THREE-YEAR-OLD BIJAN SMITH IS skateboarding through his West Los Angeles home when a wipe-out sends him crashing to the living room floor. But no one rushes to comfort him as he gels up, manfully holding back his tears. “He’s in a house of men,” explains Bijan’s Uncle Johnny, 35. “He knows it’s okay to cry, but it’s not okay to whine.” Any doubts are dispelled by Bijan’s father, rap star turned actor Tony “Tone Le” Smith, 27, who is across the room sprawled on a zebra-striped couch. “I don’t like mama’s boys,” he says in a gruff rasp. “You’ll never find my son sniffling. He’s a man’s child.”
Better make that “men’s.” Because ever since gaining full custody of Bijan last year, Tone has been co-starring in a real-life version of Three Men and a Baby. “I’m the cook, and I do a lot of the cleaning too,” says Johnny, a former truck driver who moved in with his half brother Tone and Bijan in 1992. “I’m the coach,” chimes in would-be brother Chris McCraken, 28, a lifelong pal who has been living with Tone’s family since he was 10. “I’m working with the kid on sports and his coolness.” As for Tone, who usually leaves Bijan in Johnny and Chris’s care when film work calls him out of town, he’s the disciplinarian. “Little boys—you have to stay on them ’cause they’re kind of wild,” he says. “So I’m kind of strict.”
A surprising statement coming from the rapper who gave us “Wild Thing,” the sexy, irresistible 1988 smash that sold 2.5 million copies and helped Tone’s debut album, Loc-ed After Dark, become the first rap record ever to top Billboard’s pop-album chart. At 24, Tone was on the cover of Newsweek, and when his star began to fade a few years later, he simply took his video-tuned comic liming and trademark just-rolled-out-of-bed rasp and hip-hopped over to Hollywood. In the last six months he has shot five movies, including Mario Van Peebles’s Posse, John Singleton’s Poetic Justice and the soon-to-be-released Ace Ventura: Pet Detective with Sean Young and Jim Carrey.
In the more demanding role of dad, Tone is showing promise. “I used to drink and party wild with the ladies, but I don’t anymore,” he says. “I’m just trying to be a father and gel this family thing going.”
As for the boy’s mother, Tone won’t even divulge her name. “I don’t know where she is,” he says coldly. “It doesn’t matter. Bijan’s got three dads.”
Tone’s own dad, James, a truck driver, died of cancer in 1972, when Tone was 6, leaving his mother, Margaret, a retirement-home manager, to raise him, Johnny and, later, Chris. “My mom was the chief; she was the law,” says Tone, who grew up a latchkey kid, often cooking his own dinner and doing his own laundry. To keep her youngest off the streets of their semitough mid-Wilshire neighborhood in L.A., Margaret scrimped and saved to send him to an expensive private school where his classmates included Tatum O’Neal. Tone wasn’t impressed. “I was much too hip for that thing,” he says.
So he quit after one semester and ultimately graduated from University High in a middle-class section of Los Angeles. After dropping out of Santa Monica City College, he was working as a computer programmer and rapping on the side when a cousin introduced him to two fledgling producers who liked his rasping style and released “Wild Thing” on their Delicious Vinyl label. The record’s astounding success still “trips me out,” says Tone. “Now I know how hard it is to come up with a No. 1 record. And I just basically zoomed on in there.” Though a second album, Cool Hand hoc, sold poorly in 1991, Tone hopes his third, as-yet-untitled release, due early next year, will revive his rap career. But it’s his acting, which began with a role on the Fox TV series Roc, that has been paying the bills lately. “I never expected to be on anyone’s screen,” he says. “Hopefully, I have talent enough to make it. I’m still growing.”
And when it comes to fatherhood, he’s learning. While he keeps in touch with another son, James, 2, born to a woman who now lives in Florida, Tone is focusing his parental attention on Bijan, who sometimes accompanies him to recording studios and movie sets. “Tone tries to be a very disciplined dad,” says Margaret, who also helps care for Bijan, a preschooler. Even so, says Tone, “it could have been tough [looking after Bijan] if I didn’t have my mom and my brothers. But he’s their son too. They love him. That’s what families are about.”
JOHN GRIFFITHS in Los Angeles