Being Real in Rap Is Stressful: An Interview With Tony Shhnow

Anthony Malone talks to the rising Atlanta rapper about escaping the pitfalls of "microwave rap," balancing the stress of staying true to yourself while building a fanbase and more.
By    April 28, 2021
Photo courtesy of Tony Shhnow.

Help the best collection of music journalists in the game stay in the game by subscribing to the Passion of the Weiss Patreon.

Gordon Ramsey has an unassailable belief that chefs shouldn’t use microwaves in a professional kitchen because the food comes out chewy and unevenly cooked. Tony Shhnow holds a similar sentiment towards hip-hop’s status quo, claiming that we’re living in a “microwave era” for rap. The music is churned out at a rate so fast that the quality plummets and the end product is half-baked and uninspired. Like microwaved frozen dinners, the music may seem hot around the edges, but after a few bites you quickly discover that it’s cold in the center. This sentiment shared between Gordon Ramsey and Top Chef Tony goes beyond condemning a 21st-century kitchen appliance—there are no shortcuts in the kitchen if you want an exceptional product.

Born in Los Angeles, Shhnow spent his early years living with his grandparents while his single mother worked at Burger King. Once his mother got on her feet, Tony and his two sisters relocated to Cobb County—a northwest suburb of Atlanta. Moving to the suburbs can be easily misconstrued with wealth, but Shhnow and his family weren’t rich. In school, while other classmates had the latest clothes and footwear, Tony wore outdated apparel. Seeing his mother working two jobs and still not able to afford what the average kid in his class took for granted, paved the way to the trap. Tony knew he needed to get more revenue in the household, and once he started to hustle and make money in the streets, his pockets quickly got heavier.

Shhnow says that he makes music for people in the trap—not necessarily as a way of promoting the lifestyle, but simply encouraging the merits behind it: become your own person, find a niche, explore all available options until you strike gold. Similar to early Hov, Tony uses his music to offer game to young hustlers. He similarly maintains a cool and collected demeanor in a permanent quest for self-elevation.

On “Welfare,” he raps: “This is what it sounds like when you drop the kids off.” Tony’s music is the taste of freedom from responsibilities and obligations. It’s the endorphins released when you take the first pull of a joint. Cash’s plug-in flutes groove in the background while Tony raps with a relaxed cadence that calls back to Wiz’s diet of Kush and Orange Juice. There are moments of consciousness that poke through the clouds of weed smoke and buoyant beats. On “Skressful,” an intense piano loop builds tension, making way for Tony to vent his frustrations with being too real for the music industry. “Yes Rubi!” sounds like it should be accompanied by seizure warnings due to the spastic 8-bit sound bites that flicker like a glitchy Gameboy Color game stuck on its title screen.

Last month, Tony performed a virtual show with close friend and collaborator, 10kdunkin, performing tracks like “On Me” and “AMG Benz” in a small, purple-tinted, neon-lit room. It was easy to forget that this was a streamed event. Their confidence was radiant, the energy was lively, and enough weed smoke for a contact high. All that was missing was the line-up of sweaty bodies blocking merchandise stands, bathrooms, and exits.

Following the show on a Monday afternoon, Tony and I linked up via phone while he was still in LA with 10k, working on new projects and expanding his network. We spoke on his upbringing, the current state of rap music, and Tekken Tag Tournament 2. Tony Shhnow should be taken at face value: what you hear in the music is exactly what you get. – Anthony Malone

Anyone specific you trying to link up with in LA?

Tony Shhnow: “I’ve been out here messing with Cousin Stizz. I’ve been trying to link up with Brent Faiyaz— that’s really what I want—I know he’s been liking a couple of my posts, and he’s been feeling me and 10k’s songs. It would be cool to do that. Me and 10k are really out here making RP’s & Plan B’s 2, that’s what we are doing.”

RP’s & Plan B’s is currently one of my most-played tapes with “On Me” being a song I can listen to all day, literally. I’ve done it.

