“I Listen to Music Like Other People Watch Movies”: A Conversation with Tony Dark
The Houston-based producer on the influence of DJ Screw, sampling old movie dialogue, and his ambitious D.B. Cooper-inspired album 'The Legend of D.B. Looper.'
Before establishing himself as a DJ, studio engineer, and producer, Houston native Tony Dark developed an interest in music at a young age thanks to his immediate family. First there was his dad, who led praise and worship at a local church and played guitar in a band with his twin brother. His father’s musicality inspired him to pick up a guitar of his own in middle school and experiment with a few alternative rock bands.
Tony’s older brother also provided him with a steady stream of quality rap music from groups like A Tribe Called Quest. A growing passion for rap during high school turned into lunchroom freestyle ciphers, which evolved into recording sessions with two of his friends. Tony eventually decided to try his own hand at production after his crew grew tired of freestyling over other people’s beats. “I really started on Reason, just chopping up samples and kind of finger laying drums,” he says.
He studied the work of greats like Alchemist, Dilla, Madlib, DJ Premier, and RZA, among many others. Tony also found himself drawn to the production of Houston-based Odd Squad/Coughee Brothaz member Rob Quest, a multi-talented MC/producer who lost his eyesight as a teenager.
The late, legendary Houston native DJ Screw further influenced Tony’s production, especially the tempo and pacing. “It's just like kind of where my BPM is,” he says. “That's the element that I live in - that slower place. Jazzier, but then I just throw some boom bap drums on it.”
After high school Tony spent four at the MediaTech Institute in Austin, Texas studying audio engineering and music production before graduating in 2010. He moved back to Houston afterwards, started entering and winning beat battles in 2011, and eventually picked up FL Studio - which remains an essential part of his setup today.
Although studying different producers and production techniques has long been an important part of his artistic growth, Tony is also a student of great lyricism and storytelling. He cites Devin The Dude and Slick Rick as two of his favorite MCs and still remembers the first time he heard the 30-year-old Geto Boys’ classic “Mind Playing Tricks On Me” vividly. “I listen to music like other people watch movies,” he says. “I really try to take in the details and it's not something that I just have playing in the background.”
Perhaps it’s no surprise then that he tried his hand at a concept album of sorts with his most recent project The Legend of D.B. Looper. The clever title and alias comes from the famed true crime case of skyjacker D.B. Cooper, who hijacked a Boeing 727 on November 24th, 1971, was given $200,000 in ransom, and parachuted out of the plane to an unknown intended destination. Though a boy later discovered $6, 000 of the ransom money along the banks of Vancouver’s Columbia River in 1980, the fate of Cooper and the rest of the money remains a legendary unsolved mystery of the modern era.
Tony can’t quite pinpoint when he first became aware of the case, but he has a longstanding fascination with it. From MF Doom’s verse, “Average emcees is like a TV blooper/MF DOOM, he's like D.B. Cooper” on the Mm..Food cut “Hoe Cakes” to his own research on the topic, his interest has only grown with time.
After questioning why nobody else had come up with an artist name riffing on D.B. Cooper, Tony realized D.B. Looper would work perfectly as a producer alias. He started working on music for the moniker in March of 2020, right around the time COVID-19 started to spread within the United States on a large scale.
He continued to put the project together bit by bit despite the stressful events surrounding the album’s inception. A talented ensemble of studio musicians were employed to record basslines and drums remotely to help bulk up the production. Tony also notes that The Legend of D.B. Looper utilizes more live instruments than any of his other projects to date - most of the tracks contain at least one bit of instrumentation.
While Tony was stuck at home during early quarantine, he found himself watching older movies with dark, mysterious, and/or violent elements. With each viewing of these films came more dialogue that seemed to fit his project perfectly. “That's when I started chopping them up and layering it to make it feel like it was part of the story,” he says. “It kind of makes it flow.”
There are enough tidbits of dialogue about crime, cynicism, isolation, and violence to ground the record in the D.B. Looper concept, but Tony doesn’t force the storyline at the expense of the music. This means that the MCs he collaborated with - Mickey Woods Jr., JVOTI, C-RED, Doeman, Sundown, Dshaw225, and Brice Blanco - are given the freedom to explore a variety of topics.
After struggling a bit with how to kick off the album while he was sequencing, “Run” featuring Port Arthur MC Mickey Woods Jr. ultimately served as a pithy but powerful opener. Over a sublimely minimalist track, Woods Jr. raps verses like, “Sharks are circling/Do I still wade in this water?/Or turn in the forest?/I wrote me a route/It always start with the chorus.”
The words (minus the chorus part) might be a hypothetical description of D.B. Cooper parachuting out of an airplane and finding himself in an unfortunate situation. However, the entire song works from a lyrical standpoint without the Cooper context. It could instead be a symbolic portrayal of Woods Jr.’s own trials and tribulations.
Trusted collaborator C-Red also delivers a memorable performance on “Horizons.” The first track she and Tony recorded together was “Tired,” which they made in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. Addressing systemic racism, state-sanctioned violence against Black people, and more, C-Red compresses a remarkable amount of thoughtful commentary and insight into one song. The way she spits the following verses over somber production makes for an emotional listen.
“What’s the reason street’s disciples….Thrown into cycles where they lives ain’t worth they rights or their survival/Suffocated shooters ‘til we lifeless with no vitals/Being a Black American is bound to drive psycho.”
All of the “Tired” proceeds go to Restoring Justice, an organization that provides legal defense and social services to marginalized members of the Houston community.
On D.B. Looper’s “Horizons,” C-Red once again demonstrates her gifts as both a singer and an MC. In an impressive feat, she recorded all of her vocals for the song in a single day before sending them back to Tony. The creative chemistry is so strong between the two artists that they’re now planning to drop and EP together in the not-too-distant future.
This captivating project contains many other highlight moments well worth exploring, including the instrumentals “Piano pt. 1,” the eerily topical “Last Man On Earth,” and “The Escape.” Further vocal appearances by JVOTI, Doeman, Sundown, DSHAW225, and Brice Blanco, offer additional food for thought to contemplate as you listen.
Whether you’re a D.B. Cooper fanatic, an instrumental hip-hop head, or just someone who enjoys good music, Tony Dark’s latest project is well worth your time.
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