Interview: Meet Tony Jones, BTS Hip Hop Mentor on “American Hustle Life”
7-member male group BTS enjoyed a “break” from their usual hustle and bustle of idol life when the members packed up their bags and headed to Los Angeles, California a few months back for the filming of their variety program “American Hustle Life.”
The boys wanted to experience true hip hop culture and got hooked up with artist Tony Jones as their mentor. He and the boys were inseparable as they spent two weeks together practically 24/7, where the boys completed various missions to get a better sense of hip hop.
Tony Jones was so kind to set aside time for an interview. He discusses the state of American music and K-Pop, Korea’s strict culture, first impressions of BTS, and more.
Soompi: What’s your story? Please introduce yourself to our readers.
Tony Jones: I’m Tony Jones and I’m from Texas. I moved out to L.A. around last July – August. I’ve been here for about a year now. I’m from San Antonio, which is a smaller market. I’ve figured that as far as entertainment and music, L.A. is the place to be so I decided to move here for good and I couldn’t be happier with my decision.
S: Were there any events that made you realize that you’ve made a good decision?
T: I do a lot- promote nightclubs, write songs, do music, do a little clothing. I came out to L.A. last February and I was here for about two weeks. During that two week period I recorded my album and I featured The Game and Slim Thug from Texas and we put it out. So while I was here I had an amazing time. The weather and everything was nice. I felt like this was my second home. So I went home to perform at SXSW in Austin and after that I decided that I’m moving to L.A. for good.
S: What do you think of the current state of American music?
T: I think music over here is at a really good place right now. If anyone’s at the top, I’d say Drake is probably at the top of hip hop and R&B. But I listen to all types of music. So you have the J.Cole, Jay Z, Kanye West. Music is at a really good place compared to about three to four years ago where there was no music out. I think the main artist- I can’t even remember who the main artist was, you know. Music is at a really good place and I listen to all different genres. My dad was a DJ while I was growing up so I was exposed to rock, country, alternative, and one of my favorite bands is All American Rejects, you know, so I’m all over the place when it comes to music. And then my favorite artist, my favorite rapper, is Young Jeezy.
S: Why did you pursue hip hop if you’re well-influenced in other music genres as well?
T: I guess that’s what came naturally because I’ve always written music. First it was basketball. It was the main thing I focused on from middle to high school and even college. I grew up with a full scholarship. I always did music on the side. So when I got the chance when basketball was over, because you can’t pursue that dream forever, I really started to do music seriously. I’d say around 2010 I went full force. That’s what came naturally. I can’t play the guitar or the piano, I can’t really sing even though I try. It came naturally and I knew the most about that culture so it was a natural thing.
S: On the other hand, what do you think about K-Pop?
T: K-Pop is really interesting. I’ve never heard of K-Pop or Korean hip hop until BTS and I think the first record I heard and saw was “Bulletproof” when I was trying to do some research about the group. I didn’t expect that much from a K-Pop group. They were really good. The music video was directed really well, but I was just really impressed as that being the first record, the first song I ever heard [in K-Pop]. It got my interest and my attention. I thought every other group and artist in Korea that did K-Pop was like that and that talented. I was wrong. Not to talk about any other group, but they’re just different. BTS has so much to offer. They really studied hip hop culture. I want to meet the person behind them because the producers and the directors are finding the beats, and everything they’re doing is really American. I also really think that they can come over to the U.S. and do music if they can learn English in the future. They’re that good. They’re that talented. Afterwards, people were like “Look up BAP, look up EXO, or G-Dragon,” and all these groups. I checked them all out, and it wasn’t the same for me, you know. They’re talented as well, but it wasn’t the same reaction that I got.
S: How would you compare the American music industry to the K-Pop industry?
