Rap will forever remain a young man’s race. Today, most debut mixtapes are released before rappers obtain their learner’s permit. Enter Chester Watson: ballet dancer turned one of the most prodigious and fully formed teenage rappers to emerge from the Tumblr and Bandcamp generation.
Clad in cut and sewn streetwear, with hair that might work as a modern art installation, Watson tempers a bloodshot monotone with dense, multisyllabic bars over hazy, jazz inflected boom-bap. Earl Sweatshirt and MF Doom comparisons are on point but unnecessary. This is rapping sans celebrity or bristled bitterness. His drowsy delivery pirouettes with seemingly effortless precision, eviscerating competition he hardly registers. Really, his music encapsulates the feeling of secluded self-discovery aided by dank greenery, dusty loops, skateboard videos, and samurai.
Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Watson prefers his legal name remain unknown. Though raised in Clearwater, Florida, he’s spent several years in Georgia. After releasing his Phantom mixtape at 15, his music appeared on DJ Zane Lowe’s BBC 1 radio show. To date, his videos have racked up hundreds of thousands YouTube views. Earlier this year Watson released his heralded Tin Wooki album, the lengthiest and most singular representation of his sound.
Now 17 and back in the Sunshine State, he lives with members of his crew, Nü Age Syndicate. Having graduated high school early, he spends his days making music and collages. With non-rap influences that range from Sun Ra and Nino Rota to Shlohmo and Black Moth Super Rainbow, he’s also become an equally precocious producer. In addition to releasing a vinyl edition of Tin Wooki on German label Radio Juicy, Watson plans to release his Loft Era album via Cosmic Compositions early next year. Prior to his show at The Echo in Los Angeles (with Jonwayne and Russ) this Thursday, we spoke via phone while he lounged at his girlfriend’s house. He was admittedly stoned.
Do you conduct most of your interviews via e-mail?
All the time. I do some via video, but not really a lot of them because I don’t really like talking to people. I like talking to them, but I don’t like talking to them all the time. I usually just type it up. Or there’s usually a language barrier.
Have you been interviewed by a lot of foreign blogs/websites?
Yeah. They actually hit me up a lot more than American blogs do. It’s very weird. Japanese, French, and UK blogs.
It seems strange. Your songs are so densely worded.
I don’t understand it much. There are a lot of people who dig my music over here, but there are definitely more in the United Kingdom. I think that’s where a lot of them are. They don’t cover the same music. It seems like they have more time over there than over here. That’s just from how I’ve experienced it… It just seems like over there they are more interested in talking to people… They’re just more up on it. Maybe not all of it, but up on me just because of Zane Lowe, I guess.
How did you decide on the name Chester Watson?
I’m really into old Victorian [stuff], that era. I was looking at old names and Chester popped up. It was between Chester, Sylvester, and some other shit. I was like, “Damn, Chester’s tight.” Then I was talking to one of my friends from middle school [and she suggested “Holmes or “Watson” for a last name]. I was like, “Damn, Watson sounds pretty tight.” That’s just how that came about. Her cat’s name was Watson.
What’s your real name? Would you rather not say?
I’ll just keep that under wraps. [laughs] I say it in songs. My girlfriend says it all the time. It’s out there, but not many people know it.
I’ve seen you list your primary influences (Earl Sweatshirt, Tyler, the Creator, DOOM, Mos Def). Do you listen to any other rappers?
Yeah. But I listen to different things and a whole bunch of rappers. I listen to Key. He’s from Atlanta. He’s like a trap rapper. He’s one of my favorite rappers. He’s dope. Andre 3000 – he’s classic, timeless. You always want to be like him – smart. He was always so humble. There’s a big male braggadocio to rap and it’s like Andre 3000 is more calm and humble in songs. That’s pretty tight.
You’ve said that Phantom, which many would consider your first mixtape, was actually your second. What was the first?
It was called Carnie.
Is it still online?
No. Definitely not. [laughs] I mean it might be up somewhere, but it’s not up on any of my pages.
Why did you take it down?
It’s not a bad project. I just don’t really like it. I’m pretty sure it’s still up. I put it up on so many sites trying to get my name out when I first started.
How old were you?
I released it on my 15th birthday. So those songs were all made when I was 14.
Was rapping something that came fairly easily?
Yeah. I sang and I was a dancer. And I’m a writer too. I actually do write a lot of shit. I used to write stories all the time when I was in elementary school.
Before Phantom you planned on releasing a tape called Alchemy, which your friend Kahmi said was “garbage.” Do you think that kind of rejection helped you develop artistically?
Definitely. After he said that I literally made Phantom within two months, wrote the whole thing. I was like, “Man, that shit really did suck.” So it made me want to do some raw shit... It definitely makes you go harder when someone close to you is like, “This isn’t the best you can do.”
You pushed Tin Wooki back more than once. Why?
