Dark Horse: Twista on His Trademark Style, New Album & Lessons From Dame Dash

By Jimmy Ness

Like a rap Roadrunner, Twista has the verbal velocity to spit several hundred words in under a minute. His lightning quick verses scored him a record deal in 1992 on the newly formed Loud Records as well as a Guinness World Record for Fastest MC.

Despite encountering industry resistance mostly due to his rhyme style and Chicago roots in a largely East/West dominated era, Carl Terrell Mitchell has remained relevant for over two decades. You’ll know him for several hits including the Kanye produced “Slow Jamz” and “Overnight Celebrity,” but he’s also preparing to release his 9th solo album The Dark Horse.

During our chat, the enthusiastic 40 year old openly discussed his musical origins, almost quitting after his second album, hanging out with Dame Dash as well collaborating with Lady Gaga, being labeled a novelty and why he’s never left Chicago.

Tell us about the impact of Chicago house on developing your double-time delivery?

Really just the way the beat moves. I can do my lyrics to my Adrenaline Rush album or a lot of my songs I can actually rap them to the tempo of a house beat. So I think in that aspect, just growing up to the music and it holding me to a certain tempo or feel of the music I liked. It was just natural for me to develop to a rap style that was in that same rhythm.

Chicago DJ Fast Eddie rapped over a lot of house tunes and was one of your early influences?

Yes that’s one of my buddies right there from the past. Fast Eddie was definitely a big influence on me. I remember looking up to him like “wow, it’s an actual rapper from Chicago.” So Fast Eddie is definitely one of the guys that played a big part in me first hearing rap and house music.

You experimented with that sound on “Pimp like Me.”

Yes, and if you actually listen to “Jewels and Drugs” on Lady Gaga’s album there’s an up-tempo like that too.

You used to hang out in local clubs like The Factory as a kid. Were you into breakdancing?

Definitely. I wasn’t as good as the top dogs that were doing it, but I held my own when it came to popping, locking and breakdancing. I was out there on the cardboard with the young guys before I got into the rap music. Rap wasn’t here yet, but I still had that hip-hop vibe in me so once you got into the breakdancing era that was definitely a big part of my life.

In the 90s, Bone Thugs, Three 6 Mafia and yourself were beefing over who invented the double-time style, but it was actually a coincidence and discovered individually in all these different parts of the US?

Yeah it was a genuine coincidence. Things get more complex after they are brought into existence – rap came and started simple, but gradually over time people would flip the words or try different patterns. I think it was so unique that everybody thought that they came up with something on their own and was taken back by realising that someone else in another area was actually doing the same thing. We grew to learn that we all developed a new sound of rap simultaneously.

Mobstability with the Speedknot Mobstaz turned 15 years old last year, how does that feel?

I mean that’s crazy. I would say it makes me feel old, but when I get down and pick up a pen and pad and I listen to the beats, I still come out with the same fierceness. So I feel like “Yeah! I’m an OG in the game!” [laughs]

I was just watching you during a performance on Yo! MTV Raps in 1992 and you had the nose piercing and that classic funky style.

Yep, definitely. You know that was the era where 2pac wore a nose ring, you also had X-Clan members wearing nose rings so that was like really in when it came to hip-hop around that time. You knew why you were wearing the jewellery and things like that. I was definitely into my little culture and fashion at the time.

When you first came on the scene a lot of East Coast magazines and rappers dissed you. You really appreciated their style, but people were saying your technique was a novelty?

Right they thought it was a fad that was going to go away and then the fact of me being from Chicago. No artists were from Chicago or I should say no hip-hop artists were big in Chicago. Everyone was a little biased towards what was coming out in the US. After a while I took that negative energy and then turned it into positive. I went real hard and I made everyone respect what I was doing and respect the city.

You started rapping as if it was just for your friends and no one else.

Exactly, exactly. It was like if this magazine is going to diss me or this rapper from this town that I like is going to diss me, forget all of them. I’m going to stop rapping to make the critics and the magazines like me. I’m going to start rapping to make my homies on the block like me in my neighbourhood and that’s when it all changed for me.

How do you feel about your influence on a lot of younger rappers? New York crews using double time and flows like that.

When you’re younger, you look at it like “oh they’re biting, they’re taking my style,” but when you’re older you look at it like “oh man that’s dope! I helped create a sound or style in rap and people respect and it honor it enough where they copy or do it.” So I look at it in that aspect now.

After your second album Resurrection didn’t do too well, you got a full-time job around 95-96. The guest verse on “Po Pimp” with Do or Die actually helped save your career?

I tell people all the time, I was working a regular job when I wrote the song “Po Pimp.” I was still rapping, still going around with my crew but I don’t know, maybe it was the thought of me getting a job that made me take it a little more serious. By the time I got the “Po Pimp” beat, I was like – I’m going to save myself from this style of work because I don’t want to do that, I want to do this. So that’s why I think I put my all into the “Po Pimp” record. To save me from the everyday life of working.

Most artists seem to go through difficulties in their careers.

Yeah, hey I’ve had some ups and downs but I definitely like the idea that as long as they know you can bring it and you’re dope, that always saves you if you’re a true lyricist. You can be up and down because they know Twista can bring it so
that’s the one thing I hold on to no matter what level or phase I’m going through in my career.

I always thought the song “Give It Up” with Pharrell should have performed better.

Yeah I was a little disappointed about “Give It Up” as far as the way it rolled out and the way it was promoted and everything. I wanted it to go further than what it did, but you know that’s one of those bumps in the road where you make good music and it might not go as far as you want it to, but you’re still happy because you put your all into something that came out hot.