T: Well, it’s really different. They are in Korea- the culture and everything. You’ve got to respect it. And yea they put on makeup and they dance, and it’s not really American hip hop, but that’s the culture there and that’s what everyone wants, and that’s what’s successful there. Rap Mon can rap really good, I mean Suga and J-Hope can as well, but the fact that he wears makeup shouldn’t take away from it or the fact that he dances shouldn’t take away from it because that’s his culture. I’m sure he can switch it up- him and Suga can do straight hip hop tracks and raw hip hop tracks and rap music and all that but what they’re doing right now is they’re in a group, BTS, and that’s the path they chose to take. Sometimes you’ll have to take paths that will help you to further your future, and if that’s going through BTS getting their voice known and heard in Korea then that’s what they have to do. So it’s very different but you still have to respect it.
S: Where do you see K-Pop in five years?
T: I really see K-Pop blowing up and growing. I don’t know if the management thought of bringing them to America or starting an American BTS, but what they’re doing is brilliant. There’s no one in America dancing, singing, and rapping like that. It’s actually a good idea to start a group like that in America. They took from New Edition, from Boys to Men, they also took from A$AP Rocky. They just took everything and put it together. I don’t know if that was the plan or the boys were that talented but it’s lucky they came together. It’s brilliant. I really think that K-Pop will blow up more and it won’t be a local thing anymore. It’s going to grow because of BTS.
S: Do you think America is ready for them (BTS, K-Pop) right now?
T: They’re not ready for the language, but I think it will cross over eventually. As you look at every culture, you start with rock and alternative or you start with rap. Those cultures merged and they’re now one to where the white race loves hip hop and the black race loves alternative. Little Wayne did a rock album. You have Macklemore, Matt Dillon doing rap albums, so everything is merging. If this is going to continue to grow worldwide as far as different cultures like BTS incorporating American culture, who knows when Americans will start incorporating Korean culture. It’s all going to merge together. So if they don’t come to the States after five years, I’m going to bring them over here myself.
S: Scooter Braun is working with PSY and CL. A lot of K-Pop artists have been expanding their promotions to the U.S. now. I saw that you were at KCON with BTS as well. It’s an event that brings together a lot of fans from the U.S. for a genre like K-Pop. What are your thoughts about that and were you surprised by BTS’ reception there? What surprised you about that.
T: I know that there’s a lot of American fans that love K-Pop. I wasn’t surprised at KCON because of a concert before. When I first got there, there was a line around the corner and there’s people outside and kids crying because they couldn’t get in. I was amazed. I knew that they were big in Korea, but I had no idea that people like K-Pop here. They have loyal fans here as well. They limited the show to 200 people and all the girls were crying and screaming like they’re N’SYNC or Backstreet Boys. When I got to KCON, that really opened my eyes. I think it was about 25,000 people celebrating and cheering on not just BTS, but all the groups. K-Pop has a big market in the States because you have a lot of people that want to be different. If everyone loves N’SYNC, they want to find somebody else and find a different boy group. They found BTS.
(Go to the next page where he discusses more about K-Pop cross over, impressions of the boys, thoughts on banning songs, and more!)
S: You mention that for a K-Pop label to cross over, something needs to be done with the language. At KCON, there were so many foreign fans we saw singing along with the Korean lyrics and embracing Korean culture. What are your thoughts about that?
T: For one, the boys have to learn English before they come over here. They’ll learn over time. Rap Mon has really good English and He’s actually rapping in a lot of English. I’ve noticed that people were singing along in Korean and I tried to sing along. I don’t, I can’t, and it’s hard. I don’t know what they’re saying but the fact that they learn the lyrics and they sing along with BTS was amazing. I didn’t even know how to pronounce the words other than what V taught me but that was amazing. It’s not like learning English lyrics. You have to learn a completely different language and sing along. That means you’re really dedicated and really loyal fans. They’ll learn English in the future and if they can they can be successful in any country.
S: Previously you’ve mentioned about BTS’ latest album “Dark & Wild.” Have you heard the whole album? Do you have a favorite track?
