The debut album is a major milestone in an artist’s career. An even bigger milestone? Being the first rapper in space.
Twenty-five-year-old Chicago MC Towkio aims to hit both goals this week, as he launches 100,000 feet above Earth and listens to his debut album, WWW., from way above the stratosphere. More than a stunt, Towkio’s intergalactic adventure aims to simulate the concept that drives the album: The Overview Effect.
“It’s the looking back at the earth,” Towkio explains. “It happens to astronauts when they leave the earth and they break the plane. It’s an out-of-body experience. They look back and see how precious it is because your life on Earth only exists on Earth. So all of the bullshit you deal with on a day-to-day basis, it instantly goes out the window when you leave the plane and you’re looking at the earth.”
Sonically, WWW. falls in line with Towkio’s philosophizing. There’s a heavy electronic influence pulsing through the record, and as Towkio jumps from footwork beats to more traditionally structured tunes, pure elation ties the album together.
As far as the music is concerned, Towkio has no concerns. As the first rapper signed by iconic record producer Rick Rubin in nearly two decades, Towkio’s greatest lesson learned is to focus on keeping his intentions pure—the message will come. In that same breath, he also isn't concerned with losing himself in the grandiosity of his concepts.
“I don’t worry, I just play my part,” Towkio asserts. “My part is to inform and to spread the message for people to want to inform themselves. I have been blessed enough to have a purpose and a message, and a reason to wake up every day. This is all I want to do with my life: manifest. Manifest, manifest, manifest; I’m a magician. I make things come out of nowhere.”
While Towkio has been steadily releasing full-length projects since 2014, he contends that his debut will be an “artist-defining album,” because, among other reasons, he will be literally dropping it from space.
DJBooth’s full interview with Towkio, which has been lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
Considering you’ve been putting out quality full-length releases since 2014, what does this forthcoming debut mean to you?
There are albums that define artists, and then there are albums that define sounds. There’s College Dropout and Channel Orange, and the range of the sonics there are all over the place, but still glued together by the artist. So I think this is an artist-defining album, where people are going to be able to see where I’m at and what I’m capable of. The next album will be a little more specific to a sound. It’s exciting to finally put a body of work out that’s all blended together by the artist.
You blended all of these sounds, but as you progress through the album, the sonics become heavily influenced by electronic music. Was there a particular aim in sequencing the project in this manner?
I was rapping over footwork beats and all these uptempo things, but I think the sonics just came due to the evolution of my sound. I don’t think that I’m necessarily an electronic or dance artist, I just make music. But [all] music, I say, you can dance to. Now I’m more refined in my sound. It’s not just me singing over electronic beats. You hear something and it sounds like a Towkio song.
On the opening track, “Swim,” a choir is singing, “Be prepared to swim.” How have you prepared for this new phase of your career?
I had to learn more about myself, and getting more into the artistry. Being able to work with Rick Rubin and working at [his Malibu studio] Shangri-La, I feel like I’ve learned so much about myself in the past year or two.
What is the biggest lesson you've learned by working with Rick Rubin?
Intention. With anything you say, there has to be [an] intention behind it. I have the purest of intentions in all of my music, and my message and my presence here.
Speaking of intention, on your single “Hot Shit,” you sing, “They just want that hot shit.” Do you ever feel the need to make a specific type of song?
My manager always says she’ll blend vitamins and kale into a smoothie so that her kids will drink it. So to some extent, yeah, because it depends on who you’re trying to reach. You’ve got to relate to the people for them to listen to your further. You could make a song for a certain reason, but if it’ll grab a listener, then they’ll listen to the things you have to say.
How do you combat the pressure of trying to make songs for radio?
Drake does it the best, I think. He releases two songs at a time. He makes the song that he knows everybody is going to like, and then he makes the song for himself and for his fans. I think that every artist faces this at a certain point, but when you build up your fan base and your following, you don’t need that radio hit. Frank Ocean don’t got no radio hits, but he’s still one of the most respected artists. At the end of the day, it’s best to make art for yourself. That’s the purest of the art. When you’re trying to make things for other reasons, they’ll be flawed for those reasons.
The album title, WWW., implies a worldwide takeover. Is that the plan?
The project is a concept, it’s the Overview Effect. It’s the looking back at the earth. It happens to astronauts when they leave the earth and they break the plane, it’s an out-of-body experience. They look back and see how precious it is because your life on Earth only exists on Earth. So all of the bullshit you deal with on a day-to-day basis, it instantly goes out the window when you leave the plane and you’re looking at the earth.