There were just so many songs. There was a story to it originally. It was too cinematic and it was too large scale for what I could do at that time. It would’ve run 35 or 40 tracks. I was trying to do it like a movie. That’s why it’s 28 tracks. It wasn’t finished. There’s a point where you just got to say, “This is enough for now. Maybe the next time I can try to incorporate what I was trying to incorporate this time.” You can’t work on the same thing forever.
Tin Wooki is still five parts. Did you craft each song with each part in mind?
The songs were made for the scenes. There is a storyline. I’ve told some people. It’s really complex. If you heard it you’d be like, “Okay, I can see why you wouldn’t be able to do something like that in a short amount of time.” It’s all about time. That’s what I’ve been learning.
Have you ever considered writing a screenplay?
I’ve wanted to for a while, but I don’t really have the resources to see it come to fruition. But [the video for] “Act IV” was my direction. That was pretty long. That was like nine minutes.
What’s your main source of inspiration?
Just being a kid. Adults don’t really know how to harness being a kid. And that’s what people like. There’s something about being adolescent – you can’t remake it. I think I can capture it so well because I’m still 17. I have the mental capability to express what I need to express, but to adults. So it’s like I can express all the shit that I need to say in a tight way that sounds cool to kids, but literally makes so much sense to the people who are older than me.
At one point we were homeless, we had to live in a shelter.
How do you think you’ve been able to develop so quickly as a rapper?
Because I took school very seriously and [because] my mom was always very real with me. She never sugar coated anything. If we had problems with the bills, she would let it be known that we had problems with the bills. She wouldn’t yell at us about it, she would explain the situation… At one point we were homeless, we had to live in a shelter and shit like that. She was just real. She didn’t sugar coat life… I grew up really fast because I was moving so much. I went to like five elementary schools. I only went to one middle school, but I was moving a lot when I was younger. She kept it real the whole way.
Is there anything you learned from ballet that you’ve been able to apply to rap?
Just how ballet dancers are – they’re smooth. They don’t make it look hard. They make it look effortless. That’s really what I like doing. I don’t look putting a lot of energy into my raps. And if there is a lot of energy, I don’t like showing it unless I’m on stage and it calls for it. Ballet dancers are really classy. Not in manner, but in how they want to portray themselves on stage. They want to be elegant. I’ll have a super dank beat, but [I try to maintain that vibe] as a person – elegant, royal.
You’ve said that you enjoy producing more than rapping sometimes. Why is that?
Sometimes sounds are easier to come by than a phrase. Sometimes it fits your situation better than a phrase or a couple words do. Sometimes you don’t really want to say anything, you just want to [drop the beat] and walk away. It’s all about what I’m feeling.
Do you think blowing up at a young age might be artistically detrimental?
I’ve actually been thinking about that a lot… I feel like it could be, but as long as you have more than one talent you’re not really like, “I’m putting everything I got on rapping.” I don’t even like rapping. I mean I do, it’s tight. I’m probably going to do it forever, but I like making beats. Say rapping doesn’t [appeal to me] at some point, I’m probably going to try to score films. I make collages. I can do some type of flyers or anything. You just want to round yourself out in terms of what you’re able to do.
It’s not like I was trying to be somebody else, but it’s more reassuring when you see somebody up there like, “Even though I’m doing some cool shit, don’t be like me.”
As far as it being detrimental, it just depends on what you do with it. You can make good music your whole life and be known as a person who made good music their whole life. There aren’t really a lot of people who do that. There are a lot of people who slow down with making good music. They’ll make good music when they first start, then they’ll blow up and make a good album. Then they’ll make really shitty, progressively shoddy albums for the rest of their existence as a mainstream person. Why do that when you have the platform to do anything?
Tyler, the Creator didn’t do some popular shit. He was just trying to be himself. It definitely had an impact on me. It’s not like I was trying to be somebody else, but it’s more reassuring when you see somebody up there like, “Don’t be like me. Even though I’m doing some cool shit, don’t be like me.” I’m not wild or anything, so I’m not going to make wild music. I can, because I do like to party. I definitely like to get drunk and do dumb shit with my friends. So there will be some party songs eventually, but right now that’s just not where I’m at.
What’s your least favorite aspect of being popular on the Internet?
People talk shit a lot. Sometimes the shit talking is funny. Most of the time it’s very funny. People have a really bad sense of humor and I just don’t care and it’s funny to me. It’s not really like talking shit. It’s just the fact that they think their opinion matters just because they’re on the Internet, and it really doesn’t.
What’s the best part?
You meet a lot more people. You meet a lot more cool people who like the same shit that you like. The process of figuring out who is who is a lot easier, because you can tell when somebody doesn’t really like what they’re doing. Not if they like you or not, that’s always hard, but if they like the same shit that you like. It’s easier to bond with people.
Do you have any specific goals as far as music is concerned? Is there any one thing you’re looking to achieve?
I just want to be one of the best, to go down as something bigger than what I was born as. If I were to die right now I’d be happy with what I left, but I’d still be sad about what I could’ve done. You always want to do as much as you can. That’s sort of the mentality I’ve been keeping since Phantom. You don’t have much time, so keep up the pace. Especially with [talent] like this, it doesn’t really come by very often.