So You Want To Be A Musician? A Lesson In Mastery From The World Famous Tony Williams

The World Famous Tony Williams

The World Famous Tony Williams (Photo by Parker Moore).

Parker Moore

The Listening Party: Part 1

It was a gray day in 2019. The World Famous Tony Williams had just asked me what the WiFi was. "FBI Surveillance Van." Williams, his assistant, and his friend each had their phones ready but paused for a thoughtful second, looking to me for an explanation. "WiFi humor," I offered. Nods and smiles all around.

"What about the password?"

You don't think much about the silliness of your WiFi password until you have to contextualize it for a Grammy-winning artist. "Internet. Feef. Mode. First letter of each word...is...uh...capitalized."

Williams, his assistant, and his friend, once again, wanted the what and the why. "Our cat Felix. His nickname is Feef. And we say he has all these different modes. Back of couch mode. Cuddle mode. Stair lord mode."

Mercifully, the conversation shifted to bluetooth. There's music to be played. Williams is near the release of his second studio album, To Gain the World, a sequel to 2012's King or the Fool. As I prayed the Sonos sound bar would be cool and not give Tony any problems—making me look like a king rather than a fool—I was full of excitement and curiosity.

I've spent nearly half a decade co-hosting a Kanye West podcast where we go track-by-track analyzing every song in Kanye's discography. The World Famous Tony Williams has contributed vocals to over 25 of those, as well as performing on the Touch the Sky, Glow in the Dark, Yeezus, and Saint Pablo tours. He's been a centerpiece of 2019's Sunday Service project: Kanye's weekly, choir-centric, gospel-focused, new-wave church-like experience. As well as appearing in the Jesus Is King IMAX film.

"I don’t call myself a soul singer," says Williams, "but a singer that happens to be extremely soulful.” He is probably West's longest and most frequent collaborator. Rap legends like Jay-Z ("A Star is Born") and Nas ("Bonjour") have also relied on his golden-age-style to bridge the gap between classic and modern. I've long been an admirer of his.

Tony and his wife, Traci, live in Dallas-Fort Worth. They own a vintage clothing store, Space 137, "Where,” he says, “we serve as 'resident stylists.' We outfit a lot of bands and artists as well as being a go to for video shoots or TV that's shot locally." BBC Three's 2018 mini-documentary Searching for Kanye West featured Williams and the store. Racks on racks on racks, the offerings immense and eclectic, a collision of clothes from various whens and wheres that you could spend hours touring through.

It's clear Tony's drawn to aesthetic beyond music. "Style and taste is key, for me. In that sense, KW [Kanye West] and I are alike. I was always the best dressed kid in school."

After two years at Oklahoma University, Williams made a change, leaving his home state for Los Angeles to enroll in the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising. "A few seasons back we started styling the catalogue for Dobbs and Stetson hats. Recently, I was a model for an upcoming season catalogue for Dobbs. I guess I'm like the Dobbs man, now."

This day, Tony wore a tracksuit—Adidas, of course—that had the three-tones of the night sky: a deep blue core juxtaposed by black on the sleeves and outer legs, white lines and trim like moonlight. His fire orange shoes added a final pop to the outfit. He was relaxed as he spoke, one leg crossed over the other, his voice and presence made for storytelling. I was leaned forward, eager, and suddenly aware of how unharmonious a pair my polo and shorts were. One of us was certainly worthy of being a Dobbs man.

"I ended up completing cosmetology school once I moved to Dallas. I worked as a hair stylist from 1996 to 2006. I was quite an amazing cutter as well as a master colorist. I’ve always been good working with my hands, and as long as I’m being creative I’m deep into my bag." It's easy to think a musician as successful as The World Famous Tony Williams would have a background that's simply and strictly music. Fashion, cosmetology, and design may all seem like secondary, unnecessary domains. Detours. You might think of each as being a city unto itself, and that no person can be in two places at once. So why spend time in Fashion City if your career’s in Music City?

"I feel like curating an album or even creating an individual song is a lot like putting an outfit together, or even a collection. It all carries over into the music. For me, making music that’s in good taste with lots of interesting flare and style is my main goal.” A recent book called Range, by author David Epstein, discusses this vary notion. In fields that are more creatively dynamic than repetitious (like novel writing vs. chess), breadth is as necessary as depth. Tony's cousin, Kanye, is another example of a prominent musician who finds inspiration through fashion and architecture and design—disparate mediums that would seem to take away from musical capacity rather than add to it. West once said one of his greatest inspirations for his album Yeezus (2013) was a lamp designed by Le Corbusier.

