In the mid-1990s, Twista turned what he was doing in Chicago into a rap movement with the help of a powerful collective of innovative artists
Twista was bruised, but not battered. Then going as Tung Twista, the Chicago rapper had gained some buzz and accolades in the rap world for the blistering, mind-blowing rapid-fire flow that he showcased throughout his 1992 debut album, Runnin’ Off At Da Mouth. Outside of the Windy City, fans and critics alike were impressed by his abilities, but didn’t necessarily connect with his music.
“The Midwest wasn't really getting that kind of love at that point,” Andrew Barber, founder of Midwest rap compendium Fake Shore Drive, says today. “I feel like people just thought the fast rap thing was a gimmick.”
Although some dismissed Twista and his otherworldly skills as novelties, he was focused on a deeper level of artistry.
“I realized that I was paying attention to the cadence and the way I wanted to deliver a song just as much as I was paying attention to the metaphor,” Twista says today. “I wanted to flow. I wanted to blow and I wanted it to sound different from everybody else. So even if I wasn't doing what you would call double time, I would always find a way to make the flow sound different.”
Twista was not alone in his thinking. A collective of street-centered artists from Chicago’s West Side – Psycho Drama, Do Or Die, Snypaz – were also toying with new rap styles. Psycho Drama, in particular, were “flippin’,” meaning that they were rhyming slow and then rhyming fast and then rhyming slow. They would rap regular speed and then “flip” certain words and go faster. Do or Die were early practitioners of the style, too, something Twista also began employing.
Even though most people outside of his circle didn’t realize it, Twista was an elite MC. Now with “flippin’,” he had another style in his arsenal.
“Twista had the ability to rap sharper, add metaphors and add all of his skill as an MC to a new style that was growing in popularity in the ghettos of Chicago,” producer The Legendary Traxster says today. “He was overqualified for that style. He took it and expanded upon it with everything he had been doing with rapping, his ability to tell stories, and just his overall skill as a MC. That's why he became the avatar of that style. He was already built for it.”
This rap style was developing organically – and sans music. Traxster was listening to Psycho Drama rap acapella. The music came next.
“They were snapping while they were saying their rhymes a capella,” Traxster says. “I'm like, ‘Okay. I can use that in the beat.’ Then I was listening to the flipping patterns, and that's why the high hats started flipping because I used their rap patterns as inspirations for the rhythmic parts of the beat.”
So when Do Or Die’s Traxster-produced “Po Pimp” single broke through in 1996, fans got to see guest star Twista showcasing his first real attempt to incorporate all of his experience and his newfound rapping tool on a song.
“I think once he came with the right sound, and when he reemerged over the Traxster production with Do Or Die, it was more on a gangster or street type of vibe,” Barber says. “I just feel like that resonated. People didn't look at it like it was a gimmick anymore. That was one of those verses where everybody would just try to rap it. If you could rap that whole verse front to back, it was like a badge of honor.”
Twista’s verse was so extraordinary because he has the ability to enunciate all of his words, regardless of how fast he raps. That endeared him to fans around the world. They may have needed to rewind his verse over and over to catch what he was saying. It wasn’t because they couldn’t make out what he was saying. It’s just that he was rapping remarkably fast.
“I always had the ability to spit what I was thinking,” Twista says. “Sometimes people’s minds would go a little past their physical capacity and they can’t actually spit the shit they’re writing. But what made me realize that I can take it to another level was seeing that no matter how far or way out my creativity or my mind would come up with what to say, I could always actually get it out of my mouth. That made me challenge myself further.”
Twista then pushed himself to craft dope rhymes and dope cadences. The next challenge was creating songs that would catch on in the music industry. He wanted to prove he could work with other artists and producers, too.
“The whole time,” Twista says, “I've always just challenged myself to see if I can do every aspect of what a person considers dope, what a real artist is supposed to do.”
Do Or Die enjoyed the commercial success with “Po Pimp” and its subsequent Picture This album that Runnin’ Off At Da Mouth had not, both earning gold status. Their breakthrough success and Twista’s standout performance on “Po Pimp” set the stage for Twista’s 1997 album, Adrenaline Rush, which featured Yungbuck from Pyscho Drama, was produced entirely by Traxster, and became one of the most acclaimed underground albums of the era, reaching gold status two-and-a-half years after its release.
After Twista’s initial forays, and the trailblazing work of Kool Moe Dee, Big Daddy Kane, LL COOL J, The Jaz, JAY-Z, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony and others, the rap world was finally ready to embrace the rap styles Twista had been tinkering with and refining for years.
“It was about making up a new style, coming with a style that's different from what I was normally coming with to sound different,” Twista says. “Everybody was into punchlines and not really interested in cadence, not on a level of making that the main thing to pay attention to. People back then wanted you to pay attention to metaphors and they would come up with a catchy cadence. But nobody had come with the cadence where that was the dope thing and then just filled it with a metaphors. So I wanted to switch it on that level, to make the way I was delivering be the overall dope thing you paid attention to before the metaphors.”
What had been deemed Twista’s gimmick by many was now the marketing driver for his career. In Chicago, though, Twista’s music — as well as that from Do Or Die, Psycho Drama, and the Snypaz — had a deeper meaning because of its content.
“It became not just about the rapping style, but about the culture that surrounded that particular style,” Traxster says. “You had West Side. You had the gang culture. You had the street culture. You had the gang culture on the West Side and that’s what all of these rappers were surrounded by. So it became part of a cultural movement and then that cultural movement became the identity of rappers in Chicago because it was a new style. It became a renaissance of sorts amongst those artists from the same area, which is what people identified as Chicago. Now that it was a part of a cultural experience, other people in other places could latch onto it and experience the stories, experience the narrative through this particular style that had a musical sound and a cultural identity.”
By sticking to his artistic guns and evolving, Twista was rewarded with mainstream success and a prolific and steady career that continues to today, including the 2020 release of his Lifetime EP with Red Bull.
“Twista made it a point to make it known that that's the way he was going to rhyme and he never really fluctuated from that space,” Kool Moe Dee says today. “So when you make it your thing, it becomes your actual thing. Twista made that the essence of what he does. Even look at the name Tung Twista, quite frankly, if you want to break it all the way down. He's telling you that's his name and his name is Tung Twista because he's twisting. That’s the angle of what he’s doing.”
* Banner Image: Rapper Twista performs on stage in New York City 2004. / Photo by Scott Gries/Getty Images