Hip-hop might be one of the few modern cultures where you can cut a legendary figure but still be relatively unknown to mainstream fans. But that's the ground that Joseph Anthony Hernandez, aka Tony Touch, has occupied since the late 1980s. First as a breakdancer, then as the Mixtape King, then as DJ to the stars, Tony Touch has done it all, seen it all, and worked with everyone from KRS-One to Eminem to Cypress Hill to Kool G Rap to Mos Def and beyond.
More importantly, although he's clearly cut from hip-hop's New York City cloth, Touch has strong ties to Florida's own golden age. Landing in Orlando in 1984 to attend high school first at Evans and then West Orange, Tony learned how to organize, promote and DJ his own parties, including at long-forgotten hotspots like the Pandemonium Skating Rink in Pine Hills and Electric Avenue on Amelia Street.
"We were one of the first party-throwers out there," he told Orlando Weekly in 2000. "We used to rent out the banquet rooms at the Roadway Inn on OBT. ... I used to be up in [Electric Avenue] breakin'. We had crews back then."
In 1987, Touch took his newfound skills on the ones and the twos back to New York City, where he got a job at a bank and started hustling up DJ gigs and artist management jobs on the side. By 1991, he was able to hang up the suit and tie for full-time work as a hip-hop tastemaker, and his mixtapes became legendary on the streets. "Mixtapes and DJs play an important role in the streets regarding breaking new music," he said back in 2000. "We are like the middleman between the streets and the record labels."
In the '90s, after cementing his place at the center of the hip-hop universe with his groundbreaking 50 MCs series, he went on to become one of reggaeton's earliest stateside proponents, lending his production skills to scores of urban Latino artists looking to break into the American mainstream. His 2000 major label debut, The Piece Maker, sold more than 400,000 copies for Tommy Boy Records, but it was his two ReggaeTony albums released in 2005 and 2007 on EMI Records that are actually his best-selling.
"I'm so engulfed in different movements [and] music scenes that are more accepting to race, genre, age, sex, all that," he told Vibe in 2014. "I'm free and I'm able to express myself how I want, whether it's through Spanish music or hip-hop or reggae or house music." Which explains his circuitous club circuit schedule, one that sees Tony bouncing between regular NYC residencies, once-a-month trips to Europe, yearly jaunts to Japan, regular jogs down to Florida, and special engagements DJing for legendary hip-hop acts like the Rock Steady Crew.
And that's the refreshing thing about Tony Touch — even though he's pushing 50, he's more interested in looking forward than looking back. Last month, Tony had soulful MC and producer Anderson .Paak on his weekly Shade 45 Sirius XM radio show for a blistering freestyle that made national hip-hop news. In a 2014 Noise Porn interview, he said he's consumed by discovering new strains of African house, all while telling the Orlando Sentinel in 2015 that O-Town has the most thriving hip-hop scene in Florida behind Miami. And even in this digital age, which has revolutionized the way rap fans hear their favorite artists, Tony still appreciates a good old-fashioned mixtape release party – exactly the reason he's coming back to his old downtown Orlando stomping grounds on Friday.
Even better, in an age when anyone can string together 15 or 20 songs on Spotify into an epic playlist, Tony Touch still makes mixtapes the old-fashioned way: recorded from his 20,000-strong vinyl collection, live, straight through, in one take. And for you aspiring DJs looking to break big in the hip-hop, Latin, house, or Afro-beat worlds, all of which Tony navigates with ease? He says the old-school approach still works: "The proper steps to really get recognized is to first get hot on your block, then get hot in your neighborhood, then [your] city, then [your] state, then [the] world," he told Latin Rapper last year. "You gotta really build your following and do it like that. Practice makes perfect."