"By me doing what I've done, I get a permanent VIP pass to be a fan of all of the young guys," Twista told me enthusiastically over the phone yesterday afternoon. He was discussing his newest project, Crook County, which is not only packed with collaborations with Chicago up-and-comers but inspired by those younger artists and their vitality. These days, Twista is something like the cool uncle of the city's rap scene, the guy who's done it all and can still hold his own with the young guns. He continued, "Now I'm just proud of the city and proud of what we've produced and sitting back watching in amazement and being fans of their music."
Twista has been recording since the early 90s, when he was known as Tung Twista and his signature was the unrivaled speed of his rapping. He reached star status with 1997's Adrenaline Rush and especially 2004's Kamikaze, which contained the hits "Slow Jamz" and "Overnight Celebrity," both collaborations with a then-up-and-comer from Chicago named Kanye West. Yet unlike many artists from his generation, when Chicago rap's current renaissance began in 2012, Twista embraced the new movement typified by artists like Chief Keef, Lil Durk, and King Louie. Rather than deride the stylistic choices of the younger artists, he gave his stamp of approval. And it was great for Chicago.
He hopped on a remix of Lil Reese's "Traffic," and he cosigned the other side of the city's sound, too, collaborating with Chance the Rapper and Vic Mensa on Acid Rap standout "Cocoa Butter Kisses." His 2014 album Dark Horse featured a song with Chief Keef and Stunt Taylor, and he's worked with guys like Mick Jenkins, Supa Bwe, and Saba. In fact, there may be nobody in Chicago period with a wider range of local collaborators just over the last few years (and that's not even touching the preceding two decades).
"That's definitely what I was trying to do, is set an example," he explained of these efforts. "Like 'this is how you do it.' Like, to the older guys: Don't hate." He's taken that ethos to a new level with Crook County, premiering below and out everywhere tomorrow, 7/7, "the number of perfection."
The project features collaborations with—get ready for this list—Vic Spencer, Bandman Kevo, Supa Bwe, Cap 1, Blac Youngsta, B. Scott, Bodi Dealer, The Boy Illinois, Jeremih, and YP. It sounds as diverse and contemporary as that long list of features might suggest. Rather than trying to chase radio, as he did with diminishing returns in the later part of the 00s, Twista has acknowledged the value of just making stuff that's exhilarating to work on. That has pushed him toward some of the more underground, more experimental Chicago artists and surprising riffs on current sounds.
"I wanted to focus on was not necessarily so much of the harder edge of the guys that were on the forefront of Chicago right now, but just do it with that whole background scene a little bit," he explained. "Like these guys that could sell out a Chicago crowd and you not know who the hell they are."
Twista draws on the tastes of the younger guys who work in his studio and who he works with to locate new talent, and he spoke highly of the next wave. His first impression of Bandman Kevo, on the ZMoney song "Want My Money," was that he sounded "like a Chicago Gucci Mane or some shit." He compared Vic Spencer to a Chicago Rakim, the guy "who has really got that voice from a rap perspective." He lauded Supa Bwe's experimentalism, explaining, "When I think about Chance and guys like his brother Taylor Bennett, it's a whole sound I see there where it was obvious that Supa was one of the next guys that's gonna come from the city that kind of fits in that mold a little bit."
Twista pointed to the loopy, laid-back melodicism of the Supa Bwe collaboration "Happy Days" as one of his favorite accomplishments on Crook County, and it's not hard to imagine Twista's heady stoner puns resonating to make it a sleeper hit. Finding inspiration among those younger artists has paid off in other ways as well. On songs like "Hollywood" and Crook County standout "Stackin' Paper," Twista channels more contemporary rap, echoing the percussive vocal energy of modern trap hits while infusing them with his own electric lyricism.
"You gotta make yourself sound timeless," he reflected. "Like, I have a couple of buddies that rap, and I'll see them a couple of years later, and they'll kind of still have the old era in them a little bit. And I'll be like, 'dude, you sound old! Like you sound like you stuck in an era.' So you gotta kinda grow with the times a little bit. You will hear Scarface right now, and I guarantee you, you will hear a different pitch or tone in the way he expresses himself that'll be more accepted and relevant today than the way it used to sound." Twista, too, sounds up to date, but still just as clever and kickass and tongue-twisting as ever. "That's definitely what I was on with 'Stackin' Paper,' is still sounding young, and wanting to make you feel that it's still fun to be lyrical," he added. "It's still fun to think a little bit."
Kyle Kramer is the features editor at Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.