I’ll never forget the first time I spit every word of a Twista song. It was, don’t hold your breath, “Overnight Celebrity.” The double-time flow was dizzying and enchanting, and the symphonic production coming out of Chicago made Kamikaze one of the most novel albums I’d ever heard. Fast forward to 2017, and Twista is still keeping things consistent with his latest studio album, Crook County. As seen on the cover, this album spans all things Chicago: the camaraderie, the community, as well as the violence. With Twista at the center of it all, Crook County is meant to be an honest tour of his beloved city, breaking away from damaging labels like ‘Chi-raq.’
Though the name implies something sinister, Crook County is also a love letter to Chicago and its young artists. Never did I imagine to see Twista on the same song as Supa Bwe, but the rapport between the two artists makes “Happy Days” an album standout. Supa’s relaxed approach in the studio translates into Twista flowing with a poised serenity. Things flips on the devastating “Mortuary,” where Vic Spencer and Twista bring out each other’s grimiest deliveries. Even still, the cohesion of Crook County comes from a salient love for Chicago that permeates every track.
This album is meant to ‘bridge the gap’ between the old and new schools of hip-hop. The youth drive the culture, and Twista knows it’s important to wise up on their craft. Of course, that education has to go both ways, with the younger guys learning about their musical roots. With Crook County being his 10th studio record, Twista is enjoying the accolades of his legacy: seeing younger artists that came from his style signing record deals. Legacy aside, he’s still working towards his defining moment. Until then, he’s just like James Brown: he’ll never stop dropping records.
We spoke on the phone about his love for Chicago, the city’s position at the forefront of culture, his relationship with the younger artists, and all things Crook County. —Donna-Claire
In an interview at the top of this year you underscored the importance of image in today’s hip-hop scene. How has your image evolved from your debut to now?
Twista: My fashion and rap style have changed. Even though I’m not a main person out there in the fashion scene, I do keep up with what trends are going on at the time. I stay in tune with what people are wearing, but it also comes down to what things I like. As far as my rap style, it’s a similar process. I listen to what people are doing, and try to keep up on trends to stay relevant. When it comes to wordplay, I look at what slang is being used. It’s definitely important to keep up with the youth and not dismiss what they’re doing.
I see a huge evolution in the cover art for Crook County. You’re invoking a lot of themes with the color palette and the depictions of the police versus the people, but what was the driving idea that helped conceive this cover?
Twista: There are a lot of subliminal messages on the cover to show what it means to be from Chicago. So when I have ‘Crook County’ on the cover, I’m forcing you to consider what you think about when you see those words. You look at the cover and see gang violence, police, corruption, but you also see some humorous things like Uncle Remus. You have to think, ‘Wow, this is all Chicago.’ Then you have me on there just showing you around, but that could be anybody. Anybody from Chicago could be between the police and the guns, could be in the crossfire of police or gang violence.
It’s also important that it’s artwork. I know guys like Snoop have done this style in the past, but I see a lot of young guys today using artwork for their covers. It helps their creativity come out more on the cover, and I wanted to tap into that.
You describe this album as your approach to ‘bridging the gap’ between generations in hip-hop. What are the others ways we can reconcile that divide outside of collaborations?
Twista: We need a lot of education about each other’s crafts. The younger guys need to educate themselves about who the older guys are, where these samples come from, who started what sounds in what era, and so on. I think the younger guys would appreciate the older guys a lot more if they knew where they were getting their music from.
Vice versa, you have a lot of people using the term ‘mumble rap.’ When you break it down, those kids are saying something. It’s hard for the older people to get to the youth, you know? It’s hard for them to be able to talk to the youth in a way that they get where they’re coming from and not look at you as some lame grown up. Education can fix that.
One of the most catching things about this record is the list of collaborators. Really, you’re putting on for your fellow Chicago artists. Can you break down how these features came about?
Twista: I’m always trying to keep my ear open to what’s going on with the Chicago artists. I keep people around me that hang around with these younger guys, and I tell them all the time to keep me in the loop about what’s really happening in music. I’m always getting sent new music, but once I’m at shows is when I really become a fan. Vic Spencer was one of those guys where when I think about Chicago hip-hop in its purest form, and how I want it come off and how I want people to respect it, I look at him. He’s really one of the voices I want out there to represent Chicago, so it was really an honor to get him on the project.
