February 27, 2004
BY JIM DEROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC
Thirteen years ago, West Side rapper Carl Mitchell made his recorded debut
under the name Tongue Twista with an album called "Runnin' Off at da
Mouth." That disc was named in honor of his rapid-fire delivery, and the
following year, the folks at Guinness officially named him "the world's
Though he certainly earned the respect of his peers in the years that
followed -- making recorded cameos with the likes of Sean "Puffy" Combs,
Jay-Z, Timbaland, Shaquille O'Neal and Da Brat -- significant commercial
success eluded him until the release of his new album, "Kamikaze," which
debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard albums chart on Feb. 3 and is closing in
on sales of 700,000 copies.
The 30-year-old Mitchell -- who has long since shortened his moniker simply
to Twista -- finally grabbed the brass ring thanks to a successful
collaboration on the single "Slow Jamz" with comic Jamie Foxx and red-hot
producer Kanye West, whose debut album as a rapper made its own bow on the
Billboard charts on Feb. 17 at No. 2, ushering in what many industry
observers predict will be a golden era for Chicago hip-hop.
I spoke to Mitchell about his career and the state of the city's rap scene
as he traveled to a performance in Detroit. (He'll be back home in Chicago
in April and is expected to perform here again at that time, following up
his record-release party at the House of Blues a few weeks ago.)
Q. Congrats on hitting No. 1 -- it's been a long time in the making!
A. Man, you know, it's a blessing! It's crazy; I never thought it could
happen, as long as I've been doing it, over 10 years. I was like, "Man, let
me just keep doing my thing, and if I just stay at the level I'm at, it
will be cool." When ["Kamikaze"] came out and everything started working
for me, it was like a dream come true. I'm just lovin' every moment and
making sure I'm enjoying every little piece of success that happens to me,
and I just don't take it for granted. I'm having a ball right now.
Q. Why do you think "Kamikaze" has connected with so many hip-hop fans? Was
it finally just your time?
A. I think it's like a slot machine: You work it for so long, eventually
you're going to hit it. I think it was just me putting a lot of dedication
and time into it over the years, so eventually it was bound to happen. I
was bound to just get lucky with the formula when it was my time to do it.
Q. Why did it take you seven years to follow up your last album,
A. It was really me going through a lot of legal stuff, me growing as an
artist, me going through problems with my independent label [Legit Ballin']
and stuff like that -- just going through a lot of the things that artists
go through after they do an album and start getting into a whole bunch of
mess. It seems like a lot of artists, they do good, and then they go
through the drama for a few years, and then they come out of it doing good
again. It just took me a while.
Q. Well, some artists just throw in the towel. Was there ever a period
during those seven years when you thought about giving it up?
A. Yeah, definitely, a few times. Even before I did the Do or Die song, "Po
Pimp," I had pretty much chilled out for a while, and I was working a day
job and everything, just being low-key with it. But I turned around and did
"Po Pimp" with Do or Die, and that kind of re-sparked me, and I started
pushing from then on.
Q. To what extent do you think you've been marginalized in the world as a
novelty act, "the world's fastest rapper"? It seems as if the speed has
been a double-edged sword for you.
A. That happened to me early on, but now you've got a lot of rappers that
look at it like, "OK, Twista raps fast, that's a style; let's get the
Midwest bounce or the style to it." It's looked at more like a style now
[rather than a novelty], plus I slow it down on a lot of different songs on
the new one.
Q. It seems as if you went out of your way to do that, to show people that
you are about more than just rapping quickly.
A. I'm just trying to switch it up a little bit.
Q. Tell me about Kanye. When did you first meet him?
A. Back like maybe nine or 10 years ago. Both of us are from Chicago, we
were just kickin' it at the clubs and stuff, and hanging out with a few
buddies that happen to know him. We just started hooking up like that and
working on tracks together here and there. We started to really work a lot
right before he did "H to the Izzo" for Jay-Z. So even though he got signed
and everything, it was definitely destined for us to do something on the
mint level, and we just started getting it cracking from then.
