Recorded Homemade Album at /i> (10<), Favored Glam Costumes, Reached Upper Chart Levels
Gospel singer, songwriter, producer
Among the most exciting figures to emerge in contemporary gospel music in the early 2000s was Tonex, pronounced, as the title of his first nationally distributed album announced, Toe-Nay. Tonex's music was compared to that of Prince and Michael Jackson, and even to that of the imaginative funk pioneer George Clinton. Incorporating funk and rock influences into gospel, his recordings and concerts were notable for their wide stylistic range. Tonex encountered controversy with his unusual appearance, which included a quartet of religiously oriented tattoos. In some ways, however, he was a very traditional gospel musician, leading a choir of his own and becoming active, like many of the genre's greatest figures, as a minister.
One traditional aspect of Tonex's background was that he grew up immersed in church music. Born around 1978, he grew up in the San Diego, California area. His father, Dr. Anthony Williams, was Senior Pastor and District Elder in the Truth Apostolic Community Church in suburban Spring Valley, and his mother was also a minister. Tonex's real name was Anthony Charles Williams II. He was the youngest of the Williams' six boys. Gospel music was the preferred choice at home, but other sounds made their way into Tonex's environment; his parents had both performed secular music when they were younger (his father, a saxophonist, worked with both James Brown and Jackie Wilson), and his older brothers sneaked funk and R&B recordings into the house. Along with gospel giants like Walter Hawkins and Shirley Caesar, he has named Motown star Stevie Wonder as an influence.
Homemade Album at /i> (10
By age 10, Tonex had recorded an album of his own at home. Deciding early on a musical career, he took the name Tonex by the time he was 13, sometimes spelling it Tonéx. On the small San Diego labels Rajah and MSS, he released a pair of albums while still in his teens. The title of the first one, Silent 'X' 516: The Self Confrontation, gave a foretaste of the young artist's restless creativity. In 1996 Tonex provided vocals and production work for an album, Eternal Funk, by the San Diego contemporary gospel trio Unity Klan. His varied skills—singing, songwriting, production, and the creative vision to conceptualize an album as a whole—attracted attention in the music industry, just as they had for Prince two decades earlier.
Unity Klan recorded for the Rescue label, and Tonex signed with that label for his 1997 release, Pronounced Toe-Nay. Rescue was still a small label, and the album was issued in a limited production run and distributed mostly from the back of Tonex's car. Young gospel fans, however, quickly caught on to the innovative variety of music on Pronounced Toe-Nay. The album's producer, T. Boy, was an alter ego of Tonex himself. The album was divided by style into seven sections: hip-hop/rap, retro/funk, the future, jazz, mellow grooves, soul/gospel, and bonus tracks. In the recordings of Kirk Franklin and others, hip-hop had previously made inroads into gospel music, but this kind of wild eclectic mix was completely new. At the time, the digital reproduction of music was in its infancy, and rare copies of the album became prized possessions. With virtually no industry presence, Tonex was selected to appear on the annual televised Stellar Awards in 1999.
By this time, national labels had come calling. Tonex was signed to an unusual three-way deal that affiliated him with the successful and growing gospel label Verity, the pop imprint Zomba, and the durable hip-hop label Tommy Boy. Pronounced Toe-Nay was re-released in 2000 with five label logos on its cover, including Rescue and MSS in addition to Tonex's new homes. Some executives wanted to develop Tonex's talents in a secular direction, but he turned them down and kept to religious themes. "There are a lot of people who do similar things to what I do in R&B but I wanted to use gospel lyrics," he explained in an interview quoted on the Sphinx Management Web site. "I address issues that many other Christian artists don't address. For instance, in a sexual context, I don't sing about what I'm going to do to a woman. I sing about what I've already experienced and the pain that it caused me. So, on a song like 'Taxi,' I'm talking about the downside of premarital sex, but it's still a pop song."
Favored Glam Costumes
After Pronounced Toe-Nay took off, Tonex became a major concert draw in the early 2000s. To Stevie Wonder-style dreadlocks he sometimes added a feathers-and-boa costume, with platform shoes, that brought to mind the "glam" rock bands of the 1970s and 1980s. His image raised eyebrows in the conservative gospel and contemporary Christian music communities, and Tonex eventually took the sharper edges off his look. But he made no apologies. "It wasn't me trying to make a statement; I've always been different," he told George Varga of the San Diego Union-Tribune. "And it really worked. Out of church, people are always asking me what my tattoos mean." And Tonex leveled criticism of his own. "I think that's what is wrong with Christianity—everything is so overtly spiritual and religious," he told Varga. "They try to force their view of Christ on everyone. It's like an exclusive country club, instead of a place where anyone can come."