T: I’ve heard their whole album. I heard it the third night because people on Twitter were like “You have to listen.” It’s BTS. I have to listen. I checked out the whole [album]. My favorite, well, couple favorites actually, but my favorite track is “Hip Hop Lover.” It’s amazing- the rapping, the hook. I was really amazed. “Let Me Know” is also a really good record. I actually got to hear that before it came out at KCON backstage. My boy Suga pulled his phone out and said, “Hey I produced this track. Do you wanna listen?” So I heard it before but when I could hear it in speakers, that was a beast. Suga is amazing. He made that record. He produced the track, the hook, and everything. The third would be “Danger” and there are a couple others. Actually, the whole album is really good. I don’t know which, but I heard that some songs were banned in Korea. I’m sure “Danger” was one of them. I don’t know if they’re trying to be banned, trying to get attention and be different, which is good you know. It’s how NWA did in the States, just rebelling a little, but you can’t talk about stuff like hormones in Korea at all. I think I asked this question to one of the staff when we were doing a filming, and I brought up sex in a very light manner. They were like “Yea, it’s kind of banned.” It’s unspoken and not talked about over there. That was interesting as well. “Dark & Wild” is amazing. If they keep making albums like that, they’ll be the greatest Korean group ever, you know.
S: It’s a cultural thing over there- it’s not just the music scene, but the whole Korean culture. They’re opening up a bit recently, but it’s going to take some time.
T: Keep in mind that Korean culture is strict. We were there as well in the 1930s, 40s, 50s. You couldn’t talk about that, couldn’t bring it up. It was unspoken. Marilyn Monroe broke the mold and it changed. It will change over there. Different cultures react differently and adapt differently. So they were just where we were- not that they’re behind, but as far as that topic they have to adapt and change. It will happen. And if you keep making good music and get people’s attention and if someone breaks the mold over there like Marilyn Monroe did or other artist did it will change over there as well.
S: What do you think of songs being banned? Sometimes different associations require you to change the lyrics or music video to adapt to a certain standard. But that will compromise with artists and their vision for that song. Do you think they should comply or stick to what they’ve originally intended?
T: In Korea, there’s a lot of control. There’s a story told to me as far as someone wanting to leave a group and they wanted to go solo and then they were banned and you couldn’t mention the name or the network, and if you did they wouldn’t send you their music from other artists – I don’t know. But they have control over there. In the U.S. you don’t need a major label, you don’t need anything. You can do it on your own. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis sold millions of albums just by themselves. You can’t do that in Korea. They kind of have some control and I don’t know what it’s going to take to break out of that over there and why some songs are banned. Someone needs to figure out how to counter all of that- not saying you should. I don’t want anyone to take it the wrong way- to just go against the people and the government, the networks and all of that. I’m not saying that, but as far as banning a song, you know, in America we have free speech. You can’t ban any songs that we do and anything we say. We can say whatever we want. Even when NWA makes a song, and this is pretty explicit, “F the police” back in the 90s, or late 80s. When they made that song there were riots across the world. They tried to ban it as well. They’re gonna keep creating and keep making music. It’s unfortunate, but the true fans will hear their music and hopefully BTS as a group will grow in the hopes that they continue to be who they are and have a lot of American influence as well. Those boys and the staff really studied American culture and they do it very well. I’ve seen people from different countries try to mimic it and try to replicate it and try to rap the same, sing the same, and act the same, but it’s not happening. Those boys really studied and really got good at it. They’re all talented from top to bottom. There’s not a weak link in the group. So it’s very interesting. They’re really good.
S: Will we be seeing a collaboration between BTS and you?
T: I think so, in the future. I haven’t really been in the studio lately, and hopefully I can get started on my next album soon. There’s a lot to do that will go into us collaborating whether they feature me or I feature them. It will happen eventually, whether I get Jimin to sing a hook or Rap Monster to rap or something. Something will happen in the future.
S: What are your first impressions of the boys?
