Towkio is officially Chicago’s highest rapper | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

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Towkio is officially Chicago’s highest rapper

The Save Money MC’s balloon trip to the stratosphere wasn’t just to promote his first album for Rick Rubin—it’s also about inspiration, perspective, and togetherness.

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Towkio couldn’t bring the same helmet to the photo shoot that he wore to the stratosphere, but this one looks pretty similar. - LISA PREDKO
  • Lisa Predko
  • Towkio couldn’t bring the same helmet to the photo shoot that he wore to the stratosphere, but this one looks pretty similar.

Last Wednesday, February 21, two days before he released his major-label debut, WWW., Chicago rapper Towkio was in Minnesota, where he put on a space helmet and a yellow high-altitude flight suit and strapped himself into a tiny capsule suspended beneath a helium balloon. The suit was equipped with an oxygen hose and emblazoned with the album's logo—a stylized globe bisected by a sawtooth waveform (WWW. stands for World Wide .Wav). At 11:11 AM this unconventional aircraft took off, eventually reaching an altitude of more than 92,000 feet, well into the stratosphere. (Commercial jetliners usually cruise no higher than 35,000 feet.) Towkio wanted to listen to his own new album while looking down at the earth, so the 24-year-old paired a Bluetooth speaker in the capsule with his phone.

Many astronauts have described what's called the "overview effect," a profound shift in awareness that occurs when they see their home planet floating in space: they understand the earth holistically, as a fragile collective organism needing our care and protection, and the importance of national boundaries and other divisions between people dissolves. Towkio hoped to experience it himself. He spent about four and a half hours in the capsule, and as soon as it had floated back to earth on its parachute, he rushed out of it with a whoop, pumping his arms over his head, and flopped face-first into the snow. He slowly drew himself up to his knees, then into a thoughtful crouch. "It's like I came back from the dead," he says of that moment. "That's the best way I can describe it."

A post shared by +. GOD W ME (@towkio) on

A week before his trip, Towkio had told me, "I do plan on going to space and being one of the first artists to do it. I will be doing that very soon." I didn't realize how soon. He'd been fixated on space for a few years, since visiting Malibu, California, to talk to Rick Rubin about signing to American Recordings, Rubin's imprint of the Universal Music Group's Republic label. (It was Republic that would eventually finance Towkio's balloon trip, which he claims cost $75,000.) "In Malibu I'd seen every fucking star in the sky, and it blew my mind," he says. He'd been convinced to accept American's deal by a dream: "It was Rick driving me and my manager down PCH [the Pacific Coast Highway], and it was a beautiful pink sunset the whole way home," Towkio says. "Then PCH turned into Lake Shore Drive, and he dropped us off at the crib. It was a beautiful house—I don't know whose house it was."

After his dream, Towkio wrote a letter to Rubin—the record-industry guru who'd signed Slayer in 1986 and resuscitated Johnny Cash's career in the 1990s. Beloved by hip-hop heads the world over for founding the iconic Def Jam label in his NYU dorm in 1984, Rubin had gone on to lend his magic producer's touch to LL Cool J, Run-DMC, the Beastie Boys, Jay-Z, Kanye West, and many others—but until Towkio, he hadn't signed a rapper in two decades.

Rubin noticed Towkio thanks to his 2015 breakthrough mixtape, .Wav Theory, which includes an all-star roster of guests from the Save Money collective the rapper had cofounded as a high school freshman: Vic Mensa, Joey Purp and Kami (as the duo Leather Corduroys), and Chance the Rapper on two tracks. Towkio sees his connection with Rubin as an inevitability. "All the legends are cosigning us—our frequencies are aligning," he says. "The fact that Vic signed with Jay-Z—the Kanye thing was happening. And the Kanye and Chance thing. And now me and Rick. It all seems like it's unreal. Now it's my chapter in the story."

When Rubin initially reached out in 2015, Towkio was on the fence. And the first time he was ready to put his name on the paperwork, he heard from a friend who changed his mind—at least for a while. "Chance calls me, and he says, 'Are you about to go to Rick Rubin's house? Are you about to sign?' I'm like, 'Yeah.' He's like, 'Don't do it. I'm gonna put you on a song with Justin Bieber,'" Towkio says. "Chance has been my brother, so without even questioning it I said, 'OK.' I went to Rick's house—I just didn't sign. I met with him, just talked a little bit, told him I didn't really want to sign at the time. He was really understanding, like, 'Just let me know when you're ready.'" Chance included Towkio on "Juke Jam," which appears on his astronomically successful third mixtape, Coloring Book; a sweet, sensual number about finding love at a roller rink, it features a supple hook by Bieber.

