Toki Wright plays the Hip-Hop Harambee this Saturday, unveiling a new project with producer Big Cats. Between his time spent heading up fusion band This Debris, spinning records on KFAI's Soul Tools Radio, and DJing and producing electronic music, Toki has amassed a wide variety of sounds to add to his repertoire. Unafraid to explore new territory, the highly-anticipated upcoming album Pangaea promises to be Toki's finest to date. Gimme Noise caught up with Toki and Big Cats to talk about their new music and their performance at this year's Hip-Hop Harambee.
Gimme Noise: How did the two of you start working together?
I've been a fan of [Big Cats'] work for a long time. I think the first time I really listened to it was on the For My Mother
project; it's right up the alley of the kind of music I like listening to. I like the fact that he makes compositions, sounds that have a beginning, middle and end, multiple other parts... It doesn't always have to sound like a standard pop song. I spent the last couple years just releasing 48 bar verses... [laughs] Not really caring about trying to fit in. I dig that attitude. We kind of ran around each other in separate circles.
Big Cats: Last year I put out three very different records: a solo record, one with [Rapper Hooks] and one with [Guante]. TTxBC had taken up the last two and a half years of what I was working on; [when] I got done with that, it was the first time in years that I didn't have a specific project to be working on. It was cool to be able to sit down with Toki and start from scratch. A lot of times we just get in the studio, I'd be working on a beat and he'd just start writing to it. It was fresh, from the ground up, together. It was a process figuring out what we both wanted for an album, we'd never really sat down and worked on music before.
I had completed a record in 2011 that got burned in a fire. Everything that got left over was on this Faders mixtape
, then I was like, "OK, what now?" I never really had a chance to sit down with one producer and bring my ideas to them and for them take those ideas and shape it into something, for them to bring ideas to me.
Big Cats, you tend to do whole albums and work as a group with people instead of single songs.
Big Cats: I don't really like doing just one song or just giving people beats. If I'm going to be part of a project, I want it to be a project that makes sense as a whole. I want people to listen to the whole thing, have it make sense, be consistent, and have a high quality all the way through. Sometimes with a bunch of different producers and stuff that's recorded at a bunch of different spots and mixed by different people, you lose that.
Toki: I kind of got to the point where I would rather just not release any music for a while and do it the right way. I know I'm good, and enough people know I'm good in enough places, but I've never really been able to give them the whole product. If there have been any critiques from anyone, that I really care what their opinion is, it's that you gotta find a producer. I feel like we got a good enough vibe. I feel like the first day we talked to each other about doing a project, I said to him, "If you don't like something, tell me you don't like it."
Big Cats: I would do that anyway. Working on a whole record with somebody, you get that chemistry where you can be honest with somebody. I don't want to put anything out that's not the best we have. Working with Toki, he catches on to sounds and moves in directions stylistically I wouldn't have thought of otherwise. I like taking good rappers and giving them stuff that they would not normally work with. I know you're a good rapper, I know you're creative, I know you can stretch yourself, do something with this. There are multiple songs without drums on them. There are no other rappers on the record, unless they're doing something other than rapping. Aside from Toki being a rapper, I don't think it's a rap record.
Toki: I don't know what to call it. There's a lot of poetry in it, a lot of really long compositions that don't feel like a classical tune, that may be six minutes, going in a bunch of different directions. I might approach it like a rapper at one part, approach it like a poet at another part.
Between your work with your band This Debris, and the electronic production work you've been doing lately, it's hard to pinpoint what exactly Toki Wright sounds like.
Toki: That's in my head. I'm not listening to one type of music. I love afro-beat and funk and reggae, I like classical music, all different types of things. I want to be able to make the things that I like, and I had to step back and learn Pro Tools and learn some music theory. The reason I got into DJing, if you want to call it that, selecting music for live shows... I've been making house music, like tribal music, and I wanted to be able to play it live. What do I want to make? I'm okay with going in whatever direction as long as it's true. Being able to know somebody that knows how to move with that is key.
How did you arrive at the title of the record, Pangaea?
