Anthony Will ’16, who prefers the name Tone, is playing puppeteer at the Shelter nightclub in Shanghai. Before a crowd of Shanghai natives with their hands in the air, even while most do not understand his lyrics, listeners can experience what Tone has felt his whole life: a love for the marriage of percussion and rhyme called hip hop.
Tone, a Detroit native, said he flew to China a month ago to visit his parents who live and work in Shanghai. He had just received his bachelor’s degree from the Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations and said he originally planned to stay in Shanghai for only a few weeks.
Shortly after he arrived, Tone found a job teaching English at an elementary school. He is currently training to become a teacher and has decided to stay in Shanghai for at least a year.
“I’m going to try and combine rap with teaching kids phonics and basic English words,” he said. At the school, students learn vocabulary by reciting songs in English, but Tone said the songs are not very memorable.
“I think rap could help them memorize some of those words,” he said.
Tone said he enjoys teaching at the school, but the true reason he moved halfway across the world was to focus on his musical career.
“I really wanted a change of pace from home, a change of environment, a change of scenery, everything,” he said.
Shanghai is home to an underground yet burgeoning hip hop scene, Tone explained, and he figures the city is as good a place as any to experiment with new sounds and collaborate with new artists.
In China, interest in hip hop “has been building for the last five, 10 years,” he said. “They’re really open to it, and they really like it.”
A few weeks ago, Tone said he went to see the Iron Mic — an annual rap battle between China’s best MCs founded in 2001 by Detroit native Dana Burton. Burton traveled to China in 2000 to teach English and never left; he has been called “the Godfather of Chinese Hip Hop,” according to Foreign Policy magazine.
The Iron Mic showcased serious technical skill, according to Tone.
“They were going hard,” he said. “They rap completely in Chinese, except for some choice words.”
Like Burton, Tone also calls Detroit home, but he said it is a home he wants to leave behind, at least for now.
“Back home in Detroit, there’s nothing to do but bad stuff,” Tone said. “It’s great being in a new environment, being somewhere safe.”
Tone doesn’t speak Mandarin, but he said this is not a problem in a city as cosmopolitan as Shanghai. He recalled a day when he was wandering around the city and saw “this guy on his motorcycle with a Kendrick Lamar shirt on.”
“I asked [the man] where the metro was, and he was like, ‘Hop on, I’ll take you over there,’” Tone recounted. “It turns out, this dude’s a fashion designer. There’s a lot of super friendly people out here.”
Although this language barrier extends to his music as well, Tone said it hasn’t kept the people of Shanghai from enjoying his sound. In some ways, he said, this division can create a more organic listening experience.
“A lot of people can’t even speak English, so they’re not listening to the specifics in the lyrics,” Tone explained. “I’ve talked with a bunch of people … and a lot of them said that before they could even understand anything, it was the energy and the passion that really resonated with them.”
Tone said he has been working with new producers, singers and rappers in pursuit of a fresher, electronically-driven sound. He added that he is also trying to take his lyrics into new territory considered off-limits to rappers.
“I want to talk about myself, telling my own story and the things that I’ve gone through — but all the while making it so it’s not corny,” he said.
Among the many influences in his life, Tone said his grandmother “was like a mother to me.” “[She] raised me, pretty much,” he said. In the second semester of his freshman year, she passed away.
“I was going through a really dark time at school, but I was able to channel that energy into writing.” That semester, Tone wrote, recorded and released his first 12-track mixtape.
As a sophomore, Tone said he started a collective called Hermes Recordings, a collection of sound engineers, producers, singers and MC’s — all of whom were Cornell students. Even though Tone graduated this year, he said he still works almost exclusively with producers and engineers he met through Hermes.
Tone said his new lyrics deal with addiction — something his friends and family have struggled with — as well as depression. He added that it is difficult to address these subjects as a rapper, given the narrow lyrical confines of the genre.
“No one wants to be preached at,” he said. “But at the same time, people are looking to connect to music in a different way.”
Referencing his stage name, Tone Pérignon, Tone explained that the name was inspired by the champagne, Dom Pérignon.
“Tone is about the vibe of a track,” he explained. “Tone Pérignon, it’s like a lifestyle. It’s something smooth, suave, decadent — highlife hip hop.”