That connectivity between Tony and Kanye—cousins, collaborators, fellow artists—had me wondering. Kanye dramatically shifted his sound after 2010's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, releasing a series of avant-garde and polarizing albums: Yeezus (2014), The Life of Pablo (2016), ye (2018), Jesus Is King (2019). In the years between King or the Fool and To Gain the World, had Tony Williams undergone a similar sonic journey?

The Sonos came to life. Music, vibrant and prismatic, spilled over us.

What Separates Kings From Fools Anyway?

"My new sound is my old sound," is how Tony has described To Gain The World. The line is concise and catchy, the kind of quotable material you'd expect from a veteran artist with a mind for presentation and promotion. But if that's all you see it as, then you miss out on an important lesson about craft, personal development, and mastery.

Mastery is an interesting topic in the 21st Century. For so long, it was viewed as the byproduct of an innate genius or talent acquired at nativity. "You're either born with it or you aren't," is something you may have heard. Fortunately, two seminal works have changed that perspective.

First was Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell. Released in 2008, an eagerly anticipated follow-up to Blink and mega-success The Tipping Point, Outliers was a major step in demythologizing greatness. It made mainstream the notion that skill, rather than being inherited, is the consequence of the formula: time + effort. Specifically, Gladwell pointed to 10,000 hours as the threshold that divided the best from everyone else.

One of the major stories Gladwell presented was Bill Gates and the origin of Microsoft.

The popular notion of Gates's success is a young genius who made a world-shifting breakthrough in computer programming for one simple reason—he was a genius. It's a clean and easy explanation that satisfies Occam's Razor. Some people have the it-factor, others don't. Those who do achieve; the rest of us get by.

Reality isn't so simple. It turns out, Gates attended a prep school that invested in a computer processor in an era when computers were the stuff of luxury, novelty, and military. From ages 13 to 18, Gates and his friends would spend countless hours on the machine, endlessly interested in what it was and what it could do. When Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems released the Altair 8800 in 1975 (the first mainstream microcomputer), Gates, then 20, had nearly a decade of experience with similar hardware.

Was it genius alone that gifted Gates (and Paul Allen) the ability to create software that could run BASIC coding language on the Altair, a first-step in a global digital revolution? Or had it more to do with the thousands and thousands of hours a young man had spent programming when most everyone else his age had zero?

Nietzsche once said, "Genius too does nothing but learn first how to lay bricks then how to build..."

The second work was by Robert Greene, known for The 48 Laws of Power and 33 Strategies for War. Titled Mastery, Greene, like Gladwell, had noticed success had less to do with talent and more to do with process. He would tell Forbes, in 2012, "Mastery, I learned, was not something genetic, or for a lucky few. It is something we can all attain if we get rid of some misconceptions and gain clarity as to the required path."

Greene presented a theory that went beyond a mere accumulation of hours. The journey to mastery he described necessitates a period of apprenticeship and mentoring where you learn the core concepts and skills and your journey is accelerated through guidance. Once that's complete, there's a breaking free, a moving beyond what's been done, what's been known. Masterwork is forged through experimentation, experience, and synthesis of the past and present, resulting in the brand new.

The future belongs to those who can combine forms of knowledge and different skills. All of the modern masters I interviewed exemplify this. For the entrepreneur Paul Graham it was visual arts and computer science; for Santiago Calatrava it was engineering and architecture; for Freddie Roach it was using his experience as a boxer and combing it in a new way with his work as a trainer; for Yoky Matsuoka it was mixing neuroscience, with robotics, and the design of green technology. The reason for this is simple: we now live in an era of incredible access to information. Mining the area between various fields will allow you to carve out a unique career path, one that is custom fit to your own interests and inclinations...Do not consider anything you have done in the past as a waste.

Robert Greene, Forbes interview with Dan Schawbel

Mastery is filled with demythologizing tales similar to what Gladwell did with Bill Gates. Greene re-humanizes Einstein, Marie Curie, Ingmar Bergman, Martha Graham, Daniel Everett, John Coltrane, V.S. Ramachandran, Buckminster Fuller, Temple Grandin, Benjamin Franklin, Zora Neale Hurston, Cesar Rodriguez, Bill Bradley, Keats, Ford, Mozart, Frank Lloyd Wright, Jung, Hakuin Zenji, Glenn Gould, Ignaz Semmelweis, William Harvey, Teresita Fernández, Goethe, Josef von Sternberg, Edison, Rembrandt, Proust, Bach, and more.

The success many view as extraordinary and beyond them, Mastery not only normalizes but demonstrates over and over the means of procurement for anyone.

