The Twilight Tone: Mean Machines
To say that Anthony Khan ― aka The Twilite Tone, Master Khan, Great Weekend, and Ynot―is a jack of all trades is both a little unfair (he pores himself into every endeavor he pursues) and inaccurate (he’s not as prolific as some of his peers, at least in terms of sheer number of releases), but it tends to be the simplest way to explain his career.
Starting off in the mid-80s as a house and hip-hop-obsessed Chicago teen, Khan quickly moved from casual observer and hobbyist to creator, shacking up with the likes of Lonnie Rashid Lynn, Jr. (better known as Common), Dion Wilson (No I.D., often noted as Kanye West’s mentor), and others. As Ynot, Khan produced tracks on Common’s first three full-lengths and recently reconnected with his old friend to become, once again, his touring DJ as well as his production manager for live shows. Simultaneously, Khan ― who prefers to go simply by Tone ― was, and continues to be, deeply involved and embedded in the world of house music, from its early days in Chicago thanks to DJs and clubs like Ron Hardy and the Muzic Box and Frankie Knuckles of the Power Plant and the Warehouse, to its current state, putting out records on NYC labels like The Wurst Music Company and UNO, with further releases on Throne of Blood and L.I.E.S. slated for 2012.
Juno Plus scribe Nik Mercer sat down with Tone at the Ace hotel in New York City for an extended interview – it was nearly four hours in length – so settle in for what we consider to be one of the most―if not the most―definitive Q&As the man has ever offered up.
What are you up to right now?
Well, in general, I recently had the Twilite Tone Mean Machine EP come out in December, and while that’s not my first release, it feels like it is. I did it all in my home and the only featured [artist] is my lady, my girlfriend, Ebonie Simone―she says, “It’s a mean machine.” It was totally produced, written, and arranged by myself, but I had my younger brother assist me with the engineering. I also have a project slated with Throne of Blood.
Oh, nice―with James [Friedman]?
Yeah, with James and those guys. I’m very excited about that, too. It’s a single and I’m in the process of finishing that right now. The name of it is Taxicab Confessions and it’s based on me being the driver for a young lady who basically pours out her heart to me. I turn into her minister and therapist at the same time; I take her from one place to another, literally, figuratively and spiritually. That single’s going to lead into a project and the name of the group is Damsel In Distress, which will work on an LP project. For that, I’m looking for a label to distribute it―a label that… well, first and foremost, I don’t have a genre and I don’t believe in genres. It pigeonholes and limits you. So every time someone sees you, they think, Oh―he’s a hip-hop person doing house or a house person doing hip-hop or a broken beat or two-step artist doing country. It’s like, no, man―I’m just a person. I don’t even like calling myself a producer! It’s just Tone… the Twilite Tone.
And you’ve got some more stuff on the way, right?
Yeah, I also owe a project to Wurst. They just recently put out that The Wurst Music Ever compilation, which I contributed [“That’s the Thing (To Do)”] to. I played a song for Ron Morelli from L.I.E.S., too, and he freaked out about it, so he’s going to put it out. That one’s called “Conduit.” Those are the projects I’m working on. Now, how is it that I came to know all these guys and move from Chicago [to New York City]? Because of maybe one or two people I know―Lee Douglas, Duane Harriott, [Prince] Language, Justin Carter. Actually, my first record was with Justin―“It’s Now”―and he told a lot of people about me. So James heard about me and Roy heard about me. James and I used to do the Mister Saturday Night residency at Santos [Party House]. He would do the B room, I would do the A room. One day he called me up and asked if I wanted to do something. I played him that track and he thought it was cool.
James from Throne Of Blood has a really good instinct. He doesn’t necessarily need a finished song or project to decide it’s worth his time or not.
