While many regard freestyle as New York-centric, the genre had just as much impact down South in Miami. Credit for this must go to Pretty Tony Butler, whose production work with Debbie Deb, Trinere and Freestyle made Liberty City one of freestyle’s main hubs. Tony’s bass-heavy tunes not only hit hard, they had a sense of humor: One of his early signatures was sound effects like broken glass and lasers. In this rare interview, Vivian Host quizzes the hitmaker about Miami in the ’80s, how a machine gun played an essential role in a Trinere hit and much more.
What was the thing that got you into producing in the first place?
When I was in high school I was a DJ doing different high school parties in the gyms and whatnot. I went from there to DJing one of the biggest skating rinks here called Superstar Rollerteque. It wasn’t hip hop yet at the time. I just played dance music I guess: Planet Patrol, Kraftwerk, things like that.
Atlantic Records and those companies had record pools where they’d give the DJ’s 20 records each and then you give them your feedback on the records. What they noticed is every one I told them was going to be a hit, was a hit. They started asking me about different records they were unsure of that they really wanted to release. They sent me records before they were released to hear what I thought. I batted 1,000 again. Every record they sent me I told them was going to be a hit, was a hit.
They asked me, “Do you think you could make a record that was a hit?” I said, “Yeah.” There were a couple of recording studios here but they wouldn’t even let me in to look at their studio. So I built my own studio – it was set up to look like a DJ booth, because that’s all I knew. From there, the first records I made I recorded standing up. I’m a DJ and that’s how I got my groove. So I built the studio, I found the artists, wrote the songs, engineered the sessions, recorded them, and set up the label as far as distribution was concerned: accounts receivable, payable, promotion, all that. Back then you didn’t need a million dollars. It cost you $1 to press a record and you sell it for $3.50. You could do all right.
Through DJing, I had become friends with the people at the radio station, 99 Jams, especially Jerry Rushin, he was the general manager. They taught me the record business. The first record I made was on cassette. I took it to the radio station, they played it, and the phones just blew up. That record went gold. Then three weeks later I took them another record on cassette and that was platinum. Every record I did since then was platinum.
What was the equipment like in your first studio when you were making “Fix It in the Mix” and “Lookout Weekend?”
My first record was called “Summer Delight.” It was a group of cousins. They were actually a band with guitars and drums. People was going crazy over the record and the guys in the group went crazy as well. They were turning into stars. I didn’t understand what was going on. The bass player was like, “I want to be louder.” The drummer was like, “I want my drum part to be longer.” They was such a pain that I told them, “Go back to the garage and I’ll do it myself.”
I went and bought a vocoder, a Roland 808, and a Juno 60, and that was “Fix It in the Mix.” After that it was “Jam the Box,” which went double platinum. By then I had a Prophet 5 emulator but that was it. I only had four keyboards the entire time [I was making these records].
As I’m going along, I’m learning the business. I go, “I’m probably never going to go on stage. I’m missing a lot of money.” I had noticed a lot of groups were making money touring but I wasn’t getting that part of the business. So I go, let me just produce for artists, that way I can get the full experience of this music thing.
How did you meet Debbie Deb and decide to work with her?
At that time I was promoting concerts. We did Luther Vandross, Gap Band, Midnight Star and whatnot. I went to Peaches Records to check the ticket sales and give them more tickets. I was working on the music for a track called “When I Hear Music” and I knew I wanted a female voice. I heard a voice coming from behind the wall at Peaches that was the exact voice I was hearing in my head. She was hip, Debbie Deb. I go, “Do you sing?” She goes, “No dude.” I go, “Do you want to make a record?” She said, “I guess.” I gave her my number and my address and asked her to come to the studio that night.
That night she came by, put on the headphones and went in the booth, and she said she couldn’t believe how good the song sounded. She’s like, “This is going to be mine?” I go, “Yeah, if it sounds good enough.” While she had the headphones on I was writing the lyrics and singing it to her through the headphones through the talkback system. She was completely freaking out. We finished the record that night. I took it to the radio station and it went triple platinum.
“Fix It in the Mix” was still going up the charts, mind you, so was “Jam the Box.” I was cutting records too fast to actually make money because I didn’t understand how it went. My records were actually competing against each other. But then they taught me at the radio station that only a certain amount of records from a label can be played at one time. I go, “I got four records.” A lightbulb went off in my head, and I go, “Wait, I need more labels.” Every record I did was on a different label, so now all of them could be played on the radio at one time.
