At last

February 27, 2004


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 fastest rapper."

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.

Twista, 'Kamikaze' (Atlantic) / **

No one can deny Twista’s skills at the mic — his lightning-quick delivery can be truly astounding — but in the past, the rushing torrent of words often grew tedious over the course of an entire album; that’s why his finest moments have been cameos on the works of other artists. "Kamikaze" is his best and most diverse offering to date, but while he is the first Chicago rapper to have gone to No. 1, his musical backings and his story-telling don’t approach the invention of Chicago’s other hip-hop superstars, Common and Kanye West.

The strongest tracks here are the three produced by West — "Overnight Celebrity," "One Last Time" and the hit single "Slow Jamz"— and, though it’s pretty much a goofy novelty, "Drinks," which finds Twista reciting the menu at a bar that sells every exotic cocktail imaginable (the better for the rapper to seduce his intoxicant-loving date). Unfortunately, Twista is still a wannabe gangsta, in contrast to West’s humble Everyman and Common’s transcendent hippy.

Too much of the rest of the disc is unexciting musically and given over lyrically to praising weed, the thuggish lifestyle, fast money and easy women, and, of course, Twista’s own bad-ass self. These are tired topics, and we’ve heard them too many times before — albeit never at this speed. But that just isn’t enough to make them interesting.

— Jim DeRogatis

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, "Adrenaline Rush"?

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 he's right?

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 South."

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 actually are.

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 the way.

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 with him.

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.