Chester Watson's Fantastic Visions
We spent 4/20 in LA talking high times and high anxiety with rap's 19-year-old mad genius.
Photos by Pablo Vasquez
4/20 in LA. It sounds like the premise of an abandoned Harold and Kumar sequel, or the top prize in a High Times sweepstakes, the kind of fantasy conceived and crystallized by blunted teens in cities devoid of dispensaries. Today, Chester Watson is living the dream.
It’s mid-afternoon when Watson and I meet at the Silver Lake apartment of his label head, POW Recordings founder (and Noisey contributor) Jeff Weiss, who is playing host while Watson is in town for a string of shows. In the hours since Watson has touched down from his mother’s home in Atlanta, the 19-year-old rapper/producer has inhaled several joints, reducing Weiss’s otherwise bounteous stash to crumbs. Clad in a close-fitting, striped long sleeve T-shirt, ashen joggers, and white Adidas with bulging plush socks, he’s primed for both a menswear lookbook and the dance studio.
“4/20 in LA,” the one-time ballet dancer says reflectively, three miniature gold pendants (cactus, camel, owl) dangling from his neck as he rolls another joint. “That’s lit.” Just above a whisper, Watson’s mellow half-rasp rarely modulates when he speaks. But his excitement shines when he smiles. Literally—he recently purchased a six-piece gold grill, which he takes out to eat and, of course, to smoke. A metaphor for how he views his rapping abilities, an accessory to complement his towering Basquiat coiffure, an archetypal rapper flex, or possibly all of the above—Watson is just happy that he has the funds for something frivolous. “I had to get them,” he says, dropping the gold in his lap and sparking the lighter.
Rap checks have only recently been cashed with frequency, but Watson isn’t exactly a freshman. Since the age of 15, he’s released an accomplished set of mixtapes, albums, and instrumental projects at a prodigious clip, attracting a global fan base and millions of plays across Soundcloud and YouTube. He’s toured Europe and received airplay from international tastemakers like DJ Zane Lowe. While Watson’s youth is an undeniable part of his success, it’s far from the main attraction. He’s netted comparisons to admitted influences like Earl Sweatshirt and MF Doom with his resonant, monotonal delivery that’s at once nonchalant and athletic, as well as with his eloquent diction, arcane vocabulary, and his seemingly effortless ability to stack internal and end rhymes.
Of late, Watson’s traded reverent imitation for singular innovation. Self-produced songs like “Acid Residue” and “Contribution” modernize boom-bap, combining the warmth of vinyl-sourced drums with sparse, sometimes dissonant electronic soundscapes. While Doom is prone to comedic braggadocio, Watson’s coded, stream-of-consciousness rhymes are imbued with unflinching introspection (“Homie said that suicide wasn't appropriate / So instead I engulf on acid and opiates”). His invocation of incessant drug use isn’t a crutch for masking superficial lyrics as it is with many of his peers. Like Jim Morrison or Scarface, who supposedly wrote “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” at 19 while high out of his mind, the drugs induce a communion with the other side (“I’m still high as fuck / And diving in the pious, starting riots, let the fire snuff,” he rhymes on “Yetti”).
Watson’s most recent full-length, last fall’s Past Cloaks, is the first release on POW Recordings. A cassette comprised of loosies dropped online in the dead of night and highlights from previous projects, its 19 tracks serve as a reintroduction for the uninitiated. The tape is his most successful offering yet, earning praise from publications like Pitchfork and XXL. For now, fans new and old have arrived at a clear consensus: Watson’s future has never been more promising.
When the roach is extinguished, Weiss chauffeurs us to the stretch of La Brea Ave. in Mid City LA where capital-F Fashion coexists with your run-of-the-mill Ralphs supermarket. Watson wants to stop at a store called I Love Ugly to pick up an outfit for that night’s debut performance at Low End Theory, the long-running party and anchor of the Lincoln Heights beat scene that often doubles as a proving ground for burgeoning rappers. He’s been a fan of the nascent Australian clothing company for years, and they’ve since began courting him for “influencer marketing.” Enthusiastically greeted by the storeowners, Watson is gifted his choice of a top and bottom. He scans dimly lit racks, bouncing to Young Thug songs piped through the store speakers with the grace of a Juilliard aspirant, landing lightly on the balls of his toes before lifting off again. “It’s going to be so lit,” he says of the impending show.
Then, just as Watson’s new duds are folded and bagged, Jake shows up.