Toki: Alcohol. [laughs] I'm kind of going through a couple different phases personally. We started working on this record six months ago, and I had been going through a mental phase where I'm like, "Hey, happy! Everybody together!" to like, "Fuck ya'll" [laughs] Initially, that whole Pangaea idea -- the idea that the planet at one time was one big rock and all the continents were one big mass, over time it all spread out -- that was my initial idea. How it spread out is through these violent events: volcanos, comets, ice ages, all that. There's the beautiful part of it, then there's this really fierce, devastating, but real part of being somebody that lives on this planet. Everything isn't always going to be pretty and cute, but there are plenty of shining moments that we can recognize that we would rather be living. It's better than being in the dirt. It can be ugly at times too, and I don't want to deny that either.
It kind of helped to shape my whole mindframe in writing, because often times Big Cats' songs will go from a very melodic happy place to a very dark place all within the matter of a few minutes. That's real to me, that's reality to me. I've had the experience of playing a show and having everybody on my side, jumping up and down and bouncing, and then be like, "All right I want to talk about what I really want to talk about now," and then do songs where people walk away, because I might have touched a nerve, because they're uncomfortable with themselves. What if we could that in one song? I really look at it like a psychedelic trip. Say somebody was on mushrooms or something, and they were in a state of euphoria, and something triggers a negative reaction, they could go down a dark hole. It might trigger something else and you go back into the light. That's a big part of what reality's like. It's that emotional mind trip on the whole project.
What can we expect from the live performance?
Toki: Twerking. Lots of twerking. [laughs] No. We're assembling a united front... You gotta watch it. I won't tell you. You gotta be there. I think we're gonna shock and surprise and scare and make people happy all at the same time. You have to be there to see it. I don't want to go play an average rap show with an average rap crowd. I'm not trying to be nobody's house band. For a year I just did improv shows. I don't want anybody to pigeonhole me. This is one of those projects where I'm not going to be able to explain it.
Big Cats: I learned a ton through that process, because I decided I was going to do it before I knew how. There was a lot of learning on the fly and figuring out how to do stuff, and I definitely applied a lot of that to this record. There aren't any samples on this record. It's all either stuff I've played or professional players have played.
Toki: That's really dope. Nowhere else in the world will you find this. You don't have to worry about listening to somebody's record and finding the same sample. It's all original.
Big Cats: Another thing for this record in terms of progression from the last record is that since I've been sharing a studio with P.O.S, he lets me use his gear when he's not there, which is outstanding actually. Having a whole wall of analog gear and synths and shit to make crazy sounds with has been nice too. Shout out to P.O.S.
Toki: There's some real tribal elements. If I'm going to do this Pangaea idea, I want to go back to the root of music. Real percussive, tribal sounds, basic sounds. But I also want it to be futuristic; I want it sound like something that hasn't been created. I want people to be able to vibe and ride to it. So it has some of those nasty James Blake bassy, nasty, ouch-my-ear-and-body-hurts [moments], but in a good way. It has these vocal components, some of the people that have come in and done vocal work on this record have really come in and smashed it. So Caronline Smith's on the record...
Big Cats: Lydia from Bomba de Luz, P.O.S. is on the record, Eric Mason from Crunchy Kids.
Toki: BJ the Chicago Kid.
Big Cats: I sing on almost every song. Bet you didn't know that [laughs].
Toki: I never knew. I'm putting him on the spot when we're on stage though [laughs].
Big Cats: Caroline's got a verse, but a lot of stuff is really a skeleton, like we record everything and have samples to mess with. Everything is planned out and well organized, even if it's kind of chaotic.
Toki: I literally came over with a stack of poetry books from the last five to seven years and just read through them. I don't know if you want any of this, but here you go. I came back and he had made this masterpiece out if it. I'll do exercises til I get to the end result that I wanna have. There's songs on the record I've written four times, that I might still write again. He sent me some mixes yesterday, I rode home like, "Yeah!", by the time I got home I'm like, "Nah." [laughs] I feel like this is gonna be that piece of work where people go, "I may not have got you before, but I get you guys now". Separately or collectively.
Big Cats: You start working with somebody for the first time, it's like, I don't totally know what we're capable of. We want to let people in on that process and that growth, and we want to put out the absolutely best thing we can put out.
Toki: I can honestly say this is the best music I've ever made.
Toki Wright and Big Cats will present their new material for the first time at the Hip-Hop Harambee at the Nomad, Saturday the 21st, $20/$25, all ages.