Tony Shhnow: [Laughs] “On Me”, it’s funny how that song came out. It wasn’t supposed to come out initially. 10k had put a hook on it and he thought he didn’t want to do anything with the song. I was like “bruh, this song’s amazing, I’m about to do a verse.” I think I did an 11 or 12, maybe. It wasn’t that long. I was supposed to send it to Flee, but he never got on it. I was like “I’m going to finish this, this beat is too hard, this song is too hard, y’all trippin’ bruh.” We already had five songs for RP’s & Plan B’s and I came back and did the last verse on that.”

Throughout your catalog, there are quite a few R&B-inspired beats that you like to rap over on your projects. What kind of music did you hear around the house growing up?

Tony Shhnow: I heard a lot of Michael Jackson, Prince, Al Greene, 2pac—a lot of west coast rap music you know—Ice Cube and N.W.A., DJ Quik. She started to listen to Jeezy—she got that Atlanta—T.I. Alicia Keys, Erykah Badu, Sade, you know those types of artists.

Your household sounds like it was pretty much with it.

Tony Shhnow: Yeah my mother wasn’t an artist or anything like that, but she really loved music.

You started to rap while in middle school, what made you want to start making music?

Tony Shhnow: I was with this dude, Brandon, my partner back in the day, and he rapped. I was just getting into music. I was just starting to really listen to rap. So on my own, aside from my mom and Tate, this was on my own, going on the internet and checking out the music. And he was rapping. He was listening to this mixtape, No Ceilings, and it just feels inspiring listening to that project. He used to freestyle all around the house while he was playing games. He’s like, “Bro, why don’t you freestyle? Why don’t you say something?” And eventually, I started to say things and he’s like, “Bro, you should start to really rap.” And that’s what happened.

So besides Wayne, what other artists would you stumble upon when you’re searching the internet?

Tony Shhnow: I would stumble upon Lil B, Soulja Boy, Lil Wayne, Travis Porter, Waka Flocka, Gucci Mane, yeah. I think that was pretty much out when I was first coming into that, listening to music.

How did you pick the name, “Tony Shhnow”?

Tony Shhnow: Alright, so. Tony Shhnow, I was at the trap and I was saying my real name. They’re like, “Bro, we’re not going to keep calling you your real name. But everyone has a nickname out here until folks get to know you. Change your real name” So I had to see my partner, and his video game chat name was Tony Shhnow. And I’m like, “Yo, I’m about to take that, boy.” He was like, “No. You’re not going to take that.” I was going to use that right now. That’s mine now. I’m Tony Shhnow.

He said to me, “But you don’t even know the history.” And I found out that Tony Snow is what Pimp C used to call himself. He used to call himself Tony Snow. There was a government official named Tony Snow, and I forgot what his position was in the government but Pimp C felt like he was at the same position that he had in the government, like his rep, you know what I’m saying? So he decided to call himself that. It also felt like I was keeping his name alive, like keeping Pimp C’s thing going on.

How influential is Pimp C’s legacy on you?

Tony Shhnow: I had to grow up and really listen to him. I ain’t going to lie like I came up listening to Pimp like that. But as I got older and started diving into music, bro, I was asleep because his music played a big part in what I got going on. He raps on a kind of R&B or slow beat. We don’t necessarily have to be extremely turnt out like guns blazing every single time. The music’s really for the females. Listening to Pimp, I really started hearing that.

That’s where you get that smooth grooviness that you got in your music too. You’ve stated in the past that Gucci Mane and Wayne are your overall biggest influencers.

Tony Shhnow: For sure.

Not only have they released an endless amount of music but they’ve also been in the game for so long. So what is the key to longevity for the modern-day artist?

Tony Shhnow: I feel like it’s quality and hustle. You’ve got to have both quality and hustle. You can’t be sitting on your ass and be talented and thinking you finna be making it. Just because you’re putting in all this work doesn’t mean that you’re going to last forever. So you’ve got to have quality. So I feel like those go hand in hand.