In my conversation with Williams, it amazed me how his story aligned with those named above. A common (yet so often untold) odyssey of apprenticeship, mentoring, synthesis, and breakthrough. While it's not typical for an interviewer to remove themselves from the interview—to, instead, provide an extended, uninterrupted stretch of dialogue from the subject—that's what follows. I could summarize what Tony shared with me. I could scatter direct quotes throughout the piece. But we so often hear these accounts second-hand, through a Gladwell or a Greene. I believe there's exceptional power in autobiography. In experiencing the nuance of voice and perspective that's unique to the person of interest. In this case, The World Famous Tony Williams.

To Gain The World:

I remember growing up, just being a music fanatic. I've come to always preface my conversations with establishing the timeline, being pre-internet and post-internet. It seemed like the world vibrated at a much slower pace. It was very commonplace for two years to pass by before you got a Michael Jackson album or a Prince album. So it does feel odd in this current climate when artists are putting out music every three months to keep attention.

But just me moving and vibrating at a much slower rate. I kind of refuse to jump in that current where I'm spinning like a top. I think that has a lot to do with my longevity. I realize there's something about remaining a classic that never gets old.

Being an artist that has experienced the spans over decades, different waves, different styles, seeing them come and go, and going back to my very early influences as a small child—'60s music—I contend I can point to a golden age in pop music and R&B soul music. Late seventies into early early eighties—I'd hang my hat on then being a golden age.

Proof being that this era of music draws so much from it.

It was right at the time when there was a perfection of music coming out of the '60s when music was limited. Limited to technology, instruments available. And so that late '70s had perfected where music was coming from but hadn't died to itself going into the '80s and '90s when technology killed music.

Every generation has the older people who say, "Back in my day." Let me tell you the truth, because back in my day everything isn't how we thought it was. I can listen to stuff in hindsight and go, "That was really garbage." Technology began to spin at such a fast rate that we had all these new inventions. It became, "Let me see what this button sounds like." The synthesizer age. You get all these crazy, innovative sounds. When you go back and listen it's really garbage but it was an era of experimentation.

I think this album, even who I am as an artist, is all the good parts of that whole span. You can only regurgitate what you've ingested.

I come from an era of bands. I grew up cutting my teeth with bands, putting a group together, practicing in the garage, then going to play a club in front of people and actually, physically connecting with people. There was a period where I was very heartbroken over a band breakup. Between the years of 1990-1992 I didn't listen to one note of music. Never played the radio. I never turned on MTV, BET, VH1, never saw a video, never played a cassette, CD, 8-track. Didn't hear music for two whole years.

During that time I moved from Los Angeles to Dallas-Fort Worth. After two years I got the bug. Once you're a musician, once you're on the stage, you long for it if you leave it too long. I put an ad on the back page of the Dallas Observer, "New musician in town, looking for a band, these are my influences." Growing up as a '70s, '80s kid, the music that influenced me most were funk bands. I came up in the era of funk. The Gap Band, The Bar-Kays, Parliament Funkadelic. Phone started ringing. Not one funk group. All rock groups.

This was a time in Dallas when there was a deep alternative rock scene. Bands were getting signed out of Dallas. These alternative bands started ringing the phone. 'Fuck it.' I just wanted to play music.

That actually changed my life.

I auditioned and rehearsed everything, even heavy metal, until I found a good fit, a really cool alternative band. It was a marriage of soulful funk mixed with rock with a backbeat. That was pretty much the formula. R&B-soul-gospel vocals on top of rock music. It became a chemistry. It changed the way I heard music. It changed the way I heard melodies. It changed my whole musical sensibilities. As a soul singer you have soul-sensibilities. Rock singers have rock-sensibilities. Having grown up listening to a very homogenized, specific kind of music, my sensibilities were very uni-dimensional.

My sound has been this journey. I developed a formula of marrying very unsuspecting styles together. The result of these bands I was playing with, and even prior to when I started my first funk bands, that date back years before that situation, up to when I started working with Kanye and other hiphop artists. For example, Jay-Z, Nas. It's been a gradual desire and hunger to circle all the way back around to what that original sound was that caught Kanye's ear—which is what drew him to want to work with me. He's not only my cousin, he was a fan of mine.

Kanye frequently ordains himself, if you will, as a genius. I have to agree with him. One of the things his genius is is understanding individuals he brings in the room to collaborate with. Understanding and seeing them as instruments and not necessarily personalities. Like John Legend and I being two soul singers but hearing us sonically different—like wanting to hear an alto saxophone versus a tenor saxophone, hearing the timbres. That's part of the genius. That's what you're hearing in the earlier records like "Spaceship" on College Dropout. Him not using an Otis sample but using a Tony Williams voice. "I can either take an Otis record or take a live Tony Williams and pull off the same thing."