Well, for that record, I had to get it mixed, and I was fortunate enough to work with a very good friend on that record―DJ Spinna. Spinna, actually, before all of these deals… we were doing a residency at Santos in the basement. He really wanted an avenue for him to go deep and out there. What’s funny about all of this is that, before I came here, when I was living in Chicago, I think I suffered from low self-esteem or depression. A lot of my peers had left… the people I was friends with that were on my level―they left for New York or L.A. So I was left with all the classes under me, and a lot of those classes looked up to me. We weren’t really on equal footing and it created a weird climate.
Makes sense. Everyone needs to have a peer group.
Yeah. So, I started to sort of forget. I was doing crazy stuff in Chicago, but nobody got it. Well, let me take that back. A few people got it, but―
Well, did you know Prince Language in Chicago?
No, I didn’t know him there. I met him here. He knew about me, though. In Chicago, in a lot of circles, I was, like, the number one DJ. It wasn’t because I was the number one house DJ or something―I was playing all sorts of stuff, like R&B and soul. You might say I was like the Funkmaster Flex of Chicago or the Red Alert of Chicago. I covered the gamut. My roots, though, were in underground, hardcore hip-hop and, simultaneously, so-called deep house. Even when I met Common in ‘86, I was in the studio, working on house tracks, singing on house tracks. I’ve got tracks I did in ‘87. My first record actually came out in ‘89. Armando, who did Land of Confusion, and Mike Dunn pressed our record. They miscredited us, though, so my name’s not even on it. Fortunately I still have a copy, though. So, coming back full circle… in Chicago, I was really doing my thing. Like, one Thanksgiving, I had four parties in one night. There was no way I could do all those parties and I actually missed one of them, but they couldn’t really say anything since it was like a monarchy and I ruled. At some point in the late 90s, I was like, this music is bullshit! Especially when the Southern thing started happening. I called that “strip-hop.” I got that from Afrika Baby Bam of the Jungle Brothers, actually. Anyway, I wasn’t feeling in touch in Chicago and people kept saying, Tone―people gotta know about you! So I eventually came here, and, when I did, people immediately recognized me as either the Twilite Tone for the stuff I’d done in dance music or as Ynot because of the stuff I’d done in hip-hop with Common, being on his first three albums. That was nice and I realized I was finally around my peer group and didn’t have to explain anything to people anymore, whereas, in Chicago, I did.
I guess that’s one of the nice things about New York, though. It takes a little bit of time to acclimatise, but, once you do, you find yourself and your group.
What you find is that, if you like mixing [some left-field thing with another], you’ll find pockets of people in this city that say, man―that’s really fuckin’ cool. Let’s go check out Mister Piggy and the Piglets at [Le Poisson Rouge] tonight. And there’ll be a couple hundred people there, listening to you do your thing. So, coming to New York, people recognized me and I became a vicious rumour. And, here’s the thing, I actually dropped out of the scene last year to take a job. I do that deliberately sometimes.
What, to get perspective or something?
Perspective and also because I don’t want to be a local New York DJ.
The thing I see is that there’s an expiration date on that, you know? I mean, I don’t DJ myself at all, but I put on parties and run a record label and all of that, so I see everything up close. My concern with a lot of what I see is that a lot of people aren’t thinking about the next thing for them in life; they’re not considering what they’ll be doing at 50 or 60. And it’s not good to think that far ahead all the time, but, still―hopefully you last longer than the others, but that doesn’t negate that you don’t want to be the old guy at the club. There aren’t that many Harveys…
Well, I think the quintessential old guy in the club―in the house community―is Timmy Regisford. He remixed records in the early 80s and, like, he’s the center of SHELTER. I see what you’re saying, but, like… it’s also about how many parties am I going to do for $200 or $300? And when you’re making $300 [here in New York], that’s like, oh, shit―you’re doing good. I refuse. I know my worth. So when I dropped off, what did it do? People valued me more. People don’t value the locals as much as they should―they value people from [out of town] more. It’s a character flaw of a lot of people because people don’t recognize the diamonds in their own backyard. So now I’m coming back and I only do certain parties. I only have one party that I’ve been doing for two years and that’s I Love Vinyl. And I only spin for 30 minutes at each of those.