Dishing out quality records pretty much.

Tony Shhnow: You dig, you know what I mean. Just make sure to keep your head on strapped for that business too. I feel like the business people are getting in certain situations and getting their money taken.

Artists are falling through pitfalls because they’re bad at business.

Tony Shhnow: I feel like a lot of artists are too hungry or too thirsty to get into a situation. I feel like that’s where their career turns. You’ve got to be focused like basketball. You could be the greatest basketball player but if you don’t go to practice every day, if you don’t put in the work behind that, you don’t play in the game, you don’t put in any points then it doesn’t really matter.

You’ve stated in a past interview that you only took it seriously within the last two years because you felt the culture was “trash”. What about the culture currently bothers you?

Tony Shhnow: I feel like the culture right now is focused on microwave rap, if you will. Making a song as fast as possible or the shock factors of a record or an artist. I don’t really like the colored dreads and the pink fingernails. To each his own, but I just don’t see why Hip Hop is going over there. That’s not Hip Hop to me, you know what I’m saying? That’s more punk rock, right? That’s another genre. That’s not Hip Hop. That’s not rap.

It’s too pretty.

Tony Shhnow: It’s too pretty right now! It’s not gritty. I mean, even I said it’s the music too. It’s not just how these niggas be looking. It’s the music. People get on a song, and everybody thinks they can rap right now. And it’s because the industry keeps pushing these microwave artists that might make you think that the next man could just rap. You take the food off plates of real artists doing that, right? And you’re taking away the stage from artists that really have something to say.

So what do you think is the best route to go about ensuring that real Hip Hop overcomes this wave?

Tony Shhnow: I’m not going to lie to you like I’ve got a full mapped plan because I just feel like staying true to myself, maybe that inspires other people. So me and my niggas just go hard and maybe, hopefully, other people will be inspired by it. And that’ll bring back the feeling. There’s some artists out there doing it. I’m not saying it’s only me and my niggas now. There are other artists out there doing it that really have something to say, which is not many of us.

Just a couple of names off the top of your head, who’s killing it besides you right now?

Tony Shhnow: In the underground, I like Jersey Pilot, I like Skip GoCar, ATL Smook, Kenny Mason. I like Hook. I also like BK the Ruler. As I said, I really don’t listen to anything besides classics, my people, and me… I’m not really into the scene like that.

Alongside rapping in middle school, what other hobbies and interests were you into?

Tony Shhnow: I was playing basketball, smoking weed. [Laughs] Yeah. I played Call of Duty. I liked reading. But I only read self-help books like 48 Laws of Power and Think Rich.

What was a regular day like for you?

Tony Shhnow: So I would wake up and smoke. I used to go to an alternative school so I used to have to walk to school. So I would smoke a blunt, walk to school, be there for a couple of hours, then go to the trap, smoke some blunts there, and then go to the studio at like 11:00 or something like that. Go back home and do the same thing.

Do you feel like your persona in the trap versus who you have to be outside conflicts or are you just one person?

Tony Shhnow: See, I think it’s one person. I change it a little bit when I’m in a different environment or when I don’t want to be too aggressive. In situations like this when I’m in an interview, I’m not going to be too street because I don’t want people to take offense to it. Because of the trap, that’s really why I got started. That’s the bread and butter. And that’s how I got my persona. That’s how I was even going to approach the rap game. I only switch it up a little bit when it’s necessary. Like business situations.

Throughout Kill Streak, there are tags reminiscent of the voiceovers in old-school arcade fighters like Mortal Kombat and Killer Instinct. What video games defined your childhood most?

Tony Shhnow: That Call of Duty, Mortal Kombat, Tekken…. and that 2K for sure. I’m working niggas on Tekken. Ask 10k, I whoop him all the time!

I’ve broken many controllers on Tekken Tag Tournament 2.