This is a feeling every human needs to understand, and then we’d be able to advance. We wouldn’t be worried about Black or White or race or rich or poor, it would be more like one human race that exists on this beautiful planet. So the message is bigger than any language. It resonates with the truth for human consciousness. That’s why, if they can feel it through the music and they feel great and feel this high, that’s the plan. Hopefully, this inspires a person to go learn more information and inspires a sharing of information.
Well, that explains the cover. Where was it shot?
It was shot at Teotihuacan, the pyramids in Mexico. They’re like thirty minutes from Mexico City. Those pyramids were found by the Teotihuacan, they stumbled upon these humongous pyramids and they called them the City of the Gods because they didn’t know where they came from. These pyramids were obviously built by people who existed before. Human existence is so miniscule, it has existed and been erased. We leave manifestations, we leave art, we leave pyramids, that’s how we’re able to know that there was life before us. That was what those humans did, built those beautiful pyramids under the stars and the sun and the moon. Now, thousands of years later, we’ve actually put a man on the Moon.
Do you ever worry about how small you may be in the world?
I don’t worry, I just play my part. My part is to inform and to spread the message for people to want to inform themselves. I have been blessed enough to have a purpose and a message, and a reason to wake up every day. This is all I want to do with my life: manifest. Manifest, manifest, manifest; I’m a magician. I make things come out of nowhere. That day that I went and shot that photo, I left and two hours later, the biggest earthquake that hit Mexico in ten years hit that day. I don’t believe in coincidences. Something crazy happened that day, and I risked my life three times in the process of the “Drift” video—twice in Mexico and once in Hawaii. I’ve almost lost my life three times in this whole process of making manifestations. There’s been so many moments where one decision could’ve changed everything, but God protected me. If I should’ve been gone, he would have gotten rid of me.
With that, I’m going to be the first rapper—the first artist—to go to space. I’m gonna drop my album and listen to it from space. I’m not scared because if I’m not supposed to be here, He would’ve got rid of me already. I have no fear in my heart. This is my legacy. Even though it’s a small fragment in the timeline of the earth, it’ll still be one to inspire change. If I can inspire one person, that’s it, but I’m inspiring the whole planet.
How are you getting to space?
A helium balloon. Have you seen the Red Bull space jump? If you look it up on YouTube, it’s a big helium balloon. It takes a lot of helium, but it’s the most efficient way to get into the atmosphere because you don’t have to use thrust. It takes you up 100,000 feet, and at a certain point, the helium balloon pops and then you parachute down. The Red Bull guy, he skydived. I’m not skydiving. I’m just gonna be in a capsule, hit 100,000 [feet], and parachute down.
Seriously? This is a done deal?
This is happening. I’ve done my research, I have a company, and I’ve already seen it done. Like I said, I’m not scared. It’s gonna be the day the album drops. If I die… God forbid, I’m not gonna die. I know he’s protecting me. I see 11:11 every single day. It’s under my spell and under my power that this all will happen. Worst comes to worst, I’ll die the only way I would want to die. I’m not gonna die, though.
I got to Rick Rubin through .WAV Theory, that was me looking at the moon. Now I’m looking at Earth from the Moon. I just got out the meeting that we confirmed all of this, and I can’t even tell my mom. She’s just gonna have to see it. She didn’t eat for five days when I went to Mexico. They did everything to have me not go, but I went anyway and I got the “Drift” video. I did it for $15,000, and other people weren’t taking the risks and getting the gifts from God like I was.
What else happened during your trips to Mexico and Hawaii?
When I was in Mexico, we got extorted by the police. The police pulled us over three times. They told us to go to a darker alley, then to an even darker alley, then made us get out the car and made us give them everything we got, with their guns and shit. We only had five dollars and they took five dollars from us. We had $60,000 worth of equipment, and for some reason, we had just dropped it off.
[Editor's Note: Towkio, at the behest of his management, declined to provide additional details about his experience with the Mexican police force.]
In Hawaii, I get in the car, I look at the guys and I ask, "Where’s the seatbelt?" He says there is no seatbelt and takes off. He hits the first drift and I’m hanging out the window, basically almost fell out of a drifting car on a volcano. I did it five more times, but the first time, I lost my grip and I had my legs holding onto the car. Then I hung out of a hot air balloon, trying to catch a drone.
Are you tired?
Energy is given to me by God and meditation. I’ve always had great energy. This is what I live for, I chase these things that get me excited. That’s why I’m even talking like this. This is what gets me high.
Grounding the conversation, if you had to boil this crazy adventure down to one sentence, what would it be?
God. I grew up Catholic, but I believe in God. Not so much the Bible, but that there is a higher power. I can’t explain why all of this stuff happens, I just move with it. I’m just a vessel. I wake up and for some reason, I gotta go do this, and then I do it. It’s been like this for a couple years, but I’m finally getting the validation now. And this is just the beginning.