Q. How did that partnership work in the recording studio?
A. It was real creative and positive, just ideas constantly flowing through
both of our heads. We were moving at a fast pace, because both of us are
just full of creativity, and with a positive, straight-moving vibe. It was,
"What about this, what about that, what about this?" and just putting stuff
together. It just comes together when you put two brothers who are real
creative together, so it's always fun when we work together.
Q. We've been waiting so long for Chicago hip-hop to make itself heard on
the national level. When Common performed with Kanye West at the House of
Blues a few weeks ago, he said that the success of you and Kanye means that
10 rappers will be signed from Chicago in the next few weeks. Do you think
A. Even if he's not right, I definitely see Chicago happening now. I'm
starting to see specials on the news and stuff like that about how to get
signed in Chicago. That's one of the main things we always wanted to do,
even before, in the beginning -- open up the doors for Chicago. I feel
where he comes from with that statement, because that's what we're trying
to do. That's definitely what we both did with our albums this year, that's
definitely a big part of opening it up, as big as it has ever been open.
It's big now; we're making it happen for this city!
Q. Cities like New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Detroit all have a
particular sound. Is there a Chicago sound in hip-hop?
A. I think it's real mixed, because we're in the middle. On the East Coast,
they listen and they do their thing with their vibe and their format, and
then you have the South, where they might just be into their sound. But
Chicago is more of a consumer market, so we listen more. You might have
different parts of Chicago where different guys who are trying to get into
the game listen to different artists. That's why me and Kanye are different
artists. We all listened to different types of music in Chicago.
Q. You were fans.
A. Yeah, definitely, and then we were in the middle, so we were like,
"Let's borrow some East Coast; let's borrow some West Coast; let's go down
Q. I have another theory: Chicago has never been the sort of city where you
can get away with pretending to be something you aren't. Chicago does have
a certain hip-hop style, because artists like you and Kanye are rapping
about being regular guys: He's talking about working at the Gap and you're
talking about the different kinds of drinks you're gonna buy some girl.
A. Yeah, I know what you're saying! [Laughs] We're into the zone where we
Q. How much credit should we give Common for being the first rapper to
break out of Chicago on the national level? "Kamikaze" and Kanye's "College
Dropout" are both on track to outselling him, but it seems as if he paved
A. He definitely represented the first era of what Kanye's sound comes from
-- his type of hip-hop. Now, it's like me and Kanye represent two levels,
but before, it was like me and Common represented two different levels.
It's good to see that Common is really getting back into his zone and
working with Kanye. I know Kanye can bring something out of him, and
they're gonna make something tight. It's time for him to do his thing.
Q. Who do you think the next big Chicago rappers will be?
A. My man, Liffy Stokes from the Speedknot Mobstaz; that album [1998's
"Mobstability"] is past gold right now, and we're working on a new album
right now. I think Crucial Conflict is going to break. And there are a lot
of young guys I like out here who put it down.
Q. Kanye and Common both live in New York now, but you've never left
Chicago. There's a perception among some young artists that you have to
leave town in order to make it. Do you think that's true?
A. It's really deeper that that. If something is hard in your town, if it's
hard to get the resources, then there's nothing wrong with going to get it
and bringing it back. You've got people that don't understand: If it works
out better for you to have to move for you to make money and feed your
family and be a man and do what you gotta do, people gotta understand that
the rap music and hip-hop is one thing, but their survival and being a
family and you being a grown man is another thing, and sometimes they both
collide and you've just gotta move.
Q. Is that going to change?
A. That's what it's about, that's what we're trying to do: make it so that
there are more resources here, people more involved in music here so that
people won't have to go out all the time to do music. That's what we're
really trying to do. Brothers have just gotta push, man. Right now, more
than ever, we've got the radio stations involved with Chicago hip-hop, as
far as WGCI and Power 92 kind of breaking us. WGCI broke my "Slow Jamz"
single, which has never been done -- we never broke a Chicago record out of
Chicago by a hip-hop artist before. That's a big thing right there. Now
it's time to work on the clubs and stuff like that. That's something I'm
getting involved in: looking at spots to see where we can possibly have
more clubs so that artists can come out and perform and be seen.
