bmore club, recording harder-edged house tracks that would dominate the club and the streets and hosting parties in most of those same clubs. By 1994, Tony was a personality on Baltimore's 92Q (he would work there until 1999), disseminating mainstream hip-hop and R&B to the average, non-clubbing Baltimorean.
The first song Frank Ski and Miss Tony did together features
Tony at his most brash. "Tony's Bitch Track" from 1992, contains bumping house synthesizers over which Tony unabashedly chants, "Bitch I'll take your boyfriend, bitch I'll take your man." In between, "the infamous Miss Tony," as he introduces himself, gives advice to dudes on the dance floor (they need to wash their sweaty balls if they plan on taking any women home), boasts that he has a "PhD in dickology," and wanders into routines cribbed from his raucous, off-the-cuff emcee performances, including, "Ooh bitch that ain't fair, give that horsey back his hair"—something he would yell out when he saw clubbers with questionable weaves.
It's a riot, but there is also a seriousness to "Tony's Bitch Track" that extends beyond Bmore club's built-in ability to facilitate catharsis through dance. Late in the song, Tony huskily croons, "Understand, understand I'm a man." He's being boldly sincere here, parsing, for those who don't understand, the complexities that exist between gender binaries (important because often, Tony was referred to as a transvestite or transgender, which is inaccurate) and then admits, "But sometimes I feel like a woman." And because he's also an entertainer, and arguably, even a comedian, Tony tags it with a hilarious dozens-style zinger, "And if you don't believe me, ask your father."
For Deco Records, Frank Ski's label, "Tony's Bitch Track" was an incredibly daring follow-up single to "Doo Doo Brown," a minor national hit. Even more impressive is its lesser known 1993 sequel, "Bitch Track II - Yes!" Its hook goes, "Yes I am gay, no I'm not ashamed," and in between, Tony explains that "the word gay in the '90s doesn't mean you're happy and free, it means that you are exactly what you are." Then, he laughs off the then fervid "Don't ask, don't tell" controversy about gays in the military by telling the military to "kiss [his] ass."
"["Bitch Track II - Yes!"] was probably going to be the biggest record I ever made," Ski says, with a tinge of regret in his voice. There was interest from Luther Campbell of the then-controversy-stoking 2 Live Crew to put it out via Luke Records and there were even plans to shoot a video, but it never quite came together.
"[Tony] wanted that to be a big record," says Diamond K, a producer and DJ who worked with Tony and Ski and was one of Tony's closest friends, working with Tony on the last tracks he would record. "But it was too bold of a statement."
Ultimately, "Bitch Track II - Yes!" was stuck on the third volume of a series of EPs called "Frank Ski's Club Trax" which hosted a more nationally-oriented remix of Tony's second recording, 1993's "Get Ya Guns Out," retitled "Pull Ya Gunz Out."
The origins of "Get Ya Guns Out," Tony's most well-known track, reveal how Tony, an impulsive and improvisational performer put together a song. He created hooks by grabbing chants he'd heard, or used himself, in the club and bringing it into the studio. With "Guns," the chant originated via a group of street dudes posted up at the nightclub Facade's on Reisterstown Road chanting, "Pull your guns out, pow!" The chant caught Ski's ear. "They were protecting their turf," Ski explains, "It was part of the drug culture." Ski and Tony decided to turn it into a single as soon as possible.
The result is a hopped-up track with Tony shouting out different neighborhoods ("Cherry Hill, get your guns out") while Ski juggles electro sounds and hip-hop scratches, Tony screaming with ecstasy to each adjustment to the beat. When a gurgle of bass moves through the track, Tony playfully riffs on Stephanie Mills' 1980 classic, "Never Knew Love Like This Before" and sings, "because I never felt bass like that before."
There's a scene in David Simon's book
The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood
, that describes members of the Crenshaw Mafia Brothers gang (C.M.B) listening to "Get Ya Guns Out" on cassette. Simon calls Tony's song "a rollicking seven minutes of audio dissonance with lyrics that amount to a listing of bad ass drugs corners and housing projects followed by a shouted one-line chorus," and describes the C.M.B jumping around with excitement over the song. "Mount and Fayette, spoken like it was a place that mattered," Simon bleakly observes.