But Towkio already saw the value of the support Rubin could give, not just financially but spiritually and creatively. Once he signed, Rubin offered him full access to Shangri-La, the borderline mythical Malibu recording studio built in the early 70s by engineer and producer Rob Fraboni to meet the high standards of Bob Dylan and the Band. Before Rubin bought the place in 2011 for $2 million, the stars who'd recorded there included Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson, Neil Young, Van Morrison, Metallica, Weezer, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Adele. These days, Kanye has taken to escaping to Shangri-La for peace and quiet.

Towkio could find basically everything he wanted at Shangri-La, and he recorded almost all of WWW. there. "I can stay there and be separated from the world and make music," he says. "It allowed me to really dig into my brain and my psyche, and understand who I was as a person and an artist—and really helped me grasp full hold of my concepts, and advance on them. I call it the hyperbolic time chamber, 'cause I just go there and I just get better, every time." By his own admission he's still growing, still working toward reaching his ultimate artistic form, but he can already envision his face on the Mount Rushmore of Chicago hip-hop. On Tuesday, February 27, he appeared on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show alongside Bruce Willis. "They gonna bring my name up whenever they bring up Kanye's name and Chance's name," he says. "I'm something that hasn't existed before—there's never been a Mexican-Japanese artist-rapper, none of that, from Chicago."

Born in 1993 as Preston Oshita, Towkio describes himself as a product of World War II. His paternal grandparents met at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center, a Japanese internment camp in northwest Wyoming. They moved to Chicago's south side so his grandfather could find a job. His mother took a similar path to the city—her oldest brother moved here from Nuevo León, Mexico, and she followed suit in her teens. Towkio says his parents met while students in the Chicago Public Schools, at "a high school dance or something." A lot of his friends' parents have similar stories. "The same thing happened with Chance's parents, Joey's parents, Kene's [Kami's] parents," he says. "All of this, it's all been bubbling up to this situation. Like, if I wasn't born in '93, I wouldn't have the opportunity to do what I'm doing right now."

Towkio grew up in Avondale and met most of his closest friends before he turned 16. "I met Joey in kindergarten, Vic in like eighth grade," he says. "By the time high school came, you know, CPS gonna connect everybody." A Lane Tech alum, Towkio credits the universe for putting him in the orbit of people who challenged him to think deeply. "I had this homie named Todd—he's my white friend—and we used to talk about trippy shit. 'What if we could fly? What if we could do all of this shit?,'" he says. "I think that a lot of times people just don't have anybody to talk to. You know, their ideas will stop at, 'What if we could fly? Oh, never mind, I'm high. No, never mind, I'm tweaking.'"

However Towkio's mind was opened, he's glad it was. When he was younger, he didn't always appreciate his Japanese father's life lessons—"about discipline, and about being a good person, and right and wrong"—or the richness of his family's history. "I didn't really identify with my Japanese side as much, because all my friends were Hispanic and black," he says. But both sides of his family helped imprint creativity on his DNA. "My abuelo, he was a music teacher in Mexico," Towkio says. "I didn't know that my dad was an artist. I knew my uncles—my tios—played music, and they had a little poppin' band in Mexico. But I didn't think about that having anything to do with me rapping. I was writing poems and shit, and music just turned into my vehicle."

Under the name Preston San, he dropped his debut in July 2012, a collaborative EP with producer Mojek called Community Service. He soon changed his stage name to Tokyo Shawn, but he was Towkio by the time of his next release in May 2014, the EP Hotchips N Chopstix. He came into his own in April of the following year with the second advance single from .Wav Theory, "Heaven Only Knows." The gospel-hits-the-club track features Chicago soul singer Eryn Allen Kane, Norwegian producer-singer Lido, and Chance the Rapper, who closes it with an ad lib: "This song is already so hot, I'm just glad you let me rap on that bitch." Towkio provides a hard-to-pin-down X factor with the mischievous spark in his unpredictable, loose-limbed flow.

Before he dropped .Wav Theory at the end of April 2015, Towkio had already begun work on what would become WWW. "Towkio's always working on the next thing simultaneously," says Kevin Rhomberg, aka producer and singer Knox Fortune, who worked on part of the new album. "When .Wav Theory was getting finished up, he was like, 'Let's keep recording songs all the time.'"

