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Towkio is going to space.
That’s not a metaphor for how quickly he’s risen to prominence it the rap game. It’s literal. As we speak on the phone, the Chicago rapper is preparing to use a high-altitude balloon to break the plane of the Earth, where he plans to “drop” his debut album, WWW., in just a few weeks, much to the consternation of his manager (he’s since completed the stunt and made it home safely). He is, naturally, excited — so much so that it’s almost difficult to actually ask questions, because he just can’t help sharing stories, theories, and his own personal philosophy, which has been influenced by ideas like the butterfly effect.
He has reason to be excited, though. This moment is the culmination of a journey he began in the Chicago Public Schools system, alongside fellow Savemoney crew members Vic Mensa and Chance The Rapper. Only three years ago, his song “Heaven Only Knows” earned him his first high-profile publicity, and since then he’s only increased in regard, as his Savemoney brethren have secured award nominations and big-name co-signs. His 2015 mixtape .Wav Theory displayed the same conscious intelligence and sonic adventurousness of Chance and Vic’s best work, and racked up an impressive collection of year-end honors from publications like Complex and his hometown Chicago Tribune.
Now, on the eve of WWW.‘s release, he’s about to achieve two dreams at once. Listening to an advance version, I’m struck by the creative risks he takes and how he wears his influences on his sleeve. The album breathes the same rarefied air of Coloring Book, Acid Rap, and Innanettape, but establishes itself as its own distinctive thing. It defies typical genre conventions; songs shift wildly from Chicago house-influenced dance music on “2 Da Moon” to full-on orchestral “Symphony“. Towkio’s lyrics are deft, incisive, but also freewheeling, loose-limbed, constantly find new ways to break away from staid formula and rote recitation. He croons through songs like “Morning View” with SZA, he patters through “Forever” alongside Vic, he swings from relaxed to all-out energy on “Loose.” He’s somehow all over the place, yet comfortably in his pocket. I’m impressed by his ability to make a project so diverse so sound cohesive, but not surprised.
Only someone with the energy of Towkio could possibly manage to do these things. He himself is the product of blended cultures, coming from a mixed Japanese/Latino heritage and growing up the melting pot of Chicago, how could he be anything else than the product of his environment, and totally himself? As he explains the stories and inspirations behind WWW.‘s creation, his unlikely path just makes sense, like he was supposed to end up here all along.
Can you explain the meaning behind WWW.?
So, basically the first project I made, that got me to where I’m at right now, is .WAV Theory. I was looking… It was kind of like my theories on how the moon controlled the waves and therefore if you believe in the butterfly effect, it would affect everything else in the world.
This is called the overview effect. So, when astronauts break the plane of the Earth they have an out-of-body experience, because they’re looking at the Earth and they see it for … You know, your life on Earth only exists on it, so all that bullshit that you were going through in your day, today. You know, this person was tripping on you, all of that should go out the window when you’re not on Earth anymore. So, your life on earth only exists there.
If you could all, kind of, see that as a human race, then a lot of the bullshit and problems that we go through, they would kind of go out the window, because we would really realize how precious everything is. That’s the high I’m trying to give people so that they can change their perspective and see things through a different lens, aka., from space looking back at the Earth and how precious our planet is, our life is.
Oh, yeah, that’s incredible, man. I like that. Can you tell me about Chicago? What was it like growing up there, especially around all these guys who are starting to come into their own musically like Chance the Rapper and Vic Mensa? Is that humbling at all? How did you feel watching them get their due and knowing that your time was coming?
Man, it gets crazy. I literally just say it’s like a dream, because I was just saying, like we all grew up together. We done known each other since we were broke as fuck, stealing out of stores. We didn’t have a dollar in our pocket, motherfuckers trying to hustle Swishers and shit, and now Chance got three Grammys. You know, flying on private jets everywhere. Vic over here on tour with Jay-Z. I’m at the studio working with Rick Rubin in Shangri La, like this is now real.
You know, it’s all part of God’s plan. I say it like this, if World War II didn’t happen then I wouldn’t be here.
So, my grandparents … If you were Japanese during World War II you got put in an internment camp. My grandparents met in an internment camp in Washington and got married there. Then, my father wouldn’t exist. They moved to the south side of Chicago. There’s like a Japanese community on 43rd and Woodlawn. My father was born and my mother was born in Mexico. She came, she was the youngest of her family and came to Chicago and started working at a real young age. She was still a teenager. My parents met in Chicago. Chicago is the reason we all know each other. For some lucky reason I was born, I’m the youngest of my two brothers, but I was born in 1993, the same year that … Whatever Chance’s parents were doing, whatever Vic’s parents were doing, we were all born in the same year with a lot of opportunities to meet each other in the CPS, the Chicago Public School System. We went to school around the corner from Vic, he went to Lincoln, Chance went to Skinner. We all got connected through the CPS.
That’s that butterfly effect you were talking about right there.
Exactly, exactly, so this is not … I am just the vehicle. This is all part of a bigger, grand scheme and I’m just playing my part.