A fan turned Facebook friend, a pal turned plug, Jake rolls in on a skateboard (Watson's preferred conveyance) with a backpack full of the mind-altering. It’s the first time Watson’s met the skeletal, shaggy-haired skater in the flesh, but their alliance is immediate, the kind of glassy-eyed connection only afforded to the perpetually lifted. The pair adjourn to Weiss’s car to ingest eighths of mushroom chocolates while I wait to interview Watson inside Graffiti Cafe, a pretentious coffee shop whose rules of entry include an 18 and over age policy, no outside food or drink, one drink minimum.
“Drugs are chemicals that you already have. They’re not bad unless you abuse them,” Watson says after entering the shop’s Kubrickian confines and ordering his requisite beverage. “I have anxiety, so Xanax isn’t bad to me. I have anxiety, so lean isn’t bad to me. It slows down my thinking. They help me function like a ‘normal’ person would function.”
But today, on this highest of holidays, the weed and mushrooms aren’t enough; Watson supplements them with MDMA (exact amount unknown) and a tab of acid, the latter dissolving on his tongue mid-interview. That he retains the appearance of normalcy is impressive. That he cogently answers questions for the next hour seems almost superhuman.
Born to separated parents in St. Louis, Watson has nine siblings between his mother and father. His mother already had three children by the time Watson was born, though he’s only shared a roof with two of them. During his earliest years, the fractured family moved from St. Louis to Georgia to Clearwater, Florida, intermittently homeless and sometimes spending nights in shelters.
“I have so much respect for my mom. I don’t know how she did it,” he says of the transition from transience to a somewhat stable home life. “She was just a hustler. She’s from St. Louis and she’s just a mad hustler.”
Watson rarely saw his father, who was a traveling and former producer for Memphis rap titans Three 6 Mafia. The elder Watson now plays keyboard for still-touring 70s funk groups Con Funk Shun and The Bar Kays. Offers to bring a young Chester on the road were occasionally proffered, but Watson placed a premium on excelling in school. It was the one constant in his life, the one thing he could control.
“If I wasn’t at school, and I didn’t do well in school, I didn’t really have a firm grasp of what the fuck was going on around me,” he explains. This affinity for academics—he graduated high school in just three years—also begat a lifelong love of the arts. At his Florida middle school, he completed an intensive, three-year study of ballet.
“My body type is still very slim, elongated. Even after five or six years of not dancing, I still look like a ballet dancer,” he says. “I still do the shit with the leg warmers. It’s always going to be there.”
Rapping, on the other hand, was a relatively late love. Growing up, Watson preferred heavy metal and the eclectic electronic music featured on Sega’s Jet Set Radio. In fact, he spent his earliest years denouncing the genre. “I was never into rap growing up,” he says. “Then I heard Earl [Sweatshirt] and I was like, ‘Oh, rap is cool.’”
The influence of Earl and Odd Future is glaring on Watson’s earliest effort, Carnie, which he recorded when he was only 14 while still learning to produce, and which has since been wiped from the Internet at his behest. The oldest Watson project available online is his breakout 2012 mixtape, Phantom, which gained traction when the music video for its titular track caught the attention of Lowe, who played the song on his bygone BBC Radio 1 show. For weeks, the video received tens of thousands of views each day.
“I saw him and said, ‘Holy shit. This is amazing,’” says Art Vandelay, the Oakland-based producer né Jamie Whalen, who’s produced tracks like “Camels and Cranes” and “Monotone Samurai” for and with Watson, in addition serving as his sometime DJ.
“I think he’s perceived as a breath of fresh air at a time when a lot of this music is sounding the same,” says Minnesotan rapper Bobby Raps, a friend and Watson collaborator. “He’ll go in on a some trap shit and then he’ll go in on some alien symphony boom-bap shit. I really appreciate that.”
Acting as his own publicist, Watson also sent the video to blogs and music websites. His most significant PR move was tweeting the video to Weiss along with the message, “You won’t regret this.”
He was right. His releases gained traction, including 2014’s five-part Tin Wooki, a double LP that received vinyl treatment from German record label Radio Juicy. A wildly ambitious project, its narrative-driven songs showcase a narrowed aesthetic focus and even more incisive rhymes than his previous releases. When pharaohs and samurais are invoked equally, it plays like a surrealist Ghost Dog remake with Tutankhamen cast as the lead.
“I feel like he’s carved out his own space musically. Tin Wooki was very much it’s own thing, even though it had obvious influences,” Vandelay says. “That, if anything, was a turning point.”
Still, despite the endorsement of various websites, Watson feels the album is overlooked. “If a 23-year-old had released Tin Wooki, they would’ve blown the fuck up,” he explains. “I was just young and making music that was way ahead of my time. I’m always going to be that way.”