I totally empathize. One of the reasons Jacques [Renault] and I started LPH was because we were disappointed at how all these New Yorkers were being overlooked in their own city and not being properly accounted for or respected. Also, there’s just sort of, like, too many people that do stuff for free or next-to-nothing, which devalues the whole market.
You could compare DJs to livery cabs. If you look at it, though, it all makes sense. If a venue looks at the sound system a certain way, they look at the DJ a certain way. If the sound system’s poor and sucky, then [how do you think they perceive the DJ]?
On one hand, it’s like, alright, you play for two hours and get 300 bucks, which means you’re doing 150 per hour, which is a good hourly rate, right? But, on the other, the promoter doesn’t consider how much time goes into each set before and after. How many hours or record hunting went into that? How much prep went into that?
Especially if you are still spinning vinyl and coming from that world… using Serato or Traktor, it’s a little easier, but, yeah. I still use vinyl and with that, you need to take care of your records and they’re also not cheap-ass things!
Alright, so, back to your projects…
In addition to all the projects I’m working on, I’m the musical director for Common. So I do his stage show and everything. A couple of years ago, anything having to do with hip-hop, I [avoided]. That’s why I created the whole Master Khan persona. It’s my last name and then Master Khan and his whole history. Well, a friend of mine said, why are you looking down on Twilite Tone like that? People love you! And it’s not like you’re Swizz Beatz or some shit. People look at you as having a great taste in music. My problem, I think, was that everyone associated me with being Common’s producer. That’s cool… I know he’s an actor and a superstar and all that, but, you know, there would be no Common if I didn’t come into the picture. But I’m still my own person. It’s so funny, though, because I successfully made a clean slate, but now I’m back full circle, working with Common! But I love that. I’m not just, like, his DJ.
I assume you’re friends still, though, right?
Yeah, we are friends.
So you worked on the first three albums, took a break, and now are back. Why the break from him in the first place?
Because of non-communication, miscommunication, fear of confrontation, judgement, and passive-agressive behavior, all of which was self-justified. That’s why things happened the way they did for me as Ynot. That and the whole low self-esteem thing. I needed to do stuff on my own. Do you know what “mean machine” is? Mean machine is… us. We’re the mean machines, programming ourselves from our perceptions and our judgements. In Chicago, I would’ve never sat down and talked [like this]. At that point in time, my perception was that Chicago was the most racist, segregated place on the planet. I have a lot of incidents to back that up, but those incidents were finite. I probably could’ve developed strong relationships with people outside of my “race,” but I didn’t because the pendulum swings both ways. Now, in New York, I speak frankly and candidly to everyone, no matter where they’re from.
There was a point in my life when I was listening to vast, vast quantities of music and the thrill of listening began to wear off. It was like a bottomless bowl of candy. There’s a finite number of songs out there, but it seems like an infinity. In this day and age, it’s difficult for people to apply value to music because they stop paying attention to what they actually like and view it all as a commodity.
You know what it is? If you’re eating every day all the time, you’ll just become one hell of an obese person and food will eventually lose its taste. You know why there are crackheads and drug addicts? Because the first time they hit it, it’s the most incredible feeling they ever felt, and they just keep [trying to find it again].
One of the things I like about you is that you seem very drawn to doing stuff in a populist way and in an anti-celebrity manner… like your work isn’t about you and your ego―it’s about doing something for friends and colleagues and the general public.