I played some of [To Gain the World] for a friend. His reaction is one of the greatest compliments I've ever received as it pertains to my music. "When I listen to this music, I can't tell if it was made ten years ago or ten minutes ago."

I'm from Oklahoma City. The world was a much larger place. Wherever you grew up, music was very regional. If you grew up in Oklahoma-Texas, your music sounded Oklahoma-Texas. One of my idols, and we're still friends to this day, professionally and personally, is Charlie Wilson, of the Gap Band. We grew up in the same state. My aunt had an urban youth choir, and the Gap Band guys grew up in the choir. They had this Oklahoma country boy sound. When they went out to California and got the deal, they brought that soul that's pure and out of the sticks, brining it to the big city. It made it more magical. Your jargon, your slang, the colloquialism was very region-specific. Unlike today where once there's a slang word, once it hits IG [Instagram], we all speak the same language from coast to coast. Depending on where you live, that was your sound.

If you grew up in Mid-America, in a very small market, you pretty much didn't desire, because you didn't think it was attainable to ever be a pop star because you never saw anybody do that. Even as a child today, you aspire to be what you see, what you can physically touch. If you know somebody in your neighborhood that's a judge, you see that as obtainable. If you see a professional athlete walk down the street... But if you live some place so remote, if you live where the population's three-hundred in your town, you don't aspire to be anything beyond what you see.

Now imagine a world pre-Internet.

When I started making records, all I aspired to do was freak out my friends when they got into my car. Because the rest didn't seem attainable.

Sometimes the mind-blowing part is I can actually get Marsha Ambrosius to sing on a record. Charlie Wilson—we did the Sunday Service in Portland. We sat down to talk about old times. I'm hoping and looking at some opportunities to get him in the studio and produce some records. It's been an interesting experience getting to work with artists who—even before I got to the level I'm at that—I looked to as a fan. It's still thrilling to me. Just being that boy, that kid from Oklahoma who never thought he deserved to or would be this thing. I'm still just a fanboy to a degree.

I recently dug up some of my old studio sessions. I've been at this for so long, so it amazes me that some of my earlier works are as good as they are. But I think maintaining and developing an approach from the beginning is what's given me that level of quality. Especially with the way music is made now, there's so many short cuts.

I always say music is made in the reverse of how we made music twenty-years ago.

Today, the artist will go in the studio and make a song that has never connected to anyone, then go and perform this music that, half the time, doesn't translate to a live setting. It's already on the album. They have six-zillion followers on Instagram. But the music doesn't necessarily connect.

In those early times, when I first started with my first bands, when I was in my very early twenties, we'd put a band together. We'd go into the garage or wherever we rehearse. We'd write material, we'd practice it, we'd practice it, and we'd practice it, and we'd practice it some more. Then we'd say, 'Hey, let's book a gig at a club.' Then we'd go to a club. We'd advertise. We'd get real people to come into the room and listen to the music. We would work on performing the music so that it actually connected with the fan base in a live setting. Once we connected those songs with the people, we would grab that feeling and that thing, then we'd take it to the studio and recreate it to tape. That was the only formula we knew. And that's the formula I maintain today when I go into the studio and make music.

The Listening Party: Part 2

Over the next hour, the four of us (five if you include Felix, asleep on the back of the couch) listened to a sampling of To Gain the World.

Particularly relevant to our consideration of mastery was the track, "Money." It starts stripped down. A bassline by itself. Then a burst of three elements: a guitar whines a continuous, bluesy note; a chant-like vocal establishes the background; and Pharoahe Monch rapping about the individual versus economic forces. Monch fades away and the song starts proper. Funk rock that The World Famous Tony Williams croons over.

Money, will change your ways/Money, will make your day/Money will make you kill.

Because of the title, the lyrics, pace and rhythm and guitar-powered soundscape, I found myself thinking about Pink Floyd's "Money." Both songs have that texture of being in the '70s, so they feel like contemporaries in a way "Hello" by Adele and "Hello" by Lionel Richie do not.

But that sense of music from decade’s prior isn’t fixed. There are choices that are unmistakably modern. From moments in Tony's delivery and inflections. To the layering of distinct male and female secondary vocals that struck me as more Kanye than a band from yesterday. By the time Dallas rapper Bobby Sessions comes in for the bridge—you're firmly in the 21st century. Until a minute later, when Williams and Sessions give way to the soaring voice of jACQ and a guitar solo. It’s then, during such a crescendo, that what is and what was meld seamless. 


Look for To Gain the World in 2020. In the meantime, you can follow The World Famous Tony Williams on Twitter, Instagram, and Spotify for updates.

