Tornup - Interview - 3-9-19Written by Chi Chi Thalken on March 18, 2019
Tornup is an emcee, producer, and bassist from Fort Worth who has quietly been making progessive hip hop in Cowtown for years. In February of 2019, he released his most ambitious album to date, a concept album about the prison-industrial complex called You Will Never Understand (The State of Soul), done in collaboration with the producer Arkatype. Before SXSW, there was a pitstop in Arlington, Texas where Tornup took the time to talk to us about the album, his origins with music and hip hop, and how the prison-industrial complex has affected him and his family.
Scratched Vinyl: Let’s start with the basics. How did you first get into hip hop and making music?
Tornup: Well, so my dad, he listened to everything. He’s like a rare case - a Black kid from Pawhuska, Oklahoma, and he was super into athletics and computers and music. He excelled in his expertise in like all of them. And he’s a really strange dude in the sense that he would literally give anything a chance. I’d comb through his CD collection, and it would King Crimson, Public Enemy, Britney Spears…and it’s like so weird. You can’t get a feel for him. He will literally give anything a chance. And so I think growing up with that music collection, and…both of our favorite artists is Jimi Hendrix. And [Jimi] had everything…he has every kind of potency you could want out of an artist. He’s got it, you know. That’s my compass…take fashion, the guitar technicality, the songwriting, the band leading, the sonic innovation, and I think that hip hop really utilized that in a way that I was looking for, growing past that catalogue. You think about fashion, sonic innovation, the craftmanship of it, the renegade-ness, just taking something that was there and totally flipping it upside down, it’s all hip hop. And Illmatic was really the one for me that was like, “Oh, I’m going to study this forever.” Completely lightning in a bottle…it’s an amazing art form. What I think is coolest about it is as long as other art forms exist, hip hop will exist. Because it interpolates, refreshens, and curates. Dopeness.
SV: It’s a way to bring all sorts of different things in conversation with each other.
Tornup: 100%! New, old, left, right, east, west, all different kinds of cultures, you know. And I’m discovering new music all the time through hip hop. Through that lens. Gamelan in Indonesia…I remember getting into Afrobeat…
SV: So when did you make the jump from fandom to making music yourself?
Tornup: That’s crazy, because I was in the lunch cafeteria, and my friend – not even really a friend, more of an acquaintance, this dude just decided to talk my ear off about FruityLoops. He’s like, “Yeah man, I’ve got the demo version…” And I’m like, “Alright.” FruityLoops, it just sounded like such a weird word. And he’s like, “No. You play music, I’m going to get you the demo version of this.” And the next day, he has this burnt CD-ROM of the software. And he gives it to me, and I put it on my computer, and I just start making the corniest shit. For like a good six months or so. Until I realize that I don’t have to use the default sounds. I was like, “Oh, shit! Here we go! I can even tune some of the samples! Cool, cool, cool!” And so eventually I learn to import samples, but I’m still using the demo version. That’s what kind of got me like, more efficient at beats. I’m glad I had that year or two doing everything on the demo version, because you can’t save anything. You can’t go back to it. You have to do everything in one sitting. And the computer I was using at the time, too, was one that my mom borrowed from school, and it would just crash for no reason! So it was like double on-the-clock.
So I’m using that to make these beats, and the only other head that I knew was my friend Tanner, and he’s the guy who was rapping on the last record. I kept making beats for him, and…he just didn’t care. He didn’t have this anxiety about himself, or self-consciousness, he would just do it. And he was like, “You need to get on these tracks with me.” I never even thought of it. I was like, “I don’t even know if that’s my thing.” And he was like, “Do you hear what’s on the radio? These guys don’t even care! At least we care!” And I was like, “Oh, shit!” And I never looked back after that. He just talked me into it, he totally convinced me. I was like, “Yeah, you’re right! I do care!” It’s crazy. I might as well say what I have to say, you know. Just keep it rolling.
So I started rapping on my beats, too, but I was mostly just still playing in bands. And then I met the beatmaker from the last record, Ko49, he lived next door to the punk venue, and I was showing him some of my beats, and he was like, “You made this?” And he was really cool, because I was 16, and I didn’t know what I was doing. And just to get that encouragement was invaluable. And especially from someone I respect, who was already making his own beats and rapping on them. Super political shit he’s rapping about…After a while, I started realizing that I knew all these great beatmakers, one. And two, and the band thing, you have to meet up with two other dudes, at least, find rehearsal time, pay for rehearsal space, rely on them to show up to the gig…and I was like, it’s a lot easier just to plug in and go. I can control my output. I was super passionate about it, and it turned into the only music that I listened to, and I kept listening to more and more…trying to see what..I want to know every way that we can measure potency with lyricism. So I put myself through that college, and then…now I’m six albums in, I guess.
