For the Twin Cities Hip Hop scene, collaboration has always been essential. From networking with local artists at house parties, venues and record shops, there was a personable touch that went into each record. But in the last decade, the process for collaborating has evolved into a whole new terrain. With access to the worldwide web, Minnesotan MCs and producers now have hundreds of resources at their disposal. Artists are collaborating across the globe, emailing verses and beats to various Dropboxes while sustaining themselves through Paypal accounts. To have a feature from a platinum rapper is not uncommon, but it is still rare for both of them to share the same room. Yet in an era where pixelated partnerships are forged at the click of a mouse, there is still something to be admired for artists from the same town sharing a studio and a stage together. That admiration can quickly turn to excitement when the collaboration is between one of the most respected names in the long list of Twin Cities MCs and one of the most innovative producers to come out of Minnesota: Toki Wright and Big Cats.
Since they premiered last year at Hip Hop Harambee, the world has had insatiable appetite for Toki Wright and Big Cats collaborations. Now after a year of performing on countless stages as part of the Welcome to Minnesota Tour and Soundset Festival, fans will finally be able to behold their new album, Pangaea. For both parties, the timing couldn’t be better.
“It was a time that I was in between projects and Toki lost his record in a house fire,” said Big Cats. “So it just made sense at that time for us to jump in together for something new. I really enjoy working on a full project with one MC in the studio. We get up at least once a week in the studio and just write and make something from scratch. That way, we can push each other more and see what fits for the two of us and see what lane we want to be in.”
“I got to listen to his record, For My Mother,” said Toki Wright. “And it really felt like the type of music I like to write to. So we started to connect, throw ideas around, sit a room and say this is what I’m into, this is what I want to talk about, these are some topics I want to dig into, how can we make this music make sense and how can we make these words make sense.”
Named after the Paleozoic landmass that united the now seven continents, the album reflects the same grand unity on a personable level. Through the 13 track journey from the ashes of a mushroom cloud to the dawn of a hopeful reawakening, Pangaea explores the modern isolation within this mechanized world and how one must adapt to find the beauty and truth that dwells within it. Much of this concept was loosely based off the bout of depression that befell upon Toki Wright, in which he is now finding peace.
“Depression is a real thing,” said Toki Wright. “It’s also been a process to be back around the general public because I spent so much of the last year and a half indoors figuring out the right direction and having a lot of anxiety. I have little moments of rebirth every time I think about the fact that I exist. Life is a magnificent mystery that I’m very gracious for. There are plenty of times throughout life that I might not have made it.”
After Toki Wright had received the beat that would become “This Man, This Woman” in the fall of 2012, the bond between himself and Big Cats magnetized their efforts into the full album, finishing with the completion of “Apex” in August of 2014. By applying much of the techniques that he learned from For My Mother, Big Cats had created an array of atmospheric and mystical arrangement that blends elements of contemporary R&B productions with the wavering wonderment of the cosmos.
“Sonically and stylistically,” said Big Cats, “I wanted to push Toki and myself, to some places we hadn’t explored yet. I’ve known for years that Toki is an incredibly talented rapper, writer, and poet, but I felt that he had been pigeonholed in terms of the production he was getting. I wanted to throw some really weird shit at him and see where he could take it. I really like taking talented people and seeing how far they can stretch, testing their range as an artist.”
In order to fill the entire soundscape without the use of sampling records, Big Cats recruited Eric Mayson of the Crunchy Kids to help bring the majestic ambiance to the overall concept through his keys. Along with Mayson, Bomba de Luz’s Lydia Liza was also brought into the fold as her stirring vocals became the ethereal haunt that sweeps throughout the album.
“I remember when we brought Lydia Liza into the studio,” said Toki Wright, “and asked her to sing on some tracks, but didn’t tell her what to sing. She had this ‘are you sure’ look on her face. The main vocal sample in Pangaea came from that session.”
“I feel like I’m in a band again,” said Big Cats!. “Mayson is my favorite musician in the Twin Cities, and one of my all-time favorite dudes. Lydia is crazy talented, sings like she’s about 30 years older than she is, and makes the other three of us a little uncomfortable, which is important. All the shows we’ve played have helped us build some pretty gnarly chemistry.”
As the music began to set the stage, Toki Wright’s writing echoed the new group’s excellence with song structures that defied convention. With thought provoking verses that range from a mature understanding of the restless youth in “Lost Boy” to the bleak search for existential answers in “Heal,” Toki Wright was able to deliver everything that needs to be said in a Zen like preciseness in his raps and spoken word. But with most forward thinking, some critics may dismiss this writing style as incomplete as songs like “Overhead” and “Cleaning House” consists of only one verse and a hook.