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The Listening Party: Part 1

It was a gray day in 2019. The World Famous Tony Williams had just asked me what the WiFi was. "FBI Surveillance Van." Williams, his assistant, and his friend each had their phones ready but paused for a thoughtful second, looking to me for an explanation. "WiFi humor," I offered. Nods and smiles all around.

"What about the password?"

You don't think much about the silliness of your WiFi password until you have to contextualize it for a Grammy-winning artist. "Internet. Feef. Mode. First letter of each word...is...uh...capitalized."

Williams, his assistant, and his friend, once again, wanted the what and the why. "Our cat Felix. His nickname is Feef. And we say he has all these different modes. Back of couch mode. Cuddle mode. Stair lord mode."

Mercifully, the conversation shifted to bluetooth. There's music to be played. Williams is near the release of his second studio album, To Gain the World, a sequel to 2012's King or the Fool. As I prayed the Sonos sound bar would be cool and not give Tony any problems—making me look like a king rather than a fool—I was full of excitement and curiosity.

I've spent nearly half a decade co-hosting a Kanye West podcast where we go track-by-track analyzing every song in Kanye's discography. The World Famous Tony Williams has contributed vocals to over 25 of those, as well as performing on the Touch the Sky, Glow in the Dark, Yeezus, and Saint Pablo tours. He's been a centerpiece of 2019's Sunday Service project: Kanye's weekly, choir-centric, gospel-focused, new-wave church-like experience. As well as appearing in the Jesus Is King IMAX film.

"I don’t call myself a soul singer," says Williams, "but a singer that happens to be extremely soulful.” He is probably West's longest and most frequent collaborator. Rap legends like Jay-Z ("A Star is Born") and Nas ("Bonjour") have also relied on his golden-age-style to bridge the gap between classic and modern. I've long been an admirer of his.

Tony and his wife, Traci, live in Dallas-Fort Worth. They own a vintage clothing store, Space 137, "Where,” he says, “we serve as 'resident stylists.' We outfit a lot of bands and artists as well as being a go to for video shoots or TV that's shot locally." BBC Three's 2018 mini-documentary Searching for Kanye West featured Williams and the store. Racks on racks on racks, the offerings immense and eclectic, a collision of clothes from various whens and wheres that you could spend hours touring through.

It's clear Tony's drawn to aesthetic beyond music. "Style and taste is key, for me. In that sense, KW [Kanye West] and I are alike. I was always the best dressed kid in school."

After two years at Oklahoma University, Williams made a change, leaving his home state for Los Angeles to enroll in the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising. "A few seasons back we started styling the catalogue for Dobbs and Stetson hats. Recently, I was a model for an upcoming season catalogue for Dobbs. I guess I'm like the Dobbs man, now."

This day, Tony wore a tracksuit—Adidas, of course—that had the three-tones of the night sky: a deep blue core juxtaposed by black on the sleeves and outer legs, white lines and trim like moonlight. His fire orange shoes added a final pop to the outfit. He was relaxed as he spoke, one leg crossed over the other, his voice and presence made for storytelling. I was leaned forward, eager, and suddenly aware of how unharmonious a pair my polo and shorts were. One of us was certainly worthy of being a Dobbs man.

"I ended up completing cosmetology school once I moved to Dallas. I worked as a hair stylist from 1996 to 2006. I was quite an amazing cutter as well as a master colorist. I’ve always been good working with my hands, and as long as I’m being creative I’m deep into my bag." It's easy to think a musician as successful as The World Famous Tony Williams would have a background that's simply and strictly music. Fashion, cosmetology, and design may all seem like secondary, unnecessary domains. Detours. You might think of each as being a city unto itself, and that no person can be in two places at once. So why spend time in Fashion City if your career’s in Music City?

"I feel like curating an album or even creating an individual song is a lot like putting an outfit together, or even a collection. It all carries over into the music. For me, making music that’s in good taste with lots of interesting flare and style is my main goal.” A recent book called Range, by author David Epstein, discusses this vary notion. In fields that are more creatively dynamic than repetitious (like novel writing vs. chess), breadth is as necessary as depth. Tony's cousin, Kanye, is another example of a prominent musician who finds inspiration through fashion and architecture and design—disparate mediums that would seem to take away from musical capacity rather than add to it. West once said one of his greatest inspirations for his album Yeezus (2013) was a lamp designed by Le Corbusier.

That connectivity between Tony and Kanye—cousins, collaborators, fellow artists—had me wondering. Kanye dramatically shifted his sound after 2010's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, releasing a series of avant-garde and polarizing albums: Yeezus (2014), The Life of Pablo (2016), ye (2018), Jesus Is King (2019). In the years between King or the Fool and To Gain the World, had Tony Williams undergone a similar sonic journey?

