Towkio Is on a Vision Quest to Make Music More Mind-Bending
The Chicago experimentalist is ready to expand your ideas of SaveMoney and of consciousness itself.
With a bit of an internet deep dive, it's possible to find a certain video. It's 2012 and a group of friends and fellow Chicago musicians, the bulk of the collective the world now knows as SaveMoney, hang at a West Side rehearsal space dubbed The Trap House. They outline their outsize ambition to ambush the hip-hop world. Chance the Rapper is there. So are Vic Mensa and Joey Purp. "That #10 Day tape just dropped. It's going nuts. Look out for that!" Chance bellows. Look to the side, however, and you'll notice another young man, with his hair tied back, sporting a goofy smile and khaki polo, every so often dragging on a blunt. He's a quieter antidote to his more outspoken counterparts. He announces himself: "Preston. Presto. SaveMoney." Almost bashfully, he adds of his and his friend's future plans: "There's not nothing we can't do. You feel me?" He smiles.
Four years later Preston has just arrived back in town from Hawaii. He took his dad and brother there on a weeklong vacation. He learned to surf. They climbed Haleakalā Mountain, the tallest peak on the island, where he saw the sun rise one morning. Most importantly for the 22-year-old born Preston Oshita, who these days goes by Towkio and mere weeks ago performed for a raucous hometown crowd at Lollapalooza, he "zenned out." It was a much-needed respite from his now-hectic life. "That shit was beautiful," he says. Dressed in a white hoodie with distressed jeans, a pink T-shirt and hat combo, fashion-forward white high-top sneakers, and a $2,000-plus Goyard messenger bag slung across his shoulder, the rising rapper and hip-hop innovator is a far cry from the shy teenager of years before. He carries himself with a quiet confidence and an almost perpetually stoned intensity, derived from years of carefully plotting his music-industry accession.
Or maybe it's the fact he's been spending weeks at a time working on music at Shangri-La, hip-hop guru Rick Rubin's famed Malibu recording studio-cum-beachside hippie complex. "That vibe there is like magic," says Towkio of the famed outpost, his now-signature double braids dangling across his chest. He twists his septum ring every so often while sipping on an iced coffee with three shots of espresso in it, kicking back at a coffeeshop in the swanky Drake Hotel on his city's Gold Coast. "I'm recording on Bob Dylan's old tour bus. They must have been tripping off acid in that bitch doing all sorts of crazy shit. It's all a dream, bro." To wit, on a recent afternoon at Shangri-La, Towkio headed down to the beach, popped a tab of acid, and listened to what his recorded output to date of World Wide .Wav, his forthcoming new album. It was a risky move, he'll admit, if only because he's brutally honest with himself when tripping.
But "it felt good," he reports back. "The vibe I caught was that I just gotta finish it. I'm on the right path. I'm hitting all the right chords."
Ask Towkio about his life these days—releasing the critically acclaimed mixtape .Wav Theory last year, singing the hook on a track with Justin Bieber from Chance's Coloring Book, recording with Rubin—and he'll tell you "it's just the beginning. I still have a path to go, levels to reach. I'm never satisfied. And that's part of being an artist: You're never content. The biggest thing in the world is I would never give up on myself. Ever. And that's what sets me apart from people. I've never ever doubted myself."
Confidence shines through in Towkio's music—often in a take it or leave it manner. Reeling off a skittering concoction of singsong rhymes in his signature geeked-up hazy tone and soul-inflected pop melodies, Towkio seems to lean into his bars with an off-the-cuff swagger. He's also decidedly self-aware. "I get it, get it your friends did it, they famous /And you rap, too, so when you got' make it" he raps on .Wav Theory's "Clean Up," an acknowledgment how when two of your closest friends — Chance and Vic — have nabbed the Golden Ticket, there's bound to be equal-parts heavy expectation and a dose of skepticism when a friend pop his head up. "I'm at the point where I'm honing in on me," insists Towkio, who on the Chance-featuring "Heaven Only Knows," his most popular track to date, raps, "See I've been balling, I've been popping /I've been bubbling, I've been buzzing." He bemoans the fact that critics are quick to lump him and his friends under the same "umbrella." "I'm working on my name being its own thing. It don't need to be like 'Towkio: Chance the Rapper's friend' or 'Towkio: Vic's friend.' We all have our own sounds. We all vibrate different."
