The linguistic complexity of hip hop resonated deeply with ToBy’s soul growing up. This reverence would soon blossom into a calling as he found himself effortlessly channeling words and experiences into music. The rapper reconnects with his musical roots – and himself – in his new EP, The Outside, which becomes an avenue of exploration for everything from relationships to the stresses of fame to the uncertainty of mortality. Through it all, he recognizes the importance of staying true to himself and his art.
Cliché: What was it about producers and DJs like Nujabes that cultivated your love for hip-hop?
ToBy: I think there was like a serenity and like clear mindedness about music like that I really gravitated to. Like I could read and study to it, but I could also like zone out and be really emotionally moved but it as well. I remember when I heard “Aruarian Dance” for the first time I was like crying it’s such a simple beautiful piece of music. The MC’s that would rap on these beats too were technically skilled so I admired that about the form. Wordy, lyrical, smart songwriting that prioritized getting messages across was like a guilt-free reason I could use to justify listening for hours. It felt like I was actively learning about something new when I’d play those records.
In what ways would you say that hip-hop speaks your soul as an artist?
Hip Hop’s focus on language and lingual arts definitely speaks to my soul as an artist. My first creative outlet was writing poems and short stories in pre-school so I’ve always been really fascinated with words and artistry involving speech. The avenues for hip hop are nearly unlimited too – we’ve seen it integrated in film, theatre, visual art, and nearly everything else so being someone who’s interested in many different things, I thought that was a really cool facet of the genre. It’s also an art form that’s heavily predicated on its relationship to the past. You have pioneers of rap and hip hop still kicking to this day and they’re still a major part of the influence that hip hop has globally. I think that appreciation for its own history is dope, it makes you feel like you’re part of league with a long and storied past.
You describe your concepts as an intangible force that you feel most connected to in certain locations. How would you describe the tether between art (or passion) and place?
I think the art you create is somewhat or entirely influenced by where you are when you make it. I can say the tracks I write in the studio come out much differently than when I write them outside on a clear day, or when it’s raining, etc. It’s partly a mood thing but it’s also that you’re tapping into the energy of wherever you are. One of my favorite memories writing music was when I was working on one of my first projects back in Miami. I was in a band at the time and we got to housesit this huge mansion in a really nice neighborhood, so we all just crashed there and wrote every day it was amazing. We’d wake up early and take walks, drink coffee, stay up late being musical…it was everything. And because of that experience, the music came out entirely different than if we were holed up in a studio for the whole experience.
Talk about your new EP, The Outside.
The Outside is a return to form for me. It’s me reuniting with the style of music that I fell in love with when I started songwriting. It’s a deep dive into who I am as a person, the experiences that shaped me, the melancholy things I think about all the time, my relationships. It’s a collection of fragments, that are seemingly innocuous on their own but come together to form who I am.
Where do your lyrics come from?
They’re largely just interpretations of things I’ve seen, heard, or experienced. Songwriting for me is really just autopilot at this point, I zone out and let my hands and brain take care of the work then come back and edit that. I think a lot of the rhyming and melody is born out of intuition and carving the song out piece by piece. I always get really excited when I come up with lines that I like because it doesn’t ever feel like “me” doing it so it’s a lot of fun.
What was behind your creative decision to juxtapose peace with chaos as one of the focal points of The Outside?
That was more of a production factor, oebeats was sending me a variety of different styles and the ones I ended up gravitating to the ones that had this intersection of heavy and tranquil. I wanted to bring a third layer of deep personal subject matter to the concoction. In the grand scheme of things. it was more about making the puzzle pieces of each song fit together cohesively, then sequencing it in a way where it all made sense as a whole.
You discuss the psychological tolls of success. Was that something that you were aware of or prepared for when you entered the industry?
It was and has been something I’ve played first and second party witness to. I’ve had friends blow up a considerable amount doing music, friends who lived the life and were coming down off it, etc. So I was pretty familiar with the way this industry builds a person up and tears them down. I’ll say no amount of preparation can get you ready for it. It’s always about the people in your corner and how steadfast, honest, and committed they are to keeping you in check. This is an industry where you typically tend to make fast friends and end up losing lifelong ones so that really plays a part in how mentally healthy you stay.
How do you prioritize self-care when your career demands so much from you?
I like to be by myself a lot. I think it’s a pretty lonely profession all things considered – it’s hard to relate to certain people sometimes but I’m very into my me time as it is. Reading, writing, and keeping mentally active are all ways I feed my creativity and also help me take a break from the demands. It’s important to not feel like a servant to the cause, constantly toiling away for the sake of your art or to meet some commercial standard. The second you feel like you’re doing it for anybody other than yourself and your need to express things is the second you let outside influences taint your purpose.
You’ve mused a lot about your own mortality and the anxiety that that brings up. What impact do you want to leave on the world after you die?
I just hope that whatever I leave behind helps somebody out. I don’t need any monuments or grand gestures of remembrance for me, I really just want to know that in talking about what I went through when I was alive, I managed to make it easier for somebody else to continue.
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ToBy Releases Introspective New EP, “The Outside.” Photo Credit: Maxine Bowen.