From being Guinness certified as the world’s fastest rapper in ’92, to pioneering solo albums and working with Do Or Die and Kanye West, Twista has held Chicago down for two decades. I sat down with Mr. Tung Twista to talk Chicago music, fast rap techniques and his fondness for pacing. (Twista does a fair bit of rapping in the interview to demonstrate different styles, so when he’s rapping, I’ve separated the rap within quotation marks.) — Aaron Matthews
Tell me about growing up in Chicago.
It was really just growing up in the ghetto, K-Town, which is a part of the West Side of Chicago. Single parent household, but I was the oldest out of my brothers and sisters. It was just a little rough. Some people came up different. Me, I came up having it hard. You know, going to school with my brothers and sisters, it was always rough for us.
What kind of music were you hearing at this time?
The music in Chicago was house music — that’s what everyone was listening to. That uptempo, fast music. So we had a different vibe. When a lot of people had whatever genre of music that was in their town, us, we had mostly house music, where you dancing, moving real fast. With some people in Chicago, we had a bigger ear. We started to listen outward. So if you were in Chicago and came up listening to Chicago music, when the house music was real hot…on the rap side, you probably had some of the first rappers starting. When I really really was into my music, it was probably pre-Krush Groove, going into the Krush Groove era. So if it wasn’t house, the music I’d be listening to would be Rakim, Kool G. Rap, KRS-One, all of the greats. Ultramagnetic MCs, Mantronix…everybody! [laughs]
Do you think the tempo of house music had something to do with the Midwestern rap style?
For sure. Especially in Chicago. People don’t know this but all of my lyrics that’s considered double-time lyrics will fit over house-tempo type tracks. So if the beat is boom-boom-boom-boom-boom [Twista imitates a typical house beat], I can still do [rapping double-time] “look at the dudes owe me, dad a do do me”. It’s the perfect rhythm to fit on the same thing. So it definitely had a big influence.
Juke music is a continuation of that, too.
For sure. Juke music is the younger version of what we was doing when it came to house music. It’s a slightly faster tempo, just a younger version.
It’s a genre that’s just starting to get traction overseas. You were involved with juke pretty early on, from the remix to “Watch My Feet” to your own juke record, “Pimp Like Me.”
With songs like that, it’s a pleasure for me because it’s continuing the Chicago sound. And to me, it’s like…in other areas, like Oakland, you have hyphy and go-go in Washington. In Chicago, it’s important to me that even if you do hip-hop, to implement our sound into hip-hop so people know where we come from. That’s why I did tracks like “Watch My Feet.” To be honest, one of my producers, Tight Mike, he naturally produces juke tracks. So you’re going hear a whole album of me rapping over certain juke beats. That’s a project I’m going to do soon.
When did you know you wanted to be a rapper?\
About 13 years old. I was young. I was always interested when I was hearing Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambataa. But what made me really really want to rap, like “I want to be a rapper” is when I started to see the Fat Boys, Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick, LL, Run DMC, groups like that.
What did you sound like back then?
Like regular lyrics. I wish I knew a rhyme from back then [laughs]. Straightforward rap like most people sound [starts rapping in a midtempo late 80s flow]“Into the valley of darkness/can’t rip apart this/eat them into the harvest/chewing through a dead carcass/mark his body with murder signs”. Straight hip hop flow.
You were already rapping faster, but that wasn’t double time.
Double time is [starts rapping in double time] “hit ‘em in the body with double millimetre gotta put ‘em in the dirt put them in the middle of the money because I gotta get I gotta work”. The regular rap style is [repeats rap from last answer]. So my rap style has always been complex. But when it came down to the double time, it came from not being to fit all the words in a sentence. So you would double up one word. Like, “walking down the street, and I be ripping ‘em up, ripping up the mic”. Style with a flip of one word. Then you flip two words. [rapping in double time] “Ripping ‘em up on the mic, duh duh duh, picking them up in the fight”. Then it just got more and more complex as I went along.
Do you a process for writing these down?
It’s mostly in my head. I write but when I get to the paper, I’ll have pretty much constructed 4-8 bars in my head before I write ‘em down. Sometimes I write but if I don’t write, I’ll think for a while and go in and maybe do half a verse at a time until I finish a song. If I do write, I like to pace. I like to smoke a lil bit and just walk around and pace. It’s a pacing thing. And I think some of my dopest lyrics probably come from the passenger seat of the car. When I’m in the ride I get something dope out.
