Tone Loc: He Had It Goin’ On

Back in January 1989, I was settled into my first year at University. My record collection consisted of remnants from my 1970s upbringing (Queen, Status Quo, Rainbow), my 80s learning curve (Depeche Mode, OMD, Eurythmics) and my burgeoning love of rhythm (Art Of Noise, Kraftwerk and…hip hop). I had been fortunate to have two older sisters who brought several new things into the home. One, in particular, made a huge impact. A long-since-ex-boyfriend who loved New Order and hip hop. When I passed my driving test I celebrated by driving around with a tape consisting of New Order’s Substance on one side and Run DMC’s Tougher Than Leather on the other. I had switched my magazine subscription from Record Mirror to Hip-Hop Connection (this is an English upbringing, so The Source was not readily available to me). As much as I loved my synth music, I was constantly on the lookout for new hip hop to spend my money on. Public Enemy, LL Cool J, Run DMC, Big Daddy Kane, and The Jungle Brothers were all in my collection by the time Loc’ed After Dark came out. Heavy on references I had no idea about as a middle-class white boy from the suburbs of a small town – Oscar Meyer Weiners, Spuds Mackenzie, 7-Elevens, Hagen Dazs and Pop Tarts, I could (attempt to) rap along with very little idea what I was saying.

Tone Loc’s debut album became only the second hip hop album to top the Billboard charts (after the Beastie Boys’ Licensed To Ill reached the top in 1987). It only held top spot for one week, sandwiched in between Debbie Gibson and Madonna, but it added more power to the argument that hip hop could be true to its roots and commercially successful. The links with the Beastie Boys didn’t end there, as the producers of the album, The Dust Brothers, had also produced The Beastie Boys’ second album, Paul’s Boutique.

While not as ‘serious’ as the Def Jam artists (Beastie Boys excepted), where LL Cool J, Run DMC and Public Enemy were letting you know they had skills, street knowledge and toughness to back them up, Tone Loc aims mostly for humor in his rhymes and expects you to party. It contains all the staples of hip-hop content at the time: self-aggrandizing braggadocio? Check. Shout-outs to where you’re from? Check. Describing your ability to party and attract the laydeez? Check. Adding the West Coast celebration of Cheeba Cheeba (aka Mary Jane aka Marijuana)? Check. Beats are heavy, and samples are mostly guitar-laden, mixing funk and rock with consummate ease, courtesy of the Dust Brothers. Van Halen eventually won a civil court ruling to have some compensation for the use of the tom-tom break in “Wild Thing”. Other sampled rockers included The Rolling Stones, Kiss and Foreigner. The funk was provided by, amongst others, Funkadelic, The Blackbyrds, and Kool & The Gang. Unusually, it doesn’t feature any James Brown samples, used so readily by East Coast artists at the time.

This album was released on Delicious Vinyl, which spawned another Billboard top 10 album later in the year with Young MC’s debut album. Young MC contributed material to this effort, and the links between the two are undeniable. Delicious Vinyl didn’t last as long as Def Jam, Jive or Tommy Boy, but they had a very strong part in pushing hip hop to the forefront of popular culture. In 1990 it went ‘over the top’ with MC Hammer (groan) and then Vanilla Ice (bigger groan) covering the top between them for over half the year.

At the beginning of 1989 though, the (dance) floor belonged to the raspy, thick, and smooth-as-molasses vocal stylings of Tone Loc. He wasn’t interested in going pop but the record-buying public had other ideas. Fueled by the top three successes of Wild Thing and Funky Cold Medina, the album hit top spot in April 1989. The album doesn’t only contain these sparse ‘beats and guitar’ party tracks. There are a couple of changes of pace which are very welcome. ‘Cheeba Cheeba’ celebrates marijuana and is laden with the sort of light-hearted rhymes that permeate the album. Tone and his friend get very high, go to the 7 Eleven and buy “everything edible off the shelf. He thought I was sharing? I ate it all myself.” It is still funky but much more laid back, suiting the subject matter and hinting at the lazy West Coast drawl that was to follow thanks to Dr. Dre and his stable. ‘Don’t Get Close’ is more menacing and downbeat, and ‘Loc’in On The Shaw’ is a very dark and mellow instrumental, shaped by a simple guitar riff and a spoken word sample “Hey bruh?” “What’s happenin’ bruh?” from The Mighty Tom Cats “Love Potion Cheeba-Cheeba”. Not the sort of thing you might expect on a party album. It isn’t all irresistible. ‘Cuttin’ Rhythms’ and ‘Next Episode’, while no less funky than the rest of the album, feel more like album filler. The closing track, aimed at celebrating the posse, ‘The Homies’ feels like an over-long in-joke that, if not part of, is more like being turned away at the door than being welcomed in.

Overall though, this album still sounds good today, and is a happy reminder of more innocent times, for me and for rap and hip-hop. You can call me out for ignoring the implied or even explicit sexism and homophobia – where one of Tone’s wannabe conquests courtesy of the Funky Cold Medina turns out to be a man, and, as a gay man, I don’t have a strong push-back. All I can say is, if we use up our energy to get angry at that, we will become exhausted very quickly, and I want to save some of my almost-50-something energy for dancing badly to Wild Thing and Funky Cold Medina if you don’t mind. Or even if you do. So Happy 30th Birthday to Loc’ed After Dark. If I was so minded I would smoke a blunt in your honor. I’ll have to settle for some Funky Cold Medina.
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