Miss Tony Stands Alone
Cross dressing vocalist's fearless life reveals the queer origins of Bmore club
The Miss Tony mural that appeared on North Avenue's Jubilee Building before the facade was torn down (Courtesy of Sorta / June 11, 2014)
Radio personality Frank Ski recalls his first encounter with the club vocalist, local radio personality, frequent live performer, and man of God who passed away in 2003, then a young club kid named Tony Boston. It happened at famed Baltimore nightclub Odell's in 1989 or 1990.
"I saw this guy kind of like strut and open up the dance floor and vogue down the middle of the dance floor," says Ski, who would go on to work with Tony in clubs, on records, and on the radio. He still sounds a little shocked when he talks about it. "It was this big guy, who was gay at a hip-hop party. Understand what I'm saying?"
Between 1992 and 1994, Miss Tony recorded a handful of provocative club tracks, mostly under Ski's wing, and boosted by the success of the Ski-produced 1991 single "Doo Doo Brown," by 2 Hyped Brothers & A Dog. Two of these post-"Doo Doo" Tony songs, "Tony's Bitch Track," and "Get Ya Guns Out," were ubiquitous local hits that helped birth the sound of Baltimore club.
"Frank and Tony started doing these tracks," says Teddy Douglas of house heroes the Basement Boys, best known for Crystal Waters' "100% Pure Love," and a close friend of Tony's. "That really started the whole thing—that Baltimore club sound."
It is no surprise that Baltimore club, with its origins in house music is deeply tied to gay culture. But the extent to which Miss Tony put his stamp on the city's dance scene is all-encompassing: He was there for the genesis of Bmore club, recording harder-edged house tracks that would dominate the club and the streets and hosting parties in most of those same clubs. By 1994, Tony was a personality on Baltimore's 92Q (he would work there until 1999), disseminating mainstream hip-hop and R&B to the average, non-clubbing Baltimorean.
The first song Frank Ski and Miss Tony did together features Tony at his most brash. "Tony's Bitch Track" from 1992, contains bumping house synthesizers over which Tony unabashedly chants, "Bitch I'll take your boyfriend, bitch I'll take your man." In between, "the infamous Miss Tony," as he introduces himself, gives advice to dudes on the dance floor (they need to wash their sweaty balls if they plan on taking any women home), boasts that he has a "PhD in dickology," and wanders into routines cribbed from his raucous, off-the-cuff emcee performances, including, "Ooh bitch that ain't fair, give that horsey back his hair"—something he would yell out when he saw clubbers with questionable weaves.
It's a riot, but there is also a seriousness to "Tony's Bitch Track" that extends beyond Bmore club's built-in ability to facilitate catharsis through dance. Late in the song, Tony huskily croons, "Understand, understand I'm a man." He's being boldly sincere here, parsing, for those who don't understand, the complexities that exist between gender binaries (important because often, Tony was referred to as a transvestite or transgender, which is inaccurate) and then admits, "But sometimes I feel like a woman." And because he's also an entertainer, and arguably, even a comedian, Tony tags it with a hilarious dozens-style zinger, "And if you don't believe me, ask your father."
For Deco Records, Frank Ski's label, "Tony's Bitch Track" was an incredibly daring follow-up single to "Doo Doo Brown," a minor national hit. Even more impressive is its lesser known 1993 sequel, "Bitch Track II - Yes!" Its hook goes, "Yes I am gay, no I'm not ashamed," and in between, Tony explains that "the word gay in the '90s doesn't mean you're happy and free, it means that you are exactly what you are." Then, he laughs off the then fervid "Don't ask, don't tell" controversy about gays in the military by telling the military to "kiss [his] ass."
"["Bitch Track II - Yes!"] was probably going to be the biggest record I ever made," Ski says, with a tinge of regret in his voice. There was interest from Luther Campbell of the then-controversy-stoking 2 Live Crew to put it out via Luke Records and there were even plans to shoot a video, but it never quite came together.
"[Tony] wanted that to be a big record," says Diamond K, a producer and DJ who worked with Tony and Ski and was one of Tony's closest friends, working with Tony on the last tracks he would record. "But it was too bold of a statement."
Ultimately, "Bitch Track II - Yes!" was stuck on the third volume of a series of EPs called "Frank Ski's Club Trax" which hosted a more nationally-oriented remix of Tony's second recording, 1993's "Get Ya Guns Out," retitled "Pull Ya Gunz Out."
The origins of "Get Ya Guns Out," Tony's most well-known track, reveal how Tony, an impulsive and improvisational performer put together a song. He created hooks by grabbing chants he'd heard, or used himself, in the club and bringing it into the studio. With "Guns," the chant originated via a group of street dudes posted up at the nightclub Facade's on Reisterstown Road chanting, "Pull your guns out, pow!" The chant caught Ski's ear. "They were protecting their turf," Ski explains, "It was part of the drug culture." Ski and Tony decided to turn it into a single as soon as possible.
The result is a hopped-up track with Tony shouting out different neighborhoods ("Cherry Hill, get your guns out") while Ski juggles electro sounds and hip-hop scratches, Tony screaming with ecstasy to each adjustment to the beat. When a gurgle of bass moves through the track, Tony playfully riffs on Stephanie Mills' 1980 classic, "Never Knew Love Like This Before" and sings, "because I never felt bass like that before."
There's a scene in David Simon's book The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood, that describes members of the Crenshaw Mafia Brothers gang (C.M.B) listening to "Get Ya Guns Out" on cassette. Simon calls Tony's song "a rollicking seven minutes of audio dissonance with lyrics that amount to a listing of bad ass drugs corners and housing projects followed by a shouted one-line chorus," and describes the C.M.B jumping around with excitement over the song. "Mount and Fayette, spoken like it was a place that mattered," Simon bleakly observes.
Simon isn't necessarily incorrect there, but "Get Ya Guns Out" speaks to the power and brilliance of Miss Tony's neighborhood-nodding party music. Indeed, by howling out the names of these places on a track, he made them "matter." Those shout-outs are on record forever. In the club however, Tony was less generous with shout-outs, according to Diamond K. To hear your friend or corner screamed out by Tony in the club, you had to pay him: "He wouldn't do it unless you paid him. He would walk away with hundreds of dollars a night just from that!"
Another one of Tony's biggest tracks, 1994's "Whatzup? Whatzup?," produced by the Underground Trak Team—the duo of Scottie B and Shawn Caesar)—also helped immortalize local flavor. On the track, over a skeletal, shuffling beat, you hear Tony ordering Scottie and Shawn to add and remove sounds to the production, collectively referring to the two as "Unruly."
"He just started saying ‘Unruly' like it was a person or a group," Scottie B remembers proudly. "Unruly was already our name but not in that context, so Tony put it out there and it got radio play." And so, it was Miss Tony who assisted in branding Scottie and Shawn's Unruly Records, the label that would become the most significant in Baltimore club history—the Def Jam of Bmore club. It's but one more way that Tony's influence on Baltimore club history extends beyond his recordings.
Scottie B also pulls back the curtain on Tony's unpredictable style of recording: "You know, everything's mathematical [when you're recording], in fours and eights and sixteens. And you would try to teach him, but he would just say whatever." Saying whatever, of course, was what made Tony's personality so compelling. His disregard for rules and expectations continued even when he started operating within the fairly mainstream world of radio.