Photography by Sam Hadelman
“I feel I'm the greatest rapper alive,” Tony Shhnow, who’s donning a simple white tee and crucifix pendant with his hair in two buns, tells me one Monday morning in May over Zoom. He’s situated on a couch in his Summerhill Atlanta home and is just starting what he describes as a typical work day: “I had a pretty, young lady wake me up, I ate some breakfast, smoked some good exotic, got to make some music.” Repping Cobb County, Georgia for most of his life, the twenty-six-year-old rapper has been quietly at the helm of a new era of underground mixtape culture; like many of his peers that have been churning out a high volume of tapes on SoundCloud, Tony’s a proud student of Gucci Mane, Lil Wayne, and the countless Southern rap stars that dominated DatPiff.com less than two decades ago. “I'm from Atlanta, this is embedded in me,” he proclaims, gliding between his living room and front porch during the duration of our hour-long interview. “It's in my veins, that style of music. That's why I ain't silent.”
2021 was the year that plugg took over SoundCloud—but the subgenre (a mid-2010s, chilled out variety of street music pioneered by the BeatPluggz collective and producer MexikoDro) never left, with Tony currently at its forefront. Getting on a beat produced by buzzy plugg producers like Cashcache or SenseiATL is like his bread and butter: he can layer his punchy, motivational raps over lullaby-esque chords and melodies and make a song within minutes. “Plugg, I want to say, is so easy for me because I literally grew up on that,” Tony says, citing artists like Playboi Carti and Rich The Kid as influences. “Because plugg... it's also original Atlanta music.” But the rapper refuses to rest on his laurels: having released over a dozen mixtapes in the past year, Tony has proven his mastery beyond plugg: boom bap, Detroit-type beats, classic trap, and freestyles over hits from the early 2000s.
Two weeks before independently releasing Reflexions—which Tony describes as his most refined, conceptually focused project to date—we talked about his trajectory as an underground artist, mixtape culture, plugg as quintessentially Southern rap, and more.
AM: I want to start by talking about the new project, Reflexions, and how it came together. I hear you guys just settled on the title.
TS: Initially it had a different title, but being on tour after talking to [Boston rapper] Cousin Stizz for a while, we had some deep conversations backstage about how most people, when they approach records, they're talking to a certain crowd—they're talking to the young dudes, women, older dudes. Stizz felt like rapping that way took a strain on him, because you have to constantly come from like a teaching perspective type shit. And maybe some people wouldn't want to hear that. So I was telling him, “When I get in a booth, I start talking to myself.” I’ve started coaching myself on how to be better, or just how to grow musically. And after listening to the songs, and after my PR manager Sam [Hadelman] gave me the title, Reflexions, I was like, “You know what? This is exactly what I was doing.” I'm literally in there talking to myself, just trying to make myself grow better. I'm in a competition with myself. You know what I mean?
TS: Looking back, this is probably my most put-together project, as far as the cover art, the theme, the skits, the features; this is the most professional way I've gone about a project, I feel.
AM: I feel like anyone who’s been listening to your music can hear how you've grown, and it does have that refined element to it. But I also feel like it still has that grit, which is in all of your music.
TS: I try and keep that grit in there because this is hip-hop. Like, Jay-Z, no disrespect to him, even though he is so respected, DMX got a little more respect, and Jadakiss got a little more respect, just because they were so gritty. Even though I appreciate that part of music, I'm from the streets, so I got to give that perspective as well.
AM: Yeah, exactly. I think that adds to that element of your music that’s an inner dialogue, rather than an opportunity to preach to others. It's not coming from a place of, “I’ve got it all figured out and I'm telling you guys how to do it,” and that makes it more relatable.
TS: I don't have it all figured out. And I don't want my fans to think I do, neither. Like I'm learning, just like you. I'm only twenty-six. You feel me?
AM: On a related note, I really want to talk about the OJ da Juiceman feature on the project. I think that's a really cool get, feature wise, because you’re from completely different generations musically. How’d that connection come about?