Tony Shhnow: Tekken Tag tournament? You don’t want that. That’s the one! That’s the one! You don’t want that. Let me get Eddy Gordo or Christina, it’s gonna be a bad time for y’all.

When did you and the SOS Crew start coming together?

Tony Shhnow: I met 10K first. I forgot what year that was but it was just me and him rocking for a second but he had his own thing going on. I used to be in a group and 10K used to be in a group. We were like the super rappers in that shit. We were the niggas in that shit. Everybody would say we got the best verse, or we got the best hook. Me and 10k were both feet in. So we just came together and then we went to Moreland. We met the other two guys and they were doing their thing together. So that’s how that went.

As fame starts to come into the picture, sometimes people switch up and people start acting more based on their own needs over anything else. How has fame taught you about the value of realness?

Tony Shhnow: Well, I’ve been having money in the streets, I’ve been having fame in my neighborhood. Corona’s going on, so I haven’t really seen too many interactions as far as an in-person thing. I might get a thing here or there at the gas station or something. It Isn’t that crazy, man. I can’t really handle the internet right. I don’t like the internet, so the internet thing, I don’t even like that. I don’t even like being on the internet like that. I don’t even know about having followers. I wish people could just sell records and have no followers. The social media thing isn’t for me.

It’s part of business nowadays.

Tony Shhnow: Oh for sure. Now, I really do wish people could just sell records though, no social media. You won’t have to deal with antics and they would just basically love good music or just good people. You genuinely fuck with the person.

How do you think social media is going to play a factor in developing careers in the future?

Tony Shhnow: I see music going into a state of going back to real music. I see it going back to the 2009 era, the blog era, I see it going into that. I see it slowly transitioning. Social media is always going to be a factor but I do feel it’s going to be less of a factor as we grow, as we go into the future. It’s not going to be as much of a factor. Just being popular on TikTok may or may not get a bill or a record anymore.

That’s definitely a fact, I see that possibly happening within the next year or so.

Tony Shhnow: I see it slowly but surely going. Because I mean, Corona was a curse and a blessing. It made people sit down and really watch and listen to these artists that they have in a car or they just have in a party or they just have in clubs. People are now sitting down and listening to what they’re saying, “are they even saying anything?”

The wordplay, the word choice, the topic, the subject matter, do we even like this shit? [Laughs] People are just starting to realize. People started to have their eyes opened. People will never forget that either. Even when Corona lets up, people are going to be more conscious now and aware. You know what I mean?

How did you and Cashcache link up?

Tony Shhnow: I met him at a show, I forgot the year. I didn’t necessarily know who he was, but he knew who I was. He asked to take a picture with me. So I took a picture with him. And I didn’t think much about it after that. Because I really was surprised because that was the first time that happened to me. I really was doing nothing.

It was the first time someone wanted to take a picture with me. I was like, “what the fuck?! You take a picture with me?” So I didn’t think much of it. And then, a couple of weeks later, 10k ended up doing a song, “Luh Da Sound” with him and I was like, “Let me do that beat.” He was like, “Cashcache” I looked him up. And he was the same dude who took a picture of me.

So what inspired you to stick with his production as your signature sound?

Tony Shhnow: I don’t really want to give out the thoughts like that. It wasn’t like I was going to just straight come with his sound. But I had to drop the tape right? Da World Is Ours 2, I had to drop that. And I think he was heated up, he dropped his own tape — Cashcache! And I was on it. I don’t know how but all the music got taken down. And it wasn’t his fault. Somebody reported it or something like that.

Maybe one of the artists signed or something. But all the music got taken down. I was trying to put him back up on that platform because he has something going on. You know, his shit is hard! So I was like let me put out a tape with him. I put him back up on there. I grew to love his beats. And you have artists like Kanye or Jay-Z or Drake, they don’t really change producers that much. They probably rotate the same five to seven guys. That’s what I want to do. I didn’t want to give out that sauce though. So you’re welcome.

I’ll take it. Thank you. In the past, you’ve spoken about how most rap beats are boring to you. What do you look for in your beat selection?