Q. So you want to open a club? That's harder now than ever in Chicago --
especially for hip-hop, and especially after E2.
A. You've got pay to play, man. A lot of people try to take the cheap way
out. If you've gotta have a thousand security guards in there, you've just
gotta have a thousand security guards. I think if we can keep the positive,
man, and show the positive progress we've made -- like lookin' at what me
and Kanye are doing right now -- and people get to meet us and see what
we're trying to do, I think we can make some things happen. Before, we were
younger, we might be a little more hostile back in the day, trying to
really push it and just not talking to people the right way. But I know
people are trying to really get on now, they're kind of throwing down their
attitudes and trying to play the game the right way. As long as you talk to
people the right way, man, and show that you're doing positive stuff, you
can get stuff done.
Q. It's also a lot easier to make your case when you've had the No.
1-selling album in America.
A. All that stuff! [Laughs] You know, I'm thinking that! If you do big
things, you can make big things happen.
Q. I have to ask you a tough question: You collaborated with R. Kelly on
the track "So Sexy." What do you think of his situation?
A. Pretty much, man, I just pray for him. I hope he can look at himself and
see that he made a mistake, and I hope that he just learns from the
mistake. When I say mistake, I'm not judging him as far as what he did on
any level, but just the mistake of going far enough to have himself be put
in the public eye the way he is right now. He's got to be a little more
careful, and I pray and hope that he gets out of this situation. It's
definitely wrong, doing something like that -- child molestation -- but
sometimes people have got to understand that there's different levels.
There are people that go out and do stuff on a criminal level, really
trying to hurt somebody, and then you've got some people who are mentally
sick. Some people are worth trying to understand and help, and some people
just need to get locked the f--- up.
Q. Did you have to think twice about your name being associated with his?
A. Actually, I didn't think twice about it, because I was more involved in
his music; that's more his personal life. If he was found guilty, then he
would be locked up. Right now, he's out and about, doing his thing, so
we'll let the courts decide that. I love the man's music, so I just worked
Q. You still hold the title in the Guinness Book of World Records as the
fastest rapper. Did they send someone out to confirm that record?
A. It was, like, 1992, and we actually went to the studio and they had a
witness and a speech therapist and everything listen to me record, then
they slowed it down and counted the syllables to make sure that I actually
broke the record. I think I beat it by, like, 70 syllables or something.
Q. How did your super-fast style of rapping develop? Were you always quick,
or was it something you had to really work on?
A. I just worked at it, and it just pretty much evolved. You flip a word
here and there, and then a phrase, and then you write a few more lines, and
the next thing you know, you flip a sentence. The next thing you know, you
wanna flip a whole paragraph, and then you say, "Let me write a whole verse
and see if I can do this." It evolved, but for me to be able to think of
lyrics on a certain level, and then be able to repeat them back good, too,
it also has to be some level of me just being quick with it -- quick with
the mind and quick with my speech patterns. A lot of times, people think of
lyrics and write them down, and they can't speak them as quick as they
write them. But pretty much everything I think of and the way I write it
down, I can say it.
Q. Are you as fast when you're free-styling?
A. Sometimes, here and there, but never like the full capacity of the way I
write lyrics; I could never freestyle like that, because I put a lot of
thought into my lyrics -- a lot of wordplay. You can't think that quick
like that. I might be able to play with it and flip a few words here and
there while I freestyle, but for the most part, my written stuff will
always be way better than the free-styling.
Pop Music Critic Jim DeRogatis co-hosts "Sound Opinions," the world's only
rock 'n' roll talk show, from 10 p.m. to midnight Tuesdays on WXRT-FM
(93.1). E-mail him at jimdero@... or visit him on the Web at