Mixtape Memories with Tony Touch

Words by Daniel Isenberg (@StanIpcus)

Back in the early ‘90s, DJ mixtapes played an extremely important role in hip-hop, especially in New York City. They helped dictate what artists were hot in the streets, and influence what rap songs were spun on the radio. And of course, they showcased which DJs had the most skills, and also who had the juice to pull in the illest exclusives and freestyles.

Legendary DJ Tony Touch is one of New York City’s mixtape pioneers. He has amassed over 200 official hip-hop, reggae, R&B, and house tape releases in the past twenty plus years, including his unforgettable Power Cypha series, comprised of 50 MCs dropping exclusive freestyles one after another. He even parlayed his mixtape success into a major label deal, putting out his The Piece Maker compilations which featured everyone from Wu-Tang Clan to Gang Starr to Big Pun to Slick Rick.

Currently, Tony Toca can be found DJing all over the world, holding down a weekly Shade 45 time slot, and prepping the July 9th release of The Piece Maker 3, which will be jam-packed with a new batch of 50 MCs stepping up to rock the mic on his behalf. We’ve already heard a dope track off it by Eminem, and a ridiculous duet featuring Kool G Rap and Action Bronson. Plus, he’s been blessing us daily with throwback footage from his personal archives for his 50 Webisodes promo, including live video of Nas performing at The Fever in 1993, and an ODB and Busta Rhymes freestyle session from 1994.

To help celebrate Tony Touch’s legendary status in the mixtape game and his first hip-hop album drop in 9 years, we caught up with him earlier this week  to take a look at the early New York City mixtape movement, how he got started making tapes, the history behind his most famous solo and collaborative releases, his evolution as a mixtape DJ, and so much more. Let’s bring it back.

Early Mixtape Movement in NYC

Tony Touch: “The mixtape thing started for me in ‘91. I was in Brooklyn at the time. There were already a couple of guys really doing it. There was already a movement going on, especially with Kid Capri and a lot of the heads Uptown. They were the ones to really get [mixtapes] on the map.

“Before the mixtapes, it was more recordings of live parties, and stuff like that. That was really the first mixtapes. There was a DJ in Queens named Grandmaster Vic, he was one of the early cats. And of course the Cold Crush tapes from Uptown, and the Busy Bee and Kool Moe Dee battle. Shit like that was circulating. And that [evolved] into people actually putting together recordings.”

First Mixtape/Recording Process

“I started my shit in ‘91. I kept it simple by just numbering my tapes. Hip-Hop #1, or Reggae #1. R&B Blends #1. And to this day, I stuck with that formula, so people are able to go back through their collection if they’re missing something. It’s easy to track.

Hip-Hop #1 was my first tape. Plain and simple. To this day, I do [all my mixtapes] live in one take. Sometimes there will be mistakes. But for the most part, the recordings have always been live. Straight to cassette. I organize my playlist before I make the tape, and put the records in sequence. And I’ll have a couple of practice sessions to see if one record works good going into the other. They’re planned out, but they’re all recorded live. I would pre-record my intros though, and add some special effects. But I would go straight through on the cassette live.”

(Image via Tape Diggers)

Inspiration/Motivation

52 Beats [by Kid Capri] is the one tape that really stands out for me. That set it off for a lot of New York DJs. And there was another DJ in Brooklyn named Johnny T. He was the one that kind of inspired me to record and put everything in different genres. He would do hip-hop, or Latin, or club music. He was the first guy I saw doing it like that. He was making tapes before a lot of the Brooklyn heads.

“I was trying to get gigs, build my name up, and build my following up. The first store I started putting them in was a store on Knickerbocker Avenue called Music Hut Records in Bushwick. That was the first store that started selling them for me. The other store that started selling them at the same time was Bates Record Store on Delancey Street. Those were my first two spots that were pushing my spots. But a lot of times I was giving them away to build that following.