TS: When I went out to L.A., I locked in with this clothing brand, called TRAPHOUSE. They’ve played a key role in putting on a lot of up-and-coming artists, like Mac Miller, OJ da Juiceman, BabyFace Ray. At the time, I felt it was time I did a song with an Atlanta legend. I told them I wanted to work with an O.G. And they were like, “OJ?” I was like, “Hell yeah, OJ!” So they put me on the phone with his ass. And he really was supposed to be on the last project, Rps n Plan Bs II, with 10kDunkin. But I think he got sick or some shit that. And he's such a real person, the dude literally just called me as soon as he got better like, “Yo, what's up. You still got a song?”
AM: What a dope collaboration. Would you say you two have a friendship?
TS: I haven't met him yet, so I'm not going to give it a friendship level yet, but we got, like, a bond. He’s definitely an O.G. to me.
AM: That's really the nature of things these days. It seems like so many artists work together and they talk about things, but they may have never even met in person. Hopefully you get that opportunity soon.
TS: We in that internet era, so you know... like, Cardo Got Wings and Wiz Khalifa didn't meet each other for a while, you feel me? Or Cardo and Larry June didn't meet each other for a while. Paramore and B.o.B didn't meet each other until they got to the Grammy's . I like it though, because nothing is too farfetched, nothing is too out of my grasp. As simple as a DM, as simple as liking a picture, anything could happen. As opposed to having to go find a dude… finding what club he hangs out at, or going to the studio, or finding his best friend, or trying to be cool with him, or catching him.
AM: What about Zelooperz? He's on the project too.
TS: He called me in L.A., and what's crazy is we did like eight songs that night. That was just fun. We got a whole EP, low key. That dude is wise, and I really respect him.I'm normally the oldest in the room, so it's nothing to see a rapper be immature, and to meet rappers who don’t necessarily have the same mindset or have the same goal as me. They’re just young, having fun, which is cool. There's nothing wrong with that. That's the culture. But I feel this energy from Zelooperz like, we're the big brothers to a lot of these guys.
AM: Are all the songs you and Zelooperz did kind of like “Last Chance”? Because I really like how this has that R&B kind of vibe to it, almost.
TS: It’s only two more R&B songs, but the other ones are left field as fuck. Like you wouldn't expect me and him to get on these songs. One's a super trapped out Detroit beat. And then the other one's fucking… I don’t even know, a Bollywood soundtrack beat.
AM: You have a great ear for beats—who would you say are five producers that you would consider underrated?
TS: BenjiCold, Niko East… Polo Boy Shawty is very underrated. I don't understand why he's not like producing some super mainstream stuff. Cardo's underrated—I'm not saying he’s not nominated or nothing like that, he don't have his accolades. But people don't talk about him enough. Whoever you think is the top producer, he probably got way more hits than them. And then lastly, SenseiATL. That dude is super underrated. He will dead cook a beat in front of you in five minutes. And it's going to sound so beautiful you might cry.
AM: In a recent interview with Passion of the Weiss, you stated that “We're in the microwave era of rap.” How do you keep things so versatile and fresh with your own music?
TS: Well, first of all, I be high, so... [laughs]
AM: Fair. [laughs]
TS: Second of all, I am a student of music. So even if it seems like I'm doing something that's brand new, I probably studied it, or, I'm trying to expand upon it. I feel I’m the greatest rapper alive. So I try and just let you all know that I could touch anything. Some people's talent is being able to sing really well. Or some people are able to put beats together very well. I feel like mine is the fact that I can really rap, literally rap on anything type shit. You feel me?
AM: You’ve only been rapping seriously for three years, but your output has been impressive. When did things really click for you?
TS: I kind of always knew I was going to make it, or I knew I was going to at least be in the place I'm at right now. Once I started getting closer to the place I'm at, or where I was last year, I started being like, “Yo, this is too easy. This is too regular.” Low key, I remember growing up when I was in like eighth grade or ninth grade, I wanted to be an underground rapper or something like that. And once I became one, or at least a notable name in it, I was like, “Bro, this is too fucking easy. I can literally do this shit.I got the tapes with no features [Da World Is Ours 2, Kill Streak, Kill Streak 2]. I really can do this by myself. I don't need anything. Just keep working and grinding and getting better.”
AM: I mean, you can’t be in the running for “Best Rapper Alive” unless you say that you are first, right?