Musically, Towkio has long been on his own wavelength. Where his SaveMoney crew and, more specifically, Chance and the Social Experiment, largely traffic in gospel-infused hip-hop, Towkio has always had a soft spot for electronic music. Some of his most affecting tracks—from the Kaytranada-produced "Reflection" to "Therapeutic," off this summer's Community Service 2 mixtape—vibrate with skittering jabs and rest atop a wash of digital blips, juke drums and footwork beats. When those around him were still riding for Lil Wayne, and years before 'Ye and Hov took a stab at it, Towkio was rapping atop Flux Pavilion's "I Can't Stop" beat. "I've always been ahead of the wave," he says. "Dance music really brought us together," says Peter Cottontale, a member of the Social Experiment, longtime friend of Towkio, and the executive producer of .Wav Theory. "You look at Towkio's music: You have a lot of influence of Chicago dance. And then you even have French house and electronica and things like that." Adds rapper and SaveMoney member Joey Purp, a friend of Towkio's since elementary school who features on the Community Service anthem "Playin Fair": "He goes after a space that people aren't taking up and tries to go and get it. Now it's turning into his space."
Growing up in the North Side Chicago neighborhood of Avondale, his Mexican mother constantly between jobs and Japanese father working for the Chicago Housing Authority, Towkio wasn't sure where he was headed. All he knew is that he needed to get his own money. In elementary school his two older brothers put him onto hip-hop: Kanye West's The College Dropout, 50 Cent's Get Rich or Die Trying, and later Lil Wayne's Squad Up mixtapes. He'd started uploading amateur raps to MySpace in eighth grade and, by the time he entered Lane Tech College Prep, Towkio, who was the starting quarterback for his high school, was stealing from other student's lockers to get enough money to buy a camcorder to film his own music videos. "He was definitely more reckless when we were younger," Purp says of his friend's propensity for "hitting stains" or stealing, at the time. "I think we all were. But he was always just as straightforward and as much of a go-getter as he is now."
Their friend group, consisting of like-minded creatives from various neighborhoods and schools, had grown to this point to now include Mensa, Chance, Nico Segal (a.k.a. Donnie Trumpet), and several others. Towkio points to Mensa's 2010 Straight Up EP as the start of what we now know as the SaveMoney collective's musical outburst. By mid-2012, Chance had released #10Day, Mensa and Segal's major label-signed group Kids These Days had split, and Towkio dropped his first project, Community Service, a hit-or-miss project that shows early musical promise but is scattered in intent and delivery. In the years that followed, as he saw his friends starting to gain national exposure and acclaim, Towkio slaved away at his craft. "There was a two year span of me learning how to make good music. I was making hella songs," he says of the tiresome years that led to .Wav Theory. "The reason we all are as good as we are is because we always pushed each other," he says of SaveMoney's massive output. "You had to keep up."
The reason we all are as good as we are is because we always pushed each other.
Talk to those who have worked in the studio with Towkio, and his desire to be hands-on in all aspects of song creation—specifically, his ability to pick outside-the-box and ahead-of-the-trend beats—is a recurring trend. "Not even what sounds good but what sounds different and new," Purp says. Cottontale concurs: "He's really focused on scoping the town for things people enjoy and that he enjoys himself."
In the past year alone he's toured with Chance and Vic and is plotting his first headlining jaunt. "The people that fuck with Towkio—they give me that energy and I give it back," he says of his live performance. "People starting to catch the sound now." He's also planning to release World Wide .Wav either later this year or early next. "This project is going to explode in some people's minds and resonate," he declares. "The quality is there."
"I didn't get to where I'm at for no reason," Towkio says when asked if now that industry attention is aimed his way he feels he needs a concrete plan in place. "This shit was so calculated."
Since playing his much talked-about Lollapalooza set in late July ("That shit was lit!"), during which he brought out Purp, Cottontale and Mensa for a rowdy crowd paying little mind to the rain falling overhead, Towkio has been largely away from home. He was out in Malibu with Rubin for a minute, then off to Hawaii; now he's back in town. In a few hours he'll be leaving for a quick pit stop in Texas to lay his grandmother to rest before heading back to LA to continue work at Shangri-La.
For now he's getting reflective, if only for a brief moment. "I've been working to control my dream and control my reality," he says, taking the thrush of music-industry success and the pressures associated with it all into account. "It's all happening and I'm on the right path."
He knows because he's seen how it will play out. When he was recently in Hawaii he stopped by a waterfall. Like so many things happening in his life right now, he felt in his heart he'd end up there. He just didn't know how, when or what it would all look like. "I used to meditate about this waterfall, and then I end up going to it," he says with a smile before throwing on a brand new Topman jacket he was given for free—no "staining" required—and heading out into the Chicago afternoon. "I never even knew what it would look like, but that shit blew my mind. I open my eyes now and I'm in front of it."
Bryan Allen Lamb is a photographer based in Chicago. Follow him on Instagram.
Dan Hyman is a writer based in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter.