Baltimore’s Creative Community Still Looks to Queer Icon Miss Tony for Inspiration
How the pioneering Baltimore club emcee has taught self-acceptance.
Photos by Elliott Brown
During the first week of summer this year, Baltimore lost one of its most promising artists when beloved rapper, 23-year-old Lor Scoota, was gunned down after playing a charity basketball game focused on limiting violence in the city—an irony lost to no one. In 2014, Scoota released "Bird Flu," a song about slinging drugs to rise above the poverty and bleakness commonly associated with Baltimore City. The song, which has a just-as-popular dance to go with it, attracted artists like Meek Mill, Diddy, The Game, Shy Glizzy, and more to collaborate with Scoota, generating a wave of interest in music from Baltimore that hadn't been present since Baltimore club's second wave in the mid-to-late 2000s.
Bmore club distinguished itself from offspring like Jersey and Philly club with its tendency to have fairly conventional song structures: a vocalist singing or spitting verses, often describing the glory and challenges of being molded in Baltimore City. Just as Scoota spearheaded the new wave of local street rap by being its most charismatic and impactful voice, eccentric hometown hero Miss Tony did the same for Baltimore club music in the late 80s and early 90s.
Miss Tony was a 6-foot, 300-pound queer icon you'd frequently see voguing through dancefloors, dressed in drag. Widely recognized as the first club music emcee, he'd often snatch the mic at a club to complement the DJ's skills, threaten to take people's men home, and shout out different neighborhoods (for a fee). His local legend is equally about music as it is identity. His songs like "Pull Ya Gunz Out?," "How U Wanna Carry It?," and "Living in the Alley" turned what started as DJs editing house records into proper tracks where he would talk about everything from being a social outcast, to the struggle of everyday life, to just wanting to party. Without Tony, there would have been no blueprint for some of Baltimore club's most iconic songs like Rod Lee's "Dance My Pain Away" or Blaqstarr's "Rider Girl."
Tony's audacity to fully be himself—a gay man in drag talking about his sexuality in spaces where he may not have been fully accepted—that has made him a hero to many. Yet when Baltimore locals discuss his music, Tony's sexuality is never the primary focus. He wasn't pigeonholed or marginalized for his lifestyle. If anything, he was the connector that the city needed to construct a booming nightlife scene that drew attention from cities along the East Coast. As Scottie B, legendary club DJ and co-founder of label Unruly Records, pointed out in the 2014 Baltimore club documentary, Baltimore Where You At?, in the late 80's and early 90's, if you didn't have Tony talking shit and shouting out neighborhoods on the mic at your party, you hadn't arrived—his co-sign meant that your party was one that needed to be attended.
That colorful personality and ability to control a party's tempo has immortalized Tony as a musical superstar, but also as a constant beacon of inspiration for young, queer and alternative artists coming out of the city. Even though Tony died in 2003 at age 37, today, people in Baltimore's creative community still celebrate his self-acceptance, whether that was in a club, through song, or walking around West Baltimore. Over the summer, I talked to a handful of the city's creatives from DJs, to business owners, and rappers to hear what memories people have and lessons they've learned from Tony.
Eze Jackson, 36, rapper:
I met him in middle school. My homegirl was from around his way, and I was around there one time walking around. He was sitting on the steps. She introduced me like, "Tony, this my boy Eze." He may have been her cousin or uncle or something like that. So, he was like, "What's up Eze, you cute." That shit scared me. I was super homophobic. But, his energy was just so magnetic. Everybody that was around him was glad to be around him.
Through the years, with me just getting older and partying, I would see him out at The Paradox, and when he changed his life, it was funny because I remember one time he was at the club and somebody tried to say something about him going to Christ. They tried to call him out and he said the funniest shit. He just started going in about undercover dudes on the mic like, "Half of y'all I done fucked so don't even come at me with that shit." He was so bold and I think that kind of energy as an artist inspired me to just be myself. He's one of the people that inspired me to just do me, no matter what it is. Don't follow no trends or anybody else's norms.
Mia Loving, 29, co-founder of Invisible Majority with husband, Baltimore club legend Blaqstarr
Growing up, we would see him around and everybody on 92Q was a local celebrity so anytime you saw somebody whose voice you heard, it was so exciting. As a kid, everybody like that is bigger than life to you, so I remember being in West Baltimore around Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, walking to the corner store and Miss Tony would walk in with a crazy hairstyle or a piece of track hanging off his hair. It was so amazing. It wasn't like he was being made fun of but more like, he was this bigger than life person who was much different than what you were accustomed to.
We always talk about homophobia in the black community or the black church but if you go into the church, you're gonna see gay people because that's where some feel most comfortable. Even in the neighborhoods, it's misunderstood. When you grow up in the hood, in comparison to more contrived areas like the suburbs, it doesn't seem diverse but it's more diverse because you have to accept people's differences. Looking back on Baltimore Club and seeing how it was accepting to a lot of different people, even with its challenges, it shows a unique culture being birthed here. I'm sure Miss Tony went through a lot when it came to his sexuality in the scene but he transcended it at the same time. Miss Tony wasn't anything to us. He was just a being. He got the party hype and that's all that mattered. Every time we hear club music we say "Rest In Peace K-Swift," but I don't feel like Tony has gotten the same thing.
Kevin Brown, 56, cafe owner and former Baltimore Sun reporter:
He was a person who was inclusive that brought everybody together: black, white, straight, gay. They loved his music and his message. It was about inclusivity. I think Frank Ski got him on the radio because he was just playing at clubs like Fantasy and The Paradox. I can't think of the other places. He was a club figure because he brought the gayness and he was flamboyant. I mean, the wig, the nails, the makeup, the hair. And he brazenly did it. It wasn't like Ima be a drag queen, it was Ima be a draaaaag queen. He was larger than life in that sense. It was clear to me, and a lot of his followers, once he abandoned his outwardly gay and outwardly feminine demeanor, he went into the church. A lot of people really rebuked that action. It was like he was turning against a crowd that made him, adored him and revered him. He found God and something in his mind told him that he couldn't dress like Miss Tony no more. So he stopped and then started to speak against people who did.
DJ Trillnatured, 27, DJ:
I don't have any memorable stories, but I've always been really intrigued by Miss Tony ever since I started listening to club music, which was about 2001. At that point, I understood very little about gender, so it was wild hearing this presumable male voice calling himself Miss Tony. But still, the vocals, the energy, the queerness (before I knew I was queer) just kind of drew me in when I would hear Miss Tony's tracks, usually in the weekend mixes on 92Q. Now that I'm very intentional about studying Baltimore club music and its history, Miss Tony's story is probably the most meaningful. To be who he was, vogueing through hip-hop parties, the most hyper-masculine men rocking with his lyrics -- that was crazy and it still is. Although I doubt Miss Tony ever used the word to describe himself, I do identify as queer, and visibly so. For me to be able to move in spaces where I supposedly don't belong and capture all kinds of audiences, yet still be myself and present my gender the way I do, that kind of speaks to the power of the queer artist, and Miss Tony embodied that. When I play his tracks in the club, it just kind of feels right. Short of actually making club music, I feel most connected to it when I play Miss Tony tracks. I see myself; and I feel like I've been personally given permission to be that self.
DJ Juwan, 19, Baltimore club producer/DJ:
Funny story happened when I was about five or six years old. I remember sitting in the living room with my mom and sister, and listening to 92Q. The track "How You Wanna Carry It" came on. I remember hearing "Miss Tony said how you wanna carry it?" over and over. I swear for a few years straight I was saying, "Miss Tony said how you wanna CARROT."
He influenced me as a producer/DJ because of his tracks—I always loved the high energy house/club beats. When I would hear his voice on tracks, I already knew in my mind that this track is gonna be fire. All of his tracks would just get you moving, and when I was younger I told myself I wanted to make tracks like that, and to get people to dance like his tracks did.