As the interview comes to a close, Watson cheeses and giggles with increasing frequency. “Oh fuck,” he says. “I think it’s happening.” Back in the car, he gleefully volunteers his substance intake to Weiss. “You’ve done this before, right?” Weiss says, the color in his face momentarily draining. There are still several hours before his performance, but when Watson will peak is as unpredictable as the potency of the psychedelics.
Watson assures us he’ll be fine, and talk turns to Winter Mirage, the forthcoming album he’s been tweeting and talking about for over a year. A preceding EP, Spring Mirage, is due out May 23, and will offer a long awaiting glimpse of the longer project to come. Countless songs have been recorded at his mother’s home in Atlanta, but many have been relegated to Soundcloud one-offs. Watson hopes to create what he calls “witch jazz,” a still amorphous genre he often hears in fragments in his head and thinks about in dreams. “I don’t know how I want it to sound because I have to make it,” he explains.
As far as the future is concerned, there’s no plan B. Watson approaches his career with the indefatigable zeal common to both the widely heralded “genius” types and the failed, starving artist. It’s witch jazz or bust.
“Music or death,” he says. “I never wanted to work a job. Fuck no. I’ve never had a job. I never want one. I’d probably cry if I got [one]. It’s not me. I’m not that type of dude.”
“I think he has a vault, like most great rappers do,” Bobby Raps says when asked about Watson’s future. “It should be fun when he decides to unleash the demons.”
In the hours before the show, Watson drifts in and out of lucidity. En route to dinner at Paul’s Kitchen, the downtown Chinese restaurant heralded by Tommy Lasorda, he marvels at the buildings, at the fact that he’s in LA again, and the idea that most people who graduate high school early wind up in college, not headlining rap concerts. Then we pass Skid Row. The sun has set and the homeless huddle together on the sidewalks, preparing for the cold. “If me and my mom had lived in LA,” he says, the giddiness in his voice turned grave, “we would've been here.”
During dinner, Watson is floating again. He laughs and smiles incessantly, mumbling aphoristic phrases that may or may not hold up post-trip. The gold grill is out, but he’s not eating much. As we leave, he manages a fortune cookie. The thin white paper inside reads: “Take charge of the situation.”
When we arrive at the Airliner for soundcheck, Watson alternates between goofiness and stoicism, likely battling unconfessed nerves as much as he is the high. Before making sure his mic works, and before he’s told to get down, he perches himself on the table supporting thousands of dollars of audio equipment. When he’s certain that his mic works, he hops between two precariously-spaced standing speakers several feet off the ground at the front of the stage. Watson eschews most of the actual sound checking, but he sticks the landing effortlessly. Whether the show will be a wild success or an unmitigated trainwreck is still anyone’s guess.
An hour later, as the line outside the Airliner begins to snake around the block, Watson holds court with Vandelay, who’s driven down from the Bay Area to DJ the set. They laugh as they recount various shows during last year’s European tour. With two large X’s on both hands, Watson is barred from the bar and seems to be riding out the end of his trip with grace.
Then, as if on cue, Jakes shows up.
The two head for the back patio where Watson is scheduled to perform. “Where’s Chester?” Weiss asks, walking up to our group. The answer sends him frantically weaving through the packed house to find Watson and prevent any further mind expansion.
Shortly after, I find Watson alone on the patio. No more hallucinogens have been swallowed, though the holiday’s celebratory crop has been offered, accepted, and smoked. As we talk, Watson receives looks from all over. His movements, his hair, and his gleaming grill have their own gravity. He’s calm and occasionally dancing as onlookers orbit, but something he said in the coffee shop belies his chill. “I was always the kid that didn’t like attention. As soon as I got it, I had a life panic attack. My whole life had an anxiety attack for three years. It’s still in panic mode.”
It’s 15 minutes past set time, and the crowd is packed under the patio tent. He walks up to the side of the stage, Weiss following closely behind.
“Do y’all know who I am?” Watson yells into the mic, the polite and introverted 19-year-old disappearing. The crowds ensuing shrieks confirm the answer, and Watson starts several mosh pits with unreleased songs of dark and aggressive quasi-trap music. Whether these songs will appear on the EP, whether they qualify as the “witch jazz” that will be featured on Winter Mirage, or whether they are saved entirely for shows is anyone’s guess, but the energy is undeniable.
His characteristic monotone is traded for a guttural scream—the release of anxieties past and present, one not afforded by any combination of drugs. When he tries to jump between the speakers again, Watson slips off and lands among the bodies in the crowd. Before anyone can fathom the possibility of a showstopping fall, Watson is back up and bouncing above us once more, furthering the fantasy.
Max Bell is a writer based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter.