Backstage at vaunted NYC venue SOBs, the pace is harried, often frenzied. Acts and entourages mill about in a cramped basement lounge. Rehearsing dancers contort themselves in what little space remains. Amidst the din, indy rapper par excellence Tabi Bonney is unfazed, minutes before showtime. Oblivious to the hangers-on, he drops to the cement floor and executes a series of ambitiously-cadenced pushups, rising and falling with military precision. The gold logo on his personally branded Bonney Runway T-shirt glints with each exertion. It’s a curious scene. But Tabi Bonney is used to doing things unorthodoxly. And he’s used to coming out on top.
Rappers are often deemed —be it self-imposed or otherwise— products of their environments. What then of an MC born Tabiabuè Bonney in a little-known West African nation, and who now makes his home in Washington, DC? From the country of Togo to the land of go-go? From a childhood sans indoor plumbing to a jet-setting, globetrotting lifestyle? Sounds incongruous, even implausible. But Tabi Bonney has made a career of doing what others won’t or can’t. While other rappers are stuck serving the same postured, provincial look at life, Tabi’s point of view is refreshingly borderless. And his perspective is both incisive and ironic as the son of one of his homeland’s most prominent entertainers.
“Togo used to be a little Paris,” he harkens. “But they went through civil war and it’s run down. Now they need streets, a sewage system, lights, basic necessities. Almost every night the electricity will go out throughout the entire city because the government can’t properly run the country. I just visited this year; I hadn’t been back for a while because my father [famed Togolese musician Itadi Bonney] was exiled from the country. He was speaking out against the government, which is essentially a dictatorship.”
Imagine honing one’s voice as an instrument when its very use is hazardous. Yet Tabi Bonney has relished in defying the odds and serving notice along the way. His irrepressible, anthemic tracks are known best for unusual cadences and pitch-bending inflections; his opening salvo “The Pocket,” off 2006 debut A Fly Guy’s Theme, rode its high-octave hook onto every major US video outlet. In fact, Bonney is the only truly independent artist –no label, no publicist– to appear on MTV’s Sucker Free countdown. “The pure essence of rhyming captivated me, just as a way of expressing myself,” he recalls. “It probably stemmed from being teased at a younger age for my accent. When I moved to DC from Togo at age 9, I would get teased by the guys, but the girls kinda liked me—they thought I was unique. So that’s probably why the guys teased me. But I was determined to flip it, to use my voice to my advantage, to be noticed not for the accent but for the ability.”
Indeed, school would play a big role in Tabi’s successes, both literally and figuratively: “I started really rhyming in high school, just freestyling over beating on the cafeteria table,” he waxes. “I’d work on one verse for months, trying to perfect it. Now it’s a verse, maybe even a whole song a day.” More than the creative nascence, high school remains Bonney’s prevailing musical metaphor: “You either get my music or you don’t,” he asserts defiantly. “You remember in high school you had the popular, cool kids’ table where new and trendsetting things are happening? Everybody wants to sit at that table but they can’t; that’s how I look at my music. You can’t really sit at this table if you don’t have that mentality. Most followers won’t dig it until everybody else likes it; in the meantime, they don’t know what to do.”
Bonney, however, knew precisely what he intended to do. Upon graduating high school, he enrolled in Florida A&M University, which boasts its own linguistic legacy: Common, Smitty, Dead Prez. After a failed stint as a telemarketer —“You know how when you try something and just know it isn’t for you? I did that job for a month; I’m not cut out for 9 to 5”— Tabi Bonney began to forge the dual identities that have since defined him: MC and entrepreneur. “I started throwing parties; my friend Haziq Ali and I would make 5K a party, split down the middle,” he laughs. “Two or three of those a semester and you were good as a college student.” He and Haziq also formed the rap duo Organized Rhyme, which exists to this day as a production company. The pair opened for major artists such as OutKast, LL Cool J, The Fugees, En Vogue, Cam’ron. Tabi Bonney was on his way.
