Photo Credit: Jamaree Woods
First Look Friday: Atlanta Rapper Tony Shhnow Wants to Take You on a Trip
For the last First Look Friday of 2022, we talk to Tony Shhnow about relating to the outcasts, the concepts of heaven and hell, the pitfalls of pride, and aiming for a billion dollars.
Tony Shhnow remembers when he had no choice but to wear the same clothes to school. “Girls thought I was cute but I ain’t had no money, so I couldn’t really dress,” he said while wearing a mischievous smile that lit up our Zoom call. “Everyone else had money and cars, all I had was my personality.”
I asked the MC — who, on the DJ Screw-sampling “Don’t Look At Numbers,” raps: “There was some days where I had nothing to eat / some clothes that I wore for a week” — to be more specific on what a teenage Tony looked like.
“I had the V-neck on, some slim cut jeans, and these big ass red Adidas,” he said. “I wore those ugly ass red Adidas for so long, dawg! That’s all we could afford but look, I will never wear red shoes ever again.”
Forget the garish red sneakers, the Tony Shhnow of 2022 is more accustomed to having the world at his feet. Hailing from Cobb County, a northwest suburb of Atlanta, the MC is one of rap’s brightest new stars, driven by a passion to bend the ATL trap sound into weird new shapes using a prolific work rate that results in multiple projects every year.
Full of warbled synths and psychedelic bass lines that sound like purring aliens, Tony’s music is trap for people peaking on mushrooms. Yet, this sound is grounded by a down-to-earth sense of humor — “I am fresher than your dad on pay day” he hilariously rapped on the '80s-inspired “Want U” — and a feeling that beyond all the otherworldly confidence is a person simply committed to speaking up for the underdogs.
“I want the person with nothing in their pocket to feel like they can do absolutely anything after they listen to a Tony Shhnow’ song,” the rapper and producer said. He credits his hustler’s mentality to a mother who worked multiple jobs, including a stint at Burger King. “I just want you to escape from the harsh realities of your life. Come take a trip with Tony Shhnow.”
On early mixtapes, like 2019’s Da World Is Ours, the rapper’s flow is so laid back it’s as if he recorded all the verses from a jacuzzi; you can picture him puffing on a fat Cuban while observing a scantily clad Michelle Pfeiffer correcting her make-up in the mirror. Operating right in the pocket of the beat, Tony’s flow is addictively sleepy and his bars (“I turn lemons into lemonade, hatorade into Gatorade”) are a manual for hustlers.
However, with 2022’s excellent pair of mixtapes, Reflexions and Plug Motivation, Tony Shhnow is rapping with more venom and less scared to show vulnerability. “These projects represent a shift in my rapping,” he agreed. “You are looking at an advanced Tony Shhnow. Maybe in the past I wanted people to like me, but now I don’t care about validation. Literally, as soon as I stopped giving a fuck and just did it my way, that’s when people started paying more attention.”
For the last First Look Friday of 2022, we talk to the rising Atlanta rapper about relating to the outcasts, the concepts of heaven and hell, the pitfalls of pride, and aiming for a billion dollars.
On “Forgive Don’t Forget” you rapped: “If you play small, you will stay small.” I get this feeling you’re the type of dude who takes big risks and would go all in during a game of poker. Where would you say that mindset comes from?
Tony Shhnow: That’s just how I was raised. My moms raised me to approach everything in life with an “all in” mentality. If I chose to work in McDonald’s, I would try to own the McDonald’s. I would literally try to be the fucking CEO of McDonald’s. If I played basketball, I want to play in the position that gets the ball the most, type shit. I am going to want to put up 50 a night on the scoreboard, you feel me? I’ve always related to the outsiders. When I was at school, I listened to Lil B, Chief Keef, Gucci Mane, and Lil Wayne. I guess they were outcasts, people who picked up the mic and just became this whole other force.
Cobb County has a Reputation for being a fairly prosperous area. But I guess if you move there and don’t have a lot of money, it is also easy to feel out of place. Was writing raps a way to escape from all the rich white kids you were surrounded by?
Facts. Oh my god, bro, I am telling you, some of my first raps were just me cracking jokes about those white kids. I guess the block is where I really learned how to get money and to finesse. Shout out to the plug… the trap taught me how to turn nothing into something.
There’s a line from “Born” that I can’t stop thinking about. You rapped, “You won’t make it on this side if you don’t lose your pride”. What exactly did you mean by that?
You ever seen Dragonball Z? Vegeta is always getting his ass beat, right? He stays getting beaten up by Goku and all the villains keep whipping his ass. It’s because he is too prideful. If he stepped back and evaluated the situation more like Goku does, rather than underestimating people, he could actually win. A lot of people in the rap game have too much pride and they feel like someone else owes them something. Having too much pride can get you killed.
Recently, there’s been talk of lot of violence in Atlanta. Does it feel like it’s becoming more dangerous? Is being a rapper more of a risk now?
Rap is becoming such a notable thing. It isn’t underground anymore, where only college kids know about it — everyone knows about rap in 2022, even grandmas and grandpas. And everyone knows celebrities have money too, you feel me? So, yes, they become a target.
I feel like it is safe in Atlanta if you just do you. If you stick to yourself, you should be straight. There’s no one necessarily aiming for rappers out here, you know what I mean? Like, if you get into something violent, I am not saying you were looking for it, but you were likely responsible for your predicament by moving in the wrong way. Act like a king and you will be treated like a king.
“Hells Hot” is my favorite song from Plug Motivation. Is hell a concept that you believe in?
I am a firm believer in God. I’ve got a strong faith and I believe God has a plan for me. To me, Heaven is having creative freedom. Heaven is when I wake up to some waffles and hash browns in the morning. [laughs] Hell is when I wake up to this bitch trying to go on my phone, you feel me?
Photo Credit: Jamaree Woods
For someone who has maybe never heard a Tony Shhnow song before, why should they lock in with your discography? And just how big do you think this can get?
I want them to say Tony Shhnow is up a billion dollars. True success will be when they say: Tony is the greatest rapper alive, because that’s already how I feel.
I don’t really try to go out too much; I just stay in the house and record. I look at my mentality as being on some Kobe Bryant shit: I don’t want to be anywhere but in the gym, working on perfecting my craft. I wake up, roll a blunt, and I rap. I probably make three songs, order food, then make four more songs and go look for my girlfriend. That’s how I structure my days, and I think you can feel that energy in the music.
I am going into the rap game less scared. A lot of rappers, who don’t have those experiences [on the block], maybe come into the game with a blind eye to the pitfalls [of the music business], but I feel like I’m better prepared. I’m ready for everything.
Thomas Hobbs is a freelance culture and music journalist from the UK. His work has appeared in the Guardian, VICE, Financial Times, Dazed, Pitchfork, New Statesman, Little White Lies, The i and Time Out.