How did you feel being recognized as the fastest rapper by Guinness?
It was always dope. The only time I didn’t like it is, me being a lyricist the way I am and having multiple rap styles, it would be frustrating that the rap style I’m most known for would be the only thing people know or want to hear. As I grew older, I realized I need to hold onto something that people like, like [my rap style] and just roll with it.
You see that happening on “Slow Jamz” too. What was that record like for you?
It was a regular time in the studio, working with Kanye to make something dope. For me, what was neat about “Slow Jamz” was when I decided to implement all the old school R&B artists in the song, that had slow jams. So I started thinking of Luther Vandross, all the different names, and so all my metaphors were [about] pioneers in R&B. Just really coming up with the patterns and the words that would make a dope verse, a dope song. But I never thought the song would go that far. I pretty much had it down on how to tailor a monster verse.
Tell me about recording Resurrection.
Resurrection was a time where I was slightly rebellious against the fast style and I wanted to show people I could rap in different ways. Rebellious against the style people had pinned on me. I like that album a lot because I could show versatility in my flow. When people are like, “Man, Twista only raps this way”, the Resurrection album is something I will pull out to show them other ways I rap.
Tell me about “Adrenaline Rush.”
That record was my jam right there. That record was one of the first beats I got with that Chicago sound to it, that I really just wanted to take the music to the next level. I remember writing that song just laying on the rug, in a big empty room in a dark house. I had Yungbuck [of the group Psychodrama], the other person on the song, on the floor but in a different part of the house. We was just in the dark house chilling, everything was cool and we just had the beat on repeat, playing. It was just a good vibe, we killed it. I would actually consider that my favourite song, what I would say defines Twista.
“Overdose” off the same album [Adrenaline Rush], has that same kind of lyrical intensity.
Yeah, I was charged writing “Overdose”. I remember having that beat, writing that rhyme. That was a pure emcee at his finest right there. I had no problem writing it, the lyrics were pouring out of me on that one.
Tell me about “Po Pimp” with Do or Die.
That was actually the biggest record of my career. That was the one that took me from not having things to having things. When I recorded it, and I left the studio to play it in the car, I hadn’t stopped playing for almost 3 days straight. An unbelievable amount of times, to the point where I figured out, “this has to be a hit!” There’s no way we could want to play a song this many times and it could not be a hit. And as soon as we put it out, that’s what it was.
You had a few years, just after Adrenaline Rush and the first Speedknot Mobstas album, where you weren’t signed to a major. 8 years out and you came back with Kamikaze . What was that like?
It was rough as far as learning the business and finding things out and trying to see where I would end up. The thing that pulled me through was I was talented, and I was a firm believer that if you got in the studio and made a jam, you’d be able to do what you wanted to do. Even though it was hard for me, I knew one day I would put myself in a situation where I could work creatively and do the business that would take me out [that situation]. I was nervous, but it’s like they say, you gotta risk failure to succeed sometimes.
And “Is That Yo Bitch” came just a few years before you started on Kamikaze.
It was fun doing that. Some after it came out, I went on tour with Jay, the whole tour actually, to perform that song. That song kept me in the game, impressed Jay enough to bring me out to do what I did for him, and it served as a big promotion tool for the Kamikaze album. So around that time “Is That Yo Bitch” came out, I was known as the go-to guy for a feature, and I was real proud of that.
What’s it like rhyming with someone with a different style from yours? Like “The Heat”, where you and Rae have very different flows on the same beat.
It’s always fun, to show you can be versatile and do different things. Like even with my style on “The Heat”, there’s nothing else on [The Perfect Storm] like that song. With me, I let the music tell me how the style should be. The fact that I work with Chicago producers as much as I do, that’s the reason my style stays intact. But if there was ever the situation where I had to work with all these different producers, you probably see me switch my style up to adjust to different beats when needed.
Your style seems to be an influence on a lot of underground rap right now. You listen to Freddie Gibbs?
Yeah, I’m actually about to record a song or two with Freddie. I like him a lot.