Chester Watson is a rapper-slash-producer who can conjure words with the best of his peers, but he’s having a hard time choosing his favorite fictional wizard. After a brief detour into anime (neither Cowboy Bebop nor Samurai Champloo features any magical characters), he settles on Merlin from King Arthur and Dumbledore from Harry Potter. “They’re wise, all-seeing and all-knowing,” he concludes, all qualities that have been reflected in his own music over the past six years.
Watson's magic is a murky sense of place, streams of consciousness submerged in cauldrons of self-reflection and the eerie calm of Japanese horror and skate sessions trailed by blunt smoke. At 21 years old, his words sound older than he is, grounded and wise, yet light enough to dance over the surface like the mist from a freshly popped bottle of Coke; equivalent exchange set to boom bap.
It comes as no surprise, then, that he used to dance. A “happier, more upbeat kid” who grew up in St. Louis, Missouri before constantly moving between Atlanta and Miami, Watson’s family took to calling him Money because they always knew he’d make something of his love for the arts, which began with a three-year stint in ballet.
“My dance teacher was Egyptian and she was Russian-trained, so that just kinda opened my eyes to how big the world was,” he explains. “It opened my eyes to the fact that so many things could be a part of one person. I started exploring culture through dance because you kinda have to. When you learn how to dance, you also learn how to count music and different time signatures, just because you have to move on those rhythms.”
The rhythms and new world outlook took Watson at 15 years old, around the same time that he began to take rap and production seriously. Records began to appear from the ether, including his 2012 debut Phantom, and its dense 2014 follow-up Tin Wooki. The music is hazy but Watson’s thoughts are the light that cuts through the fog, breaking complicated thoughts down to their simplest forms in ways that would make Earl Sweatshirt blush.
A mercurial way with words is what endeared him to highly-respected writer and eventual manager, Jeff Weiss. The story is just simple enough to be true: “I sent the song to Jeff and said, 'You won’t regret it.' He listened to it and told me he didn’t regret it, and that’s how our relationship started.” Blog premieres turned into a vested interest and an eventual management position that led to Watson and Weiss shopping themselves to labels, but both believed that if the product was good enough, they might as well just release it themselves.
Watson’s 2016 release, Past Cloaks, wasn’t just a breakthrough, it was the first project released through Weiss’ newly founded label POW Recordings, a milestone for any artist but retroactively important to Watson. “It’s an honor, he says. "I never really thought about it, to be real. Whenever I die, or whatever happens to me, that’s always gonna be there. Cloaks is 001. It’s definitely a stamp. A good first release.”
With Cloaks in his rearview and a European tour on his resume, Watson enjoyed some much-needed downtime, which he subsequently parlayed into his next works. He made connections with Dutch and German producers; he taught himself how to play guitar; he studied his way through Japanese mythology. These experiences eventually led to what was supposed to be a follow-up to Cloaks, a project entitled A Japanese Horror Film, initially set for release in 2017.
Watson created “about 20 or 30 songs” for the project that he liked but felt none of them were ready to see the light of day just yet, a consequence of the precision he’d learned from ballet. “I feel like that may have influenced my work ethic and the way I write things and the way I need things to be. It has to be a certain way or else I won’t release it unless someone convinces me to,” he admits.
On Friday, October 5, Watson will deliver 10 of those songs in the form of new work dubbed Project 0, a bridge to the sound that he’s aiming to perfect on A Japanese Horror Film. This is his transitional project, the spells cast to signal the coming of Doctor Strange.
“0 came from me wanting to perfect JHF but having a bunch of amazing songs that I wanted to release for a long time and wanting to package it right, making a nice bridge between my old stuff and my new stuff.” —Chester Watson
At 10 tracks and clocking in at just under 30 minutes in runtime, Project 0 is easily Watson’s shortest project to date and a nice sampler of what the young wizard has to offer. He conjures up worlds complete with lakes and fences where he can bump Wu-Tang and get faded to Kevin Gates interviews (the twinkling Tufu-produced “40 Acres”), flexes his skills while reliving days backpacking through Belgium (“Floating”) and falling in love with the titular California town on the twangy “Topanga,” a “little hippie town in the mountains” that he hopes to move to once he’s stacked enough money.
These are the silver linings on the sides of the clouds brewing on songs like “Chessmaster” and “Oblivion, Are You Satisfied?,” deeper dives into the anxiety (“Every time I go onstage I gotta turn the lights down.”) and creeping sense of dread that billows over the music industry and life itself (“I want a private jet by the time I hit 27 / 'Cause in my profession, life expectancy / Man that’s about as high as it gets”).
These brief vignettes paint a picture of a sharply intelligent young man adrift in his own stream of consciousness, the homie in the corner at the party who seems existential and grim until you coax him into a longboard race to the adjacent couch. The production paints in brights and darks that are equally murky and textured with a booming low end. Watson’s fingerprints are on half of the tracklist here, with valuable assists from Norwegian beatsmith Miroff (the booming fuzz of “Chessmaster”), Eets (the wailing trumpet over drum snaps on “Floating”) and Canada’s own swum (the head-nod day trip of “Long Story Short; Life”).
Project 0 finds a middle ground between heady introspection and blunted, wordy, globetrotting boom bap, a concern that Watson used to care about more than he does now. “At one point, I was very concerned about my music being perceived as backpack or whatever wack shit,” he elaborates. “I was very inclined to experiment with weirder shit because of that.”
Watson credits friend and collaborator Kent Loon and his worldly travels with helping him get over that hump, embracing the ground he walks on while processing life in his early 20s. He isn’t so much world-weary as he is world-absorbent, taking on bits and pieces of the globe and using them to push his increasingly jazzy side forward.
Chester Watson is many things: a rapper, a producer, a prodigal son of the indie scene, a wizard with the pen and an anime and streetwear enthusiast. But at the end of the day, he just wants to be known as a regular guy.
“I wanna believe I’m a normal dude, but a lot of people tell me that’s not the case,” he concludes. “I skate. I just started playing the guitar. I just wanna be one of the best psychedelic musicians ever. Ever. I wanna be one of those people like Jimi Hendrix was for rock music; I wanna be that for rap. Jimi’s music was super chaotic and also mellow, and I’m starting to feel Jimi a lot more as I get older.”
Considering his still-blooming ambitions, staying this humble and low-key might be his greatest trick of all.
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