Do you feel that staying in your home city of Chicago has kept you grounded?

I definitely think it’s kept me humbled and grounded. It’s also kept me from going as far or being bigger than I am at the same time. But it’s really something I kind of don’t mind though, because I love the city so much and I love being around my people so I like being able to have a foot in both sides of it. One foot in the celebrity side, but also one foot in the normal activity/normal person side. So it’s fun.

You recently organized a drive to help feed the city?

That was big. I did it with my man, his name is Steve from a store called Exclusives on the south side. Me and him just teamed together because it was like – man all these people have been coming around here asking about turkeys or food for thanksgiving. Let’s just get a bunch of turkeys, let’s get the other artists involved in it and let’s just make it happen. Just like that with no problem all of the other artists – Young Chop, King Louie, everybody started donating a bunch of food and money. It turned out to be a big event for the people of the neighbourhood.

It sounds like a rewarding thing to do as well.

Definitely, I did it for the reward of making people happy not so much for the exposure.

How has being involved with Islam influenced your perception of music and the world?

Well it’s really something that has been a part of my life just from being involved in the early stages of hip-hop. Most early artists were into Islam in some form. Whether it be Eric B & Rakim, Guru and Premier, no matter who it was, a lot of these early artists were influenced by it and me coming up in that early era, I was influenced by it. I think Islam just really helps you be one who is at peace. It definitely helped me be a more peaceful and disciplined person. That’s the thing I would say about the way it influenced me through the music. That’s how it helped keep me grounded. A lot of people would figure “I’m doing this music now so forget everything good, I’m trying to be a rapper. “ But the good thing about Islam is that it kept a lot of us grounded and level-headed and a little more disciplined during those eras. So I’m always going to be happy that there was something like that I was involved in or a part of.

As well as featuring on Jay-Z’s The Blueprint 2, you hung out with the Rocafella guys a lot at one stage in your career?

Yup I was about to be a part of the label actually, but I was too far along with my own project on the label I was on to make it happen. But I got a chance to experience being a part of the family and them welcoming me in, and being a
part of the tours and doing songs with the artists.

Dame, will teach you. Just hanging around a person like Dame Dash and his general conversation is the type that you want to listen to, draw from and be able to learn from. He just speaks wisdom when he’s moving around. Like “I wouldn’t do this because of this, you have to do this first and then this.” His general conversation is one you can learn from. So definitely I would love to become as powerful or mind-strong as a person like him in terms of becoming a businessman.

Jay-Z used to rap in double-time too.

Yeah, he was actually one of the first ones.

You’ve been in the studio recently with Timbaland?

Yeah, me and Timbaland got a few records recorded together. I feel like, he is the music version of me. I feel like I’m a lyrical version of Timbaland. I think when we get around each other we just compliment each other so well and we also memorize each other with each other’s rhythms and things like that know what I’m saying?

What can we expect from your new album?

New music that you expect. One thing that I’ve learned is to not steer too far from my fan base because they really appreciate what you do. You can never change the way you came out. It’s cool to try new things but you always want to give them what they expect too. So the thing that I’m happy about with this project is how much it sounds like an Adrenaline Rush anniversary almost. The songs don’t sound the same, but they definitely sound like I’m giving you what you’ve been missing from Twista. That’s what I’m happy about with this project, that it’s dope as hell.

There was talk of you doing a joint project with Busta Rhymes?

Me and Busta talk a lot about doing things, but you know he’s all over the place so much. We’ll get around each other and we’ll do a song here or there. But we’re definitely going to get around each other, lock down some time and just go ham.

Are you enjoying being independent?

Definitely, it’s all about the freedom. Some people don’t mind being locked down but for me I like a certain amount of freedom and ability to move around and do what I do. I’m definitely in the zone.

Do you feel like people often overlook you because of your delivery style?

All the time, it does happen a lot. I think later around these years, people are very familiar with me and they look at me as an OG and tell me I have lyrics, but definitely throughout my career I can remember plenty of times feeling like I wasn’t appreciated lyrically because of the way my flow was going. So I would think, man let me slow it down and let them hear these bars. When I did that it was always “man we don’t wanna hear that shit! We wanna hear that fast shit.” [laughs] So I learned to accept who I am and still be lyrical at the same time.

What techniques did you use to break the Guinness World Record?

It was really about getting out as many syllables in one breath as I could. So you take a deep breath, say everything and then when you get back to the end of the sentence, it needs to end right at the end of that breath. Then you inhale and you do it again, you basically keep going and do it as fast and articulate as you can. Keep going and you should be able to accomplish what I did.

You were on Chance The Rapper’s track “Cocoa Butter Kisses.” He’s got a pretty unique approach to rap music. Are you surprised by the versatility in modern hip-hop?

Not really surprised, you can always see that it’s going to grow and going to change. I’m happy to see that it’s so innovative, and so many artists can try so many things and be themselves and still get recognized for it. There wasn’t a lot of us out at first and if you weren’t doing what everyone thought what was “mainstream” it wouldn’t work, but now days you can be like that. There’s a lot of people that don’t even know who Chance The Rapper is and yet he can still have a sold out show every night. I think that’s big.

How did it feel when you found out Lady Gaga was a fan of your music?

I was very surprised. It was a shock to me. You know what it is? It’s a surprising and overwhelmingly rewarding feeling when you are being told something like that, you know what I mean? Like, yes! All those years of sitting at the table breaking my back to think of the dopest metaphors possible has finally paid off. [laughs]

Thanks man.

Ah man, it was all love. Good to chop it up with you, thank you for the good conversation.

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