The Sonos came to life. Music, vibrant and prismatic, spilled over us.

What Separates Kings From Fools Anyway?

"My new sound is my old sound," is how Tony has described To Gain The World. The line is concise and catchy, the kind of quotable material you'd expect from a veteran artist with a mind for presentation and promotion. But if that's all you see it as, then you miss out on an important lesson about craft, personal development, and mastery.

Mastery is an interesting topic in the 21st Century. For so long, it was viewed as the byproduct of an innate genius or talent acquired at nativity. "You're either born with it or you aren't," is something you may have heard. Fortunately, two seminal works have changed that perspective.

First was Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell. Released in 2008, an eagerly anticipated follow-up to Blink and mega-success The Tipping Point, Outliers was a major step in demythologizing greatness. It made mainstream the notion that skill, rather than being inherited, is the consequence of the formula: time + effort. Specifically, Gladwell pointed to 10,000 hours as the threshold that divided the best from everyone else.

One of the major stories Gladwell presented was Bill Gates and the origin of Microsoft.

The popular notion of Gates's success is a young genius who made a world-shifting breakthrough in computer programming for one simple reason—he was a genius. It's a clean and easy explanation that satisfies Occam's Razor. Some people have the it-factor, others don't. Those who do achieve; the rest of us get by.

Reality isn't so simple. It turns out, Gates attended a prep school that invested in a computer processor in an era when computers were the stuff of luxury, novelty, and military. From ages 13 to 18, Gates and his friends would spend countless hours on the machine, endlessly interested in what it was and what it could do. When Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems released the Altair 8800 in 1975 (the first mainstream microcomputer), Gates, then 20, had nearly a decade of experience with similar hardware.

Was it genius alone that gifted Gates (and Paul Allen) the ability to create software that could run BASIC coding language on the Altair, a first-step in a global digital revolution? Or had it more to do with the thousands and thousands of hours a young man had spent programming when most everyone else his age had zero?

Nietzsche once said, "Genius too does nothing but learn first how to lay bricks then how to build..."

The second work was by Robert Greene, known for The 48 Laws of Power and 33 Strategies for War. Titled Mastery, Greene, like Gladwell, had noticed success had less to do with talent and more to do with process. He would tell Forbes, in 2012, "Mastery, I learned, was not something genetic, or for a lucky few. It is something we can all attain if we get rid of some misconceptions and gain clarity as to the required path."

Greene presented a theory that went beyond a mere accumulation of hours. The journey to mastery he described necessitates a period of apprenticeship and mentoring where you learn the core concepts and skills and your journey is accelerated through guidance. Once that's complete, there's a breaking free, a moving beyond what's been done, what's been known. Masterwork is forged through experimentation, experience, and synthesis of the past and present, resulting in the brand new.

The future belongs to those who can combine forms of knowledge and different skills. All of the modern masters I interviewed exemplify this. For the entrepreneur Paul Graham it was visual arts and computer science; for Santiago Calatrava it was engineering and architecture; for Freddie Roach it was using his experience as a boxer and combing it in a new way with his work as a trainer; for Yoky Matsuoka it was mixing neuroscience, with robotics, and the design of green technology. The reason for this is simple: we now live in an era of incredible access to information. Mining the area between various fields will allow you to carve out a unique career path, one that is custom fit to your own interests and inclinations...Do not consider anything you have done in the past as a waste.

Robert Greene, Forbes interview with Dan Schawbel

Mastery is filled with demythologizing tales similar to what Gladwell did with Bill Gates. Greene re-humanizes Einstein, Marie Curie, Ingmar Bergman, Martha Graham, Daniel Everett, John Coltrane, V.S. Ramachandran, Buckminster Fuller, Temple Grandin, Benjamin Franklin, Zora Neale Hurston, Cesar Rodriguez, Bill Bradley, Keats, Ford, Mozart, Frank Lloyd Wright, Jung, Hakuin Zenji, Glenn Gould, Ignaz Semmelweis, William Harvey, Teresita Fernández, Goethe, Josef von Sternberg, Edison, Rembrandt, Proust, Bach, and more.

The success many view as extraordinary and beyond them, Mastery not only normalizes but demonstrates over and over the means of procurement for anyone.

In my conversation with Williams, it amazed me how his story aligned with those named above. A common (yet so often untold) odyssey of apprenticeship, mentoring, synthesis, and breakthrough. While it's not typical for an interviewer to remove themselves from the interview—to, instead, provide an extended, uninterrupted stretch of dialogue from the subject—that's what follows. I could summarize what Tony shared with me. I could scatter direct quotes throughout the piece. But we so often hear these accounts second-hand, through a Gladwell or a Greene. I believe there's exceptional power in autobiography. In experiencing the nuance of voice and perspective that's unique to the person of interest. In this case, The World Famous Tony Williams.