At this point, the pressing plants are running 24/7. I have four records now in the Top 10 on all the radio stations and we can’t press enough records. I went out and I bought a pressing plant. There was a Latin market here and all of the plants were only pressing records in Spanish. Nobody else was pressing English records, other than Henry Stone, with Sunnyview Records and KC and the Sunshine Band. I was the first one in Miami to start doing that kind of dance music, electronic music.
When did you first hear that people were calling this music freestyle?
As far as I know, I coined the phrase. I hadn’t heard anybody call it freestyle music prior to me coming up with the name of the group Freestyle. Most of the music was coming out of New York and overseas. The people in New York had me bummed out at first because they didn’t take my stuff seriously. The mindset was if you’re not from New York, you’re not doing something. They said that on my first platinum record; one the second one, they said I was lucky. Then after five of them they started charting, they started paying attention and having me on panels at the New Music Seminar. When their acts like TKA and Lisa Lisa started opening up for mine, I guess they figured, “We should at least acknowledge the guy.”
Stevie B was here in Miami; he came to my studio and we didn’t hit it off too well. He was trying to tell me what to do. I told him, “I’m good on that.”
What was the first thing you bought when you made a bunch of money?
I bought me a Porsche. As a matter of fact, two Porsches. I was young, and you gotta have fun. I was 25, I got hit records, I don’t have to get up until four in the afternoon. I didn’t go too crazy because everywhere you stepped was a pile of dope. It was very easy to get messed up down here. Miami Vice was Miami back in the ‘80s, no question about it. From ‘82 to ‘86, I was in the studio every day almost. I could say out of all the artist shows I maybe went to three because I was making records.
You got to understand: at first I really didn’t make a bunch of money. I didn’t know what I was doing. I’m not embarrassed to say it. You can have a hit record and it will put you out of business chasing it. By the time you figure out how it really goes, if you only have one record, you haven’t made any money. You’ve got to figure the whole thing out. The guys in the radio station taught me a lot about the radio side. But I had nobody teach me about the publishing, writing, marketing, licensing and all that stuff. I own all my masters and publishing. I knew enough to do that.
I hung the mic down in a cardboard box and threw a champagne glass in there and hit record.
On your early freestyle stuff, there’s all these sound effects: breaking glass, lasers. Especially “Fix It in the Mix,” there’s like ten different effects in it. What were you using to make thouse sounds?
It’s old, but they’re still trying to figure it out! People ask me all the time. The breaking glass, I took a cardboard box and I put a dumbbell in it. I hung the mic over down in it and threw a champagne glass, hit record and broke it. That drove people crazy. Back then, there weren’t any samplers. Every time I wanted the sound to come up I had to hit play. Most of the sounds I had to make with synthesizers. Back then you had to create the sound; there weren’t too many patches. All those sounds were not that cool to me, so I manipulated the sounds and made them sound more interesting.
What is your favorite song of those early ones that you made?
I don’t know if I could say my favorite; to me it’s like, “Who’s your favorite child?” Some of them are special, like, “He needs more attention than the other.” I think “Fix It in the Mix” had to be special because that was my first one. It really gave me the feeling of, “This is how it’s got to feel to have a hit record.” Everything went crazy because it was a new sound, new everything. My friends worked at the radio station and that was the first time they ever announced who produced the record, because I was friendly with them. I had so many orchestral hits and strings they used to call it Pretty Tony and the Pretty Tony Orchestra. That was funny.
I have made some real garbage records that the world never heard.
You were the first one in Miami making freestyle. Who did you see following your footsteps?
It was a barrage after that. Harry Stone and the people at Sunnyview Records wanted me to sign my artists to them and I told them no. They sent my friend Amos Larkins II into the studio to make them a Debbie Deb and he came out with Connie “Funky Little Beat.” It wasn’t my sound, but it was the spark. After that, Lewis Martinée came out with a bunch of stuff: Stevie B, Erotic Exotic, Secret Society, Nice & Wild – there had to be ten of them on the radio all at one time. I went in the studio for a year and came out and there was ten records like that on the radio. Everybody was all signed to majors.
I only had three or four groups, so they were always the favorite. That was one of the advantages my groups had. They were happy I didn’t sign them over to a major because we had a family, close-knit thing. The only groups that recorded in my studio were my groups. We didn’t have like, “We have to get out because somebody’s coming in next.” I had no clocks in there because we didn’t have any schedule. We didn’t stop working on the record until I thought it was good. We wasn’t under any pressure like that, which I think is a big help.