Simon isn't necessarily incorrect there, but "Get Ya Guns Out" speaks to the power and brilliance of Miss Tony's neighborhood-nodding party music. Indeed, by howling out the names of these places on a track, he made them "matter." Those shout-outs are on record forever. In the club however, Tony was less generous with shout-outs, according to Diamond K. To hear your friend or corner screamed out by Tony in the club, you had to pay him: "He wouldn't do it unless you paid him. He would walk away with hundreds of dollars a night just from that!"
Another one of Tony's biggest tracks, 1994's "Whatzup? Whatzup?," produced by the Underground Trak Team—the duo of Scottie B and Shawn Caesar)—also helped immortalize local flavor. On the track, over a skeletal, shuffling beat, you hear Tony ordering Scottie and Shawn to add and remove sounds to the production, collectively referring to the two as "Unruly."
"He just started saying ‘Unruly' like it was a person or a group," Scottie B remembers proudly. "Unruly was already our name but not in that context, so Tony put it out there and it got radio play." And so, it was Miss Tony who assisted in branding Scottie and Shawn's Unruly Records, the label that would become the most significant in Baltimore club history—the Def Jam of Bmore club. It's but one more way that Tony's influence on Baltimore club history extends beyond his recordings.
Scottie B also pulls back the curtain on Tony's unpredictable style of recording: "You know, everything's mathematical [when you're recording], in fours and eights and sixteens. And you would try to teach him, but he would just say whatever." Saying whatever, of course, was what made Tony's personality so compelling. His disregard for rules and expectations continued even when he started operating within the fairly mainstream world of radio.
In 1994, Miss Tony joined Randy Dennis' morning show on 92Q, arriving "in full drag every day." Dennis goes back to one specific moment on the show that involved goading callers to reveal secrets on the air. Dennis, a consummate professional, baited the audience by contriving something or other about being "afraid of the dark." When it was Tony's turn to reveal a secret, he dropped a truth bomb, live on the air: "I can't believe I let those twins ride me like they did," he confessed. "Tony was raw," Dennis says with a laugh.
"Tony would add a level of ghetto to the show that was hilarious," declares Ski, who came over to 92Q from V103 in 1996, turning the recording duo into part of the new morning show. Ski's show increased Tony's profile significantly. This gay underground personality was suddenly as well-known to Baltimoreans driving to work in the morning as he was to those who frequented spots like Odell's, Club Fantasy, the Paradox, and Hammerjack's in the early ‘90s.
A few other tracks were recorded during the years surrounding Tony's radio tenure: "E-A E-A," "East Side, West Side," and additional vocals on "Get the Fuck Out" all with Kenny B from 1993; and house-tinged anthem "Release Yourself (Tired of Being Under Pressure)" from 1996, and "Do You Wanna Dance?," from 1998 according to local music encyclopedia
, both with Ernesto Hines of gospel house crew, Mass Order.
But radio and live MCing dominated Tony's time for the rest of the '90s. When Ski left 92Q in 1998 to go to Atlanta, Tony had no interest in leaving Baltimore. He stuck around on 92Q's new morning show, and for a little while, hosted an evening show, "Off the Hook."
In April 1999, after a year or so of significant turmoil, 92Q let Tony go. The previous year, Tony Boston renounced the Miss Tony character at Victory Center church in Northeast Baltimore, dubbed himself Big Tony, and became saved. In December of 1998, he suffered kidney failure, which left him on dialysis for the rest of his life. Around this time, his mother passed away as well.
"Big Tony wasn't as much fun as Miss Tony," Teddy Douglas quips. "The bouffant and all that was gone, and the character was still there, but it was watered down." Tony didn't talk explicitly about being gay anymore, even in private, and stopped dressing like a woman altogether. And although Tony would publicly renounce the Miss Tony character and his homosexuality, Diamond K makes it clear that though Tony was indeed saved and attended church heavily, he remained a gay man.
"I'm gonna speak truth and everybody doesn't like truth," Diamond K admits, "He didn't stop being gay. You can't pray the gay away. What he did do was he stopped being a gay character."
In part, Tony's removal from 92Q was the result of shifts in formatting, but the increased corporatization of urban radio thanks to the massive mainstream success of hip-hop by the late '90s surely made it harder for Tony to have a career and maintain the Miss Tony character.
However, a 1999
article that details the Big Tony switch—and reads more like a press release announcing the arrival of Big Tony than a proper piece of journalism—quotes Tom Calococci, 92Q's program director at the time, who expressed his slight disappointment with Tony's change (apparently, Tony didn't inform his radio employers about his plans to retire Miss Tony). "I do miss [Miss Tony] a little bit," Calococci told
reporter Robert Guy Matthews.
And therein lies a devastating paradox for a bold public personality like Tony: By being himself, he was able to attain stature and success, and yet at the same time, by bucking the mainstream, that self intimidated the powers the be. He had to change but when he did change, people weren't interested in him anymore.
Tony's close friends maintain that the stigma of Miss Tony was a primary motivating factor in creating Big Tony. "It was totally obvious that you'd get a lot further if you weren't Miss Tony," Teddy Douglas says matter-of-factly. "The radio did play a bit in that," Diamond K concurs, "[Miss Tony] was too much for radio."
In Tony's final years, he recorded a few songs with Diamond K that were released on 2002's
Master of Ceremonies
, packaged with Tony's early '90s hits. "Living In The Alley" became a local hit, and other
Master of Ceremonies
songs, such as the pentecostal "Scream & Shout" and pulsing, declarative, "I Stand Alone," afford Tony's work a more defiant and spiritual element.
On these later tracks, Tony's voice is a little worse for wear, and the knowledge that he would pass just one year after these recordings were released gives them a devastating quality. But they also make clear that Tony knew how to merge spiritual sentimentality with the visceral immediacy of club music, delivering on the passionate promise of self-help hooks of "Bitch Track II - Yes!" and "Release Yourself (Tired of Being Under Pressure)."
"I listened to [
Master of Ceremonies
] a thousand fuckin' times," exclaims gay rap-club fusionist Abdu Ali, who cites Tony as a major influence. Like most kids in Baltimore, Abdu grew up hearing Tony at teen-oriented club parties and on the radio, but he returned to Tony's music when he began rapping and realized the "artistry" behind Tony's records. They showed Abdu a way to be profound without indulging the preachy "conscious" side of hip-hop. "
At 2012's Baltimore Gay Pride Festival, rapper DDm, who came out of the closet in 2011, more than half-a-decade into his career, performed an extended tribute to Tony based around "Tony's Bitch Track" and "Get Ya Guns Out," and his own song, "Fake Girls" (also produced by Schwarz). DDm paired his Tony tribute with a homage to the Notorious B.I.G., moving Tony's influence beyond being an empowering queer role model and towards positive body image as well. Like Biggie, Tony is an inspiration "when you're plus-sized," DDm says, "and not conventionally handsome, so to speak."
Last year, composer Ruby Fulton's "The Way of the Mob," a jazzy, classically-orienated investigation of the Baltimore Bank Riots of 1835 based its percussive elements on Tony's music, connecting Miss Tony's revolutionary spirit to a significant moment in Baltimore's history when the marginalized stood up and fought their oppressors.
Miss Tony's curious resurrection extends beyond musical homage, as well. Throughout 2012 and 2013, street artist Sorta created and wheatpasted images of Miss Tony with the text: "Miss Tony said, ‘How you wanna carry it? What's up, what's up" (the hook to 1994's "Whatzup? Whatzup?"), on walls and abandoned buildings, answering Baltimore's urban blight with Tony's big smile and brash personality. "There's so many people out there who feel a certain way about the lifestyle [Tony] lived," Sorta writes via Facebook. "So I wanted to put it in their face."
Tony's expansive influence would have been remarkable for anybody, let alone a gay, cross-dressing man performing during the 1990s. He was there for the inception of club music, became one of its key players, and on top of that, helped brand Unruly Records. On the radio, he delivered rap and R&B hits,
and as David Simon's
The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood
illustrates, soundtracked the daily lives of some of the city's most dangerous criminals.
"Tony was just being himself," Teddy Douglas says. "His influence was necessary for the next generation, but he wasn't thinking ‘I'm ahead of my time.' That was just him, 24-7."¿