To Gain The World:

I remember growing up, just being a music fanatic. I've come to always preface my conversations with establishing the timeline, being pre-internet and post-internet. It seemed like the world vibrated at a much slower pace. It was very commonplace for two years to pass by before you got a Michael Jackson album or a Prince album. So it does feel odd in this current climate when artists are putting out music every three months to keep attention.

But just me moving and vibrating at a much slower rate. I kind of refuse to jump in that current where I'm spinning like a top. I think that has a lot to do with my longevity. I realize there's something about remaining a classic that never gets old.

Being an artist that has experienced the spans over decades, different waves, different styles, seeing them come and go, and going back to my very early influences as a small child—'60s music—I contend I can point to a golden age in pop music and R&B soul music. Late seventies into early early eighties—I'd hang my hat on then being a golden age.

Proof being that this era of music draws so much from it.

It was right at the time when there was a perfection of music coming out of the '60s when music was limited. Limited to technology, instruments available. And so that late '70s had perfected where music was coming from but hadn't died to itself going into the '80s and '90s when technology killed music.

Every generation has the older people who say, "Back in my day." Let me tell you the truth, because back in my day everything isn't how we thought it was. I can listen to stuff in hindsight and go, "That was really garbage." Technology began to spin at such a fast rate that we had all these new inventions. It became, "Let me see what this button sounds like." The synthesizer age. You get all these crazy, innovative sounds. When you go back and listen it's really garbage but it was an era of experimentation.

I think this album, even who I am as an artist, is all the good parts of that whole span. You can only regurgitate what you've ingested.

I come from an era of bands. I grew up cutting my teeth with bands, putting a group together, practicing in the garage, then going to play a club in front of people and actually, physically connecting with people. There was a period where I was very heartbroken over a band breakup. Between the years of 1990-1992 I didn't listen to one note of music. Never played the radio. I never turned on MTV, BET, VH1, never saw a video, never played a cassette, CD, 8-track. Didn't hear music for two whole years.

During that time I moved from Los Angeles to Dallas-Fort Worth. After two years I got the bug. Once you're a musician, once you're on the stage, you long for it if you leave it too long. I put an ad on the back page of the Dallas Observer, "New musician in town, looking for a band, these are my influences." Growing up as a '70s, '80s kid, the music that influenced me most were funk bands. I came up in the era of funk. The Gap Band, The Bar-Kays, Parliament Funkadelic. Phone started ringing. Not one funk group. All rock groups.

This was a time in Dallas when there was a deep alternative rock scene. Bands were getting signed out of Dallas. These alternative bands started ringing the phone. 'Fuck it.' I just wanted to play music.

That actually changed my life.

I auditioned and rehearsed everything, even heavy metal, until I found a good fit, a really cool alternative band. It was a marriage of soulful funk mixed with rock with a backbeat. That was pretty much the formula. R&B-soul-gospel vocals on top of rock music. It became a chemistry. It changed the way I heard music. It changed the way I heard melodies. It changed my whole musical sensibilities. As a soul singer you have soul-sensibilities. Rock singers have rock-sensibilities. Having grown up listening to a very homogenized, specific kind of music, my sensibilities were very uni-dimensional.

My sound has been this journey. I developed a formula of marrying very unsuspecting styles together. The result of these bands I was playing with, and even prior to when I started my first funk bands, that date back years before that situation, up to when I started working with Kanye and other hiphop artists. For example, Jay-Z, Nas. It's been a gradual desire and hunger to circle all the way back around to what that original sound was that caught Kanye's ear—which is what drew him to want to work with me. He's not only my cousin, he was a fan of mine.

Kanye frequently ordains himself, if you will, as a genius. I have to agree with him. One of the things his genius is is understanding individuals he brings in the room to collaborate with. Understanding and seeing them as instruments and not necessarily personalities. Like John Legend and I being two soul singers but hearing us sonically different—like wanting to hear an alto saxophone versus a tenor saxophone, hearing the timbres. That's part of the genius. That's what you're hearing in the earlier records like "Spaceship" on College Dropout. Him not using an Otis sample but using a Tony Williams voice. "I can either take an Otis record or take a live Tony Williams and pull off the same thing."

I played some of [To Gain the World] for a friend. His reaction is one of the greatest compliments I've ever received as it pertains to my music. "When I listen to this music, I can't tell if it was made ten years ago or ten minutes ago."