“It worked great. The whole process got me up to do #50, the 50 MCs [Power Cypha]. Through the years of building a following, throwing parties, giving out my mixtapes to artists, journalists, tastemakers, girls. That’s how we got to where we’re at.”

Distribution

“[My distribution] was a combination. I would sell [Brooklyn-based mixtape company] Tape Kingz an original, and they would make copies on their own [and spread them all over]. I was also doing stuff in-house, burning my own CDs, [dubbing my own cassettes], and dealing with mom-and-pop stores like that. It was half selling, and half giving away just to get a rep.

 (Image via Harlem Music Hut)

“Harlem Music Hut was [an important tape spot back then]. Downtown Records. In Queens, they had a couple stores called Numbers. They used to do their thing also. It was a grind. A lot of it I used to do on my own, and I had a couple of buddies that helped me out. But a lot of it was me. I spent many hours in Kinkos, making copies of labels. That was me. If you got some of those original cassettes, there’s a 90 percent chance I was the one that made it or labeled it or wrote on it.”

Getting Exclusives/Having Skills

“That definitely changed the game a little bit. It was a great marketing tool for the guys that were doing it and getting the early records. The only thing for me is that sometimes just because it was an exclusive didn’t mean it was a dope record. I kind of stuck to my guns and made sure everything I put out was quality hip-hop, whether it was new or even if it was out for a month. I just wanted to make sure I put those bangers on every cassette so they would stand the test of time. Sometimes you may get a record, and [the quality] may not even sound that great. I would have just preferred to have an official recording of it, and do the record justice.

“It’s always been [about skills] because those are the [tapes] that stand the test of time. There’s no denying that people were into hearing the newest, newest songs first. It got to a point where there were a few people fighting for those first records. I didn’t even want to compete with that. I stood in my own lane, and made sure my fan base was catered to. My fan base wanted to hear clean mixes. Good quality cassettes. They wanted the cassettes to sound good in their car. They didn’t want to hear all highs. Part of the whole skill process was the recording process and having good engineering skills. Making sure your shit was EQ’d right. That’s something I took pride in.”

The Birth of the Power Cypha 50 MCs Series

“I had done intros a few times with live rappers before, like Buckshot, Smif-n-Wessun, and O.C. before I got to #50. Doo Wop was the first one to have multiple MCs on a cassette. He did ‘95 Live. It was groundbreaking, and every DJ was on the shit when he put that out. He raised the stakes, and took the game to another level.

“A year later, when I got up to 50th mixtape, I wanted to try to take what he did to another level, and try to do what he did with 50 MCs. I think he had like 15 or something like that. It was an anniversary cassette, and I wanted to make it special. And I also knew that with what Doo Wop did, I had to step it up.”

Power Cypha 50 MCs, Vol. 1

“90 percent of it was recorded at D&D Studios. There were other studios, too. Chung King, couple of independent studios I had to go into to work with other rappers. But most of it was done at D&D. It was [put together] through relationships I had built through the years. I was DJing so many clubs, so people knew me from that. I was on Hot 97 for a little bit, we had The Mic Check Show up there. So it was that, and also a big chunk of it was just being at D&D Studios, casually dropping in for other sessions. I would get [artists] like that, too.

“The most standout session from the first volume had to be the Boot Camp session. That’s the one that Funkmaster Flex played the whole thing on the radio. It was like 12 minutes long. That shit got a lot of love. That was one of the things that put me on the map. I’ve done so many things with those [Boot Camp] guys. Those are my fam. Actually, the intro to the 50 MCs turned into a song on their album, ‘Down By Law.’

“That was all planned out. Dru Ha set it up so that everyone was there, and we knocked it out in one night. I documented it on one of my webisodes.”

Boot Camp Clik, “Power Cypha Freestyle”

Power Cypha 50 MCs, Vol. 2

“Out of all three of them, that was probably my favorite one. The momentum was really strong off of the first one. I had a little more clout, so I was able to get a couple more big dogs on there. Another reason it’s my favorite is because it has the Big Pun session and the Big L on the same tape. That was some timeless shit. And we had Redman, and also the whole Diggin’ In The Crates crew on that. That shit was definitely official.”

