Issue # 153, INTERVIEW with Tony Roc Adamo
Folks who have been with me for a good while know that I have a special place in my jazz heart for spoken-word, especially when it’s hipped (or hopped, maybe) with music that’s right up on th’ top of th’ jazz stax… & man, this kat Tony (& his pal Mike Clark) are right ON up there! I want to thank Tony for taking time out of his busier’n’sin schedule to give us some insight into what “hip” really means! DIG it, peepz!
Zzaj: Our readers surely aren’t th’ kind that stand in the checkout line reading about aliens, star-warts & such; but they do “want to know”… so, please give us an “off-cuff” bio (hopefully spontaneous, in the “Hip” tradition) that lets ’em know where you’re originally from, why you got involved in the hip scene & where you think you’ll be (maybe) five or so years from now.
Tony: I was born in San Francisco, CA, with strong family ties to the Bronx and Brooklyn, New York. So dig this, up until my time in the US Navy, I never really thought about being a vocal hip spoken word artist. I was hip to bein’ a baseball player or a boxer. After the service, I was in many Rock and Jazz bands as a lead singer. I did not dig poetry or spoken word at the time; it was only after I became a radio announcer, at KPLS radio Santa Rosa, C A that I began to dig the rhythm and delivery of my voice. I would have to write commercials for 30 second spots and deliver them on the radio. Lines would be poppin’ out of my brain all the time. I would spontaneously add lines to the commercials while delivering them on air. The PD and radio AD people did not dig that at all. Free flow radio was not in at the time. They decided to let me go from the radio gig. It was hip to be square at KLPS Radio. Man, I was light years from bein’ down to bein’ square. After radio, I moved to L.A. with a band I was in. By day I went to work putting up billboards to workin’ on the rehab of the Hollywood sign to joining the studio utility’s Union. Working in the background on TV shows for Lorimar TV on, Eight is Enough, Chips and Dallas. That gig led me to landing a gig as a Hollywood agent at the Beverly Hecht Agency on Sunset Blvd, Hollywood, CA. While there, I booked TV commercials and models for print Ads. Many years later, I was still singing but not doin’ spoken word. I booked a recording session at a studio in Half Moon Bay, CA to record my new music. The producer, who was playing with Cold Blood at the time arranged for Mic Gillette and Skip Mesquite, Tower of Power original members, to record with me. We became fast friends and he later introduced me to Stephen “Doc” Kupka, co-founder of Tower of Power and owner of Strokeland Records. Over the next few years “Doc,” Mic, and Skip and Tom Politzer recorded on my early CD’s with Mic Gillette writing all the horn arrangements on DANCE OF LOVE, STRAIGHT UP DEAL and WHAT IS HIP? Now what? Are ya in the groove? My vocal hip spoken word career actually started 6 years ago, when my producer at the time called in drummer Mike Clark who had recorded on many of my previous songs. The song was Tower of Power’s, “Soul Vaccination.” The day before I had laid down a vocal hip spoken word track and was very hip to the fact that Mike Clark could bring out the groove that I needed to my lyrics. Mike laid down a couple of screamin’ drum tracks that he felt were some of his best ever. My producer was not satisfied with what Clark was doing and asked him to do many other takes. After that session I realized Mike was the producer I needed for my vocal hip spoken word.
Zzaj: You told me once (in an email) “There is not one spoken word artist that does what I do. Nu Jazz Vocal Hip Spoken Word”… tell our readers why you say that & what makes your style so unique?
Tony: Dick, let me roll the dice on this without comin’ up snake eyes or offending the spoken’ word set. There are some very heavy encyclopedic story tellin’, history civil rights speakin’ jazz/funk backed poets doin’ spoken word present and past. Kirpal Gordon is a poet that comes to mind today who is on the cutting edge consistently of new word speak.
What sets me apart is I infuse hip spoken word with rhythm hop and jazz bop drops. I put together audio novellas with funk De opera; no wordy rhymes here; just cook-n-burn the lyrics up baby; cold blooded bass lines with hood filed street talk; and drum patterns burnin’ oh so deep behind my bullets of thought. My music background is in the deep blues with Oakland style funk and a vocabulary of triplet jazz thoughts. Legendary drummer Mike Clark of Herbie Hancock & the Headhunters helps me put my lyrics together with my music. He always puts killer musician’s behind me making my vocal hipspoken word one of a kind. I’m not in the tradition of Kerouac, Mark MURPHY, Gil Scott Heron, and Allen Ginsberg. etc. I would say that what I do is more of an offshoot of Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl in the Hip spoken word sense. Free flow man, let it all go.
Zzaj: As you know already, I got my own start in the arts via spoken-word… certainly not at the same level as you perform at, but definitely love how words can enhance the whole “jazz thang”… how/why do you think words (can) enhance good music (of any kind)? How about “rap”? What are your feelings about that art-form (or is that a stupid, un-hip, question)?
Tony: Yo Dick, Rap has had and will have a major impact for all time on spoken word artists and their music. The problem at times is the sample tracks or live hip-Hop DJ’s that bounce behind poets and spoken word artist tend to make them all sound alike, even when there spoken delivery and words are different. I don’t hear cats that are deeply rooted in the arrangement of music to the words, but rather they let the music (Hip Hop) take hold of ya instead of the power of the word that they are deliverin.’ I’m blessed and very fortunate in having a killer band behind me layin’downin the most funkiest, jazziest groove to make my words come alive. No Hip Hop sampling or DJ dropping vinyl junkies spinning their grooves behind me…only live spontaneous jazz /funk play here…
Zzaj: Do you usually have the words you’re going to perform already written down, or are your performances more in a “spontaneous” vein?