While he worked on his sophomore national release, Tonex contributed an original track to The Hostile Takeover, a Tommy Boy collection of songs by other new gospel artists. After going through numerous revisions, O2 was released in 2002. The title of his second album, Tonex said, referred to the year of release, to the element oxygen, and to the album's status as his second major recording. O2 matched the stylistic eclecticism of Pronounced Toe-Nay, with each track diverging completely from the one before. The album spawned a major Christian radio hit in "God Has Not 4Got," a Stellar Award-winning song that displayed Tonex's ability to create traditional choral gospel music as well as innovative pop fusions. O2 also featured a love song, "You," directed toward Tonex's wife Yvette, a vocalist sometimes known as Ms. Tonex.
Becoming known to the wider contemporary Christian music community as a result of several music industry awards and award nominations, Tonex went on tour with contemporary gospel artists Trin-i-Tee 5:7 and Men of Standard after the release of O2. Tonex was moved up from opening act to headliner as audiences reacted enthusiastically to his music and his high falsetto voice. Tonex performed once more at the Stellar Awards early in 2004 and won several awards, but he experienced personal tragedy as his father suffered a stroke while at the ceremony. His father died in July of that year, and Tonex took over as pastor of Truth Apostolic Community Church. In the midst of this upheaval, he managed to continue working on his new live double CD, Out the Box.
Reached Upper Chart Levels
That release, with 36 tracks (a few made in a studio) as well as a variety of spoken and sung transitional matter, captured the variety and excitement of Tonex's live show. Live albums often recapitulate the music an artist has previously made, but Out the Box proved to be something of a breakthrough for Tonex. It topped Billboard magazine's gospel chart and rose to the top 15 on the hip-hop/R&B albums chart, rare territory for a gospel album. Tonex pointed to the album's unusual technical sophistication; the final recording resulted from the mixing of more than 130 separate tracks. "This recording had the largest number of tracks ever recorded in gospel music history," Tonex boasted to GospelCity writer Rene Williams. "They usually only use that many tracks for John Williams scoring "Jaws" or something like that…so this was a monstrosity of epic proportions not only for the production value but the whole mix process."
Audiences and industry figures reacted positively to Tonex's ambitious work. Out the Box swept six major categories at the Stellar Awards in Houston, Texas, in January of 2005 and garnered a Grammy nomination for best contemporary soul gospel album. There seemed to be no stopping Tonex as of mid-2005. Like rapper and producer Kanye West, another figure with whom he was sometimes compared, Tonex had no shortage of ambition and self-confidence. He claimed to have several albums' worth of new material already written. He also confided to Blackgirl Magazine that he was "going to get into acting really heavy," and hoped to star in a situation comedy. For all his efforts, Tonex was touted as one of a group of gospel artists with a chance to break into the top levels of popularity in the secular realm. But in doing so, he intended to remain true to his spirituality, which gave his music a special quality. "It's a hyper-cube," he told George Varga during a discussion of how his music should be classified. "It's some of the only music that has a fourth dimension to it, the spirit of love and life. That's why some people don't know why they feel so good when they hear it, because it's from the light—the light of the world."
Silent 'X' 516: The Self Confrontation, Rajah/MSS, 1994.
Damage, MSS, 1995.
Pronounced Toe-Nay, Rescue, 1997 (reissued Jive, 2000).
O2, Jive, 2002.
Out the Box, Jive, 2004.
Billboard, March 6, 2004; June 5, 2004.
Blackgirl Magazine, July-August 2004, p. 13.
Essence, December 2004, p. 130.
Jet, March 7, 2005, p. 58.
San Diego Union-Tribune, February 13, 2005, p. F5.
"Tonex," All Music Guide, www.allmusic.com (August 4, 2004).
"Tonex," GospelCity, www.gospelcity.com/dynamic/artist-articles/interviews/119 (August 4, 2005).
"Tonéx," GospelFlava, www.gospelflava.com/articles/tonex2000.html (August 4, 2005).
"Tonex Bio," Sphinx Management, www.sphinxmg.com/artist/gospel/tonex.asp (August 4, 2005).
"Tonex Loses His Father," GospelCity, www.gospelcity.com/dynamic/news-articles/gospel_news/91 (August 4, 2005).
—James M. Manheim
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