Tony Shhnow: It’s gotta catch me in that first 5. I know something’s going to be hard in the first 5 seconds. It can be the first 5, 15 seconds. I pretty much get the gist of it. Because I make beats too, so I get the gist of how you’re about to come about this beat. It’s got to instantly catch my attention because everyone in the world has got to want to hear it. It only takes 5 seconds for you to skip a song.

You have to get the attention right away, because there’s so much music. There’s not enough time to sit there and listen to see if the beat is going to be hard or not.

Tony Shhnow: Mm-hmm. No. So I’m telling you, there’s a microwave society. I understand. I get it. This is where we’re at, so I’m not trying to go against the grain, but I’m not sitting there being dumb about it. I’m not going to be, “I don’t know about it.” I’m aware of my situation. I’m aware of the state of rap. I’m aware of my peers. I’m aware of where music is going, what it’s doing. I’m a student. I’m studying music. I’m not just printing records out.

So you’d mentioned that you make beats yourself. Have you produced your own records yet?

Tony Shhnow: I did when I was younger. I haven’t rapped on too many of my beats since I started. Once I found Cash and Sensei, I wanted to start finding real producers that I felt could exceed my productions, that was doing something that the average producer wasn’t doing. I started gravitating towards using them over using my own. But I did produce some for 10K, I did two or three of these for 10K.

What tracks have you produced for 10k so far?

Tony Shhnow: Knots N My Pocket” and “2nd Too Close To Last.” And also, the production is away with doing a feature without doing a feature. Because I don’t necessarily want to rap with everyone. But I do appreciate peoples’ sound.

How did “Producer Gotta Draco” come about?

Tony Shhnow: My producer walked in with a Draco [Laughs]. He had a Draco on him. And 10k is one of the rappers that literally says what’s going on in the moment literally. Whatever’s going on in the moment, he just talks on it.

How do you approach making a record? Do you hear the beat, and write to it? Or is everything off the top, freestyled as you hear the beat?

Tony Shhnow: Yeah, for sure, everything is off the dome. Everything is freestyled. I guess that’s where my beat selections come from. Whatever caliber of beat I feel like it is, that’s how I approach it. If it’s just an amazing ass beat, I got to rap amazing. I try to match the energy it produces.

On “Pressure”, you write about your aunt kicking you out of the house. How old were you when that happened?

Tony Shhnow: That’s when I was smoking weed going to school and hitting the trap. That was the same time. That was probably like my sophomore year, going to junior year of high school.

What was the hardest lesson you had to learn during that period?

Tony Shhnow: Hustle outweighs talent. And nobody is going to do anything for you. You’re not owed anything in life from anyone. Just sitting in the trap alone for long nights, a lot of times it would be just me. I could only depend on my close, close friend. And even then, at one point, I had to learn to do it by myself. When I went to jail, that’s really when I felt like it’s probably only just me, like my back was against the wall. Although people cared about me, it’s just you… You got to figure it out.

“Skressful“ is a break in the laid-back and calm demeanor for you. What was on your mind when recording this track?

Tony Shhnow: I feel like going through part two would be a little bit much. I just feel like this rap game is stressful, especially being like real in this shit. Were you really doing what you say, are you really trying to stick to your guns and not? Are you trying to be original, are you trying to put your people on and feed your family? This shit is stressful where like I don’t want to sell out or do some lame-ass shit just to pop and be famous for two months. It’s stressful trying to be yourself. It’s stressful to push real shit in a world full of fake shit.

Do you think there are any consequences with being yourself in this current landscape?

Tony Shhnow: No, I don’t. I mean, because there’s so much fake shit going on that when you are real… real shit always gets found. Quality, real shit always gets found. It may take a little second. Like I said it gets stressful because it might take a little second but it always gets found. You stay true, somebody is going to recognize it.

On “TikTok” you rap, “you can’t be no boss if you haven’t taken a loss.” As an emerging independent artist what notable losses have you taken to get to the point of success?