SV: So that brings us to the new album, You Will Never Understand (The State of Soul). Let’s start with the title. Where did that phrase come from?
Tornup: You know, just growing up half-Black and half-white, and…I just…you feel the divide. You feel the lack of empirical experience, you know what I mean? Each camp, you know? Especially passing for white, with short hair. I would go to school, where my mom taught, and they don’t know that I’m Black, so they’re talking in a way that they don’t know, in a way that they’re very comfortable, and they don’t know that a person of color is around. And so I started realizing that there was this plethora of heart moments that a lot of the culture is missing out on. And we get so saturated with the surface level effects of the culture, but we don’t always relate to or empathize with or sympathize with the heart of where it comes from.
SV: We never do the deep dive.
Tornup: We never do the deep dive, man! Never doing the deep dive! So I just felt the need to express in a series of vignettes, very specific stories that I…when you hear or when you see or when you feel it, they kind of like haunt you. You can’t just shake them, you know what I mean? They inform your experience in this world, and I want to share that, to hopefully communicate certain nuances of like, that to me are like pretty profound, you know?
SV: So that takes us to the overall concept of the album, full of vignettes of personal interactions with the prison-industrial complex. How did that particular angle present itself to you, like “This is what I want to represent?”
Tornup: I mean, it happened in my real life. I was assaulted by a police officer and framed for several crimes in the course of a night, you know? Just ‘cause he didn’t like the way that I looked. He thought I gave him a weird look, or something like that. And he stalked me, assaulted me, tried to set me up for a robbery. Witnesses from a nearby robbery were taken in a police escort to try and identify me, and if they had said that I did it, God knows where I’d be. At the end, I’m just let off with a jaywalking charge, and it’s like, okay, clearly this was never about anything. My cousin – he’s in prison, or jail, for a lengthy period of time, and he gets released for one week and he’s killed by the police in his own home. In our grandma’s home, where he was staying. And, you know, I don’t know how far you want to get into it, but the coverup, the way it systemically…there’s a whole system for protecting the people who do this, and it’s like, if someone makes a mistake, or if someone does something malicious, there’s no repercussion. Even if there’s a surface level repercussion…it’s just a mean for taking it away from the public eye for a second, then reinstating them later on whenever there’s less heat. And then being at that punk venue, volunteering for four years, interacting with people on the street, hearing their stories, feeling like them yearning for these connections that are like human and make them feel normal amidst this crazy situation that has systemically been a route for them. It’s been what’s available to them in a disproportionate way. And just struggling with the fact that most of the country never has to consider, what a fucked up way to go.
SV: It’s an interesting divide, because it effects a major portion of the country severely, but then another portion of the country doesn’t think about it AT ALL. It’s just an abstract concept to them. Bad people over there did something wrong, so they go to prison. I never see them, so it doesn’t affect me.
Tornup: 100%. Right, and it’s wild. You hope to, in small ways, to be able to illuminate just the targeting. Legislatively, or culturally…policing. Where it’s like…this isn’t happening for no reason. This is profitable. When you talk about actually reversing some of this, in the direct, intricate ways in which it needs to be done, you’re talking about billions of dollars at this point. So it’s easier just to keep a muzzle on it. But in the meantime, we’re living lives. We have these emotions, these feelings, these hopes. So that’s why I also wanted to have the abbreviated title at the end – The State of Soul. ‘Cause it’s like a State of the Union for people who are more exposed to these things.
SV: When you go to make the album, did you have a particular method to collecting these stories and sorting through them to make the narrative of the album?
Tornup: Most of them I actually saw. Most of them are things, just experiences that were…I don’t want to say traumatic, but they made a huge impression on me. It’s like, I can’t not think about that. I can’t refrain from letting that affect my worldview, you know? And a lot of the beats from Arkatype, he does this thing – he uses FruityLoops, too – what he’ll do is, he’ll have like hundreds of samples and just deejay them midi-wise. Just hit play and press record. And that’s why so many of these songs sound connected. But he knows exactly which ones are going to which, but whenever I get them, they’re like these fifteen minute-long song files, so I’m splicing them up, stuff like that. But they each sound so much like a real person’s feelings. That it’s like, “Oh! I know exactly what this song is about!” It’s just like on contact. I’m very fortunate for that, honestly. ‘Cause trying to do that over a straight ahead, industry standard banger, it might be a little more…
SV: You’d be trying to think of the pop hook for it…
Tornup: Exactly. This was like…it was never a struggle of how do I fit the song. It’s like, how do I condense it? For instance, “The Wealth,” a song like that, that’s an instance where the beat was like, “What is this feeling?” …It’s just so interesting because I had that beat for years, and I was toying with it in my head, like what is the connection here? And it just feels like that’s the fill-in there. That’s where they’re marrying. Most are like family stories, too.