My very first impression was when Nate and I woke them up. First of all, they had no idea what the show was about, that they were doing the show, and what was going on. So the very first encounter we had, we woke them up five or six in the morning and they’re looking around like “What’s going on?” Little did I know that they have been kidnapped and I didn’t see that until the actual show. We woke them up at six in the morning and they jump out of bed ready to go like soldiers like “Let’s go.” We’re like “rap or dance or do something” and the first one, the leader, Rap Mon, started rapping for us. It was six in the morning and he has no idea who we are. They’re that dedicated. I thought I was dedicated. They’re so dedicated, always dancing, always practicing. It’s not all forced- they don’t have to do that. They just want to be good at what they do because they’re going to get so much flak for wearing makeup and for dancing so Rap Mon wants to be great. When he’s rapping on “Hip hop Lover,” you hear greatness in Rap Mon. My first impression of the boys: they’re really nice, really friendly, and just have a really good time. The whole entire show, don’t think there ever was a dull moment. There were some differences and stuff, but other than that they’re just cool kids. They’re sixteen to twenty. The most talented one of them all, even though they’re all super talented, is Jungkook who is the youngest. He can do all three. He can really rap, he can really sing, he can really dance as you saw in “Bulletproof.” He’s probably the most valuable to the group because he’s so young and can do all three.
S: And the fact that they’re probably all jetlagged, that’s amazing.
T: I don’t think anyone knows how hard they work- like all day. We would be tired; we would leave and have to come back to wake them up but they barely went to sleep- maybe two or three hours. They just worked so hard. Episode five. That’s probably one of the main times you can see how tired they are. We had to carry them out of bed. It wasn’t scripted, it wasn’t acting. We had to carry them out of bed. They barely kept their eyes open and were falling asleep.
S: Any memorable moments with the group off camera?
Yea, absolutely. Every day was memorable. Showing them how to approach a woman when they’ve never interacted with a woman in that level- that was amazing. To see them actually go out there- because they can’t hit on girls, they can’t have girlfriends, they can’t, you know- they do have hormones. That’s why they wrote the song “War of Hormone” because it’s really true. To see them be around woman or interact with women and actually be successful at it, that was awesome. That was one of the many things we’ve taught them and they were really good at it. The video was a lot of fun- they didn’t show all of it. There were a lot of moments.
S: Before we wrap up, do you have any plans to go to Korea and possibly work within the Korean music scene?
I would love to go to Korea and do something over there and expand my market as well. It seems like a really good culture. I would definitely love to. We didn’t get the chance to get into a studio with the boys, but I could probably write a couple records for them. Nate Walker, the other mentor, is a big songwriter as well. He wrote “Blame It” by Jamie Foxx, he wrote Tinashe’s “2 On,” he wrote Trey Songz and Fabolous’ “Say Aah.” If we can get him in the studio with the boys in the future that would be a really good look. We can show them a little more about hip hop and a little bit more about rap. I don’t have any issues in working with any of the groups in Korea but it would be awesome to go over there somehow.
S: That’s really sweet. After the bonding, were you able to keep in touch with them?
I do keep in touch with the boys. I’m not going to say how because I know there’s some really serious fans out there and they will find them. They will find out. I guess I didn’t believe how crazy some of the fans were until two instances. One, they were like “Don’t post anything on Instagram” and I’m like “Why?” So, I posted up a picture from a video we did and this was before people knew I was working with them. It was me, J-Hope, and Jin. I blurred their faces out. You have no idea who were there or what I’m doing or anything. First of all, the fans found me. I don’t know how they knew who I was. Secondly, they were like, “Hey, is that J-Hope and Jin?” I’m like, “What?? How did you even..” I believed the Korean team when they said the fans are on top of it and will find you, find out you’re here. When the boys came to LA at the airport, there were fans waiting at the airport. They didn’t tell anybody that they were coming. Two of the fans at the airport were waiting on them. That was crazy.
S: Any last words to our readers?
I really enjoyed myself and I really love all the boys. We’re going to stay in touch. It was a pleasure to work with them. I really think something else will happen in the future as far as it’s America or Korea in working together or doing something. I think it’s a bigger picture involved even though the boys are big already. I really appreciate all the love and appreciate all the support.