“My last semester of school I knew I wouldn’t pursue being a doctor, even though I’d majored in biology/pre-medicine,” Bonney reveals. “I had to go with what my heart felt; I didn’t feel medicine; I felt music. But then I got a scholarship to get my masters’ degree so I figured ‘Why not?’ I’d just start stacking my money knowing what I wanted to do, I’d have my masters to fall back on, and money to fund my first video and album. Since those years, I haven’t worked for anyone else.”
Seems an impressive and level-headed plan. His parents, however, were unconvinced. “Even though my father was a prominent musician, both my parents tried to steer me more toward the educational route,” he notes. “Every day I’d come home and they’d have the classified section open for me, and we’d have that sitdown talk— to the point where it strained the relationship. That continued till they started hearing me on the radio.” Tabi smashed the national consciousness with the aforementioned A Fly Guy’s Theme, on the strength of “The Pocket,” second single “Syce It” produced by Akon heatmaker BennyD, and “Doin’ It” featuring fellow DC denizen Raheem DeVaughn. Alongside his keen ear, Tabi displayed a sharp eye, directing two music videos off his debut. “I’ve always had a natural love for film,” he remarks. “It’s taken its natural course with the music video direction. The first video I shot made it to VH1 Soul and MTV Jams. I’m 5,6 deep now and each one has made it.” So, add director to Tabi Bonney’s growing resume. He’s since created a production company, Cool Kids Forever Films, with an aim at Hollywood. And oh yeah, his personally-designed Bonney Runway clothing line —www. bonneyrunway.com— continues to sell out of boutiques in New York, LA, Miami, DC, and London. Ho-hum.
But music remains Tabi Bonney’s lifeblood. Now in late 2008, Tabi is readying the whimsically titled Dope meet Fresh…Fresh meet Superstar. Hype is already swirling around the intoxicating buzz track “Cool and Fly,” with tantalizingly sparse lyrics splashed over a deliciously downtempo groove. And you know the video is right: “I went back to Africa for the first time in a while and I wanted to shoot a true video where I’m from,” Tabi announces. “And this song seemed to fit. It’s not even meant as a single, just as something for the world to taste.” Other songs to watch for are: “Nuthin’ but a Hero,” “The Stars,” “Peanut Butter Slow Jam (Fever)” again alongside Raheem DeVaughn, and Killer People featuring Wale. Expect a couple of other prominent guest appearances as well. Tabi also points to “Dreams are Only Dreams,” noting that the song “reflects my world and how I feel right now.” Production on “Dreams” comes courtesy of Gary Gunn, who provided the Showtime series “Sleeper Cell” with its intriguing, foreboding soundtrack. But how does Bonney select his eclectic, emblematic fare? “I have to really feel a beat, if it feels like the soundtrack to my life,” he states. “Something I can turn on in the morning or at night. Most of the time I’ll add extra elements myself, bringing in additional musicians and sounds. I just go with what I like; I’m not really heavy on these big-name producers. I’d rather be the artist who puts the spotlight on producers who will be big, on the Pharrell who hasn’t been heard yet.”
And how does this mindset coalesce into Dope meet Fresh…Fresh meet Superstar? “The music takes you on a journey,” Tabi proclaims, “based on the bare essence of hip-hop’s beginnings— the boom-bap sound of an emcee and a DJ. Along this journey the music evolves in complexity, with live instrumentation and lyrics which aren't just metaphorical but contemplative. Everything is combined with a couple of extra, unexpected ingredients, like hints of dub music and pop. The goal is a totally new experience for the listener.”
All part of the master plan. A plan, which for Tabi Bonney, involves sequential invasion of every medium, every outlet, every forum. The rapper who grew up showering in a river, who grew to become doctor material, and is now growing in global prominence. Despite this unusual trajectory, Tabi Bonney has always wanted to share his gifts with the world. “The commonality is what my music brings, that genuine vibe,” he explains. “That’s why I come across to certain people who are generally harder to penetrate. As a human being, if I show you something fresh and cool, like a new world, why wouldn’t you want to check it out? At least check it out. People have the opportunity to step into my room and see whether or not they like the vibe in there. If they don’t, they simply may step back out. And even if they step out, they may tell someone else what they just left.”