The Great Albums

Tone-Loc, still good to go, on 'After Dark'


June 29, 2003



The video was unforgettable, even though it looked as if it was made for a couple of hundred dollars, a case of beer and an ounce of "cheeba cheeba."

Shot in stark black and white, the clip featured a handful of identical dark-haired models sensuously gyrating in the background as a chubby, non-telegenic but enormously good-humored rapper called Tone-Loc coolly unfurled a series of horny rhymed couplets.

Casual observers contended that the video for "Wild Thing"--a blatant rip-off/homage to Robert Palmer's much slicker clip for "Addicted to Love"--propelled Tone-Loc's 1989 debut "Loc-ed After Dark" to the top of the Billboard albums charts (where it followed the Beastie Boys' "Licensed to Ill" as the second hip-hop album ever to hit those lofty heights).

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And in the wake of the disc's phenomenal success, critics and jealous peers were quick to deride the MTV darling.

Tone-Loc was a joke--a cartoon caricature--they said. Much of the album had actually been written by his labelmate, Marvin Young, a.k.a. Young MC. And it was just "pop music," not "real" or "street" enough to be considered great hip-hop.

All of this jealous sniping ignored two undeniable facts: 1) Tone-Loc's hoarse 4 a.m. rasp and laidback-to-the-point-of-falling-over vocal style made for one of the greatest deliveries in hip-hop history, and 2) Even if he wasn't the prime sonic architect of the album's brilliant mix of rock riffs and rap rhythms, the tracks would have been nothing without the considerable force of the unique personality that he brought to them.

As much as anything else, it was the croaked "let's do it" at the beginning of "Wild Thing" and the sarcastic "hasta la vista, baby" at the end that made the song a smash hit. And it was refreshing to see that Loc took it all in stride.

"I was just the average cool everyday kind of guy that I was, then the next thing you know, I was up there making records," he told me while munching down on a bag of Cheetos in 1991. "The only way my life has really changed is that people recognize me. But myself, I'm still the same person, I do believe. I haven't changed that much. I see a lot of celebrities that I know, how they are and how they treat people, and it's kind of wack. I think you should be real happy if you've been blessed enough to have any type of success in this business."

A husky middle-class kid, Anthony Terrell Smith grew up playing soccer in his native Texas before moving to Los Angeles as a teenager. There he claims to have become involved in the violent subculture of street gangs, though he never specified which gang he belonged to, and plenty of genuine gangbangers doubted his story.

("Crips knew that I was probably one of them, but there are so many Crip gangs that Crips fight against one another, as well as fight Bloods, so I had pretty much everybody curious and wanting to know" he told me with a smile, and without further elaboration.)

Rechristened Tone-Loc (a mon-iker that came from his nickname, "Anthony Loco"), he was discovered by Matt Dike and Mike Ross and signed to their Delicious Vinyl label on the strength of his unique, gravelly voice. Alternating production chores with the Dust Brothers, Dike and Ross crafted all of the 11 tracks on "Loc-ed After Dark." The most inspired moments followed a pattern that had been set by Run-DMC's collaboration with Aerosmith several years earlier, turning to hard rock guitar riffs to provide the hooks over motivating if surprisingly minimalist breakbeat grooves.

The key lick in "Wild Thing" was sampled from "Jamie's Cryin'" by Van Halen; the instrumental break in "Cutting Rhythms" reworked a riff from "Band on the Run" by Paul McCartney and Wings, and L.A. session guitarist Arik Marshall (later of the Red Hot Chili Peppers) powered "Cheeba Cheeba." (The latter also featured a chorus sung by Atlanta native N-Dea Davenport, later the vocalist in the Brand New Heavies.)

Ross and Dike shared songwriting credits with Loc and Young, but the latter claimed to have done the lion's share of the work in writing the album's biggest hits, "Wild Thing" and "Funky Cold Medina." The usually affable Loc bristled when I asked him about that a few years later.

"First of all, 'Wild Thing' was like totally a Tone-Loc concept, and I wrote half of it," he said. "The other half was too dirty, you know what I'm saying? I couldn't really write that style that [Ross and Dike] wanted to hear because it's for a cornier type person, someone who's a little bit more nerdy, and [Young] fit the bill. He was perfect for that type of s---. The lyrics on any of these songs are not really that great. I always felt that it was the personality and the sound of the voice. He did what he did, but I think he really took a bit more credit than what he really deserved, know what I mean?"

Loc is right: Some of the lyrics are indeed corny, but in a good-humored way that can be traced back to Chuck Berry's goofiest double entendres, or to countless risque blues tunes before that. And the words benefit from the fact that anything coming out of the rapper's mouth sounds funny.

"Funky Cold Medina" chronicles the woes of a lovelorn fellow who just can't get lucky ("Cold coolin' at a bar, and I'm lookin for some action/But like Mike Jagger said, I can't get no satisfaction"), until a bartender turns him on to the aphrodisiacal qualities of the beverage in the title.

Unfortunately, the magic elixir backfires when he attracts the unwanted attentions of a transvestite named Sheena. "This is the '80s and I'm down with the ladies!" Loc maintains.

"Cheeba Cheeba" is both an homage to and a goof on unrestrained pot-smoking. The down side to "just saying yes," as Loc sees it, is that you get the munchies and things seem funnier than they really are. "We had so much food, didn't know where to start/At the Haagen-Dazs or Kellogg's Pop-Tarts," he raps. "Kickin' at the tube, watchin' none better/Than the king of late night/Yeah, Dave Letterman/Not too hilarious, jokes kinda plain/But everything is funny when you're smokin' Mary Jane."

Then of course there's "Wild Thing," a tune about--well, how much Loc loves to do the wild thing. Men talking about how irresistible they are to women is standard fare in hip-hop, but it's usually tackled via tedious macho bragging. Loc is much more comical and subtle.

In one verse, a romantic evening is ruined when his paramour's mom shows up and tries to elbow in on the action. In another, he thinks he's scored with a beautiful woman in the bar, only to discover that she intends to charge him for the night.

After the phenomenal success of his debut, Loc was in no rush to record a follow-up. "I'm just laying back and livin' large!" he told me in '91. "Cool Hand Loc" finally appeared later that year. It was another strong collection of smart, funny, tuneful raps ("Freaky Behavior," "Mean Green," "Pimp Without a Caddy"), but it didn't fare nearly as well.

Since then, Loc has concentrated on acting. He's appeared in B-grade comedies such as "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective" and "Car 54, Where Are You?"; TV series such as "Thieves" and "Roc," and he's given voice to animated characters in "Bebe's Kids," "Titan A.E." and "Ferngully."

But Hollywood's gain is definitely hip-hop's loss. Few artists have brought as distinctive a voice to the genre, and none have had such a positive and good-natured sense of humor.

"I'm silly, man. I'm a silly mother----er!" Loc told me. "If there's one thing I like to do in life, it's just laugh, and I can never get enough laughter. I think everybody in this world takes everything too seriously."