Big L, “Power Cypha 2 Freestyle”

Big Pun, “Power Cypha 2 Freestyle”

Power Cypha 50 MCs, Vol. 3

“For the third 50 MCs, [Eminem] was doing work with Game Recordings. I had a relationship over there with Jonathan Shecter. So they were able to hook that up for me. Plus, I had a relationship with Paul Rosenberg when they had first dropped The Slim Shady EP. I was really early on that record. I didn’t really know him, but I was in the loop early with people he was involved with. But it definitely shocked me. That shit turned out to be crazy. That was like late ‘98, early ‘99, so [it was definitely an early moment for him].

“There’s another rapper on there that passed away, Half a Mill. He came in a session with AZ, and got on there. God rest his soul. That session was pretty intense. Then he passed away, and I felt really bad. That guy was just getting started.”

Eminem, “Power Cypha 3 Freestyle”

AZ & Half A Mil, “Power Cypha 3 Freestyle”

5 Deadly Venoms of Brooklyn

“At the time, those guys were all like D&D All-Stars, as well as all from Brooklyn. PF Cuttin was one of my oldest friends. He actually came up with the name Tony Touch. A lot of people don’t know that. And of course Mister Cee and Premier are two icons from Brooklyn. Evil Dee was another brother of mine through my relationship with the whole Boot Camp. We did that around ‘97. I think I put that out right after the second 50 MCs. I was just trying to keep the momentum going with the whole mixtape movement, and keep giving people that quality mix.”

(Image via UpNorthTrips)

Diaz Brothers

“In the beginning, there was a little, not tension, but it was competitive [between me and Doo Wop]. I know that after he dropped ‘95 Live, there were a few people that did intros on their tapes [like he did]. I took it to a whole other level. But he called a few people out, and I might have responded. Not really calling him out, but defending my shit, and kind of throwing back. Little darts thrown at each other on cassette. So it was really intense competition in the beginning.

“That didn’t last too long, though. We had some mutual friends that brought us together. It was all love, and the energy was right. He’s one of the most creative guys I’ve ever worked with, as far as DJs. He’s just a real creative cat. I think he’s a dope MC. Since we both rhyme, and we’re both Spanish, and both from the mixtape movement, the stars just lined up for us to [do the Diaz Brothers stuff]. When we did the first Diaz Brothers tape, that was one of the hottest cassettes on the street.”

Favorite Tony Touch Mixtapes

“Anything from number #51 to #54. I was in my prime right there. I was coming off of the first 50 MCs, and the momentum was hot. All the early 50s definitely stand out. Then when I got to #55, that’s when I did the second 50 MCs. But I was definitely showing my ass on those tapes.”

Favorite Mixtape DJs

“A lot of the Tape Kingz guys [made dope tapes]. I liked what Mister Cee was putting out. And Green Lantern, I used to enjoy listening to his tapes early on. I used to like the S&S and Craig G tapes. Those guys were on their exclusive game. And Clue. I used to enjoy listening to those guys’ tapes. They guys were getting those new records quick, even before me. And of course Doo Wop tapes were always entertaining.”

The Piece Maker/Working with a Major Label

“I had to step up my game up as a producer. The beats had to be original. And I had to play more of an A&R role, looking for beats, and shopping for the right artists to work with. That’s what the difference was. It was like I graduated. I couldn’t stay doing the same thing.

“When I put out the third 50 MCs, Flex and Clue had already put out their albums, so it had to happen. I had to step up. And with the success of their albums, and the hype, it made it easier for me to get a deal. It definitely broke some of the ground for me when it came to dealing with a major.

“The Diaz Brothers record I did was a great one. The Total record was [dope], because I had a great time with the music video. That was my first real music video, so that song stands out. The KRS-One, Big Daddy Kane, and Kool G Rap record is another one, just because of what they represent in hip-hop. That was a big deal for me, to put them all on one record.”