Tony Shhnow: Man, I was supposed to go on tour with Lil Wop and that’s when I went to jail. At the same time, he just signed to Gucci and all that, bro. Gucci is one of my favorite artists. I’m excited to go on tour with this nigga because I’m like man, they’re gonna notice me, work my shit and see a nigga on stage, see me cooling. And boom, they pick my ass up. That shit hurt.

Everybody was doing the SXSW down there and had a good time making songs together and doing shows, popping out, people were seeing them and stuff like that. I have never been to SXSW. That was the first time I had a little bit of clout and I was supposed to go out there. I couldn’t go out there, that was a loss. I mean, that affected my music, where I spent my money or how I was getting in the studio, paying for videos or something like that. That shit really hurt when I couldn’t go to SXSW I’m not going to lie, especially when Corona hit, and afterward, it’s like that shit is so lame.

Are there any plans for you to get more live shows going? Because the other night pretty much you and 10K killed it. What’s your scope for live shows for the rest of the year?

Tony Shhnow: I’ve been trying to do more live streams. So stuff like that. I know in the south they’re doing shows. Corona is still a thing! I’m not going to risk my life for that, man. I can be an internet artist until y’all ready. Until y’all ready to open the world back up, I can be an internet artist. I know how to do a vlog. I know how to use the internet. I know how to do SoundCloud. I can keep doing that until y’all are fully ready to open up shows. I live my life. I like my mom. I like my grandparents. I don’t want to see them out.

On “Expand” a motivational speaker talks about how success comes with working out of your comfort zone. In your career thus far, when did you have to work out of your comfort zone to elevate yourself?

Tony Shhnow: Cash! I really was rapping trap music. Until I met Cash, I’m doing a lot of trap. I did that first coming into the rap game, literally, I first came in doing a smooth beat and I hadn’t done it for a while. I felt like people weren’t getting it. So I started doing the trap beats and people liked that. And I started doing what I thought people wanted instead of doing what I like.

So I met Cash and started doing shit that I liked. And then with the Kill Streak record, everybody expected me to do another Cash or expecting me to come melodic again. And I’m like, “Nigga, I do what I want.” I’m so left field. I’m trying to do something. I don’t ever want y’all to think y’all know exactly what I’m about to drop because I don’t even know. I approach every record differently. Every time I’m in the studio is different. There are days when I’m in my bag or my pocket. But every time, I get tired of being in my pocket. I don’t like being in my pocket because I feel like it’s too easy.

As I keep listening to your music, you start to pick up on just the things you’re really saying. That’s a lot of shit that’s motivational to get you off your ass and start hustling.

Tony Shhnow: That’s what I’m telling you! I’m telling you because I wanted to hear that a lot. I grew up into trap, listening to more what’s in the trap music. So I’m starting to listen to Future, Rocko, and Gucci and all that. And they are talking about it, but I’m trying to elevate that to help them out more because I’m really talking to the dudes in the trap.

They’ve seen the trap by themselves. Or them dudes in the trap that got to get it on their own. You don’t really have nobody really behind you trying to help you out or telling you, you should go get some more money or go put in that work or go invest or go put some money down on this. You know what I mean? Nobody’s telling you that. So my music is more or less like that little voice for you: “My man, go get that bag. Now go chase it. Wake up in the morning, early in the morning, break out and get that, right now.” Work. You don’t work, you don’t eat. You don’t eat, you can’t live.

You’re playing more to the trap’s consciousness.

Tony Shhnow: I’m the trap house, Jay-Z, you dig?

What do you want to let the world know about Tony Shhnow today?

Tony Shhnow: I don’t have no team. It’s just me and 10k. It’s not a machine behind this. We don’t have any contracts with anybody. We own everything, all our masters, it’s just us. I know sometimes the fans might get confused seeing how we are moving, but it’s just us.

We rely on your support to keep POW alive. Please take a second to donate on Patreon!