We sat down with the legendary Twista at Red Bull Studios in New York to talk about his career and new EP, Lifetime, that was created with the Red Bull team in the span of four days.
Plus, a look at how Twista defines success, the state of rap and hip hop, and his new music school in Chicago that will serve to teach and mentor the next generation of artists.
You’ve been in the game for more than three decades now, how do you measure success?
There is an outer level of success as far as the accolades and what you achieve. But I think a lot of what entails success is how you feel on the inside about your accomplishments and what you’ve done. So, I think success starts from the inside to me. As far as outside, I think as long as you are manifesting what’s in your mind, and you got some goals, dreams, and you’re able to consistently manifest that on a regular basis, you know, into the physical, then I think you’re doing a good job.
Let’s talk about Lifetime. It was completed in four days with the Red Bull team. This process was different from what you normally do, so what was that like?
It was different because I had writers. I’m used to listening to a beat and maybe catch an idea or something from somebody and then constructing a whole song from the bottom to the top on my own. So, I think what was different and fun was having other writers and people in the room, different cultures, and genres, was just sitting in a room and we are working towards one common goal.
How did the name Lifetime come about?
We sat and thought about it like that didn’t come about until after I left the Red Bull session. So I went back home, lived with the record for a while. Me and my guys, you know, everybody on my teams, trying to come up with a title that best fits the project. It was really hard. We thought about me, the songs, how it felt, and we were going through different names. I came across “Lifetime” and it felt good to me because of how far I am in my career. With this project, I had writers who helped me. So, it is so different from what I’m doing. I’m like, man, just a lifetime of work. And then, the subject matters on the project too. So it just made me think this was a nice, comfortable fitting, subtle title.
What’s your favorite track?
Hmm. It’s hard, but I’m noticing a lot of people are liking “Danger.” I don’t have a favorite track on there yet because I like all of them so much. I got a very honest feeling about every one of those songs. If I had to pick, “Time zone” would be my favorite.
“But once it got to its like prime, I felt that rap was very intelligent, intellectual, educational, you know, different, hard to do.”
Working with Red Bull and the other artists and producers was a different process for you, but how do you normally prepare? What’s your process for long days in the studio?
I’m just in there listening to beats. Like, I might go in the studio start listening to different beats and vibes and a lot of times I’ll go off into seclusion. Like somewhere, I might be writing, smoking a little bit or something, you know, doing my thing and catching a vibe and it might take me a few hours to write a song or whatever. Sometimes, I don’t write, I may be more spontaneous and coming up with like a third of the verse while I’m sitting there listening to the beat and then just go straight into the booth. But it’s more of a self-contained thing, I may build back and forth with the engineer. But for the most part, it’s me with the whole thinking process.
Your style is very distinct. Everyone knows Twista’s iconic chopper style. You even earned a Guinness World Record at one point for being the fastest lyricist.
But nowadays, I’ve seen rappers like Big Sean or now even like DaBaby who are getting push back from fans for not “changing their style or switching their flow.”
So, what would your response be for that?
I think it’s good energy to hear come into the fold of today. I know in the beginning stages of rap, you know, of course, in the beginning, it had to develop over time. But once it got to its like prime, I felt that rap was very intelligent, intellectual, educational, you know, different, hard to do. And then over the years, people got into the wave and the vibe, which is cool and it dumbed down a little bit, which is cool. But I think if the music has dumbed down, know that you’re dumbing it down for a particular reason and don’t get totally away from the educational or the intricate aspect of lyrics.
So, I think what happened is when you hear people start to say that about people not changing their style, it’s that inner hunger for hip hop and the music and us as a culture to want to hear something different, creative, change. It’s like, “okay dude, switch it up. Okay, you don’t switch it up. Let me hear something different.” You know, people get tired of the monotonous things, sometimes, depending on who you are. Some people, let me hear exactly what you’re doing over and over and I will stay a fan. But some people, want to hear a change.
On that note, with the new generation of artists, are they elevating the game, in terms of like rap and hip hop, are they moving it in the right direction or how do you feel?
Well, I don’t think it’s a “right” direction. I think their own direction is just what it is and it’s just exciting to watch. I think the changes that are happening are some changes that may be the older generation can’t tell or can’t see as easy as the younger generation, but in their field of doing what they do, they pay attention to these changes in these cadences and what they do in their own way. So even though it may sound similar to the older generation, I think within their realm of what they do, they could see the change. If, you know, it’s not as drastic as the changes with us. Like Big Daddy Kane doesn’t sound anything like KRS-One, or this person doesn’t sound anything like De La Soul, or you know, so on and so forth. So a lot of them do have similarities I think because of the autotune aspect. But at the same time too, I think there’s a respect factor that we have to pay to them and what they do and understand that within their creativity and culture they can see the changes a little more differently.
Do you think social media has played a role in creating pressure for artists? For example, now fans can DM or tweet right at you, pressure you to change it up or whatever.