The Piece Maker 2

The Piece Maker 2 was supposed to come out on the same label [as the first one], which was Tommy Boy, distributed by Warner Bros. I was already halfway through the album, and I had to wait two and a half years for that album to come out. I was scrambling trying to find a home for it. Then 9/11 [happened], and shit was kind of haywire in New York. There was a lapse there, where I kind of lost momentum making that album. I had to stop, find a new deal, and finish the other half of the album. So it took years to get done.

“The first single we did on The Piece Maker 2 was ‘Capicu’ with Fat Joe, N.O.R.E., and Juju, and there’s actually test pressings of it with the Tommy Boy label on it. That was one of the last records they pressed up. The album ended up coming out on Koch three years later. But those test pressings of ‘Capicu,’ you can find those shits online for $20 or $30 if you’re lucky.”

The Piece Maker 3

“It’s 9 years after the release of The Piece Maker 2. I did a couple of Latin albums. And also, with the direction of the music, there wasn’t a demand for what I put out, which is New York street style, boom bap with lyrics. I had to wait for there to be a demand for it, and now people are thirsty for some real rap shit. So in comes The Piece Maker 3 to fulfill that need. But for a minute, nobody was really checking for that.”

The Making of Action Bronson and Kool G Rap “It’s A Queens Thing”

I was kicking it in Statik Selektah’s house one day, and Action Bronson was there. We were looking for beats for the new 50 MCs. I had told them about it, and Statik said he would help me out with the Action Bronson track. As we were talking, I got in his head a little bit about who were some of the folks he came up listening to, and who were his favorites. And he mentioned G Rap, and I said, ‘Man, it would be great to put you guys together.’ That day, I called G Rap, and he said he was into it. I told him I was doing the 50 MCs again [for The Piece Maker 3], and he was on the first one. I was like, ‘I want to link you up with this kid Action Bronson, he’s dope. Let’s do some Queens shit.’ And he was with it.”

The Internet/Blogs

“The Internet is the new street team stuff. You gotta just adjust with the times. Technology is always gonna come, and force us to adapt and incorporate it into our lives, or incorporate it into methods of generating income. I’ve been able to adapt, and the proof is in the webisodes I’ve been putting out every day. The feedback I’ve been getting on that has been tremendous. I was able to take old school shit from like 20 years ago and use it in a new school format for the blog shit. It worked out perfect.”

50 Webisodes

“That’s all from my personal stash. I’ve been a camcorder fanatic since ‘92. I won a camcorder back in the days, and I just got hooked. I would film everything, from family, to studio sessions, to traveling, to concerts, to backstage shit. I just collected so much footage.

“My daughter had celebrated her Sweet Sixteen not too long ago. And I was going through footage trying to put together a of all different things for her. And I didn’t even realize what I had! I was looking at this footage like, ‘Shit, I got so much gems here. I gotta do something with it.’ And then, pow. The idea just hit me to do the 50 webisodes for 50 days. And that all came from digging in the crates for my daughter’s shit.”

Shade 45 Radio Show Toca Tuesdays

“I’ve been at Shade 45 eight and a half years. It’s been great. I’ve been able to program my own four hour show every week. I’ve been able to break a lot of new records, and introduce a lot of new artists to the world. We were early with J. Cole, Action Bronson, and all this new stuff. And that’s been great, to still be relevant today. And also play some dope ass hip-hop uncensored. It’s fantastic. I’ve been on Power 105 and Hot 97, but there’s nothing like having the freedom I have here on satellite radio. It’s global, and it’s great to be a part of the whole Shady conglomerate. That’s a dope ass co-sign right there.

Fan Recognition

“[I have fans] come up to me with the actual cassettes in hand wanting me to sign their shit. I had a guy come up to the radio show a month ago with 15, 20 cassettes in mint condition for me to autograph. He preserved those shits. But globally, [when I’m DJing in other countries], there’s always someone popping up with a mixtape though. It’s definitely humbling, and it shows you how far we’ve come.”