Plus, I mixed all my records as well. There’s a big difference when you make the record all yourself. I engineered it based on how I know I wanted to mix it. I never let anybody mix. I let somebody mix a record one time and never even released it. They screwed the whole record up. A lot of records, they don’t sound like they did when the guy recorded the record. You can kill a record in the mix.
Which one of these records was the most difficult to make?
“Fix It in the Mix” because I did 20 versions of it. Back then, records were seven minutes. I had to connect seven minutes worth of sound together to make a picture. Like a movie, you’re taking frames and putting all frames together. It kept changing.
Tape machines had repro heads. Repro is playback. You record on one part and when you want to play it back you go on the other head. I didn’t know how to work the equipment so I recorded the whole record on the wrong head. You know how you drive your car down the street in first gear? That was its equivalent. I’m driving down the street in first the whole way. Then, when it came time to overdub, I couldn’t because I was on the wrong head and it would have been in a different time. I had to go with that one because I couldn’t change it. I found that out after I mixed it and I went to go do a remix on it and I couldn’t because it was recorded improperly. I learned the hard way. Nobody was out there to explain to me how to do this stuff.
This last version that I did, I liked it, and I go, “I’m going to commit to this one.” That was the version that flowed well for me. When I make records, if it don’t flow or feel good, I erase it. I have made some real garbage records that the world never heard.
Can you tell me one story about working with Trinere?
What she used to do is, if she was pissed off, she pretended she couldn’t hit certain notes that she hit all the time. I had to try to keep it so nothing happens during the course of the day that pisses her off that night. One night she came in to work on “I’ll Be All You’ll Ever Need” and I wasn’t really feeling it too much. We were doing ad libs and she was messing around. I go, “Go ahead, go home.” I waited until 4:30 in the morning until she was good and sleep and then I called her and told her, “You need to come back up here.” She was so pissed. She gets up, comes back to the studio, and do you believe she did the same thing? Acting like she couldn’t hit the note. Stubborn.
I kept a Mac-11 under my console. It’s the ‘80s, everybody got to have a machine gun. I was so pissed that she was strong enough to continue to act. I took my gun and threw it and cracked the window of the vocal booth – you should hear how great she sounds. That was the version we used. Who takes a machine gun and breaks the vocal booth window and the girl starts singing wonderfully like a bird? People like the song.
Back then, you had a lot of people who weren’t trained singers but you had a lot of techniques to still make them sound good, and this was before Auto Tune and pitch-correct plug-ins. How did you do that?
You don’t have to be the greatest singer in the world to have a good record, as you know. Debbie Deb’s tone is what people like. I got to say, about 75% of her notes were off. I had her sing and recorded it to the two-track, which has a variable speed knob. The parts where that I knew she was flat, I turned it and the pitch went up and it got her in tune. It was hard to make those records!
What is the story behind “I’m Searching”?
I went away “on vacation,” so to speak. [Ed.: Pretty Tony went to jail for a year on drug-related charges.] Trinere, Debbie Deb, none of the artists wanted to sing for anybody but me. I was the only producer at Jam Packed and Music Specialist, but after I left, all kinds of people came in to make records, because now the studio was a free-for-all. I didn’t make that record “I’m Searching,” but they put my name on it as producer. If my name was on it, it didn’t guarantee it would be a hit, but the radio station and the DJs would at least listen to it.
What happened after that? I understand you’re making some new music now?
When the music changed, I stopped. I figured if I do what I like to do and do well, that’s what I want to do. If I don’t, I’ll try some other thing. Plus, I like winning. When the bass thing went away, I had three different businesses, closed-circuit television, video surveillance, cell phones. I stopped doing music, but I stayed in the electronics field because I was good at it.
I wasn’t listening to the radio when I stopped doing music. It’s like an old girlfriend – you don’t want to see her. Then I turned on the radio one day and all I heard was, “Oh yeahhhhh. Okayyyy.” Every station and every record was Lil’ Jon. I go, “What in the world is this?” Then, after he got through yelling, I was like “Oh yeah, this is my kind of music again.” It looked like my type of music was coming back. I waited until all my service contracts ended and I sold all my vans and trucks and built the studio again and started making records. That’s how Flo Rida’s “In The Ayer,” Will.I.Am, the Pitbull records came about. I just got back into the swing of things. I have a boy band now that I’m doing called the NexGen and I’m going to do some dance and electro stuff as well. I don’t have to make records again, but that’s my passion.