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The Cult of Isaiah

The Cult of Isaiah

This summer, pugnacious MC Isaiah Toothtaker shifted focus from his fists and gave the hip hop world four good reasons to believe.

Tucson rapper Isaiah Toothtaker has a strong personality. One that controls situations and draws people in. It’s unnerving – dangerous. He can carry on very calmly about once beating a man until his eyeball popped out of his skull and make it seem like dinner conversation.

“When my life was violent and there was a lot of violence in my life, I championed that shit,” Toothtaker told Manik Music during a recent phone interview, “I championed violence and my music champions violence.”

The 31-year-old double felon’s biography proudly states that he has been in “over 400” bareknuckle street fights – and it’s not a good idea to call bullshit on that number because, well, he’ll fuck you up just to make it seem more believable.

His reputation is staked on violence and, in rap culture, reputation precedes everything. In Toothtaker’s case, the result is twofold. On the one hand, his status as unfuckwitable has endeared him to a core of fans who respect the realness of his vicious past. On the other hand, his gold fronts and lengthy arrest record suggest Toothtaker is no more than your standard-issue false prophet.

But industry thugs don’t stay busy pushing boundaries like Toothtaker does. The heavily-inked, ham-fisted MC has devoted the summer of 2012 to dropping four free records with four totally different vibes – proving one thing definitively:

The most dangerous thing about Isaiah Toothtaker is trying to pigeonhole him.

Humansuit, Punk Roots and the Big Explosion

On Aug. 28, Toothtaker dropped Humansuit, his latest free release. The album was recorded alongside LA native and longtime collaborator Mestizo. Fans of both artists have been eagerly awaiting the Humansuit collaboration since the duo’s early days freestyling at The Low End Theory in Los Angeles, but a lot has come to pass since those days.

As a kid, Toothtaker was raised on punk rock – a genre which was more prevalent in his native Tucson than hip hop.  In his early teens, his focus switched but he never lost the fuck-it-all attitude – racking up enough street fights to earn him a formidable amount of street cred and a punk rock MC name.

Toothtaker, who heads the 31-member rap collective/independent label Machina Muerte along with Mestizo, has become a very unique embodiment of the tough guy rap cliché. An acclaimed tattoo artist, he opened a custom parlor called Staring Without Caring in 2006. More recently, he’s begun teaching himself to direct music videos after growing frustrated with working his vision through other people.

For Toothtaker, art is something that needs to happen organically or, as he puts it, “serendipitously.”

“I don’t wanna force anything or make anything feel contrived,” he said, “It has to have its own natural progression. It just has to work. If you fuckin’ try too hard to make something be technical or come to fruition it’s gonna come out kinda funky or wonky.”

Lyrically, Humansuit is not a big departure from anything traditionally Toothtaker. His verses contain a lot of the violent anecdotes and threatening imagery prevalent on his previous LPs Yiggy and Illuminati Thug Mafia. However, musically, Humansuit is unlike anything Machina Muerte has put out since its inception. It’s curious and sinister. It has the morbid appeal of a serial killer’s basement channeled through hi-fi speakers. An appeal which, although macabre, is undeniably enticing.

Coming in the wake of three independently progressive records put out since May, Humansuit is another mile marker on the long road Toothtaker has taken this summer from a small-time rapper with a big rep to one of hip hop’s most innovative voices. And fans are beginning to take notice.

“This art has sort of come to a higher degree because I’m producing more of it,” Toothtaker said of his recent releases, “Maybe people have responded better just because I’m in that stride. It’s being done at a level where I’m having a higher workflow.”

“It’s not me in a slump – it’s more like I’m in, like, a big explosion.”

The Other Three Pillars

Toothy Wavy, a 6-track collaboration with Max B (formerly of The Diplomats/ByrdGang), was the first record Toothtaker dropped this summer. With its boastful flows laced over deep bass and clippy snares, Toothy Wavy had the raw material to be something very common. What makes the album different from the mainstream is its kitschy, ‘80s porno feel and its attractive refusal to apologize for its obscene and proud nature.

What also set the album apart is the fact that all of Max B’s vocal tracks were recorded over the phone from New Jersey State Prison in Trenton, N.J., where the rapper is currently serving a 75-year prison sentence for murder, conspiracy and robbery. Seeing this as an opportunity to make a record with a totally unique aesthetic, Toothtaker recruited mashup DJ The Hood Internet and put together something entirely outside the box.

“I think that he bridges gaps between different genres and he’s able to sort of transcend sounds,” Toothtaker said of Max B, “Whether it’s a straight-ahead, boom bap hip hop beat or if it’s another style of music without any real intuition to it, he’s just able to pass along into them and also crossover into different areas that maybe other people would see as a boundary.”

