Dec 4, 2007 - 4:42 PM
Tone Tank (left) and Krayo are Iller Than Theirs.
Tone Tank (left) and Krayo are Iller Than Theirs.
Tone Tank did the artwork for Iller Than Theirs' self-titled debut, relased in Sept. 2007 on Embedded Music.
The Brooklyn duo Iller Than Theirs is not better than anyone, they’re just iller.
Up until a couple months ago, Iller Than Theirs, the Brooklyn duo of Tone Tank and Krayo was completely unknown to me. I got a press kit from the group’s publicity firm, which I admittedly slept on for a few days since most of the stuff people send us sound worse than my bowel movements after a taco truck burrito, or even worse, they sound like wannabe Soulja Boys (yeah, gross, right?). But then I finally slipped the disc in…
Electric guitars squeal on the opening track and lead single, “Razor Bumps,” before the beat drops with pounding drums. Tone Tanks rhymes in his thick Brooklyn accent: “I ain’t nobody’s hero and nobody’s fool / No one's that fresh and nobody's cool / Don't try to front, son, we all play the chump / You're coming out your neck like some razor bumps.” Krayo hops on the shifty beat full of organs and horns as the two take turns back and forth calling out phony emcees: “Stop what you’re doin’, ‘cause I’m about to ruin, the gimmicks and the lies that you’re used to.”
The rest of the album follows suit with refreshingly honest, intelligent and witty lyrics paired with classic boom bap production, recalling an era when hip hop was still fresh and fun.
A week, and multiple listens later, I’m on the phone with them.
“I’m usually the late one,” Tone says as we wait for Krayo to get on the line. While we’re waiting, we talk about San Francisco strip clubs, since they’ll be visiting the city on tour soon. He’s a fan of the Lusty Lady, a unionized employee-owned club. “Women’s lib, I’m down with that,” he says.
Krayo gets on the line. “Sorry I’m late. I’ve never been a rapper before,” he jokes.
Iller Than Theirs are part of a larger collective, Nuclear Family (aka Nuk Fam). For about 12 years, they operated as “a loosely knit group that made weird 4-track songs and moved up to weird 8-track songs” before putting out an independent EP and gaining recognition, according to Tone. Nuk Fam members Junk Science, (producer Snafu and emcee Baje One), inked a deal with indie hip hop label Embedded, which helped put the crew on the map and, ultimately, led to Iller Than Theirs getting signed.
What, exactly, do they mean when they say they’re not better, just iller?
“Everybody raps, but we try to put our ill twist on it … but we don’t want to come off like we’re hot or better than anybody,” Krayo says.
“We’ve had the name for so long, it’s like having a tattoo on your neck or hands and you forget it’s there. It’s not cocky or braggadocious, it’s just our name,” Tone adds.
Both Tone and Krayo have been rapping since their teens. During high school, they recorded songs on Krayo’s 4-track recorder in his bedroom. “I can’t pinpoint when we got serious. I’m not sure if we even reached that point yet,” Krayo says. “Well, we’re putting a record out now. But we haven’t gotten money yet, so I guess you can’t call yourself professional until you make money.”
But being broke never troubled them much. They’ve been through worse.
In 1999, Tone Tank ditched NY for the conventional life, moving to Phoenix to buy a house with his girlfriend. But it didn’t work out as planned. His bird flew the coup, he got canned from his job and his house was reduced to ashes and embers—all within the same month.
“There were times I was bugging out, but it was almost comical in a way,” Tone says, equating his life to Al Bundy’s. “I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop. But it’s never as bad as you thought it would be. Maybe now that that’s outta the way, we can have a good time.”
Dusting his shoulders off, he moved back to NY in 2003 and started making music with Krayo again.
“We used to joke how if I made an album, he’d be on every song, like how Ghostface was all over Raekwon’s purple tape,” Tone says. He started working on a solo project that never saw the light of day. Out of the five songs he completed, Krayo was on three.
“[Krayo’s] always been a real standup, lookout guy,” Tone says. “Back then, I was really wild’n out. A lot of people were nervous around me. He was just a really understanding person, like he was saint-like.”
