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Corporate Thuggin'

Executive turned rapper Tony Austin makes it happen for himself

Mark Henry
Tony Austin comes out from behind the corporate desk to get on the mic.

By Al Shipley | Posted 6/23/2010

"You know how sometimes you got that itch that you just wanna scratch?" asks Tony Austin, referring to his starting a rap career at the ripe age of 36. "I've always wanted to do this. It just came to me one day--like, Man, you ain't gonna be satisfied in life unless you do what it is you wanna do, so . . . do it."

It's that kind of self-starting motivation that's made Baltimore native Austin a music industry fixture for more than a decade. He was immersed in hip-hop well before he started releasing his own songs. Of course, it helps that his older cousin is Kevin Liles, a fellow Baltimore native who served as the president of Def Jam at the height of the label's success. Austin is quick to point out, however, that Liles isn't one to let anybody get by on nepotism. "He's the kind of person that, he's not gonna give you nothing," he says. "And I'm the kind of person, I don't want nothin', I wanna earn my keep, and that's what happened."

Sitting in a black Escalade parked outside a Sandtown barbershop he's been going to since he was just another neighborhood kid, Austin is the picture of a hometown boy made good, an inner-city don who never takes off his shades. He's just in town for a couple days, showing a camera crew around Baltimore for an MTV.com feature, already reaping impressive rewards in a career that he matter-of-factly admits began "maybe three, four months ago."

As a Def Jam A&R rep, Austin worked with DMX and Capone-N-Noreaga, and later worked closely with Liles' mentor, Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons. Together, they formed the Russell Simmons Music Group, with Austin as president and co-owner. And with his own Def Jam imprint, Chocolate City Music, Austin's production team produced a song for Dru Hill, and got another Baltimore native, the young rapper Comp, signed to the label.

In recent years, though, as the music industry in general has faltered, Austin's career in it has slowed down somewhat. RSMG folded, and Comp and Austin's other signings never quite panned out. But under his newer Austin Entertainment company, he's had some local success with 100 Grand Man, one of the most popular rappers to have emerged in Baltimore in the last few years. And after Austin helped 100 Grand Man achieve the distinction of being the first Baltimore rapper to do a mixtape in DJ Drama's prestigious Gangsta Grillz series, the seed was planted for the exec to enter the public eye himself.

Austin and DJ Drama quickly assembled his debut mixtape, Gangsta Grillz: The Influence, released in April and featuring an impressive array of guest artists: major label stars such as Gucci Mane, Yo Gotti, Beanie Sigel, and OJ Da Juiceman, who anchors the single "Mr. Make It Happen." Baltimore producers such as Nummy and D. Banks created the bulk of the mixtape's beats, but the synth-heavy sound suits the mostly Southern guests, while other hometown rappers 100 Grand Man and Caddy Da Don appear on the highlight "Play."

Although Austin is constantly travelling in and out of town, he's made Baltimore central to his music and his image, shooting the video for "Dope Boy" in the city with local production company Sleeping Giant Media. Aside from his famous guest MCs, Austin says, "Everything that I have done has been all Baltimore, from Baltimore producers, Baltimore engineers, all Baltimore in the videos, Baltimore videographer."

"Mr. Make It Happen," in addition to being his breakout single, is an appropriate signature song for Austin, someone who's known for making things happen for the careers of others. "I've always written for different acts that I had on my labels and stuff like that, so it was always in me," he says, as he slips into slick-talking motivational language. "So me just actually doin' it was just a matter of just, 'OK, let's go in the studio, let's see what we got, let's make this happen, let's do this,' and that's how it all came about."

Austin's plainspoken flow and straightforward lyrics won't win him any awards, and in some ways his rapid ascent is a testament to how easily money and connections can trump talent in hip-hop. But Austin is refreshingly candid about his musical shortcomings, and there's little artifice with him; he doesn't lie about his age, or dress any differently than he did before he was a rapper. "I look at my stuff as having a story that I wanted to share with people, more so than as an MC," he says, referring to the six years he spent locked up on drug conspiracy charges from the ages of 16 to 22. "Everything I [talk] about has some kind of truth to it or something that I've witnessed or experienced or seen or know is going on."

That "I'm not a rapper" attitude that Austin brazenly wears on his sleeve is increasingly commonplace in hip-hop's current climate. Label heads turned stars such as Sean "Diddy" Combs and Bryan "Birdman" Williams have long thrived, but now non-rapping rappers like Jim Jones and Shawty Lo come out from behind the scenes with hit songs on a regular basis.

But even as Austin aims for the top, he sounds humble about the prospect of opening the doors for better rappers from Baltimore, and perhaps finding his own Biggie Smalls or Lil Wayne to help usher into superstardom. "We have some great talent here, man," he says. "You have a lot of these guys that are artists. I'm not like an artist artist, I'm really like a storyteller. Hopefully these guys will get the chance that they need to shine, and put Baltimore on a bigger scale."

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