I'm from Oklahoma City. The world was a much larger place. Wherever you grew up, music was very regional. If you grew up in Oklahoma-Texas, your music sounded Oklahoma-Texas. One of my idols, and we're still friends to this day, professionally and personally, is Charlie Wilson, of the Gap Band. We grew up in the same state. My aunt had an urban youth choir, and the Gap Band guys grew up in the choir. They had this Oklahoma country boy sound. When they went out to California and got the deal, they brought that soul that's pure and out of the sticks, brining it to the big city. It made it more magical. Your jargon, your slang, the colloquialism was very region-specific. Unlike today where once there's a slang word, once it hits IG [Instagram], we all speak the same language from coast to coast. Depending on where you live, that was your sound.

If you grew up in Mid-America, in a very small market, you pretty much didn't desire, because you didn't think it was attainable to ever be a pop star because you never saw anybody do that. Even as a child today, you aspire to be what you see, what you can physically touch. If you know somebody in your neighborhood that's a judge, you see that as obtainable. If you see a professional athlete walk down the street... But if you live some place so remote, if you live where the population's three-hundred in your town, you don't aspire to be anything beyond what you see.

Now imagine a world pre-Internet.

When I started making records, all I aspired to do was freak out my friends when they got into my car. Because the rest didn't seem attainable.

Sometimes the mind-blowing part is I can actually get Marsha Ambrosius to sing on a record. Charlie Wilson—we did the Sunday Service in Portland. We sat down to talk about old times. I'm hoping and looking at some opportunities to get him in the studio and produce some records. It's been an interesting experience getting to work with artists who—even before I got to the level I'm at that—I looked to as a fan. It's still thrilling to me. Just being that boy, that kid from Oklahoma who never thought he deserved to or would be this thing. I'm still just a fanboy to a degree.

I recently dug up some of my old studio sessions. I've been at this for so long, so it amazes me that some of my earlier works are as good as they are. But I think maintaining and developing an approach from the beginning is what's given me that level of quality. Especially with the way music is made now, there's so many short cuts.

I always say music is made in the reverse of how we made music twenty-years ago.

Today, the artist will go in the studio and make a song that has never connected to anyone, then go and perform this music that, half the time, doesn't translate to a live setting. It's already on the album. They have six-zillion followers on Instagram. But the music doesn't necessarily connect.

In those early times, when I first started with my first bands, when I was in my very early twenties, we'd put a band together. We'd go into the garage or wherever we rehearse. We'd write material, we'd practice it, we'd practice it, and we'd practice it, and we'd practice it some more. Then we'd say, 'Hey, let's book a gig at a club.' Then we'd go to a club. We'd advertise. We'd get real people to come into the room and listen to the music. We would work on performing the music so that it actually connected with the fan base in a live setting. Once we connected those songs with the people, we would grab that feeling and that thing, then we'd take it to the studio and recreate it to tape. That was the only formula we knew. And that's the formula I maintain today when I go into the studio and make music.

The Listening Party: Part 2

Over the next hour, the four of us (five if you include Felix, asleep on the back of the couch) listened to a sampling of To Gain the World.

Particularly relevant to our consideration of mastery was the track, "Money." It starts stripped down. A bassline by itself. Then a burst of three elements: a guitar whines a continuous, bluesy note; a chant-like vocal establishes the background; and Pharoahe Monch rapping about the individual versus economic forces. Monch fades away and the song starts proper. Funk rock that The World Famous Tony Williams croons over.

Money, will change your ways/Money, will make your day/Money will make you kill.

Because of the title, the lyrics, pace and rhythm and guitar-powered soundscape, I found myself thinking about Pink Floyd's "Money." Both songs have that texture of being in the '70s, so they feel like contemporaries in a way "Hello" by Adele and "Hello" by Lionel Richie do not.

But that sense of music from decade’s prior isn’t fixed. There are choices that are unmistakably modern. From moments in Tony's delivery and inflections. To the layering of distinct male and female secondary vocals that struck me as more Kanye than a band from yesterday. By the time Dallas rapper Bobby Sessions comes in for the bridge—you're firmly in the 21st century. Until a minute later, when Williams and Sessions give way to the soaring voice of jACQ and a guitar solo. It’s then, during such a crescendo, that what is and what was meld seamless. 


Look for To Gain the World in 2020. In the meantime, you can follow The World Famous Tony Williams on Twitter, Instagram, and Spotify for updates.

Follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn. Check out my website or some of my other work here.

I co-host the #1 Kanye West podcast in the world, Watching the Throne, and am responsible for groundbreaking, seminal scholarship on Kanye's discography that has change

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