I’ve really liked the music videos you’ve been releasing for this project. “Swim” was jaw-dropping, “Symphony” was jaw-dropping. Can you walk me through the process of making those?
“Swim” was crazy, because I built all that stuff myself. I spent like five days building these buildings, these boards. I went to Home Depot, back and forth, doing all this shit by myself, stressing out, because I know that if I didn’t make it happen nobody’s going to make it happen. Then we went to camera. Since I shot it in a reflection you can only shoot during the sunlight. We were there for a couple of hours and it was just going to shit. I’m like, fuck it, let’s shoot it on an iPhone. We shoot it on an iPhone, get it in one take. I work with God and God, he blessed me. You know it was crazy, because I thought a whole week of work, of like long hours of work was going to go down the drain and then it happened.
I went to Mexico for “Drift” with seven people, no permits, no nothing, guerrilla style. We pull up, we instantly get extorted at the airport. They charged us like $200, just because we got equipment, this and this. So, the guy who helped put everything together is a guy named, Diego. He moved to Canada the week after I went, and I left to Europe as soon as I got back from Mexico. So, if I didn’t decide to go that day, in that week period, that one slot, I wouldn’t have been able to get everything, because Diego would’ve been in Canada. We got hot air balloons, we got the dancing in front of the pyramids, we got the dunes, ATVs, all of that.
In the field in Mexico, the police robbed us, first off. They pulled us over three times. They pulled us over, told us to go to a dark alley, pulled us over again to even a darker alley. They keep cutting us off to a low-key area. I’m thinking we’re literally about to die right now, because why do they keep taking us to a darker spot? They’re like, give us what you… they take us out of the car up the alley and say, “Give us what you got.” We didn’t have nothing, but $5 cash. They took that shit.
I went to get my haircut to go to Mexico, the dude who cut my hair — I’ve only gotten two haircuts in my life since I have long hair — he was like, “Yo, I’ve got some homies that drift in Maui.” I was like, “Where? I’m about to go shoot a music video called ‘Towkio Drift.'” Luckily I had been to Maui on a family trip. We took my dad out there for his 60th, so I knew exactly the location. It’s a volcano that goes 10,000 feet in the sky, and I flew out to Maui and these guys did it for free.
So, now all of this is by coincidence, by luck, by whatever you like to call it. I call it God, you know, God willing, he gives me all of these things, because it’s the butterfly effect, everything kind of just falls into place how it is. Then we shot “Drift.” To me, that was definitely the best video of 2017, because you could argue with, I can argue with anybody. We can break the video down, shot by shot, I spent $15,000 of my own money to shoot that video. Every other video that comes close to it, they probably shot for $150,000, and they wasn’t putting in that type of energy that I was.
Dang, that’s crazy.
So, I’m saying, like all of this shit, it’s like not even me. I’m just doing my thing. It’s just crazy how it all happened, you know. Those are just small coincidences. If I put my all into it or whatever, I just don’t have the fear of failure. God, to this day, has taken care of me.
Now, I’m planning on doing the craziest thing of my life. I’m going to be the first artist in space. I’m going to drop my album and stream it from space. I’m going to fly up in a helium balloon 100,000 feet. I’m going up in the capsule and then the balloon pops and then a parachute comes out and I float back down to earth. That’s how strongly I feel about my message and my art. It’s crazy, because this life is, like I said, a dream. It’s basically, you’re saying, I made an album. I worked with Rick Rubin at Shangri La, but then making all this content around it. I don’t know why I wake up every day to go fucking plan to do this shit, you know?
I got this, like there’s this fire inside of me, this is damn near what I live for now. It’s fucked up, but it’s like this crazy trade-off as an artist. Like, if I didn’t do this I don’t know what the fuck I would do. I can get money. I’ve been getting money. I used to hustle, but you can’t die with money, you know?
Yeah. You can’t take it with you.
Exactly. You can only die with how you made people feel and what you left, like the impression and how you changed people’s emotions. Everything else comes from that.
I’m lucky, I’ve been blessed. Like, I wanted to make music, but really the whole time I wanted to go to space and be an astronaut.
Elon [Musk], he’s one of my biggest inspirations. Elon’s been wanting to go to space since he was a child. So, he created the Google search engine. He got cashed out 19 million for the search engine that’s now Google Maps and Yelp. Then, he sold that 19 million and put all that money into PayPal, cashed out that for 300 million, put all of that money into Tesla and SpaceX. Now, those companies are the future. They don’t even have a dollar amount, because their dollar amount’s going to explode past … Like the value of them, they’re more current than money. Like, imagine if the world went to shit, right, and there’s no money.
Well, everybody would be working to work at SpaceX to get the chance to save mankind.
Or, to preserve energy from solar energy, you know? He’s actually manifesting all of this stuff, but he wanted that from the beginning, but it’s just crazy, all these steps in between. I always wanted to make … You know, my father’s an artist and my mother’s a hard worker. I’ve been rapping, you know, it’s all coming together now, you know?
You move with the signs. It opens up a whole new world, so now you’ll start thinking it and you’ll start seeing these opportunities and seeing these moments where … It’s just kind so crazy you’ve got to fucking laugh at it, you know?