“Is that true?” Krayo asks. “Yeah, except for the screwdriver incident…”
One night in Brooklyn, Tone and a friend are drunk and stuck without a ride back to Tone’s place in Long Island. The rest of their friends ditched them, and the next train ain’t till 6 a.m. They yak and go to Krayo’s house for help, throwing rocks at his window until he pokes his head out. “Hey, do you have a screwdriver?” Tone asks. “We’re gonna hotwire a car.”
“I thought it was a bad idea,” Kray says. “I knew exactly where the screwdriver was, but I told them, ‘Nah, I don’t have a screwdriver.’”
“See, saint-like,” Tone says with a laugh.
When the two reconnected in the studio, they didn’t plan on making a complete album.
“I’m always big on ‘Let’s make an EP’ because it’s easy to put five dope songs together,” Tone says. They ended up recording a full-length 11-track album with no fillers, just straightforward front-to-back NY boom bap. Nuk Fam producer J. Howell’s Werthman handles most of the album’s production.
“We had no direction. We didn’t think we wanted it to sound one way or the other,” Krayo says. “The sound is testament to J. Howell’s Werthman. He took over the record. We were getting beats from everybody. But when he started getting this sound and started making these amazing beats. It just made sense.”
Other members of Nuk Fam contribute guest verses and production, along with Embedded artist Cool Calm Pete lending his lackadaisical flow on “It Is What It Is” and Juice Crew veteran Masta Ace dropping a verse over the funky horns on “The Same.”
The album is still creating a buzz and receiving praise among the hip hop and indie press. After touring with Del the Funky Homosapien and Devin the Dude on select dates of the 11th Hour Tour, they branched off to join Junk Science for a co-headlining tour of the west coast.
Iller Than Theirs are foreigners to California. They draw a modest crowd, upward of 50 folks, at a Nov. 15 show at the 111 Minna Gallery, a San Francisco haven for hip hoppers, hipsters and art snobs alike. But the inebriated host can’t manage to get their name right: “Next up is my mans Junk Science…wait, what? Oh, I’m sorry. Next up is Iller Than…what? Yeah, yeah, what he said.”
Unfazed by the host’s lack of respect, they rip through an intense performance to make damn sure no one in the room forgets their name. Krayo hops on to the small stage wearing an American flag beanie and a white poncho, cloaking his lanky frame. Tone counters Kray’s funky fashion sense with an inconspicuous black hoody and jacket, which he eventually removes to reveal his tattoo-covered arms and neck, looking like a mini inked up Vin Diesel, stocky and intense.
“I’m ready to do this. Ya’ll ready to do this?” Tone asks. Without hesitation the two begin their set, tugging, pulling and bouncing off each other as they rap. When they get to their lead single, “Razorbumps,” Tone vibes off the energy in the room and jumps into the crowd as a group of fans start an offbeat dance circle.
“I’m feeling myself, but not really feeling myself. You know what I mean,” Tone says.
For now, it’s still a fight to gain notoriety, but with a solid following in New York and a growing national buzz, they’re slowly proving why they’re iller than most of the artists oversaturating the genre.
“We’ve both figured out ways that we can keep our freedom and support ourselves without a 9-to-5. And I don’t even sell crack,” Krayo says. “A lot of people are successful and they don’t know it. I have cable television, that’s a luxury. I have more than I need … We’re eating well with a roof over our heads.”
“My cable got shut off,” Tone says.
“Mine did, too,” Kray confesses. It’s hard to tell if they’re serious or joking, until Tone adds, “My Netflix got cut too. But Doc Strange hit me with the laserdiscs.”
Then there’s a brief moment of seriousness.
“I hate people that say, ‘I used to want to be an artist.’ Then do it … What makes us successful is that we’re still doing what we want,” Tone says.
Visit Iller Than Theirs on MySpace at www.myspace.com/illerthantheirs
Zoneil Maharaj is the editor-in-chief of this sometimes sketchy publication. He aplogizes to Tone and Krayo for taking so damn long to finish this story.