No, it’s a gift and a curse. I think it depends on your personality. Some people may be stuck in their way or feel like what they do works and look at what the fan says and just, “Oh okay.” Now, I think some people use a fan reaction as a way to keep themselves going and they pay attention to and engage with the fans so that they can remain relevant. So, some people listen to what their fans are saying to do.
If a younger artist wanted to work with you, what would you be looking for?
A little bit of everything. At one glance you want to see it all together, you know, charisma, style, look, how they engage fans, stage performance. You kind of want to see it all in one walk. Like with me, a lot of times I’m looking for star quality. And what I mean when I say that, is to be able to walk in the room and pick a person out in the crowd or say that person has “it” or I see an “it factor” with that person. I don’t know what it is. It’s just something about them. I’m always looking for that type of vibe.
On Lifetime, the first track is called “Still on Top.” And in previous interviews, you mentioned that you want to be like the “James Brown of this, you don’t plan on stopping anytime soon.” So, what is your secret? How do you keep going?
I think if it’s something I had to do, then I may have stopped already. But if it’s something you love to do, then there really is no sleep. You just love it. So I think like when you asked that question or somebody asked that question for me, it’s similar to asking a portrait artist or something. How do they keep doing it? You already know that person LOVES that shit. He’s not gonna stop it. Money doesn’t have anything to do with it. He wakes up and he feels the creativity. So, that’s the same thing as me. And I do portrait art too, so I’m just a creative person. So naturally being creative, it’s not a hard thing. I wake up wanting to create.
Who are you currently listening to? In Chicago? Outside of Chicago? Who’s on your playlist?
A little of everybody. And when you say playlist, that’s a different thing. Because playlist is like certain songs that I have to hear, you know? So what I’m listening to is like just in general, like on the radio or if something comes on. Most of the stuff that a lot of the younger generation is listening to, a lot of them, I can’t tell by the name. You know, l know all of their names, but I may mix which song, which artists put out. So I may hear the song be like, I love that song, but then I might see that artist, you’re like, wait, I like this artist when I see him, I know him, but I can’t remember what, you know what I’m saying? So I like all of the younger guys and what they’re doing. And then just my natural listening pleasure.
I’m going to listen to some Bob Marley on my playlist, a bunch of Bob Marley. I’m going to listen to a bunch of Nate Dogg. I love Nate Dogg and all his albums. A bunch of Nas, Illmatic, everything I’m gonna listen to. I listened to everything. I listened to Gnarls Barkley when they’re together. I listened to CeeLo when he’s by himself. I listen to everybody. I will go back and start bumping My Philosophy and then I’ll go forward and start bumping something from J.I.D. So, I’m everywhere with it. I just like music in general. And on my iPad, I’m watching old documentaries of blues singers, jazz singers. So, I’m just a music person.
If you had to be remembered by one track or one project, what would it be?
Adrenaline Rush. My first album. And really, that’s the one that everybody likes, like the core fans. For the world or everybody fans, “Slow Jams” or maybe “Overnight Celebrity.”
If you had to be remembered by one word, what would it be?
Legend. That’s what people say to me though. That answer strictly comes from people. People looking at me, like “What up, Twist, you a legend”, that’s all I hear, “you a legend, you a legend.” I’m like, “Hey, I’ll take it in stride.”
Do you feel pressure with that?
No, it feels good. Well, what made it feel good? When I first started feeling like, man, I’m getting a little older in the game. Then, I went to Atlanta and I know he knows, I tell this story everywhere cause he probably sees my interviews. I saw Pastor Troy and I said, “what’s up man? What you doing?” And he had his belt on his shoulder and he said, “man, I’m chilling man. I’m just legend living.” And ever since I saw Pastor Troy say that he was “legend living,” it changed the vibe of how I do and move around. So I just have fun.
What else are you cooking up this year?
Me and my buddy, Toxic, a producer who worked on a Kamikaze record, a bunch of other records. We started a music school in Chicago that’s gonna launch March 5th. It’s called MAPS for Music. MAPS stands for Musicians, Artists, Producers, and Songwriters. We’ll have mentors to participate like once a month and give critique on the music industry and answer questions. And then we have a curriculum, it’s like a four-week program, three days a week. And it’s pretty much me and Toxic, along with our mentors, our idea and perspective of how to navigate and work in the music industry. So I think it’s dope, cause it is in Chicago and even though you have a lot of artists in Chicago, a lot of times we don’t understand the music industry as well as other artists in their regions do. I think it’s going to be a big thing for the city. And it’s my put back like when people say, “Twista, how did you navigate the game? Or how did you [xyz]?” I have a music school, come check me out and see what we got done.
That is where my heart is at. I’m pushing this project right now. I’m excited about this with Red Bull, but definitely excited about being able to promote my program in Chicago.
One last question, you started rapping at the age of 12, what would you tell your younger self?
Be yourself. Don’t try to be anyone else. Your uniqueness, creativity, and dopeness about yourself, comes from you being yourself.
Is that the advice you would tell younger artists as well?
I would say, stop trying to get on or stop looking for success. The on you want to get, or what you’re looking for, is within you already. You are already the star, so just start working on yourself. Stop looking outward. Look in.