“I’m interested in the full spectrum of art from realism to the abstract,” said Toki Wright. “Throughout this process, I wanted to care less about whether I fit the typical Hip-Hop writing format and chose to go in all directions at once. Me and Big Cats spent a year basically painting pictures.”
“Most rap songs are boring,” said Big Cats “There are so many ways to structure a song, it’s silly to stick to the a/b/a/b, 16 bar verse, 8 bar hook so many rap songs use. Also, different songs serve different functions on the record, and therefore call for different structures.”
As the songs vary from uplifting and burdensome themes, the track “Gatekeepers” has already struck a nerve with the “Minnesota nice” of local media (the video can be viewed on the Star Tribune website here).
“The whole concept behind Gatekeepers is about who gains access to certain spaces and why,” said Toki Wright. “There’s a line in that song ‘where a spot on top the top is not an option.’ It’s like a kid that grows up in the city to look and not see himself, the type of music that he makes, or their community represented at all. So what does that do to a young person that grows up in this community? They either give up or they leave. And I don’t want our talent to leave because some of us that do have the access are not opening the gate for them and at least help them understand the process of how they can get their music played, get attention, use social media and use all of these resources… And that’s important to me because I know how hard it was for me to fight. I got into Hip Hop through talent shows. Nobody was coming to the Northside to throw a show, not inviting really anybody from my high school or my block. So I had to travel outside. So that means that not only do we, that have access, need to make sure that the gate is open, that we start building those spaces within the communities that we are in. If that means throwing a house party, so be it. If that means putting a CD out by yourself and walking up and down the block all day so that people pay attention, so be it. I know it’s made a few people irritated, but I believe that Hip Hop music was not made to make people comfortable. This is rebel music and if people are not being rebellious, then we are just conforming to the system.”
Even though they have unified to fight conformity, there are no traces of malice within the entirety of its 13 songs. Every word on this project is a felt as a projection of love and respect for their fans and peers.
“This is a very important project not just for us as musicians, said Toki Wright, “but I think the message is pretty universal. We just want people to sit at the same table and enjoy each other’s company.”
As both artist have enjoyed to stellar company of some of the most talented and genuine people in the scene, Toki Wright and Big Cats also welcomed in the help of fan favorites Caroline Smith, BJ The Chicago Kid and the penultimate indie anarchist, P.O.S. In their shared gratitude for channeling his ‘Building Better Bombs’ singing/screaming on the song “Heal,” Toki Wright and Big Cats also made a point to make the Rhymesayers/Doomtree hell raiser apart of the first of their upcoming, two night album release show.
“Me and (P.O.S) both started breaking out around the same time,” said Toki Wright. “The first time I met him was through my friend, Veda Partalo. P.O.S was in a crew called Cenospecies and we we’re both performing in Powerhorn Park for 10 people. Times change.”
“I think (P.O.S) is one of the most important artists to ever come out of the Twin Cities,” said Big Cats!. “I will make music and play shows with that guy whenever he lets me. It’s a super honor to have him on the record and release show.”
With an album of this kind, the two decided to bring in bring together friends and family in a near weekend residency at the Icehouse in Minneapolis on Friday, September 26th and Sunday, September 28th. As the former is strictly a 21+ show for the turn out to get turnt up, the Sunday show will be an All Ages affair for “your grandma and little brother or sister.”
“The turn up will be real at both,” said Toki Wright. “We chose two different environments that are both intimate settings. One is more of a hip club/lounge while the other is a community art space. The All Ages shows have a different energy that is purely about the music and energy.”
In addition to P.O.S, their first album release show will also feature DJ Willie Shu of Soul Tools Entertainment and Honey’s Turnt Up! Monthly Dance Party, of whom Toki Wright had the pleasure of mentoring prior to his recent acclaim. And the Sunday show will feature Greg Grease with Voice of Culture, a local drum and dance crew known for honoring the traditions of West African music and culture.
As the album draws to a close with Lydia Liza’s voice eerily reversed to say “it’s irreversible, it’s irreversible . Is It?,” Pangaea leaves the listener rejuvenated and reeling for more. After 47 minutes of transcendent musical mysticism, the amazing part is that there are no filler moments as each bar has a purpose contributing the overall harmony. With the music beginning to mirror the trends of social media, Pangaea is an inspiring reminder that groundbreaking work can still be accomplished through the fundamentals of person to person relationships.
Pangaea will be available on Tuesday, September 23rd through their bandcamp and their Album Release Shows will be at the Icehouse on Friday, September 26th with P.O.S & DJ Willie Shu (21+) at 10pm and on Sunday, September 28th with Greg Grease & Voice Of Culture at 6pm. Be sure to keep up with Toki Wright (Twitter, Facebook, Soul Tools Entertainment) and Big Cats (Twitter, Facebook, website, Soundcloud) for all their upcoming announcements at www.tokiwright&bigcats.com.