“Just in that sense, I feel like I’m very much so in the same thing.”

Toothy Wavy was released for free on May 15, via New York label Mishka. The release was accompanied by a video for all six songs – five of which Toothtaker had a hand in directing. Less than a month later, he teamed up with producer Harry Fraud and Machina Muerte member Rapewolf to release Rob Zombie on June 5 – an album which Toothtaker considers a personal achievement.

“I think it’s better than everybody’s [records],” he said, laughing, “I think lyrically and beat-wise it’s one of the better records that’s come out this year.”

The album was put out with no major label sponsorship, no physical distribution and no PR budget. It was a passion project, written on intuition and recorded entirely in one week.

“It’s almost like it was second nature…It just sort of fell into its place and naturally progressed into what it was and I think that’s why I liked it so much.”

But passion does not always equal success. Like an independent filmmaker, Toothtaker has been feeding off a homemade wave of inertia and supported by a grassroots fanbase, transforming him into something of a cult figure in indie hip hop. And every indie film stud needs a magnum opus.

Toothtaker’s only solo project of the summer, Sea Punk Funk, dropped on July 27. The album was sponsored by underground stalwart Anticon Records and produced by Sixtoo (aka Prison Garde). Perhaps Toothtaker’s most accomplished effort of 2012, Sea Punk Funk runs the spacy gamut from soft-sung, flanged-out joints to hog-knuckled, belligerent anthems – all laid out over new wave synths.

The odd combination of Sea Punk Funk’s early-MTV steez and Toothtaker’s caustic brand of swag is well outside the lines of what many hip hop fans are used to. And what people don’t understand, they fear.

“It’s abnormal. It’s unusual. It can’t be put in a corner and pinned down. And, yeah, I think that scares some people,” he said.

Though he doesn’t like to speculate why, Toothtaker remarks that Sea Punk Funk has been more well-received than any other project he’s released so far. Perhaps it’s because his personality comes through more clearly in the album’s loosely-edited, near-freestyled verses than it did on his previous albums Yiggy and Illuminati Thug Mafia. Or perhaps it’s because fans are seeing beneath the veneer of ultraviolence and being able to appreciate the art (and artist) at work.

Illuminati Thug Mafia…spreads itself more wide across the board,” he said, “and Sea Punk Funk is more visualized and focused – it has a very visualized aesthetic and sound.”

C’mon, Drink the Punch – It’s Free

Toothy Wavy, Rob Zombie, Sea Punk Funk and Humansuit are available to the masses as free downloads via Bandcamp. The pro bono platform, Toothtaker feels, allows users to be more open to his off-kilter music and become fully indoctrinated into the cult of personality he’s groomed.

“People don’t have to give over money. They can stream it and just listen to it and resonate with them a lot longer.”

If anything, Toothtaker’s zealous output this summer has been a statement of purpose. Giving it to his people for free has allowed this statement to fall on otherwise deaf ears.

“I just think it’s good to have these records right now as they are just to sort of show the capability in really giving it to the people,” he said.

And the statement isn’t over.

The charismatic brawler has plans to release yet another free EP with Wavves drummer and Tucson-native Jacob Cooper (aka Jacob Safari) which will feature Nine Inch Nails samples on every track. The still-unnamed project is slated to come out “sometime before the end of the year” and is yet another perfect example of why you can’t take Toothtaker at face value.

Yes, he’s knocked out enough people’s incisors to earn a hardcore nickname, but he also pushed avant garde hip hop to four different extremes in as many months and he’s done it without record sales. Working on passion and ingenuity alone, Isaiah Toothtaker has set an industry standard for pushing artistic limits.

“It’s gonna be passionate. It’s gonna be something where we have to compete and we want to make it harder for people in our competition to maintain the same amount of products, the same amount of albums, the same amount of videos, the same amount of anything.”

Toothtaker says he has no plans to tour or do live shows promoting any of these albums. He also doesn’t have a timeline for a new LP fans would have to pay for like Yiggy or Illuminati Thug Mafia. In fact, he talks offhandedly about giving up rap entirely to re-focus on tattooing or devote more time to his 9-year old twins. Anything could really happen.

In Toothtaker’s case, these sort of decisions are made by serendipity. But, for now, Isaiah Toothtaker has made the Kool Aid free and available for drinking. Whether it’s his commitment to making art that pushes boundaries that makes you circle the punch bowl or rollicking attitude on violence that puts the cup to your lips, the time is now to take your cup and drink it down.

- Jerard Fagerberg

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