Toki Wright: Pangaea is the best music I've ever made

Photo by Bo Hakala
Toki Wright plays the Hip-Hop Harambee this Saturday, unveiling a new project with producer Big Cats. Between his time spent heading up fusion band This Debris, spinning records on KFAI's Soul Tools Radio, and DJing and producing electronic music, Toki has amassed a wide variety of sounds to add to his repertoire. Unafraid to explore new territory, the highly-anticipated upcoming album Pangaea promises to be Toki's finest to date. Gimme Noise caught up with Toki and Big Cats to talk about their new music and their performance at this year's Hip-Hop Harambee.

Gimme Noise: How did the two of you start working together?

Toki Wright: I've been a fan of [Big Cats'] work for a long time. I think the first time I really listened to it was on the For My Mother project; it's right up the alley of the kind of music I like listening to. I like the fact that he makes compositions, sounds that have a beginning, middle and end, multiple other parts... It doesn't always have to sound like a standard pop song. I spent the last couple years just releasing 48 bar verses... [laughs] Not really caring about trying to fit in. I dig that attitude. We kind of ran around each other in separate circles.

Big Cats: Last year I put out three very different records: a solo record, one with [Rapper Hooks] and one with [Guante]. TTxBC had taken up the last two and a half years of what I was working on; [when] I got done with that, it was the first time in years that I didn't have a specific project to be working on. It was cool to be able to sit down with Toki and start from scratch. A lot of times we just get in the studio, I'd be working on a beat and he'd just start writing to it. It was fresh, from the ground up, together. It was a process figuring out what we both wanted for an album, we'd never really sat down and worked on music before.

Toki: I had completed a record in 2011 that got burned in a fire. Everything that got left over was on this Faders mixtape, then I was like, "OK, what now?" I never really had a chance to sit down with one producer and bring my ideas to them and for them take those ideas and shape it into something, for them to bring ideas to me. 

Big Cats, you tend to do whole albums and work as a group with people instead of single songs.

Big Cats: I don't really like doing just one song or just giving people beats. If I'm going to be part of a project, I want it to be a project that makes sense as a whole. I want people to listen to the whole thing, have it make sense, be consistent, and have a high quality all the way through. Sometimes with a bunch of different producers and stuff that's recorded at a bunch of different spots and mixed by different people, you lose that.

Toki: I kind of got to the point where I would rather just not release any music for a while and do it the right way. I know I'm good, and enough people know I'm good in enough places, but I've never really been able to give them the whole product. If there have been any critiques from anyone, that I really care what their opinion is, it's that you gotta find a producer. I feel like we got a good enough vibe. I feel like the first day we talked to each other about doing a project, I said to him, "If you don't like something, tell me you don't like it."

Big Cats: I would do that anyway. Working on a whole record with somebody, you get that chemistry where you can be honest with somebody. I don't want to put anything out that's not the best we have. Working with Toki, he catches on to sounds and moves in directions stylistically I wouldn't have thought of otherwise. I like taking good rappers and giving them stuff that they would not normally work with. I know you're a good rapper, I know you're creative, I know you can stretch yourself, do something with this. There are multiple songs without drums on them. There are no other rappers on the record, unless they're doing something other than rapping. Aside from Toki being a rapper, I don't think it's a rap record.

Toki: I don't know what to call it. There's a lot of poetry in it, a lot of really long compositions that don't feel like a classical tune, that may be six minutes, going in a bunch of different directions. I might approach it like a rapper at one part, approach it like a poet at another part. 

Between your work with your band This Debris, and the electronic production work you've been doing lately, it's hard to pinpoint what exactly Toki Wright sounds like.

Toki: That's in my head. I'm not listening to one type of music. I love afro-beat and funk and reggae, I like classical music, all different types of things. I want to be able to make the things that I like, and I had to step back and learn Pro Tools and learn some music theory. The reason I got into DJing, if you want to call it that, selecting music for live shows... I've been making house music, like tribal music, and I wanted to be able to play it live. What do I want to make? I'm okay with going in whatever direction as long as it's true. Being able to know somebody that knows how to move with that is key.

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