“I am blessed to be alive, let alone have this chance to share my music with people.”
We caught up with LA producer and DJ Tony Nicoletta aka Letta whilst on a recent trip to London. Following the release of his debut album on Coyote Records he’s in town to perform for Boiler Room and a guest slot on Rinse FM. Spending an evening with Tony during his stay, we discussed his rejuvenated love for music and how that now feeds his habit for production, instead of heroin.
Inspired by ’90s Hip-Hop, Tony has been making beats since 1998, obsessed with simple two bar loops that went on for three minutes and never got boring, mainly sampling “DJ premiere shit”. Creating tracks happens for him instinctively and emotionally and he’s resolutely against labelling his music, saying “it’s not beat-making, it’s not Grime or Hip-Hop, it’s just me.”
His debut album ‘Testimony’ is a record that needs to be absorbed from edge-to-edge to fully understand it. Tony says he feels like the record is “just the first chapter in me trying to channel years of sadness and horrible memories”. It’s a deep record, leaving us in a very pensive and sober state after gauging the sense of poignancy throughout.
One of his most inspiring tracks is Tinchy Stryder’s ‘It’s Real (Stop the Gun and Knife Crime)‘, stating that it was the minimalistic style, combined with the sadness of hearing about people getting shot and stabbed, that really drew Tony to Grime. “This song really resonated with what I was going through. It was the first UK music I was exposed to and it was life-changing… So much realness.” He describes being “inspired by the emptiness of it”, and how perfect it was without any need for other sounds, referring to this as “negative space” that allowed him to emotionally indulge in the track. The way a very young Tinchy Stryder was depicting hugely tragic, real life observations, left a heartfelt impression on Tony.
Consequently, he recalls himself listening to classic Grime that was emerging at the time, tracks such as Wiley’s ‘Treddin On Thin Ice‘, Skepta’s ‘Nokia Charger Wire’ and a lot of Ruff Sqwad material – beats that were somewhat similar to the U.S. Hip-Hop that appealed to him. He explains it was fundamentally more about the basic vibe of these striped back productions, rather than anything really technical and layered with samples or synths. “When you don’t know shit about Grime and then you hear something that is unlike anything you’ve ever heard, it’s mind-blowing. I’ve always looked for something new, I tried to hear as much music as I can. Big up my Mom for playing Prince tapes all the time in the car when I was a kid – that’s when I really started getting into music.”
His track ‘Where I Left You‘ is perhaps the most engrossing on ‘Testimony‘. Tony tells me he likes making tracks when the weather is grim, and this track really reflects that. It samples soft-sounding heavy rain, poignant whispering and gun shots that harks back to the Grime he initially engaged with. I wanted to know why Tony, who calls himself a “sensitive and peaceful dude”, was so drawn to such dark music, inviting him to delve into the trauma he’d experienced growing up, that so intimately impacts his music. “I did coke and meth amphetamine when I was 13 and that led to a whole lifestyle. Arizona was a very violent place. Just last week we lost a dude my Mum used to teach in high school – he was a graffiti legend. Someone went to his house to steal his merchandise, it got messy and he got killed. This is an everyday thing.”
There’s one particular event that has stuck with Tony to this day, and it’s one of the reasons he’s not a huge fan of America: “I think I must have been 16. I had a group of friends and we all lived in the same neighbourhood, East side of Tucson. We used to hang out with this girl younger than us, Julie – she was 13/14. She was my homegirl. One night a few of the dudes robbed a house for a shit load of guns and took them back to homegirl’s parent’s house. I wasn’t there, but I drove by five minutes after it happened, and there were cops everywhere. What had happened was they were looking through all the guns and Julie asked one of these dudes if the gun she was holding was loaded. They said of course not, she pulled the trigger to her head and blew her brains out. I had a lot of friends pass away violently but they were in the game. Julie was just a little girl who happened to be there with a bunch of idiots. That incident has always stuck with me because she was so sweet and so cool.”
While Tony says he got away from that scene by moving to LA, this kind of violence is not just an Arizona thing, it’s an American thing. Just the other week another 9 people were shot in a rogue gun attack and Barack Obama was outspoken in his anger towards the lack of sufficient common sense gun laws in the US. But guns weren’t the main issue for Tony. For five dark years he dealt dope and was addicted to heroin – he has since recovered from addiction and now focuses his time on producing music.
We asked him why some talented people who have that ability to channel their emotions into creativity, aren’t capable of escaping addiction. Tony explained that, “While music lets you get your feelings out, when the pain is so deep you need that instant release. No matter what was going on, no matter how awful things were, once I put that needle in my arm and it’s running through my bloodstream, ten seconds later nothing else matters. I’m numb. I don’t care about anything.”
So what is it that’s stopped Tony from “shooting up” now?
“It’s easy for me to get that release from writing songs now, because I’m happy where I am in life. When you just need everything to stop, writing a song isn’t going to cut it. It’s a vicious cycle. Once you’ve realised that you can kill all your pain and feelings that way it’s very hard to not keep doing it. But nothing lasts forever, the drugs don’t work forever, and at some point even when you’re high as fuck, the pain is still there. I guess that’s the moment you decide to make a change, or else you die.”
Skid Row, LA.
(Photo Kevork Djansezian)
Tony recalled his personal turning point and explained why for him, there’s no turning back: “I remember looking at myself in the mirror of my shitty apartment, and I couldn’t see myself. I wasn’t there. Heroin steals your soul and I was lucky enough to get it back, but it was years of struggle and physical and mental pain. I just had to find myself. I am blessed to be alive, let alone have this chance to share my music with people.”
“Don’t get me wrong, I love drugs”, he continued, “but I despise heroin. It’s taken too many of my friends and took me for far too long. It’s the devil and I will never go near that again – no temptation, no cravings or anything. It’s the worst drug of them all. It takes your soul away and steals who you are, so if that’s not the devil I don’t know what is.”
Throughout the evening Tony has been playing a selection of music and the final track he picks to play is ‘Single File’ by Elliott Smith, stating that “Every song he ever wrote was about shooting heroin. So bittersweet with that happiness of being high and then that harsh realness of being nothing and empty. I wouldn’t have gotten through it without him or seen that much of what human life is about.”
He was unable to listen to Elliott Smith for a decade after quitting dope and can only just about listen to his music now. Tony recently did a remix of one of his songs, saying it completely brings him back to his past and reminds him of where he came from and how dark things can be – but ultimately you can overcome anything if you really want to.
“I would look out of my window of the warehouse at night and see the craziest shit – just insanity. I lived one storey above skid row and I knew the line between me and them was so thin and at any time it could be me again.” At 34 years old Elliott Smith allegedly stabbed himself twice in the heart and died. Tony Nicoletta turned 35 last week and he proudly tells me, “The future looks bright”.
‘Testimony’ is out now on Coyote Records
Words: Anastasia Kyriacou