Taking that perspective, if you had to boil it down, what really is the essence of a Chicago artist?
Twista: A Chicago artist is an artist that is very driven and in tune with his music, and with the visual aspect of what he’s doing. It’s definitely someone that’s cracking on social media, someone whose personality really sticks out. Their music could be drive by the music, or it could be driven by them as a person. It’s a different era now, so personality and look and swag really play into who you are as an artist.
I think there are also different categories of Chicago artists. You’ve got your drill style Chicago artists and you got your backpack artists, too. We’re versatile because we’re in the middle of the map. It’s hard to draw out one particular style, but what makes a Chicago artist is someone that’s well in tune with the city. They have to be respected by the city, can walk through the city, and are popping on social media.
Is there one category of sound that’s more in tune with the city, or do they all come together?
Twista: They all come together. By music being youth driven, I think the sound that’s most paid attention to is a drill or trap sound. That’ll be getting the attention right now. There’s always been a lot of styles. When you start naming artists like Twista, Common, Kanye West, we all sound different from each other.
The city is always on the forefront of pushing music and activism to new levels. So what is it about Chicago that makes it such a frontrunner for culture?
Twista: Chicago is hot! It’s really our time now. Chicago didn’t get any attention, and even though we get a lot of bad attention right now, at least people are paying attention. When I first came up in rap, people used to laugh at me when I said I was from Chicago. Now I look around, and a lot of artists from all around the country are trying to sound like they’re from Chicago. It really wows me, you know? We have a lot of history and culture, and that drives the city. Even though we have some things going on that are not so positive, I am proud of our city.
I always tell people, too, that the spotlight usually follows where the hottest rappers are. When Biggie was holding it down on the East Coast, you can bet that the East Coast streets were the hardest streets. The same happened with Pac and Snoop and Scarface. After Chief Keef, all eyes were on Chicago. It’s just the trend I’ve noticed. Whoever the hottest artist is at the time, the badge of being from a rough city or area just seems to follow them.
I know you’ve denounced that Chi-raq label, but how do you feel about the beef between Vic Mensa and DJ Akademiks?
Twista: Even though I hate the name Chi-raq, it does get crazy out here. Still, we are all trying to get rid of that stereotype. In terms of DJ Akademiks, when you talk negatively about something, you have to expect for that to come back at you at any point. He had to be ready for it. I don’t think either Akademiks or Mensa were right or wrong. I just think when you talk about a time or place in a certain way, you have to expect the backlash. Obviously, for some people the words you’re using could be offensive.
Pivoting back to the music, I’m very into “Happy Days” with Supa Bwe. It really sounds like you picked the perfect beat and place for Supa Bwe to show off his talents. What is the dynamic like when working with these younger artists?
Twista: It’s super fun and with my personality, there’s respect in there. They look at me like I’m an OG, but these guys don’t always realize how hot they sound in my ear. So me being the OG, I have to keep up with them and be on their vibes while still being respected for doing what I do. It’s an intricate balance, because I do like to have fun. I rarely like to rap in the studio while they’re right in the room with me. But them, they’re just open. They’re always making songs and letting it be seen, letting us see how they make their music. They’re able to be very creative, very hot, very fast. The person always in my head is Supa. Supa is always sitting in the studio kicking it with you and playing around, and then he makes beautiful music.
So speaking of that speed and creativity, how would you compare the way they come up to how you came up?
Twista: With my era, it was more about wordplay and being super smart and super conscious. You wanted to be elevated lyrically and have an extreme vocabulary. Our pioneers were Rakim, KRS-One, and Public Enemy. These are intelligent guys! It shows in their music, and you wanted to have wordplay like Big Daddy Kane. You wanted to be able to stack those lyrics up, but you had to really think.
Whereas today, even though they still have wordplay, these young guys really capture a vibe. They might not be thinking so much about wordplay, but they will capture a feel and a vibe, and it will just start flowing out of them. They capture moments very well. That type of music is something that happens a little quicker, and it’s a style that you can just keep moving.