Tony: Yo Dick, I do exhausting research on a particular theme for my vocal hip spoken word to make sure it is historically correct. I then sit down with a blank piece of paper and the words come rushing out of me in vocal hip speak. Where it comes from I truly have no idea. I run it by my wife, Angi, to get her fix on what I am saying. She gives me her unbiased evaluation. At that point I change very little of the lyrics and have a melody that keeps bouncing in my head. Many times in the middle of the night I am awakened by this music that I hear in my mind. Hey Dick now dig this. I cannot read or write one note of music yet I sing the melody to my lyrics in the studio to be recorded and sent to my music arranger Tim Ouimette. When I record that lyric to the music arrangement Tim has written, I always end up recreating on the spot new lyrics that blend with the old lyrics. Many times I don’t even remember them. I have to go back and listen to the playback and write down the words that I recorded. They end up being better than the original lyrics. An example of this would be “Picasso at Midnite,” from Tony Adamo and the New York Crew CD which was a totally spontaneous one take word flow to Mike Clark and Tim Ouimette’s adlib music arrangement. It was pure magic!
Zzaj: I know, from having reviewed your work with drummer Mike Clark, that the two of you can COOK together; how did your hookup with Mike come about? I mean, did someone else tell you about him, or was it just some kinda’ serendipitous thing?
Tony: Mike has recorded on many of my CDs over the last eight years and has been my music producer on my last two CDs. Mike brings the musical mindset from all of his years of playing live and recording Jazz greats in the Jazz world that fits in such a smooth groove with my vocal hip spoken word. I call Mike the Scorsese of music producers and he calls me the Bobby De Niro of vocal hip spoken word artists.
Zzaj: Who are your “spoken-word heroes”? I mean, cats like Gil (Scot-Heron) & “The Last Poets” come to mind, but I’m wondering if that’s accurate, or if you have some other folks who (most) inspired your work?
Tony: Dick you may not believe this but I never read poetry before I started doing vocal hip spoken word. I wasn’t into Kerouac or any of the Beat Poets nor was I hip to spoken word recordings. I can’t really say that I was inspired by anyone. My goal was to create genre that went beyond spoken word and yet I was able to capture the magic in between the music that came out to be vocal hip spoken word. I have only been doing this less than four years. My whole musical background has lead up to this point.
Zzaj: We don’t really want a buncha’ “war stories” in this ‘zine, but I noticed that you had spent time on deployments (as did I) with the military… how, if at all, did your experiences with/in the military affect you as a poet/performer?
Tony: Yo Dick, My military experience had no bearing on my music career. Many years later I worked at Concord Naval Weapons Station, Concord, CA. Bill Pesci was my boss and also the brother of Joe Pesci, the actor. I was a bomb tech and explosive handler who served in Desert Storm, Desert Shield in a civilian capacity for Concord Naval Weapons Station. The war theater was Saudi Arabia, Baharan and Kawit. My writing career actually started during my tour of duty during the Gulf War. The 15-hour workdays that involved loading missiles and bombs on ships were exhausting but, I found that the exotic scenery hipped me to lay down the word. Having been a songwriter for many years, I began creating music (in my head) about my experiences in the Middle East. Man, I never got it together to record any of my poetry to music. I found writing words down at such a fast pace in between sleeping and working long shifts set me up for the free flow of words that were to come.
Zzaj: I grew up during a time when the “hip” folk were called “Beatniks”, & regarded with a fair amount of disdain, since they always said what was on their minds… is that where you picture yourself? In a role where your words are tools to enlighten folks to just how “un-hip” they are sometimes; or is that just another ridiminous question? &, of course, the ultimate question that they were askin’ back in those days… how do you answer it? “What is hip”?
Tony: Yo Dick, we live in a square world and being in a round world is out of the question at this point. Square is safe and Hip is out on a limb. Taking chances all the time is frightening to most people. I’m realin’ the feelin’, movin’ on out. I got to get heads talkin’. Please let me break it down to ya in this quote from Nick MONDELLO/ALLABOUTJAZZ:
“Now let’s get this out at Bar One: Adamo, like Beluga caviar, is indeed and in deed an acquired taste. The prophet and proponent of “hipspokenword”, his is a unique oral gumbo of supremely involving lyric, funky jazz talk, historical tilt, cultural commentary, and no-jive lingo. And on this effort, it is all infectiously served up over a bed of meticulously played white-hot jazz.” Dick, it’s HIP TO BE SQUARE (Huey Lewis) I’m not out to change people’s minds in what they believe is hip. I’m just a brick layer of Vocal Hipspoken word doin’ my thing to another level that has never been done before.
Zzaj: Do your plans for the next year or so include any touring? What kind(s) of new releases will you have coming? Again, our readers “wanna’ know, man”.
Tony: My Music producer and good friend Mike Clark are working on a live show of Vocal hipspoken Word. Most jazz clubs stateside don’t know what to do with a artist like myself. We are in touch with the performing arts people.
Zzaj: Not a lot of our readers do spoken-word/jazz… a higher percentage are actively involved in playing instruments or jazz/blues vocals… give us your words of wisdom of why (or if) pursuit of a career in spoken-word is worth the time & effort, as well as what a performer has to “have” in order to be successful in that area?
Tony: Dick, I feel that one has to come up with something that is totally unique in the delivery, in the writing and in the music that holds you apart from all other spoken word artist in order to have monetary success and artistic acceptance. With that being said, how does one know when they don’t have it to be a success? This is the question for the ages… Dick I want to thank you for this interview and giving me this opportunity to speak my mind on the spoken word scene.