By Gilbert Garcia
There's something deeply ironic about Twista's current run at the top of the charts.
For years, this Chicago rapper paid his dues, pumping up other people's hits with his cartoonish supersonic flow. Even though friends like Jay-Z, P-Diddy, and Ludacris generously hyped his skills, he found himself stuck in hip-hop's sidekick role, the perpetual featured guest. Meanwhile, years passed with no followup to his 1997 album, Adrenaline Rush.
Now, with his mammoth hit single "Slow Jamz," Twista finds himself riding high in his pimp-mobile, reaping the benefits of a track on which he's basically a glorified cameo player. From beginning - with its tricked-up Vandross-on-helium snippet - to end, "Slow Jamz" belongs to Kanye West, hip-hop's producer of the moment. West built the track's old-skool R&B-homage groove, brought in comedian Jamie Foxx to sing the nostalgic hook, and even delivers the best line: "She got a light-skinned friend looks like Michael Jackson/got a dark-skinned friend looks like Michael Jackson."
Because "Slow Jamz" appears on both West's College Dropout and Twista's Kamikaze, both CDs have settled snugly into the Top 10 of Billboard's album chart. For Twista, who finds himself an overnight sensation 13 years after the release of his debut single, "Mista Tongue Twista," the hoopla has been so long-awaited he finds himself well-equipped for it.
"It probably would have been more overwhelming if I hadn't had a little experience," he says. "Having experience, I'm able to get it through it. I'm cool."
Born and raised on the notoriously tough West Side of Chicago, the former Carl Mitchell became entranced with hip-hop pioneers like Kurtis Blow and Run-D.M.C. Tellingly, though, his favorite early hip-hop act was the Fat Boys, who like him, relished self-parody and rarely got deeper than rolling with their homies and checking out the hot babes around the way.
Right off the bat, Twista was a verbal freak show, getting by on the novelty power of his outrageously fast, frequently indecipherable rhymes. It was the hip-hop equivalent of a young Robin Williams throwing one-liners at you so fast that you never had time to notice that the jokes weren't funny.
In 1992, he made it into the Guinness Book of World Records as the "world's fastest rapper," a title he won with such ease that he now recalls, "I actually held back, in case I had to break it again."
In a way, though, the title merely cemented the notion that Twista was a one-trick pony, long on style but short on substance, and during the interminable gap between Adrenaline Rush and Kamikaze, his frustration mounted as he sensed that some artists were copping his style.
It's no coincidence that apart from the usual - and by now tired - celebrations of hos, drinks, and bling, Twista's primary obsession on Kamikaze is with calling out all the skeptics who dismissed him. He makes this the focus of both the album-opening "Get Me" and the vengeful "Kill Us All," with its opening declaration: "Here I am, motherfuckers/you thought I was gone/y'all just gonna take my shit and run with it?"
"Who I was feeling it from the most were artists who kind of play like they're cool with you, but they know that you're dope and they know that they're running out of stuff to do," he explains. "So they get in with you, and they be cool with you, then you listen to their records two or three weeks later and they take your whole style. There's definitely a few artists out there that never thought I would make it to this point, that pretty much tried to take my style 'cause they never thought Twista would get big enough to do it."
He says label disputes initially slowed his career momentum, but that even after signing with Atlantic Records, he took his time because he knew this album would be make-or-break for his career.
That single, "Slow Jamz," simultaneously tapped into pop's current fixation with vintage R&B (even if some would argue that name-checked groups like Ready for the World and New Edition aren't exactly soul titans) and the Southern crunk style's commitment to mindless good times. And although Twista says his years of experience have taught him to slow down and finesse his rhymes - honing what he calls the "Twista twang" - his rush of syllables remains as jolting as was in the early '90s.
"On the level of creativity that me and Kanye are on, we were bound to come up with something," Twista says. "We're both left-field artists. We've both got to come with something that's not normal. We knew the song was hot. I liked the song because I kept playing it over and would never get tired of it. But nobody knew that it would do that."
Eager to take full advantage of his new-found celebrity status, Twista's branching out into some unlikely business ventures, namely his own line of diamond-studded tire rims for the Omega company. His popularity may prove fleeting, but no one will ever be able to accuse him of not cashing in while he had the chance.
"I'm just flowing with it now," he says. "It's like, when you've got your mind a little more open and you finally achieve something that you started to have doubts or questions about. "My creative level is high and I'm just real high-spirited and happy right now. I'm taking it all in stride and having fun." •