TS:That's why I've been saying it. I had to start, I found something that locked in me. I really don't even remember when it was, but I used to think I was some B-roll rapper, or a supporting rapper. And then something locked in for me, I was like, “You know what? I am The Guy.” I want to say it was the tape with no features—I do a lot of my music on something like, “What's going to qualify me to be the best?” I haven't done a lot of hooks, but on purpose—because I want you all to know that I can rap, before I get into doing some extra catchy-ass shit. You all need to know where I came from and what I'm capable of doing.
AM: What's cool about it to me is you're not resting on your laurels.
TS: Yeah. I want to elevate. I don't want to just be a guy around. I want to be like, “That's that dude right there. Don't even play like, he is going to get you that work every time.”
“Mixtapes are a pure example of bravery. It's the purest form of hip-hop.”
TS: When I get in plugg it's like literally effortless. The song will be done in like ten minutes or less. Adlibs, everything, and sew it up. Plugg-I want to say it's so easy for me because I literally grew up on that. It's also original Atlanta music.
AM: It is.
TS: Like on some Playboi Carti, Rich The Kid, Future, Young Dro. I'm talking about before the plugg era, I already was growing up on those type of beats. Travis Porter was doing that shit, low key.
AM: Yeah. That bouncy, colourful, kind of silly sound almost. I know exactly what you're talking about. Which is all the things that plugg is.
TS:. Atlanta was already doing that. Before it got considered to be plugg, or until somebody put a plugg tag on. We were already making them sounds. I grew up on it. It's so easy to come up with styles, or a way I'm going to approach it. It's already been done. I'm literally just re-iterating it. Plugg is Southern music for sure. All the way. If other people use it, it's because they nine times out of ten heard Zaytoven and Gucci. They were looking up those names. Say you got into rabbit holes of finding beats, you're not going to find something if you typed in “Jay-Z type beat,” or “Jadakiss type beat,” or “Troy Ave type beat.” But look up an Atlanta artist and somehow, it'll pop up.
AM: It's definitely spread outside of Atlanta, but you're right. Plugg is Atlanta's thing.
TS: So the latest artists, like Kodak Black, Diego Money, Humble Haitian, they're not from Atlanta, but they still indulge in what we have going on. Our scene is literally busting. People from L.A. are watching our scene. People from New York are watching our scene. As opposed to it just being everybody just watching everybody. They're specifically zoomed in, on Atlanta's underground. We're aware of that. I want to also say there's some Southern hospitality shit. Because if I see somebody's good at what they doing, I really don't care how many followers they got, I'm just going to ask them, “Hey bro, your music's nice. You can come by the studio if you want to. We can cook something up.”
AM: On that note, what about the mixtape era is so inspiring to you? I feel a lot of your music is a fresh take on something we might have heard fifteen to twenty years ago. When I heard “TRAPHOUSE,” I was like, “This sounds like a Gucci song.”
TS: First of all, I'm super into the mixtape culture. I cannot wait for it to have a resurgence. Mixtapes are a pure example of bravery. It's the purest form of hip-hop. Not everybody could just clip a song on a mixtape website. You still had to have a little bit of motion, and you still had to be somewhat good. You can't just put up everything you do. Now, you can just sit in the studio, make a song, and put it on SoundCloud. You don’t have to actually be good, or you don't have to be signed, or something like that. It was still separated, but there was still grit. Because there’s grit now, but I feel like there's so many people that polish it up too much - I like being goddamn dirty. I like when you try to hear that fan blowing in the background in my music, or you might hear the fire alarm in the background, or some other crazy shit. I like that shit! I'm from Atlanta. This is embedded in me. It's in my veins. That style of music. Like I said, that's why I ain't silent. I don't want to be clean. I might do it all the way, but I'm still going to force this grit on them. That's just what it is.When it's that gritty, I just got a sense of this, “He’s talking his shit. He’s really telling his truth. Nobody wrote this for him, or nobody was like, ‘Hey bro, you need to go say this to this studio.’” You can tell he went in there, he said what the fuck he wanted to say. That's real hip-hop. That's really the culture. That's how it gets started. Saying how the fuck you feel.
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Stream Tony Shhnow’s Reflexions here.