Towkio could do just that after he signed with Rubin. At Shangri-La, runners supplied him and his crew with audio equipment, food, and anything else that would help them stay focused on music. "I was making the whole album on Bob Dylan's tour bus," Towkio says. "The bus was facing the water, so the sunset would come through the windows of the bus and just shoot in. I'm looking at a crazy view every day, just channeling this high. I felt like I was in another world. I felt like I was on acid the whole time."

Artist's impression of Towkio in another world - LISA PREDKO
  • Lisa Predko
  • Artist's impression of Towkio in another world

Towkio assembled a sizable production team, including Knox, Lido, Chicago DJ and beat maker Smoko Ono, genre-fluid Bay Area musician Garren Sean, Chicago-based SZA collaborator Carter Lang, and Social Experiment members Peter Cottontale, Nico Segal, and Nate Fox. They had a truckload of drool-worthy equipment to work with too. "There's a song on the upcoming record that I produced called 'Disco,' and it's one of my favorite ones—it's super ratchet," Knox says. "I made the beat really fast on an 808 [drum machine] at Shangri-La—like, Rick Rubin's personal 808." Knox says using it was "like calling a ghost," since that very machine had contributed to an untold number of historically important hip-hop tracks. Finishing the track was a much longer process than finishing the beat, though. "I continued to work on it with him for two years and was like, 'Oh my God, dude,'" Knox says. "But it's cool 'cause he pushed me to make it a better product."

Towkio also learned from Rubin what to focus on. "Rick really taught me about intention," he says. "Like, 'What is your intention behind every frequency?' I see him like a tuning fork. He moves, he shakes back and forth, bounces his head, and he'll come out of the frequency and then tell you what he saw. Working with him allowed me to try to tune my frequency to my purest, so that I knew I could just bounce back off of him and know when I was doing a good job."

Towkio describes his album in terms of frequencies, waves, and interconnectedness—especially the kind of interconnectedness that he felt while suspended in the stratosphere. "World Wide .Wav, the WWW.—I connected the Ws together so that it makes an actual wave—it's the frequency that goes across the earth," he says. "I was trying to make an album that's this high that can be felt by every human on earth—it doesn't matter what language you speak, where you're from, any of that. We're just floating on this small little blue planet in this vast universe. And that right there is the ultimate high. How much higher can you be than in space?" In the album's black-and-white cover photo, Towkio wears a brilliantly white space suit in front of the Pyramid of the Moon at Teotihuacán, northeast of Mexico City.

The cover of Towkio’s new WWW.
  • The cover of Towkio’s new WWW.

"I was blessed enough to go to a place like Shangri-La, where I'd freakin' seen the stars for the first time," Towkio says. "I had never seen that many stars in my life." While celestial bodies populate the lyrics of WWW., Towkio gives his stargazing extra depth by drawing upon his life as a Chicagoan. On one of the album's best tracks, "Forever," he raps, "All we know is Now & Laters, and skyscrapers / Yeah, it's concrete, where the kids at, let me go speak to 'em / But if you never seen any mountains or the stars, how you ever supposed to know that's the thing you're supposed to reach for?" The spirit of Chicago animates the song, and not just because Towkio is rapping about young people of color trying to imagine a better and more just future: the instrumental (by Garren Sean and Smoko Ono) refashions the hook from Kanye's College Dropout track "We Don't Care," building it into a grandiose soul melody. Vic Mensa shows up for a verse too.

Towkio knows young Chicagoans look up to him, and he wants them to look higher. It's one of the reasons he climbed into that capsule. "When they see a kid like me or a kid like Chance leave and go do all of this stuff—we are their hometown heroes," he says. "Just like other people inspired us, we are doing the same thing for them." The day Towkio flew partway to space, many of those kids must have been in class, sneaking peeks at his Instagram and Twitter.

During his flight, when he wasn't contemplating all the life choices that had brought him there, Towkio took the opportunity to appreciate WWW. in a radically new context. "It felt like I made the soundtrack to the exact thing I was doing," he says. "I'm just glad that now people can understand where I was coming from when I made the album."

The experience was bigger than he could've prepared himself for. "I cried, it was beautiful," he says. "I'm not the same man—I can't even believe I put myself through that. That was the most intense life training. Every time I started thinking about how I was gonna die, I started praying and I started listening to my music."

As humbling as his trip was, though, he's feeling more than just humility now. "I feel unstoppable," he says. "Fuck music, bro—I defied gravity."  v

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