Well, first of all, I don’t want a bunch of guys around me―I want a bunch of women. [Laughs] The other thing is, I don’t want a lot of people my age and in my peer group doing that [stuff―throwing parties, DJ’ing]. I’ve heard a lot of shit, growing up, listening to Ron Hardy, Frankie Knuckles―those guys. I’ve heard a lot of stuff in first-person. But I’m a baby and I love the fact that I am. I want to stay a baby. So what if I don’t know all the names of tracks? You know why? Because it allows me not to have judgement. Outside of the parties, I’m doing a lot of stuff to connect with the people who come to my Great Weekend stuff. Having that connection [is really important] and special. And you know what else? Not only do they get something from Great Weekend, but Great Weekend gets something from them. They’re active participants. “Party” isn’t finite here, either―I think of it sort of as, like, Glenn O’Brien’s TV Party.
That’s something that I find annoying about a lot of parties―they’re stuck in this state of transience. They last two hours or four hours or six hours or 24 hours, but they’re still finite. It’s a hard sell to make something that transcends that. Anyway, let’s talk about your roots, growing up. What’s your story?
I was born on the south-side of Chicago. At an early age, I moved to south-east Louisiana. I grew up there. The first instrument I played was in the third grade and it was the trumpet. I attempted to play it. From an early age, I took a special interest in music. My mother would bring people around me and ask me, like, What’s the top 20 records? This was when I was three or four! The other thing is that my family… I have family and roots of first-generation Native Americans. On my mother’s side, her father―or maybe grandfather―is from Mumbai, India. I also have lineage from the place now called Africa through the middle passage.
Wow―that’s some diverse blood.
Yeah. I’ve got Native American. Indian, and Africans. But, to me, it’s all black. I don’t believe in race―it’d some bullshit, it’s all about fear. All our lineage is traced back to Africa, anyway. I just want that to be understood… I don’t really believe in that. So… my uncle was a bassist. Now, the reason I bring this up is because, in past interviews, it’s been said my aunt is Chaka Khan. She is my aunt―
For the record, I wasn’t going to ask that.
Okay, good. [Laughs] I want to say it to be clear, though. Hassan Khan is my uncle; Andria Khan is my mother; Hassan Khan Senior is my my granddaddy. Hassan Khan and Yvette Stevens were high school sweethearts and she took on the name Chaka when she married my uncle. They did babysit me when I was younger. Hassan Khan was an incredible bassist and Chaka Khan did want to be in his band. Hassan told Chaka that she should join Rufus and the rest is history. They wound up divorcing and that’s that story. There we go. Tone―Anthony Khan―was born Anthony Craig… Junior, actually. I was a Junior when I was born. My maiden name is Khan, but my mother and father split up [when I was] at an early age and I eventually legally changed my surname to Khan.
That’s cool, man.
Yeah―it’s really cool! I was in the marching band and played some football and some little league. Coming up, I left trumpet and started playing drums. All the marching band shit. In fourth grade, I went to Chicago, then I came back [for fifth grade] and again left for Chicago in seventh. Then I was back in Louisiana to graduate junior high. Then I moved back to Chicago, which is where I stayed. In high school, I was in band, and outside of school., my mother gave me Casio SK-1 and SK-2 keyboards, and all I would do is play those. I play everything by ear and I play keyboard exclusively with no guests [on my tracks]. I was also singing. While all of that was going on, some kids in [a nearby] high school were making a rap group. Actually, it was the same school that Chaka Khan and R. Kelly went to. Anyway―these kids walked into the studio I was working at at the time and I looked basically the same as I do now, except my hair was super long. It looked like I’d gotten caught in a gust of wind. I was kind of punked out. [Laughs] When I found out they were a rap group, I asked them if I could DJ. They laughed because they came in with their Adidas tracksuits―they looked like Run DMC rejects. This was Rashid [Lynn, Jr.]―Common―and another guy. So they set up an audition and I wound up being a DJ for the group. Me and No-ID―or Dion Wilson at the time―clicked and eventually started working on house tracks together. And our tracks started getting out there, which, in Chicago, was a big, fucking thing. And that’s how Armando and Mike Dunn heard about us. They were like, ‘yo―we want to put out your record’. They called it 326, but our group was actually called 1015, which was the address of The Power House, which was Frankie Knuckles’ club. 326 was the address of the Muzic Box, which was Ron Hardy’s.