SV: You mentioned Arkatype. How did you first connect with him and decide that this was the guy for the project?
Tornup: All the people that have made beats for me so far are people that I know in real life. Like Tanner, that guy, he raps under the name John Proctor. He was friends with him. They worked together making pizzas. So I met him through that, and I was one foot in, one foot out with the rapping stuff, but they were like rapping together and stuff. So I was like, “Okay, I’ll throw my hat in here.” And he’s also a really great lyricist. And that was something that had been on the back burner for years. I knew that I wanted to make this record before I made any of the other ones. I knew what each record was going to be about, but this one…It felt like we had to wait the longest to get to, just because a lot of the stuff that happened, a lot of what the songs are about, I’m processing while writing. I was putting off the processing, but in the end it felt like this really cathartic thing.
SV: It’s interesting, because sometimes it helps to be in the moment and harness that passion, but other times you need some perspective to be like, “Oh, this is a thing that happened to me. Now I can wrap my head around what that means.”
Tornup: 100%, 100%. It’s like…not waiting any more. Now that I think about it in this moment, it’s like a lot of the stuff that we say that people don’t think about, I was trying to not think about! It’s hard! It’s difficult, but when you let the floodgates open…
SV: Yeah, because once you start to think about it, it’s tough, because it is a big, complex thing. It’s not just like, “Oh, we need to do this with cops.” It’s cops, it’s laws, it’s the prisons, it’s the courts…
Tornup: 100%. One person isn’t going to be like, “Oh! I figured it out!” So like thinking about it non-stop isn’t going to help, but also not thinking about it isn’t an option for everybody. You reminded me also that while the writing process is going on, there’s certain things, like writing from a woman’s perspective, every time I was doing that, I was doing as much research as I possibly could. Talking to people, because I don’t want to…for instance, like I did that on “The Red Light,” and that was super depressing, honestly. Thinking about, in an instance, what is the reality, day to day of a prostitute’s life? And then thinking about the song, “The Stoned,” I actually hit up one of the few Black gay men that I know, and I was like, “Hey – I wrote this thing, but I don’t want to do it if you don’t like it.” And then he ends up being on the song. That was the coolest thing about the record, honestly. Like once it’s out, you feel really vulnerable, you know what I mean?
SV: Since you put it out, have you been approached by people who were like, “I’ve also been affected by this?”
Tornup: That was the thing – that was the most humbling thing…It made me feel like the stuff that I had been through, and that my family had been through was for a reason. In this small way, I could see it. It’s like a life-affirming type of thing, man. And it’s also cool to see white people come up and be like…It’s kind of like getting the Black nod from white people. It’s like…we just went a distance in that small little gesture. But yeah, the biggest hope is that it can be communicative. And that’s what’s really cool about the actual release of it. I held on to it until there’s nothing more I can do with it, and then when people speak back to me about what it is, it’s like, “OK, cool.” The whole process…bringing the Black community in to record overdubs for it, it’s like, this is infrastructurally bigger than me. I don’t know, man. It feels like a real blessing to have gotten to make.
SV: So it’s out, you obviously played tonight. Are there any other shows or videos that people should be looking out for?
Tornup: Yeah. Basically, over the course of the year, I’m working on putting out videos and online content, less hand to hand. But there are certain things that need to be illustrated, like “The Dancer,” that one in particular – my hope is that I write songs as good as that, but I probably can’t write a better song than that. So I wanna illustrate that in a way for people…differently. Then there’s a whole album I’m making where I made the beats. Some singles coming out, too, where this guy Kolb did the production for, which feels like the most hi-fi stuff I’ve ever done. We’re moving beyond the printed file, putting it on top of everything. Vocals on top of the soundwave. I’m really excited about it, but I don’t want to blab too much.
SV: I’ll leave you with the question I ask everyone – If there were three people you could work with that you haven’t, who would they be?
Tornup: Dead or alive?
SV: Any way you want to take it.
Tornup: Um…that’s a great question. If we could get…Nas, Jimi Hendrix, and Thundercat in a band together, I’d be happy to serve that in any capacity.
To listen to/purchase You Will Never Understand (The State of Soul), visit: https://tornup.bandcamp.com/album/you-will-never-understand-the-state-of-soul