They just changed it for the hell of it?
Yeah, they changed it and didn’t even put my name on the record. And they misspelled Dion’s name on it. It needs to be understood that, during these times and even before us, [all these clubs] were all homosexual black dudes. That was the house scene overall.
Well that tends to be part of its identity to this day.
Well, back then, black homosexual men―you couldn’t find any people more forward-thinking and stylish. Because they were free, and these places were where they could really express themselves unlike they could outside… because one, they’re black, and two, they’re homosexual. So they had suppressed, energy. And most of the DJs were what? Black gay dudes. But it’s not like house music’s roots were sexual preferences. It was about freedom. One of the things that really hurt me and offended me was, when I told my dad I wanted to be a DJ, he said, Oh―DJ’ing is for faggots. So, anyway, me and Dion were doing tracks together while in the rap group. After school, I went to Baton Rouge [College]. Rashid and I stayed in contact, though, and started working on demos. Then Dion started working with Rashid. After two weeks at school, I moved back to Chicago because, first of all, I was in love with this girl, and, second of all, I was like, I don’t want to be in this country-ass fuckin’ place! I went to [Baton Rouge] to be a drummer in the marching band, but I didn’t want to shave my head and do all that shit. I also didn’t want to march anymore―that felt like something you just did in high school. And something that was more about Louisiana. Chicago, it was all about house and hip-hop for me. ‘89 or ‘90 was when I came out onto the scene as a DJ. Before that, it was either you were into hip-hop or you were into house. There were very few people who were into both and very few people who would let you know that. It was like separate races and it was so dumb. But I was into, like, hardcore house―Lil’ Louis, Frankie Knuckles, Ron Hardy―and also fuckin’ hardcore hip-hop―Ultramagnetic, Divine Force, Jungle Brothers, Public Enemy. Public Enemy, even to this day, I think is the greatest rap group that ever existed. That’s the history. Now for what I didn’t tell you. So, I got access to a club, and me and a group of friends were like, damn―it’d be dope if they played stuff with a beat here. Everything’s uptempo and house or disco or whatever. It wasn’t that we were looking for rap records [specifically]―we just wanted even a fuckin’ instrumental. I got access to this club… but we always felt like outsiders. And you would call outsiders or not cool people “woogies” back then. So we were the woogies. When the guys who would call us that would come over, we’d be like, Oh―that’s them over there. “Them there.” We eventually started going by Dem Dare. [When we started doing parties at this club], DJ Rush was the resident and he was also, like, the king of calling us woogies. I remember her wrote on the first flyer, “Rush has been rushed out.” [Laughs]
Tell me about your name, The Twilite Tone.
A lot of people probably think I got it from the song “Twilight Tone” by the Manhattan Transfer, but that wasn’t the case. It was from the TV show―I was a big fan of The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, One Step Beyond. Also, there was the influence of people like Herbie Hancock, Kraftwerk, Space, Earth, Wind, and Fire―all of that shit. Sun Ra. I needed a name like that, but [one that was different, too]―while they were talking about space, I was talking about dimensions. [Back in Chicago,] my crew―Dem Dare―was made up of blacks and Latinos and Asian guys, and that was weird [in the city]. Blacks and Latinos didn’t get along very well. Also, we were made up from different sides of town―south side, north side, whatever. We would travel all around Chicago whereas a lot of our peers would stay in their pockets. And I think that’s why I still am not part of one particular scene. A lot of house is about one certain sound, and a lot of them I’ve heard so much. I mean, it’s not like I’m not a person who doesn’t put a hi-hat on the upbeat and a kick on the downbeat, but some groups, they’ve been using the same chords since the 90s!
Interview: Nik Mercer
Images: Collin LaFleche